GE ’24: East Belfast Constituency Profile…

This was the third most marginal Westminster constituency in Northern Ireland in 2019, with only 1,819 votes separating the winner, Gavin Robinson (DUP), from his challenger, Naomi Long (Alliance). Long had held the seat for five years from 2010 to 2015, the only time a non-unionist has done so since the constituency was first created in 1885. Robinson has been the MP since 2015.

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The changes made to the constituency boundaries last November were not substantial, although they have the capacity to make the constituency more marginal still.

The Alliance win in 2010 came in the wake of the “Swish Family Robinson” scandal which caused many DUP voters to desert their MP of 31 years, Peter Robinson.

Candidates

Séamas de Faoite, SDLP

Naomi Long, Alliance

Ryan North, Independent

John Ross, TUV

Gavin Robinson, DUP

Brian Smyth, Green

Ryan Warren, UUP

Sinn Féin are not standing.

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.

Three patterns emerge. The most significant is that the trend over time has been for the unionist vote to decline and for the Other to grow. This can be seen more easily if we put a simple linear trend line against each designation. Of course, there is no guarantee that any trend will continue into the future.

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The unionist trend line is down 12% points over the period, while Others is up 10% and nationalists 1%.

Although the figure is estimated, we can be confident that the unionist vote fell below 50% for the first-time last year. Since that lies below the trend line it is perfectly possible that the unionist share will rise above 50% again in this election. Indeed, we might expect it to do so due to the second pattern – that of differential turnout in Council elections.

In East Belfast more nationalist supporters turn out to vote in Local Government elections where they have had the possibility of electing a councillor than in Assembly elections. Conversely there is usually a noticeable fall in turnout by Other voters and, in the last two LG elections, a very substantial drop in unionist numbers, which pulled overall turnout down.

The final pattern is minor but could be important this time. Even when nationalist parties put up candidates for Westminster, around a quarter of their voters appear to opt tactically for Alliance.

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Vote share by party in Assembly and Local Government Elections

In the majority of constituencies there is an element of tactical voting in Westminster elections. Changes in the underlying strength of the principal parties within a constituency can best be understood by looking at their performance in other elections.

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Until 2019 the PUP would have been a significant player here, with vote shares bobbing around between 5% and 8%, but they dropped to 2% at the 2022 Assembly election and the party did not even stand candidates last year for the two Belfast council seats they had won in 2019.

This pattern of unionist consolidation has also applied to the other minor unionist parties and Independents which between them had managed to total 6% in 2011 and 4% in 2014, but which have been completely absent in the last five years.

Their disappearance has not helped the DUP.

UUP support has remained consistent, never straying far above or below an essentially flat trend line. Whereas the DUP, after a pronounced decline, plateaued at 32% for the last five years during which it was first matched, and then overtaken, by Alliance.

In all the DUP trend has dropped 9% over the period, while the Alliance is up by the same amount. The TUV, Sinn Féin and Greens have all trended up by 3%.

Vote share in Westminster elections

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In the last three elections the DUP has picked up almost all of the unionist votes. It took 95% in 2015 when the UUP gave them a free run, and still managed 93% in 2017 when the UUP returned to the contest. By 2019 this had slipped to 89%, but still well ahead of their performance in Assembly and Council elections. 2010 was the clear exception when the party only managed to gather 55%.

The Alliance dominance of the Other vote is even more marked, with the Greens only attracting 4% and 6% of the Other vote when they stood in 2015 and 2017.

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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As can be seen the principal difference is that R&T assumes that if voters are moved into a constituency there would have been a candidate to vote for, whereas I assume the candidate choice remains as it was. As a result, I have no SDLP votes and more Alliance.

This gives different notional majorities for 2019.

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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.

There has been next to no change in the resource levels since the last election, apart from a minor increase to most parties’ councillor numbers as a result of the increased geographical size of the constituency.

Factors possibly assisting the DUP

4.3% points ahead of Alliance at the last election.

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

Could TUV intervention assist DUP to squeeze 1 or 2% points more from the UUP vote?

Factors possibly harming the DUP

The TUV candidate could subtract up to 7% points share from DUP, at the TUV’s 2022 Assembly vote share. The TUV took 5% in the 2010 Westminster election when it last stood, and 5% in last year’s Council elections. The latest LucidTalk poll at the weekend poll shows 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 could be nearer 4 or 5% than 7% this time. However individual constituencies will vary on how much or how little the TUV deviates from the Assembly performance.

Total unionist vote decline. Between 2019 and 2023 Council elections there was a 6% points drop. Depending on the TUV share this could subtract a further 4 to 5% points from the previous DUP share if it were to be replicated on Thursday.

Boundary change could subtract 1% point from previous DUP share.

Factors possibly assisting Alliance

Increase in Alliance vote share. Between the 2019 and 2023 Council elections there was a 3% point increase.

Factors possibly harming Alliance

Green, SDLP and Green candidates could subtract up to 4% points in total from previous Alliance share.

Conclusion

While it is impossible to predict the result with certainty, the balance of possibilities favours Alliance.

 


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