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.