Northern Ireland: Did the centre hold?

Obviously, the big story from last week’s Northern Ireland election was the dramatic drop in support for the Unionist parties which led to them losing their minority in the Assembly (and its predecessors) for the first time ever. Rather than add to the analysis of the (Nicholas Whyte in the Irish Times is a good starting point, but there’s plenty of good coverage out there), I want to look at the political centre in Northern Ireland, to follow on from my post last week.

One interesting feature was that early results (based on first preference votes) didn’t look too rosy for the centre parties, but as votes began to transfer down through the preferences, things started looking better as a trend of UUP and SDLP voters being willing to vote across the cultural cleavage became clear. Seats that had looked tough to hold earlier on in the count were being held thanks to voters. Nicholas Whyte puts it succintly:

A remarkable feature of the election is that voters themselves seem more inclined to cross the divide. The SDLP’s vote share decreased yet again, giving them their worst result in history. But they managed to come out with no net losses. In several cases, seats that had appeared beyond their grasp in the early stages of counting fell into place thanks to transfers from the UUP – not just failure to transfer within Unionism, but an active choice by a crucial minority of moderate voters to try and block the extreme parties.
To be specific: UUP transfers were crucial for the SDLP seats in Lagan Valley and East Londonderry, and the SDLP returned the favour for the UUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The animated results on the Belfast Telegraph’s election site help to make this trend clearer – in seat after seat, when the final UUP or SDLP candidate is eliminated or elected, a large chunk of their vote transfers to the other party (or to the Alliance and the Greens) rather than staying within their side and transferring to the DUP or SDLP.

MLAs designated as ‘other’ (neither unionist nor nationalist) now make up a larger percentage of the Assembly than ever before, going up from 11.1% (12 out of 108) to 12.2% (11 of 90) in the new Assembly. On a wider scale, the more ‘centre’ parties and MLAs (those who can attract significant cross-community support or transfers) now total 34 out of the 90 members. While it’s not the majority of the Assembly those parties represented at the foundation of the Assembly, it’s a reminder that a swing back of support from the DUP and Sinn Fein would not have to be too huge to give the centre parties a majority in the Assembly again. The strength of transfers between them and a growing population in Northern Ireland that want to move on from the politics of the Troubles might make negotiating post-election deals an even more multi-sided game in the future.

Northern Ireland elections and the political centre

(Like my post the other day, and as I expect posts here to be frequently from now on, this is me thinking aloud about issues that circle around my PhD thesis so thoughts, comments and corrections are welcome)

It’s electoral systems geek Christmas right now as Northern Ireland counts its latest Assembly election. As one of the few places in the world to use STV elections and because it has both parties and voters ready to utilise the full potential of the electoral system, it’s fascinating to watch how election counts unfold and see how votes transfer between parties and candidates. (For live coverage, I recommend the Slugger O’Toole blog and Nicholas Whyte’s analysis of the constituencies and the effects of the drop in seats from 6 to 5 in each of them gives a good background)

Beyond the general geekery, one thing that has caught my attention in this election has been the potential development of a new politics of the centre in Northern Ireland. One thing I’ve been working on in my research is the question of how we define a ‘centre party’, and I’m currently looking at ideas of how the political centre can have two different meanings, depending on the political context of the times and the current situation in Northern Ireland gives an interesting illustration of that.

A lot of the theory about political parties is based on the idea of them being an expression of cleavages in society. For instance, in conventional ‘left-right’ politics, parties developed to represent the interests of workers on one side and business on the other. (This is a simplification, but I’m writing a blog post, not an entire paper) When I talk about centre parties, I’m talking about parties that instead try and sit in the middle of that cleavage as an attempt to bridge between the two sides (again, blog post not paper, but you can read my in depth thoughts on this here). This is why Northern Irish politics are interesting in this terms as not only is the main cleavage and dimension of competition a nationalist-unionist one, rather than left-right, it has a clear centre party (the Alliance Party) that intentionally places itself in the middle of that cleavage as well as two main competing parties on either side of the cleavage (Sinn Fein and the SDLP on one, the UUP and DUP on the other).

One of the key changes in Northern Irish politics since the Good Friday agreement has been the movement within each side of the cleavage away from the moderate parties. In the first post-Agreement election, the UUP and the SDLP were the two leading parties, with David Trimble and John Hume leading an all-party power-sharing administration. Since then, the DUP and Sinn Fein have supplanted their more moderate rivals, eventually leading to the position after the last election where they formed an administration between themselves, leaving the more moderate parties to go into opposition. The DUP/Sinn Fein administration collapsed in January over the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, prompting the current election, but part of the reaction to that has been the UUP and SDLP leaders both saying that they would give each other’s parties their second preferences in the vote.

This, I think, helps to illustrate the idea I’m working on of there being two separate but linked idea of the political centre and what it means to be a ‘centre party’. In conventional times, a centre party is merely one that defines itself as being in the middle of the cleavage, but in more polarised times, the conception of the centre widens to include all of those who make common cause in defence of conventional politics against the threat from extremists on either side of the cleavage. Northern Ireland makes for an interesting example of this change because of the strength of the cleavage beforehand, where there’s been very little cross-community voting but now the UUP and SDLP appear to have come to a common realisation that they have more in common with each other across the centre than they do with their rival parties from within their own community. The idea of parties uniting in a democratic centre isn’t new – it’s been a feature of countries threatened by extreme parties, and those emerging from dictatorship into democracy – but it’s interesting to see it playing out in a politics based on a different dimension of competition.

One idea I need to look into more is perhaps the difference between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ centre parties (or perhaps it’s more a difference between explicitly centre parties and those with a centrist tendency?) to look at this idea more, especially the question of when a system reaches a tipping point when competition switches from being cleavage-based to becoming about the centre vs the extreme.

And on that note, it’s time to go and see how the people of Northern Ireland have actually voted, and whether the voters have followed the party leaderships in moving towards the centre, or if they’ve just made all this speculation pointless.

Worth Reading 85: Tie your tie

Do Not Hire John Brown Advertising – Andrew Hickey gets plagiarised. Plagiarist turns up in the comments to provide a great example of chutzpah.
It’s Official: Austerity Economics Doesn’t Work – “Having adopted the policies of Keynes in response to a calamitous recession, the United States has grown more than twice as fast during the past three years as Britain, which adopted the economics of Hoover”
We are all Alliance now – Spineless Liberal responds to the threats against Alliance politicians in Northern Ireland.
502: French conservatives temporarily unavailable – Alex Harrowell explains at A Fistful Of Euros how a close leadership election has split the French right.
Why we are calling for an end to the war on drugs – Julian Huppert explains the position of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

And don’t miss this special message from Alan Partridge: