Local elections: working the system

Attempts to manipulate the size of constituencies for party advantage often backfire

Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance may have settled their differences over the size of constituencies for the next local elections, but both sides would do well to remember that attempts to manipulate the electoral system for party advantage often backfire.

The last local election contest in 2014 was a case in point. The Labour Party, then in government, insisted on the introduction of a raft of 10-seat constituencies with the aim of shoring up its representation. In the event the tactic failed to deliver a seat dividend. Labour suffered a meltdown, while its rivals, including Sinn Féin, benefited hugely from the introduction of 10-seaters.

One of the features of the single transferable vote system of proportional representation used in this State is that the more seats in a constituency the more proportional is the final outcome, with smaller parties and Independents benefiting as a result. There is a balance to be struck between strict proportionality and the need for an outcome that can provide stable government.

For instance, the terms of reference for the recent Dáil constituency revision specified that constituencies should have not less than three but no more than five seats. In local government before 2013 most electoral areas had between three and seven seats but the 2014 revision increased that from six to 10 seats per electoral area. Smaller parties and Independents gained from the move which gave them a much greater influence over local government, particularly in Dublin and Cork.


Fine Gael believes the changes have made local government in some areas unworkable but efforts by Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy to reverse the 2014 changes met with resistance from the Independent Alliance.

They have compromised on a proposal which will see the vast majority of electoral areas returning five to seven councillors next time round. It appears to be a reasonable attempt to cater for the competing demands of proportionality and workability but it will be no surprise if the result of the next local elections in the summer of 2019 is as unexpected as the 2014 outcome.