How can I trust you if you don’t want my vote?

Politicians are often castigated for appearing to put reelection before principle, for lusting after votes rather than doing what’s best for the country. Sometimes this may be justified, but the lust for votes is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be more worried when politicians stop caring about our votes, because then we have no power over them.

The only true power that the electorate has over its elected representatives is the power to hire and fire. ‘Kick the bastards out!’ is a powerful refrain, but so is ‘Yes we can!’ The relationship between the elector and the elected is, in that one moment in the voting booth, visceral and full of possibility. I do my small part to keep my representative under control because he desires my vote, and my vote could make the difference.

But what of those who I did not vote for, and were still elected? It was no choice of mine whether Enda Kenny or David Cameron was personally elected – I don’t live in either of their constituencies. But plenty of people like me do, and if I have no control at least somebody who agrees with me does. The politician may not care for my vote, but his desire for my fellow elector’s vote is the next best thing.

And his desire for votes makes him trustworthy, because he can be relied upon to look after his own self-interest. It is when he stops caring about our votes that he becomes dangerous, because then we lose the one lever of control at our disposal.

One of democracy’s greatest weaknesses is that politicians are tempted to serve narrow interests instead of the general good. In the USA, gerrymandering has so efficiently filleted the landscape that the average politician no longer needs to worry about the opinions of rival-party or floating voters, and so they no longer have any influence over his behaviour in office. In Northern Ireland, politicians from each side of the ethno-political divide have no real interest in courting votes from themmuns, and so politics takes place largely within rather than between communal blocs.

The end result is the same – if you don’t want my vote, then I have no power over you; and if I have no power over you, I can’t trust you to look after my interests. Lack of trust leads to further polarisation of politics, which discourages politicians from seeking votes across the divide, and so it goes.

The only way to break this cycle is to realign the self-interest of politicians with the interests of a broader section of the electorate. Unlike the US, gerrymandering has not been a serious issue in NI for decades. Instead, the problem is tied up with the low threshold of votes (14.3%) required for election under PR, and the lack of incentive for parties to extend their electoral base. We could abolish PR, but that risks returning us to the bad old days of winner takes all. Alternatively, we could force parties to start seeking votes from themmuns. If the electorate knew that the former enemy needed their votes to survive, they could extract concessions and begin the process of normalizing politics.

So can we force parties to seek votes from themmuns? Directly, no – not without dividing the electorate and holding separate elections in each community, a giant leap in the wrong direction. But we can do it by proxy, by forcing parties to stand themmuns as candidates, in the same way that we could soon be forcing them to stand a reasonable proportion of women. We already have the infrastructure available to vet such candidates in the form of fair employment monitoring, so it wouldn’t be a great stretch to require “fair employment” for electoral candidates.

Of course there is a shortcut to compliance, and that is for broadly equivalent parties from either side of the communal divide to merge. Whether a small party would be content to serve as a figleaf for an unreconstructed partner is questionable, so it would have to be a true partnership of equals. The alternative cheat would be to stand token candidates in unwinnable seats. But few people enjoy playing Uncle Tom, so perhaps the only way to guarantee a sufficient number of candidates would be to start taking the concerns of the other side seriously?

Because if you need ussuns to stand under your banner, we have you over a barrel.

  • aquifer

    Excellent point..

    So back to first past the post like Westminster, where we routinely vote for least worst candidates?

    When the parties are all fixated on ‘The National Question’ there is even less rationale for tying members to constituencies. Other forms of PR, like alternative vote, have a jurisdiction-wide top-up that tends to ensure that national minorities and interest groups get a better chance to have their votes count.

    Maybe our special interest groups could do more to make our politicians and candidates work for our votes. e.g. A single register of where they stand on particular issues such as abortion, with links to each candidates’ web site.

    Maybe a mathematician, elections junkie, or a bookie could help the middle ground, identifying a system of voting preferences to make sure more middle ground candidates get in overall. Maybe the centre parties just need to stand more candidates and women. All is fair when it is love thy neighbour standing against tribal war.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well articulated Andrew. I’d love to hear the argument against from all these newly post sectarian parties we have. đŸ˜‰

  • Recently five persons were ‘appointed’ to Belfast City Council. the no-by-elections may protect a few party seats, but is now used a tool in Party management. Probably not intended. A negative outcome of PR. At least if someone is elected in a single ward/constituency by FPP you know who to challenge and their job depends on the electorate, not their Party.

  • paulG

    Similarly, the very reason that a statement from the IRA had more credibility than one from the British Army, was that, they had SF standing for elections locally, who’s fortunes would depend upon whether what voter’s saw on the ground matched up with claims in a statement.

  • Red Lion

    I would be hopeful that NI21 are forming policy less with ‘the national question’ in mind and more about actually improving the lives of NI people, genuinely irrespective of that persons background. They are also pro-actively rejecting tribal zero-sum stances of the DUP/UUP eg flags, support for parades commission etc.

    Hopefully this will translate into people of Catholic Community Background joining NI21 and standing as candidates, and standing without any intimidation for so doing. Guess we will know more after their party conference and formation of local constituency associations.

    I also possibly detect from SDLP a moving away from regrettable tribal politics, their leader distancing the party from a local decision in Newry re the playpark naming, and their recent tentative explorations into supporting the NCA – this hopeful movement is to be welcomed.

