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A smaller Northern Ireland Assembly?

Martin McGuinness has today added his support to the notion of cutting the Northern Ireland Assembly to 90 seats from the current 108, ie to five per constituency instead of six.

How would this have affected the 2011 election? It's a fairly straightforward calculation to raise the quota in each seat from 14.29% to 16.67% and work out who would have won. Of course, one has to apply the caveat that if there had been only five seats rather than six up for grabs in each constituency, parties might have managed their nominating strategies differently. But bearing that in mind, it's reasonably clear in the majority of cases that the party that won the sixth seat in 2011 would likely not have won if there had been only five seats up for grabs. This applies fairly clearly in the following cases:

2011 outcome2011 last elected5-seat projection
Lagan Valley4 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 AllianceDUP3 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance
Strangford3 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 AllianceUUP3 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance
North Antrim 3 DUP, 1 SF, 1 TUV, 1 UUPTUV3 DUP, 1 SF, 1 UUP
East Antrim3 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance, 1 SFSF3 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 Alliance
East Belfast3 DUP, 2 Alliance, 1 UUPUUP3 DUP, 2 Alliance
South Antrim 3 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SF, 1 AllianceDUP2 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SF, 1 Alliance
East Londonderry3 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 IndDUP2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 Ind
South Belfast2 SDLP, 1 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 1 SFSDLP1 SDLP, 1 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 1 SF
Newry and Armagh3 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP, 1 DUPSF2 SF, 1 SDLP, 1 UUP, 1 DUP
Foyle3 SDLP, 2 SF, 1 DUPSDLP2 SDLP, 2 SF, 1 DUP
West Belfast5 SF, 1 SDLPSF4 SF, 1 SDLP

There are some cases where it gets a bit trickier - especially if the last elected and the runner-up came from the same party or from similar community backgrounds, it's likely that their combined votes would actually have excluded someone else. I make that call in the following cases:

2011 outcomeUn v Nat2011 last elected5-seat projectionlosernote
North Down 3 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUP, 1 GreenUn 57%, Nat 4%, Oth 39%Green3 DUP, 1 Alliance, 1 UUPGreenThis is really difficult to call between DUP and Greens
Upper Bann2 DUP, 2 UUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLPUn 55%, Nat 39%, Oth 7%SDLP2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 UUP, 1 SDLPUUPNat transfers enough for two seats.
North Belfast3 DUP, 2 SF, 1 SDLPUn 49%, Nat 44%, Oth 7%DUP3 DUP, 2 SFSDLPUnionist transfers certain to save third DUP; SDLP way behind SF.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone3 SF, 2 DUP, 1 UUPUn 46%, Nat 50%, Oth 4%SF3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUPDUPNat transfers enough for three seats.
West Tyrone3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLPUn 33%, Nat 59%, Oth 8%UUP3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUPSDLPUnionists scrape last seat, SDLP far behind
Mid Ulster3 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLPUn 32%, Nat 64%, Oth 4%SF2 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUP, 1 SDLPSFThis one's really tight, but in the end I think the SDLP scrape that last seat.
South Down2 SDLP, 2 SF, 1 DUP, 1 UUPUn 29%, Nat 66%, Oth 5%SDLP2 SDLP, 2 SF, 1 DUPUUPNat transfers enough for four seats.

In general, one expects a broad reform reducing the number of seats to hit the largest parties most in absolute terms, and the smallest parties most in relative terms. But this is not what I see happening here. The losers by my count are disproportionately from the medium-sized parties. Starting with the smallest groups, Jim Allister would not have won the TUV's sole seat in North Antrim had there been only five seats there, and the Greens would probably not have retained their seat in North Down. But the late David McClarty would have still won in East Londonderry, and, perhaps rather surprisingly, all eight Alliance seats would have been safe enough - in a couple of cases, they would have benefited from Nationalist transfers which in the real election went to runners-up.

All of the big parties would lose four seats each - the DUP down from 38 to 34 (if the Greens are unlucky in North Down), SF down from 29 to 25, the UUP from 16 to 12 and the SDLP from 14 to 10. Unionist membership of the Assembly remains at 52%, the Nationalist proportion dips imperceptibly from 40% to 39%. This would not have affected the allocation of ministries in the Executive between parties. But it would certainly have affected the relative dominance of the largest two parties within their respective groups.

It has to be said that these numbers are very speculative, and also vulnerable to small variations. The UUP and SDLP both had a pretty lousy election in 2011, and a small uptick in their support could shift the notional results quite a bit. But the point remains that raising the quota from 14.3% to 16.7% particularly affects parties whose support is at around that level in a lot of constituencies.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 18th, 2014 03:48 pm (UTC)
The problem, to me, is the implicit assumption that the number of assembly seats needs to be linked to the number of Westminster constituancies. How about pairing the seats off, and having 9 twin-seats x 7 members each? Or 11 seats (one per council area) with a variable, proportionate number of members each?
Sep. 20th, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)
Benefits of getting away from Parliamentary constituencies
If we stick to electing MLAs in Parliamentary constituencies, there can only be 108, 90 or 72. If we move to 16 MPs, it becomes 96, 80 or 64. By using twelve new constituencies, based on Councils but two for Belfast, you can have any number of MLAs, since each constituency does not have the same number.
Maximum number in any constituency would be nine (if we keep a big Assembly in Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon) and minimum four ( for a small Assembly in a few Councils). Both are in acceptable range. Assembly boundary commissioner would not change boundaries but change number of seats in event of significant change in electorate. Job done in half an hour, not 18 months.
David Ford
Sep. 21st, 2014 09:44 am (UTC)
Re: Benefits of getting away from Parliamentary constituencies
John Valenciacf
Sep. 21st, 2014 08:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Benefits of getting away from Parliamentary constituencies
It just seems to be accepted that assembly constituencies should be coterminous with parliamentary constituencies, even though there's no real logic to it. Having different assembly constituencies, and some discretion in terms of the number of members they elect, would be better in terms of fitting local communities and local government boundaries.

