What the council votes say about the next Assembly and Westminster elections: Foyle, LV, FST and the mystery of Clogher Valley…

For a full explanation of the various charts used in this piece please see the introduction in the first article in this series.

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

Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Comparing the Assembly vote with the Local Government vote under the current boundaries shows only marginal change. A small dip in the ‘others’ with a similar uplift for nationalists. Nationalists may also receive a minor advantage from the new proposed boundary changes. Minor it may be but, in the context of Westminster elections won and lost on handfuls of votes, that could be very significant.

The increase in the overall nationalist vote would not have taken place without the contribution of Clogher Valley. The size of the swing from unionist to nationalist has attracted comment, with some wondering whether Sinn Féin might have developed a new campaigning technique which could be rolled out elsewhere. However, there is a more prosaic possible explanation which does not rely on some new secret sauce.

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Over the constituency as a whole Sinn Féin made considerable advances against their poor performance in 2019. But as can be seen, the performance of the SDLP and other nationalists held them back from achieving their 2022 Assembly share.

The Other Nationalist are all Independents, two of whom were elected to the council. Those two were Barry Montieth, a long-term Independent and former SF councillor in Dungannon, and Kevin McElvogue in Clogher Valley. Together with another Independent candidate in Dungannon, and two in another Mid Ulster Council DEA outside the FST constituency, they fought the election under the name of Independent Republican, campaigning in all respects as a local political party.

My guess is that Sinn Féin recognised this incipient challenge and prioritised their resources on these two DEA’s, in particular canvassers and leafleters before the election, and get-out-the-vote activists on polling day, in order to maximise their own supporters’ turnout. And, of course, in Clogher Valley nationalist voters who were not attracted to SF or the SDLP now had an alternative nationalist option who brought out voters who might otherwise have stayed at home.

This theory is supported by the turnout statistics. They show an increase of 5.7% in Clogher Valley and 5.2% in Dungannon. The average turnout in the other four DEA’s within the constituency was actually down by 0.3%. A similar, if less extreme, pattern will also be found in the Mid Ulster constituency.

What does this tell us about the next Assembly election?

As before, 1 DUP and 1 UUP would be elected. Sinn Féin could be sure of two, but their third seat would be on the line. If the SDLP had gained the same share of the vote last year as it did in this election it would have taken the third nationalist seat. There may even be a challenge from an Independent Republican.

However, the Resource Index shows how hard it will be for the SDLP to compete with Sinn Féin on the ground, especially having just lost half its councillors in the constituency.

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It also reflects the gradual erosion of the UUP’s advantage over the DUP here. Taken together with the DUP’s increasing majority of the local unionist vote, this must raise the question, how much longer will the DUP permit the UUP to take the leadership of unionism at Westminster elections in FST?

Of course, if the new boundaries do make a unionist win less likely, the DUP may prefer to let the UUP take the blame for any perceived failure to put up a stronger challenge to Sinn Féin.

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These figures suggest that Sinn Féin may have a less nerve-wracking time at the next Westminster count, since tactical voting historically boosts their own base vote.

Lagan Valley

Comparing the last Assembly results with the council voting within the current constituency boundaries suggests that there may have been some element of differential turnout here.

Comparing the current boundaries with the new proposed boundaries further suggests that the new boundaries will be helpful for nationalists, and specifically for Sinn Féin.

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On these figures nationalism would have marginally over a quota. However, although SF would be the main challenger to Alliance for the last seat, it would not reach a full quota because the transfer record suggests that the SDLP would transfer more to Alliance (c50%) than to Sinn Féin (c40%). This would enable the second Alliance to come home on unionist transfers. Leaving the result as last time, 2 DUP, 1 UUP, 2 Alliance.

What is more, the Resource Index shows how Alliance has strengthened its position in the last year.

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As for the next Westminster election, the DUP position, once seemingly impregnable, has weakened further.

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Three quarters of the Other Unionist vote last time came from the Conservatives and the remainder from UKIP.

It is now just conceivable that, if the UUP puts forward a candidate again as it always has done, tactical voting could remove Jeffrey Donaldson from the green benches. Conceivable, but still unlikely.


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The small movement in share towards Others is driven by improvement in the PBPA share compared to the last Assembly election. As can be seen the new proposed boundaries are likely to be slightly favourable to nationalists and may cause the total unionist vote to fall just short of a quota unless unionist turnout increased.