  • Morpheus

    I don’t think supporting the NCA will win the SDLP voters. The concept is great – the more help for the PSNI the better – but the Catholic community is still only coming to terms with the idea of supporting the police after decades of mistrust, collusion etc. The NCA coming in the backdoor without any local accountability or transparency will not wash in my opinion, it will be viewed as Special Branch all over again. The solution is simple, make the NCA accountable to the Policing Board and then they can go to town on these druggy gangsters who are ruining Northern Ireland.

    As for the SDLP moving away from tribal politics I think they are struggling to give the electorate any post-conflict unique selling point which differentiates them from SF so they are picking issues in an attempt to put water between the2 parties.. But SF have taken so much of their middle ground I don’t think it will work.

  • Its not simply a matter of SDLP having difficulty in getting votes back from Sinn Fein (difficult) but SF can lose votes. They cant stay lucky for ever.
    It would be a retrograde step for SDLP to agree to NCA….but the Justice Ministry would be interesting.

  • Morpheus

    I don’t think it’s luck FJH – get rid of Adams (what will we talk about then?) and move on I say.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “newly post sectarian parties we have”

    What in your eyes makes a party sectarian? The “Conservatives” would not consider themselves sectarian yet in Northern Ireland their actions would make them at least as sectarian as any other party in the place.

  • Mc Slaggart


    The sdlp have lost a lot of credibility. For example who do some of their best people think its better to be at Westminister rather than in Ireland?

  • Drumlins Rock

    ok saying we are in fantasy realms, instead of a mandatory coalition of all parties make them form rival co-alitions before the elections, with the required balance (making allowance for others) voters can then decide if they want to tranfer votes tribally or within the coalition that would get their party into power!

  • BluesJazz

    It simply doesn’t matter (your vote).
    The League hierarchy is:

    – Premiership: Global Marketplace/ World Economy

    – Championship:European Commission (*not the European parliament*)

    -League One: Westminster National Government

    -League 2 : Local Economic environment, Banks, House prices etc

    -Conference: Div 1: Stormont Council
    -Conference : Div 2 Local Parish Council.

    and in the Amateur league: The Nolan show.

    That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  • jh25769

    Tweak Stormount so only the largest nationalist and largest unions parties have to be in government. They then either rule as a minority or find another party to join them to make a majority.

    Sinn Fein to try and get votes from working class Protestants, DUP to try and get votes from middle class Catholics. They would probably represent their interests better than the current sectarian head count. Same applies to all parties.

    People need to make an effort to try and engage with each other. Instead of idiotic idea that anything “The Other Side” feels is important is irrelevant to them.

    People need to get a grip.

  • @Andrew,

    Good post. One correction: in America it is not that all districts are gerrymandered, but generally only House districts and in some states the legislative districts if the realignment following a census was done by the legislature rather than by a non-partisan group. Governors, U.S. senators and presidential candiates as well as aldermen have to all compete for our votes.

    It seems that what are suggesting is so sort of mandatory vote-pooling scheme like that tried in the Nigerian presidential election of 1979. Under this scheme all parties to be seated would require either a certain minimum specified support level from both communities within a single Assembly constituency or else representation in all or some percentage of the Assembly constituencies. Such a scheme would favor moderate parties like NI21, the UUP and SDLP and “other” parties like Alliance. Or else SF and the DUP would be forced to moderate both their rhetoric and their stances on particular issues. The parties that would suffer the most are the smaller unionist parties like the PUP and the TUV and possibly Alliance if a minimum support level in all constituencies is required.

    The difference between vote-pooling schemes and consociationalism is that the former encourages cross-community electoral coalitions whereas the latter depends on cooperation at the elite level such as between the first minister and the deputy first minister. Vote pooling is likely over time to produce a less sectarian society. Consociationalism does nothing to combat sectarianism–in fact it encourages and rewards it.

  • That second paragraph should begin “It seems that what you are suggesting is some sort of ….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Excellent issue to be raised, Andrew, but why stop at a “re-arrainging the deck chairs on the Titanic” approach of attempting to inspire support for new cross interest political parties who can continue gull us over other, rather more “acceptable” issues?

    “The only true power that the electorate has over its elected representatives is the power to hire and fire.”

    The significant word here is “only.”

    As long as we are mandating someone else to represent our interests we are, in effect, leaving them to make all the decisions for us. Everything else, such as discussing how we can attempt to hold them to account for any capricious or personal decisions they choose to make, simply serves to highlight just how entirely powerless we are after that mark is put on a ballot paper every five years.

    This representative system we have inherited is not something written in stone for all time. It began as an oligarchic seizure of power during the Civil Wars of the 1640s, and was claimed to correct the abuses of one person rule. Instead it substituted the rule of a small clique who monopolised the patronage previously dispersed at a kings hand. It was in effect a change of form, not substance. The eventual development of full adult sufferage in 1922 (ROI) and 1928 (GB) simply suggested that the system was becoming “fairer” while retaining the most important characteristics with the ongoing retention of all significant powers by a small oligarchic elite, howbeit one elected by the entire adult population.

    Until some way of ensuring that there can be popular control of the patronage representative bodies can dispense, it will be impossible to trust any body of people with the power to favour the highest bidder, be it a self interested group of electors or the banksters and developers.

    So, aquifer, “Maybe our special interest groups could do more to make our politicians and candidates work for our votes. e.g. A single register of where they stand on particular issues such as abortion, with links to each candidates’ web site.”

    Rather than simply a register of voter interests the only real way forward might be to perhaps fragment the issues in this manner and to ensure direct referenda on individual issues as the Swiss do. This is the kind of new politics that Beppe Grillo and Five Star are flagging along side a demand that anyone sane refuses to continue co-operating with the old gang and their self interested exclusivisation of the machinery of power.