Thursday, 3 January 2013

Could STV Help The Centre-Right In Northern Ireland?

About 20 years ago I was a member of Mensa's Politics Special Interest Group, and this was the era when the Conservatives were doing badly politically. And one man came up with an interesting suggestion - couldn't the Ulster Unionist Party drop the "Ulster" from its title and start contesting by-elections in Great Britain, offering itself as a conservative party without all the baggage that the Conservative Party had?

With recent by-elections, I now wonder if the UK Independence Party has taken that role he envisaged for the UUP. And, I wonder if he would suggest that another Ulster party - one which, unlike the UUP, is represented in the House of Commons - could drop the "of Northern Ireland" from its title and start contesting Great Britain constituencies to offer people a liberal democratic party without the baggage of being in a coalition with the Conservatives, if it wished to play a Long game (sorry, couldn't resist that) and become a significant force in British politics (note that with the implosion of the Progressive Democrats there is now a liberal democratic vacuum in the Republic of Ireland's politics).

Now the UUP are in decline, with no MPs, despite more votes than the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

When the Jenkins Commission produced its report on reform of the electoral system it came up with AV+, a form of Additional Members System where the Alternative Vote is used to elect constituency MPs, and the d'Hondt system is used to elect additional MPs. The Commission briefly considered Northern Ireland, and concluded that it should use AV+ in line with Great Britain, but should be split into an East and West, with 8 constituencies in the East, 6 in the West, and both areas electing 2 additional MPs.

Even as late as the July 1945 general election, there were two-member constituencies (such as Southampton) and some of the university constituencies were using the Single Transferable Vote. It is not until the February 1950 general election that we have every MP elected on a common method - that of the Single Member Plurality.

So, there is a history of different constituencies using different methods. And a switch to electing Northern Ireland MP's using STV would be consistent with its political history - the Government of Ireland Act 1920 required the old Northern Ireland Parliament to use STV - and with its current practice, where STV is used for elections to the European Parliament (even since the first elections, in June 1979, we have accepted that SMP was not suitable for Northern Ireland), Northern Ireland Assembly and local councils.

This led me to do some thinking on what constituencies Northern Ireland could have, and what this would lead to.

The first one is Antrim & West Down, comprised of 5 current constituencies - Antrim East, Antrim North, Antrim South, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann - all of which were won by the Democratic Unionist Party in the May 2010 general election.

To look at the vote that parties got, I will use the May 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly results as these use STV and are free of the pacts that led to parties standing down.

The parties getting over 5% of the vote here were:

  • Democratic Unionist Party- 41.96%
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 18.40%
  • Sinn Féin- 14.45%
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 10.07%
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 8.60%
  • Traditional Unionist Voice- 5.14%
  • The number of quotas that these got is:

  • Democratic Unionist Party- 2.52
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 1.10
  • Sinn Féin- 0.87
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 0.60
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 0.52
  • Traditional Unionist Voice- 0.31
  • So, we can tell straight away that the DUP would have won at least 2 seats (the two MPs with the highest vote were Ian Paisley jnr in Antrim North and Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley) and the UUP at least 1 (their candidate with the highest vote was Harry Hamilton in Upper Bann).

    The nationalist parties have 1.38 quotas between them, indicating their would be a nationalist MP, presumably from Sinn Féin. Their candidate with the highest vote was John O'Dowd in Upper Bann.

    All the unionist parties together (including UKIP) bring us to 3.94 quotas. However, add the APNI vote to the nationalist one and you end up 373 votes short of 2 quotas. Now, APNI is neither a uninoist nor nationalist, but maybe bolstered with UUP second preferences, and with nationalist voters placing an APNI candidate ahead of any unionist ones, then perhaps it would be APNI getting that final seat. Their candidate with the highest vote was Trevor Lunn in Lagan Valley.

    My guess is that Antrim & West Down would be DUP 2, UUP 1, SF 1, APNI 1.

    Next is Armagh & East Down, comprised of 4 current constituencies - Down North (Independent Unionist), Down South (SDLP), Newry & Armagh (SF) and Strangford (DUP).

    The parties getting over 5% of the vote here were:

  • Democratic Unionist Party- 26.15%
  • Sinn Féin- 22.65%
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 19.98%
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 15.14%
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 7.61%
  • The number of quotas that these got is:

  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1.31
  • Sinn Féin- 1.13
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 34 votes short of 1.00
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 0.76
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 0.38
  • Now, the DUP did not run a candidate in Down North at the general election. Sylvia Hermon, who had been the UUP MP, resigned the UUP whip in March 2010 as she disapproved of the UUP co-operating with the Conservatives. The DUP didn't contest Down North to enable her to win.

    The total unionist vote is 2.37 quotas (when we include UKIP, TUV and a couple of Independent Unionists).

    It is clear that we should expect a couple of unionist MPs, one Sinn Féin and one SDLP- and probably the same MPs that were elected.

    My guess is that Armagh & East Down would be DUP 1, SF 1, SDLP 1, Ind U 1.

