What the council votes say about the next Assembly and Westminster elections: East, North and West Belfast…

What should we be looking out for at the next Assembly and Westminster elections based on the pattern of voting in this month’s Council elections? Over the next few weeks, I will examine each constituency.

There are some differences in how people vote between Council and Assembly elections. While tactical voting in Westminster elections can produce very marked differences. This means that any extrapolation from this month’s election must be done with care.

In addition, some of the District Electoral Areas are split between different Assembly/Westminster constituencies. Dividing these between the constituencies introduces a small margin of error, probably no more than 1% for an individual party. Under the proposed new constituency boundaries, which are likely to come into force by the end of this year, there are more split DEA’s than currently. These proposals could be altered once more before they are finalised next month – but little significant change can now be expected before they are passed into law in the autumn.

Within each constituency I show the votes cast in the constituency by designation. These are expressed in Assembly election quotas.

These figures are then broken down by party. A chart shows each party’s votes at the last Assembly election; the votes cast for them in the council elections within the current boundaries to permit a direct comparison to be made on party shares have moved in the last year; and the votes within the new proposed boundaries which are likely to be in force when people next go to the polls.

The third chart is a Resource Index. This is an attempt to compare the resources available to each party within the constituency. Naturally this cannot take account of party membership or the activity of volunteers. What it can do is indicate the resources represented by the number of elected representatives and the support they receive from public funds. Each MP is entitled to spend up to a specified sum on an office within the constituency and on staff. Typically, this would permit them to employ 5 to 6 people for case work, admin and research. Similarly, an MLA has a budget for an office and staff. While staff are not permitted to carry out party political campaigning work as part of their paid hours, the MP or MLA, and by extension their party, will gain good will and publicity from the work that they carry out. The Index shows each party’s position immediately after the previous council election in 2019, compared with its standing today under the new proposed constituency boundaries.

Finally, there is a summary of party percentage shares at the last Westminster election, compared with their shares last month.

East Belfast

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This chart shows what happens if you add all the votes cast in the council elections within the current and new proposed constituency boundaries.

When you see a vote swing this big within 12 months, two words should instantly spring to mind – indeed they should be shouting at you: “differential turnout”. No one should be surprised if the pendulum swings back at the next election. Indeed, it ought to be expected. The only question is, how far back will it swing?

The answer to that question will be determined by how the DUP reacts to the challenge. And nothing illustrates the enormousness of that challenge more starkly than the fact that, for the first time ever, the total unionist vote has fallen below 50% in East Belfast. Think about that for a moment.

However, in these constituency analyses I will make no assumptions about any future changes to turnout. The intention is purely to show what this month’s vote would mean projected forward.

Last year the unionist parties three Assembly seats were protected by a comfortable cushion of surplus votes, which disappeared in this election. The new constituency boundaries also look to be marginally unhelpful to them. Could this herald a change at the next Assembly election?

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The answer is probably not. Through clawing back votes from the TUV, and by picking up votes left behind after the disappearance of the PUP, the DUP retains almost two quotas. Although the UUP has lost much ground it could be confident that unionist transfers would put it above 0.75 of quota before the counting is over. Theoretically, if all non-unionist voters transferred to a third Alliance, or to the Green, the UUP could be overtaken. But not all voters transfer down the card. And a few would transfer to the UUP.

On these votes the UUP seat looks fairly safe. Giving the same 2 DUP, 2 Alliance and 1 UUP as last time.

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Looking at the Resource Index you can see how easy it could be for the DUP to ignore the implications of the loss of overall unionist votes in the constituency. The local party will feel as strong as it ever was to those within it, while outside political unionism is continuing to decline.

As far as the Westminster election goes it entirely depends on who stands.

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This month the combined unionist vote on the new boundaries was 47% (almost the same as on the current boundaries, 48%). Even if there is no other unionist standing the DUP would not take all of this. The DUP’s lowest share in the last four Westminster elections was 52.2% in 2015 when the UUP did not stand. This compares with 59.3% in the one before that, and 60.1% in the one after. Paradoxically the DUP performed better when it did not have a free run on the unionist side. With or without a UUP candidate it is a conservative estimate to say that the DUP’s best-case vote on these figures would be around 44% to 45%.

Even when all the other parties stand for Westminster, Alliance has always received tactical votes as the main challenger to the DUP. The party’s lowest Westminster vote since 2010 was 36.0% in 2017. Even then it received 4.6% more than in the Assembly election the month before. That would place their worst-case vote at about 39%. However, with this month’s votes being 8% for Green, 7% SF, 4% SDLP and 1% PBPA there are more non-unionist votes to be squeezed than before, plus possibly some UUP.

My current guess is that both the Greens and Sinn Feín will run, while the UUP will be under more pressure than ever before to withdraw.

Whether Gavin Robinson holds his seat might depend on whether the DUP returns to Stormont.

North Belfast

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Here again differential turnout looks to be a very strong factor in the results. And here again the DUP has only managed to hold its own by cannibalising other unionist parties.

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Most of the Other Nationalist vote was the former SDLP, now Independent, Paul McCusker. It appears from the changes in vote patterns from 2019 that most of his vote came from the SDLP, who might hope to reclaim a lot of it in an Assembly election.

A little under half of the Other Unionist vote was PUP and the rest was made up of Independents.

The next Assembly election on these figures would look much like a re-run of the last: 2 Sinn Feín elected on the first count, the 2 DUP gathering in most of the transfers from other unionists to claim two seats once again, and a nail-biting finale between Alliance and the SDLP. This time Sinn Feín would have more transfers to distribute, although only half went to the SDLP last time, which would leave the final outcome dependent on a handful of votes.

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The council elections changed nothing in terms of the Resource Index, all the movement was at the last Westminster and Assembly elections.

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At the last Westminster election, the Other vote was strongly squeezed, with neither the Greens nor PBPA putting up a candidate. Compared to the Council elections held the previous month, Others lost nearly half their share to tactical voting. The unionists, represented by the DUP, gained 2.0%; while nationalists, in the form of Sinn Feín, took an additional 5.6%.

Both the DUP and SF will once again be squeezing for all they are worth. It will be interesting to see whether Sinn Feín now feels strong enough to take on an SDLP candidate here, leaving it free to put forward its own candidate in South Belfast. Or will a deal be done once again to give each other a free run?

These figures would suggest that Sinn Feín might not need the SDLP to step down. The DUP maximum, with the same tactical votes from Others as last time, would be 42%. Sinn Feín plus tactical votes from Others would be just under 41%. But to that would have to be added whatever SF could squeeze from the SDLP and Other Nationalist council votes. It seems reasonable to assume that the perceived threat of a DUP win brought about by a split nationalist vote would add strength to the SF squeeze on nationalist and other voters.

West Belfast

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No sign of differential turnout in this constituency. It would be interesting to know why it is seen in some constituencies and not others. Also, it is worth noting that the proposed new boundaries could be slightly more beneficial to unionists in the future.

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Talk of the possibility of a Sinn Feín clean sweep in West Belfast next time looks premature. Even on the current boundaries they did not hit the equivalent of 4 quotas. To some extent you can understand the thinking, with PBPA having lost further ground at this election, who else could take a seat?

These figures suggest three candidates. Firstly, the incumbent PBPA should not be written off yet. Secondly the SDLP. The two parties had a virtually identical number of votes in the constituency this month and whichever pulls ahead has proved capable of garnering the transfers of non-SF voters. But perhaps the strongest bid would come from the DUP, if the boundary change does give them a fillip.

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When it comes to the Westminster election there is nothing one can say to add to these bald statistics:

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