In July 2009 our initial proposals for constitutional and voting reforms were set out in two posts – ‘Democracy : Make every vote matter’ and ‘Lording it over the people’. Those proposals set a framework for a direct democracy where the people would vote for a head of government and executive, instead of the House of Commons acting as an electoral college and voting through the Queen’s Speech to support a single party or coalition of parties. Why should an MP who was elected with less than 50% of the votes in their constituency apply 100% of the vote to support any particular government? Especially if it was a coalition with a negotiated programme for government, which resulted in the manifestos that people had voted for being ditched. Under our proposal there would be a separate election to decide the government and another election would continue to elect the people’s representatives to the House of Commons, that would still have primacy.
An essential element is that voters would be able to vote for ‘none of the above’. Questions were asked about how this would work and what would happen if a majority of voters decided they didn’t like any of the options, with the majority voting for ‘none’ of the candidate governments? We now have an example that demonstrates such a situation. In last months general election in Ireland the people voted not to elect a government, and they did it without even having the option of ‘none of the above’.
So first, this is how our proposed direct election of the government would work. As part of the constitutional reform we would reduce the size of government to no more than fourteen government departments. The heads or Secretaries of State for those fourteen departments would comprise the Cabinet, alongside the Prime Minister and a Deputy, together with a maximum of no more than five other Cabinet members (whips etc.). This twenty-one member Cabinet would be a 25% reduction at least on the present arrangement. The Secretaries of State would be supported by approximately fifty junior Ministers. The government would thus comprise about seventy members and in order to provide replacements for deaths and resignations there would be a pool of thirty reserves.
This means that any prospective government would have to field a list of one-hundred names from which the appointments must be made. The list would be headed with a description such as, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party or Fred Karno’s Democratic Independents Alliance. Thus, it would also provide the opportunity for a group of independents to put themselves forward. The Leader of the Party and potential Prime Minister would be first on the list; although there would be no compulsion, some of the contenders might choose to identify those people on the list who would hold the Cabinet positions.
There would be clarity and transparency giving voters an informed choice. The ballot paper would consist of all the contending parties in addition to the option of ‘none of the above’. The party lists would be displayed in each polling station. Because they were indirectly elected by virtue of being on the list, there would be no room for individuals to dissent from the manifesto or rebel and the whip would apply. If a government holder died or resigned, the next person named on the list would be moved up and in to government. This requires the lists to be submitted in priority order rather than alphabetically.
However, nothing is simple or straight-forward. If ‘none of the above’ won it would require another election and it would follow that none of the rejected contenders will be able to take part. Then we are in to unknown territory. There are other considerations to be dealt with. Do we proceed with a minority government that received less than 50% of the vote? Do we allow coalition governments or insist that only pre-formed coalitions endorsed by a vote of the people are legitimate? If we want a majority government it might have to be elected by a simple alternative vote system, as opposed to an expensive run-off election 14 days later? If we want an official opposition to debate with the government, would this require a new chamber or could it be contained in the Privy Council or House of Lords (after evicting the current occupants)? Whether a new or existing chamber, it would have a maximum membership of 200, that would be a substantial reduction on the present structure. And, to achieve this we would have to be elected under the existing system!
A coalition government is in nobodies interest, especially the junior government partner party. The LibDems found out the hard way. In their lust for power they were prepared to jump in to bed with any other party. They then tried to convince the public to accept their new political reality of permanent coalitions where they would shack-up with whoever was the party with the highest vote. The public were having none of it and were not enamoured with the sight of the tail wagging the dog. Neither was the prospect of a Labour Party coalition with the SNP to their liking. The LibDems took the blame for dissatisfaction with the government and were consigned to a mini-bus, sorry people-carrier, for their outings; and hopefully to political oblivion. Unfortunately, voters have short memories. The one thing I can promise is the CDP will, if it ever has the opportunity, never enter in to a coalition government. A pre-election alliance for the long-term is the most that will be on offer.
Second. The most successful political party in Ireland has been Fianna Fail, but they frequently find themselves in coalition with junior partners who they devour. In recent history the Progressive Democrats took the blame for being in coalition with FF, were reduced to two seats at the 2007 general election and then wound-up. With that election it was the Green Party who went in to coalition with FF and they were then hit by the 2008 financial crisis. As part of the bailout the Troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund took up residence in Leinster House in 2010 to oversee a programme of austerity the like of which we have not seen in this country. In the 2011 general election FF suffered a crushing defeat, the worst ever by a sitting government, and ended the count with just 20 seats – down from the previous 71 seats. The Green Party were also totally wiped-out, losing all their seats.
The winner of the 2011 election was Fine Gael with 76 seats who entered in to a coalition with the Irish Labour Party with 37 seats. This is not unusual as it has happened numerous times in the past and FG has never governed alone. The Labour Party has also, in the past, been in coalition with FF; like the LibDems in UK they will shack-up with anyone. With a recovery of sorts in place, having exited the bailout early and the Troika departing, the coalition entered in to the 2016 general election with some confidence. However, as we shall see later, there were other considerations in play. The 2016 election resulted in defeats for the coalition government. FG were down to 50 seats and the LP were wiped-out with only 7 seats. FF made a slight recovery with 44 seats and Sinn Fein increased their seats to 23.
