Posted tagged ‘election’

On the way to the Senate

April 26, 2011

If you are a graduate of the National University of Ireland or the University of Dublin, or if you are a member of the Oireachtas, or if you are an elected local authority member, or if you are the Taoiseach, then you are a voter in the second phase of the Irish parliamentary elections of 2011: the election of members of Seanad Éireann (Senate). This phase is about to conclude with the counting of votes on Wednesday of this week. The easiest vote to count will be that of the Taoiseach, who has the power to appoint 11 members of the Upper House. 43 Senators will be elected by special vocational ‘panels’; or rather that’s how they are described, but in reality they are just members of parliament and county councillors. Whether any of this makes sense is a question for another time.

What I want to focus on here is the election of six Senators by the graduates of the universities. I won’t however go into the question of whether this is justifiable at all as a way of electing members of parliament; nor will I dwell on the extraordinary contempt of the electorate shown by the political system in not extending the franchise to graduates of other higher education institutions (not least the two excluded universities) despite an instruction by the people in a referendum decades ago to do so. Nor am I going to talk about the 27 candidates competing for the three NUI seats.

Instead, I am going to look at some of the 20 candidates for the University of Dublin (Trinity College) seats. In fact, I am going to do something even more specific than that: I am going to ask what plans if any they have for higher education.  I am myself a voter in this constituency, and have just posted my ballot paper. When I received it, I was faced with having to work out what some of these candidates actually stand for. I had never heard of some of them, and I have received no election literature from 11 of the 20 candidates. However, there is always the internet.

The first candidate I looked at more closely was Marc Coleman, economics editor of radio station Newstalk and columnist in the Sunday Independent. He has made rather a name for himself criticising academic pay and conditions and pouring scorn on the value of university-led research. Funnily enough none of this makes any appearance on his election website, though it dominates the exchanges on his Twitter account. But overall it is impossible to say for sure what position he will adopt on higher education if elected.

Sean Barrett, another economist and TCD senior lecturer, is arguing the case for more investment in education, but principally earlier education rather than universities. His fairly intelligent analysis is rather let down by a website that is full or the most extraordinary typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, which might not be a good way or presenting his case.

Outgoing Senator (and TCD academic) Ivana Bacik shows a fair degree of passion about university access for the disadvantaged, but does not particularly put forward any overall higher education perspective.

Outgoing Senator David Norris, whom I genuinely admire, seems not to be presenting himself very actively for the Seanad; his website does not disclose any of his policies or plans – perhaps because his attention is now more directed at the presidential elections later this year, for which he is a declared candidate.

Barrister Graham Quinn declares on his website he wants to maintain ‘free fees’, but apart from that I cannot find anything of substance about higher education. Unusually for the candidates, homemaker Bart Connolly expresses strong views on research funding, declaring his support for it.

What is my point? It is that we are talking about an election in which candidates are standing for university seats, but really none of them appear to have any overall policies on higher education.  The manifestos are extraordinary collections of policies on this and that, but actually very little on the issue that should have driven them more than any other.

So what have I done? I have taken my role seriously, and have voted in accordance with what I know about the candidates that will be of relevance to the university sector. It has not been the easiest of tasks.

The TCD Provost election: so how was it for you?

April 1, 2011

Tomorrow the lecturing staff of Trinity College Dublin will be locked into a secure building and will pretend to be Roman Catholic Cardinals electing a pope. Unlike previous election campaigns in the college, this one entered the public consciousness, at least a little. In part this was because, for the first time, the internet and social networking became major tools for at least some of the candidates. If you want to get an impression, for example, of how the candidates handled Twitter you can read the exchanges under the hashtag #tcdprovost here.

Will this have made a difference to the outcome? It is impossible to say now, but when the result is known I’ll offer an assessment. If for example Colm Kearney wins, my conclusion will be that his very savvy internet campaign helped to swing it for him. Or if Paddy Prendergast wins, then you can conclude that the TCD electorate is immune to the internet.

In the course of the past month or two all the candidates ran interesting campaigns. The two most professional ones, though very different in nature, were those conducted by Colm Kearney and UCD Vice-President Des Fitzgerald. The campaign that picked up most momentum towards the end was that by Jane Olhmeyer. The most inscrutable one was John Boland’s.

