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In Praise of Politics

by Frank Schnittger Tue Mar 8th, 2011 at 01:16:19 PM EST

Politics is often used as a bit of a dirty word: as a synonym for corruption, inefficiency, favouritism, cronyism and an offence to objectivity and merit. Those who criticise "politics" frequently do so from a technocratic, meritocratic or authoritarian perspective: Life would be so much better if people simply did what they are told; took their lead from the "experts"; or recognised the superior wisdom, knowledge and qualifications of specialists in a particular field. Frequently the critics simply assume they know better than "the powers that be" - always a good line for populist applause - but no guarantee that they would do any better if they did manage to get their hands on the levers of power.

Of course politics is often done badly, incompetently or corruptly; and then other methods of decision making could lead to more optimal outcomes. You can, for example, be utterly contemptuous of the Irish people's decision to replace an incompetent and deluded Fianna Fail Government with a Fine Gael led Government not necessarily any better in either ideology or competence.

But I want to write a paean of praise for the process by which that change was accomplished.


All societies are in drastic need of change from time to time: the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya come readily to mind.  All systems of Governance must contain the mechanisms for their own update and reform.  Indeed there have been many calls and proposals for the reform of Irish political institutions including the abolition of the Senate, the replacement of our single transferable vote electoral system with a German style list system, and the introduction of more outside "technocrats" into the Governmental process at cabinet level.

However, if you don't understand how your polity works, you are likely to make some very ill-advised decisions on reforming it. I want to write an essay on why I think the current Irish governmental systems are as good as most, and quite possibly better than many of the proposals for their reform.

Ireland has been going through an incredibly traumatic process of impoverishment. Almost everyone has been directly effected by losing their job, finding themselves in negative equity and unable to move to find another job, in mortgage arrears, or effected by swinging increases in taxes, charges, interest rates or  reductions in pay. Many families have been effected by emigration or by increased rates of crime, suicide, self harm, depression and stress related illnesses.

In many countries such a dramatic change would have resulted in riots in the street or threats of revolution. In An infrastructure of dissent I listed 15 factors which may have contributed to such apparent passivity.  However another more positive factor may also be that we have a political system which functions relatively well at a number of levels:

  1. People have been "waiting in the long grass" to deal a decisive blow to the Fianna Fail party widely held to have been largely responsible for the disaster. The election just past has been long flagged and afforded people an opportunity to do so, and may have averted a more disorderly change process.

  2. In the single transferable vote system, people vote for candidates, not parties. Because the constituencies are relatively small, most electors will have met at least some of the candidates personally, or know of them at one remove. Politics is often therefore personal, with many of the tensions inherent in any change or governmental process mediated at a personal level.

  3. There is huge popular involvement in the electoral process.  Turnout was 70% despite the fact that the maintenance of the electoral register leaves something to be desired, and people living/working away from home may have difficulty in voting - including many who have recently emigrated. Media coverage was wall to wall, and many thousands are involved as party activists, scrutineers, tallymen, vote counters and election officers.

  4. Whatever bile may be directed at the outgoing government is therefore mediated through personal relationships, through the very public humiliation of those defeated, and through the great dignity and magnanimity traditionally shown by victors and losers alike. What goes round generally comes around. Be nice to those you meet on the way up as you will often meet them on the way down again.

The most common criticism levelled at the Irish STV multi-seat electoral system is that it leads to "clientalism".  TD's (Members of Parliament) are expected to be available to their constituents 24/7 to hear their concerns or deal with their personal problems with the state bureaucracy.  Many, of course, employ staff to deal with most of the personal stuff.

But the argument is that this results in the system favouring local "parish pump" politics and politicians who are frequently teachers, solicitors, publicans, auctioneers or retired sports stars who have good people skills and local name recognition - to the exclusion of good legislators, political scientists, or experts in policy development and the running of large organisations.

A German style party list system, it is argued, would enable more technocratic experts and policy developers to be elected.  But at what cost?  Firstly the very personal link between many voters and their representatives would be lost. Over time, people wouldn't even know who their elected representatives are.  Moreover, some outstanding politicians have managed to prosper without being assiduous funeral attenders, and what is to prevent the open clientalism of local politics being replaced by the internecine factionalism in the smoke filled back rooms of party politics?

And are we not confusing the representative role of a Parliamentarian with the technocratic role of senior civil servants?  It is at the very least arguable that the very poor decision making of the past Government had as much to do with the poor quality of the policy advice they received from the civil service as it had with the process by which they were elected.

If the present crisis has had any silver linings, it has at the very least forced the public at large to take a very active interest in the policy issues facing the country because they were directly responsible for electing the personnel who will make up the next government.  People in Ireland generally probably know more about senior bondholders and subordinated debt than any others on the planet.  And the STV system has also given us a reasonable choice:  5 parties with more or less distinct policy platforms and quite an interesting and diverse group of independents.

