Big spend didn’t guarantee success in Euro poll

The big winner of the European Election was the Alliance’s Naomi Long who managed to increase her party’s share of the vote by from 7.1% five years ago to 18.5%, winning a seat from the Ulster Unionists. For the other parties it was a mixed bag: Sinn Féin only took the third seat having taken the first seat in the previous two elections; the SDLP thought they could win back the seat they lost in 2004 but didn’t even come close; and it was a good day for Jim Allister as he exceeded expectations and came in fourth.

The Electoral Office have recently published the spending of all eleven candidates and it is interesting to note that, similar to the council elections three weeks previously, spend did not guarantee success.

Overall, the eleven candidates who stood in the election spent a total of £253,907 in trying to win one of the three Euro seats, with the biggest spender being Sinn Féín’s Martina Anderson, who spent £65,765.

She was followed by the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood who spent £50,295 on securing 78,589 first preference votes, coming in fourth on the first count, but failed to win a seat, eventually being beaten into fifth place by the TUV leader Jim Allister. The UUP’s Danny Kennedy rounded off the top three candidates in terms of spend, having spent £34,6944 to win 53,052 votes, coming in sixth on the first count. Surprisingly the next biggest spender was the independent candidate Neil McCann who spent £31,881 to come in tenth place with 948 votes, meaning he spent £33.63 per vote he won.

In terms of the other two candidates who won seats, Alliance leader Naomi Long and the DUP’s Diane Dodds spent very similar amounts of £22,849 and £22,310 respectively, which combined was still less than the SDLP spent overall. In terms of the other candidates, Jim Allister spent £12,048, the eighth highest spend, to win the fifth highest number of votes, and the other independent candidate Jane Morrice spent £13,533 to win 1,719 votes. The three remaining candidates all spent nominal amounts of money in the campaign with the Green Party leader Clare Bailey spending £398, UKIP’s Robert Hill spending £134 and the Conservatives’ London based candidate, Amandeep Singh Bhogal, spending absolutely nothing on contesting the election here!

The DUP and Alliance will undoubtedly be pleased with their spend per vote ratio in this election, as they were the fifth and sixth largest spenders but respectively won the second and third highest number of first preference votes, which suggests that there is no direct correlation between money thrown at elections and votes won. Conversely, for the SDLP, UUP and Neil McCann some degree of reflection must be called for as they spent such substantial sums of money on an election and failed to see the returns at the count. This again suggests that it is messaging, not money, that matters. It will be particularly important for the SDLP and UUP to reflect quickly, with the prospect of a Westminster election in the next few months and the temptation in winnable seats to pour money into key constituencies, which may, in fact, be best avoided.

Candidate spend is broken down into five categories, which are:

A – Advertising

This includes advertising of any nature e.g. posters or advertisements in newspapers. It includes agency fees, design costs and any costs associated with preparing, producing and distributing advertising.

B – Unsolicited material to electors

This includes unsolicited material addressed to electors whether addressed, or for delivery, to all electors in the area. It includes design costs and all other costs in connection with preparing, producing and distributing such material. The cost of postage should be included except when it is an election address sent using a post free entitlement.

C – Transport

Transport includes hire costs but excludes the use of personal cars where no charge has been made by the owner. Any reasonable spending in respect of the candidate’s own travel by personal vehicle for election purposes counts as personal expenses and should not be entered here.

D – Public meetings

This includes costs in connection with people’s attendance at meetings, the hire of premises for the purposes of meetings or the provision of goods, services or facilities at them

E – Agent and other staff costs

This includes payment for services of an election agent, or anyone else, paid in connection with the candidate’s election.

F – Accommodation and administration

This includes the general costs of campaign office rental and utilities.

The breakdown shows that the majority of spend (52.4%) during the election was on advertising, with Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson spending £49,000, well ahead of the second and third highest spenders Colum Eastwood and Danny Kennedy, who each ploughed just over £20,000 into advertising. Looking at the individual invoices paid by the Sinn Féin campaign, they spent £37,980 on election posters and £11,339 in newspaper advertisements in The Irish News and a number of regional newspapers. By comparison, the UUP’s Danny Kennedy spent £2,063 on advertisements in The News Letter and The Impartial Reporter. The independent candidate Neil McCann spent £1,800 on advertisements in The Derry Journal, The Impartial Reporter and The Fermanagh Herald but also spent £9,145 on online advertising services.

When we look at the amount spent on unsolicited material to electors there was a smaller degree of variance across the top candidates, with six of the top seven spending between £13,000 and £19,000, ensuring that all voters received an election communication. Unsolicited material was the second largest cost to candidates, with 38.5% of total candidate spend going on this. In terms of the other four categories of spend they only account for 9.1% of total but the one thing that does jump out is that the £9,209 spent by the SDLP on transport, most of which was consumed by the Eastwood Express.

With two elections already this year, and the likelihood that there will be a Westminster election in either late 2019 or early 2020, party finances will already have been squeezed. This information and information on candidate spending in the council elections should serve as a warning to parties and candidates for any future campaigns that the biggest spenders are not necessarily the biggest winners.

There has long been a tendency in politics to throw money at elections but all the evidence indicates that this is far from a guarantee of success. Some of the best election campaigns fought over the past few years have been won by candidates who have a clear message and who can credibly engage with the electorate. These recent elections have shown us that the biggest winners in an election where candidates are throwing money at their campaigns are the printing companies and those who sell advertising space.

With big fights expected in Foyle, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North and South Belfast, expect to see every lamppost covered in posters and every letterbox bursting with election material including dodgy bar charts declaring that only one candidate can win the seat. In other words, expect to see a lot of money spent but don’t assume that extra spend will change many peoples’ minds.

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