DUP and Alliance up, UUP down: Latest LucidTalk poll…

Political geeks (and let’s face it if you are on this site and reading this post that probably includes you) are starting to think about the forthcoming Westminster election. Widely expected this November (or possibly 30th October, according to The Times), legally the government could hold off until 28th of January. And, yes, that is a Tuesday, but there is no law which says that elections must be held on a Thursday.

Of course, an election then, or on the Thursday before, would be a nightmare for political parties. Parliament would be dissolved in mid-December, nominations would close just before Christmas Eve, and the voters would be in no mind to listen to politicians arguing on the TV, as they work their way through the turkey leftovers. The only party likely to excite interest would be the New Year’s Eve party, meaning the campaign proper would only kick off at the exact same moment at the back-to-work blues kick in, closely followed by all the credit card bills the pre-Christmas spending spree.

But if turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, neither do wildly unpopular governments hold general elections until they absolutely have to. So, if the Conservatives are still behind in the polls by more than 15% next summer, don’t be totally surprised if the election date slips to early December. You might even put a fiver on a January poll – you would almost certainly lose your money – but you should get great odds if you do it now.

The Belfast Telegraph has just published the latest LucidTalk poll. This asked how voters would vote in an Assembly election. As usual the margin of error on each of the party’s figures is 2.3%.

Results are rounded to the nearest whole figure, which means that a change shown as 1% from the previous poll could actually be anything from 0.1% to 1.9% (for example, 1.5% would be rounded up to 2%, while 3.4% would be rounded down to 3%.) For this reason it is best to compare the poll results with a the previous election rather than with the last previous poll, when looking at the level of change.

So how does each party stand, according to LucidTalk, as they start their planning in earnest for the general election?

Sinn Féin 31%

DUP 28%

Alliance 16%

UUP 8%

SDLP 6%

TUV 4%

Green 2%

Aontú 1%

PBPA 1%

Comparison with May’s council election results and last year’s Assembly vote are shown in the charts below, as is the published result of the August LucidTalk poll.

It is important to remember that this is a poll of voting intentions in an Assembly, not a Westminster, election.

When attempting to determine the Westminster implications there are three variables that apply:

  1. the overall support for each party;
  2. which parties stand, and which parties fail to stand, in each constituency;
  3. the political context at the time of the election – does it provide extra motivation for some sections of the electorate to vote, or leave others feeling that there is less need to bother? Does it increase or decrease the inclination to vote tactically when your own party looks unlikely to win?

Finally, in one or two constituencies, there may be an important political micro-climate– such as a candidate who can command a significant personal vote beyond their normal party support, or an issue which assumes greater importance with the local electorate than elsewhere.

Sinn Féin

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Sinn Féin is holding its Council vote, when it did well. This would put it in a good position at the General Election.

SF’s key objectives in this election are firstly to hold on to Fermanagh South Tyrone and North Belfast, and secondly to take Foyle off the SDLP. It remains to be seen whether a subsidiary objective will be to undermine the SDLP in the new South Belfast and Mid Down constituency by running their own candidate there.

SF won FST with sliver-thin 57 vote majority in 2019. The new boundaries will likely add almost 1% point to the nationalist share in FST, whilst reducing the unionists by almost the same amount.

Although SF were helped by the withdrawal of the SDLP in North Belfast, the subsequent decline in the SDLP in that constituency, plus the historic tendency for substantial portions of the SDLP vote there to switch tactically to SF for Westminster, means that SF would still most likely hold the seat even if an SDLP candidate enters the race. The boundary changes should add a small but useful bonus of about 0.5% of the total vote to the Sinn Féin total, while probably cutting the overall unionist share by about 1% point.

SF dramatically outpolled the SDLP in Foyle in May, 38% to 25%. However, the level of tactical votes the SDLP received from other parties’ supporters at Westminster elections reached heroic proportions in 2019. If repeated these could save Eastwood’s seat. There is a huge gap between the best and worst case scenarios for the SDLP in this constituency, using the Council votes as a base. Eastwood could triumph with a majority of around 10% of the vote (down from 44% last time) or lose out to Sinn Féin by around 4%.

