Well, a three-year period of elections, and election campaigns, is about to get underway. This all starts with the European parliament elections in May 2014, with Northern Ireland local government elections sometime next year as well – maybe on the same day as the Euro election.
This will be followed by the Westminster election in May 2015, and the NI Assembly election in 2016 - so get ready for plenty of electioneering, point scoring, and retreating into entrenched positions over the next three years.
The first, the Euro next May, has three seats up for grabs in a PR election, in one large Northern Ireland wide constituency.
It is certain that the DUP and Sinn Fein will win one seat each, but who will win the third seat? This comes down to the mix of candidates, and how many candidates to run in a PR-type election like the Euros is a key decision for the political parties.
This decision for Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP, Alliance, NI21, UKIP, TUV, Green party et al is a no-brainer. If these parties choose to contest the Euro election, they will run only one candidate, as there is very little hope of any of them getting a second candidate elected. In fact for some parties there is little hope of getting their one solitary candidate elected, but the Euro election is a also a great vote builder for future elections!
However, there is one political party that has a decision to make, the DUP, - should they run one or two candidates? This is the first time the DUP has been faced with this sort of decision in a Euro election, and it’s their substantial electoral success over the past 10 years that has led to this.
So what does the ‘elections science’ say the DUP should do in the Euro election next May? Incidentally instead of ‘elections science’ I should really use the word Psephology (pronounced sa –phology) which is the science and study of elections, but I’m always afraid I’ll misspell the word!
The normal rule to follow is that if a political party expects to get a minimum of 1.55 election quotas in a constituency, and in the case of the Euro election this constituency is NI, then they should run two candidates. The theory here is that with 1.55 quotas in a PR election, you are certain to get one candidate elected and have a realistic chance of getting two candidates elected, with the help of transfers. So there is everything to gain and nothing to lose.
The DUP vote at the last Assembly election in 2011 was 198,000, which is approximately 1.65 times what the Euro election quota was in the 2009 Euro election, so the conclusion from the ‘elections science’ point of view must be that they should run two candidates.
How many candidates to run in a PR election constituency comes up frequently in NI Assembly elections, and managing your voter base becomes a key factor the more candidates a party runs in a particular constituency.
The DUP did this superbly in 2011 getting 3-4 candidates elected in constituencies like Lagan Valley, North Antrim and Strangford. Sinn Fein are also masters of this science, with their key achievement being West Belfast where they gained five out of the six Assembly seats. Indeed as a professional elections guru and pollster, watching the West Belfast election count, and seeing this rigorous vote management process work itself out, is impressive.
However there’s a huge difference in vote managing a NI Assembly constituency of 60-70,000, compared with the NI Euro election constituency of 1.1 million! In the Euro election, for the DUP to be successful with two candidates, each would have to score 70,000-90,000 first preference votes, and getting this balance will be difficult to achieve.
First preference votes are crucial in any PR election but more especially when the electorate is very large and the number of seats is only three. It is noteworthy that in all previous NI Euro elections the first three candidates on the first count (one preference votes) were the three candidates who ended up getting elected.
However, there are also dangers if the DUP run only one candidate. If the UUP continues its electoral decline as has been happening for the past 10 years, then there is a possibility of this ‘third seat’ going to the SDLP, Alliance or even one of the other parties! This could happen because our PR election system is primarily geared to constituency sizes of 60-70,000 and 5-6 seats, which is the case at NI Assembly elections.
Once you increase the electorate size, and lower the No. of seats, as is the case with the NI Euro election, then our PR election system begins to creak a bit, and could become less representative of the voters wishes. Indeed there is a scenario where the majority of the electorate could vote for Unionist and Alliance type candidates next May, but the SDLP and Sinn Fein end up with two of the three seats.
This scenario, or another party winning this ‘third seat’, would require several factors to come into play all at once, with one of these factors being another poor electoral performance from the UUP. Yes, it is unlikely that all of these factors would happen at one time - but they could!
There are also many political factors to consider. For example, there’s no middle way with this decision. If the DUP run two candidates then they are really are attacking the UUP head-on, and basically saying ‘we want your seat’! It would then be difficult for the two parties to co-operate at any future elections eg the Westminster 2015 election, were a pact could be useful in terms of seats like East Belfast.
If they run one candidate, when the ‘elections science’ as indicated above says they should run two, then they are saying to the UUP that they’re up for formal election pacts in future elections. In fact if the DUP run only one candidate then that is announcing a sort of de-facto pact with the UUP for the Euro election.
By the way, Peter Robinson knows all this elections science stuff very well (alright let’s call it Psephology!). He was one of the first NI politicians to study and analyse election figures right down to street level, and he and his colleagues will know all the pros and cons. The Psephology (NB spelt correctly!) says yes to the DUP running two candidates, but there are many other factors to consider, and Peter Robinson and the DUP know this.
Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph