More lessons in the Belfast Telegraph poll…

The detailed results of the Belfast Telegraph poll into current Assembly voting intentions were published at the weekend We can be sure that the parties will be poring over them. They will translate the changes in percentage support into votes, and then project that into individual Assembly constituencies, and also look for lessons for their next Westminster and European campaigns.

Here’s what they will find:

• The UUP appears to have lost over 14,700 voters since the last Assembly Election. A drop of 16.8%.
• The SDLP drop is almost as great – at almost 14,600. A loss of 15.5%
• The Alliance gain of over 21,200 has therefore come at the expense of both of these parties. Up 41.8%.
• Sinn Fein and DUP have consolidated and improved their positions, with increases of about 7,100 (up 3.9%) and 4,700 (up 2.4%) respectively.
• A small element of these gains, about 7,000 votes, is at the expense of independents and minor parties.
• The SDLP hold on the Westminster seats of Foyle and South Down is under threat.
• The DUP could take the UUP seat in Europe by running a second candidate next year, and could face political risks in the future if it fails to do so.

Implications for the Assembly

The potential political impact of the vote changes is best expressed by considering how different the Assembly would look if the election were run on the same boundaries as last time. The effects of boundary changes, reducing the number of constituencies by two, and possibly the number of MLA’s per constituency to 5 are separate issues.

DUP: either no change or, just possibly, 1 seat gained
UUP: losses of between 2 and 5 seats (most likely 4)
Alliance: gain of between 4 and 6 seats (most likely 5)
SDLP: net loss of 2 or 3 seats (most likely 2)
Sinn Fein: net gain of 2 seats

This would leave Alliance with between 12 and 14 seats (most likely 13), possibly overtaking both the SDLP on 11 or 12 (most likely 12), with the UUP at between 11 and 14 (most likely 12).

These figures have been arrived at by looking at each constituency individually. In each constituency I have applied the total percentage change to each party’s support shown by the poll at the overall Northern Ireland level. Where I refer to a quota, this is always first preference votes, unless stated otherwise.

In 10 constituencies no seats would change hands. The battlegrounds are:

Belfast East: With Alliance up to 2.61 quotas, and UUP reduced to 0.56, transfers will probably give Alliance a third seat (up 1) at the expense of the UUP, although it is theoretically possible that the UUP could hold on.

Belfast South: With 1.96 quotas Alliance takes a second seat (up 1) from the SDLP.

East Antrim: Last time Alliance won one seat with 1.02 of a quota. However, because of the way the votes split between the parties, 70 more votes would have given Alliance a second seat. With the poll pointing towards an increase of 1,860 1st preference votes, Alliance would gain the second seat at the expense of Sinn Fein.

East Londonderry: This is probably no change. But it is interesting. Last time the Independent McClarty had 0.61 of a quota. With Alliance rising to 0.54 of a quota and the UUP dropping to 0.49 it is likely that the transfers keep the seat with McClarty, but it depends on how the UUP transfers fall.

Foyle: Sinn Fein gains one from SDLP. Last time the SDLP had 499 more first preference votes than Sinn Fein, but this extrapolation of the poll gives Sinn Fein a 1,700 vote lead.

North Down: The calculations pointing to 1.85 of a quota for Alliance, they would gain another seat. The poll suggests that support for the Greens has grown strongly, although it is impossible to calculate a precise percentage since they did not stand in all constituencies last time. So the Alliance gain would probably come at the expense of the UUP.

Strangford: Last time the UUP took two seats starting from 1.43 quotas. This time they would drop to 1.19, with Alliance rising, coincidentally, to 1.43. So the UUP will drop 1 of their two seats. The SDLP would start on 0.52 of a quota. On the evidence of the last election they should pick up about two thirds of the Sinn Fein transfers, taking them to about 0.7. I’m calling them to gain the seat on the last count without reaching the quota. If Alliance could balance their two candidates well they might just keep them both above the SDLP long enough to take the seat on DUP and UUP transfers, of which there are plenty available since the DUP have half a quota to spare on top of the UUP’s excess of 0.19.

Upper Bann: The poll points to two changes here. Last time Sinn Fein only managed to win only 1 seat from 1.9 quotas. This time with the figures pointing to 1.98 quotas they should take a second seat, at the expense of the SDLP, who would start on 0.70 of a quota. With the DUP on 1.95 quotas, the UUP on 1.43 and TUV on 0.17, there should be sufficient transfers around to keep Alliance, starting on 0.65, ahead of the SDLP to take the seat which the UUP seem destined to lose.

West Tyrone: The most likely outcome would be no change, although there is the possibility that the DUP takes the UUP seat.

Implications for Westminster

The poll asked about voting intentions in an Assembly Election, not Westminster. We also know that some people vote differently in elections for Westminster, local council, Assembly or Europe, even where two of these elections are held on the same day. But while we cannot extrapolate directly from these responses it is significant to note the Foyle figures referred to above, which point to a higher level of vulnerability for the SDLP in that Westminster constituency. In South Down the tide would also have turned against the SDLP on these calculations, with a 2,040 vote advantage to the SDLP in the last Assembly elections turning into a short lead of 303 for Sinn Fein. With the South Belfast constituency expected to disappear, the SDLP faces a much tougher task to hold onto the two Westminster seats which would remain to them. They may be able to “borrow” enough tactical votes from other parties’ supporters to hold on in South Down, but it is hard to see where to look for enough willing lenders in Foyle.

Implications for Europe

Again it is worth stressing that the poll question is not about a European Election. But the DUP will not have lost sight of the fact that this poll shows the DUP Assembly vote (30.7%) now almost three times that of the UUP (11.0%). They could take the UUP seat simply by putting up a second candidate, and managing the vote division between the candidates reasonably well.

That in itself would be strong incentive for powerful voices within the party to argue for running a second candidate next year, and plays to the DUP strategy of presenting itself as the bulwark against Sinn Fein. Can it resist the optics of defeating Sinn Fein 2 to 1.

But there is a longer term strategic issue. Alliance has always polled below their strength in European elections. Quite simply they have always lacked credibility in a poll where the quota is 25% of the vote. And this has benefited the UUP and SDLP, and will probably continue to do so in 2013. But a 2016 Assembly Election in which Alliance win more seats could solve their credibility problem. Then the 2017 European Elections become more open.

Applying the recent Belfast Telegraph poll shares to the 484,572 votes cast in the last Euro Election gives:

On this basis the UUP can no longer be relied upon to be strong enough to take the second “unionist” seat. Indeed a second “unionist” seat is far from inevitable. Better for the DUP to establish the precedent for running a second candidate in 2013 when it is safe to do so, than wait until 2017 when running 1 candidate risks losing a “unionist” seat, and running 2 candidates against an incumbent UUP risks taking the blame if that second seat is lost anyway.