Tag Archive for 'electoral reform'

Want To Fix The Dáil? Then Take The Cabinet Out Of There First

It may surprise readers to hear this, but when we go to the polls next Friday, we won’t actually be participating in the legistlative elections of a parliamentary democracy. Of course, ostensibly, the people we elect go to Leinster House to choose our laws for the coming years, but the reality is very different. Like some sort of Quasimodo-esque cousin of the US presidential elections, what we’ll really be voting for is an electoral college. We elect 166 TDs whose most important role is fulfilled on their first day on the job; voting in a Taoiseach and a cabinet.

In Ireland, these 15 people in the cabinet are the real legislative branch of government. Due to our exceptionally strong party whip system, every bill proposed by a cabinet member is passed along party lines, every bill proposed by a member of the opposition is defeated along party lines, and backbench government TDs simply don’t get to propose bills at all. Even amendments are managed carefully by party whips, with only the most trivial being passed in the Dáil chamber. Our Ministers are the only legislators who actually get to legislate, and even then, power is overwhelmingly held by the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance.

Without any meaningful input into legislation, the remaining 151 TDs have little choice but to focus their efforts solely on local affairs in their constitutencies to get elected. This constituency work, which TDs freely admit to spending more than half their working time on, can range from quite literally getting potholes fixed, to securing passports and welfare payments for constituents. As a result, the cabinet themselves are appointed from amongst a Dáil composed entirely of local politicians, who rarely have any expertise relevant to their portfolio.

Furthermore, with little basis to distinguish by expertise or competence, front bench posts are chosen largely by seniority, which has lead to the worrying scenario where the current Taoiseach, Táinaiste and leader of the main opposition party all entered the Dáil in their twenties, from political families, and have almost no experience of life outside Leinster House. Our cabinet, then, who have little to no expertise, but are expected to fulfil both executive and legislative roles simultaneously, rely heavily on the civil service to devise policy and draft legislation. Of course, the civil servants themselves are generalists by nature, and almost never hire outside experts to senior departmental positions.

To make things even worse, Ministers are expected to continue their duties as local TDs while in office. This results in perverse situations such as the one John Gormley found himself in over the past four years, where he has had to implement the proposed development of an incinerator at Ringsend as Minister for the Environment, while at the same time opposing it as TD for Dublin South East. In the end, the conflict of interest has benefitted neither the nation nor the constituency.

It is clear, even without the country’s economic collapse as a wake-up call, that the political institutions in Ireland simply don’t function as intended. We have a political system that is actively biased against expertise, backed up by a civil service that is actively biased against expertise. What’s more, in the continuous quest to get reelected, the national interest is always fighting a losing battle against 43 separate local interests.

While there have been a broad array of proposals put forward to reform our political institutions over the past months and indeed years, there is a single reform which would clear up the litany of problems which I’ve described. That is, we should introduce an executive branch of government which is completely separate to the Dáil. This would both allow for the appointment of cabinet members with real expertise, as well as freeing up TDs to actually legislate.

We could, for instance, hold an election for an executive President concurrent with our Dáil elections, as happens in France and the US. As we move further away from our two party system, though, it’s highly unlikely that the President’s party would also hold a legislative majority, as is often the case in those two countries. An optimist would see this as ushering in a new age of legislative bipartisanship. A cynic, however, would see it as ushering in a new age of legislative deadlock. To appease the cynics, it would be possible to bring in a more subtle change instead, where a Taoiseach is still elected from within the Dáil, but then gives up their Dáil seat to head a seperate executive branch. This would ensure the executive branch has the support of the majority of legislators.

Regardless of how the head of the executive branch is chosen, Ministers could then be picked from the populace at large, no longer restricted to the 80 to 90 government-supporting TDs. Once chosen, the appointees would then, like in the US, be individually questioned and ratified by the Dáil prior to taking their posts, ensuring that only those who can demonstrate competence and expertise in their field would become Ministers. Furthermore, the reform would completely reshape the legislative process, as there would no longer be a distinction between frontbench and backbench TDs. All TDs would be expected to initiate and contribute to legislation.