There are some conclusions to be drawn from all this. The first is that TCD will under this system never appoint an external Provost, ever. Des Fitzgerald ran a smart campaign, but he won’t win. The other external candidate, Robin Conyngham, exited when it became clear to him he couldn’t make it. The college may feel that the democratic nature of the exercise makes this a price worth paying, but its international reputation may take a hit. Secondly, if it does want to continue with this method of appointment, it must extend the franchise to non-academic staff, who have as much of a stake in the outcome as lecturers. Thirdly, the nature of the campaign and some of the views expressed in it will either lead to a very tense relationship between TCD and the Irish Universities Association or will create a quick sense of disenchantment by staff with the winning candidate – so there will be interesting times ahead. And finally, we must presume the TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance is dead: it did not feature in the campaign at all.

So let us wait and see how it all ends.

A Scottish dilemma?

March 11, 2011

Higher education has become a key issue in the developing Scottish election campaign. Or to be more precise, how to fund it has become an issue. Having abolished tuition fees, the country is now facing an increasingly serious funding shortfall made necessary, in part, by cuts in the overall British budget. For the past few months a search has been going on to see whether there could be a ‘Scottish solution’ to this problem; the subtext being that there might be a way of funding universities adequately without direct student contributions.

Leaving aside for a moment suggestions about increasing the intake of international students, charging English students (only) and kick-starting philanthropy (all of which together can yield some money but will not close the funding gap), it is clear that there is no magical Scottish solution. The funding gap has been estimated by an expert group to be in the order of £200 million. It will not be easy to maintain an adequately resourced higher education system without either introducing student contributions or diverting money to universities from other publicly funded programmes. This will, admittedly, be a difficult issue for any Scottish administration, but at some point it will have to be faced.

In the meantime the parties are lining up to state their position on fees. Facing a call from Universities Scotland for tuition fees so that Scottish universities can deal with the competitive threat from England, the now governing SNP, the Liberal Democrats and (most recently) the Labour Party have all committed themselves to keeping a system without tuition fees, thereby more or less guaranteeing that in the next Scottish parliament fees will not be introduced.

In the meantime, however, Scottish universities are beginning to take drastic measures to shore up their financial positions, and some have announced job losses.

As the parties move into the election campaign, they need to address higher education not just from the point of view of whether there should be fees; they need to say how a quality university sector can be maintained without this particular form of revenue generation, and they need to have plans in this regard that are credible. These are not yet particularly in evidence.

Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

Election results, available now!

January 15, 2011

There will be elections this year in both Scotland and Ireland. Both will affect me, in different ways. Right now I won’t make any predictions about how it will all go in Scotland, though as the election approaches I shall suggest some issues on which I would expect the parties to provide answers, mainly of relevance to higher education. But I’ll return to that on another occasion.

Today I am going to predict the outcome of the Irish election. I have looked at the poll evidence, and I have looked at each constituency and the strength, as I see it, of the actual or likely candidates. I am also making an assumption (which I won’t for now explain) as to how the current internal convulsions in Fianna Fail will go. Based on all that, here is what I believe will be the compoition of the next Dail:

Fianna Fail 39, Fine Gael 60, Labour 43, Greens 0, Sinn Fein 16, Independents 8.

This would give Fianna Fail a better outcome than most others predict right now, but I think some predictions under-estimate the electoral skills and attractions of some FF deputies who will score above their party’s national rating. If I am right, the following five groupings would have an overall majority: FG/Lab; FG/FF; Lab/FF/Ind; Lab/FF/SF; FG/SF/Ind. Some of those are more likely than others.

Strategy during a time of turmoil?

November 24, 2010

There are rumours doing the rounds in Dublin right now that the government is planning to publish the report of Dr Colin Hunt’s strategy group next week. This would, I think, be a serious mistake. There is no way that any political time could be given over the next few months to the issues raised in the report, and any value in the report and its recommendations would simply be lost.

In any case, right now I am highly sceptical that the report will contain anything much of value. It would seem to me to be far better to avoid publishing it for now, and then to subject the draft report to consultation within the higher education sector after an election, before finalising it and, perhaps, publishing it.

Election!

October 24, 2010

In Ireland they are predicting that there will be election next spring, and that the outcome is entirely unpredictable. Quite so. Of course the election to which I am referring is that for the post of Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In early April 2011 the College’s academic staff (and members of the TCD Board and Council) will elect the new chief officer of TCD, who will succeed the present Provost, Dr John Hegarty.

