How similar would the UK's Election be to the next Irish General Election?


By Tomás M. Creamer

In many ways, there were some obvious parallels between the Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalition that governed the UK from 2010 up until the last election, and the Fine Gael/Labour coalition Government in Ireland, which won a landslide victory in the 2011 general election here in Ireland.

Both were coalition governments between a large centre-right party and a smaller left-leaning one, elected at a time of economic recession in their respective countries, after the previous governments, which ruled for 13-14 years in each country, oversaw a boom, and then a bust - although it was slightly more spectacular in Ireland, where the boom was boomer, and the bust was, well...you get the idea.

So, in Ireland, the British General election was watched with great interest by the politically interested. This was not only because the UK is our nearest neighbour, and we can buy the British newspapers here, but also because the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was seeking re-election on much of the same terms as our government - that the current government had to make tough choices, are best placed to manage the "recovery", all that stuff.

So, clearly, it worked for the Government in the UK - or at least, it worked for the Conservatives (or "Tories"), who won a shock parliamentary majority in an election where virtually everyone was predicting a hung parliament.

The result was a punch in the stomach for those in Ireland who were pinning their hopes of a Labour victory (or rather, a Labour Government, backed by the Scottish National Party), to confirm their belief - or their hopes - that people will reject the vain "economic narrative" of our incumbent, in favour of parties who make an appeal on the basis of personal economic well-being, and of popular opposition to austerity and widening economic inequality.

However, before any Fine Gael/Labour supporters start opening some spare champagne bottles, let me pour some cold water on the idea that the British result will point towards an inevitable re-election of the current Fine Gael/Labour government.

There are several reasons for this, which I shall list below. These including the differences between Ireland and the UK, in terms of voting systems, unemployment, and the nature of our political cultures. There is also a couple of factors that are unique to Ireland, such as Fine Gael's brain-dead candidate electoral strategy in some constituencies, Anyways, let's get on with it, shall we?

Ah, voting...

Just a little tidbit that might shock some British readers - the Irish Voting system may seem plain weird to most outsiders, but yet it's objectively superior to the British electoral system. Don't believe me? Just watch!.....or rather, read on....

Our voting system is known as "Single Transferable Vote", or "STV" for short, and it's one of those proportional representation (PR) voting systems that are designed to distribute parliamentary seats in a manner that somewhat reflects the percentage vote each party gets - albeit, it's a little more unique that the "List systems" that are used widely across Europe, as, with the exception of tiny Malta, Ireland is the only country in the world that uses the STV voting systems for all elections, including local, European and National elections.

The basics? It involves multiple-seat-constituencies, which allows for a truer reflection of political diversity, especially in 5-seat constituencies. If you want to totally geek out over our voting system, here's a blog post I wrote from earlier, that aims to introduce it to those who don't know it:
https://tomarigna.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/explaining-irish-politics-to-outsiders-part-three-voting/ 
* Note: I know that STV is used for local/regional/European elections in Northern Ireland, and local elections in Scotland - however, since around 90% of the UK's population are neither (Northern) Irish or Scottish, I'm erring on the side of caution here.

So, for one thing, this alone would inhibit our current government from been re-elected - there is no such thing as an overall majority with 37% of the vote. True, there have been elected majority governments in Ireland that did not get more than 50% of the vote, but they had to get at least in the low 40's to have a chance of that, and that assumes that all sort of other variable factors go right for them on the night - which is unlikely in the current context, as I'll explain later.

Economics & Culture
As much of a proud Irishman as I am, and as convinced as I am that Ireland was ultimately better-off as an independent nation, I will have to admit, things aren't that rosy in Ireland at present. Unemployment, even now, it around the 10% mark - which isn't completely horrible, I guess, as this puts us at the same level as France, and it's hardly Spain or Greek-esque - but that number conceals huge regional and socio-economic disparities that are starting to really impact on the nature of Irish politics.

It's a familiar story, really - the big, cosmopolitan cities (Dublin, as well as perhaps Cork, Galway, and Limerick) and the highly-educated upper-middle and upper classes are doing fine enough, but if you live outside of the metropolitan areas of those cities, or if you have any sort of disadvantaged background, you would probably be scratching your head wondering - "what recovery are ye lads on about?"

If you feel that the recovery is starting to work for you, and if you are worried about it's impending advance been interrupted, you are going to be more convinced by the narrative of the coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour, that changing the government now would be a disaster.

However, if you don't feel the recovery, if you are annoyed about the Government's serial failures to uphold it's promises, and if you suspect that the Governement cares more about it's (relatively) wealthy/ier supporters than about "the common person", you are likely to go with Sinn Fein, or else an independent candidate you like, or even one of the batches of new parties that are been formed.
This polarisation is unusual in an Irish context - as I explained in an earlier post (https://tomarigna.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/explaining-irish-politics-to-outsiders-part-one-history-1921-2007/), our politics have historically been dominated by what were essentially two centre-right political parties, Fine Gael (which leads our current coalition government - think of the Conservatives) and Fianna Fail (think Labour party).

However, there wasn't any huge ideological split that divided the two - the split originates from a long-since irrelevant civil war that split the Irish Independence movement back in the 20's. "Class politics" wasn't really a thing, mainly because urbanisation wasn't really a thing in Ireland until the second half of the 20th century. Some could also point to the Catholic Church - although that really didn't stop Italy or Spain from developing left-right divides, did it?

The point, you may ask? That sounds pretty similar to what has already happened in Britain, you might say. Maybe, but there is a difference - our recession was even worse than the one that the UK had, and our main political party's share of the national vote has declined even more rapidly than that of the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Labour party in the UK. In the last Irish local elections in 2014, they received less than 57% of the vote, for example. The governing coalition received less than 34%.

Candidate selection strageties
in the UK, the thought that is put towards candidate selection strategies probably doesn't extend much beyond placing a weaker party candidate (or really important party figueres, such as party leaders) in a safe seat, where they don't have to work too hard to get re-elected. However, in Ireland, that strategy doesn't really apply, because there is really such a thing as a "safe seat" for any particular candidate.

For sure, in many constituencies, each of the major parties are all but guaranteed to secure a seat or two for themselves. However, it is worth noting that, since our constituencies contain multiple-seats, that means that our parties can (and often do) select multiple candidates to run in a constituency - and in nearly all cases, not all of those candidates will be elected. And sometimes, even established party TDs lose out, not to their political rivals, but to another candidate from their own party.
Another factor to consider is the nature of our political culture - unlike the UK, where party HQs can parachute candidates into far-off corners of the UK, where they happen to hold a safe seat, with the exception of Dublin, virtually all candidates that run for election are local candidates, and all of them stress their contribution to the local constituency.

Our TDs (Irish MPs) are more locally-focused than their UK counterparts, facilitated by a strong centralising tendency of the executive, which limits the role of many TDs to that of local advocates, on behalf of their constituents, to a central government who also deals with many functions that would normally be the reserve of local governments.

As a result, there is more thought that has to be involved when it comes to selecting candidates for election in Ireland - Is the candidate based in a central part of the constituency, and hence capable of maximising their vote? Do they have a good record of attending funerals and community events? Is it better to play it safe, and select only one candidate to run in a multi-seat constituency, or else run multiple candidates, and try and win more seats, at the risk of diluting the party vote?

Unfortunately for Fine Gael in particular, evidence from some constituencies suggests that it's going to lose a bucket of seats as a result of this failure. In theory, the best strategy for Fine Gael would simply be to stick with only their incumbent TDs at the next election, and hope for the best. However, the number of seats for the Dail (the Irish Parliament) is been reduced, from 166 to 158, and the Coalition government has also introduced gender quotas, which means that at least a third of a party's candidates must be women, or else the party in question loses funding.

For a male-dominated party, who has quite clearly reached their electoral peak, these factors would probably exasperate their electoral losses, as the party will be forced to add extra candidates onto the ballot paper, at a time when it's likely that even many of their incumbent TDs look set to be decimated in the next election.

On the other hand, Sinn Fein, one of the major opposition parties in the Republic of Ireland, is expected to double their voting share in the next general election, from the 10% they received in the 2011 election. Due to their infamously strong internal party discipline, and because they will be highly likely to at least double the amount of seats they win at the next election (from their current 14 seats), the party would have no problems with selecting candidates, either in fast-tracking young, articulate (and predominately female) candidates, or to ensure that they run just the right number of candidates in any given constituency.

In fact, Sinn Fein is so adapt at this, in quite a few working-class urban areas in last year's local elections, they ended up with situations where, such was their voting share, they could have had more candidates elected, if they hadn't been so strict with the number of candidates they allocated for the said constituencies in the first place.

This has to compensate for the fact that Sinn Fein serially underperforms in elections, compared to opinion polls, and historically, the party often fails to attract the kind of "soft support", from voters with different political allegiances, that are often required to do well under our voting system. Basically, kind of like UKIP in terms of polarisation - except at the opposite end of the political  and demographic spectrum. And it goes without saying that such strong internal party discipline has it's own pitfalls, especially if Sinn Fein are ever elected to govern the country.

Conclusion:
It probably shouldn't come as a surprise to some, but despite the many similarities between Ireland and the UK - such as our infamous damp weather and our undying love of tea - at the end of the day, Ireland (by which I mean the Republic of Ireland, excluding Northern Ireland) is a different country. We have a different voting system, a different political environment and history, and we were much strongly affected by the economic crash than even some of the worst-hit regions in the UK.

Recent polls in Ireland do show a recovery for the governing parties of Fine Gael and Labour - albeit, not to the levels required for re-election. However, politics is a bit of an untidy mess in Ireland at the moment - you have 3 major parties that consistently garner somewhere between 20-26% of the vote each in opinion polls, (4 if you want to be generous to the Labour party, which ranges from 6-10%, down from 19% in the 2011 election), and 20-30% that goes to various tiny parties and a bucket-load of independents.

And, of course, the opinion polls could be a bit off - and our next election is several months away yet. I have my own ideas of what could happen, but I don't wish to make a public prediction, because after the UK general election, I really don't want to end up with egg on my face afterwards.


Tomás M. Creamer is a BA Student in NUI Galway, and grew up in Country Leitrim - and in case you don't know the geography, both places are in the Republic of Ireland. When he's not reading, studying, facebooking, helping out on the family farm, etc. he blogs at https://tomarigna.wordpress.com/, and contributes to NUI Galway's Student Newspaper, S.I.N.







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