Jim Allister is returning to Stormont alone, despite a surge in TUV support – partly because of who our voting system rewards
It is understandable that Jim Allister is feeling hard done by, returning to Stormont alone despite taking almost 66,000 votes across Northern Ireland.
The TUV’s failure to take seats is not accidental, but due to a combination of how non-TUV supporters perceive the party and the design of the single transferrable vote system used in every Assembly election since the Good Friday Agreement.
Unlike the first past the post system used in Westminster elections – where voters get just one vote for their favourite candidate – the STV system makes it far easier for small parties to compete.
But it also rewards parties which have a broader appeal among supporters of their rivals – that is, those parties which do not just secure first preference votes, but second and lower preferences – and punishes those which do not. This is election is the starkest example of how that works.
The Alliance Party secured a first preference vote of 116,681 – 77% higher than that of the TUV. Yet Alliance has returned to Stormont with 17 MLAs – 1,600% higher than the TUV. At first, that may appear nonsensical, but the answer lies in transfer votes.
Alliance, which is neither unionist nor nationalist, has always been the most transfer-friendly party, pulling in lower preference votes from the supporters of every other party. For years, that was of limited benefit to many of the party’s candidates because outside its heartlands – places like North Down, South Antrim, and East Belfast – the party struggled to secure sufficient first preferences to stay in the race long enough to pick up all the transfers which were there.
In recent years, surging support for Alliance has transformed this, meaning that as candidate after candidate is eliminated, Alliance’s vote increases.
The TUV is at the opposite end of the spectrum in attracting transfers, making the scale of the gulf with Alliance so stark. The TUV’s first preference vote in this election has been extraordinary. It will significantly influence the direction of unionist politics, will help the party win a host of new council seats next year, and may persuade other unionist voters to back the TUV in future elections now that it has shown itself as a serious force.
But in terms of the party’s primary aim of winning Stormont seats, it has failed. The TUV’s Stephen Cooper polled 5,186 first preference votes in Strangford, putting him in third place – and fully expecting to win a seat in the five-seat constituency. This was an exceptional performance for someone who took just 1,330 in the last Assembly election.
But Alliance’s Nick Mathison, who started in seventh place with just 2,822 first preferences, steadily crept up by hoovering up transfers from the candidates who were eliminated. By the end, the Alliance candidate’s vote had risen to 6,173 – an increase of 3,351 votes – while the TUV man’s vote had gone up by just 738, leaving him 249 votes behind.
The transfer-repellent nature of the TUV is a problem for the party, but one which it has limited ability to change without fundamentally altering its stance. Other parties at the fringe of their ideology have similarly struggled to attract transfers.
The alternative – deployed by the DUP and Sinn Féin to great effectiveness – is to rely on a huge first preference vote which means transfers are less important.