Northern Ireland

David McCann: Never underestimate the value of transfers

The SDLP's Karen McKevitt missed out on re-election by a single vote. Picture by Liam McArdle
The SDLP's Karen McKevitt missed out on re-election by a single vote. Picture by Liam McArdle

The people have spoken and now we are trying to understand exactly what they have said.

In a Single Transferable Vote election, we focus a lot on the first preference votes that every party receives. We do this for good reason, as candidates need to achieve enough of these votes to stay in the count long enough to be elected. However, those critical transfers are so important, and this election has proven once again that it pays to be transfer friendly.

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In 2019, the story of the local government was the Alliance surge, in 2023 it is all about Sinn Féin who have achieve a record result that will be difficult for any party in future to exceed. Normally, local government elections are patchy affairs for most parties. You see gains in this council area and swings away in others. For Sinn Féin, this was not the case as victory after victory rolled across councils in Northern Ireland. The scale of their success was so complete that in many DEAs they left seats on the pitch. Take Limavady for example, the massive Sinn Féin surplus that the party achieved massively helped elected the SDLP candidate and to a lesser extent helped the Alliance candidate. Had Sinn Féin ran another candidate, they would have been in strong contention to elect another councillor. Likewise in Castle in Belfast, strong transfers from Sinn Féin helped the SDLP retain their council seat and see off the Greens.

That is where Sinn Féin had powerful surpluses to send down the ticket from their strong first preference showing. In other places such as Botanic, where they had to wait for transfers it was a different story, where they were pipped to the post by parties such as the Greens who were able to hang on despite swings away from them. The Greens again benefitted Alliance in Ormiston in a similar scenario.

Something for us STV nerds that was fascinating was in Crotlieve in Newry, Mourne and Down where the SDLP’s Karen McKevitt lost her council seat by just one vote on the 7th stage. This was a fascinating contest that not only showed the importance of having a strong first preference vote but also being able to benefit from voters giving you enough transfers in a high enough order to stay in the race to win. It is often said, but never was a truer in this race that every vote counts.

For unionism, they have a problem of a shrinking political real estate. Whilst the nationalist parties trade votes and transfers in an expanding pool that includes Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit, they have a political pool that is seeing first preferences vote and they have become more toxic to transfers from other political blocs. It was for this reason, along with turnout, that we are seeing unionism retreat across council areas. This is a problem that both Donaldson and Beattie need to solve. This has been going on in election after election, with little serious attempts to grow their electoral pie.

Going forward, this election has hopefully shown everyone the power and the privilege of living in an STV system. Our counts take a long time, but having a preferential voting system means that we get the politicians that the public genuinely want. This system doesn’t reward parties who simply just can get their vote out and do nothing else. It allows us the voters, to give preferences to multiple parties and express our views in a more considered way than we can under First Past the Post.

When people vote, things change. When they stay at home, nothing happens. May 18 was a change election. People voted for change, and they transferred for it too. Our local councils will look a lot more different as a result. Parties need a broad appeal to win. They cannot be led by fringe issues or movements. That’s the recipe for success in an STV system. Sinn Féin and Alliance have learned this lesson and are reaping the electoral rewards as a result. Unionist parties need to ask themselves are they willing to do the same?