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I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
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* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

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Deciding for whom to vote in the Presidential election has been relatively easy for me. Candidates fill my list of preferences from the bottom up by failing a series of tests. My tests start with the elimination of apologists for murder, then move on to a demand that a candidate rise above the trivial, that a candidate be honest and have integrity, that a candidate be liberal on matters of sexuality etc. and that a candidate not be blind to policy outside of markets and liberal business orthodoxy. As the others fill up the bottom of the list, Michael D. Higgins remains to take my number one.

However, not everyone – probably not even a majority – would agree with my tests or the order of priority in which I put them.

Imagine that you are conservative on what might be called, personal morality, but you are liberal on business matters, that you demand honesty and integrity, that you despise the trivial in public discourse and that you are utterly opposed to political murder. Now, you come to vote in the presidential election and your views have to be prioritised because you can’t find a candidate with whom you identify. Here’s a probable hierarchy which you might erect: Test 1. A candidate must oppose political murder; Test 2. A candidate must be honest and have integrity; Test 3. A candidate must not trivialise politics; Test 4. A candidate must favour liberal markets; Test 5. A candidate must support “family” values. After tests 1, 2 and 3, just two or possibly three candidates remain. The two obvious survivors are Gay Mitchell and Michael D. Higgins. A possible third survivor is David Norris. * This is interesting because it suggests that you will vote for a Christian Democrat (Gay Mitchell) and express a preference for a socialist (Michael D. Higgins) over the others. Assuming that Gay Mitchell will be eliminated, you will have contributed to the election of a socialist!

Of course I accept that this is a presidential election and that routine tests of suitability do not appear above. I’ve assumed that all of the candidates know how to behave in public and either know or can learn the constitutional requirements.

* I find David Norris doubtful not because I question his honesty but because increasingly I fear that he is trivial. Now, it may be argued that we live in a post-ideological age and that he is a typical issues candidate. That’s not an argument that I want to address here. For now, consider me a dinosaur who still wants a clash of great ideas, contested notions of the good society etc., and I’m also a dinosaur who has grown weary of people claiming to be anti-establishment, while steering well clear of offering an overall perspective.