#GE15: Will religion (or no religion) help decide the East Belfast race?

Belfast East is expected to be one of the most hotly contested seats in the upcoming General Election next May, but actually what are the chances that Naomi Long will be able to hold on to her seat after snatching it off Peter Robinson in 2010?

The DUP conference has just passed and anyone who tuned in could be forgiven for thinking that they plan to pummel an almighty amount of resources into taking back east Belfast from Naomi Long, it is that personal. 

How likely is it though that the DUP will be able to regain east Belfast?

By looking at data from the 2010 General Election we can see that there is a strong relationship between those who hold no religion and vote Alliance. There is one major outlier however, and that is in the constituency Belfast East.

According to our model we can see that the Alliance Party won 22% more than what we would have expected them to. In 2010 Alliance received 37.2% of the vote share in Belfast East whereas we only would have expected them to receive about 15.6%.

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Unless there is another major upset we could quite fairly assume then that it’s likely that the DUP will re-gain Belfast East… but unionism’s electoral strategy is broken.

Many a unionist predicated that after the Alliance Party’s role in removing the Union Flag permanently from Belfast City Hall that they would be consigned to the electoral history books of Belfast. We know that this didn’t quite materialise in the end though.

Overall in Belfast, Alliance managed to secure five council seats and looking specifically at how the Alliance Party faired in the east of the city we see that their number of first preference votes did decrease, although it was only by 396. Marie Hendron who was the party’s group leader on the council did lose her seat but this was because the Alliance Party ran another candidate alongside Marie – David Armitage who subsequently was elected.

The mudslinging approach to combating the Alliance Party electorally didn’t work. But be under no illusion that the DUP won’t change their tactics, especially not now that the TUV managed to significantly increase their support base in the local council elections, in fact the battle has begun already – Peter Robinson fired the starting gun at the DUP conference on Friday when her referred to the Alliance Party as:

“the pro-Union opposition to the flag lowering, parade stopping, gay marriage supporting, pro water charging, holier than thou Alliance Party”

I don’t know when, or if there ever was a time when unionism was confident in itself and didn’t feel the need to shout so loudly but say so little. I’m not naive enough to think that electoral politics is all rainbows and butterflies, abrasiveness is part and parcel of the political discourse, of course it is.

The reality though is that east Belfast won’t simply be won back by a demonization campaign towards the Alliance Party. 

If I was asked to call who will win Belfast East next year I’m not sure how confident I would be in giving you an answer.

At the minute I’ll hedge my bets on the Alliance Party retaining their seat, 2010 may have been served with a healthy portion of luck but I think they might just do it again.