How Much Does it Cost to Buy an Election?

The Electoral Commission today published the expenditure returns for the Assembly elections in May 2016. They make for interesting reading.

Topping the poll in terms of spend was the Ulster Unionist Party with a declared spend of £95,855. Not surprising perhaps that a party led by a former television presenter and PR person would spend on what we can assume is primarily publicity and posters.

The next highest spends came from the DUP and Sinn Féin with declared expenditure of £89,439 and £53,243 respectively. The SDLP was next on £51,736 followed by the Alliance Party on £37,554. The TUV spent £3,703 and the Green Party £3,283.

Not included in today’s publication is Justice Minister Claire Sugden who, as an independent, would only have to file if her expenditure was in excess of £10,000 and People Before Profit who hold two seats in the Assembly. We are told that three parties submitted returns late and two parties failed to sumbit. Once we know what enforcement action is taken, we’ll know which category PBP falls into.

What is most interesting in financial and PR terms is the principle of return on capital employed. The UUP with the highest spend had 16 MLAs elected. That equates to a spend of £5,990 per seat secured. Their partners in opposition the SDLP spent £4,311 per seat secured, although they were outdone by Alliance whose spend per seat was £4.694. Next was lone wolf Jim Allister of the TUV who secured their only seat at £3,703 expenditure.

For the Executive parties the DUP’s spend per seat was £2,354 and Sinn Féin’s was £1,901. The Green Party’s two MLA’s were elected with a per seat spend of £1,642.

Mike Nesbitt isn’t nearly three and a half times as good a party leader and MLA as Steven Agnew and we get two Greens for the price of one TUV – cheap at half the price!

So if expenditure doesn’t equate to seats, what does? In Assembly elections it is nothing but good old-fashioned constituency work. That’s why Clare Bailey secured the Green’s second seat and why Sinn Féin has an MLA and Minister in Mairtín Ó’Muilleoir in middle-class South Belfast. It’s why Claire Sugden held her seat following co-option during the previous Assembly term.

So who wants to tell Mike?