By Michael Gallagher
With the election now just a few months away, possibly even closer, we should have a clear idea of how the parties will line up in the 31st Dáil. Nonetheless, there is evidently still a good deal of fluidity in voting intentions. Fianna Fáil support is rather like the banks’ liabilities: every time we feel that a bottom has finally been determined, there turn out to be further depths yet to which the graph can plummet. All that we have learned over the years tells us that FF cannot possibly poll as low as the 17 or 18 per cent at which recent surveys have recorded it, never mind the 13 per cent of last week’s poll, but this is the first election since 1927 that FF has gone into knowing it is doomed to defeat whatever it does, and much of what we have learned over the years does not seem to apply any more.
FG has shown no signs of a surge, and the decline in its vote in the Donegal SW by-election relative to 2007 is hardly a positive sign, but by-elections are different, and there is clearly a feeling that it has regained its traditional ascendancy over Labour, so at present it is in pole position to emerge as the strongest party.
Labour is still on course to achieve a record level of support, yet its fifth position in Donegal SW, the way in which its voting support in the 2009 local elections fell somewhat short of pre-election poll findings, together with uncertainty as to how its large number of new and relatively unknown candidates will fare when the voters come to mark their ballot papers, have all contributed to the continuing difficulty many people have in envisaging that it could emerge as the strongest party.
Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is also on course for a record haul of votes. Its first by-election victory since 1925 suggests that, unlike in 2007, its creditable opinion poll figures – over 10 per cent in several polls, up to 16 per cent in last week’s Red C poll – might actually translate into votes on polling day.
Finally, it’s worth observing that a striking absentee from the political scene is (so far, anyway) any new party. Confidence in the government is low, confidence in the opposition not a great deal higher (the Irish Times poll of late September found that only 39% thought a new government would improve the economy), but unlike the last crisis of the mid-1980s no new force has emerged to fill what might seem to be a sizeable gap in the market. In the other countries worst affected by the current economic difficulties – Greece, Portugal, Spain – too, voters are switching from some established parties to others rather than to new parties, a sign of the institutionalisation of many of Europe’s party systems.
If we knew how many votes the parties would win, how could we figure out the seat distributions? One way is to apply the party gains / losses in vote terms to each of the 43 constituencies. This has been done a number of times on these pages by Adrian Kavanagh and leads to some fascinating projections and discussions. There is a lot to be said, though, for the altogether simpler method of just applying the national vote shares to the total number of seats and generating estimated party seat shares that way. As the saying goes, if a party gets the votes it will get the seats, and if it doesn’t get the votes it won’t get the seats. Thus, if a party wins 20% of the votes, we know it will win about 20% of the 165 seats being contested (ie 33), even if we don’t know exactly where it will win these, which is an altogether more difficult conundrum to solve. Essentially, this assumes that parties will be over-represented in some constituencies and under-represented in others – a reasonable assumption, though not always true, as we saw in 2002 when FG lost out in more cases than it was over-represented.
Four other factors will affect the vote–seat conversion:
(i) party size. The largest parties invariably pick up a seat bonus just for being large, as their candidates stay in the count longest and are still around to receive transfers from smaller party candidates as these are eliminated. The small district magnitude employed in Ireland (only 4 seats per constituency on average) compounds this. This has always worked to FF’s advantage in the past, but at some estimates of its vote next time its benefit from this factor in 2011 will be small or even non-existent. And if SF support on the day reaches the level found by some polls, of 16% or so, it will benefit from this factor. All four main parties stand to receive some benefit, while, as always, Independents collectively will be the biggest losers from this.
(ii) candidates. It’s possible that some voters who tell pollsters that they intend to vote for, say, Labour, and indeed would do so if Éamon Gilmore was on the ballot paper in their constituency, won’t do so on the day when they find they know little about the local Labour candidates. The same might apply to SF; does it have enough strong candidates to capitalise on the rise in support for the party? Conversely, FF might hope that even if voters are now alienated by the party brand, some voters will still recall with gratitude the hard work of individual FF TDs over the years. The 2002 election study, after all, showed that many voters, according to their own accounts anyway, give more weight to candidate than to party when making their voting decision (The Irish Voter, chapter 8).
But, as against this scenario, experience shows us that when the tide runs strongly for or against a party, it affects it pretty much everywhere. The new votes for the PDs in 1987 and for Labour in 1992 swept into the Dáil candidates who were not well known even in their own constituencies, while FG’s big loss of support in 1987 saw many long-serving and hard-working TDs ousted. Likewise, while many voters might say that candidate rather than party is what determines their vote, we have to take this with a pinch of salt given that the candidate line-up at the next election won’t be hugely different from that in 2007 and yet we are expecting a very different pattern of votes. Indeed, not only will long-serving FF TDs not be protected by their record over the years, but longevity might even be a liability as voters express their rejection of people who they feel have been around too long and have contributed, if only through passivity, to the current state of affairs.
(iii) transfers. Parties that are everyone’s second choice can expect a higher return of seats per vote than parties that other voters prefer to keep at arm’s length. SF has always lost out from this in the past. The pattern of transfers in the Donegal SW by-election, where Pearse Doherty received nearly twice as many transfers from Labour as the FG candidate did, shows that the right candidate can overcome what is still, for many voters, a certain resistance to SF as a party, and transfers from smaller groups on the left may go in reasonable numbers to SF. The number of Labour transfers passing to SF is likely to be higher than in 2007, and though SF still will not pick up transfers from FF or FG in significant numbers, the number of FF transfers in particular is likely to be less than those from independents and smaller left-wing groups, so this won’t matter so much. For once, SF won’t be the main loser from transfers.
This time, FF will suffer most from the impact of transfers; it is now back to its pre-1997 position of having no allies and, moreover, being sufficiently unpopular to motivate supporters of all other parties to rank every other party above it. FG will not benefit much from transfers; Labour voters will prefer it to FF, but for groups further to the left FG is little more attractive than FF. Labour will be the main beneficiary of transfers. Groups to its left will prefer it to FF or FG; FG will prefer it to all other parties; even FF voters may rank it second, though many FF votes will become non-transferable once the last FF candidate is elected or eliminated. Overall, though, transfers between any two parties don’t look likely to be especially strong this time.
(iv) vote management. In the past this has been an issue only for FF and FG; other parties simply have not had enough votes to need managing. This time FF is likely to witness intense battles in many constituencies as two strong candidates, sometimes two TDs, fight for the (at most) 1 seat the party can win, with the risk that if things become too bitter, the internal transfer rate will become so low that neither candidate wins. FG has reasonable experience of the occasional need to manage votes, and that will stand it in good stead this time. The main question mark is over Labour, which according to the poll figures has a good chance of winning 2 seats in many constituencies, something that will in some cases depend on incumbents, who are accustomed to running alone and projecting themselves as much as the party, agreeing to share the votes equitably with a running mate. Time will tell how well the party adjusts to this new environment.
Putting these factors together, it is likely that for a given vote total Labour will do best in terms of seats, FG next best, SF third and FF worst. So, when the next opinion poll appears, to estimate the seat return for each party, give FF 1 seat (the outgoing Ceann Comhairle, assuming he stands again), and distribute the other 165 seats according to these principles:
(a) start by calculating the proportionate share of the seats that that share of the votes would lead to – eg if a party has 22% of the votes, 22% of the seats is 165 * 0.22, which is 36.
(b) for FF take a 2-seat range around the result – eg if it is shown with 19% of the votes, 19% of 165 is 31, add 1 for the Ceann Comhairle, leading to a prediction of 30–34; if it’s recorded with 26% of the votes the prediction would be 42–46.
(c) for FG add around 4 seats and take a range of around 2 seats above the result – eg if it is shown with 30% of the votes, 30% of 165 is 50, leading to a prediction of 52–56; if it’s on 36%, the range would be 61–65.
(d) for Labour add some seats (approx 2 if its vote is below 20%, 4 if its vote is in the 20s, 6 if it’s over 30%) and take a range of around 4 seats above the result – eg if a poll finds it has 21% of the votes, 21% of 165 is 35, giving a range of 39–43; if it’s on 28% the range would be 51–55.
(e) for SF add 1 and take a 2-seat range around the result – eg if it is shown with 10% of the votes, 10% of 165 is 16, leading to a prediction of 15–19; if it’s recorded at 16%, the prediction is 25–29.
Thus, if Labour and FF were each to win 25% of the first preference votes, we would expect FF to win not much more than 25% of the seats (around 40–44) while Labour could expect a larger bonus (around 45–49 seats in all). The best estimate, if we had to give a specific number, will be the mid-point of the range. There’s little point in trying to estimate the seats of smaller parties (Greens, United Left Alliance) or Independents, as at such small numbers local factors become more important.
For example, applying these principles to the results of the Red C poll published in The Sun last week (FF 13%, FG 32%, Labour 24%, SF 16%) gives a distribution of the order of FF 20–24, FG 56–60, Labour 44–48, SF 24–28.
Trying to convert votes into seat estimates is always something of an art rather than a science under any electoral system based on small constituencies, especially PR-STV, but national-level conversion is not only much more straightforward but is also likely to prove at least as accurate as making predictions for each of the 43 constituencies and totalling these.