Of course, other reforms could also be introduced to help reduce the pressure on TDs to resort to local clientelism. For instance, the number of constituencies could be reduced considerably, resulting in larger constituencies where clientelism would no longer be feasible. Extra Dáil seats could also be allocated by a national list vote, creating a constituency of TDs for whom the national interest is paramount. Reform of local government would be another positive step; by providing better resources to Councillors and directly-elected Mayors, they could take over much of the local work undertaken by TDs.

In the end, though, the most effective reform is the simplest one. We need a cabinet of experts and a Dáil of legislators, and separating the two is the best way to achieve both.

UK Elections Under Alternative Vote: An Analysis

Both before and since the UK election in May, there has been a lot of talk of electoral reform and how it would affect British politics and the makeup of Parliament. As the Liberal Democrats have secured a referendum on bringing in Alternative Vote, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to develop a full simulation of how elections under Alternative Vote would work out in the UK, based on the results from May 6th.

While there are full methodological details below, the model I’ve developed is a full and thorough simulation of AV, modeling every round of transfers in all 650 constituencies, based on educated estimates of the transfer rates between different parties. I’ve run the model twice, under slightly different assumptions. In the first version of the model (which I’ll refer to as the simple model), I have assumed that the votes cast on the 6th of May would be the first preferences of voters in an AV election. This is a nice simple assumption to make, but it doesn’t take into account that people vote tactically in first-past-the-post (FPTP), and often won’t actually vote for their preferred candidate if they don’t think he has a chance of winning. AV would remove the incentive to do so, so you would expect that first preferences would be different than votes cast under FPTP.

In an attempt to account for this, I’ve also run a second version of the model (which I’ll call the adjusted model). One of the notable features of the recent election is how different the actual result was from what people were saying to pollsters right up to the day before the vote. It’s a reasonable hypothesis to say that the polls were reporting the actual preferences of voters, and that the shift on election day was the result of people voting tactically due to FPTP. As such, for the adjusted model, I’ve applied a proportionate adjustment to the first preference votes in each constituency, to make the national tallies add up to what the pre-election polls were predicting. It’s hoped that this adjusted model can better capture the true first preferences of voters than the simple one.

Anyway, on to the results. After running through the model for each set of assumptions, here are the predicted seat totals for the simple AV model (AV-Smp), the adjusted AV model (AV-Adj) and the actual election results for reference (FPTP):

Con 307 285 (-22) 269 (-38)
Lab 258 245 (-13) 207 (-51)
LD 57 94 (+37) 148 (+91)
DUP 8 8 8
SNP 6 6 6
SF 5 5 5
PC 3 2 (-1) 2 (-1)
SDLP 3 3 3
Green 1 0 (-1) 0 (-1)
Alliance 1 1 1
Hermon 1 1 1

What’s immediately obvious is that, as would be expected, the Lib Dems gain the most benefit from the new system, as they’re the party most disadvantaged by FPTP. What might be surprising, though, is quite how much they benefit from it when you look at the adjusted model. It’s often pointed out that AV is not a truly proportional electoral system, which is quite true. However, my model suggests that it would be far more proportional than the current system, with the Lib Dems winning 23% of the seats on 27% of the vote, rather than the current 9% of the seats on 24% of the vote.

The model also suggests that coalition government could well become the norm under AV, as under both simulations a government would need any two of the big three parties to form a majority. Nonetheless, this simulation is being applied to an outlier election in the first place, and it’s still entirely possible for parties to gain an overall majority under alternative vote.

