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There are two reasons for having representative democracy rather than direct democracy. There’s the numbers reason and the deliberative reason. The former rests on the obvious; that in anything other than a tiny society, direct democracy is impractical and representatives are necessary. (Let’s leave to one side the decreasingly futuristic possibilities that ICTs offer for direct participation and their dangers.) The latter – the deliberative reason – refers to the requirement that decisions be made slowly, based on information, argument and thought. The idea is that a legislator needs to be “professional” in the sense that the deliberative role is a fulltime job.

Now, clearly parliaments and parliamentarians tend not to conform to the ideal and the Dáil is a particular example. There are many reasons for this but one is the people’s tendency to elect representatives who are not able for the role, never considered deliberation to be their role, or consider their role as one of “getting stuff” for their constituency. It is often argued that PRSTV should be abandoned as a reform aimed at ridding the Dáil of or reducing the numbers of “clientilist”, constituency workers.

This suggestion is met with two objections. Firstly, there is the inverted snobbery objection, that we don’t want the Dáil dominated by up-market, educated types with fancy notions. Secondly, there is the roots objection, that a TD who does not engage in enormous amounts of constituency work  and constituent contact will somehow become detached from reality and lose his or her true purpose: to represent “ordinary” people.

Leaving aside the argument that a low quota under PRSTV makes it easier for a well known, local constituency worker to be elected, let’s look at another but similar feature of PRSTV. It could be argued that the coming election will be the one in which Labour for the first time will have to face the full rigour of constituency competition in a Dáil election. Up to this, Labour’s ambition seldom extended beyond one seat in any constituency and so, intraparty competition was rare for Labour. From now on, Labour candidates will have to compete with other Labour candidates. They clearly will not compete on ideological grounds and will have increasingly to compete (like most FF and FG candidates) on the basis of constituency service, i.e. clientilism.

If it is accepted by Labour that clientilism is wrong in itself or that it produces TDs who are quite simply “the wrong stuff”, the conventional argument – that intraparty competition dictates that candidates must compete by offering constituency services – will have to be faced. Labour will then have to demonstrate that the conventional argument is erroneous or side with those who want to move away from PRSTV.



  1. Colum,

    Its back to that saying by Churchill “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the others that have been tried”.

    I’d be a bit more positive than that and say any other electoral system gives the voter less say. Single seat constituencies, whether the electoral system is first past the post, or the alternative vote (1,2,3 etc. in order of your choice) produce outcomes disproportionately favouring the bigger parties. According to Garret Fiztgerald who modelled the 2007 results if they had taken place in such single seats found that Fianna Fail would have won 75 per cent of the seats with 42 per cent of the vote. Labour would have been wiped out, except for the odd celebratory candidate we may or may not have had.

    The additional member electoral system, that which called for by Fintan O’Toole and Garret Fitzgerald, is in place in wales. As written by me in a letter published in the Irish Times last Friday, The type of electoral system proposed by Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, an Additional Member Electoral System, already exists in Wales for elections to the Welsh Assembly (Opinion December 4th). In 2004 a Welsh electoral commission carried out a review of this electoral system.   In its review of this electoral system the electoral Commission found that the Additional Member Electoral System creates two categories of electoral representatives and that this was an intrinsic defect of additional member systems. As part of its review the electoral commission carried out a survey of the Welsh public about their attitudes to representatives elected under the Additional Member Electoral System. What the survey revealed was that the Welsh public perceived that the list seats in the assembly were consolation prizes for parties which failed to win constituency seats.  The Electoral Commission recommended a move to PR STV as the electoral system to elect members of the Welsh Assembly. It recommended this move to PR STV to bring about more proportional outcomes in elections to the Welsh Assembly.

    List systems are operated by Berlesconi, and others. Either they are patrons of the party leader or selected by party memberships. Guess what party members in Germany, for example, vote for the candidates to be placed on the German lists, based on their record as local grafters!

    • Colum McCaffery
    • Posted December 13, 2010 at 11:54 pm
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    • Reply

    You are essentially saying that, all things considered, PRSTV is best. However, the problem remains – and it’s a problem whose full rigours Labour will shortly face for the first time – as to how candidates from the same party might compete without resort to offers of constituency work. In other words, is there a solution without abandoning PRSTV?

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