However, this year there is a somewhat different process from the normal one. While the final decision will, as on previous occasions, be based on the outcome of the election, this is being preceded by a more ‘normal’ recruitment process, with an advertisement (appeared last Friday), nominations and interviews, and with the final shortlist then being out to the electorate after a brief campaign.

The College has also published a website for all of this, and this indicates that TCD is ‘committed to attracting a strong national and international field.’ In fact, they are very unlikely to get much of an international (or indeed domestic external) field: the requirement to make the candidacy public in the final stages will on the whole strongly deter external candidates, who will in any case be disadvantaged because they will have fewer connections and links with members of the electorate.

I know there is something attractive about a democratic process and an election, and many European universities also use this selection method. But whether it is an ideal way of finding a person to provide leadership in challenging times is perhaps debatable. Trinity College is a hugely important academic institution in Ireland, and the quality of its leadership is important. To secure that quality, the College needs a field of leading global academics to compete for the post, and its appointments process more more less rules that out. This ought to be the last time that this form of recruitment is used.

As a postscript, I should probably add that there had been much media and other speculation that I would be a candidate for the post, after I had stepped down as President of DCU. In fact I had never indicated to anyone that I would be, and of course I have accepted another appointment; but I might stress that the recruitment method is not the reason why I am not a candidate for the post of Provost of TCD. I say this solely so as to emphasise that my argument above is not based on any sense of personal interest in the matter.

Going Dutch

June 10, 2010

This week we have had the first major electoral test in a continental European country of popular sentiment since the Euro area went into crisis as a result of the financial turmoil in Greece and elsewhere. The general election in the Netherlands has produced some results which will need to be studied carefully.  Some aspects are unsurprising: the previous centre-left government looks set to be replaced by a centre-right one, after the Christian Democrat/Labour coalition lost votes while the more right-leaning Liberals (VVD) gained. But the headline news is something more worrying: the anti-Islam right wing PVV, led by Geert Wilders, has come within 4 percentage points of the Liberals and Labour, and is now claiming a right to join any new coalition government.

The PVV’s profile is mainly around the immigration issue, but it is hard to compare that with parties in  other countries because the rhetoric is chiefly about cultural rather than economic issues: the claim that Islam is culturally irreconcilable with Dutch traditions.

The major challenge right now for European democracies is how to deal with the rise of populist right wing movements targeting immigrant groups. Europe cannot retreat from being open to migrants, not least because the European economy could not withstand such a development – but also because it is simply wrong. Right wing rabble rousing may turn out to be a vote winner, but if it becomes successful across the continent may have hugely damaging effects. While we should never exaggerate the dangers we face, it is worth remembering that some of the elements of the current recession look similar to conditions in the early 1930s that gave rise to the Nazis in Germany. Vigilance is called for.

How to count the votes

April 24, 2010

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you ate just getting interested in the general election campaign – maybe you’re infected by Cleggmania, or you think it’s time for an old Etonian to run things, or as far as you’re concerned a dose of Presbyterianism is just the thing – then don’t get too excited about your vote. Unless you live in one of the small number of constituencies considered to be ‘marginal’, your vote doesn’t really count and won’t make the slightest bit of difference. This is one of the vagaries of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.

A good way of illustrating the unusual democracy that is the British voting system is to look at this BBC website where you can play with possible voting results and see how they would translate into seats in the House of Commons. Start with something really really simple: assume that the three main parties get exactly 30 per cent each, with the remaining 10 per cent going to the various Ulster parties and the Scots and Welsh Nationalists. This isn’t an unlikely scenario, as we know from recent polls after the TV debates. So what would you get – roughly equal numbers of seats for the three parties? Whoa there, absolutely not. In this scenario Labour would very nearly get an overall majority with 314 seats. The Conservatives would manage only 207, while the resurgent Lib Dems would, well, definitely not resurge, and would come away with exactly 100 seats.

Now let’s play with something more exciting. Let’s assume the Cleggmania lifts off the roof and the Lib Dems achieve a triumphant 35 per cent, and then let’s say that the Conservatives get 28 per cent and Labour 27. Now what happens? Well, yes, that would give the Lib Dems a more respectable number of seats. The biggest number? Nah! Maybe at least the second most seats? Not at all! They would get 176 seats. And guess what, lowest placed Labour (in terms of votes) would get the largest number of seats – 259 to be precise – while the Tories would have to make do with 186. So who would have the fewest? Why, the Lib Dems, the party with the highest vote, of course! That’s the topsy turvy world of ‘first-past-the-post’. Mind you, if the Lib Dems managed to get an overall majority – presumably by scoring 186 per cent of the vote or so – then by the next election it would all have turned upside down, and any challenger would now need to get the dead to vote 3 times to be in with a chance.

I am always amazed to find British people who will defend this, usually with some reference to stable government. It does not seem to occur to anyone with that view that stable government that is not supported by the popular will as expressed at the ballot box is not particularly democratic. And if you think that our own Irish politicians are above that kind of thing, remember that attempts were made in the past to introduce ‘first-past-the-post’ here, and it only failed because the people would not support it in a referendum.

British elections are fascinating, and I guess there’s just a little bit of me that would miss all the stuff with swingometers and the like. But in the end citizens don’t vote in order to be entertained on election night, they vote in order to settle the distribution of political power in parliament. It’s time for Britain to make political entertainment subservient to the democratic will of the people. Sooner or later, it will have to be done.

My life in politics

December 3, 2008

Twenty-one years ago I made my first (and only) foray into electoral politics. At the time I was a Lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, and also a member of the Irish Labour Party. I had always been interested in politics, and had been active in several (all left-leaning) parties in three countries. But in 1987 I felt the time had come to see if I could put any votes where my mouth was, and so in the general election of that year I stood for one of the TCD seats in the upper house of the Irish Parliament, Seanad Eireann (the Senate).

There was a general consensus amongst my family and friends that this was a truly rotten borough. As all Irish readers of this blog will know, Trinity College graduates elect three Senators, the same number as are elected by graduates of the National University of Ireland (which has three times the number of graduates). Other graduates don’t get to vote for anyone at all. While TCD Senators have often made huge contributions to political debate and public life, it would be impossible to defend the system with any objectivity.

Indeed, not only was it a somewhat strange constituency, it was a totally weird election. It was clear to almost everyone (to be fair, including me) who the three successful candidates were going to be: Mary Robinson (outgoing Senator, who was shortly thereafter to become President of Ireland), Shane Ross (also outgoing Senator) and David Norris (a noted gay rights campaigner, who in fact went on to become a very distinguished member of the Senate and who has been an important voice of reason, tolerance and culture in Irish public life). But I pressed on anyway.

There emerged, from left field, a candidate who upset everyone’s peace of mind. He was in fact someone I knew well, having been in the same class as him as a student. He was a solicitor called Ben Rafferty, who stormed in using modern canvassing tools, had assembled a cohort of supporters to assist him, and who was wholly brash and ambitious. For much of the campaign everyone wondered whether he might make it. In the event, he didn’t.

All of us had to cope with this most unusual electorate, who were scattered all over the world. The only way to reach most of them was by writing to them. All candidates received the names and addresses on the register, and a free mailshot to them. This may have been ‘free’ in the sense that it involved no payment of postage, but it was still very expensive: we had to print an election address (in the days before easy and cheap desktop publishing), buy envelopes and address them. I was running the campaign on a very fragile shoestring, and depended heavily on a small number of friends (one of whom reads this blog) and family to write and stuff envelopes. Even with all that, I think I only managed to reach about a third of the electorate.

I did however get some phone calls from potential voters; one of these rang me several times, each time telling me he would not vote for me, the stated reason being that he ‘hated dentists’. He always hung up immediately after saying that, so I was never able to assure him I wasn’t a dentist or ask him why he thought I was. A very sweet sounding lady from Peterborough in England rang to tell me she would vote for me if I could get the local council to put up proper street lighting on her road. It was an insane waste of my scarce campaigning time, but I did write to the council, and copied my letter to her; and I very much doubt that they paid any attention at all.

But the highlight of weirdness came in the form of the man who called me to complain that I was impersonating him – I declined to get into a conversation with him, so I never found out what was driving him, but from his expletive-laden conversation I don’t think my impersonation of him was very true to life.

Readers of this blog may already have guessed that I was not elected, though I am proud to say that I did get a good vote for a first time candidate; I was advised by a veteran ex-Senator at the count that if I persevered I would certainly be successful the next time. Alas, there was no next time, because at the subsequent general election I already knew I was bound for a new job in England. But the 1987 campaign was enormous fun, and was one of the highlights of the more public part of my life. And it allowed me to inhale the exhilarating oxygen of glorious failure, on which so much politics is based. I highly recommend it.