GE ’24: West Belfast Constituency Profile…

This was the third safest Westminster constituency in Northern Ireland in 2019, with 14,672 votes separating the winner, Paul Maskey (SF), from his nearest challenger, Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit). Maskey held the seat since he first won it in a by-election in 2011. Sinn Féin took the seat from the SDLP in 1983 and has held it since, apart from a five-year gap after the SDLP retook it in 1992. Prior to that the seat alternated between different shades of nationalists and unionists since it was first created in 1885. The last 27 years is the longest that it has been held continuously by the same party.

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The changes made to the constituency boundaries last November were not substantial.

Candidates

Gerry Carroll, People Before Profit

Paul Doherty, SDLP

Gerard Herdman, Aontú

Ash Jones, Green

Tony Mallon, Independent

Paul Maskey, Sinn Féin

Anne McClure, TUV

Frank McCoubrey, DUP

Eóin Millar, Alliance

Ben Sharkey, UUP

Candidates’ Electoral History

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Vote shares by designation

There were no changes to the boundaries between 2010 and 2023.

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Please note that some Local Government electoral areas cross constituency boundaries which means that the LG figures have been estimated.

There are two patterns worth noting. The first relates to the nationalist vote. Upon their election to the Assembly in 2016 People Before Profit designated as Other. Prior to that their votes were included in the nationalist figure.

The second is that, apart from 2011, when Assembly and Council elections were held on the same day, the unionist vote share is always highest in the Local Government elections, where they have the numbers to return councillors in Court.

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In this constituency Westminster elections attract no more, and often fewer, voters than Assembly elections. Perhaps the Sinn Féin dominance in First Past the Post elections dulls the interest of many electors.

Vote share by party in Assembly and Local Government Elections

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There have been plenty of smaller parties and Independents on the ballot paper over the years. Since 2014 none of them have achieved a vote share above 2% apart from the IRSP ‘s 3% in 2022. Because their total can be significant in Council elections they are shown here by designation.

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Of the main parties PBP peaked in 2016 but have been in decline since. Their biggest fall came between 2016 and 2017 and may have been occasioned by their self-designation as Other rather than nationalist, plus possibly their support for Brexit. Sinn Féin have returned near to the high point they achieved in 2011, aided by the halving in the SDLP share. Nevertheless, there is a degree of inconsistency in their performance which is reflected also in their Westminster shares.

Vote share in Westminster elections

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In 2015 and 2019 it appears that many SF voters switched to People Before Profit. It is, however, worth noting that the PBP vote has halved in elections since 2019.

By the end of the period the SDLP vote had dropped to half its 2010 level.

The Alliance vote benefited from the 2019 ‘surge’, but it too has since dropped back.

With no other unionist party in the running for the last two Westminster elections, the DUP absorbed all of the unionist votes in the last two elections.

The boundary changes

Calculating the effects of changes to constituency boundaries is not straightforward since there is no record of precisely how past votes for each party were distributed geographically. Necessarily this involves estimates and assumptions, and these may differ. For many years the UK media have all used the calculations provided by two academics, Rallings and Thrasher, to provide a notional result of how each constituency would have voted at the previous general election if the latest boundaries had been in force. For Northern Ireland their inputs are provided by Nicholas Whyte. These will be the base from which the media will report voting swings when constituency results are declared.

I used different assumptions for my own calculations of the notional vote which resulted in slightly different outcomes. In the following chart the Actual result in 2019 is compared with my estimate and the R&T estimate.

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The differences are relatively small, both agree that the DUP would have replaced PBP in second place. This means that if PBP come in second this time it will actually represent an improvement on 2019.

The notional majorities for 2019 reflect the fact that the R&T estimates imply a slightly bigger improvement for unionists from the changes, and a slightly worse loss for SF.

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It is worth noting that both estimates imply that there would very likely be a full unionist quota in the next Assembly election.

Resources

In addition to money, the other key resource for an election campaign is the level of constituency work running up to the campaign, and the manpower available in the campaign itself. When it comes to constituency work MP’s and MLA’s have the advantage of an allowance for constituency offices and for a staffing. The amount of staffing money is specified, but MP’s and MLA’s can choose to allocate it to fewer higher-paid staff or a greater number of lower-paid staff.

When it comes to manpower for canvassing and leafleting a party’s elected representatives normally form the core of the group available. Party’s may also choose to bring in helpers from neighbouring constituencies which they have no hope of winning.

The Index Total for each party gives some idea of the relative strength of each party locally.

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It looks like no contest, and indeed, in respect of this election it is. But some of these parties will actually be using this election to strengthen their local organisations in preparation for the next set of Council and Assembly elections in 2027.

In particular People Before Profit have a vulnerable Assembly seat to defend and will want to recapture their lost council seat, while the DUP will want to demonstrate to unionist supporters that it could be capable of winning an Assembly seat under the new constituency boundaries.

The SDLP will be anxious to build Paul Doherty’s profile in the wider constituency after he doubled the SDLP vote in Black Mountain last year resulting in a rare SDLP gain.

What to look for on election night

Has Sinn Féin kept above 50% of the vote?

Have the boundary changes given the unionists enough votes to win a quota at the next Assembly election?

If so, do the figures suggest that SF is in danger of losing its fourth Assembly seat?

Or could the People Before Profit seat be more in jeopardy?

Has the SDLP continued to plateau, or has it pulled ahead of PBP? Enough to mount a credible challenge for an Assembly seat?

Conclusion

That Sinn Féin will win is a foregone conclusion. They are so dominant here that the only question is, will the size of their victory point to them holding their four Assembly seats or suggest tougher competition in the future?

 


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