Spending by candidates in the 2019 local government election is now available and when we delve into it, comparing candidate and party spend with the number of votes secured, a number of very interesting narratives emerge. The headline figure is that 819 candidates, representing 17 parties (plus 71 independents) spent a total of £650,140 in order to win 462 council seats. (It should be noted that there are only returns for 815 candidates as 4 candidates either did not make or made incomplete returns).
The average spend per candidate was £798 but there was significant variation across the parties and eleven councils, and between candidates who won seats and those who failed to be elected.
Whilst the average spend per candidate was £798, the average per winning candidate was £862, as opposed to £705 for candidates who were not successful. Whilst there is no direct correlation between spend and success, it is, however, true that candidates who were elected spent, on average, more money than those who were not.
In terms of the main parties, the DUP were the biggest spenders, coming in at £849 on average per candidate, which was considerably ahead of Sinn Féin who only spent £772 on average per candidate. Despite spending less overall, the fact that the UUP and SDLP fielded fewer candidates meant that their average costs per person were considerably higher, spending £950 and £906 respectively. This is a further indicator that higher spend does not automatically equate to electoral success. On average Alliance spent £533 per candidate, the Greens £528 and TUV £638, but it should be noted that the Green Party’s comparatively low spend per vote figure is heavily influenced by the fact that 14 of their 26 candidates submitted a ‘nil return’ for their election expenses, indicating that their candidates spent £0 on the election (and one of their candidates had an election spend of £1). Of their 11 candidates who submitted election returns of greater than £2, 8 of them were elected, suggesting that the Greens had a good very idea where they needed to target resources and where they would be running ‘paper campaigns’ with a name on a ballot paper and not much more. The highest polling Green candidate who spent no money was in the Belfast DEA of Titanic, Ben Smylie, who polled 641 first preference votes, which was more than 29 candidates across NI who were actually elected.
The largest amount of money spend by a candidate who was not elected was the Workers Party’s Oldpark candidate Chris Bailie, who despite spending £1,695 (the second highest amount of any candidate in the entire election) only polled 93 first preference votes. Bailie almost managed to top the league table for the most money spent per vote (Total Spend / Total number first preference votes) coming in at £18.23 per vote but he was pipped by the Erne North Democrats and Veterans Party candidate Lewis Jennings who despite spending ‘only’ £619 polled 20 first preference votes (the lowest of any candidate in the entire election) meaning he spent a massive £30.94 per vote.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the Independent Ballymena councillor Rodney Quigley who was the candidate elected with the lowest spend, polling 433 first preference votes, despite only spending £218, meaning his spend per votes was £0.50. As impressive as this spend per vote ratio was, it pales into insignificance compared to the SDLP Oldpark councillor Paul McCusker, who with the largest vote of any candidate in the election (2,856 votes) managed to only spend £562, meaning his spend per votes was only £0.20
There was also significant difference in spend across the eleven different council areas, with Belfast having the highest average spend per candidate (£905) compared with Mid and East Antrim (£698). Even at DEA level, at each individual race, there were significant variations in spend, with the single most expensive race being for the Belfast five seater Botanic DEA where 15 candidates spend a total of £15,391 which compared to the Mid & East Antrim race in Larne Lough which only saw 8 candidates spend £4,758. In terms of average spend per race, the Ards and North Down DEA of Comber saw the lowest average spend per DEA of £574 compared to the Newry, Mourne and Down DEA of The Mournes which saw the highest average spend of £1,120.
What all of these figures tell us is that whilst there is clearly a relationship between candidate spend and votes polled the relationship is by no means causal. Candidates who spend a lot of money are not guaranteed to win and candidates who spend relatively little money are by no means doomed to failure. The figures around average spend by party are particularly telling as across NI, a clear picture emerges around those places where parties thought that throwing money at the campaign might compensate for their shortcomings, and those where parties were more strategic and invested in races where they might make a difference. Now that the dust has settled and the post mortems will be underway, this data reinforces the message that simply throwing money at elections does not solve long term problems when it comes to failing to engage and get a clear message across to voters. The two parties which had the best local government election, in terms of increased vote share, were Alliance and the Greens who only spent on average £533 and £528 respectively per candidate. The DUP’s higher average spend of £849 generated only a 1% increase in vote share, whilst the UUP and SDLP, who spent £950 and £906 respectively, saw their votes reduce by 2.1% and 1.6% overall.
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