OK folks, rather than take random stabs in the dark about who might win what number of seats, I always think its better to examine what the polls say, but also the historical trends around how particular parties manage to convert votes into seats. We all know (or should…) that in our system, seats don’t allocate exactly proportionately. So the Christian Solidarity Party might achieve 1% of the vote but win 0 seats. The Greens are an example of small party bias in our system, where despite getting 2% of the vote, they did not win 2% of the seats.
So smaller parties tend to have negative seat bonuses – i.e. they win a smaller proportion of the seats than they do votes. Larger parties tend to have positive seat bonuses, i.e. winning a higher proportion of seats than votes.
The simplest way I’ve found to compare bonuses over time is to divide the proportion of seats won by the proportion of the vote won. This will give you a figure that hovers somewhere around 1.00 – where it’s dead on 1.00, then the party won the exact same proportion of seats and votes. Put in context, in elections since 1979, (comparing only FF, FG, Labour and SF) the highest bonus has been 1.27 (Fine Gael in 2011) and the lowest has been 0.23 (SF in 1997…I didn’t count SF before 1977 – if I did, I expect the seat bonus would have been lower still).
I did this for the four parties from 1977 to the 2011 election to figure out if there are patterns, and modelled current party ratings based on each seat bonus. There are patterns. The first is that there are some aberrations – elections whose circumstances were so unique that they produced out of the ordinary results. Fine Gael’s bonus of 0.83 in 2002 and Fianna Fail’s bonus of 0.69 in 2011 were both products of very unique elections.
Beyond the aberrations though, there are other patterns – with the exception of 2011, Fianna Fail has always had a positive seat bonus, ranging from 1.01 to 1.18, and Fine Gael with the exception of 2002, FG has only had one other negative bonus, of 0.95 in 1977. Otherwise, FG has had a positive bonus between 1.02 and 1.27. Labour have had four negative bonuses, but three of those have been extremely close to 1.00 at 0.99 (three times) and 0.98 (once). Interestingly, with Labour, the lower their share of the vote, the higher their bonus. So in 1987, when they did disastrously, they had a bonus of 1.11. Likewise, in 2002 and 2007 when their performance was worse than, say, 1997, they had a bonus of 1.11 and 1.19 respectively (compared to 0.98 in 1997). In Labour’s best election result to date before 2011 (1992), they had a mediocre bonus of 1.00. In fact, with the exception of 2011, the pattern is clear that Labour’s seat bonus is higher when their poll numbers are lower, which suggests that Labour (a) has a core level of seats which correspond to a core level of vote, and (b) when Labour attracts extra votes, they have been historically poor at maximising those votes into seats.
As for SF, their bonus has steadily risen, from 0.23 in 1997 to 0.85 in 2011. Unlike with other parties, SF has a clear trajectory as they become less transfer repellent, so it’s entirely plausible that they might reach unitary bonus (i.e. 1.00) at the next election.
So what does this tell us about the next election?
Nothing concrete, but we can probably predict that the next election won’t have the same historic circumstances as 2011. Why? Because in 2011, you had a hated Government who bore 100% of the responsibility for the mess, and an opposition with clean hands who the public were willing to embrace. In 2015/16, you will have a pretty unpopular Government but one which can legitimately claim that most responsibility lies with one of the main opposition parties, so there will not, I believe, be the same collapse in Government support that you saw in 2011. I think 2016 will be much closer to 1987 in terms of circumstances – i.e. an unpopular Government but an opposition that is only tepidly supported.
That being the case, I looked at each parties highest and lowest bonuses – although I excluded 2002 for FG and 2011 for FF on the basis that I believe that they were aberrations. For Sinn Fein, I’ve assumed 1.00 as their maximum, and 0.85 as their minimum, because frankly, there’s no way SF are going back to a bonus of 0.23.
Based on a 158 Seat Dail, and based on the last RedC poll, the seat ranges would be as follows:
FG – 42-56
Labour – 16-21
FF – 33-39
SF – 26-30
For comparison’s sake, in a 166 seat Dail, the range would be:
FG – 44-59
Labour – 17-22
FF – 35-41
SF – 27-32
What’s also interesting, though, is to compare bonuses for parties JUST when they were in a similar role – i.e. emerging from Government for FG and Labour, and emerging from opposition for FF. This comparison isn’t applicable to SF.
If you do that, then things improve slightly for Labour (in terms of seat floor, at least), because they’ve historically had higher bonuses emerging from Government, and also better for FF, because they’ve historically had decent bonuses emerging from opposition, so the range is:
FG – 42-52
Labour – 17-19
FF – 36-39
In a 166 seat Dail, this would equate to:
FG – 44-54
Labour – 18-20
FF – 38-41
So, as a summary? In a trimmed down Dail, based on current numbers, I think we’re looking at FG in the high-forties, Labour in the high teens, FF in the mid- to high-thirties and SF in the high-twenties.
That would probably put a FG/Labour coalition out of reach. Likewise a FF/SF coalition. The only viable options that I can see would be FG/FF or FF/SF/Lab.
(NB – this obviously comes with a health warning. Polls are snapshots and polling figures could change. Also, events, dear boy, events may move the next election from being standard to being an aberration in terms of bonuses – this analysis is really based on if an election were held today).