It's the same with local councils, it just seems to be unquestioned that the local government boundary commission waste an inordinate amount of time and money on the unnecessary intermediate step of drawing up ward boundaries, then a separate commissioner chains the wards together to make DEAs. Why bother creating wards, since census output areas do the same job?
Sep. 25th, 2014 06:57 am (UTC)

I've often tried to guess the outcome of a 5 seater and would agree the majority of your guesses as they seem straight forward enough. The one which I'd most disagree with is North Belfast. For a start I wouldn't count Raymond McCord as an 'independent unionist'. For a start, his campaign to get justice for his son largely gets ignored by the big unionist parties and attracts hostility from some loyalists. Secondly, a quick perusal of his transfers see almost as many go the the SDLP as all the remaining unionists so he clearly gathers cross-community support for his cause.

The other main reason I'd say the SDLP will get the last seat is the nature of the NB Alliance votes. In 2011 in the council election where we could see the destination of the Alliance transfers, they went around 4:1 to the SDLP over the UUP. That and the fact that the UUP would also be eliminated then a share of their transfers (both original and from alliance) would go to the SDLP ahead of the DUP. It's certainly tight, but nationalists also have quota boundaries in their favour to prevent leakage. i.e. 2 quotas is 33.33...% and SF have 32-34%. SDLP are short, but would be best-placed to receive the WP, All, McCord and some UUP transfers.

I notice for the three near-identical seats of W. Tyrone, Mid ulster and N&A you have a nationalist losing them all. I am tempted to go along with this as the minority political grouping usually as less vote-shredding to worry about. But I still see that Mid Ulster seat as close. I'd actually think unionists would be sub-quota if elected; a bit like S. Down now.

North Down is also an odd one. I probably can't look beyond the same conclusion, however tight.

Although I'm sure you've already done so, you should check out Faha's projection of the 2014 council results onto the parliamentary constituencies.
Sep. 25th, 2014 08:24 am (UTC)
Re: Projections
Hi anonymous commenter!!

I agree that Mid-Ulster is very very tight. I changed my mind several times as I was crunching the numbers, both over whether Unionists or Nationalists would lose out, and over whether it would be SF or the SDLP. I end up with a best guess, but it only a guess. I concede also that the other western seats, and North Down, are murky, though in the end I am more comfortable with my conclusions in those cases than I am in Mid Ulster.

I think my North Belfast call is also fairly robust. Sure, we don't have the breakdown of the Alliance votes at the end as there were only Unionists left in the race, Nationalists having already won their three seats. The 2400 Alliance votes split 1100 Unionist, 1300 non-transferable in the real-life election. The Nationalist vote had peaked 580 short of the Unionist total two counts previously. So you'd have needed those 2400 Alliance votes to split at least 1500-900 for the SDLP, or anyway with a margin of more than 600 overall. I don't see it. The council election result isn't a great yardstick for the same reason as the Assembly election - there was only one Unionist candidate left, and four nationalists, so a 4:1 ratio of transfers could have a number of possible interpretations.

Basically there are not a lot of cases out there where an Alliance transfer got a Nationalist elected instead of a Unionist, and I am not convinced that this would have been one of them!
Oct. 7th, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)
Re: Projections

Fair enough, I'd say there are good arguments for both, and considering it's all academic anyway, there would possibly be limited value in dissecting it further. If however a party looked at where it may lose and decided to put the breaks on reform because of it, there would probably be a good argument for changing the constituencies entirely. I like how Scotland's AM system creates both unique Scottish FPTP constituencies and regional constituencies. I'd like to possibly see county councils plus Belfast (Fermanagh and Tyrone as one possibly) if we were re-designing things. Or some completely new areas. The new councils could also form a basis. I think any new dispensation should also acknowledge population variations too and be ready to drop an area from 6-5, 5-4 etc... if it deserves to be.

While I would never advocate it, (meant really for FPTP anyway) there's a number of very interesting youtube videos by a guy called CGP Grey about the voting systems. In one video he shows a system developed to wipe out the effect of gerrymandering by using lots straight lines. This is the ultimate in constituency drawing, and you'd have to be in a really bad way to need this. In the US however, there are plenty of states which are relatively evenly split for things like Presidential elections, but at House level, one party (almost always Republican) outnumber the democrats by 2:1 with some ridiculous looking shapes (not surprising in the country whose salamander shaped district gave us the word)

Oct. 7th, 2014 10:53 am (UTC)
Re: Projections
Yes, my son is a huge CGP Grey fan! And I did a presentation on this at Worldcon including the map of the original Gerry salamander. (Gerry pronounced his own name with a hard "g". Also the salanader's left rear foot is Salem of the witches.)

The old counties are gone, mate. There is no chance of a return even in shadow form. I do think the new districts make better and more permanent building blocks for Assembly elections though, and have argued for that elsewhere.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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