Two party leaders will both be on their knees this morning, earnestly offering up the same plea to the heavens. “Please, please let there be no early Assembly election”.
One of them, Colm Eastwood, has no control over the matter. The other, Jeffery Donaldson, has only to say the word for the current Assembly to continue its full term. But he is tortured by the message of this poll which tells him that Jim Allister may not allow him to say it.
And all because of the latest Lucid Talk poll in the Belfast Telegraph.
Sinn Féin 30% (up 1% since the Assembly elections)
DUP 24% (up 3%)
Alliance 16% (up 2%)
SDLP 7% (down 2%)
UUP 11 % (No change)
TUV 6% (down 2%)
Green 2% (No change)
PBPA 1% (No change)
On the face of it, while the poll clearly makes unwelcome reading for the SDLP, you might think that the DUP had every reason to be delighted. But not so.
They have reclaimed a minority of the voters that they lost to the TUV. But this still leaves Jim Allister with an effective veto on the DUP’s room for tactical manoeuvre.
DUP hopes of taking back the First Minister position do not rest on reclaiming votes from the TUV. Even if the TUV drops back to its 2016 or 2017 Assembly share it would not deliver any extra seats to the DUP. I set out the reasons for this in detail at the end this post.
The DUP need to take 3 additional seats to overtake SF, provided SF lose none of their own. This poll suggests that the tide is running quite strongly against them.
Technically the easiest gain for the DUP would be if they could persuade Alex Easton to return to the party in North Down. But since Easton is in a far better position as an Independent than he ever was as a DUP candidate, it is hard to see why he would want to surrender those benefits. He has far more votes than he had before – more than 1,500 in excess of his last outing under DUP colours. He has lost some DUP voters it is true, but his support as an Independent is far more broadly based. Nearly 4,300 of his May tally came from voters who subsequently transferred to UUP, Alliance, Green, Independent, SDLP or SF. Compared to only 464 last time. And he is not beholden to any party whip.
North Antrim provides the DUP with its best prospect of making a gain. It would need a swing of at least 0.4% from Alliance to DUP. (Just a reminder that when we talk of a swing of 0.4% we mean the equivalent of 0.4% of the total votes cast moving from one party to another. In this case 180 voters switching from Alliance to the DUP.) Note that that swing would have to be in addition to any improvement in the DUP vote at the expense of other unionists.
In Strangford a DUP gain from Alliance would need both a total collapse in the TUV vote and a swing from Alliance. The TUV came within 250 votes of taking the final seat, which went to the second Alliance candidate. The strength of the TUV candidate’s performance suggests that if he stands again he has a good chance of holding on to a great part of that vote – even if the TUV vote collapsed elsewhere. But to take the Alliance seat the DUP would need not only a TUV collapse, but also a swing to it from Alliance of at least 0.5%. Again, that swing would have to be in addition to any gains that the DUP made at the expense of other unionists.
The Alliance uplift in this poll suggests that in both of these constituencies the DUP chances of gains have gone backwards.
The next lowest swing required would be about 0.6% in West Belfast. But that is an even bigger stretch than it looks. Again, it needs to be over and above any gains the DUP makes at the expense of other unionist. (The DUP received nearly 90% of TUV transfers – so gains from that source are irrelevant. It also gained – directly or via the TUV – around two thirds of the UUP vote. So again, growth from that source hardly help at all.) Unless it can take share from PBPA or SF it is destined to remain the runner-up. Since direct switches from either party to the DUP are likely to be miniscule, the only way it would be able to take the PBPA seat would be to attract about 600 extra DUP voters to the polls (based on May’s turnout) – without spooking higher nationalist or other turnout in response.
So, if Alliance, PBPA or SF voters have not swing to the DUP, can the party take seats from the UUP? Unfortunately for the DUP, in those seats that the UUP hold they are very well dug in.
The nearest chance for a DUP gain at the expense of the UUP is probably Strangford, where the UUP divided its First Preference vote, worth almost a whole quota, between two candidates. If the TUV vote collapses but Alliance hold their share (and hence their second seat), a swing from the UUP of at least 3.7% would award the UUP seat to the DUP. Again, the swing would have to be over and above any gains the DUP made from the TUV. But, if the UUP ran just one candidate the swing required would rise to at least 4.1%.
This poll shows the DUP as far away as ever from the sort of swing needed to take UUP seats.
So, making the three gains required to overtake SF would be very tough. And that’s before remembering how vulnerable the DUP is in Foyle. A tiny swing of 0.1% from DUP to UUP is all that is required to tip the DUP seat to UUP.
