Belfast Telegraph

Why European elections are the truest measure of support for the parties

Anna Lo scored Alliance's highest ever European vote
Anna Lo scored Alliance's highest ever European vote

By Liam Clarke

European election first preference votes are probably the best guide we have to overall party support in Northern Ireland. The reason is simple: everyone has an opportunity to vote for each party that fights the election.

In local government, Assembly or Westminster contests we get parties standing in one constituency but not another. That distorts the picture.

On the other hand strong personalities with a high public profile can score higher than their parties, something known as the presidential effect. For most European elections since they started in 1979, Ian Paisley was the classic presidential-type candidate, topping the poll.

He got a far higher vote than the DUP enjoyed before it became the largest party in 2005.

And in this contest, Jim Allister benefited to a lesser extent from being a strong leader. He had been a poll-topper when he stood for the DUP in succession to Dr Paisley in 2004 – even improving on Paisley's performance when he scored 32% of the popular first preference vote.

When he split away to found his own party, that plummeted to 13.7%, while Diane Dodds, the new DUP candidate, got 18.2%.

This year he was down just a smidgen to 12.2% but that was a big achievement because in the local government elections, which were held the same day, his party only got 4.5%.

This shows the effect of being a high-profile personality and a good TV performer that everyone has heard of. Not only did he outdo his party but he probably pulled its total vote up a bit with him. By encouraging more supporters out he guaranteed that more of them were inclined to back his councillors.

Allister's TUV isn't the biggest party but it put itself on the map in this election. It achieved nearly as high a first preference vote as the SDLP in Europe, and 13 councillors gave it a toehold in local government.

This is one of the tactics the DUP used to build its base in the late 1970s and 80s.

Another ruse the DUP employs is to accuse unionist opponents of splintering the vote, as leader Peter Robinson did before the election. Does a multiplicity of unionist parties shred the vote or does more choice encourage more people to participate in the poll?

The evidence of this election is that it increases turnout. The more variety is put before the voters, the more likely they are to find a party that suits them.

Overall turnout, at 52%, was about nine points up on the last time.

Yet the combined share of the SDLP and Sinn Fein (38.5%) was the lowest since the 38% it hit in the 1997 local government elections.

Counted together, Sinn Fein and the SDLP were down a bit on the last European election, suggesting that having just two nationalist parties to choose from leaves some voters with nobody they want to back.

In the fight for nationalist first preferences, the SDLP was the clear loser.

It scored what was possibly its worst ever vote, though its candidate Alex Attwood may remain in contention for the last Euro seat, currently held by Jim Nicholson of the UUP, long into the transfer process and could conceivably win it on transfers.

That is broadly what was predicted by pollsters LucidTalk before the election. Their analysis predicted that Mr Attwood would finally lose to Mr Nicholson in a late count.

There was a bit of shredding when Mark Brotherston's 4,144 Tory pro-union votes were distributed.

Only 196 went to a nationalist and more than half (2,363) went to unionists, leaving 1,247 for candidates like Alliance and the Greens, who tend to attract transfers from all sides.

Alliance established itself as a cross-community rather than a unionist lite party in this election. It had come under attack, physically and verbally, in Belfast's bitter flag dispute and its European candidate Anna Lo enraged unionist parties, who predicted wipeout for her, after she said she favoured Irish unity as a long-term aspiration. In fact she scored Alliance's highest ever European vote – 7.1%.

She may, like Mr Allister, even have benefited from a mild presidential effect, coming marginally ahead of the 6.6% her party got in the council elections.

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