Ireland demonstrates that you can have both proportional representation and a constituency link

Ireland just held a General Election using an electoral system which, unlike the UK’s, has a proportional element. Here, Chris Terry argues that the Irish election provided strong evidence that candidate-centred (rather than list-centred) proportional representation using the Single Transferable Vote, and localised politics with a constituency link, can go hand-in-hand.

Credit: David Blaikie, CC BY 2.0

Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin (Credit: David Blaikie, CC BY 2.0)

One of the aspects of Britain’s electoral system said to be most valued by both politicians and voters is the constituency link. Voters have a single MP, so goes the line of thought, whom they can know and hold accountable. MPs help constituents solve issues and this helps to promote an understanding of the challenges voters experience in their day to day lives. This analysis is broadly correct, and it is indeed a laudable aspect of British democracy.

Where the problem begins is when supporters of Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system attempt to claim that introducing proportional representation necessarily means breaking that link. Voters in Scottish local elections and Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly already know that this is not true, and you do not have to look far, only across the Irish Sea in fact, to see how untrue that is for a national parliament.

The Republic of Ireland had its general election last month. That election resulted in a Dáil that was proportional, had a record number of women and which, vitally, has a strong constituency link.

That link is facilitated by Ireland’s electoral system, the Single Transferable Vote, in which voters rank individual candidates in multi-member constituencies. This encourages candidates to build up a personal vote in their local area. A 1997 study comparing junior legislators in the UK and Ireland found the Irish representatives were more active in their constituencies.

The strong nature of the constituency link in Ireland can be seen from constituency campaign activity in the election. In some cases the focus goes beyond the constituency, focusing even more locally on towns, or areas of constituencies.

For instance, in Sligo-Leitrim, John Perry listed investment he had secured for the constituency on his leaflet. In Mayo, Michael Farrington targeted his campaign at the Eastern part of his constituency, asking voters to “keep a TD in East Mayo”. Martin Heydon, in Kildare South even created a short Back to the Future themed video in which Doc Brown from the film series and explains the devastating consequences to Kildare if Heydon is not re-elected, highlighting local campaigns such as a ring road.

These and many more examples of local campaigning demonstrate the local link Irish representatives have. Some of this may not look unusual to a British influence, and this is the point, the Irish electoral system produces proportional outcomes while also providing a constituency link. The false dichotomy of a choice between proportionality and the local is just that, there are electoral systems available that can and do keep a constituency link. That link may function differently, as most voters will have a local representative they actually voted for, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

This article is based on the Electoral Reform Society’s new report, The 2016 Irish General Election: PR and the Local Link. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Chris TerryChris Terry is a Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society

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