Defecting councillors: The winners and losers

Cllr. Denise Mullen’s recent decision to leave the SDLP and join Aontú, less than three months after she was successfully re-elected to Mid Ulster Council, has provoked a flurry of questions about politicians who are elected for one party but then switch to another.

Is the current system fair? Standing on a party ticket and then dropping party so quickly after an election is noticeable. Should the rules be changed? Should people have to put themselves before the electorate again? Same could be asked about cooption.

This defection raises interesting questions about the integrity of politicians elected on one platform who then join another party. Should they resign their seat? Should they fight a by-election? Or since they were elected to the seat is it theirs to do with what they choose until the next election when the electorate will render a verdict on their decision?

The general convention is that when a politician leaves one party for another they don’t resign their seat and the party who they have left argue that they should resign and force a by-election. Notable exceptions to this rule occurred back in 2014 when MPs Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell left the Conservatives for UKIP, and resigned their seats, forcing by-elections in order to secure support from their constituents for their position.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly we have seen various MLAs switch party: David McNarry left the Ulster Unionists in 2012 for UKIP and John McAllister and Basil McCrea left the Ulster Unionists a year later to set up NI21. Perhaps the most notable case of party switching came back in 2004 when Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster and Norah Beare left the UUP for the DUP less than a month after being successfully elected in the 2003 Assembly election, and none of them resigned their seats.

For Council and Assembly seats, the reason that party switchers don’t resign their seats to force by-elections is that electoral law here means that once an MLA or councillor resigns their seat there is no option of forcing a by-election – the seat is simply filled by co-option by the party they were originally elected under. This means that if a councillor leaves one party for another and subsequently resigns their seat it is not filled by the party they were in when they resigned, but by the party whose banner they were originally elected under. This has happened a few times in the 2014-19 council mandate, when Jenny Palmer was elected as a UUP MLA her council seat was filled by the DUP, replacing her with the man who she just defeated for his Assembly seat, Jonathan Craig, and also when Newry independent Kevin McAteer resigned his seat, only for it to be filled by the party he was originally elected for – the SDLP.

During the 2014-19 council term, across all eleven councils, 38 councillors (8% of total) left the party for they were originally elected, to either move to a new party or to become an independent. It is interesting to note that only 8 (21%) of these party switching councillors were successfully elected for their new party (or as independents), with 12 (32%) not seeking re-election. A further 17 (45%) sought re-election for their new party (or as an independent) but were unsuccessful. This perhaps indicates that voters are more often voting for the party, not the person. Not included in the list is the current DUP councillor and former MLA Maurice Devenney who left the DUP and remained as an independent councillor before re-joining the party shortly before the council election in May where he was successfully re-elected.

It is also worth noting that there is a clear divide in terms of success between candidates who move to another party and those who become independents. Across the three measures of ‘Not elected’, ‘Elected’ (to council) and ‘Elected to Assembly’, those who were members of a political party fared better than those who were independents. These figures indicate that those who became independents were more likely to stand unsuccessfully for election (71%) or not stand for re-election (83%) than those who joined another political party. In the same vein, of those councillors who were successfully re-elected after leaving their party, 63% were elected as members of a different party and only 38% were elected as independents.

The party which suffered the most from defections in the previous council terms were the SDLP, as 11 of the 38 defections (29%) involved councillors originally elected under their banner. In terms of where defecting councillors ended up across Northern Ireland, 25 became independents (66%) and 6 (16%) joined the DUP.

The council with the largest number of party changes was Belfast where six councillors, 16% of the total defections, switched party. Belfast was followed by Fermanagh and Omagh and Lisburn and Castlereagh where five councillors, respectively, 13% each of all defections, occurred. At the other end of the spectrum was Mid Ulster and Newry, Mourne and Down where only one councillor on each council switched party.

One of the age-old questions of politics is to what extent, in the privacy of the polling booth, a voter is indicating support for a party or a candidate. There were 15 candidates who stood for election in the 2019 local government election as independents, having previously stood as members of a political party in 2014. Of those 15, only 3 were elected as independents, but when we compared the change in their votes between 2014 and 2019 a clear pattern emerges which may explain why. Fourteen of the fifteen candidates saw their votes decrease from 2014 to 2019, with the sole exception being Tom Smith who polled 765 first preference votes in 2019 compared to 541 in 2014, and the average decrease in votes was 41%.

It could be argued that 41% of these candidates’ votes were indications of party support, with the other 59% being the ‘personal vote’. Therefore, when they stood as independents, they were losing the party support that they had secured in 2014 and were only able to attract the personal vote.

There was also a significant range of changes in candidate vote, with the former Alliance councillor Geraldine Rice seeing her vote decrease by 81%, and the former Sinn Féín councillor Sorcha McAnespy seeing her vote decline by 79%. However, at the other end of the spectrum the former SDLP councillor Sean Carr saw his vote decrease by 2% and, as mentioned previously, the former DUP councillor Tom Smith saw his vote increase by 41%.

In other parts of the world, so-called ‘anti-defection’ laws do exists, which actually outlaw politicians from changing membership of a political party after they are elected and can disqualify a politician from office if they vote contrary to the direction of their party. As long as we have an electoral system where we vote for individual candidates, rather than political parties, we are placing our trust in those individuals to make decisions.

Politicians may switch parties out of self-interest, either to protect their chance of holding onto their seat or to punish the party if they feel they have been overlooked for promotion or appointment to a civic office, but it may also be that a major shift has occurred in politics at the time and they are merely reflecting this. If we look at the shifts which occurred within unionism between 1998-2003, we witnessed the coalescing of unionist support behind the DUP and away from the UUP and the micro-unionist parties, so the defections to the DUP at this point, at membership, councillor, MLA and MP level, could be argued to be reflective of this.

Ultimately, it is the electorate who will render the final decision on whether or not a politician who switches party will retain their support. The evidence, at council level at least, is that it is a mixed bag and whilst a good politician can bring their voters with them, many of the rest will be washed away by the party machines.

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