Unionism needs to learn the magic of ‘vote management’

It’s more than thirty years since PR STV was introduced to local elections and although it is a complex instrument you would have thought most parties would have cottoned on by now as to how balance their tickets. Danny Kennedy sees unionism’s underperformance in South Antrim as a reason to seek greater co-operation with the DUP:

“Here in South Antrim the combined unionist vote was equal to more than five assmebly quotas, yet presently the area only has three unionist assembly members because the vote was shredded with too many candidates running.”

Two problems here. One, I make the total unionist vote in the last PR election of 2007 to be 22,012. With a quota at 5,454, I make that only just over four quotas, not five. Even last May’s general election fight only bumps that up to 23,718. But in 2007 the UUP, who only squeezed one seat out of that contest chose three candidates…

But it is worse than that. That fourth seat was probably sitting there for the UUP (or possibly even the DUP’s taking). Consider, for example loading Stephen Nicholl’s 927 1st preferences onto Danny Kinihan’s total and it takes him 500 votes ahead of the SDLP Tommy Burns who eventually took the last seat after the first count.

Now then, consider doing the thing that most nationalist and certainly the Alliance party do in their sleep, and work harder on your vote management strategy. Although to be fair to the UUP, their split between Kinihan and Burnside in ’07 is not bad (possibly because the two have quite separate appeals to two very different voter bases).

The DUP front runner might have made his running partner, Mel Lucas a little more competitive by splitting the vote a little more easily than the 2:1 split they eventually got. Focus on topping the poll (which they lost to Mitchel McLaughlin) cost the DUP a decent shot a third and unionism its forth seat.

A pact would not have helped. Greater internal discipline and organisation would.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Mark McGregor


    Before I go into the rest. Can I just point out “certainly the Alliance party do in their sleep, and work harder on your vote management strategy” is nonsense. You are confusing a canvassing strategy with vote management. Alliance don’t do vote management in their sleep because they don’t have constituencies where they are realistically targetting multiples.

  • Hmmm. Maybe Danny Kennedy (and others) need to think tactically outside an Orange Hall. Based on the 2010 election, a South Antrim quota was 4878 giving 4.86 ‘unionist’ quotas, fair enough.
    But the pattern of Assembly/PR elections is not replicated for Westminister elections. To work on that basis suggests a poor grasp of electoral mathematics (and by proxy, vote management etc). There is an assumption that pan-unionist candidates or pacts will bring out the non-voting unionists. If the analysis of the nuances of the electoral systems by Danny Kennedy etc is poor, maybe you’d have to re-examine the other assumptions here?
    Primarily the concept that pan-unionist unity will act as a draw to more disaffected unionist voters than an encouragement to non-unionist voters to also come out and vote (for other candidates). Similarly, there will be the lack of an alternative unionist platform (one that doesn’t seek an Orange Hall stage for instance), which, again may discourage some who no longer wish to vote for a sash-waving unionist candidate.

  • Mark McGregor

    Ok, Mick.

    I agree there are only four Unionist quotas in play here but that is against 1.9 Nationalist quoatas and the 0.9 Alliance one. As noted the Westminster result is utterly irrelevant for comparison.

    Remember 6 quotas come from a vote compromising 6.99

    So those four Unionist quotas would require a perfect transfer between Unionist candidates at all stages.

    Another thing your Kinihan scenario overlooks is that at stage 1 Burns took 359 of McLuaghlins surplus (more going to his colleague McClelland) and when McClelland went out at stage 6 Burns vote reached 4965. At that stage Nichol had been already eliminated and both Lucas and Kinihan were sitting just over 3,000.

    So the lesson here is nothing to do with Nichol and the UUP it is both the UUP and DUP were sitting on just over half a quota for an extra seat. When Kinihan went out not enough of his votes transfered to the DUP, this allowed the SDLP to take the final seat by a nose.

    If the UUP worked a deal with in South Antrim it would have resulted in an extra DUP seat (Lucas) and knocked out the SDLP’s Tommy Burns.

    Can I suggest this as a UUP strategy to stop SF is a bit underdeveloped as it would have damaged the SDLP and strenghten the DUP.

    Indeed SF would have benefited in subsequent elections as they attempted to tap a weakened SDLP cnadidates vote and would in the longterm have been assisted in building towards a 2nd quota.

    0/10 again for the UUP on understanding how elections wotk.

  • Sir Herbert Mercer

    I think that the UUP ought to have sat and pondered: how many seats can we get.

    Based on the last election, they’ve polled over 28.6% so 2 seats should be theirs if they can at least keep their support.

    The DUP are in much the same position in South Antrim, and don’t have the votes to justify running three; if they choose to do so, then that helps just about every other party in the race.

    TUV will be a source of transfers for unionists not over the 14.3% mark, but a fair few may not transfer.

    SF have round about a quota

    the last 2 seats are between a 4th Unionist, SDLP and a nationalist.

    Gerry Adams did his best to promote nationalist unity by dragging the incumbent SDLP MLA’s name through mud on the leadership debates, and doubtless Mr Ford will resort to disgraceful sectarian scaremongering as was seen before (Mitchell or Ford? remember).

  • Sir Herbert Mercer

    the last 2 seats are between a 4th Unionist, SDLP and a nationalist.

    Sorry that should have read between a 4th Unionist, SDLP and Ford.

  • Progressive Unionist

    It’s also true that a significant chunk of those UUP voters in South Antrim (not least the Kinihan supporters) would feel closer to Alliance than to the DUP.

    This is replicated across the east of the Province.

    So in analysing this you can’t just sum up the votes for Unionist parties like Danny Kennedy did, and then build a wall around that number and assume they’ll all want to vote for other Unionist parties. Doesn’t work like that in the real world.

