The Alliance Party’s gains in the local and European elections won’t necessarily lead to Assembly election success

As expected, Naomi Long won a seat in the European Parliament following the Alliance Party’s success at the local elections earlier in the month.

However, it isn’t necessarily a given that the Alliance Party’s success at the local and European level will translate to success in any future Assembly election. This is because the areas that Alliance increased their vote in aren’t optimal from the point of view of maximizing their representation in the Assembly. Unlike the system in Israel, where there is one nationwide constituency and party representation is in proportion with the number of votes received, the way in which Northern Ireland’s constituencies are drawn means that Alliance have few straightforward opportunities to make gains, even in the context of an overall increased vote.

The following table shows the forecast and results from the 2017 Assembly election. Alliance won eight of the nine seats that they were expected to win, narrowly missing out on a seat in North Belfast and also one in South Down.

The two most straightforward opportunities for Alliance to make gains in the Assembly are in South Down and North Belfast. However, these are two areas in which the party failed to make substantive progress. The bulk of their gains, since the 2017 Assembly election, came in the Belfast commuter belt in constituencies such as South Antrim and Lagan Valley, where Alliance already have a sitting MLA but are still well short of the support that would see the party get two MLAs elected in the five-member Assembly constituencies. In other words, the rise in support for the party means that their incumbent MLAs are almost certain to retain their seats, but they will find it difficult to make any gains.

The table below shows how many Assembly quotas would have been received by each party in each constituency if the 2019 local election had have been for the Assembly (Council DEAs sometimes cross constituency boundaries, in which case I made an allocation).

There are few obvious opportunities for Alliance to make gains. In seats where they have no sitting MLA such as Upper Bann, their support at the local elections imply they would get 0.5 quotas at an Assembly election (compared with 0.2 in 2017), which would probably be insufficient to take a seat. In areas such as East Antrim, where they already have a sitting MLA, the local election results suggest that they would receive 1.4 quotas, up from 0.96 in 2017. Whilst a substantial increase, it would again probably not be enough to see an extra MLA elected there at the UUP’s expense.

In contrast, even though the UUP had a poor election overall, the areas in which their support has held up suggests that they could be in a position to make gains at a future Assembly election. Whilst the UUP only won 10 seats at the last Assembly election, there are a number of constituencies where they only narrowly missed out on a seat. Based on the local election results, the UUP will fancy their chances at winning back a seat in Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Newry & Armagh (all at the expense of Sinn Féin) and possibly even South Down (at the expense of the SDLP).

Sinn Féin, on the other hand, will be playing defence at the next Assembly election due to the number of seats that they won narrowly in 2017. They will have a particularly difficult time holding on to all three of the seats that they won in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, most likely losing one to the SDLP, in addition to the three seats vulnerable to a challenge from the UUP.

The DUP will be unworried about losing many of their Assembly seats, with only their third seat in Strangford being notably at risk to a challenge from the SDLP. They could well end up trading a seat in Strangford for a seat in Lagan Valley with the SDLP.

Looking ahead to a possible Westminster election, the Alliance Party will be the most encouraged by what the local election results imply for a future poll. Assuming that Lady Sylvia Hermon does not stand at the next Westminster election, there are now three DUP/Alliance marginals; North Down, East Belfast and South Belfast. The percentage of votes for each party in each constituency breaks down as follows.

Alliance now appear to be the main challenger to the DUP in Belfast South, with the SDLP falling back in to the peloton in the constituency. They are also well placed to gain back the seat in East Belfast lost to the DUP in 2015. Were the Alliance Party and the Greens to form an electoral pact in North Down, South Belfast and East Belfast then they would, together, be firm favourites to win all three seats.

Elsewhere, the SDLP are in a good position to win back the seat lost to Sinn Féin in 2017. In Fermanagh & South Tyrone a unionist pact could see the constituency return to the unionist column, continuing a pattern of the UUP and Sinn Féin trading the seat which has being going on since the dawn of time.

Whilst the Alliance Party will be cheered by their results in elections this month, the quirks and eddies of Northern Ireland’s electoral system means that the path to translating these gains to additional seats in Stormont is far from straightforward.

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