The Quiet Protest Vote – Intra-party Councillor Replacement in #le14


Post by Dr. Michael Courtney, TCD

The big stories of this year’s local elections are the collapse of the Labour party vote and the ongoing rise of Sinn Féin. To a large degree, the surge in Sinn Féin’s percentage of the vote and number of councillors is attributed to a protest vote. The narrative goes that those who voted for Fine Gael and Labour in the 2009 Locals and the 2011 General Election are punishing these parties for continuing the programme of austerity and the breaking of several election promises. The voters’ strategy is interpreted to be; to vote for other parties in the local elections to demonstrate their unhappiness with the government’s performance. This type of voting behaviour in ‘second-order’ elections is usually evident in good economic times and bad.

This narrative holds to a large extent. But the significant story of incumbent defeats to members of their own party is being overlooked. Some voters do not want to indicate their unhappiness by voting for less preferred parties. In this instance PR-STV offers voters the opportunity to vote for the party with whom they ideologically agree in principle, but vote out the incumbent and vote in a challenger. This upsets the party leadership as they now have less experienced councillors doing their bidding at local level. From the voters’ perspective, they now get representatives who are less in hock to the leadership and may be willing to speak out against party policy, as the fresh councillors’ long term political careers will not depend on the current leadership.

This is a useful strategy and one which led to the rise of the Tea Party in the United States after 2008. Many Republican voters opted to put more extreme candidates on the party ticket through the primary process, resulting in the polarisation and deadlock seen in US politics today. Because the US does not have PR-STV but do have party primaries, loyal party voters, Republican and Democrat alike, are limited to demonstrating their unhappiness through intra-party candidate switching.

According to preliminary results obtained from the RTE election website (28/05/2014), 213 councillors lost their seats in this year’s election. 42% of these lost their seats to an intra-party colleague. The table below outlines the extent of these changes by party.

Intra-Party Losses
No. of Cllr. Defeats 95 64 28 2 23 1 1 1
Percentage Intra-party 43 17 64 50 78 100 0 0

Starting with the government parties, the majority of losses incurred by both Fine Gael and Labour were to other parties. However, FG has a much higher intra-party loss rate than Labour. Although this is partly a function of FG being more likely to run multi-candidate strategies in each electoral ward, some wards in the cities nevertheless recorded multiple losses for Labour to other parties, particularly Sinn Féin. While FG voters were not averse to party switching, they were more likely to keep their discontent in-house by voting for non-incumbent candidates. The headline difference between Labour’s 2009 and 2014 seat counts is not completely reflected in the figures here because several councillors left the party in the interim and others retired. Some became independents while others defected to another party, such as Jenny McHugh (FF) in Meath.

The majority of Fianna Fáil’s losses were to Fianna Fáil candidates. This is difficult to interpret but here is the most likely explanation. Seeing as it was held 18 months before the bailout was announced, the full effects of the crisis were not being felt at the time of the local elections in May 2009. Now, FF councillors, who would have lost their seats if the IMF had arrived at that stage, were being replaced in 2014 by intra-party challengers as a delayed punishment for the crisis. Independents also tended to replace one another, while the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s (AAA) only loss was to another AAA candidate.

I also tested whether voters’ behaviour exhibited any systematic gender patterns. Were voters more likely to replace a sitting male councillor with a female councillor from the same party? The cross table provides the absolute numbers of replacements by gender.

Intra-party Replacement by Gender
Replacement Gender
Incumbent Gender Female Male
Female 5 12
Male 18 53

The overall breakdown is that, regardless of gender, sitting councillors were replaced by female candidate from the same party at a rate of 27%, which broadly reflects the number of women running in the election. Therefore, voters were no more likely to choose women over men and vice versa when exercising their intra-party protest vote.

In terms of other demographic characteristics, it is more likely that an age effect exists in the data. As a function of their incumbency, sitting councillors are more likely to be older. Thus, voters may have chosen younger candidates to represent them in order to send the message of discontent to the leadership, while keeping their vote with the party. Some indicative anecdotes are the successes of Noel Rock (FG) in Ballymun and Duncan Smith (Lab) in Swords. In both cases, these young non-incumbent candidates each won at the expense of incumbent party colleagues. This post will be updated when the ages of all winners and losers in the dataset have been gathered.

Intra-party vote-switching offers voters an alternative to desperately seeking a new party when they are unhappy with their preferred party’s performance. It is also rational behaviour if the alternative party is less congruent with a voter’s general political philosophy. The practice exists to a considerable extent, particularly among the centre-right parties, yet receives disproportionately less media attention. This post fills a considerable gap in the story of this year’s locals and the message being sent by voters to the party leaderships.

Dr. Michael Courtney is a teaching assistant in the Department of Political Science, Trinity College Dublin.


One thought on “The Quiet Protest Vote – Intra-party Councillor Replacement in #le14

  1. I understand that this is a general argument but in the case of Noel Rock, the FG adversary who lost his seat was Prof. Bill Tormey, who was by no means a party lackey. He delivered leaflets to his constituents prior to the local elections which stated that “Reilly has to be stopped” from means testing medical cards. In addition, he erected posters urging a no vote during the Seanad Referendum.

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