Adrian Kavanagh, 13th December 2015
The last Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes opinion poll of 2015 brings some very good news for the government parties, while reflecting the trends observed in the latest Ipsos-MRBI, Red C and Millward Brown opinion polls. This poll represents the highest combined support level for the two government parties (39%) in a national opinion poll for a long time (since February 2014), with a five percentage point increase in support levels for Fine Gael and a one percentage point increase in the Labour support levels being recorded. (Although, the Fine Gael support level in the last such Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes in November had been notably lower than the levels observed across the other opinion polls.) There are losses however for all of the main Opposition parties and groupings. This weekend’s Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll estimates party support levels as follows (and relative to the previous such Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll): Fine Gael 31% (up 5%), Independents and Others 24% (down 2%) – including Green Party 4%, Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit 4%, Fianna Fail 19% (down 1%), Sinn Fein 17% (down 4%), Labour Party 8% (up 1%). My constituency-level analysis of these poll figures estimates that party seat levels, should such national support trends be replicated in an actual general election, would be as follows: Fianna Fail 31, Fine Gael 64, Sinn Fein 24, Labour Party 7, Green Party 3, Independents and Others 24.
Independents and Others: Support levels for the Independents and Others grouping in most polls over the past few years have been notably higher than what this grouping stood at for the 2011 General Election. But this grouping has lost some significant ground in this poll, although the level of support for Independents and Others in this poll is notably higher than the level recorded in last week’s Millward Brown poll. It is worth noting that seat levels for the Independents grouping can be notably harder to glean than would be the case for the larger political parties. First of all, opinion polls usually measure support for Independents and Others and not just Independent candidates. A number of smaller parties and alliances, including Renua Ireland, the Social Democrats, the Workers Party, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/Socialist Party and People Before Profit Alliance – as well as the Green Party in the case of some opinion polls – are included within this very large and diverse grouping.
In this case, separate figures have been provided by Behaviour & Attitudes for the Independents (11%), the Independent Alliance (2%), Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (4%), Social Democrats (1%), Green Party (4%), Workers Party (1%) and Renua (1%). In some cases however increased support levels for a grouping may simply be absorbed by that grouping running an increased number of candidates, meaning that increased support levels may not translate into increased seat numbers – as happened in relation to the 2002 and 2007 Sinn Fein votes and seats levels. Many of these smaller parties and groupings did not exist in 2011 or contested only a relatively small number of constituencies. For instance, there were Socialist Party and/or People Before Profit Alliance candidates in 17 of the 2011 constituencies or 16 of the new/2016 General Election constituencies and this number falls to 14 if Clare Daly and Joan Collins are not included in this number. As this model relies heavily on the 2011 General Election constituency support levels to generate the constituency support estimates, applying the model in this case to calculate estimated Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit seat levels would be a wholly unreliable approach. The Green Party, however, did contest every constituency in 2011 and hence the model is able to generate constituency support estimates (and seat estimates) for that party.)
The nature of the Independents and Others grouping means that support levels do not usually translate as neatly into seat gains as would be the case with parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Vote transfer levels across this grouping will generally not prove to be as strong as the extent of intra-party vote transfer levels enjoyed by the larger political parties, who in turn often enjoy a “seat bonus” at most general election contests. Votes for Independents located in the centre-right of the political spectrum (such as the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael “gene pool” independents or people such as Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly) are probably more likely to be transferred to the two main parties (or else be shaped by local candidate factors) than they are to go to left-leaning independent candidates. In a similar vein, Renua Ireland and the centre-right independents are probably less likely to draw large numbers of vote transfers from left-wing independents than candidates from Sinn Féin, the People Before Profit Alliance or Socialist Party are. Furthermore, votes won by the Independents and Others grouping tend to be shared across a larger number of candidates than would be the case with the larger political parties, with a significant number of these candidates also having little or no chance of winning seats. For instance, candidates from the Independents and Others grouping won 20.4% of the vote in Laois-Offaly at the 2011 General Election, but, with this constituency being contested by eleven candidates from this grouping, none of these went on to win a seat here. (By contrast, Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley won a seat there with 10.8% of the vote.) At this year’s local elections, 583 independent candidates and 139 candidates from the “Others” (smaller parties/alliances) grouping combined to win 26.6% of the national vote, emerging as the largest political grouping in terms of vote share. But, with this vote being divided up between a much larger number of candidates than Fine Gael (468) and especially Fianna Fáil (415), this grouping accounted for a smaller number of Council seats (225) than the number won by Fianna Fáil (267) or Fine Gael (235).
