Belfast Telegraph

Dropping the number of our MLAs at Stormont: Will it happen?

By Bill White

The never ending debate about the size of Stormont is back on the agenda.

Interestingly, it's Sinn Fein that has rekindled the argument, with Martin McGuinness suggesting the number of MLAs should be dropped from six to five per constituency, for the scheduled Northern Ireland Assembly election in 2016. This would make a reduced number of MLAs of 90, from the current 108.

We've carried out an analysis before as to what this may mean for each individual party in terms of seats lost or gained. I've also noticed that some other commentators have carried out their own analyses, by doing a direct projection using the party vote shares from the last Assembly election in 2011.

However, this type of analysis, although simple to do, ignores the fact that people vote differently in different types of elections - and an Assembly election with 90 seats, is a different election to an Assembly election with 108 seats.

When we look at all the patterns, we see that the bigger parties perform better when the numbers to be elected get lower e.g. as at Westminster or European elections. As such, this is when the 'big two' (i.e. the DUP and Sinn Fein) win out, as these elections favour big election machines, combined with big core votes to draw upon. Bigger election machines (i.e. canvassers, party workers etc.), become even more important with a reduced No. of seats in the Assembly because you have to get your message out to a proportionally higher number of electors whilst running with a lower number of candidates.

It should also be noted that the DUP line of 'vote for us or you'll get a Sinn Fein First Minister' will become even more powerful if the number of Assembly seats is reduced. And again, who is the party best placed to get this message out into the unionist voter base? - the party with the biggest electoral machine. Plus with its momentum in the south, Sinn Fein can maximise their vote within their unique all-Ireland party message.    

LucidTalk have collated and combined the results from the past four Northern Ireland elections. By combining these four sets of election results, along with our latest polling data (Belfast Telegraph - October 2) we get a good balance of election voting patterns, and a good foundation for doing a six to five seat per constituency NI Assembly election projection:

Notes:

Where we have placed another option in brackets , then the first projection is the probable one, but the backup projection (i.e. in brackets) is also possible.

As can be seen from the table, there has been a further fragmentation of unionism since the 2011 Assembly election with the formation of NI21 (& since then their fragmentation!), plus UKIP entering the scene with David McNarry as their MLA. We now have one NI21 MLA - Basil McCrea, and two independent unionists i.e. John McCallister (formerly NI21) and Claire Sugden who replaced the late David McClarty in East Londonderry. Our models show that between this one NI21 seat and the two independent unionists, there should be one of these 'independent unionist types' returned in a new 90 seat Assembly. However, it's difficult to predict which one - or type!

The TUV polled well and have showed a good advance in our most recent Opinion polls. As such they would have a good chance of securing a second or even third seat in an 108 seater assembly (like the current structure), but it will be very difficult for them to get beyond their current one (i.e. Jim Allister's) Assembly seat, if the No. of assembly seats is reduced to 90. However even in a 90 seat assembly Jim Allister's seat should be secure.

UKIP are very much in the same position as the TUV. Yes, if it remains as an 108 seat Assembly then they would have a good chance of a second seat in South Down with their Euro candidate Henry Reilly, but this would be difficult in a 5 seat constituency. However, even in a 90 seat Assembly their one current seat with David McNarry looks safe, and the holding of this seat is further helped by UKIP's national profile.

Dropping to 90 seats in the Assembly doesn't affect the Alliance party that much as their vote is concentrated in key constituencies. As such, our models show their only loss would be their current second seat in East Belfast.

In terms of how the 10 seat D'Hondt elected executive would turn-out with the above 90 seat Assembly result, then it would be the same as the current make-up i.e. DUP: 4, SINN FEIN: 3, SDLP: 1, UUP: 1, ALLIANCE PARTY: 1. This is not including the current special arrangement for the Department of Justice (i.e. currently Alliance with David Ford).

Interestingly if the DUP captured just one of the projected UKIP, TUV, or independent unionist seats i.e. making their total up to 35 seats, then Alliance would lose their one 'D'Hondt elected' executive seat, to the DUP. That's how 'knife-edge' the whole situation is! And this gives the DUP another line to peddle.

Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.

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