With the list of candidates for the 2019 local government election scheduled to be released after 6pm on Monday 8th April, now is a good time to look back at the runners and riders from the last council elections back in 2014.
The 2014 election was the first to be fought on the new eleven ‘super council’ basis and saw a total of 974 candidates running for 462 seats, a reduction from the 582 seats prior to 2014. The results saw the DUP win the most council seats (130), followed by Sinn Féin (105), the UUP (88), the SDLP (66), Alliance (32) and TUV (13). Between them the smaller parties and a slew of Independents won the remaining 27 seats.
Whilst those who were elected tells us about the mindset of the voters, the decisions made about running candidates tells us a lot more about the mindsets of the political parties. One of the most significant things to jump out from the list of 2014 candidates was the abject failure of parties to select female candidates. None of the parties covered themselves in glory when it came to the proportion of female candidates they ran, with the overall percentage of female candidates comprising just 24% (229 out of a total of 745 candidates).
There were also very clear differences in the proportion of female candidates in each of the 11 councils, with the highest proportion of female candidates running in Causeway, Coast and Glens (29%) and the lowest proportion running in Antrim and Newtownabbey (15%).
In a similar way to the councils, there was a huge disparity in the proportion of female candidates put forward by each party, with the highest proportion of female candidates standing for the SDLP (33%) and the lowest proportion representing the UUP (19%).
It was also interesting to see that whilst all parties proclaim to be fighting for every vote, in reality for council elections this simply isn’t the case. For an Assembly or a Westminster election, in order to ensure that every person in Northern Ireland can vote for them, all a party has to do is field 18 candidates. To ensure that every person in Northern Ireland is able to vote for a party in the council elections they have to run a minimum of eighty candidates, that is one in each District Electoral Area (DEA), but in fact no party managed to achieve this.
The figures show that for the DUP, one in ten people in Northern Ireland were not able to vote for them in 2014, and for Sinn Fein it was one in five people. Whilst the UUP actually ran candidates in more DEAs than any other party, it did not materialize into them winning more seats than their opponents in the DUP. The SDLP found themselves in a similar situation to the UUP as they ran candidates in more DEAs than Sinn Féin but won considerably fewer seats. Whilst there is a perception with Alliance that they are generally confined to the Greater Belfast area they clearly competed in all council areas but struggled to cover some DEAs, especially in the south and west.
It’s clear from these figures that in 2014 the DUP and the UUP contested the most DEAS, Sinn Féin and the SDLP contested a reduced number of DEAs, and Alliance slightly fewer, followed by the smaller parties. There is obviously an issue for parties in getting candidates to stand for them in areas where they have not previously contested elections, and there are also cost considerations which have to be factored in to contesting elections, but unlike Assembly and Westminster elections a deposit does not have to be paid to contest the election. In the weeks ahead we will hear pitches from a vast array of candidates and political parties looking for our votes, but when political parties do not offer everyone a chance to vote for their candidates and their policies it calls this into question their motivation and suggests that financial considerations may be a primary determinant in whether or not to run a candidate in a particular area.
When the lists of candidates are published it will be interesting to see if the proportion of female candidates running has increased, as three of the five largest parties are now led by female leaders, as opposed to none in 2014. It will also be interesting to see where parties are running candidates and whether they have expanded beyond the areas they contested in 2014 or retreated to their core areas, an indication perhaps of how they think they will fare in May.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast