Friday 12 June 2009

The effect of electoral reform

Every decade or so a proposal is made to reform Britain's barely-democratic 'First-Past-The-Post' (FPTP) electoral system. The proposals usually come to nothing.

Such will, almost certainly, be the fate of the latest flirtation with greater democracy. The British Labour Party hinted at a reform of the electoral system for Westminster elections recently, but, as Gordon Brown put it: 'Looking at the issue and coming up with proposals is hardly the same as actively backing the idea'. And, in any case, there will certainly not be any reform until after the next Westminster election, which will be won by the Tories who are not keen on abolishing FPTP.

Nonetheless, it may be interesting to examine what might happen in Northern Ireland under the system being discussed: the alternative vote (AV) system (also known as 'Instant Run-off Voting').

In brief, AV is similar to the Single Transferrable Vote system (STV) used in various elections in Northern Ireland already (Assembly, Councils), but unlike in these cases there is only one candidate elected. It is precisely the system used to elect the President of Ireland.

Such a system ought to reduce anomalies such as the famous election of Willie Thompson in West Tyrone in 1997, when, with only 35% of the vote he squeezed through a nationalist majority of 63% that was split neatly in two (SDLP 32%, Sinn Féin 31%). Under AV enough of Sinn Féin's votes would have transferred to the SDLP to take them safely past Thompson, but under FPTP the seat is given according to 'first preferences' only.

If AV was introduced for Westminster elections, the effect would be as follows (based on the 2007 Assembly results, and leaving aside, for the time being, the impact of the DUP's recent hammering):

Belfast East: No change (As the largest Unionist party in a unionist-majority constituency the DUP would progressively sweep up the PUP and UUP votes until they had a majority)

Belfast North: No change (A close contest, but McCord's votes were probably default-unionist and would eventually find their way to the DUP)

Belfast South: Probable DUP gain from SDLP (Although the Alliance Party hold a balance here between two large minority blocks, when the Alliance votes are distributed they would probably go to the unionist and nationalist blocks in equal numbers – as in the recent European election, where 53% of the combined Alliance and Green transfers went to unionists, including 12% which went to the TUV! Alliance voters are not all 'nayce'.)

Belfast West: No change (Sinn Féin)

East Antrim: No change (DUP)

East Derry: No change (DUP)

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: A nail-biter as always, but if the SDLP votes transfer to Sinn Féin, then they would be home and dry. AV would reduce the chances of unionism achieving its fantasy – a split nationalist vote allowing a minority unionist to take the seat.

Foyle: No change (SDLP)

Lagan Valley: No change (DUP)

Mid Ulster: No change (Sinn Féin is too close to an absolute majority for tactical voting by unionists to have any effect)

Newry and Armagh: No change (With a very similar voting breakdown to Mid Ulster, the Sinn Féin vote in Newry and Armagh is too close to 50% for any realistic expectation that unionist transfers to the SDLP would allow them to pull ahead. It would require almost 100% of unionists to mark a (third) preference for the SDLP, which would be a step too far for many.

North Antrim: No change (On the basis of 2007, DUP – but the new Allister factor could really open this constituency up).

North Down: Since Sylvia Hermon is very unlikely to be reselected by the UUP, her high personal vote may no long be part of the calculation. This would open this constituency wide. Although the DUP were the largest unionist party in 2007, they may attract fewer transfers than the UUP, especially from Alliance, Green and independent candidates, and so after many counts, it may be the UUP who retain this seat.

South Antrim: Another seat in which transfers could really change the outcome. This constituency has a large number of Alliance and nationalist votes, which could, if courted, eventually transfer to the UUP candidate. Given the sitting MP's deep unpopularity with nationalists and moderates, this seat should change hands – UUP gain.

South Down: No change (The SDLP should hold this seat, with the help of a small number of tactical unionist lower placed preferences. No unionist could be elected, and some unionists may be strategic enough to give a third preference to the SDLP, thereby ensuring that they stay ahead of Sinn Féin, who are breathing down their necks.

Strangford: No change (DUP)

Upper Bann: No change (The DUP would retain this when the UUP votes are distributed)

West Tyrone: As in Mid Ulster, Sinn Féin are too close to an absolute majority for any other party to overtake them without a miraculously perfect record of transfers.

In summary, therefore, the introduction of Alternative Voting in Westminster elections would not have a huge impact on Northern Ireland. The DUP would gain one seat (South Belfast) and lose one (South Antrim). The UUP would be the winners, with one extra seat (South Antrim) and the SDLP the losers, with the loss of South Belfast. Within a few years, though, demographic change in South Belfast (probably the fastest anywhere in Northern Ireland) should return the seat to the SDLP.


hoboroad said...

Another great post from the master

Faha said...

I agree with your analysis, except for South Belfast. The DUP could not win this seat. It is true that the UUP receives fewer votes than the DUP and would be eliminated. However, in the 2007 Assembly election in South Antrim and Strangford, the UUP transfers broke down 20% to the SDLP and 60% to the DUP with 20% not transfering. Alliance voters who transfer to the UUP would be even more likely to transfer to the SDLP at a rate higher than 20%. Otherwise, I think your analysis of the other 17 constituencies is the way it will be.

Anonymous said...

Sylvia would be unlikely to take a deselection lying down and would probably comfortably outpoll an "official" UUP candidate, to judge by the UUP performance in the local elections in North Down in 2005.

Incidentally, the complete local and Assembly election results since 1973 - including transfers - are now up at the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland website.

hoboroad said...

Sylvia will start a party of her own.The longer it takes the more likely it is.She might have joined Alliance but it would have happened by now.Poor Reg beware of a women scorned!The best chance of a UCUNF seat at Westminister and he has gone and blown it!

Anonymous said...

Another insular way of looking at the things. What about using the d'Hondt system, which is used on the continent and Engalnd/Wales/Scotland for European elections? That would most likely result in a much larger turn-out showing at every election how the electorate really is distributed.

Brad said...

Careful with that flowchart of yours. IRV has its own problems too that are addressed by Condorcet methods. Ranked Pairs, for example, is reasonably simple to explain, but produces far fairer results.