Alliance success: shooting for the stars

Shoot for stars, for if you fail you will land in the clouds, we are told. Well over the last 2 days of watching the count in Northern Ireland I’m not quite sure whether it is Cloud 9 or some new star that the Alliance Party has found themselves on.

Going into this election, our Northern Irish sister party, the Alliance Party were in a familiar position for them the 5th largest party in the Assembly,  although only just behind the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. However, there was ambition, there was vision and there was determination to do better.

Each of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland selects 5 MLAs by STV. In the past Alliance has entered two candidates in each of their target seats as much as a means of vote management rather than, with the exception of East Belfast and the hope in North Down, to return 2 MLAs. As the first preference votes started to come in Friday afternoon, those of us making our own spreadsheets starting to see something, and we kept checking and double checking as the counts progressed that we weren’t just wearing rose tinted glasses.

You see Alliance were running 24 candidates, meaning they were running two candidates in only 6 seats. East Belfast, South Belfast, North Down, Lagan Valley, East Antrim and Strangford. All of these are in the Belfast commuter belt and have returned Alliance MLAs on a consistent basis. However, this time things were looking different and good. In the first three their two candidates combined for the most first preference votes of any party, they were second in Lagan Valley and East Antrim and even Strangford a close third with 23.1%.

In all six as well the vote management, who to vote 1 in which ward, had both candidates placed well to survive long into the transfer process. Indeed, the first declaration of all was in Strangford where Kelly Armstrong was returned on First Preferences and gave Alliance an early lead on the seat counter at the bottom of the screen.

There is an oft repeated mantra that first preferences are good, but transfers are what count and historically Alliance have always been transfer friendly. People who vote for other parties of all types usually seem happy to include a preference for Alliance.

Things were also looking good in a number of seats with only one candidate. In South Down, a seat that had never elected an Alliance MLA, Patrick Brown was sitting third on first preferences behind two Sinn Féin candidates. Other seats were also in play depending on those important transfers it was certainly looking good.

As the counts went on the psephologists were trying to work out what was the situation for each party most of them said Alliance could expect 12 seats at worse and 15 at best. That was until late on Friday night when former leader David Ford came on and started to talk of the possibility of 16 or 17. Around midnight on Friday East Antrim became the first seat to fully declare all seats including both Stewart Dickson and Danny Donnelly for Alliance.

On Saturday the seats kept coming, South Belfast returned Paula Radcliffe and elected the Lord Mayor of Belfast Kate Nicholl who will become a mother again in 2 weeks. Indeed all the seats that Alliance stood two candidates in elected them both.

Alliance made a series of breakthroughs in Paisley Country, ie North Antrim, returning their first ever female MLA in Patricia O’Lynn, Paddy Brown in South Down, Eóin Tennyson became the youngest MLA elected in Upper Bann. Finally, Nuala McAllister completed the team of 8 men and 9 women unseating the SDLP’s Infrastructure Minister in the process.

All seventeen of the Alliance MLAs promise to turn up at Stormont on Monday at 9 o’clock ready to start work. However, the DUP who had collapsed the executive in February are still threatening that they will not take part in the procedures to nominate the Minsters and Executive to re-establish the institutions until the NI Protocol the thrust of their campaign is dealt with. This despite them polling 6.7% fewer first preference votes and losing seats, their manifesto rejected and their mandate reduced but still they hold sway. The people of Northern Ireland like elsewhere want their politicians to deal with their actual issues with cost of living and the health service and deserve better than a failure of the Assembly to start working on these issues.

* Stephen Glenn is the Chair of the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats and a member of the Alliance Party. He has stood as a Westminster Candidate for the Lib Dems on three occasions.

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  • Brad Barrows 8th May '22 - 12:17pm

    I am really encouraged by the growth of the Alliance Party and hope that we see it emerge as the main opposition to Sinn Fein in the near future. I do think it is just a matter of time until a united Ireland is established and I think that process will be far smoother if, by then, the Alliance Party is the main non Republican Party in the North.

  • The Alliance performance is extremely encouraging sign of a move way from voting on sectarian lines towards bread and butter issues that effect the whole community equally.

