As the May Council elections approach the pattern of party support established after the Assembly elections remains solid. That is the main take out from today’s Liverpool University poll in the Irish News.
Sinn Féin 30.6%
Just how static this support has been for the last six months will be seen in the following charts. But before looking at them, and analysing their implications for those Council elections, we need to consider the limitations of polling for these type of elections.
The first is specific to Liverpool University polls. From time to time various polling companies suffer from what are known as “house effects”. Due to some factor in their sampling, or in the weighting of their sample, they produce results which tend to be distorted in a particular direction. I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not due to any deliberate bias and the pollsters themselves normally do everything possible to correct their methods.
In the case of Liverpool they tend to under-estimate the total unionist vote and over-estimate the total Other vote. Look at their polls before and after the last Assembly election in the following chart.
Their high figures for Others are often produced by unusually high figures for Greens. They also tend to produce low figures for TUV.
That having been said all polling organisations have difficulties with small parties. When you have a margin of error between 2% and 3% it is obviously going to be hard to measure a party with only 1% or 2% of the electorate.
Also no poll is going to be able to capture the likely support for Independent candidates in Council elections. At this stage most voters will be unaware of which Independents will be running in their area. Polls will therefore almost always underestimate the Independent vote. I would expect the number of successful Independents to be close to the 24 in 2019.
Now a look at the main parties.
SF are clearly on course to make significant gains, being 8 points up on their 2019 vote when they took 105 seats. They will probably be seriously targeting nearly 40 seats where they have a real prospect of gains and should be expected to win up to 30 of them on these figures.
Most of those targets will be currently held by the SDLP, who are 5 points down on their 2019 vote.
The party will have to mount a defensive campaign for over 30 of the 59 seats that they won four years ago and which will now be in the sights of their competitors. On these figures they could lose around 20 of them.
One of those competitors is Alliance, which will be seeking to make gains at their expense and from unionist parties.
Up almost four points, their ability to take seats from both unionists and nationalists, places more than 30 seats theoretically within their grasp on a good day, including some west of the Bann. However, a number of their prospects are long shots and a realistic expectation would be 15 to 20. Added to the 53 seats they took in 2019, where they face only 2 or 3 threats, this should be enough to make them the third party of local government.
The DUP took 122 seats in 2019. Historically their vote share is lower in Council elections than in Assembly, due to the presence on the ballot paper of minor unionist parties and independents who take first preferences from them, but give many of them back in transfers. This means that an opinion poll rating of 24% could presage a first preference Council vote lower than that level. Certainly at 24% they would be at risk of some losses to the TUV which has been consistently outpolling the 2.2% it gained in 2019.
The level of any DUP losses is highly sensitive to small movements in TUV support. It is also more unpredictable since the TUV fought few seats in 2019.
At a 5% level of TUV support the DUP could escape with no net losses. At the level the TUV achieved in the January Lucid Talk poll it could be challenging the DUP in 12 seats. While at the 7.6% it scored in the Assembly it would be a threat in more than 30 (although would probably only win about half of those).
Much of the DUP’s prospects depend on the UUP.
This poll shows them 3 points down on the last Council performance. At that level they would be under threat in two dozen of the 75 seats they won last time. This in turn would release additional UUP transfers from which the DUP could profit. Again, these figures are very sensitive. A drop to 10% for the UUP would take the threat to over 30 of their seats. Indeed, at that level the DUP could even make net gains of around 10 to 15 seats.
Neither the Greens (8 seats last time), PBPA (5) nor PUP (3) will have an easy time in these elections – but they will be well used to that. Perhaps more than other parties, their best hopes lie in whatever reputations their local councillors have built up.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.