What the council votes say about the next Assembly and Westminster elections: S Belfast & MD, E Antrim, E L’derry…

What should we be looking out for at the next Assembly and Westminster elections based on the pattern of voting in last month’s Council elections? Today we look at three more constituencies.

A reminder that 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 before another election there are more split DEA’s than there are now. These proposals could be altered once more before they are finalised this month – but little significant change can now be expected.

Each constituency section starts with a chart which shows the number of quotas for each of the designations at the last Assembly election, and then how that constituency voted in the council elections. The council votes are given for the current constituency boundaries for direct comparison with the last Assembly election, and also for the new proposed boundaries.

All figures are rounded. Differences of 0.1 may therefore have little meaning, and figures given later for the individual parties within a designation may not add to exactly the total figure given for the designation as a whole.

South Belfast and Mid Down

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The phenomenon of differential turnout which so dramatically affected East and North Belfast is absent here. It would be very interesting to know why it affected some areas but not others.

It is also worth noting that the proposed new boundary changes may bring more unionist voters into the constituency.

Here is how the votes fell last month.

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The Other Nationalists vote in the last Assembly election was largely Aontú, who were absent from the council vote leaving only the Workers Party. Other ‘Others’ consisted of PBPA, Socialists and an Independent.

The smaller parties did poorly, shredding votes to the SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance and DUP. The UUP appears to have held its own – but this is simply a reflection of the slightly larger pool of unionist voters in the new constituency. Within the current boundaries it suffered a small decline.

There is no sign of a second Sinn Féin seat, with the SDLP’s seat secure on this vote. The Greens would be out of the running. If the DUP run one candidate virtually all the unionist transfers will end up with the UUP, putting them on about three quarters of a quota and making them the principal challenger for the second Alliance seat. But then they will stick, with few transfers from anywhere else. A second DUP candidate could knock out the UUP but the DUP would not get all of the UUP’s transfers.

In the end the result would be the same as last year, 2 Alliance, 1 DUP, 1 SDLP, 1 Sinn Féin.

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Alliance has taken the lead from the SDLP in terms of the Resource Index, placing it in a stronger position to build support and to fight future elections. The difficulty that the Greens face in rebuilding their support in the constituency is starkly revealed. It is clear, too, just how important it is for the SDLP to hold onto their Westminster seat.

And that Westminster election raises many questions.

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The main one is, will Sinn Féin stand a candidate in a bid to wrest the seat from the SDLP?

In the 2019 Council elections Sinn Féin on 12% were well behind the SDLP on 15%. They had no grounds to claim to be the nationalist champion in the constituency where the DUP already held the Westminster seat. If SF had stood at the 2019 Westminster election it is very possible that a split nationalist vote would have seen either the DUP (which had taken 24% of the council vote) or Alliance (with 25%) take the seat.

Perhaps a more important factor in Sinn Féin’s decision to step down was their desire to have the SDLP out of the way in North Belfast.

Does a strengthened Sinn Féin still feel it needs a free run in North Belfast? Would the SDLP even dare run there anyway, and face nationalist accusations that it risked handing the seat back to the DUP?

How effectively does Sinn Féin believe it could squeeze the SDLP vote if both parties stood? And how effectively does it think it could represent itself to Green and Alliance voters as the best placed party to keep out the DUP?

Do the Green believe that their decline in South Belfast is linked to their decision not to stand in 2019? Do they think it would help them or harm them to endorse another party’s candidate again? Apart from local South Belfast considerations, will standing in all constituencies be part of the Greens’ recovery strategy?

And what of the UUP? Will they stand, or succumb to the allure of unionist unity?

If Sinn Féin enter the race it will set up a fascinating four-way contest between the DUP, Alliance, SF and the SDLP. I have no insight into how that contest would play out, other than to say that it won’t be decided on polling day, but in the weeks and months before the election as the non-unionist parties jockey to present themselves as the most likely to defeat the DUP. If one emerges as the clear favourite to do so, it will almost certainly win the election. If, instead, the voters are uncertain how to vote tactically and therefore spread their votes, the DUP is in with as good a chance as anyone.

In the struggle to be seen as the best placed to defeat the DUP, possession of the seat gives Claire Hanna a major advantage. Normally that would be a trump card. But while she may be seen as a winner her party, currently, is not. Competitors will play on the SDLP’s weakness. Hanna needs to compete as ‘brand Hanna’, not as ‘brand SDLP’. That doesn’t mean that she has to leave the party, but she should play down the SDLP name and logo on her literature and play up ‘Claire Hanna’. And she should definitely not stand for the SDLP leadership, were that to become vacant.

If she does not succeed in being viewed as a ‘non-political’ politician the SDLP ticket risks sucking credibility out of her claim to be the obvious opponent for the DUP.

And for Sinn Féin there is one final question, and it could be the most compelling. Now that it has the SDLP on the ropes, can it afford to hand them South Belfast on a plate?

An SDLP double victory, here and in Foyle, would certainly re-inflate the SDLP balloon. How confident can Sinn Féin be of defeating Eastwood? (I’ll have more to say on that question when we get to Foyle.)

East Antrim

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The proposed new constituency boundaries look to be marginally more favourable to unionists, but would still leave them short of four clear quotas on last month’s votes. This is another constituency that shows no sign of a suppressed unionist turnout, if anything it is the nationalist vote which suffered here.

The likely explanation for that can be glimpsed in the individual party performances.

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The SDLP had no candidates in this constituency – apart from one in The Glens, only a fraction of which falls within the new proposed boundaries. Even Sinn Féin was absent from three of the District Electoral Areas, albeit ones where they would have few votes.

The Other Unionist vote comes almost entirely from the Knockagh Independent Bobby Hadden. His vote has been classified as unionist because 63% of his transfers went to unionist parties (10% TUV, 25% DUP and 29% UUP). But 24% also went to Alliance and 13% did not transfer.

If the Assembly election follows the council pattern it is obvious that the DUP will have no problems holding its current 2 seats and the UUP its 1. Alliance would be guaranteed 1 of its current 2, but if, as is likely, the UUP ran two candidates the race for the final seat could be close. Alliance might be very dependent on the level of Sinn Féin transfers. The evidence suggests that about 65% to 75% would transfer to Alliance. At the lower figure there could be very little to separate the second UUP and the second Alliance and the outcome would be uncertain, at the higher figure Alliance would be firm favourite to hold its second seat.

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In addition, the TUV gained a councillor in a DEA largely within the constituency taking it from 0 to 0.8. The SDLP is at 0.2.

It is worth noting that since the UUP lost its second seat to Alliance last year, Alliance enjoys a significant Resource advantage in a future contest.

The same result as last time can be expected at the Westminster election.

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Assuming that the TUV remains out of the contest the DUP should hit at least 43% of the votes, and no other candidate would be able to match that.

East Londonderry

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The council vote reveals no significant changes from the Assembly election in designation shares. Once again differential turnout is absent.

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The Other Unionist figure is made up of Independents. At the last Assembly election this was entirely Claire Sugden voters. For the council elections most of it came from councillors who had left the DUP, but many of whose voters would probably return to their old allegience.

The Other Nationalist is largely Aontú. While the Other ‘Other’ is made up of Independents, Green and PBPA.

The large increase in the UUP share corresponds with my analysis before the last Assembly election which suggested that Claire Sugden’s vote comes mainly at the expense of the UUP.

The SDLP Assembly seat was already hanging by a thread. Just 15 votes separated Alliance and the SDLP on the penultimate count which saw Alliance excluded and the SDLP elected. The latest vote shows further SDLP decline.

This time, however, Sinn Féin will also be bidding to take the seat. SDLP transfers would be crucial. The three District Electoral Areas within the constituency where the SDLP transferred suggest that about a third would transfer to SF and nearly a half to Alliance. However, Sugden could also be competing with Alliance for SDLP transfers.

Although the presence of Sugden in the Assembly contest makes direct comparison with the council vote less reliable, it is safe to say that, if repeated with Sugden in the mix, they would result in the return of 2 DUP, Sugden and at least 1 and most probably 2 Sinn Féin. If SF did not take a second seat it would go instead to Alliance.

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At the Westminster election almost all of the TUV and PUP voters will row in behind the DUP, as will probably a majority of those who voted Independent. That would take the DUP to 36% to 37%, even before any squeeze on the UUP. Sinn Féin should take about half of the Other Nationalist vote and might be able to squeeze a third of the SDLP, giving it about 33% to 34%.

It is possible that consideration of these figures might also prompt a campaign to get the UUP to stand down.

While the DUP can still be expected to win on these figures, the shock if a safe unionist seat were turned into a marginal should not be underestimated.


My thanks to SoundBloke for correcting my misuse of the fada, to Red Knight for pointing out the need for a Key to accompany the Resource Index, and Philip McGuinness for suggesting I link all my posts on this subject.

What the council votes say about the next Assembly and Westminster elections: East, North and West Belfast… – Slugger O’Toole (sluggerotoole.com)

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