In yesterday’s BelTel there’s a piece on the number of MLA’s who have been co-opted in the current Assembly. It’s now a regular occurrence to glance up at the direct feed from the plenary session to witness someone speaking you had never heard of before.
The original reason for replacing the by election mechanism seems reasonable enough. It’s to protect smaller parties and independents. In fact it is the larger parties who are reaping most benefit by avoiding facing an embarrassing run off with potentially disgruntled voters.
If you look at who has taken advantage of the featherbedding of new MLAs before elections, the larger parties have had the lion’s share: Alliance 0, UUP 3, SDLP 3, DUP 4 with Sinn Fein co-opting a whopping 10. In the case of SF this also includes a constituency swap.
As Alex Kane notes this morning not only is it just too easy to hand your seat over to another party member. It also underwrites an unconstitutional fallacy that the seat actually belongs to the party rather than the representative:
The notion that a Member should be encouraged to step down simply to make it easier for a potential successor should also be discouraged. In other words, you step down at your peril.
A Member who chooses other employment, or who is forced to resign for “personal reasons”, must make that choice against a background in which the resignation will result in a by-election.
MLAs seeking election to other bodies would think twice if they had to resign in advance knowing that their resignation would lead to an immediate by-election.
Rules don’t exist to make it easier for parties to keep seats – especially if they can keep them without the chore of actually fighting for them and winning them.
If there is a vestigial purpose to the rather quaint procedure around assuming an office in service to the Monarch in order to be disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons, it is to underline the degree of trust invested by a constituency in the MP.
In that case you cannot even simply resign. In our case you can resign and there is no subsequent test of the electorate. No tug of war in the courts (as in the Donegal SW by election of 2010) which at least holds the possibility of massive electoral change.
So much for the moral argument. Is it going to change any time soon? Do Turkey’s vote for Christmas each year?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty