The Saturday February 8 election is an unusual historic opportunity for students, with the most recent Sunday Times Red C poll suggesting the possibility of a lead for a party other than Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil for the first time in national history. Ireland is both blessed and cursed with a fairly wide range of alternatives, and a voting system which does not punish voting for your actual favoured candidate, as transfers ensure your vote will not be wasted if they fail to get elected. However, the downside of being a small country with such an unusual system is that often politically-engaged students and others tend to follow overseas elections closely, and internalise arguments about tactical voting that don’t make sense over here.
“Ensuring that the largest number of left wing TDs are elected to the Dáil requires a more idiosyncratic approach to voting tactically.”
Sinn Féin’s clear lead among young people and its historic high vote has brought many left-wing social media pundits to encourage students and young people to vote Sinn Féin as the only viable alternative to the historic ruling parties. Unfortunately for Sinn Féin, their polling numbers are unlikely to translate proportionally into seats on account of their underestimation of the best number of candidates to run. Their transfers are going to be a decisive factor in the makeup of the 33rd Dáil, and therefore, ensuring that the largest number of left wing TDs are elected to the Dáil requires a more idiosyncratic approach to voting tactically.
For a candidate to mop up excess Sinn Féin votes, they must first survive the first few counts, and to do this they require a solid number of first preference votes. In addition, smaller parties like Solidarity-People Before Profit and the Social Democrats who are hovering close to the threshold of first preference required votes nationally in order to receive state funding will be on the hunt for those first preferences to live and fight another election, even if few of their candidates are actually elected. One popular approach in a constituency where a left wing candidate is in a safe position is to give your first preference to the left candidate who is in the weakest position, who often turn out to be strongly principled and effective activists in any case, and then transfer to the safer candidate. In many constituencies this is likely to be Sinn Féin, but there will be local dynamics to bear in mind.
“Where no left wing candidate is safe, the only strategy that makes sense is to put the most impressive or reliable candidate first and transfer left down the list in order of preference.”
Where no left wing candidate is safe, the only strategy that makes sense is to put the most impressive or reliable candidate first and transfer left down the list in order of preference. Most students will be casting their votes with a particular vision for how the country should be run in mind, and giving their first preferences to candidates who give the impression they support something similar. They may even have taken the WhichCandidate.ie quiz to help them figure this out. In my experience, these visions tend to be reasonably ambitious and rely on the left holding onto power for some time. Promises around higher education funding, housing, and health are likely to be important factors in this decision.
Students should consider not only which candidates are likely to win a seat in this election, but which candidates in office are likely to turn other voters off the progressive or redistributive visions necessary to effect the changes to housing, education and health policy which would make life as a student tolerable. Climate policy in particular has potential to anger farming communities and working class voters, who cannot afford to adapt their lifestyles around a carbon tax without state investment in public transport and home retrofitting to make a low-carbon life possible and cheap. This would be incredibly difficult to realise in coalition with parties who cannot bring themselves to spend even the OECD average of GDP on public services.
The other factor worth considering is that election promises and manifestos rarely survive the stress test of implementation. A manifesto is, at best, a thought experiment to demonstrate what sort of policies a party would look into when elected, hence the Green Party’s decision not to cost their manifesto policies at all. They can show a party’s imagination and give a sense of the scope of their ambition, and for that they are worth reading, but they tell you little else. Where they really start to come apart is during the coalition talks immediately after the election, where key election policies and promises often have to be scrapped to come to an agreement with other parties and form a government. This means, for example, that in 2007 a vote for the Green Party and climate action turned into a comfortable majority in the Dáil for issuing more fossil fuel exploration licenses than ever before in the history of the state.
“The most important thing you can consider to predict the consequences of a vote for a candidate is their party’s record in elected office…”
TDs are totally at liberty to spend your vote however they wish, and you can’t earmark your vote for a particular coalition or for a particular section of their manifesto, or retract your vote after the fact. The most important thing you can consider to predict the consequences of a vote for a candidate is their party’s record in elected office, especially in local authorities where future government coalitions can be safely tested out under the radar. This approach won’t tell you much about the more traditionally opposition-oriented or testimonial parties and independents, who can instead be judged on whether they have effectively used their elected positions to change public conversations and influence the electorate and other parties. An election, after all, decides who the opposition will be and who will be given opportunities to criticise government policy on the TV and radio, and not just the government itself.
The 32nd Dáil marked the entry of some powerful testimonial voices who, alongside Sinn Féin, doubtless played a role in driving the combined Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil vote from its historic low in 2016 to what looks like an even lower share in 2020. Of them, many of those in the Independents4Change technical group are not seeking re-election or else look in serious danger of losing their seats, and Solidarity-People Before Profit appear to be losing votes to the Sinn Féin surge. When deciding who to lend your first preference to in strategic constituencies, it may be worth considering who might most effectively keep that temperature up in the new Dáil, if we want to finally finish off the near-century old consensus politics that have left young people and Irish higher education so far behind.