What to do and say about independents?


In 2005 an Independent Network was established in the UK to help independent candidates in the British election of that year. My use of this image does not constitute their endorsement of my comments here. For more image and the source of the open source image see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_Network

Ireland’s electoral system is unusual in NOT having a threshold requirement which helps to keep out very small parties and potential crackpots, and so on. Note here, that one person’s crackpot might be another person’s very worthy candidate. So my instinctive feeling is ‘let voters decide’, and that this liberal position appears reasonable. The only restriction is the collection of a number of signatures. However, in other European countries they think it is an abuse of democracy if too many small parties or individuals can enter parliament, and it is sometimes argued they can undermine government stability by weakening larger parties inside the parliament from brokering more representative coalition deals.

The other point to make about independents is that they vary quite a bit. We have a lot of independents who are basically ‘party exiles’….candidates who for one reason or another have left established parties…either because of policy disagreements, or on ethics grounds, or because they simply were not selected at the party convention due to internal party political wrangles. FF and FG have historically provided the most of these type. A smaller number of independents appear to be ideologically motivated candidates, typically well on the left of the ideological spectrum (and possibly the right as well). In some cases these candidates associate with like minded persons inside small micro parties, and we actually have seen a rise in small parties (or semi parties): the socialist party; united left; Irish socialist network; immigration control platform; justice for fathers, etc. Finally there are classic local protest independents who are usually marked out by a lack of prior involvement in politics and they often eskew ideological identification. The usual type in Ireland is a single-issue candidate on some vital local issue (saving a local hospital appears to be the usual issue).

However, Independents have been important in terms of guaranteeing an overall majority in the Dáil-especially in the governments between 1997-2002 and 2007, and to some extent over the period 2007-2011. This means they have strategic power way beyond their small numbers. The argument is they have disproportionate parliamentary influence.

Liam Weeks, an academic based in UCC who has extensively written on the subject of independents argues that we should not get too excited about this. He notes for example that the media focused on two independents holding the passing of the Finance Act 2011 ‘hostage’ in late January 2011, but he suggested that this hostage situation could easily be broken by opposition parties changing their votes if they believed such brinksmanship was unacceptable and damaging a vital national interest. However, other academics have been more skeptical. Prof. Richard Sinnott in 2005 pointed to the government of 1997-2002 which depended on four independent TDs who of course demanded extensive local benefits in return for their votes. He concluded that our PR-STV system did breed this type of problem, but of course one can argue that any votes needed by any government are open to being ‘bought only at the price of policy favours’. Did the Green party in coalition with FF unfairly extract policy concessions any more than independents? Did they have disproportionate parliamentary influence beyond their six seats?

There is arguably a qualitative difference between a Green party and a collection of diverse independents, in that even a small party like the Greens has more coherence and discipline. It also has a clearer policy profile; voters know what they are getting and so do FF if the decide to coalition with them. Independents rarely have this policy cohesion and discipline, unless they form some type of semi-party, or electoral alliance. One can go back to Edmund Burke to discuss in a normative way the importance of parties for democracy and democratically accountable government. In his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), he was very critical of factionalism within parties, which could lead to de facto secret government. For democracy to function well in a parliamentary setting Burke argued clear and well dsicipline parties were essential. However, independents in our system have mostly been marginal-at worst they demand what Americans call ‘pork barrel’…..some policies get tweaked for their constituency but rarely do they get up to more mischief than this. It has also been pointed out that independents can sometimes communicate views in the Parliament that the major parties do not want to express-and therefore having some independent voices in any parliament might be quite a healthy thing. However, I think most of the independents who have acted like this have been in the Seanád, whose continued existence is in serious doubt.

The debate on independents is essentially a normative one-that is one must make arguments based on more or less moral arguments rather than factual statements that speak for themselves. Rather than start with the question, ‘does PRSTV lead to an excessive role for independents’ (the answer appears to be ‘maybe’) we might ask a different normative question: what role ought independents play in a national parliament? My answer to that is that small parties and groups of like mind indepedents should be quite welcome inside any parliament in that they add diversity to debate and opposition. We cannot expect or want all opposition to be of a type that can form a rival government. Equally if very small parties and alliances of independents have somewhat atypical views from the majority, then it can be healthy to have intense minority and alternative views heard. However balancing that perspective should be an awareness that if any parliament has too many independents, the functioning of a viable party system is undermined.

I suggest a sensible rule of thumb is that nobody should be entitled to a seat in Dáil Eireann unless their share of the total national first preferences equals at least the proportion of a single seat as a share of all Dáil seats; in the existing Dáil this would be 0.6% of national first preferences to win a seat. In a slimmed down Dáil of 141 members this would actually rise to 0.7%. If an individual can get 0.7% of national first preferences they would earn a Dáil seat. I think this type of rule would go hand in hand with the introduction of either some kind of national list system, or a combined list system. In fact what one would hope to encourage would be a clubbing together of groups of independents into alliances and small parties. This would actually enhance democracy in the sense that it would gives us more party options other than just independents or the usual parties. It would increase the coalition options in a perhaps more transparent way as well.


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