So when it comes to political reform in Ireland, I am quite conservative. Our present political system has discharged its primary representative function quite well: It has allowed the bitterness of a civil war to subside and ensured the disappearance of the physical force tradition from politics.  It has evolved and changed to meet changed public priorities.  Where leadership has been lacking, there is little evidence that it would have been any better under any other system.  You get who you elect.

And so I will not join the hysteria demanding the abolition of the Senate as a sort of collective punishment for the failings of the political class.  The costs saved are minuscule compared to the administrative overhead of the the state as a whole, and any large organisation needs forums for discussing policy options.  If anything, the Senate has fulfilled that function better than the main chamber, the Dail.  By all means reform the manner in which it is elected, and perhaps use a national list system there to further the advancement of more policy driven legislators at that level.

But to argue that it is the STV system or the Senate which have been responsible for the policy failures of the last few years has very little real basis in fact.  It may suit the political and administrative elite to be less directly accountable to the electorate, but it does nothing to enhance democracy or the process of non-violent change which is the essence of good politics.

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... replacing the mix of nominated and elected Senators with a national party list system requiring 5 elected TD's or Cllr's to nominate each member of a list (1 nomination per elected representative).

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Mar 8th, 2011 at 02:00:20 PM EST
But the actual election itself will be by popular franchise at the same time as the Dail election?

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Mar 8th, 2011 at 06:27:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How about going to the system of the original Free State Senate, 15 members elected by PR-STV nation-wide every three years for twelve-year terms?  They actually held one of those elections, in 1925 I believe, before dropping the concept.  The counting process would be an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.
by FoolsErrand on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 01:38:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think people would buy into 12 year terms. But the idea of one national constituency to focus on national issues, is, I think, a good one.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 01:54:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The term lengths are a sticking point for many people.  I personally prefer long terms for the less-powerful house of a bicameral parliamentary system, just to insulate it from general election politics.  I wouldn't expend much effort defending them, though.
by FoolsErrand on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 04:46:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure about having different electoral cycles for different houses - in the US this results in general election fever every 2 years despite individual Senators having a 6 year term. The Irish term of up to 5 years for both houses seems about right.  In practice the average term is about 3/4 years as not all elections result in a long term stable Government.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 05:01:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The main problem with electing the whole body of 60 or so at once is what method to use.  STV gets cumbersome over about 10 - 15 members to elect and even open list methods get controlled by the parties more than I'd like.
by FoolsErrand on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 05:39:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's why I'm suggesting keeping the current STV small multi-seat system for the Dail and introducing a (perhaps provincial or national) list system for the Senate.  You can always have a "technical group" list for Independents.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 05:41:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... and the election can be done in the Australian style, where the election takes place at the same time as the lower house, but the term starts on the appointed time.

On a provincial basis, lessee ...

County of Dublin about 1.2m
Leinster 2.3m less 1.2m is 1.1m
Munster 1.2m
Connacht 0.5m
Ulster 2m - NI 1.75m is 0.25m

If Connacht and Ulster are merged, that'd be roughly:

County of Dublin: 8
Leinster ex-Dublin: 8
Munster: 8
Connacht & Ulster: 6


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 06:54:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sold on the idea of having different cycles for Dail and Senate elections - at the moment they are broadly synchronised and take place whenever a Government loses the confidence of the Dail or at most, after 5 years. Sometimes that could be within a few months of the last election.

However, if you were to use provincial constituencies, the numbers are manageable regardless of whether you use STV or list, and regardless of whether 30 or 60 seats are on offer.

At the moment the Senate election takes place some weeks after the Dail election.  It thus becomes a second chance saloon for politicians who didn't make it into the Dail - which tends to devalue the Senate.  I would have both elections on the same day and force politicians to decide which chamber they wanted to be elected to.

The constitution also allows the Taoiseach to appoint up to two Senators to his cabinet (although that facility  has been rarely used partly because the Government is formed weeks before the senate is elected). That could be expanded if the Senate were to become a more truly representative body and both bodies were elected on the same day.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 08:43:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Australian system has maximum 3 year terms for the House of Representatives, and fixed overlapping six year terms for the Senate. An election for the lower house sufficiently close to the date of the next Senate term is also a Senate election, but the current Senators hold their seats until the end of their term when the newly elected Senators take their seats.

But on the above, a four provinces plus County of Dublin would be roughly:

County of Dublin ~ 17
Leinster OTP ~ 15
Munster ~ 17
Connacht ~ 7
Ulster ~ 4


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 09:09:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Then it should be 30 elected every three years for six year terms.

30 elected nationwide on STV would give a quota of about 3.3% of the electorate.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 06:03:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, all Senators popularly elected.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 05:58:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And are we not confusing the representative role of a Parliamentarian with the technocratic role of senior civil servants?  It is at the very least arguable that the very poor decision making of the past Government had as much to do with the poor quality of the policy advice they received from the civil service as it had with the process by which they were elected.