    (Though if the Elliott/Danny Kennedy ‘Orange Unionist Unity’ ticket gets in, the UUP may relieve themselves of that complication, in that progressive pro-Union voters will just vote Alliance rather than for a right-wing heavily Orange UUP linked to the DUP.)

  • Drumlin Rock

    Another factor that is over looked is appox. 20% of SDLP votes transfer to the UUP in many areas, not sure if this will happen when Alliance stand, but there is still an element that wont transfer SF, however whilst probably a similar proportion of UUP voters are prepared to lend votes to the SDLP for westminister, most will tranfer to the DUP before the SDLP.

  • Tomagaddy

    The logical conclusion of Mr Kennedy’s rather threadbare argument that unionists should have only one party and that party should decide precisely how many canidates to run in each constituency. But hey if you care that little about the basics of British democracy then why are you that bothered about staying in the UK?
    As in Scotland and Wales what we need in vigorous competition between the parties that can form the Govt of the UK – Conservative, Labour and Liberal not stale Protestant tribalism dressed up as Unionism

  • PaddyReilly

    The false assumption here is that there is such a thing as a Unionist (or indeed Nationalist) vote, and that all shades of Unionists will be happy about voting for all differently shaded Unionists. This we may term Vance’s fallacy.

    In point of fact, a significant number of UUP voters will transfer only to Alliance, and not to the DUP. Some would transfer to the SDLP in preference to the DUP or TUV. Ergo, a 0.9 Alliance quota will quite easily become a full quota with the help of UUP transfers, possibly even DUP and TUV ones.

    The second fallacy, and a very common one, is to confuse the vote with the first preference vote. There are other candidates, the Greens for example, who are destined to be eliminated and their later preferences benefit Alliance and the SDLP.

    We must also bear in mind that an Alliance victory of any sort will bring undetected Alliance voters out of the woodwork. In 2003 there was 9.1% of the 1st pref vote for Alliance; in 2007 13.1%.

    The final fact to be born in mind is that the Nationalist vote increases from election to election by small, but significant increments. I have pointed this out so many times that I think we may term this Reilly’s Law. Ergo, any Unionist reconquista, such as the imagined Unionist retaking of South Belfast and Fermanagh & South Tyrone in the last general election, is doomed to failure. An alteration in the shape of the South Antrim constituency may have diminished but has not eliminated this advantage. Unionists always lose ground, and they have lost so much by now that there is no more that can be lost. One feels they could benefit from advice I would like to give to the English people: the days of you winning the Cup are over: devote your efforts to something more constructive.

  • Greenflag

    paddy reilly ,

    ‘One feels they could benefit from advice ‘

    Feeling is one thing – knowing is another . You may feel they could benefit from advice but most of us know they won’t .

    ‘Reilly’s law’ ?

    ‘Is this law resting on the premise that what goes up will never come down and what goes down will never come up ?

    There are world political leaders and IMF economists and Finance Ministers over the entire globe who at one time had faith in the ‘reilly law ‘ equivalent but alas they are now scrambling around in every which way as they wrestle with the unexpected outcomes of Murphy’s law 🙂 From Afghanistan to the G-20 -from the economic stimulus to the deficit from the British Budget to the Greek bail out to Mr Lenehan’s fumbling and Mr Kenny’s nigh of the longknives etc .

    However at least in the context of NI politics ‘Reilly’s Law’
    is a useful term when applied to upcoming electoral contests .

    So we now have the ‘Vance Phallacy’ and ‘Reilly’s Law

    ‘what next ?

    the overarching

    ‘ Horseman Apocalyptic’

  • PaddyReilly

    Reilly’s law applies only to the Unionist vote in NI which is fated to keep coming down, and has done so since Fair Employment was introduced into that province.

    Usually there is a similar effect with incumbent parties in many political jurisdictions, as with the Labour Party in the last three parliaments, but sometimes odd events such as wars manage to change the tide.

    Other straight ascents and descents are fallacious, such as the idea that house prices can keep going up forever.

  • Greenflag

    paddy reilly ,

    Thanks for the clarification but tell me now isn’t the law even Reilly’s not to mention Murphy’s supposed to at least in theory apply to everybody ? I mean you can’t have one law for ‘unionists ‘ and another for ‘nationalists’ can you ?

    BTW the late Horseman made the excellent point that the 50/50 hiring community background rule for the PSNI was now favouring Protestants – as in the hiring ‘age’ group they were now and have been a minority . Maybe that explains why one hears so little Unionist loud opposition to the rule these days ?

  • Reader

    Greenflag: BTW the late Horseman made the excellent point that the 50/50 hiring community background rule for the PSNI was now favouring Protestants – as in the hiring ‘age’ group they were now and have been a minority .
    But still a substantial majority of qualified applicants, which is the basis on which recruitment to every other job is tested. I suppose Horseman’s point was more rhetorical than grounded on any concern for equal treatment.

  • Greenflag

    Reader ,

    ‘but still a substantial majority of qualified applicants, ‘

    Probably and for several reasons the two most important being the legacy of the past and community security concerns and the other being the simple fact that there are few jobs that pay as well in the private sector for those with the typical qualifications of PSNI entrants .

    Hopefully the day will arrive when the Fair Employment Agency will no longer be needed and when the 50/50 will no longer be necessary . Perhaps in a generation or so .

    I would have said Horseman was very much grounded on concern for equal treatment . And he was very much aware of the past history of unequal treatment in the matter of employment in NI and instinctively understood that it would not be ended overnight by passing a few long overdue laws.

    The fact that his point can be interpreted by some as rhetorical is just further indication that some folks just don’t get it i.e the demographic shift that’s underway in NI and that should be more clearly seen in the March census next year . .