playing with the numbers

What’s the alternative? What’s the choice?

There have been a number of social media spaces that have been playing with numbers each Party might lose/gain in the upcoming elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Plenty of predictions elsewhere.

With Sinn Fein supposedly bringing a close to the Assembly on a non-constitutional issue – the significant overspend to the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme – this election might have been a first in dwelling principally on non-constitutional matter: were it not for Sinn Fein adding a long list of whinges to put one up the Prods, and the whole thing generally reverting to form.

On reflection the key factor for Sinn Fein precipitating an election in Northern Ireland may be that in *resigning* on a matter of *principle* over *corruption* the play was on for an early (February) election in the Republic of Ireland, with a place on the moral high ground – as opposed to the difficulties in past elections of lifting themselves out of association with matters to which they have no knowledge at all, honest. Hardly a surprise then that other issues swept into the election mix – the reason was not as important as the immediate needs of ‘the project’.

This is also the first time that an Assembly election has happened where is a sort of opposition in play. The UUP and SDLP decided not to be the bridesmaids to the DUP and Sinn Fein Government after the May 2016 election, becoming in stead the ‘official’ opposition. The Alliance Party was only too happy to play Maid of Honour, but was spurned at the altar; too needy, and dispensable in the end.

It is the UUP and SDLP that are the focus of this post. Ever since appearance of SDLP Leader, Colum Eastwood, turned up at the UUP Conference in October 2016 and UUP Leader, Mike Nesbitt’s offer to the electorate of “Vote me, you get Colum. Vote Colum, you get me,” attention has been on how that would work out. At the time there was probably little expectation that Nesbitt’s proposition would be tested so soon.

In full election mode Mike Nesbitt took the proposition further by stating that:

 “Well, I will be standing square behind that notion and I will be transferring from my Ulster Unionist votes to the SDLP.”

It was clear almost immediately, as with Brexit, that Nesbitt wasn’t carrying the Party entirely with him.

Colum Eastwood has been less forthright in his notion of partnership, barely mentioning the UUP. Still, there is a seat or two out there that will cross the line with Unionist transfers – an offer then of vague words that can interpreted whatever way one takes them.

As for the voters. The other new factor at play in this election, is that with pundits and experts less willing to stick their neck out with any certainty – Brexit and Trump – something which may be considered by some to be progress of sorts.

What this post wants to do is to realistically explore the notion of partnership, choice, and the chance for change in respect of the Opposition v Government. Because this has been discussed in terminology that suggests the Northern Ireland Assembly ‘Opposition’ fulfils the function of an ‘alternative Government’.

So this post is going to be as context to all the hyperbole around the topic, simple as that. Predictions, elsewhere, should be considered in the context of what follows.

Starting with what the two Leaders are saying:

Colum Eastwood;

“On 2 March, we can have devolution delivered by partnership or direct rule driven by the Tories.”

and Mike Nesbitt;

“…the first time the public has had a real choice between rewarding the parties of government with another mandate, or offering the Opposition the chance to do better.” 

There follows a look at the numbers, through a series of charts. In this the one Independent (IND) is Clare Sugden in East Londonderry, who has a good chance of re-election. Any party or person not already in the Assembly is placed in an ‘Others’ category (fifty in all). Bully for them to try, but realistically it would be a thunderbolt to see any one of those fifty candidates force their way into the mix post 2 March.

First the present Party strength after the 2016 Assembly Election.

And then the current seats from 2016, and number of candidates standing for election on 2 March.

First thing to note is that with 18 fewer seats, the DUP have accepted that they will lose a few, but are banking on the known qualities of their current team of 38 to get out the vote. Incumbency is a huge positive in Northern Ireland, especially at community engagement level. Sinn Fein in an ever present need to keep the percentage vote up isn’t taking any chance; sweeping with a view to ensure transfers work to advantage. Perhaps also a factor, from the 2016 election it is known there are internal tensions between localities within elections and no good way to resolve them – not without public attention these days (FST by way of example). Anyway, it isn’t much of a stretch for the Party machine to handle a candidate or two surplus to requirements.

