GE ’24: South Antrim Constituency Profile…

This was the fifth most marginal Westminster constituency in Northern Ireland in 2019, with only 2,689 votes separating the winner, Paul Girvan (DUP) from the second-placed Danny Kinehan (UUP). It has always been represented by a unionist since the constituency was first created in 1885.

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

Candidates

John Blair, Alliance

Paul Girvan, DUP

Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin

Mel Lucas, TUV

Roisin Lynch, SDLP

Siobhán McErlean, Aontú

Robin Swann, UUP

Lesley Veronica, Green

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.

The direction of trend is very clear. The unionist trendline has fallen 13% points over the period. The nationalist up 5% and Others up 8%.

But the thing that is not obvious, until you actually see the trendlines, is just how far the unionist vote fell below trend in the last Council elections, and how far the nationalist vote rose above it.

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This is evidence either of an extraordinary mass conversion of unionists or (perhaps more likely) of a sizeable differential turnout. For the first time the unionist share fell below 50%, and well below, and the nationalist vote rose above 30%, and well above.

The other factor at work is significant amounts of tactical voting in Westminster elections.

Strip the Westminster figures out and each designation’s actual line follows its trend line more closely.

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This still suggests that it would be dangerous to place too much weight on the Council results in our analysis.

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Vote share by party in Assembly and Local Government Elections

Given the degree of tactical voting at Westminster elections, changes in the underlying strength of the principal parties within the constituency can best be understood by looking at their performance in other elections.

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Apart from NI21 (3% in 2014) and Greens (2% in 2016) no party not on the chart got more than 1% in any election. In the 2019 Council elections there were 6% for Independent unionists.

The DUP trendline is down 9%, the UUP down 4%, while the TUV has risen 3%.

Sinn Féin is up 12%, with the SDLP down 5.

Alliance is up 3%.

Vote share in Westminster elections

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The most obvious pattern is that the UUP normally achieves a share boost of around 10% points compared to its vote in other elections, although it may have been a couple of points less in 2019. If that holds true in the coming election the UUP would actually fall short of its 2019 share. But there are other factors to consider.

The only other consistent pattern is that some SDLP voters always appear to vote tactically. In 2010 and 2015 their vote was 2 to 3% points below what might have been expected, and 5% under in the last two. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all those votes moved directly from SDLP to UUP, although almost certainly some did. Others may have entered “the churn”. For example, moving to Alliance while some Alliance moved to the UUP.

Alliance voters only showed direct evidence of tactical voting in 2010 and 2017, when their 8% and 7% was about 5% less than might have been expected. But in 2015, and in 2019 their share was in line with their Council results earlier in the year.

The amount and direction of tactical voting could have a big bearing on the outcome.

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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This makes no difference to the notional majority for 2019 in this constituency.

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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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The DUP machine is clearly dominant and will assist it in its struggle particularly against the TUV challenge and a UUP which has lost two Councillors since the last Westminster election.

Factors possibly assisting the DUP

6.3% points ahead of the UUP at the last election.

Dominance of DUP local machine – double that of the UUP.

Lack of local TUV resources could limit its ability to take votes from the DUP.

Could TUV intervention assist DUP to squeeze 2 or 3% points from the UUP vote?

Boundary changes could add 1% point to DUP share.

Factors possibly harming the DUP

The TUV candidate could subtract up to 10% points share from DUP, at the TUV’s 2022 Assembly vote share. But the latest LucidTalk poll at the weekend placed the TUV on 4%, below the 6.6% they scored in the Assembly election in those constituencies that they are contesting this time. This suggests that the TUV share might be nearer 5% or 6%. However individual constituencies will vary on how much or how little the TUV deviates from the Assembly performance.

Falling vote share. Average decline of 2% points from 2019 Council elections to the latest Assembly and Council votes.

Factors possibly assisting UUP

Change of candidate. There is no way to measure the potential impact of this. The previous UUP candidate, Danny Kinehan, was well ensconced locally. He had served as a local MLA from 2011 to 2015, and as MP from 2015 to 2019 when he was defeated. The new candidate has proven very popular across NI in opinion polling for his handling of the Health ministry during Covid, and within his former North Antrim constituency, as demonstrated by his own vote there two years ago. Has any of that faded as Covid recedes?

The UUP has been perceived in the media as the strongest challenger to the DUP. This could help them to attract more tactical votes from nationalist and Others. It’s hard to put a figure on this, but probably 6 to 7% would be a generous maximum. That is based on the 5% which Alliance voters donated in 2010 and 2017, plus an extra 1% or 2% from nationalists.

As the party’s only hope of a win in the East of NI the party will have been able to divert campaigners from several other constituencies.

Factors possibly harming the UUP

Falling vote share. Compared to the 2019 Council elections, the 2022 Assembly elections registered a 3% fall, which grew to a 6% fall in last year’s Council elections (but remember the earlier caveat on relying too heavily on that election).

Factors possibly assisting Sinn Féin

Increased vote share. Compared to the 2019 Council elections, the 2022 Assembly elections gave the party a 6% uplift. Last year’s Council elections showed a 13% increase (but remember the earlier caveat on relying too heavily on that election).

Possibility of gaining tactical votes from SDLP. Possible benefit about 1%.

Increased resources with the election of three additional Councillors.

Factors possibly harming Sinn Féin

2019 saw the worst SF performance of the last four Westminster elections. This could severely undermine their credibility as a candidate for SDLP tactical votes and lead some of their voters to once again vote tactically for other candidates.

Factors possibly assisting Alliance

A moderate improvement in local resources resulting from gains in 2023 Council elections.

Finishing well ahead of SDLP and SF in 2019 may help it attract anti-DUP tactical votes from nationalists who do not wish to vote UUP.

Factors possibly harming Alliance

The general perception that the UUP is the main challenger to the DUP could result in it receiving fewer of the anti-DUP tactical votes.

A substantial ground operation is essential to maximise the potential for tactical voting, since anti-DUP voters will look for evidence of which party is most likely to defeat the DUP. The need to prioritise the party’s efforts in Lagan Valley, East Belfast and North Down will have prevented the import of helpers from other constituencies necessary to achieve this.

Conclusion

There are a lot of variables in this contest, often pointing in different directions. I have found it more difficult to achieve a conclusion than anywhere else and have delayed doing so in case the final LucidTalk poll shed any more light. But it did not. On the one hand it suggested possible weakening in TUV support which could help the DUP here, but on the other it pointed to a possible improvement in the UUP position.

First, second, third and fourth places are all unpredictable.

Taking all the factors into consideration, the best-case scenario for the DUP would probably put their vote in the mid-30’s% and the worst-case could take them down to the mid-20’s%. The same is true for the UUP. So, while the result will not necessarily be close, it is impossible to discern which is in the stronger position.

Sinn Féin’s absolute best-case scenario could put their vote in the mid-20’s%, giving them an outside chance of achieving a second place, but much more likely a third. Their worst-case would see their share in the mid to high teens, probably still behind Alliance.

 


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