Five years ago, I wrote this piece after the 2014 local government election. The primary victors in that contest were the UUP and the TUV, who succeeded in delivering a number of blows to the DUP. The UUP return of 88 seats amounted to a notional increase of 9 seats in terms of percentage share of seats under the new 11 council model in 2014 when compared to the previous 26 council model. The TUV performance was particularly striking, with Jim Allister’s party gaining 13 seats across 6 councils.
One of the other main themes emerging from that election was the declining nationalist turnout and its impact on representation. I noted at the time that both nationalist parties were down (in an equivalent context) on their performance in the local government council elections in 2011, and that it was possible to identify a dozen DEAs in which poor turnout had cost a seat for either of the two parties (SF/SDLP).
2014 Local Govt Council Results
|26 Council equivalent seat tally
|+/- on equivalent tally
|2011 Seats (/582)
The election of 2014 was also interesting due to the involvement of NI21, a party that briefly set itself up as a potential alternative middle ground voice to the Alliance Party. NI21 was initially conceived of as a pro-Union party but later somewhat clumsily rebranded as non-committal on the constitutional question, itself a revealing indication of how middle-ground politics has shifted in the past generation. Whilst NI21 only succeeded in gaining representation to one council, they did contest DEAs across eight council areas.
Fast forward five years, and the context has changed completely.
The DUP’s dominance within unionism has been underlined by the two elections of 2017 to the Assembly and Westminster, whilst the surging nationalist turnouts of those same elections will have a significant impact on nationalist representation in May if repeated.
As things stand, both Sinn Fein and the DUP look on course for record performances at council level this year, something which will further consolidate their dominant positions as the pre-eminent voices for unionism and nationalism.
Their cause has been helped by the underwhelming performance of both parties in the last council elections, meaning that both parties have a considerable number of achievable target seat gains as well as a further band of targets in the event of their vote share matching the performances in 2017 at (or more likely between) Assembly and Westminster level.
The local elections provide us with 80 separate electoral contests to analyse, and examining the performance of the parties across each of these separate electoral battlefields five years ago produces some interesting statistics.
In 2014, Sinn Fein alone amongst the largest four parties failed to gain representation to each of the eleven newly formed councils. The party did not secure any councillors to the new Lisburn and Castlereagh Council nor to North Down and Ards Council. This was not unexpected, and pointed to a continuation of the party’s failure to strategically plan to maximize its potential to appeal to voters across District Electoral Areas (DEAs) in communities that were majority unionist, as well as majority nationalist. This has been a recurring theme for the party since it began contesting elections again in the mid-1980s. For example, in 1993 Sinn Fein fielded candidates in only 52 of the 101 DEAs across the then 26 local government councils.
|No. DEAs with elected reps
To a lesser extent, it has also been a problem for the SDLP, who were similarly slow to extend party organization and contest elections beyond communities that would be perceived as having significant nationalist populations, something which helped bolster support for the Alliance Party for many years.
The table above illustrates the representation gap that continues to exist after 2014. Whilst both Unionist parties are represented on 65/66 of the 80 District Electoral Areas across the 11 Councils, Sinn Fein are represented on only 50, with the SDLP securing representation on 51 DEAs in 2014
It is likely that Sinn Fein will significantly increase the number of DEAs in which they have representatives elected in May, with gains likely to come at the expense of primarily the SDLP but also Alliance and Unionists. The DUP’s dominant position within unionism is likely to be confirmed at council level too, markedly reducing the number of DEAs with UUP representation, leaving us with a local election map in terms of geographical representation more closely resembling the post-Westminster map of DUP/SF dominance.
Maximising turnout for party voters within multi-seat DEAs is of critical importance to optimising the potential to secure more than one party representative is returned. This has for long been something Sinn Fein excelled at, compensating for their failure to geographically extend representation, as the table below illustrates.
2014 Local Govt Elections: Number of DEAs in which parties received % share of 1st Preference votes
Sinn Fein secured more than 50% of first preference votes in 10 DEAs in 2014, and between 40-49.9% in a further 8 DEAs. That level of domination was crucial to ensuring the party won multiple seats in the 50 DEAs in which they were represented.
The SDLP and DUP secured 50%+ votes in only one DEA each, though the DUP did win 40-49.9% of the vote in a further 8 DEAs.
On the basis of the 2017 election results, it is likely that both SF and the DUP will significantly increase the number of DEAs in which they win 30%-50%+ share of votes, which will further squeeze support levels and representation for the other parties.
In sum, the relatively poor outing in 2014 for both of our main parties has ensured that there are plenty of seats for them to win in a prevailing electoral climate that both Sinn Fein and the DUP would view as extremely favourable.
This is the first in a series of articles about the 2019 Local Government elections.