The main issue when it comes to sustaining current support levels for the Independents and Others grouping into the next general election relates to how the electorate tends to become increasingly focused on the composition of the next government in the months leading up to this contest. The precedent in recent electoral contests shows that significant changes in public opinion can occur in the months leading up to a general election. In the past, such changing support trends have often seen this grouping becoming increasingly marginalised, or “squeezed out”, the closer one gets to polling day, especially when election contests are perceived to be close, as was the case with the 2007 General Election. However, the Independents and Others grouping includes a number of alliances or groupings that could possibly command five, or more, seats in Dáil Eireann after the next election. Such alliances/groupings could be in a position to play a significant role within the next government. Falling into this category on the left of the political spectrum would be the Social Democrats, Socialist Party/Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit Alliance, as well as a number of left-leaning independents. By contrast, Renua Ireland would also be well placed to challenge for similarly high seat levels, while another key player here, of course, will be the Independent Alliance. If these groupings can portray themselves as groupings that could be potentially strong actors within the next government, then they are less like to get “squeezed out” in the run up to the next election when decisions as regards government formation weigh heavier on political choice.
Sinn Féin: Sinn Féin support levels still remain well in excess of the levels won at the 2011 General Election, although there is a notable drop in party support in this particular opinion poll. Another major concern for Sinn Fein focuses on the need to maintain their relatively high support levels in the remaining months up to the next general election (especially given that some vote slippage has been evident in other opinion polls). But the party also faces concerns that Sinn Fein support levels measured in opinion polls does not convert neatly into similar support levels in actual electoral contests, as evidenced in the City and County Council elections of May 2014 where the national average support level for Sinn Fein was a few percent lower than that registered in opinion polls around the time of those contests. The remaining evidence of transfer toxicity also poses concerns for Sinn Fein and the fact that Sinn Fein candidates can struggle to win vote transfers off candidates from other political groupings could prove costly in tight electoral contests, as evidenced in the Dublin West and Dublin South-West by-elections of 2014. That being said, Kathleen Funchion fared notably stronger in terms of attracting vote transfers at the 2015 Carlow-Kilkenny by-election contest. Moreover, if Sinn Fein were to win 21% nationally in the next general election, quite a number of their potential gains would probably be in a position where they would not be requiring transfers in order to win seats, as suggested in this analysis. As Sinn Fein did not contest some constituencies in 2011 (e.g. Clare, Dublin North/Fingal, Dun Laoghaire, Kerry South, Limerick (County)), the estimates for these constituencies are undoubtedly under-estimated here. Indeed the results in these areas in the May local elections suggest Sinn Fein are probably in a much stronger position in these areas than would be suggested by the results of this analysis.
Fianna Fáil: Fianna Fáil support levels in this poll are only two percentage points higher than the level of support won by that party at the 2011 General Election. However, as most electoral contests held since 2011 have shown, Fianna Fail have tended to perform better in actual elections than they have been performing in opinion polls. They did of course recently win the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election of 22nd May 2015, although the party was admittedly better placed to win that contest than would have been the case with the six previous by-elections held during the lifetime of the current Dail. Furthermore, the Fianna Fail performance in the 2014 Local Elections exceeded expectations based on the opinion polls leading up to that contest (and indeed the exit poll taken on the day of that contest). Could it be the case that voters are more inclined to support Fianna Fail candidates than they are to support Fianna Fail, the party? In any case, despite the party’s disappointing poll standings, this analysis suggests that Fianna Fail would be well placed to make a number of gains at the next election (even with the overall reduction of Dail seat numbers from 166 to 158), with the increasingly fractured political landscape and the declining fortunes of Fine Gael and Labour creating an opportunity space for Fianna Fail seat gains (or, rather, regains). The improved fortunes of the two government parties in this poll, however, suggests that this space could be closing.
