Wednesday 5 November 2008

The pathetic symbolism of 'poll topping'

The DUP and the TUV have been engaging in an internecine spat concerning next year's European Parliament election. For nationalists, of course, such intra-unionist feuding is a pleasure to behold.

A particular feature of the war of words is the obsession with the thought that Sinn Féin might top the poll.

On 4 November, for the DUP, Mervyn Storey said: “There is still time for Mr. Allister to pull back from the brink – he can do the honourable thing and abandon vote splitting. He chose to do so in the Enniskillen by-election in order to stop Sinn Fein from topping the poll in that race – why will he not do so for all of Northern Ireland? Is keeping Unionism at the head of the poll in Europe less important than a local council by-election? Why has he changed his longstanding position on the need to stop Sinn Fein topping the poll in European contests?"

Storey claims that Allister had also asked whether "… the honest, decent, law-abiding people of Northern Ireland want to see Sinn Fein strut the international stage as the largest political party in the Province peddling their pro-terror propaganda?" (though it is not clear when or where Allister was supposed to have said this).

Is 'poll topping' becoming yet another pointless unionist obsession?

In elections run according to the semi-democratic 'First-past-the-post' system, poll-topping is essential, as it is the poll-topper who gets the seat, regardless of how small a part of the vote he or she gets. However, in most elections in Northern Ireland, including the European Parliament elections, it is the more democratic 'Single Transferrable Vote' version of proportional representation that is used.

So poll topping is irrelevant, as long as the other parties transfer their votes to each other. A candidate could top the poll and still fail to be elected, if they are subsequently overtaken by others who receive more transfers. But clearly to some unionists the symbolism is more important that the reality. Good vote management, and real commitments to transfer votes, are much more important in terms of delivering seats.

Clearly, between the DUP and the TUV there is bad blood, and hopefully this will lead to poor levels of vote transfers, and perhaps even two nationalist MEPs in 2009. Maybe Sinn Féin will even top the poll – if symbolism is so important to unionists then this would be especially rewarding for nationalists.

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