    Next is Belfast, comprised of 4 current constituencies - Belfast East (APNI), Belfast North (DUP), Belfast South (SDLP) and Belfast West (SF).

    The parties getting over 5% of the vote here were:

  • Sinn Féin- 22.90%
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 28.04%
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 13.12%
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 12.52%
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 8.88%
  • The number of quotas that each party got is:

  • Sinn Féin- 1.46
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1.40
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland- 0.66
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 0.63
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 0.44
  • So, with a complete quota each, it is clear that Sinn Féin would win a seat (their candidate with the most votes was their leader Gerry Adams, who was elected as MP for Belfast West) as would the DUP (their candidate with the most votes was their deputy leader Nigel Dodds, MP for Belfast North).

    The combined nationalist vote is more than 2 quotas, so transfers from Sinn Féin would give the SDLP a seat (their candidate with the most votes was their leader Alasdair McDonnell, MP for Belfast South).

    And the fourth seat?

    Between them, the APNI and UUP have 1.10 quotas. It is likely that all UUP candidates would get eliminated, so where would their vote go?

    If it primarily goes to the DUP, then this could lead to a second DUP seat (their candidate with the second highest number of votes was leader Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's First Minister, in Belfast East). On the other hand, going to the APNI (with transfers from the nationalist parties) could see the APNI win a seat (their candidate with the most votes was Naomi Long, MP for Belfast East).

    My guess is that Belfast would be DUP 1 or 2, SF 1, SDLP 1, APNI 0 or 1.

    Finally, Northern Ireland West, comprised of 5 current constituencies - Fermanagh & South Tyrone (SF), Foyle (SDLP), Londonderry East (DUP), Tyrone West (SF) and Ulster Mid (SF).

    The parties getting over 5% of the vote here were:

  • Sinn Féin- 39.15%
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 23.27%
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 16.09%
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 10.04%
  • The number of quotas that each party got is:

  • Sinn Féin- 2.35
  • Democratic Unionist Party- 1.40
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party- 0.97
  • Ulster Unionist Party- 0.60
  • With 2 full quotas, we should expect Sinn Féin to get 2 seats - their two election victors with the highest vote are Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Ulster Mid (who has now resigned from the House of Commons).

    With 1 full quota, the DUP would get a seat. Their candidate with the most votes was Gregory Campbell, MP for Londonderry East. However, in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, the DUP and UUP withdrew their candidates (Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise & Trade; and Tom Elliott, respectively) to back an Independent.

    If we take the May 2011 Assembly results for Fermanagh & South Tyrone and assume that if Foster and Elliott had contested the seat in the general election and the DUP:UUP vote ratio remained the same, then we have Foster on 11,898 votes (just 199 fewer than Campbell) and Elliott on 9,402 - which is more than any UUP candidate in this area.

    The SDLP are just 1,181 votes short of a quota, so it would be unlikely they would fail to win a seat. Their candidate with the most votes was Mark Durkan, MP for Foyle - incidentally, McGuinness's predecessor as Deputy First Minister.

    So, that is 4 of 5 seats filled. Who gets the fifth and final seat?

    The combined nationalist vote is 3.31 quotas, while the combined unionist (including the Traditional Unionist Voice and David McClarty, who was elected to the Assembly in Londonderry East) comes to 2.23 quotas, so we should expect a second unionist seat. Looking at what I think the votes for Foster and Elliott would have been if they had contested the general election, I expect it would be between them. In the Assembly elections, Elliott was the UUP candidate with the highest vote in this area.

    My guess is that Northern Ireland West would be SF 2, DUP 2 or 1, SDLP 1, UUP 0 or 1.

    So, there are 16 seats we can be reasonably confident about:

  • Democratic Unionist Party - 5
  • Sinn Féin - 5
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party - 3
  • Ulster Unionist Party - 1
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland - 1
  • Independent Unionist - 1
  • And that leaves one seat which is a choice between the DUP and APNI, and another that is a choice between the DUP and UUP.

    Various things to note. Firstly, STV could give a result that (apart from the DUP being one seat down, and the UUP actually winning a seat) that is quite close to the real result.

    Secondly, although there is a potential for tactical voting under STV, the big battles where other parties see their vote fall away as two parties go head-to-head get diluted in the wider constituency. For example, one of the dramatic results of the last general election was Long unseating Robinson in Belfast East. Under STV the final Belfast seat could go down to the wire between their parties, but this would simply be part of the general Belfast seat allocation.

    Thirdly and alongside this, one criticism that is STV helps minor parties. But, for example, if a party under SMP were targeting one seat extensively as that was the winnable one, and walked away with half the vote, then in a four-seat constituency that would only be one-eighth of the vote, much less than a quota. How many seats would the Scottish Senior Citizen's Unity Party have won if the Scottiah Parliament used STV?

    Fourthly, although the result would have been similar to SMP, the distribution of seats would be different. Sinn Féin picks up a seat under STV in the unionist heartland of Antrim & West Down, but in returns loses a seat to a unionist in Northern Ireland West.

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