The problem for Labour: Given the Labour Party’s geography of support, but also given the increased level of opposition the party faces on the left of the political spectrum from Sinn Fein, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and other left-wing groupings/independent candidates, Labour will struggle to convert votes into seats if their national support levels fall below the 10% level, as evidenced in this analysis and as discussed in greater detail in the concluding section to this post. If the party’s support levels nationally were to fall around the 6% or 7% level at the next general election, as with the case in a number of recent opinion polsl, then – given the changed nature of political competition, transfer patterns and the new Dail constituency boundaries – Labour would need a lot of luck to end up winning more than a handful of seats at this contest. Effectively, as the constituency support estimates suggest, the party would be struggling to win seats in every one of the 40 Dail constituencies. Unfortunately for Labour, when a party is leaking support at an election, it also tends to running out of luck as well. Labour seat level estimates are somewhat higher in this analysis, given that their support levels are estimated to be at the 8% level. The party may enjoy some better luck in the real election if they were to win the same level of support, especially if they were not to contest a number of constituencies (such as Limerick County, Cavan-Monaghan, Donegal and Mayo) meaning that a 8% vote share would be shared out across a smaller number of constituencies. There may be some constituencies where Labour do better than expected (or better than the constituency support estimates are suggesting) – maybe due to the candidate selections of the other parties and groupings or maybe due to a strong personal vote for a local candidate – and they do actually win seats. (For instance, the fact that there are no Wexford Town-based candidates for Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein or Fine Gael (at present) could be seen to enhance Brendan Howlin’s prospects in the Wexford constituency, although the recent addition into the contest of Wexford Town Mayor, Ger Carthy, will not help his prospects.) There may be some stronger Labour constituencies also, such as Cork East, Dublin Fingal or Kildare South in this analysis, where luck in terms of vote transfers could secure some Labour seats. The model (as it is a model and not real life) does have to assume perfect, or close to perfect, vote management involving candidates from the same party. Even on these constituency support estimates, there may be cases where poor vote management for other parties “lets in” a Labour candidate to win a seat – e.g. if Fine Gael’s Tom Barry/David Stanton/Noel McCarthy was to come in a couple of thousand votes ahead of their running mates in Cork East, this could allow Sean Sherlock to poll ahead of the weaker Fine Gael candidate and potentially win a seat with transfers from the second-placed Fine Gael candidate. But leaving these provisions aside, the ultimate message here is that Labour cannot expect to won more than a handful of seats, at best, unless they get close to, or over, the crucial 10% of national support level.
Fine Gael: There has been a notably increase in Fine Gael support levels in opinion polls across 2015, even allowing for a dip in support for that party in the Summer 2015 polls. This is most notably evident if the party’s support levels in the final Ipsos MRBI polls of 2014 and 2015 are contrasted. The 4th December 2014 Irish Times-Ipsos MRBI opinion poll had estimated Fine Gael support as standing at 19% and had shown Fine Gael to be on a lower level of support than Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail, as well as the Independents and Others grouping. But the most recent edition of the Ipsos-MRBI opinion poll saw the party effectively gaining eleven percentage points across the four Ipsos-MRBI polls of 2015. With the party gaining significant ground in this latest Behaviour & Attitudes poll, Fine Gael remain the largest party in the state, by far, based on these poll figures. As such, Fine Gael stand poised to enjoy a significant seat bonus in terms of how the party’s support level nationally may relate to the percentage of seats that the party might hold in the next Dail, as illustrated in this analysis. This is in keeping with the results of most recent general elections, which have seen significant seat bonuses for the largest parties – Fine Gael in 2011 (36.1% of votes, 45.8% of seats), Fianna Fail in 2007 (41.6% of votes, 46.4% of seats), Fianna Fail in 2002 (41.5% of votes, 48.8% of seats) and Fianna Fail in 1997 (39.3% of votes, 46.4% of seats). It is interesting to note that the seat bonus is not as strong in this poll analysis than it was in some of the most recent poll analyses, probably due in part to the stronger support level for Labour in this poll, meaning that Labour are claiming (or holding) seats now in this poll that were being allocated to Fine Gael in the most recent poll analyses.
