(Part 1 can be found here.)
Was the unionist vote shredded, and did it lose seats as a result?
On Saturday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson stated “when you dilute the unionist vote sometimes that means unionist candidates don’t get elected”. It is a common refrain from many unionist politicians down the decades that the existence of so many unionist parties shreds the vote and loses seats: this is untrue for the 2023 local election.
The DUP gained 23.3% of the vote and won 122 (26.4%) of the seats. The UUP gained 10.9% of the vote and won 54 (11.7%) of the seats. The TUV, finding it difficult to pick up transfers, gained 3.9% of the vote but only won nine (1.9%) of the seats. Taken together, the three major unionist parties won 38.1% of the vote but won 185 seats (40.0%). The DUP had a seats bonus of +3.1%, greater than any other party.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s combined vote share of 39.6% was 1.5% greater than the three major unionist parties, but they gained 183 seats (39.6%), two less than DUP+UUP+TUV.
Alliance and Greens gained 15% of the vote, but won 72 (15.6%) seats, a bonus of 0.6%.
Shredding the unionist vote is a meaningful concept in Westminster first-past-the-post elections, but it is not an issue in PR-STV multi-member elections, such as local or Assembly elections.
How big was the Sinn Féin vote share change compared to other elections?
If we look at election results since the five parties have been contesting elections, we find the following ‘giant swings’ over 5% (I am excluding Westminster elections due to its non-proportional voting system, which gives rise to tactical voting and electoral pacts. The swings are relative to the previous election for the same election type):
- +8.2%: DUP 2005 local
- -7.8% UUP 2007 Assembly
- +7.7% SF 2023 local
- +7.5% DUP 2003 Assembly
- -6.8% DUP 2022 Assembly
- -6.6% DUP 1989 local
- +5.9% SF 2003 Assembly
- +5.7% DUP 2001 local
Interestingly, Sinn Féin’s large swing last Thursday is not the largest. Most of the biggest swings occurred about twenty years ago as decommissioning and Stormont collapse dominated political events.
All of the major party share drops are for unionist parties, and probably explains how difficult it is for unionist parties to compromise as they are likely to be punished by their voters at the succeeding election. The fear of being Lundied is a real one for unionist parties, based on these huge changes. DUP strategists are likely gaming how their 2027 Assembly / local election vote will be hit by TUV gains if they enter Stormont.
Such volatility is not shared by nationalist and middle-ground voters. There are fewer giant swings, and those that are there are positive shifts towards SF. This is more evidence that non-unionist voters reward parties that take political risks or initiatives.
Titanic had the lowest turnout, and the highest turnout, by a country mile, was Clogher Valley.
How did the valid poll % change since 2019?
Derry west of the Foyle had the biggest turnout drops (-4.1% in Ballyarnett), and Clogher Valley had a huge rise, 9.5%. The unionist minus nationalist gap there in 2019 was 50.7/49.3 in favour of unionism. That extremely close gap is likely to have spurred on the enormous turnout increase and it has now flipped to 41.8/58.2.
Clogher Valley got me thinking: is turnout greater when the unionist minus nationalist gap is narrowest? No. Amazingly, there is no trend this time. This suggests that what motivated voters (apart from in Clogher Valley!) to increase turnout was not the fear of the other side pulling ahead, but some other issue. And voters also increased turnout in safe unionist and nationalist EAs (apart from west Derry). Perhaps the desire to support or oppose the failure of Stormont to sit was the motivating factor? This suggests that EA-local zero-sum voting has reduced in salience and is now superseded by NI-level zero-sum voting.
Why the DUP were the most successful party compared to the 2022 Assembly election:
Comparing the vote shares with the 2022 Assembly election (highest increase first) we have:
|Party||2022 Assembly vote %||2023 Local election vote %||% change|
The DUP’s vote share increased more than any other party. And the party they most feared losing votes to – the TUV – had the biggest vote decrease: their vote share has almost halved. This gives the DUP some room to wriggle back to Stormont. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is in a much stronger position compared to Brian Faulkner or David Trimble. If his party doesn’t split – should they re-enter Stormont – it is hard to imagine any future challenge from the TUV. If he does re-enter Stormont and work constructively with the new FM, the DUP may reconnect with more liberal unionists who have gone to UUP and Alliance. Paradoxically, the advent of nationalist bloc plurality is likely to help him avoid a split in his own party.
No huge swings then between last year and this year. But the significance of last Thursday’s result is that it puts the unionist bloc behind the nationalist bloc, and it resets our mental map of the political geography of NI.
I am putting the maps here without comment: they speak for themselves.
SF compared to SDLP
DUP compared to UUP
I will look at bloc votes (when I have time to analyse transfers) and EA battlegrounds for the 2027 local elections in the next article.
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.