  • Thanks Stephen and agreed Joe.

    The rise of Alliance is beyond well deserved, and I think the growth of a party that is not obsessed with the constitution is the significant trend. Most residents of NI have views on the constitution, but it’s not central to their lives. It’s not just that you don’t need to have matching views on borders to want to improve schools and hospitals, but that attention given to the constitution means resources aren’t going towards improving schools and hospitals.

    It’s been interesting following these results, and while many of the headlines have, understandably, been focused on the right of Sinn Fein to nominate a First Minister for the first time, but it’s a story of the collapse of support for the DUP. Sinn Fein have the same number of seats, and a one % point increase in vote share to 29% of first preferences.

    Sinn Fein focused their campaign on the non-sectarian bread and butter issues too. It’s not surprising that their supporters and journalists looking for headlines will be pushing for their new position to mean a united Ireland is around the corner, but that’s hyperbole.

  • Mick Taylor 8th May '22 - 4:40pm

    The DUP has always thought of itself as pragmatic. Certainly under Ian Paisley, they made the Good Friday agreement work and he worked closely with his Sinn Féin deputy. Given that much of DUP support comes from the business community, one might have thought that the blind alley of the NI Protocol was one they could and should have avoided. After all, the business community benefits from the protocol. The claim to be democrats, but NI voted against Brexit.
    Still, we are where we are. The DUP is now focussing on the border poll to distract from its very poor performance in this election. This is a foolish tactic. At some point, there will be a poll and my hunch is that reunification will result. If the DUP refuse to face reality and take their place in the executive it will surely mean an even worse performance next time around.

  • James Dapre 8th May '22 - 4:52pm

    Neither first nor deputy-first minister posts should BELONG to the top two parties. The posts should be OFFERED, so that a refusal would result in an offering to a lower-placed party. However, that is not possible – yet.

    If the DUP prove to be really intransigent and force a new election in 6 months, they could be attacked and lose their second position then, rather than later.

  • Brad Barrows 8th May '22 - 4:54pm

    @Mick Taylor
    You make good points. If the DUP insists on preventing the Northern Irish institutions from working, and thereby prevents problems being addressed that need to be addressed, it will be adding to the argument that a United Ireland is a way to get better government for the people who live in the North of the island. This adds to the argument that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and reunification will immediately lead to Northern Ireland becoming part of the EU again.

  • Russell Simpson 8th May '22 - 4:58pm

    Congratulations to the Alliance. Fascinating to see how non fptp systems work. I know that stv is the preferred system of libdems but it has 2 big weaknesses compared with ams/mmp. Firstly, although voting is straightforward, understanding how the counting is done is sadly beyond the attention span of the average person if the av referendum is anything to go by. Secondly, looking at 1st preference votes for tuv and dup, there is no relationship to elected representatives and votes cast. Surely the first task of a pr system is to be proportional?

  • @Russell Simpson
    STV is proportional, according to what the voters want.
    This may not coincide with what the political parties want,
    nor what the electionologists think it should be.

  • Agreed James. There needs to be a revision to the rules so that minority parties (which is all of them) cannot force their will onto everyone else. Making it so they get first refusal of the roles of FM and DFM seems a fair revision.

    STV is proportional. The problem is the obsession with thinking that the first preference votes are the most important measure of how seats should be allocated. You would expect there to be some correlation, and there is, but the most important thing is that all votes count, and people can vote for whoever they want in the order they want, with confidence.

    It looks like they count each round by hand, which seems like a total waste of time when the electronic counting has been effective and not at all controversial in Scotland. Presumably trust issues are preventing them from taking the more efficient approach. The consequence is that there’s a large gap between the announcement of those elected based on first preferences alone, and those elected due to transfers and the first preference votes get the lion’s share of the attention.

    The real advantage of a preferential system like STV is that parties, such as Alliance, who are prepared to work cross-party to make things work, will pick up 2nd and 3rd+ preferences from all angles.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th May '22 - 5:40pm

    @Russell Simpson

    STV takes power away from political parties – voters can spread their preferences among candidates from different parties if they choose. It helps towards doing away with safe seats. A voter might favour one party but might for example think a particular candidate from a different party is as an individual good enough to merit one of their preferences.