How this model works: Constituency support estimates for different parties and groupings form the basis of the general approach taken with this analysis. This seeks to ask the following question in relation to different opinion poll results – what do these poll figures mean in terms of the likely number of Dail seats that could be won by the different parties and groupings on those national support levels? Although the Irish electoral system is classified as a proportional electoral system, the proportion of seats won by parties will not measure up exactly to their actual share of the first preference votes, mainly because geography has a very significant impact here. First preference votes need to be filtered through the system of Irish electoral constituencies (and the different numbers of seats that are apportioned to these). In order to address this question, I estimate what the party first preference votes would be in the different constituencies, assuming similar (proportional) changes in party vote shares in all constituencies to those that are being suggested by a particular opinion poll. This of course is a very rough model and it cannot take appropriate account of the fact that changing support levels between elections tend to vary geographically, while it also fails to take account of the local particularities of the different regions in cases where no regional figures are produced in association with different national opinion polls meaning that there is no scope to carry out separate regional analyses based on these poll figures.
Thus constituency support estimates for different parties/groupings will be over-estimated in some constituencies and under-estimated in others, but the expectation would be that the overall national seat figures figures estimated will be relatively close to the true level, given that over-estimates in certain constituencies will be offset by under-estimates in others. Based on these estimated constituency support figures, I proceed to estimate the destination of seats in the different constituencies. The constituency level analysis involves the assigning seat levels to different parties and political groupings on the basis of constituency support estimates and simply using a d’Hondt method to determine which party wins the seats, while also taking account of the factors of vote transfers and vote splitting/management (based on vote transfer/management patterns observed in the February 2011 election). Due to unusually high/low support levels for some parties or political groupings in certain constituencies in the previous election, the model may throw up occasional constituency predictions that are unlikely to pan out in a “real election”, but of course the estimates here cannot be seen as highly accurate estimates of support levels at the constituency level as in a “real election” party support changes will vary significantly across constituency given uneven geographical shifts in support levels.
The point to remember here is that the ultimate aim of this model is to get an overall, national-level, estimate of seat numbers and these are based, as noted earlier, on the proviso that an over-prediction in one constituency may be offset by an under-prediction in another constituency. This model does not aim, or expect, to produce 100% accurate party support and seat level predictions for each of the 40 constituencies. Based on such an analysis and using the new constituency units (as defined in the 2012 Constituency Commission report), these analyses estimates what party seat levels would be, should such national support trends be replicated in an actual general election. For a variety of reasons (including the impact of high levels of undecided voters in a specific poll), the actual result of an election contest may vary from the figures suggested by an opinion poll, even if the poll is carried out relatively close to election day, or on election day itself as in the case of exit polls, but the likelihood of such variation is not something that can be factored into this model. Vote transfer patterns of course cannot be accounted for in the constituency support estimate figures, but I do try to control for these somewhat in my set of amended seat allocations.
I have made some further corrections to the base support figures for the different parties for this analysis to take better account of the impacts on support of the 2012 Constituency Commission report boundary changes with especial reference to the Dublin constituencies. For instance, these figures better reflect the weaker positions of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Dublin Central after the moving out of the Ashtown area to Dublin West and the Botanic/Drumcondra area to Dublin North West, but also their stronger positions in Dublin West and Dublin North West. Fine Gael are assigned an extra seat in Dun Laoghaire on the basis that the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, will be automatically returned at the next general election (unless he decides to retire from politics before this) and this constituency will effectively be rendered a three-seat contest at the next general election. (Changes in constituency boundaries as outlined in the 2012 Constituency Commisison report have been factored in to this analysis. An overview of the political impacts of these changes (carried out in an earlier post) suggests that Fianna Fail would seem to be the party most likely to be positively effected by the redrawing of the constituency boundaries, with the Labour Party being the party likely to be the most adversely effected by these changes.)
