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Independents' support levels don’t always translate into seats


Catherine Murphy TD

Catherine Murphy TD

Catherine Murphy TD

Support levels in polls for the Independents and Others grouping over the past year have stood at levels well above those won by this grouping at the 2011 General Election, although there has been some slippage over recent months.

But trying to tease out how this increased support level might translate into Dail seat levels is harder to do than for the four larger parties.

The very diverse nature of this grouping means that support levels do not usually translate as neatly into seat gains as would be the case with parties such as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Vote transfer levels across this grouping, which includes a wide array of smaller parties and alliances as well as Independents, 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 general election contests.

For instance, Fine Gael won nearly 46pc of the seats at the 2011 General Election with just over 36pc of the votes. That said, independent candidates may sometimes do well in terms of transfers on the basis of not being as "transfer toxic" as candidates representing the political parties, as was suggested in the data gathered for a recent Sunday Independent-Millward Brown opinion poll.

The number of different parties and groupings covered by the Independents and Others umbrella have mushroomed in recent months, with the announcement of a new centre-left party - involving Roisin Shortall, Katherine Zappone, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly - coming only a few weeks after the emergence of Renua Ireland and the new Independents Alliance, involving Shane Ross, John Halligan, Finian McGrath, Michael Fitzmaurice and others.

The United Left Alliance, which worked very well at the 2011 election in terms of producing seat gains, has effectively fragmented in the intervening years, with three of the parties/alliances that were associated with this - United Left, the Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance and the People Before Profit Alliance - being well positioned to challenge to gain (and indeed retain) seats at the next general election. With the Green Party also included here, this means that there are probably six or seven different smaller parties or alliances within the Independents and Others grouping that are capable of challenging for three, or more, Dail seats at the next election.

But this also points to the highly fragmented nature of the Independents and Others grouping, with a number of other parties/alliances from within this grouping - mainly left-of-centre or anti-austerity groupings - also likely to be contesting a number of constituencies at the next general election. This would include the Workers' Party, the National Citizens Movement and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group.

If a number of "pure" independent candidates are also factored in here, the potential fracturing of the Independents and Others vote across a large number of different candidates becomes particularly apparent. This might not be a major issue in constituencies where there are one or two obvious strong contenders from within this grouping, such as Shane Ross in Dublin Rathdown, Catherine Murphy in Kildare North and Brid Smith and Joan Collins in Dublin South-Central. (It does of course help if two strong contenders are based in different parts of a constituency, as in the case of Joan Collins and Brid Smith.)

But in other cases a sizeable Independents and Others vote may well be fragmented across a number of fairly strong and weak candidates, in the process leaving none of these in a position to challenge for a seat. This, in turn, may allow the larger parties to claim more seats than might have been anticipated based on their first preference vote numbers. In turn, Sinn Fein seat prospects may be helped in constituencies where a number of left-leaning or anti-austerity smaller party/independent candidates are eliminated in earlier counts.

The recent by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny offers an interesting case in point here. This is not a constituency that has a strong tradition of support for independent candidates, while Martin Gibbons (Progressive Democrats) and Mary White (Green Party) have been the only small party candidates to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Labour monopoly here over the eight decades. Despite this history, Independents and Others (28.5pc) won a larger share of the by-election vote than Fianna Fail (27.8pc) did.

Despite this, no candidate from the grouping came close to challenging for the seat, with Renua's Patrick McKee being the strongest of these candidates. In the same contest, left-wing/anti-austerity independent and smaller party candidates succeeded in winning 13.7pc of the vote - a share of the vote that would be very close to a quota in a five-seat constituency, such as Carlow-Kilkenny. But this vote was shared out between seven different candidates, with the strongest of these, Cllr Breda Gardner, winning 4.2pc of the valid poll.

Thus, despite a relatively strong vote here, a strong left-wing/anti-austerity challenger from the small parties and independents grouping did not emerge to the same extent in the way the 2010 Donegal South-West contest proved pivotal to establishing Thomas Pringle as a contender ahead of the February 2011 election.

Dr Adrian Kavanagh is a constituency analyst based at Maynooth University

Sunday Independent