No, we're confusing democracy with policy with government.

Just because people bothered to vote doesn't mean they're involved in government.

Elections are lost and not won because it's a key feature of Western democracy that governments can only be punished for bad actions after the event.

While peace has been maintained, it's been maintained at the cost of violence and damage to the economy as a whole, and to the lives of almost everyone in the country.

I don't think that counts as a win.

Pressuring governments before they act in ways that disregard the public interest is an option reserved for lobbyists and crony networks. The public isn't allowed to put pressure on policy before it's enacted - at least not without explicit threats of violence, which aren't in anyone's interest.

The challenge for all Western governments is to reinvent democracy as a live and responsive system that makes it difficult for cronies, cranks, and buffoons to use government for whimsical, corrupt, and self-defeating ends.

In a true democracy it would be somewhere between impossible and very difficult for representatives to sell, promote, or make decisions that go against majority public interest.

This might seem like fantasy - but that's just evidence of how necessary it is, and how badly broken the current system is.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 05:31:32 AM EST
I'm not arguing the current system is ideal, just that it is at least as good as the currently proposed "reforms", and probably a good deal better.  The absence of violence IS a big win.  Of course when disillusion with the Government taking office today sinks in, we're into a whole different ball game.  People will be forced to realise that it wasn't just Fianna Fail cronyism that got us into trouble, but the system as a whole.

But I do think the level of popular engagement is a huge plus for Ireland - ill-advised as much of it currently is.  And people are capable of learning...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 06:04:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed on the need for greater contact and accountability during terms and while policy is being made.  I would not go quite so far as to say that the lobbying structure is reserved entirely for the forces of evil, but a 85/15 split seems about right.

In my vague and ill-informed opinion, the key to fixing democracy is to have most people involved in real decision making, most of the time.  Those not currently involved in decision making should instead be involved in some sort of political party, activist group, movement, or whatever.  This would only work if it was seen as a valuable responsibility and privilege of citizenship, and participation in politics a necessary public service, rather than a burdensome annoyance loved only by a bizarre and fanatical minority.

This sort of system would need some rather serious devolution of power to work, or the breakup of modern nation states into many, many micro-states.  The problems of that are well known, and furthermore there are many problems both prosaic (traffic management and land use) and extraordinary (war) which need organization at a higher level.  Further, business and whatnot works better with fewer distinct sets of laws, not more.  So there's those problems.

But without some sort of mass involvement in politics, on a regular and sustained basis, there simply isn't a counterweight to the loud and greedy rich.  Well, I suppose you could use law to prevent their existence to begin with, but I'm already well into utopian speculation, so . . .

by Zwackus on Sat Mar 12th, 2011 at 07:30:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are lots of ways for people to engage in a democratic polity - through Trade Union membership, community associations, advocacy groups, academic think tanks,  mainstream and on-line media - as well as the more traditional political party route. Furthermore, some public processes (e.g. planning decisions) require public consultations and can be subject to judicial review. When allied to having access to your local member of parliament, all of this can ameliorate the sense of powerlessness many people feel between elections - as well as at election time itself.

The problem is that the agenda is currently being driven by a perception of reality which requires an obeisance to the demands of global capitalism, financial markets, too big to fail banks, and Ms Merkel et al who have other fish to fry. But that is a problem of leadership as much as it is one of accountability or participation.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Mar 12th, 2011 at 07:54:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Praising how a political system works may be quite counter-intuitive on a radical anti-establishment blog.  But as we now know only too well, the "reform" tag has been hijacked by quite reactionary forces and all change isn't for the better.  Let us not be afraid to praise what has worked quite well.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 12:56:26 PM EST
Full list of new Enda Kenny's Cabinet - The Irish Times - Wed, Mar 09, 2011

Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs and Trade  - Eamon Gilmore;

Finance  - Michael Noonan;

Health  - James Reilly;

Agriculture, Marine and Food -  Simon Coveney;

Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs -  Jimmy Deenihan;

Children  - Frances Fitzgerald;

Communications, Energy and Natural Resources  - Pat Rabbitte;

Education and Skills  - Ruairí Quinn;

Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation -  Richard Bruton;

Environment, Community and Local Government -  Phil Hogan;

Justice, Equality and Defence  - Alan Shatter;

Public Expenditure and Reform -  Brendan Howlin;

Social Protection -  Joan Burton;

Transport, Tourism and Sport -  Leo Varadkar;

Chief Whip -  Paul Kehoe

Attorney General -  Máire Whelan;

`Super junior' at Department of the Environment -  Willie Penrose.

Only two women - in junior portfolios - minding the kids. Joan Burton will be disappointed as she had been a high profile opposition spokesperson on Finance.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 9th, 2011 at 03:34:01 PM EST


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