Winner takes all is destructive of politics – and democracy

A wonderfully graphic image of how our voting system is, as it were – no, as it is – disproportinate:

This winner takes all is also, it occurs to me, very destructive of political engagement. Why would you choose to vote in a contest in which, once over, you are completely ignored?

As an example Robert Peston tweeted:

The Irish leaders’ debate is really quite shocking. The three leaders have a detailed grasp of complex welfare and tax issues, they are polite and courteous, they admit mistakes, they say sorry. They might even be largely honest. Why is all that possible in Ireland but not here?

It is remarkable that he and many of us are so blinkered…

At least Keir Starmer – surely the runaway favourite to lead Labour – has nailed proportional representation colours to his mast. It has sometimes been to Labour’s advantage to go for winner takes all majority but it has never, ever, been fair. Starmer is completely correct, I suggest, not to gamble on majority rights but simply to concentrate on fairness.

Proportional representation forces people to recognise other points of view – parties are unlikley ever to get an overwhelming majority simply because the winner never takes all and a proportional system, based, as in Ireland, on preferences and so potentially transferable votes, means each party needs to have some sort of appeal for second, third and fourth preferences effectively by moderating their tones… Extremist parties are never favoured unless somehow other parties support them. And then probably anyone of those elected will have to govern in a coalition too.

What bliss it must be in Ireland to be alive…


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    Comparison is sometimes instructive. Here’s an American discovering that they do things differently in Denmark

    It’s worth a read.

    Yes, by comparison, Ireland is better in many respects and on a better trajectory. Alas, most people here take for granted what they have. The Irish are fiercely self-critical, and have had many reasons to be as the country has looked in the mirror over the years. But few would admit to bliss as there’s always more to do and much that is outside the control of a small country.

    I voted with my feet in 1982, coincidentally accepting a position in graduate school in the US the day former Taoiseach Charles Haughey was elected. He was a crook and is now disgraced (and deceased). He was known to be a man of low character, – – serial liar, philanderer, spendthrift, and basically a political conman – – but he was elected anyway. The Irish are not immune to delusions and have had their fingers burned a few times and have had alarmingly short memories. Politically it would be more blissful if the country’s memory was longer and if it was better at accountability.

    But from a democratic point of view, it’s quite glorious. The day after an election is fantastic television and hugely engages the whole country as the results of successive counts come in. It’s not inherently an efficient process (some results take days, especially if there are full recounts) and there’s a lot of suspense, excitement, close calls, agony and joy. Regardless of who forms the govt THAT level of engagement is priceless and a joy to behold.

  2. Sean Danaher -

    Thanks – I like the cartoon! Coming from Ireland, the FPTP system seemed archaic but of course, favours the plurality. The Tories only received 43.6% of the vote but have a big majority. it’s good to see Starmer proposing PR, I do hope it comes to pass in the UK.

  3. Peter May -

    Delighted to see it reported that the Fascist candidate in Cork got a derisory vote of less than 1,000 votes. So the idea that FPTP is important in preventing extreme parties gaining representation is also disproved….

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Political education and engagement are very important and a press that tries to be truthful all help. It is good to see Fascist and far-right candidates are getting onlt 1-2% of the vote.

    2. Samuel Johnson -

      1,000 is a shockingly high number if true. The far right has been handed its ass in this election. Most got very few votes and will lose their deposits.

      Meanwhile, the hot takes from Brexiters are truly infantile. Poor Darren Grimes finds it all very confusing, though primary school age children in Ireland understand the gist of it readily enough. This piece on its origins is not without irony

  4. Samuel Johnson -

    Just chanced on a great anecdote on Twitter from Ted Nealon’s son (Ted was a human political Wikipedia who anchored a lot of Irish election broadcast TV in the days of black and white TV).

    How Irish democracy was saved from FPTP.

    Of course, with no written constitution the UK is far more vulnerable.

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