Thursday 30 April 2009

Reducing the number of MLAs, redux

Last week this blog estimated how a reduction in the number of MLAs would affect the strengths of the various parties and blocks in the Assembly. This estimate was made entirely on the basis of the results of the most recent Assembly elections in 2007, and used the constituency boundaries in force at that time.

The next Assembly election, however, will be carried out under slightly different circumstances. Firstly there will be some marginal changes in the electorate, as the passage of time removes a majority-unionist cohort (the elderly) and replaces it by a majority-nationalist cohort (the 18-22 year olds). Secondly, there will be some boundary changes as a result of the Final Recommendations of the Boundary Commission, published on 3 October 2007.

When both of these factors are taken into account it is possible to make a forward-looking estimate of the outcome of the 2011 Assembly election. The table below shows a synthesis of this blog's estimate, based on three possible scenarios; no change in the number of MLAs (108), a reduction to five per constituency (90), and a reduction to four per constituency (72):

Two things immediately stand out:

1. In all three scenarios the proportion of the seats that would be won by the two main blocks (unionist and nationalist) is remarkably stable,
2. While the drop from 6 to 5 seats per constituency would largely be at the cost of the 'second parties' in each block (the UUP and the SDLP), a drop from 5 to 4 seats would mostly be at the cost of the largest party in each block (the DUP and Sinn Féin).

The first effect is a surprise, as the initial estimate made on the basis of the 2007 results showed Sinn Féin, and nationalism as a whole, suffering from a reduction in the number of seats. It seems, however, that the boundary changes, and the slow effect of demographic changes, have wiped out the negative effects of the reduction in the number of MLAs per constituency. The proportion of seats that nationalism would win – around 43% – is close to the estimated strength of the nationalist vote in 2011 – 43.5%. Unionism still enjoys a built-in advantage, though, with its estimated 47.7% of the vote giving it 49-50% of the seats.

Clearly there are a number of assumptions built into this model. Firstly, that the voters tend to be tribal, and pass their transfers to other parties in the same block. Secondly, that the TUV is not an electoral factor. Thirdly, that Kieran Deeny (West Tyrone) does not stand for re-election, or if he does his support is quite low. Fourthly, that the UUP/Tory partnership fails to inspire the electorate.

The precise outcome per constituency can, of course, be questioned. This blog's estimate includes the following:

For the 'Status Quo' model (i.e. a retention of 108 MLAs):

- Most constituencies see no change
- Belfast North – DUP gain from UUP (additional DUP votes from Newtownabbey)
- East Antrim – SDLP gain from UUP (additional SDLP votes from the Glens)
- Lagan Valley – DUP gain from Sinn Féin (loss of nationalist voters to West Belfast)
- Strangford – SDLP gain from DUP (loss of DUP voters to Belfast East)
- West Tyrone – SDLP gain from Deeny.

When one seat is removed from each constituency, this blog estimates the losses to be:

- East Belfast – DUP
- North Belfast – DUP
- South Belfast – SDLP
- West Belfast – Sinn Féin
- East Antrim – SDLP
- East Derry – DUP
- Fermanagh and South Tyrone – DUP
- Foyle – SDLP
- Lagan Valley – DUP
- Mid Ulster – UUP
- Newry and Armagh – DUP
- North Antrim – SDLP
- South Antrim – SDLP
- North Down – Green
- South Down – UUP
- Strangford – SDLP
- Upper Bann – UUP
- West Tyrone - UUP

When another seat is removed, leaving only four, the losses are estimated as follows:

- East Belfast – PUP
- North Belfast – Sinn Féin
- South Belfast – Sinn Féin and Alliance, SDLP gain
- West Belfast – Sinn Féin
- East Antrim – DUP
- East Derry – DUP
- Fermanagh and South Tyrone – SDLP
- Foyle – Sinn Féin
- Lagan Valley – DUP
- Mid Ulster – Sinn Féin
- Newry and Armagh – Sinn Féin
- North Antrim – DUP
- South Antrim – Alliance
- North Down – UUP
- South Down – Sinn Féin
- Strangford – DUP
- Upper Bann – DUP
- West Tyrone – Sinn Féin

The issue of a reduction in the number of MLAs is going to re-surface, and clearly each party will be doing their own calculations to see which possible outcome suits them best. The unionist parties tend towards supporting a reduction, ostensibly on cost grounds, but nobody should be naïve enough to believe that – they currently think that any reduction will disproportionately affect the nationalist parties. Sinn Féin have already held their council for now, preferring to wait and see what the Efficiency Review Panel says. The analysis carried out by this blog, however, tends to indicate that any reduction will be quite neutral in effect.


Anonymous said...

Very good piece. One question: given your predictions of a nationalist majority don't you think that a nationalist tally of 43% of the seats in a 2011 Assembly election is, well, disappointing? When will see the nationalist surge anticipated in your demographic pieces?

Horseman said...


43% in 2011 is not disappointing at all, when you look at the trend. It is constantly moving upwards (39.7% in 1998, 40.7% in 2003, and 42.6% in 2007). A gain by nationalism of over 3% in 13 years, bringing it to barely 4% less than unionism, means that (statistically at any rate), nationalism should outpoll unionism within about a decade after 2011. My own estimate is a nationalist majority (or at least a plurality) in the 2020s. This has always been my position (I'm not a 2016-ista).

Demographic changes are not things that happen overnight, but in the long-term this is rapid change. If you look back at where we were a generation ago, and try to imagine here we'll be in an other generation, it's pretty revolutionary. If I were a unionist I'd start to plan for this, rather than pretending it won't happen.

kieron said...


the tipping point for quite a few seats seems to me be the elections after next in 2016 - I'm not sure what work you have done on this but the impact the increase in the Nationalist vote may have if the seats are reduced in 2016 may vary from 2011.
When do you think there will be an equal number of Nationalists in the assembly - this will be a critical morale and practical blow for Unionism when and if it arrives.