This poll suggests that the DUP could still be vulnerable in Foyle.
The other part of the equation is the number of gains or losses SF might make.
They are most vulnerable in Fermanagh South Tyrone. A swing from them to the SDLP of as little as 0.04% could cost them a seat there. Alternatively, a swing to Alliance of at least 3.9% from a combination of the SDLP and UUP could put their third seat in jeopardy.
A 3.2% swing to Alliance largely from a combination of UUP and SDLP could give Alliance the last seat in West Tyrone. If the TUV once again come runner up, then the Alliance gain would come at the expense of the SDLP. If however much of the TUV vote reverts to the DUP then the third SF candidate could lose their seat instead, if a higher proportion of unionists continued transferring beyond unionist candidates.
This poll suggests that SF would be safe in FST. The Alliance challenge would be very strong in West Tyrone, but the SDLP are probably at greater risk there than SF.
Elsewhere SF seats are secure from any likely level of swing against them.
To make gains they would need a swing from Alliance to SF of at least 0.4% in Upper Bann and 1.2% from the SDLP in East Londonderry. After that it gets tougher.
This poll suggests that an SF gain in Upper Bann is not likely, but that SF could be competing with Alliance for the SDLP seat in East Londonderry.
Away from the Sinn Féin/DUP struggle Alliance will be pleased with this poll. They have a number of quite marginal seats which a 2% share increase would protect. They would also hope to pick up a couple of gains – probably from the SDLP.
LOCAL COUNCIL ELECTIONS
It must be emphasised that this is an Assembly poll – and to some extend people vote differently in council elections – notably for Independents. Also, particularly popular local councillors can outperform their party’s normal level of support. Nevertheless, looking at changes in party support in each constituency between the last Local Government elections and the recent Assembly election, it is possible to form a general picture of the threats and opportunities each party will be facing.
When these were last fought in 2019 the DUP were the strongest party with 123 Councillors elected. SF took 105, the UUP 75, SDLP 59 and Alliance 52.
Also elected were 8 Green, 7 TUV, 5 PBPA, 3 PUP, 1 Aontú and 1 Cross-Community Labour. There were 23 Independents.
The results in each Assembly constituency in May suggest that at that point Sinn Féin were more likely to capture the most seats. All but about 3 of their 105 seats looked likely to be safe, and they looked to be in contention for a possible gain in about 24 others.
On the other hand, only about 104 of the DUP seats appeared safe, with 19 or so under threat and only 6 where they would be competing for a gain. This poll suggests that the party could hold on to a good number of the threatened seats.
Both the SDLP and UUP were facing the prospect of significant losses. More than a third of the SDLP’s seats (about 22) were in the danger zone and this poll suggest that more will have moved into it, with only one obvious chance of a gain. Similarly, the UUP could be in difficulties in about 20 seats, with only 1 possibility of a gain.
Alliance would emerge as the third party. None of its seats appeared under threat and there were about 19 where it could be in contention for gains – again this poll suggests that the number of opportunities could be higher.
If the TUV held on to the progress it had made in May it would be targeting up to 17 gains. However this poll suggests that their ambitions may have to be more limited.
The picture was less promising for the Greens and PBPA. 2 Green seats were under threat and 3 PBPA.
To be clear when I describe a seat as ‘not safe’, ‘under threat’ or similar I am not predicting their loss, merely that the party cannot count on retaining them. Similarly, ‘potential gains’ will not all be realised. Indeed, in some cases there may be two parties competing for a single seat that another is defending.
Why taking votes back from the TUV does not give the DUP extra Assembly seats
In 5 constituencies the TUV candidate was the runner-up. Even if all of their votes had gone to the DUP it would have simply meant that a DUP candidate would have been the runner-up instead.
In another, the TUV candidate was eliminated when there was no other unionist candidate left. Allocate the TUV votes to another DUP candidate and the end result would have been the same.
In North Antrim the second TUV candidate was eliminated on the same count as the SDLP so precise calculations cannot be made but a reasonable estimate suggests that the bulk of TUV transfers went to the DUP – which still lost a seat.
In the remaining 11 constituencies, a large majority of the TUV votes ended up with the DUP anyway – through transfers. The TUV received 29,299 First Preference votes supplemented by 4.033 transfers. The DUP took 68% of those back when the TUV was eliminated, with 12 % going to the UUP, and 2% each to Independent unionist, nationalist and others; while 4,418 (13%) were not transferred. In none of these constituencies would the absence of a TUV candidate have given the DUP an extra seat.
Hopes for DUP seat gains hang entirely on the party gaining share – and hence seats – at the expense of other parties.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.