Look over there…a view of the UK election from Ireland

I have never made a secret of the fact that I am no expert on politics outside of Ireland.  I watch elections in other countries in a disinterested fashion.  The systems are strange and I find it gives you an insight into just how bizarre politics can look when you are not involved.  The UK election is probably the most interesting one in my lifetime.  Up until now all I have ever seen is a strange and undemocratic voting system with two competing parties that are so alike they make Fine Gael and Fianna Fail look like polar opposites.  However, this time the election is highly unpredictable and that gives it a slight edge.


There is no doubt, however, that the UK election does have big implications even on the international stage.  So what’s going to happen?  I asked John McGuirk who likes to follow these things and he reckoned its heading to a hung parliament.  It was his view that David Cameron might be able to get a government together but it will be very vulnerable and there will probably be another election within two years.  That doesn’t fill me with confidence.  The one selling point the UK system used to have was that it produced strong single party governments.  It now appears increasingly unstable.  Jason O’Mahony, who is also a man who follows politics all over the world, told me that although there may be a hung parliament Ed Milliband might find himself in power with a minority government if the Scottish National party (SNP) abstain.  He says it might work but it will be problematic come budget time.


Strangely, if the SNP do have some hold on power it could produce some interesting situations.  McGuirk told me that people in Northern Ireland might find it strange if the SNP end up in government seeking Scottish Independence and the breakup of the union.  Equally Jason O’Mahony pointed out that if David Cameron is in power and holds a referendum on EU membership that could trigger a second Scottish independence referendum.  Now that scenario excites me.  It would present us with a strange reversal where English voters would have to choose between staying with the EU or losing Scotland.


The voting system in the UK is First Past the Post (FPTP).  You get the most votes you win the seat.  There is only one seat.  Second place gets nothing.  The problem is that the one strong attribute it had is gone.  It is no longer producing strong stable governments.  McGuirk tells me ‘It’s fun to watch it breaking down’.  He says that because there was really a two and a half party system if they had had proportional representation like Ireland then The Liberal Democrats would always be in government propping up one of the other two.  That has changed now.  The advances made by SNP and UKIP mean there are more parties and the system cannot really handle this.  McGuirk reckons that they have to face the fact that the system must now change and he pointed out to me that people like Dan Hannon who opposed changing the voting system in the past now wants to reform things.


Jason O’Mahony described FPTP as ‘horrific’.  He said that it was not a voting system but a raffle and even argued that it would probably work out statistically fairer to just pick names from a hat.  He agreed that the system was now breaking down.  He pointed out that ever since the Magna Carta the British have had a system where you had wealth versus workers.  Those old classifications have gone now though.  It is not easy to compartmentalise people any more.  People who are economically right wing might be socially left wing.  Increasingly voters aren’t easy to pin down.  They are right on some things and left on others.  UKIP may appear to be a right wing  party but will get much support in working class areas.  On the other hand some very wealthy people will seek left wing liberal parties with social policies in line with their views.


The UK system produces strange results.  O’Mahony pointed out to me that the SNP might get 45% of the vote in Scotland.  That means more than half the population voted against them but the SNP could win all the seats on offer.  That really is stunning.  Some parties will get a handful of seats with a tiny percentage of the vote others will get a sizeable proportion and end up with less.  It will not be just the Irish that find this bizarre.  Most of Europe would wonder how this is a functioning democracy at all.  At the rate things are going it might be functioning a lot less after the results come in.


Johnny Fallon

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  • Old Mortality

    The principal defect of the UK system is that MPs can be elected with less than 40% of the vote. In France, the remedy is a second round of voting with only the two most successful candidates.
    However, the same result could be achieved by using preference voting until one candidate has achieved more than 50%. It’s important to preserve the single member constituency.

  • terence patrick hewett

    One great plus of FPTP is that it extremly difficult for culturally violent and corrupt minority organisations to gain political traction except through the major political parties, where if they get out of line they can be identified and dealt with. Only the Labour Party and seemingly UKIP have achieved the transition from small party status to the big-time.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Just to make a clarification OM: In the présidentielles there is always a 2nd ballot where all but the top 2 polled are eliminated.
    In the législatives, which are run shortly after or even concurrently with the présidentielles (députés for the Assemblée Nationale), there is only a 2nd ballot (run-off between the top 2) if no-one has won an absolute majority or in the rare case of a high level of abstention.
    I think it highlights the legacy of the French Revolution and subsequent revolutions where 5th Republic citizenry encourages a direct engagement with and responsibility for the state.
    It has its flaws of course and les français sont jamais contents.

  • Barneyt

    If the SNP does take power with Labour, who will get the poisoned chalice role – NI Secretary of State? A SNP candidate would surely serve as a hand grenade over here? I’m Guessing in such a coalition, Labour would assume that responsibility.

  • FAIGY (artist)

    Irish Nationalist have been getting pompous upperclass English toffs dictating to them but a moderate nationalist is a hand grenade? Maybe it’s time to ignore the hardline Bible thumping Loyalist. An SNP sec. Of state could delivery a workable Corporation tax rate to attract in a lot of FDI.
    Therefore it makes economic sense.

  • Old Mortality

    Je vous remercie. Does an absolute majority in the legislative elections mean 50%+? That can’t occur very often these days with the rise of FN.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Mortalité vieille
    Je vous en prie. With over 10 nationwide parties in Metropolitan France and almost as many regionalist parties it’s rare that a candidate achieves 50%+. In general a candidate must have achieved/surpassed both 25% of the total electorate (potential) in the ward and an absolute majority which in France is not 50%+ (Je dois avouer que je n’ai aucune idée du chiffre là). Only about 10% of seats are won on first ballot anyway so 2nd ballot is more common. During 2nd ballot, vote share increases for both the 2 front runners but vote turnout doesn’t alwys so ultimately 1st ballot polling can be seen in some places as some sort of protest vote. 2nd ballot, of course, becomes strategic or a vote for the lesser of 2 evils for some of the electorate.
    The highest vote that the FN achieved was 14.9% in 1997 législatives which is strong in a multi party system but would be marginal in a 2 party system but not in a 2.5 party or even a 2 and 2 halves party system.

  • Old Mortality

    In other words, the French system enables first-past-the -post to achieve a more representative outcome. I would have thought it could also be done with preference voting so avoiding the necessity of a second round.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Labour has thrown an anti-religious atheist, a homosexual and a senior member of Celtic Football Clubs board as Secretary of States into Northern Ireland’s traditionalist pro-union Rangers Supporting world. Usually when picking the role, Jews and Atheists are favored over Catholics or Protestants at times. A Scottish Separatist is Nothing

    Not that it is going to happen now.