Of the 158 seats in the Dail there are now 24 Independents and a few new small parties with less than seven seats, which means they do not have automatic speaking rights. The first item on the agenda at the first meeting of the Dail following the election was the election of Ceann Comhairle [head of council] that is, chairman of the Dail. For the very first time this election was to be by secret ballot, with the single transferable vote [stv] system in use. There were five candidates and after five counts a FG nominee was elected. That is hardly a rousing endorsement and shows how divided the Dail is. It also means that FG has one less voting TD.
SF is the third largest party, but is shunned by the other parties and even if it was possible for them to enter a coalition with either FF or FG and LP it would not be possible to reach the magic number of 80 TDs. Except for one option, none of the arithmetic adds up. In the past there have been some very broad coalitions with so many participants that it has been unmanageable; imagine the dog being wagged by seven or more tails! The one coalition that might be possible is FF and FG with 93 TDs, but they are bitter enemies since the civil war that followed the War of Independence. Even though FG has the most seats, they lost the election and FF would not accept rejected Enda Kenny as Taoiseach [chief minister]. There is another consideration. Such a coalition would mean that SF was the official opposition, which would greatly enhance their standing in the country. FF and FG will not let that happen.
The second item on the agenda at the first meeting of the Dail was the election of Taoiseach, with four nominees. Enda Kenny received the most votes but did not reach the quota. The Dail was then adjourned to next week. He then, without any media coverage, quietly visited the President to tender his resignation. He continues as caretaker while the haggling proceeds and his resignation might pave the way for a deal. It does appear to be a Gordian knot. The only solution being promoted is another general election. Except, the parties and people are exhausted. The pollsters also predict that the result would be the same. This is diabolical.
Third. The stv voting system used in Irish elections is also diabolical. It requires large constituencies based on the counties with multi TDs. On two occasions there has been a referendum of the people proposing a change to a single member constituency system. Both times it has been rejected. It might be because the stv system encourages the election of independent candidates. It is long-winded and difficult to understand.
In each constituency a quota of the votes required for election is set. On the first count the votes cast are verified and reconciled. The first preferences for each candidate are counted. Any candidate over the quota is elected and their surplus votes reallocated. The candidates with the lowest vote also have their votes reallocated to the second choice of the voter. The surplus votes of successful candidates are reallocated to the second choice on a pro-rata basis. As candidates are eliminated the third, fourth etc. choices are reallocated. This happens until all seats are filled. The last constituency to compete the process was Longford-Westmeath, after 15 counts and 2 recounts. The result was announced on the sixth day. They didn’t even get to rest on the seventh day as there was a lot of cleaning-up to take place.
Candidates low down on the first count can end up being elected over someone above them. In Longford-Westmeath the LP candidate conceded defeat on the second day but was eventually elected. It was a long hard fight but essential for the LP as they needed a seventh success in order for them to have automatic speaking rights in the Dail.
The stv system with multi member constituencies is to be avoided at all cost. The CDP will stick with the existing system for election of MPs to the House of Commons. The only consideration is that the successful candidate should receive 50% + 1 of the vote.
Fourth. The situation in Ireland cannot just be blamed on the voting system. Neither is it only the case that FG and LP are blamed for the continuing austerity, and FF is still not forgiven for their mishandling of the economy leading up to the financial crisis. The creation of many new parties is a result of deep dissatisfaction with the way the established parties have changed. FG can no longer legitimately describe itself as a Christian democratic party, it has been taken over by liberals even though it remains in the EPP group in the European Parliament. Likewise, in 2009 FF switched to the Liberal group in the European Parliament, even though its MEPs continued to act like conservatives. In 1999 the LP merged with the Democratic Left, which had previously split from the Workers Party, to become a socialist party. SF also describe itself as democratic socialists. There is a gaping hole in the political spectrum for a party with traditional and Christian values. The Catholic Democrat party and the Christian Solidarity Party have tried to fill the gap, but for some reason have not received the support they needed to make an impact.
Fifth. The abortion issue was a significant and defining issue of the election, but you would not think so as the pro-abortion news media tried to blot it out as a factor in the result. There has been a concerted campaign to alter the law and make abortion legal. The pro-life groups throughout Ireland have stoutly defended the right to life of unborn children and the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution that affords equal protection to mother and child. Before the 2011 election Enda Kenny promised to maintain that legal protection. The promise was broken when he steered the misnamed Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act through the Dail and Seanad in 2013. This was not a manifesto commitment, but he forced it through by denying FG TDs a free conscience vote. Some of them resigned over this lack of principle and formed a ‘new’ party. One hundred thousand people signed a pledge never to vote for FG again. Kenny advised his party that it would all blow over, but it didn’t.
Entering the 2016 election, the pro-life groups mounted a campaign to influence the vote. FG was advocating a Constitutional Convention to consider the Eighth Amendment. This is a thinly disguised mechanism to recommend the repeal of the Eighth. FF declared they had no intentions to repeal the Eighth, but given their conduct in 2013 it was not a convincing assurance. SF are now clearly pro-abortion. The LP were making the repeal of the Eighth the main plank of their election campaign – ‘vote for us if you want to repeal the Eighth Amendment’. The people did not and the LP paid the penalty.
Every candidate in the 2016 election was approached by the vote pro-life campaign to ascertain their position on the Eighth. Those who supported the Eighth were supported and their names included on a list that was widely publicised. FG instructed all their candidates not to respond to the enquiry and reveal their position. They were punished and the party lost power.