Wednesday 10 October 2007

Election famine

The announcement by the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that he would not call a Westminster election in 2007, or probably even in 2008, means that Northern Ireland is going to suffer a rare two-year election famine.

Over the past thirty years there have been 26 Northern Ireland-wide elections; eight for the District Councils, seven Westminster elections, six European Parliament elections, and five elections to local assemblies. This gives an average of almost one NI-wide election per year. Of course, they are sometimes bunched, such as in 1997, 2001 and 2005 when both Westminster and District Council elections were held, but recently voters in Northern Ireland have been getting used to an almost annual unofficial constitutional referendum.

However, with the Assembly having been elected this year for a fixed four year term, the District Councils in 2005 also for a fixed four-year term, and the European Parliament in 2004 for a five-year term, the only electoral opportunity available was the unpredictable Westminster Parliament. Now Gordon Brown has called off his planned election, leaving the political landscape in Northern Ireland frozen in its 2007 shape for two more years.

This has two main consequences.

Firstly, it means that for a period of two years the natural evolution of the northern electorate is going to be invisible. The annual cull of elderly unionists and the annual flood of young nationalists into the electorate are going to be unobserved. In raw figures, every year sees the death of some 10,000 elderly Protestants (and thus unionists), but only 5,000 Catholics. So in the two year period unionism will lose a net 10,000 potential voters – and the elderly have a higher-than-average turnout rate in elections. At the entry point of the electorate the difference is not so stark, but slightly more Catholics reach 18 every year than Protestants, and so new voters are more likely to be nationalist than unionist. Putting the two ends of the electorate together, and we could see the gap between the overall unionist vote and the overall nationalist vote narrowing by some 15,000 votes in the next two years. And remember that that gap was only 42,000 in 2007. The longer the period between elections, the more dramatic the narrowing will look.

Secondly, if Brown avoids an election in 2008, then he is almost certain to call one in 2009. However, according to the fixed schedule of elections to the District Councils and the European Parliament, they will also hold elections in 2009. So 2009 promises to be an election bonanza, with local elections for the newly reconfigured District Councils, Westminster, and the European Parliament. Each of these elections will be different, but each will be hard-fought. They are unlikely to be held on the same day, so the electorate will suffer from voter-fatigue by the end. But by the time the votes are all counted the new political landscape will be clearer, opening up a fascinating campaign for the next elections to the Assembly which will follow in 2011.

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