The numbers matter

Recent days has seen analysis of the recent Local Elections in Northern Ireland almost exclusively in outlined in terms of percentages. Statistical summaries. These focused on percentage shares of the vote, and the number of seats gained/lost by the parties.

The general view is that this was an election where the centre ‘broke through’. This was the ‘Other’ face of Northern Ireland politics.

Looking at the numbers and that isn’t quite the whole story.

First the percentages show that Alliance did indeed raise its vote significantly.

Alliance has built on its 2017 Assembly vote, and added some – possibly also because it stood candidates in more areas than in 2014 building off the 2017 experience. It also of course had the emotional uptick off the murder of Lyra McKee where the big two parties were seen as a stumbling block to the return of Stormont – even though on the ground there has been little obvious public groundswell for Stormont’s return!

More widely, it might be a general ‘plague on your houses’ towards larger political parties – echoing the national sense from the returns at Local Elections in England. That would also explain the return of ‘other’ votes, an increase for Greens and People Before Profit (PBP); though it should be noted fewer other parties were standing this time, although more independents broke through.

Although Alliance gained 35,000 votes on its 2014 performance at local government level, accounting for its significant increase in councillors, it increased 5,000 votes from its 2017 Assembly performance.

Having said all that it should be noted that there have been other shifts.

Alliance votes shifted to the East of Belfast. The rise in seats is to some extent explained by the concentration of Alliance support (East Belfast and elsewhere) which both raises quota and, where there is strength, delivers for a Party. At the same time it is not a massive surge in vote compared to the 2017 Assembly election.

Sinn Fein similarly gains. Its concentration to the West of Belfast means it can deliver a solid performance, even if it loses a seat here and there – Sinn Fein vote management is widely considered to be machine-like.

Better vote management in STV elections is something Unionist Parties needs to improve upon – particularly in the forthcoming European poll. Anecdotally, too many candidates sent election literature entreating a first preference into areas where other candidates were better known. The impact is illustrated by the final seat tally for the main parties.

This isn’t a reflection of how many votes each Party gained.

Despite performing significantly better in 2019 than in 2014, adding around 20,000 votes, the DUP still lost 7 seats. Sinn Fein did better also, though by only 5,000 votes and with about the same number of votes as Martina Anderson gained in the European Election on the same day in 2014. The DUP will be happier with that its increase going into the European election end of the month though disappointed that it still failed to increase its overall number of seats.

The increase in votes from 2014 to 2019 for the DUP and Alliance (55,000) account for almost all the increase in overall turnout of around 60,000 votes.

The UUP lost only around 5,000 votes from the 2014 election, and the SDLP lost about 2,500, they losing 13 and 7 seats respectively. That those 20 seats are almost two thirds of the gain in seats by Alliance doesn’t really add up given that Alliance gained 35,000 votes. What this does suggest is that both the SDLP and the UUP are losing in pockets of residual support where the Alliance vote is strongest anyway. Both continue to poll consistently, but with shrinking bases and fewer active members to maintain a local presence they both struggle to cut through in contrast, and have no answer to any emotional surge seeking a new voice.

The vote for candidates not in the big five also returned to 2016 Assembly levels – around 100,000 – following the 2017 concentration around the big two Parties squeezing alternative voices.

On to the European Elections on the 23rd May. With £5,000 the deposit for a Province wide campaign, we will once again see a marked reduction in independents and smaller parties battling for a seat. The five main parties will of course be there. We know too that Jim Allister of the TUV will be standing, and that based on the last vote in 2014 he will gain a considerable personal vote. If trust is an issue, people trust Jim Allister, even if they don’t like the TUV platform.

There’s always one or two on the fringe who will find the wherewithal to stand:

Nada, nada.

Back to reality, and the local elections probably mean that the DUP and Sinn Fein will be safe enough in having Diane Dodds and Martina Anderson re-elected. It will be interesting to see if Martina Anderson will exceed her previous tally, given that this was about the same as the most recent overall Sinn Fein vote at local elections.

The DUP will hope that the recent increase in overall vote since 2014 has some residual gain that will assure Diane Dodds re-election; and sooner than the seventh count, in 2014.

That Diane Dodds wasn’t elected until the seventh count was of course due to the transfer process. The recent local election overall performance was better than the poll in 2014, on same day as the Europe poll, which suggests that first preference votes for the DUP should assure one of the three MEPs elected. Though assumptions at present, however reasonable they seem, are brave.

The big battle will be for the third seat.

*all Local Election numbers are based on turnout x percentage vote recorded. Haven’t been able to find a list of actual vote numbers for each Party overall, so for now numbers are approximate though in the ballpark. 

There isn’t much room for ‘other’ to break in. The electoral offer of candidates isn’t so different to what it was in 2014.

Danny Kennedy might hope that his ‘Remainer but Leaver‘ policy approach might shore up the UUP vote – not clear how, not really clear where current Party policy stands. In respect of transfers, this doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Both Jim Allister and Henry Reilly gained over 100,000 votes last time, clearly some from the DUP and some from the UUP (worst ever UUP result). Danny Kennedy, a well known and highly respected Unionist, will have to poll well to keep ahead of Jim Allister if that Eurosceptic vote is still there and as angry as the Brexit Party seems to be demonstrating in the rest of the UK. Danny will also have to be clearer, much clearer in messaging than his Party, to ensure transfers should Jim Allister be eliminated first – and ‘Remainer but Leaver’ risks no transfer at all from many of those voters. Anyone Unionist not willing to transfer on that basis would be wrong, even if justified. If ever there is a time for unionists to vote 1,2,3 for Unionist candidates, this is the election to be wise.

The battle between Naomi Long and Colum Eastwood, for first preferences and all important transfers, will be interesting; two candidates for whom there is little difference on Europe. Tack too hard on all-Ireland and transfers from unionist Alliance voters may go elsewhere for Colum. Tack too hard towards nationalist SDLP voters and those same unionist voters may not vote Alliance at all. Both will be hoping that the ‘other’ voters, so overwhelmingly unionist at the last European election will be more centrist and perhaps that same local Government surge will take one high enough to stay in the count long enough to see off the other.

However. That surge in turnout for the Local Government elections was adsorbed predominately by Alliance and the DUP, with far lesser gains for Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP respectively.

Meanwhile, there are talks at Stormont on re-establishing a regional Assembly. For the two big parties, this coming election needs to be fought firmly, but with a level of confidence in the upcoming vote there will be no need for a deeply acrimonious campaign from either – though for Sinn Fein the local election vote will be worrying should there be an Assembly election in advance of a new Assembly.

The battle will be among the Parties who most preach ‘getalongerism’. We’ll see how well that stands up over the coming few weeks.

Unless there is a far greater turnout than on 2 May, the third seat is wide open and the count will be absolutely fascinating as transfers reveal voters’ lesser preferences.



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