Note that the approach used in this analysis is different to those of the constituency level analyses of the 2011-13 in that it now takes account of defections/changing party affiliations for people who were candidates in the 2011 General Election, as will be outlined in greater detail later in this post (and as such the seat estimates for this, and later posts, cannot be directly compared with those for the 2011, 2012 and Early 2013 analyses of post-General Election 2011 opinion polls). In cases where a General Election 2011 candidate has definitely left a party (or the independents ranks) to join another party or to become an independent, a portion of their 2011 will be taken away from the constituency base figures for their former party/grouping and added to those of their new party/grouping. The approach taken in the run up to the 2011 General Election was to assign all of the votes won by that candidate to their new grouping, but the actual 2011 results showed that this was an over-estimation of the likely impact of such changes. For instance the Labour Party constituency estimates for Mayo and Roscommon-South Leitrim following the moves of Jerry Cowley and John Kelly into the Labour Party ranks were well in excess of the actual votes won by that party in those constituencies. In this approach, half of the votes won by a candidate in the 2011 contest will be assigned to their new party/grouping while the rest of the votes will remain assigned to their old party/grouping. Where a constituency boundary change is involved, meaning that part(s) of a candidate’s old constituency is now moved into another constituency/other constituencies, the base figures for all these constituencies will be recalculated to take account of this. For instance, the impact of Peter Mathews leaving the Fine Gael ranks means that the Fine Gael and Non Party base figures are altered in Dublin Rathdown, but also in the Dublin South-West and Dun Laoghaire constituencies. Note that this approach will not take account of candidates who have lost the party whip but who may ultimately return to the party at a later date or who have been temporarily suspended from their party, as in the cases of Brian Walsh (Fine Gael, Galway West) or Peadar Toibin (Sinn Fein, Meath West). This approach also takes account of those candidates who did not win Dail seats at the 2011 contest, including people like David McGuinness (Dublin West), Averil Power (Dublin Bay North), Fidelma Healy-Eames (Galway West), Eddie Fitzpatrick (Offaly), James Heffernan (Limerick), Jenny McHugh (Meath West) and Tom Fortune (Wicklow). In the wake of Patrick Nulty’s resignation from the Dáil, the correction made in Dublin West to the Labour and Independent/Non Party bases figures has now been reversed there. In the case of David McGuinness, his 2011 vote is undoubtedly a significant under-estimate of his potential vote (given that he was an obvious sweeper candidate for the late Brian Lenihan) while his by-election performances would probably over-estimate where his support levels would stand if accompanied by a running mate, such as Jack Chambers. An estimate lying midway between these two extremes has been applied (with some degree of caution!) in this analysis. As with the case of Patrick Nulty, this correction will be reversed in subsequent polls should it transpire that David McGuinness decides not to contest the next general election as an independent candidate (or indeed as a candidate for another party or grouping).
Constituency Support Estimates: The constituency support estimates based on the Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes poll (13th December 2015), when using the new constituency units (as to be used at the next general election), are as follows:
|Cork North Central||18%||25%||12%||25%||3%||18%|
|Cork North West||28%||45%||7%||13%||3%||4%|
|Cork South Central||32%||31%||8%||14%||6%||9%|
|Cork South West||27%||45%||6%||13%||4%||5%|
|Dublin Mid West||14%||30%||15%||21%||4%||16%|
|Dublin Bay North||12%||25%||10%||15%||4%||33%|
|Dublin North West||13%||15%||13%||35%||2%||22%|
|Dublin South Central||11%||21%||17%||26%||4%||21%|
|Dublin Bay South||7%||24%||11%||14%||13%||32%|
|Dublin South West||12%||27%||13%||22%||6%||21%|
Seat Estimates: Based on these constituency estimates and using a d’Hondt method to determine which party wins the seats in a constituency, the party seat levels are estimated as follows:
|Cork North Central||1||1||0||1||0||1|
|Cork North West||1||2||0||0||0||0|
|Cork South Central||2||2||0||0||0||0|
|Cork South West||1||2||0||0||0||0|
|Dublin Mid West||0||2||0||1||0||1|
|Dublin Bay North||0||2||0||1||0||2|
|Dublin North West||0||0||0||2||0||1|
|Dublin South Central||0||1||1||1||0||1|
|Dublin Bay South||0||1||0||1||0||2|
|Dublin South West||0||2||1||1||0||1|
Amended Seat Estimates: The seat estimates also need to take account of the candidate and competition trends unique to the different constituency. Amending the model to account for seats that may be won or lost on the basis of estimates here being based on support levels derived due to a large/small number of candidates contesting the election in 2011 (as in the large number of independent candidates competing in constituencies such as Wicklow or Laois-Offaly in 2011) or one candidate polling especially well in that election (e.g. the Shane Ross vote in Dublin South/Mick Wallace vote in Wexford) in a manner that would not amount to an extra seat for another member of the same party/grouping. Vote transfer patterns and vote management issues (e.g. discrepancies between votes won by party front runners and their running mates which would see potential seat wins fall out of a party’s hands) also need to be accounted for. I have also in this analysis tried to make some allowance for the potential impact of a vote transfer pact between the two government parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Taking these concerns into account, the amended seat allocations across the constituencies would look more like this:
|Cork North Central||1||1||1||1||0||0|
|Cork North West||1||2||0||0||0||0|
|Cork South Central||2||2||0||0||0||0|
|Cork South West||1||2||0||0||0||0|
|Dublin Mid West||0||1||1||1||0||1|
|Dublin Bay North||0||2||0||1||0||2|
|Dublin North West||0||1||0||1||0||1|
|Dublin South Central||0||1||1||1||0||1|
|Dublin Bay South||0||1||0||1||1||1|
|Dublin South West||1||1||1||1||0||1|
There are, of course, quite a number of constituencies where – on the basis of the constituency estimates calculated – the final seat, or final seats, would be very close to call. For instance, in the case of Dublin West – especially in the wake of the David McGuinness defection – the final two seats here look like being a toss up between Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Labour and the Independents and Others grouping (with Fine Gael and the Anti-Austerity Alliance best placed to take the first two seats there on the basis of these figures). In the case of Dublin North-West, these figures suggest that the final two seats would be closely fought out between the second Sinn Fein candidate, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and the Independents and Others grouping (presumably Roisin Shortall of the Social Democrats).