    On proportionality – it’s pretty good – not perfect I grant you.

    And the idea that the counting system is too complex to understand is ridiculous. An excuse I’ve seem in favour of FPTP is that it’s simple!

  • Russell Simpson 8th May '22 - 6:15pm

    @Alan, Fiona. Getting 1% of seats from 8% of votes doesn’t seem proportional to me.

  • Woman in polling station ahead of me Thurs was confused enough over ‘vote for up to three people’. (Asking if she had to put ‘1, 2, 3,’ rather than Xs).

    Doesn’t help that we have different systems for different elections: sometimes on the same day! (2021: Senedd = MMP, PCC = supplementary vote).

    AV went down like a lead balloon in 2011 partly because the Tory and Labour media made it out to be a chance to kick Nick Clegg. But also because the ‘pro’ broadcasts made it sound complicated.

    FPTP is dreadful. But absolutely think a replacement should be simple for voters to understand.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th May '22 - 7:15pm

    @Russell Simpson
    “Getting 1% of seats from 8% of votes doesn’t seem proportional to me.”
    The Northern Ireland Assembly election elected 5 members for each of 18 constituencies.

    If all 90 members had been elected across one constituency the result might have been more proportional than it actually was – I said it wasn’t perfect.

    Breaking down the country into constituencies, each with a small number of members, does allow for a retention of a link between a member and their constituents. And if a constituent has a problem and wants to take it to an Assembly member for help then they are likely to be able to choose between politicians of different political parties.

    I doubt very much if STV with one countrywide constituency could be sold to the electorate.

  • @Cassie, I agree it doesn’t help when there are multiple voting systems and we use different ones for each election. But it’s really not hard to remind voters that ‘it’s numbers for this one’ and to put 1 against your favourite, 2 against your 2nd favourite, 3 against your 3rd favourite and so on until you run out of candidates.

    Full proportionality is tricky without doing a great big list, which brings a whole string of additional problems. Nonconformistradical raises another really important benefit of STV – that it gives voters extra choice between candidates.

    @Russell – if you are talking about TUV, I understand they are considered quite hard-line, which means they won’t have got many transfers. However, people who did vote for them that bothered with 2nd and 3rd preferences, will have had their say.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th May '22 - 9:20pm

    Regarding TUV… there’s a complete list of candidates at

    TUV appear to only have put up one candidate in each constituency. After the first preferences were counted and second preferences are distributed, voters who chose the TUV candidate as 1st pref didn’t have another TUV candidate for 2nd pref.

    Looking at that list it seems routine for even the stornger parties not to field 5 candidates per constituency. e.g. Even Sinn Fein only had 4 candidates in Belfast West

  • Russell Simpson 8th May '22 - 9:38pm

    So why stv? Ams/mmp keeps constituencies, is proportional and easier to explain.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 9th May '22 - 8:35am

    It certainly sounds like a brilliant result from the Alliance Party.
    I don’t think I am the only one that doesn’t really understand all the ramifications of the result, and even what Stormont actually has and has not powers to do.
    Would it be possible for there to be some sort of webinar where the facts could be put simply for those of us in England (and probably elsewhere) that really ought to know and understand more.
    The thread above has gone onto how STV does or doesn’t work, but I want how Stormont does and doesn’t work, and the role of the Alliance.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th May '22 - 8:54am

    @Russell Simpson
    How would you do away with safe seats?

    How would you give voters any choice between candidates from the same political party?

  • Russell Simpson 9th May '22 - 11:04am

    @nonconform… Under ams/mmp the party vote makes final result proportional so no safe seats. You wouldn’t.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th May '22 - 11:44am

    @Russell Simpson
    AMS involves 2 votes – one for the constituency MP and one for a list for the topping up process. So for the constituency MP the voter does not have a choice of candidates from any one party.
    “The Additional Member System has become popular as some see it as a compromise solution.

    But, as a compromise, it keeps Westminster’s ‘safe seats’ that rarely change hands. But also adds lists of candidates chosen by the political parties. While a massive improvement over Westminster’s system, parties still have a lot of control over who gets elected.”

