Ben Lowry: The TUV vote surge should have been one of the main stories of the election

When the Stormont election results came in on Friday and Saturday, it was telling how the rise of the Traditional Unionist Voice was reported — or not.

By Ben Lowry
Monday, 9th May 2022, 7:01 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 2:58 am
Jim Allister at the Stormont election count at Jordanstown. In a perfectly proportional allocation of MLAs, Mr Allister would now be leading a delegation of seven. Instead he is back on his own. Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye

As Jim Allister secured a much higher share of the vote than almost all pundits predicted, in numerous broadcasts his party’s fate was described in terms of its gradually diminishing prospects of getting a second seat.

The BBC was for much of the time using graphics that showed the fate of the five main parties, DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP, Alliance, then ‘others’.

This was in a number of respects understandable. It is hard to find room to list all the parties when there are so many of them.

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And also, going into the election the media could not have known how the parties would do, and could not have known whether TUV would end up with a similar number of votes to parties such as the Green Party and People Before Profit, as it had done in 2017. So it was reasonable to prepare graphics that bracketed the smaller parties together as ‘others’.

However, as soon as the first preference votes across Northern Ireland had all been divulged, and it was obvious that Mr Allister had received five times more votes than the next biggest small party (Aontú), much more prominence should have been given his vote surge.

It was, after all, one of the biggest stories of the election (to be fair, some TV pundits did examine it).

The TUV went from a paltry 2.6% of the overall first preference vote in 2017 to a much bigger 7.6% of the total this time.

The TUV surge (which I detected in my exit poll in Elmgrove Polling Station, published at 10pm on Thursday) was crystal clear from the opening of ballot boxes across Northern Ireland on Friday morning. In the end, Mr Allister did not get anyone else elected alongside him to Stormont.

But that did not diminish the story, but rather made it — if anything — a bigger one.

No political party has ever had such a large share of the overall vote and emerged with only one Stormont seat.

In a perfectly proportional allocation of MLAs, Mr Allister would now be leading a delegation of seven.

There are three main reasons for this extraordinary outcome, in which a hefty TUV vote led to a derisory number of seats — one.

The first reason is the reduction in the number of seats at Stormont from 108 to 90 (from six seats in each of the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies to five).

It means that you need more of a critical mass to get elected. The quota (the point at which election is guaranteed) is 14% of the first preference votes in a six seater, but 17% in a five seater. That might not sound like much of a difference but the latter is a much harder barrier for smaller parties to reach

The second reason is that the TUV vote was spread remarkably consistently across Northern Ireland.

The party did well both in overwhelmingly unionist constituencies in the east of the Province, and it also did well in overwhelmingly nationalist constituencies such as West Tyrone and Newry and Armagh.

The third reason is that the TUV is not transfer friendly.

The third of those reasons is a matter for the TUV, and is something that only they can resolve.

The first reason, and to an extent the second reason, which relate to the impact of the voting system in this instance and to vote distribution respectively, are a matter of bad luck.

Lots of people will say, but so what? Elections often involve matters of good or bad luck.

That is true but there is always reason to be concerned when an outcome strays far from one that is justified by the number of votes cast, given the resentment that it causes.

I felt that during the first parliament that I became aware of politically when I was a teen in the mid 1980s (after the 1983 general election), when non unionists won more than 40% of the vote but collected a mere two out of the then 17 Westminster seats.

Decades ago it was deemed that Northern Ireland needed the best possible proportional representation system for Stormont elections, given the possible sensitivities and tensions here.

And sure enough it has a very good such system, the single transferable vote (STV).

Jim Allister has in this election won a higher percentage of the vote than Alliance did in almost all the Stormont assembly elections in the 1990s and early 2000s.

He is approaching the level that Sinn Fein was at, 10%, in some elections in the 1980s.

Those parties always won multiple seats, even when they were on a relatively low percentage of the vote, because their support was traditionally sparse in some areas, and plentiful in others.

The bunching of their support in some places ensured they got numerous representatives.

Pundits would have expressed great concern had that not been the case but few have done so for Jim Allister.

Mr Allister has what many people would consider to be an abrasive political style. He also espouses a political outlook that is deeply unpopular outside of unionism and is even received coolly by some liberal unionists.

This, however, helps to explain why far too little attention has been paid to a quirk of the electoral system that has led to a very unfair outcome.

(It is reminiscent of an even more unfair election outcome: the 2015 Westminster contest, when Ukip won 13% of the vote across the UK, a total of four million ballots, and yet picked up a single Westminster seat).

During the election counts over the weekend, I talked to DUP politicians who were annoyed that Jim Allister had handed the election to Sinn Fein, by dividing the unionist vote.

That is one way of looking at it (although it would not have been a valid criticism if the first minister was still chosen by the biggest party in the biggest delegation, which in this election is unionist).

But another way of looking at it is this:

The DUP is a party of government. That means it has to make compromises, which its backbenchers are loathe to criticise. It might have been healthy for democracy, and for unionism, to have a caucus of unionists who have a different view sitting on the Stormont benches, their presence justified by their vote share.

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