Potential Governments?: Based on these seat estimates, a Fine Gael-Labour alliance (combined seat level of 71 seats) would fall just eight seats short of the number of seats required to form a government (79 seats). If an agreed transfer pact between these parties proved especially effective – over and above the degree to which this model allows for – these parties could win more than the number of seats estimated for them here – especially if the support levels for Opposition parties and candidates in different constituencies proved to be especially fractured across a number of different parties and independent candidates. There are, for instance, a number of constituencies here where some luck in terms of vote transfers, or in terms of the breakdown of transfers between opposing parties or groupings, could result in even more seats for Labour and Fine Gael, although poor transfers between Labour and Fine Gael candidates could of course see the loss of some of the seats being assigned to the parties in this analysis. In a number of cases, however, extra seats for one of the parties might well becoming at the expense of their coalition partner. Looking at the current figures, Labour (in addition to their estimated seat levels here) would also be seen to be challenging for seats in Dublin Fingal, Dublin Bay North, Dublin North-West, Dublin Bay South, Dun Laoghaire, Kildare North, Kildare South, Longford-Westmeath and Wexford (meaning that they could potentially win up to 15 seats on these numbers, but only if they were to get a significant degree of luck involving vote transfer patterns). Fine Gael (in addition to their estimated seat levels here) would also be seen to be challenging for extra seats in Cork East, Dublin Bay South and Dublin South-West (meaning that they could potentially win up to 67 seats on these numbers, but with a significant degree of luck involving vote transfer patterns). If instances where a further gain for Fine Gael (or Labour) at the expense of Labour (or Fine Gael) are excluded, the present government coalition could be vying to take another six seats, based on this poll analysis, over and above their estimated seats levels in the analysis above, meaning that – with some luck and tight vote transfers – they could well win a combined number of up to 76 Dail seats on these support levels. All in all, the government parties may need to gain an extra three or four percent in the next few weeks or months to ensure the government is returned to power, but probably with most of these gains needing to be won by Labour to leave them on a 11% or 12% support level, at least. A smaller gain may be required, however, in the case of a very fragmented Opposition vote pattern and if these parties did get some degree of luck in terms of vote transfer patterns. One positive facet, however, remains the fact that support trends for these parties (but especially Fine Gael) have been decidedly more positive across the most recent polls and especially in contrast with the opinion polls that were carried out at this exact stage last year.
A potential Sinn Fein-Fianna Fail alliance (combined seat level of 55 seats) would fall thirteen seats short of this 79-seat target and would need to win a significant level of support from left-leaning deputies from the Independents and Others grouping (and/or Fianna Fail gene pool independents) to form a government. A Fine Gael and Sinn Fein pairing, on these estimates, would comfortably attain the required number of seats required to form a government (combined seat level of 88 seats), but such an alliance looks highly unlikely in the present political climate. A potential Fine Gael-Fianna Fail alliance would amount to the other two-party alliance that would be capable of mustering enough seats to form a two-party coalition government without needing the support of other Dail deputies (with a combined seat level of 95 seats). Two-party coalitions have proved to be difficult to form in most of the poll analyses engaged in since Summer 2014 due to the very strong support levels for the Independents and Others grouping in those polls, but the lower support levels for this grouping in this polls makes various two party-coalitions, such as Fine Gael-Fianna Fail, Fine Gael-Sinn Fein and even Fine Gael-Labour a more likely prospect.