  • Russell Simpson 9th May '22 - 4:09pm

    @nonconform… I think the vast majority vote for party rather than individual.

  • Chris Moore 9th May '22 - 4:16pm

    Recent opinion polls in NI give clear majorities against re-unification.

    So I wouldn’t expect SF to push for a border poll unless those opinion polls “improve”.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th May '22 - 4:51pm

    “I think the vast majority vote for party rather than individual.”

    However a large proportion of the UK electorate haven’t had a chance to try out any voting method except FPTP.

    Suppose you supported of Party A and could vote in an election held using STV. Suppose 3 other parties – B, C, D – put up candidates. Suppose 5 candidates were to be elected per constit uency, but Party A only fielded 3 candidates in your constituency. You would use 3 preferences for the 3 Party A candidates.

    You wouldn’t be obliged to use any more preferences. Suppose you felt that if Party A’s candidates were not elected then Party C would be better (or less bad) than those of Parties C and D. You could cast preferences for (some of) the Party C candidates standing in your constituency in the hope that they rather than B or D candidates would be elected.

    Or suppose there was, among the candidates for the other 3 parties, one particular candidate with a reputation for campaigning over an issue you felt was important. e.g. the late Jack Ashley (Labour MP who did a lot of work on disability issues, having himself become profoundly deaf in middle age). If you wanted you could cast a preference for that candidate because you felt they had a track record for doing good work in Parliament.

  • Russell Simpson 10th May '22 - 9:24am

    In your example you’d need about 85% voting for Party A before their 2nd preferences came into play and then why shouldn’t the 4th selection be party A. In NI election I assume a lot of TUV voters made DUP their 2nd pref but why deny them their 1st pref. They’ve ended up with 5 extra DUP MLAs whereas a proportional system should have given them TUV MLAs. As I said, NI’s STV system is clearly not proportional.

  • Russell Simpson, you’re flogging a dead horse. What STV does is give voters an absolute say in how their votes are used. They can vote for a whole collection of people/parties in any combination they want. A system which relies on voting for parties rather than individuals, such as AM or the Dehonte system used in EU elections gives absolute power to parties and denies voters real choice. The problems for TUV were not scoring enough first preference votes in each constituency to stay in the running and only putting up one candidate so no transfers were possible other than to other parties. Not saying they would have got more seats, but they ruled it out. STV isn’t completely proportional but makes sure a much wider range of candidates get elected than FPTP. And what’s easier than voting 1,2,3!

  • The problem with AMS, at least as used in Scotland and Wales, is that it’s still mainly a FPTP election, bringing the adversarial nature of FPTP to the election, with lists allowing the election of dubious candidates from larger parties to fly under the radar. Not to mention the distraction of attempts to game the system, and the lack of proportionality when gaming is successful. For clarity, it’s a flaw of the system that it can be gamed. I don’t think we can blame political parties for making the most of a flawed system. Though it’s still fair to point out when results are not as proportional as people assume.

    With STV there’s no possibility of gaming the system, and while in many cases you will only get the choice of one candidate from your favourite party, any party that wishes to dominate will need to put up multiple candidates, so preferences will become visible. The order of preferences can also be analysed if so desired to better understand what voters actually want. LDs can see for ourselves if our voters would rather go Labour, Conservative or Green after us, and so on.

  • David Evans 10th May '22 - 2:03pm

    Mick, Indeed STV gives voters an absolute say on how their votes are used, but the problem is that it is slow to work out and complex to explain to a lay person who isn’t really interested in voting systems anyway. Indeed the case was not helped by the NI elections where quite a few candidates commented on the results being slower than in the past and complex.

    In contrast everyone thinks that FPTP in the UK is simple to understand even though it isn’t actually FPTP as any horse race or Olympic sprint is, as the winner doesn’t have to get past any fixed post first. Actually the winner is the one who has run further than any other candidate by the time the time allocated for the race is over at 10pm.

    Overall the problem is that it is not easy to sell to the public, not that other people – some of whom (e.g. Right Wing Press Barons) have very loud and powerful voices – are to a significant extent mistaken in their opinions.