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The Other Nationalist is the Independent Gary Donnelly, associated with dissident republicanism. Some of his voters might stay at home – 20% of them did not transfer to any other candidate when he was elected on the first count in The Moor. The others were scattered across PBPA, SF, Aontú and SDLP, so much so that no one party would derive a major advantage. Out of over 1800 voters only 90 more transferred to Sinn Féin than to the SDLP.

The other examples of transfers by PBPA, Aontú and Alliance all gave more to SDLP than to Sinn Féin, when both the SDLP and SF were still in the count. This would point to an advantage for the SDLP were Sinn Féin to run three candidates. Especially since Sinn Féin would have to spread the transfers it received across three candidates, while the SDLP would only have to divide theirs between two.

The fact that the UUP is slightly behind the DUP on these figures could still leave them neck and neck later in the count, since the UUP attracts more transfers from non-unionists, about 400 more last time. Unionists actually stand a better chance of retaining a seat if they put the UUP ahead. If it came to excluding one of them the DUP would transfer virtually fully to the UUP, while the UUP would send some of their transfers elsewhere. In Waterside DEA this time, after the first UUP candidate had been elected and the second eliminated, only 39% of the UUP votes transferred to the DUP.

Even if the leading unionist candidate did not reach a full quota by the final stage of the count, they would still probably get elected. This is because of non-transfers by other parties. Upon the election or elimination of nationalist party candidates over 3000 votes, worth almost 0.4 of a quota, became non-transferable. Almost the same number of PBPA votes did the same.

The council votes would have delivered 2 SDLP, 2 Sinn Féin and almost certainly 1 unionist – with the outcome between the DUP and UUP highly uncertain.

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The Resource Index shows that, despite its significantly poorer first preference vote showing, the SDLP still holds a strong resource position, if it is capable of leveraging it effectively.

There could be a small change to these numbers for the SDLP and Alliance. That is because the result of the final seat in the Waterside DEA is not finalised. It appears from the officially published results that the final stage of the count did not take place. That is to say that transfers which should have been distributed from two elected DUP candidates were not made. The number of votes not transferred was greater than the difference between the final two candidates (one SDLP and one Alliance) still in the running, and so had the potential to change the result. In consequence the SDLP candidate was awarded the seat. Alliance has now taken the case to the High Court which will rule in due course. If the court orders that the transfers should be counted it is difficult to say whether the result would be different. Until we know for certain there remains a possibility that the number of SDLP councillors shown here will be reduced to 10 and the Alliance become 1.

Clearly the fight in Foyle will be one of the highlights of the next Westminster election. The SDLP cannot afford to lose it, and Sinn Féin will throw everything at it to win.

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Despite a 13% point Sinn Féin lead, the council vote actually points to a very tight race. That is because of the extraordinary levels that tactical voting for the SDLP has reached in Foyle Westminster elections.

It is possible to make a reasonable estimate of the level of tactical support given to the party by voters who otherwise vote unionist or other (including PBPA). This is done by comparing the historic Westminster vote shares for those designations with the vote share they received at the closest non-Westminster election. The results are shown in the following graph.

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This shows the SDLP (in the solid black line) taking 57% of the total votes cast at the last Westminster election. SF are in dark green, and other nationalists in yellow.

The dotted black line shows the best estimate for the votes that the SDLP would have received had no unionists or other voters lent them their vote.

As can be seen, when the SDLP were riding high in Derry they actually received modest levels of tactical votes, about 4% of all voters in 2010 and 2% in 2015. Then, in March 2017, Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by 5% points in the Assembly Election. When the Westminster election took place three months later non-nationalists flocked to vote tactically to keep Sinn Féin out. It rose to 10% of all voters. But it was not quite enough, Sinn Féin won by 169 votes, and two years later the tactical vote leapt higher still, to 13% of all voters. It would appear that the weaker the SDLP looks in Derry, the more tactical votes it attracts.

Based on the council vote, a repeat of the 2019 level of tactical voting for the SDLP would put the two leading nationalist parties at about level pegging. Neither party has this one in the bag.

Here is the link to the second article in the series.

What the council votes say about the next Assembly and Westminster elections: S Belfast & MD, E Antrim, E L’derry… – Slugger O’Toole (sluggerotoole.com)


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