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.
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Fine Gael last night announced that, if elected, they’ll hold a referendum to abolish the Seanad. Right now is probably the perfect time to talk about reform of the way our system of government operates, as our Government and Oireachtas are almost completely incapable of dealing with the country’s fiscal and economic collapse, and public confidence in our elected representatives must be reaching an all-time low. Talking about the role the Seanad plays in the running of our country is a vital part of that, and discussions will inevitably come to either reforming the manner in which the Seanad is elected and operates, or getting rid of the Seanad and adopting a reformed unicameral parliamentary system if it’s deemed to make law-making more effective. These sorts of decisions are not to be taken lightly, as the choice of governmental system can have a profound impact on the country for generations to come.
Unfortunately, when Enda Kenny announced the party’s plan to abolish the Seanad, it wasn’t as part of an overarching review of our system of government, with a refashioning of the legislative branch carefully designed to be more effective at devising, amending and passing laws. It wasn’t advertised as a way to allow the country to cope better with the changed circumstances that we’ll have to deal with in the coming decades. Nope, the big headline reason given for abolishing the Seanad was that (along with reducing the Dáil by 20 members) it would save €150 million over the course of a Dáil term. That’s €30 million a year. To put that in perspective, the country’s current annual budget deficit is now approaching €30,000 million. So, Enda wants to make the biggest changes to the constitution in the history of the state, all for the sake of reducing our deficit by 0.1%.
Of course, Enda did hint to more political reforms as part of a “New Politics”, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that the headline reform is so blatantly populist. It also doesn’t inspire confidence that the whole process of devising a new legislative system for the nation has been fobbed off to the party’s environment spokesman, Phil Hogan, who doesn’t even sit on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, the body who’s job it is to discuss electoral reform.
By all means we should start talking about reforming the Oireachtas, in what it consists of, how it operates and how it’s elected. But that debate should be given the importance it deserves, and not simply used as a populist headline-grabbing stunt as Enda Kenny did last night.
The Lisbon Treaty referendum last year could be described in pretty much every way as a complete and utter mess. The government put a long and complicated international treaty to referendum, through an unintelligible constitutional amendment, then completely failed to convey the actual implications in a clear and concise manner. The No campaigners proceeded to engage in scare tactics on a myriad of topics almost completely unrelated to the treaty, while the European institutions themselves showed a shocking lack of understanding of the Irish electorate throughout the campaign. The voters, understandably, refused to vote for something they couldn’t possibly be expected to understand, and the Lisbon Treaty has been in limbo ever since.
Oddly enough, the person most responsible for the whole debacle isn’t in fact any of the above, but rather a man who died before the Lisbon Treaty was ever written; Mr Charles J Haughey.
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