  • David Evans 10th May '22 - 2:09pm

    But most importantly, and on topic, Congratulations to the Alliance on their success. It is well deserved, although they are coming to prominence at a very difficult time and they will be an easy target to blame by those on the extremes who wishing to excuse their failure.

    How they negotiate that problem politically will be key. That is one thing we handled very, very naively in the coalition.

  • Russell Simpson 10th May '22 - 3:13pm

    @Mick. At the risk of (still) flogging a dead horse, the problem with STV isn’t voting but counting. Not the act of counting but explaining how the counting is done. People won’t go with a system they can’t understand.
    @Fiona. The way Scotland use AMS it’s not proportional due to the fact they haven’t accounted for the overhang. It’s only the overhang that allowed Salmond to try and game the system. You need to look at Germany or NZ to see proper AMS (or MMP as kiwis call it). The reason TUV didn’t get their due reward is almost certainly because NI is broken into 18 areas and 8% was enough to get an MLA in only one case (half an MLA isn’t carried over to the next area). I reckon in a fair system 8% of votes should get you 8% of seats. I’m surprised no one else agrees. I think Electoral Reform should be one of Libdems main policies and the best way to understand different systems is when actual elections happen. The NI election doesn’t show STV in very good light if fairness is one of the criteria.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th May '22 - 11:30pm

    Those discussing the merits of STV above don’t seem to have noticed Stephen Glenn’s fifth paragraph, on “vote management”.
    It’s a reassuring myth for political geeks that voters make informed, considered decisions between members of the same party, thereby maximally empowering voter choice.
    In fact, the overwhelming majority of voters know little or nothing about most candidates except which party they belong to. Hence, parties rarely put up more than one candidate except in constituencies where they are sure to win one seat and have hopes of winning another; and when they do have multiple candidates they “manage” the votes by encouraging different preferences in different parts of the constituency.
    There’s nothing dishonest about this – it’s what you have to do to avoid random effects (such as alphabetical voting) eliminating one of your candidates before they can get over the line to take a second seat.
    Which is to say, STV ain’t nearly as clever as it’s cracked up to be.

  • I half agree Malcolm. It’s definitely fair to say that a lot of voters couldn’t tell the difference between candidates, and many vote for the party so don’t care.

    However, the point stands that those who do take an interest and can differentiate between candidates have the opportunity to put them in order of preference. I live in a four member ward elected under STV, and some parties put up two candidates. When the SNP went from two councillors to one, it was the one universally agreed to be useless that lost her seat. When the Tories went from two councillors to one, it was the lower profile one that lost, and the one universally agreed to work hard that kept his. Though I accept that it often simply favours the incumbent or person with the higher profile.

    There will be times when most people won’t be able to tell the difference between candidates, but those who can deserve the opportunity to give higher priority to the ones they prefer.

    Operating STV for local elections when it’s still FPTP for general elections (and AMS for Holyrood) makes it harder to get full value from preferential systems. Far more attention goes to the elections with FPTP and the media coverage is geared towards adversarial systems, but that will improve if/when we ditch FPTP for Westminster.

  • Russell Simpson 13th May '22 - 7:20am

    Good point. “Management ” is possibly another word for “gaming”. It’s worth pointing out that the Alliance got almost 18% of seats from 13.5% of votes so not exactly proportional. As you say, “STV ain’t nearly as clever as it’s cracked up to be”.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th May '22 - 1:45pm

    Well, no, I don’t think “gaming” is a fair description – or if it is, it’s just essential to the process.
    And the points others have made above are valid, in that you can’t just compare first-preference votes with seats, as if it were party PR: the point of the transferable vote system is that it’s *not* just the first preference that counts.
    The trouble is, of course, that it’s impossible to really say whether that’s a “fair” result. How could anyone judge its fairness, when it’s based on a system of redistribution of votes that just assumes it is fair to do that? Just like the counting system (which is not “as simple as 1-2-3”) it’s fundamentally opaque to ordinary voters – and indeed to most politicians! – which is deeply undesirable.

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