The Opposition: Given the improved support levels for Sinn Fein relative to the 2011 General Election, as especially evident in this analysis, the seat estimates based on these constituency-level analyses suggest a significant improvement in that party’s seat levels relative to those won by the party at the 2011 contest (especially given that the fact that the eight fewer seats in the next Dail has been factored into this analysis), effectively pointing to significant gains on the part of the main Dail Opposition parties since 2011. It is worth noting that, on the basis of this analysis, Sinn Fein would also be competing strongly for seats in a number of other constituencies as well, such as Cork North West, Cork South-Central, Cork South-West and Kildare North, or even a second seat in Sligo-Leitrim or a third Donegal seat. Fianna Fail support levels in this poll are seen to be just a few percentage points higher than their 2011 support levels. But the favourable changes made (in their perspective) in the 2012 Constituency Commssion report, in addition to the impact of the loss of support for the government parties, means that the party would be almost doubling their Dail seat numbers if these support levels were to be replicated at the next general election. It is worth noting that, as opposed to the parties, the Independents and Others grouping is a very broad church and includes a range of parties, groups and individuals with very different ideological perspectives, including the Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance and the People Before Profit Alliance as well as left-leaning independents, but also politicians located in the centre-right of the political spectrum, including a significant number of Fianna Fail/Fine Gael-gene pool independents and people such as Shane Ross. Looking at the constituencies where this grouping is predicted to win seats in this model, it can be seen that left-leaning parties and independents would take at least 17 of the 29 seats being assigned to this grouping in the Sunday Times-Behaviour & Attitudes opinion poll.
Why are Labour likely to win less seats than in 1987 on a low national support level?: The seat level estimates in all of the recent poll analyses for the Labour Party have been stark and the estimate in this poll is especially stark (highlighting the fact that the PR-STV system is proportional, but only to a limited extent). Previous analyses have, moreover, suggested that, especially given the increased competition on the Left from Sinn Fein, other smaller left of centre parties and left-leaning independents, that it will be a struggle for Labour to win seats in most, if not all, constituencies if the party’s national support levels fall below the ten percent level, as has been shown in similar analyses of most recent polls. The further the party falls below this ten percent level, the more problems Labour faces in terms of winning seats. Labour would be in serious trouble if their national support levels fall below ten percent as the party is also facing a “perfect storm” from electoral geography and changed competition levels. These factors include the reduction in Dail seat numbers (from 166 to 158) and other changes made to general election boundaries by the 2012 Constituency Commission (which militated against Labour while seeming to advantage other parties, but notably Fianna Fail) as well as the increased competition the party now faces on the Left from Sinn Fein, other smaller left-wing parties and left-of-centre independents, as well as from Fianna Fail. When Labour support levels fell to similarly low levels in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, the party was in a position to be helped (as in the 1997, 2002 and 2007 General Elections) by transfers from lower placed candidates from the smaller left-wing parties. But on these constituency-estimate figures outlined in these analyses Labour Party candidates would find themselves polling below candidates from Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group or the People Before Profit Alliance, or left-leaning independents, in a number of constituencies. Instead of being in a position to possibly benefit from vote transfers (which themselves would be likely to dry up in any case), the Labour candidates would now in a number of cases be eliminated before the final count and would be providing the transfers to see candidates from other left-of-centre political groupings over the line. (If we look at the 1987 case study – we see Labour won 6.5% of the vote in the 1987 General Election and won 12 seats, but it is also worth noting that they did not contest nine constituencies in that election, whereas their 7% national vote is being distributed across all forty constituencies in this analysis, as with the most recent general elections in which Labour has contested all constituencies. In two of the twelve constituencies in 1987 where Labour won seats – Dublin South-Central, Dublin South-West, Galway West and Wexford – vote transfers were crucial in ensuring Labour won these these seats – i.e. Labour candidates were outside the seat positions on the first count but overtook candidates with higher first preference votes as counts progressed due to transfers from other candidates.
|Constituency||FPV||Total Poll||Quota||% FPV||Lab/quota|
Voting statistics for constituencies in which Labour won seats at the 1987 General Election. The table above shows that there was no constituency in 1987 in which a Labour candidate exceeded the quota and indeed successful Labour candidates, Ruairi Quinn and Michael D. Higgins won seats in their constituencies despite winning less than half of the quota in their first preference votes. In addition, Dick Spring came within a handful of votes of losing his seat in Kerry North.)
