With a broad slate and geographically dispersed contests, it might be a great help if people highlight local battles worth watching in the council elections. I’ve linked all the councils and local electoral areas at the end of this post for ease of reference (it will be useful if people name the one they are putting a flag over in comments, obviously).
Some of you might remember eleven in 11? Under the Review of Public Administration (RPA) there would now have been only eleven councils, so it is worth bearing in mind that fifteen of this year’s contests come courtesy of DUP Environment Minister, Edwin Poots (more on this later).
The overall state of play in the last few council elections has been fairly straightforward with the vast majority of seats being taken by the main parties. In 2005*, the final tally for the five main parties was: DUP – 182; SF – 126; UUP – 115; SDLP – 101; and, Alliance – 30. The remaining seats were filled by: Greens – 3; PUP – 2; UUC – 2; Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association – 1; and, Independents – 20 (including a number of independent Unionists). In 2001, the five main parties finished with: UUP – 154; DUP – 131; SDLP – 117; SF – 108; and, Alliance – 28. The remaining seats were filled by: PUP – 4; UUAP – 2; UKUP – 2; Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association – 1; Women’s Coalition – 1; Labour – 1; UDP – 2; and Independents – 31 (which included 6 independent Unionists). In 1997, the five main parties finished with: UUP – 185; SDLP – 120; DUP – 91; SF – 74; and, Alliance – 41. The remaining seats were filled by: PUP – 7; UKUP – 4; Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association – 2; Women’s Coalition – 1; Labour – 3; Conservatives – 3; UDP – 4; Democratic Left – 1; and, Independents – 46 (including 15 independent Unionists and 5 independent Nationalists).
[*All figures, and relevant links, are to Nicholas Whyte’s exhaustive work on ark.ac.uk, which contains further information including his detailed footnotes on variations in figures for party allegiances, etc.]
Tracked over thirty years, the consolidation of seats by the main parties is striking. In 1981 the number of councillors from outside the main parties was 17.3% (off 20.6% of first preference vote). In 1985 they held 7.2% of seats (off 9.6% fpv), in 1989 it was 10.4% of seats (off 11.9% fpv), while in 1993 they held 10.3% of seats (off 12% fpv). The latter day peak was reached in 1997 with 12% of seats (from 11% fpv) coming from outside the five parties. In 2001 it was back to 7.6% of seats (from 11% fpv) and in 2005, it was down to a mere 5.8% of seats (off 7% fpv).
Thus, the limited political space, outside the five largest groupings, has tended to become more and more restricted and heavily over-crowded. A handful of councillors has been the reward for those who have tried to add some eclecticism to the body politic, such as the Women’s Coalition or the Greens, whilst unionism and nationalism have both trended towards increasing homogenisation (in this regard the TUV, IRSP and érígí will be testing whether this is as much to do with the availability of alternatives as anything else). Given that almost six hundred seats are to be filled in the various electoral areas in each of the 26 councils there are a huge number of individual battles that will probably receive little attention despite the fact that, realistically, it presents the main opportunity for some parties to achieve electoral representation (such as the Greens, People Before Profit, PUP, IRSP, érígí and BNP).
Getting back to the RPA, there is a much bigger backstory here. Implementation, and, a substantial future reduction in the number of available seats means much higher electoral quotas. That puts huge pressure and great urgency on any parties wishing to make a breakthrough at council level this time around. Next time out, the bar will be significantly higher, with the added problem that a reduction in the number of Assembly constituencies is backloaded into the proposed re-drawing of the parliamentary boundaries.
The latter may be reflected in an element of lethargy in the current campaigns since, in various dimensions, party machines willl need re-engineered and candidate lists will be trimmed for future outings. For many, smaller, parties meaningful engagement on the local political scene may hinge on achieving representation at council level this time out. But is that being reflected at a local level??
Below are the district council pages on the election (with nominated candidates by each electoral area).