It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t developed as a predictive model of elections under AV; it’s a simulation of what might have been on May 6th, not what will happen in future elections. I might amend it in future to analyze likely results in the next election (if it’s held under AV), but the output will be unlikely to closely reflect what you see above, due to changes in political dynamics between elections. The Lib Dems, for example, are likely to lose out on transfers from Labour and independents after going into government with the Tories, but will be more transfer-friendly to Tory voters.

Continue reading for full methodological details >>

Some Hung Parliament Hypotheses

Hypothesis 1: Any meaningful electoral reform in the UK would effectively prevent the Tories from ever having an overall majority again. Because of this, the Tories, whatever overtures they may be giving Clegg at the moment, can never credibly commit to real electoral reform.

The Tories have been a minority party in UK politics for three-quarters of a century. That may seem odd, given that they’ve come out with an overall majority of MPs in nine elections since, but you have to go all the way back to Stanley Baldwin in 1931 to find the last leader of the Conservatives to lead the party to get over 50% of the votes in a general election*. Even in Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide, the Tories only managed 44% of the vote, but won a large majority of seats as the opposition vote was split between Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Winston Churchill, now considered one of the greatest Prime Ministers of all time, never even actually won an election on the popular vote. During his three elections as Tory leader, he managed to win a majority of MPs in just one, and even then with a slightly lower percentage of the national vote than Labour.

The Conservatives know all this, and David Cameron, a former student of politics, knows it as well as an of them. The history of the Conservative party since universal suffrage has been of a declining popular vote, mitigated only by the gradual split of the center-left between Labour and the Liberals. With the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, this had been good enough to secure frequent parliamentary majorities for the Tories, but under any even remotely proportional system their hopes for an overall majority would almost completely disappear. Their choices would either be eternal opposition, or a shift to the left for occasional coalition governments. Neither are particularly appealing to die-hard Tories.

Continue reading >>

Just How Proportional Is Proportional Representation?

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing on electoral reform, based on a submission I sent into the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recently. You can find the full series by clicking here.

When Proportional Representation by Single Transferrable Vote (PR-STV) was first established as Ireland’s electoral system in 1921, it was presented as an alternative to the first-past-the-post  (FPTP) system employed in the UK. The main reason that the new system was adopted was that, as its name suggests, it is more proportional than FPTP, in that the number of seats each party wins should be roughly proportional to the share of the vote they receive. While PR-STV has certainly improved from FPTP in that regard (not a difficult feat, as FPTP is particularly disproportional), it is worth noting that Ireland was the first country to implement PR-STV in national elections, and hence there was little evidence at the time it was chosen with which to analyze its proportionality. With almost a century of elections now held under the system, however, there’s now a considerable amount of data with which to examine whether PR-STV fulfils its purpose of proportionality.

The above graph shows the correlation between the proportion of national first-preference votes (FPV) a party receives and the number of seats it wins as a result. It is based on the results of every party in every general election held since 1981 (the first 166-member Dáil), and each point on the graph represents a party’s result in one of those elections. The dashed red line represents a perfectly proportional allocation of seats according to national vote.

What’s immediately visible about our current PR-STV system from the graph is how it benefits the larger parties compared to a perfectly proportional system. In only one outlying case did either of the state’s two large parties win less seats than would have been allocated proportionally (FG, 2002), and in every other election they received a bonus from the PR-STV system. For Fianna Fail in the 1997 and 2002 elections, this bonus gave them an extra 12 and 13 TDs, respectively, over their representation in a purely proportional system.

The PR-STV system, as currently implemented, likewise disadvantages smaller parties.  The second graph is enlarged to only show the results of parties that received less than 8% of the national FPV. It can be seen that in the considerable majority of cases, parties in this bracket win less seats than a proportional system would allocate them. Furthermore, there are often large variations in the number of seats won on a similar proportion of the vote. For example, between the 1992 and 1997 elections, the Progressive Democrats went from 10 to 4 seats, despite receiving exactly the same proportion of the national vote on both occasions (4.7%). In a perfectly proportional system, they would have won 8 seats in each election.