Although there has been an improvement in their figures recently, the Labour Party has tended to fall below the ten percent level in most opinion polls, as in the case of this Red C poll. Labour seat level estimates in most of the poll analyses I have carried out in the past few years have been quite stark, highlighting the fact that our PR-STV electoral system is proportional but only to a limited extent. The further Labour support nationally falls below the ten percent level, the more it will face in terms of winning seats as this would leave it facing a “perfect storm” from the combined effects of boundary changes, electoral geography and changing political competition patterns. These factors explain why Labour faces greater challenges in translating lower levels of national support into seat numbers than it did back in 1987 when the party won 12 seats with just over six percent of the national vote.
- The size of the Dáil is being reduced from 166 seats to 158 at the coming general election, but my analysis of the effects of these boundary changes suggests that Labour will be more adversely effected by these than other parties, such as Fianna Fáil in particular, would be. Had the new boundaries been in place in 2011, it is estimated that Labour would probably have won three or four fewer seats, while Fianna Fáil may have won two or three more seats!
- While there is a distinct geography to Labour Party support levels over and above the more “catch-all” trends traditionally associated with Fianna Fáil and (to a lesser degree) Fine Gael, there is not the same concentration of support into a small number of constituencies that one has observed in past contests with smaller parties such as the Green Party (especially in the 2002 and 2007 contests) and potentially parties such Renua Ireland, the Social Democrats and the Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit in the upcoming election. In the latter cases, lower support levels nationally often translate into much larger support levels in a small number of stronger constituencies, allowing these to pick up a number of Dáil seats. In the case of Labour, the same spiking of support in a small number of stronger constituencies is not evident. A small share of the vote nationally (especially if Labour contests all, or most of, the Dáil constituencies) would translate into a sufficient level of support to allow them to challenge for seats in only a very small number of their stronger constituencies. (Labour will also not be helped by the level of defections and retirements amongst its cohort of TDs, especially given that these involve many of the party’s stronger constituencies at the 2011 contest.)
- In 1987, Labour won 12 seats even though the party never exceeded the quota in any of the constituencies being contested by the party in that election (and it is worth remembering that Labour did not contest every constituency in 1987). Indeed, Labour won nearly half of their seats in constituencies where they had won little more than half a quota in terms of first preference votes– or even less than half a quota in the case of the Galway West and Dublin South-East constituencies. Labour were helped in this instance as their candidates were in a position to pick up vote transfers from lower-placed left-wing candidates, as well as lower-placed Fine Gael candidates (arising from that party’s drop in support in 1987 and also some instances of poor vote management). In 2002 and 2007 Labour were also able to translate their national support levels into a higher proportion of Dáil seat levels due to Labour candidates being ahead of candidates from other left-wing groupings and hence in a position to win transfers from these. In the context of low Labour support levels nationally in the upcoming election, however, the trend in a number of constituencies might instead be for Labour Party candidates to be polling below candidates from Sinn Fein, the Social Democrats or the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit, or left-leaning independents. Instead of being in a position to possibly benefit from vote transfers (which themselves are likely to be weaker in any case based on the data provided in a Sunday Independent-Millward Brown poll earlier in this summer), in this context Labour candidates would be eliminated before the final count in many constituencies and potentially providing the transfers to ensure the election of candidates from other left-of-centre political groupings.
- This same trend might well apply in the case of the vote transfer pact with Fine Gael. If Labour can win ten percent, or more, of the national vote (and if Fine Gael remain at their current levels), then a number of Labour candidates would be likely to benefit from transfers from lower-placed Fine Gael candidates. If Labour, however, were instead to win around six or seven percent of the national vote (and if Fine Gael support levels were to move in the opposite direction), then the larger party would almost monopolise the advantages arising from the vote transfer arrangement. This would be likely to transpire if the Fine Gael and Labour support levels in this poll were to be exactly replicated in the upcoming general election.