If you were on Twitter at all in the run up to the 2020 General Election, you probably saw the hashtag #VoteLeftTransferLeft, a rallying cry to get those who voted for left-wing candidates to continue their preferences down the ballot paper for other left-wing candidates. The call was promoted by a number of high profile left-wing individuals on social media, and was picked up by politicians and party activists, particularly those in People Before Profit/Solidarity and Sinn Féin. This makes sense as given how right-wing or centrist voters are relatively allergic to transferring to those parties, they stood to gain the most from such a platform, but it was also picked up on by advocates for other left-wing parties, albeit to a lesser extent.
The below graphic, which is of unclear provenance but was doing the rounds extensively on social media, provides a good summary of the outlook driving the movement:
Ultimately the aim was to create a more coherent left-wing voting bloc, and a left-wing government. Anyone familiar with the workings of Irish politics knows that the former is a difficult task, and as we know, the latter didn’t quite work out – right-wing parties and Independents won 86 of 60 seats.
The main point of interest here is in the “transfer left” part of the campaign. Left-wing parties (excluding Independents) increased their vote share from 31.7% in 2016 to 42% in 2020. Consequently, the total number of left-wing transfers available (as defined below) increased from 269,590 to 333,898. But the core question for the Vote Left Transfer Left campaign is, did these left-wing votes transfer left at a higher rate in 2020 than they did in 2016?
Before advancing – a quick methodology note. For this exercise, the following parties that ran in either 2016 or 2020 were considered left-wing: Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Labour, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit/Solidarity, Independents 4 Change and any Independent or Independent Alliance candidates I could positively identify as left-wing. (Also included were microparties such as the Workers Party, the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the People’s Convention, Fís Nua and the Communist Party of Ireland, but their impact was negligible.)
Votes were split into three buckets – left, right and ???, with the latter being used to categorise Independents where no info was available, where they were running on a purely localist platform with no actual policy direction beyond “I’ll fix stuff ‘cos I’m from Wicklow!”, and inscrutable cranks like Mannix Flynn.
I only counted transfers where there was at least one left-wing and at least one right-wing candidate available to transfer to, otherwise it would have skewed the exercise. All transfers were counted, not just second preferences, as the objective of the movement was to transfer left until no more left-wing options were available.
On a side note, I did a little Twitter poll on this – obviously unscientific – and from just under 300 votes, 76% felt that Vote Left Transfer Left made a difference. There’s clearly a skew at play as asking on social media about a social media-originated campaign is going to be talking to an audience that were engaged with and exposed to that campaign, but I just thought it was interesting.
Right, that’s the boring stuff out of the way. The key question here is – did Vote Left Transfer Left have a serious real-world impact beyond social media? For context, in 2016, transfers from left-wing candidates went to other left-wingers 59.6% of the time. The below chart shows the relative change in the composition of left-wing transfers between GE 2016 and GE 2020.
The immediate headline figures shows that there was an overall increase in left to left transfers in 2020, but at a lower rate than left-wing first preferences increased. The essential implication here is that while more people voted left-wing top of the ballot, the transfers downward did not follow through. Really, Dublin is the only area with significant movement towards the left, and I’ll show some regional charts later. But first, let’s talk about this on a party-by-party basis a little bit:
Remember when I said that Sinn Féin and PBP supporters were the most vocal about the movement? That didn’t quite carry through in the offline world. Admittedly both were the highest left-to-left transferrers in 2016, but both were slightly less likely to transfer left in 2020, as were Independents. This is quite interesting that the loudest voices didn’t end up significantly influencing their own party voters. This is enough in my view to overall consider the movement as broadly ineffective, but simply declaring that would ignore the fact that it did have some success.
The Social Democrats went up a significant amount, which can certainly be considered a success in terms of their base becoming more open to other left-wing preferences (indeed, they actually ended up overtaking PBP by 0.2%), but the biggest gainer was, of all parties, Labour, as their high transfer rates to FG from 2016 collapsed nationally. Indeed, a Labour voter was, on average, nearly twice as likely to transfer left in 2020 as they were in 2016, although of course their overall rate is relatively low. Regardless, its interesting that the party that seems to have been affected the most by the message is the one that was considered the least preferable left-wing option within that message.
As for the Green Party, in an exciting premonition of what was to come, they managed to completely bungle the message and ended up transferring right more than they transferred left (45.1% left, 49.2% right, 5.7% elsewhere). I suppose this is somewhat inevitable when a chunk of your new voters are former Labour to Fine Gael transferrers, or just disaffected ex-FG/FF voters. In their defence, I suppose it’s important for some party to take the role of being the first stepping stone for people moving to the left, as centre-right voters don’t turn into socialists overnight, but still. Ouch.
Regional breakdowns don’t tell a massively different story, but there are some interesting things to note:
The national patterns hold up reasonably well regionally – Labour transfers moving away from Fine Gael and to other left-wing parties is the biggest impact in every province – but there are some interesting things to note.
In Dublin, where Sinn Féin racked up massive surpluses and transfers dragged other left-wing candidates over the line, it was easy to perceive a success for the movement. However, their votes didn’t go to the left at a higher rate than last time out – it was lower, albeit by a statistically insignificant amount. Rather, it was the raw size of their surpluses that mattered. That said, in Dublin, SF and PBP were already transferring left at a staggeringly high rate, so there was certainly an element of preaching to the choir when considering those slices. The big swing that the headline figures show in Dublin is mostly due to Labour and SD voters.
Connacht/Ulster shows us something interesting, as it looks for the most part like the impact was positive, but there are some caveats here. While overall left to left transfers increased slightly, so did left to right ones. And Sinn Féin’s numbers plunged by over 20%, almost completely offsetting the combined remainder. There’s a reason for this – and it impacted PBP as well in other areas – is that a distinct section of SF & PBP voters have a tendency to preference Independents over other parties.
The end result of this is that right-wing Independents end up being direct beneficiaries of their transfers, to the detriment of other left-wingers. I don’t know if this is a conscious anti-establishment vote, or simply people not doing their research (I suspect a combination of both to be honest), and while other parties also transfer to these people, it’s odd to see it coming as strongly from the left as elsewhere. Peter Casey in Donegal is an excellent example of this. Casey polled just 1.5% of FPV, but picked up 8.9% of SF transfers, including 14.9% of Padraig MacLochlainn’s transfers. And on top of the wide political misalignment between Sinn Féin and Casey, it is worth considering that MacLochlainn is of Mincéir heritage, a group Casey has made vile comments about in the past. Similar things influenced the decline in left to left transfers among PBP in Munster and RoL.
In summary, the assessment of Vote Left Transfer Left is mixed. There certainly was a swing to transferring left among certain cohorts, but it was substantially offset by swings away from the left in others. Political campaigns, particularly in the online space, are important and can influence people, but their utility, particularly to people who aren’t already heavily engaged is limited, and I believe the analysis of the numbers supports this. If the left is to continue to grow and advance in Ireland, it has to establish itself better, particularly outside of urban centres – this is no revelation whatsoever. And while the Green Party were not helpful in this particular campaign, there is a lesson from them for other small parties, if they genuinely want to contribute to creating a coherent left-wing bloc – run in every constituency. The more options there are for left-wing transfers, the more likely is is that a left vote will stay a left transfer.