Wednesday, 7 May 2008

on Ireland and the possibilities for British constitutional reform

Today I had my first hit from Ireland. A country with a population only twice the size of Estonia at 4.3 million, but one which is largely ignored by the British press. Yesterday, Bertie Ahern the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, served his last day in that office, having resigned in April following allegations around financial irregularities. Today the former Finance Minister, Brian Cowen has taken over the post.

The most remarkable thing about the Irish political system is the voting procedure. The Lower House (House of Commons if you will) is elected using Single Transferable Voting in multi-seat constituencies (the preferred option of the Liberal Democrats for British elections), currently seven parties exist and out of 22 elections since 1937 Ireland has only had coalition governments 11 times, 6 in succession since 1989.

More interesting is the system for electing the 60 member upper house, 11 members are appointed by the Prime Minister, 3 elected by graduates of the University of Dublin, 3 elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland and 43 elected from five special panels covering Arts and Culture, Agriculture, Labour, Industry and Public Administration. The powers of this Upper House are similar to that of the House of Lords, with the emphasis being on advice, revising and delaying.

Based on precedent and the ruling of Crotty v. An Taoiseach, Ireland holds a referendum on any new EU Treaty on the basis that changes to EU Treaties requires the Irish Constitution to be amended (EU law is supreme to all national law) and as any amendment to the Irish Constitution requires a referendum, any new EU treaty requires a referendum. To this end, a referendum is expected in June 2008 to decide on whether or not Ireland should ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Increasingly it is looking like a no, however, Ireland has previously rejected EU Treaties via referenda which they then went on to ratify in a subsequent referendum (i.e. the Treaty of Nice in 2001/2002).

What lessons can Britain learn from one of the only country it borders (the other being Spain?)

Single Transferable Vote would be a welcome addition to the British political system, as advocated by groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, the Liberal Democrats and surprising the Conservative Action for Electoral Reform a group which aims to highlight the bias in the voting system towards Labour. Using larger multi-member constituencies would increase proportionality and go further to ensure percentage of votes cast results in percentage of seats gained. Unlike other PR systems it is candidate centric as opposed to party centric (e.g. party list top up seats in elections to the London Assembly). This means that people would vote for candidates by listing them in order of preference rather than voting for a party list. Electoral Reform Society research has shown, that for the 2005 General Election, Labour would receive 263 seats, Tories 200 and Lib Dems 147 with other parties picking up seats such as the SNP with 9 (page 44). Let us not forget that we are currently being governed by a party which received only 36% of the national vote at the last general election.

Graphics thanks to the Beeb

While it has been accepted that the House of Lords needs reform, the way to undertake such reform has resulted in divisions. Recently a cross party group has reported on a new system which would use STV for electing the House of Lords. While I remain a democrat at heart, I do not believe that electing the House of Lords is justified. Its role is to advise based on experience, therefore having an elected Lords would conflict with the authority of the House of Commons and would result in the loss of independent members, it would also require members of the Lords being paid resulting in an increase in costs, something we could all do without. However, I would separate the Lords from government and make it truly independent as opposed to the current situation where Labour peers answer for the government, perhaps introducing a congressional style committee system to progress legislation through the House. The Irish system maintains this advisory role, but formalises it by having trade groups and academic experts providing the advice as opposed to donors to political parties.

With regard to direct democracy, steps in this direction are currently being taken. Major issues should of course be put to the electorate in a referendum, but even Irish constitutional lawyers doubt whether or not the Lisbon Treaty is a major constitutional issue and having read the Treaty and its predecessor myself I don't believe it is. A bigger issue is Britain's continued membership of the EU.

We have all heard the stories of major companies abandoning Britain for Ireland in search of cheaper corporation taxes, coupled with that in the last budget in 2008 (delivered by Brian Cowen) KPMG's figures show that under typical tax scenarios everyone gained (KPMG report - final page). The CIA World Fact Book lists Ireland as tenth in the world for the highest GDP per capita. Can most of this success be attributed to its political system?

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