The Alliance Party, Greens and TUV are all running parties well beyond any reasonable expectation of gaining that significant number of additional seats in this election. Again, this many candidates probably more to do with the STV system, the value of sweeping transfers, and the total poll percentage. That said, a surprise may lurk in here, though probably no more than in a seat or two at most. In the following analysis each of these parties largely keep their strength, because it is likely that for either geographic clustering or personal reasons there will be little change in all likelihood. This emphasises the point that for the UUP and SDLP to breakthrough it will almost entirely have to be at the expense of the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

So, the UUP and SDLP twosome. The numbers have been managed here in a series of scenarios to make the point.

The following chart has two columns. The first (blue) assumes that ALL the UUP and all the SDLP candidates win, at the expense of the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively, were it is still 108 seats. Based on that the second (red) shows the same split but with the number of seats reduced to 90 and the numbers reduced proportionally in ratio 90/108. The point here is to show what happens on a like for like analysis. It does mean that the UUP wins all existing seats and adds 4, and that the SDLP wins all existing seats and adds 5. This scenario means the DUP would lose 8 and Sinn Fein lose 11.

Point here is that the DUP would still be the largest Party, though the same number of seats for Sinn Fein and the SDLP might make things interesting. With the DUP still the largest Party, there is no ‘opposition’ breakthrough in this.

To make a breakthrough we would have to imagine every candidate standing for the UUP and SDLP wins, straight into the new ninety seat scenario. Yes, that changes the balance considerably.

To believe this, however, you would have to believe that the following change of seats would happen. Modest growth by the UUP and SDLP of necessity must come at the enormous expense of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

No. This is not going to happen. That is the point. If the UUP and SDLP were to be a realistic alternative, or the electorate had a serious chance to vote for change, the scale of change would be so enormous that it cannot be considered realistic for 2017 – not even after Brexit and Trump.

What is brought into serious question is the realism by which the UUP and SDLP are approaching the position of being ‘opposition’ parties. The position or role of opposition is granted under legislation. Respect for the two as opposition parties has to be earned.

The character of both the UUP and SDLP since May has been that of parties in opposition, but not quite yet an Opposition. Each has been prone to overstretch their place and role. The catastrophic decline of each since 1998, and the messages the electorate are sending need to be respected and better understood. Neither seems to have taken the messages on board.

By contrast the character of Ruth Davidson, Leader of the hated Tories in Scotland, up against a seemingly impossible challenge that is the Scottish Nationalist Party, has slowly but surely adapted the central messaging of the Conservatives in a Scottish context. In the early days it was about defining the Party. Since then she has from time to time made forensic stabs at the SNP rather than  an outright effort to date to fell the beast. She has progressed step by assured step: never overstretching; rarely calling for resignation; challenging the policy and purpose of the SNP in Government incisively; and targeting things that matter day to day in the daily lives of the electorate. Yes, progress is slow, but that mountain is huge. Most of all patience in the first instance has shifted many aspects of Scottish Conservative Party out of its comfort zone, but in ways that have somehow made it seem the natural thing to do and place to be.

For change to occur within present Stormont structures, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein can be the largest Party in the largest designation (Unionist/Nationalist). To have even hoped to be alternative, the UUP and SDLP would have to have gained most seats, respectively, and the only way to do that is to convince the voters not only that there is an alternative Government in waiting, but that the parties that would construct that Government are more than competent and more likely to be compatible in undertaking that challenge. Neither have that air about them, and it is hard to see common ground outside immediate raw political desire to be tops – too many issues, to little focus, not enough attention to the detail of the day to day.

Both the UUP and SDLP have set the sights high in this coming election, which means disappointment will be all the greater. That is damaging going forward; it tends to credibility. There is in all probability no chance of change on 2 March: there is no likelihood of an ‘alternative’ breaking through. To claim there could be is absolute hubris.

Quite simply, no matter what way the numbers are cut, they don’t add up for the UUP and SDLP.


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