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How Ireland’s Electoral System creates groupthink

Talk to about ten politically aware Irish people, and you’ll find that almost all of them share one over-riding view of Irish politics: That whatever flaws our country might have, we have one thing that stands to us: The greatest electoral system in the world.

Irish voters are very familiar with PRSTV. You rank your choices, first to last (or first to however far down you want to go) on a ballot paper. If your first choice gets elected, or eliminated, then your vote is available to help your second choice, and then your third choice, and so on. The idea is a noble and simple one: That, at every stage of a count, for every seat, every individual voter has a say.

This is regularly contrasted with other, much less (it is argued) fair electoral systems. We are, in Ireland, very familiar with the British system: There, the person with the largest number of votes wins. And so, it is regularly the case that somebody with 33.4% of the vote wins a seat, and somebody with 33.3% of the vote, who comes second, gets nothing.

This, we say, is unfair. Because it results in situations like the present one, where Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, with 42% of the vote, won almost 60% of the seats. At the same time, parties like the Liberal Democrats, with 10% of the votes, got about 3% of the seats. We see similar events in the US, where two of the last six Presidential elections have been won by the candidate who got fewer votes overall, but got them in the right places.

That would never happen here, we brag. Our system is fair.

But “fair” does not equal “good”, in every circumstance, and it certainly does not in Ireland.

For the entirety of my lifetime, for example, people have complained that there is basically no difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on policy. That is objectively true, though few have ever bothered to ask themselves “why?” in a way that includes the electoral system itself.

At the present time, people complain that various sections of society have no party that represents them – anti-lockdowners, for example, or pro-lifers, or eurosceptics, or people who don’t want to pay the TV licence, and so on.

The answer to both of these questions is that the electoral system itself is structured in such a way as to foster groupthink on issues on an industrial scale, and to punish even the slightest hint of radicalism.

For example, at the 2016 Irish General election, 23 TDs were elected on the first count. Everybody else – the vast majority of those elected – required transfers to make it across the line. Those TDs who get elected on the first count, without the need for transfers, tend to come from one of two camps: The very high profile, long serving politician who is personally popular, or the candidate whose party has happened to catch a wave of support. It is a very rare occurrence, amongst politicians, to be elected on the first count.

That means that, to maximise your chances of getting elected, you need transfers: Second, and third, and fourth, and fifth preferences.

Think about what that means: It means that every single ambitious politician must try and appeal to the widest range of voters possible. A political party that actively opposed a particular group of voters would be hurting itself immeasurably by cutting itself off from a well of potential transfers. Again, all of this sounds good: Sure, don’t we want politicians who appeal to as many voters as possible?

No.

We do not, and should not, want that. Because the end result is always the same: Policy herding. Groupthink. Everybody espousing the same policy, and few with the courage to say that the majority position is dangerous nonsense, even when it is.

Here’s a statement of fact, which will outrage partisans: There is very little substantive difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein on housing, health, or any other issue. The differences that do exist are differences of tone and emphasis: All parties would “invest” in housing and “invest” in health and “invest” in everything else. On the EU, they move in lockstep. On Green issues: Lockstep. On Lockdowns: Lockstep.

To the extent that there are differences, they are differences of tone, not of approach. This is explemplified between the differening approaches of Sinn Fein and the Government: Sinn Fein’s tone is one of alarm, and crisis. The Government’s is that the country is doing well. There’s not much difference on policy: The voter is encouraged to vote based on their perception of the state, and policy differences tend to get played down.

And that, because of our system, makes sense: If they cannot get your first preference, they want your second preference, or your third. The best way to get those preferences is to be as close as possible in ideology and policy to the party you are giving your first preference to.

And how do you decide which policies are most popular? Well, that’s logical and rational too: Once a policy gains more than 50% support, or so, it is rational for every party in the state to flip to that position overnight, since that is the most efficient way to gain the greatest number of transfers. That’s why, when some of us marvel that “the consensus changes overnight” we should not really marvel at all: Politicians are actively incentivised to have as few principles as possible, and stick as close to the herd as possible.

What does this mean, then, for a party that tries to “challenge the consensus”? It means that it is objectively much harder to break through. For example, an anti-lockdown party, if one emerged, would be doing very well to get 7 or 8% of the first preference vote. In a system like Germany’s – proportional representation with a top-up system to reflect first preference votes – this would translate to lots of seats.

In Ireland, it likely would not. Parties that are “outside the mainstream” get actively punished by mainstream voters, who simply do not give them the second, third, and fourth preferences required to sneak the last seat.

The cumulative effect of all of this is a political system that is uncommonly afflicted by groupthink and consensus. It means that taking a radically alternative view on an issue is politically dangerous, and practiced, generally, only by Independent TDs who are personally popular: The Healy Rae’s, Mattie McGraths, Michael McNamara, and so on.

The problem is this: We have a political system that means politicians have to appeal to everybody, and alienate nobody. And so, we end up in a situation where it is controversial and dangerous for Mary Lou McDonald to describe the civil service as “constipated”, or for Aontú to be openly pro-life, or for any party to oppose the majority view on lockdowns. It is not as if there are no alternatives: D’Hondt, for example, is a system which would allow us to keep the same number of TDs, and local representation, but without the nonsense of transfers.

The system, of course, is not the only problem, but it’s a big problem. And we’ll never solve it, because it is a system that suits parties, and politicians, down to the ground.

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