This level of support at an Assembly election would leave all of the party’s Assembly seats safe with at least one or two gains on the cards.

DUP

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Seven points up on the last Assembly election, and five on the Councils should leave the party in good spirits this morning. More importantly they will be pointing to the narrowing gap between them and Sinn Féin, an 8% point deficit in the last Assembly election has been cut to 3%. This is moving into “one-more-heave” territory.

Most of this improvement has come from the TUV, who did not stand in the last General Election, and whose transfers strongly favour the DUP in Assembly elections. Taking that last point into account the number of potential Assembly seats gains is not as great as the raw numbers in this poll might lead you to expect. Boundary changes could put a seat in West Belfast within their grasp. North Antrim has to be a possibility, although Alliance’s poll rating is also up on its Assembly vote. Perhaps North Down? I will need to take a more detailed look at the current UUP seats to see if there is any potential gain for the DUP there when LucidTalk publish their detailed tables – but certainly none is obvious to me at the moment.

The DUP’s key Westminster objectives will be firstly, to retain East Belfast and secondly to remove Alliance from North Down. Removing Sinn Féin from North Belfast will probably only be a third level objective since they will know that their chances are significantly lower. Their fourth level objective would be to ensure that they optimise their vote in the new constituency of South Belfast and Mid Down (where they came second behind Alliance in the Council elections) so that, in the unlikely event that the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin fight each other to equal shares, they would have some chance of squeezing through the middle. A non-Westminster related objective could be to maximise their vote in West Belfast to position themselves for a crack at winning an Assembly seat there in the future.

Currently the principal obstacle to achieving any these is the political context. At the Council elections the DUP managed to avoid any net loss of seats by cannibalising the first preference votes of smaller unionist parties and independents. Those parties lost out so that the DUP could stand still. The fact that the total unionist vote share fell 3% points (coming in 5% points below LucidTalk’s pre-election poll) did not affect the DUP.

But that would not be the same at a Westminster election. In several constituencies the DUP (or in FST the UUP) have relied on co-opting a large chunk of the votes which would have gone to other unionists in Council or Assembly elections; if fewer unionists vote, then DUP candidates will get fewer votes. Put simply the DUP were able to survive a fall in unionist turnout unscathed at the Council elections, but they could not escape the consequences of any significant fall in unionist turnout at a Westminster election.

Unfortunately for them, in most cases the greatest falls have taken place in the constituencies where turnout for Westminster will matter the most. In East Belfast the unionist share fell below 50% for the first time this year – from an actual 55% at the last Westminster election to an estimated 47% under the new boundaries.

Over the same period North Belfast dropped from 43% to 36% under the new boundaries, and Fermanagh South Tyrone from 43% to 38%. Only North Down held at 55%, while South Belfast and Mid Down rose from 26% to 30% largely due to the boundary changes.

And in Lagan Valley the unionist vote has been in free fall: 80% in the 2017 Westminster election, 65% two years later, and 56% in May. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson should win it again, but a surprise Alliance upset can no longer be categorically ruled out. Even South Antrim, where the DUP is not under threat, has suffered huge falls in the total unionist vote: 69% in 2017, 64% in 2019, and 47% in May.

The party will also want to avoid increased levels of anti-DUP tactical voting, which has the potential to compound the effects of any weakness in unionist turnout.

I suspect that the most important factor behind the fall in unionist turnout is the DUP’s boycott of Stormont. Few DUP supporters oppose it. But paradoxically it could make some more complacent about voting. Those DUP supporters who favour direct rule from Westminster may feel that they have now got what they wanted. Still others may feel that no Stormont means no threat of a Sinn Féin First Minister. Others again may have lost faith that politicians can offer any hope of solving their worsening financial, health or housing problems. Complacency or hopelessness in the minds of some of your natural supporters is a recipe for electoral weakness.

Of course, these are just my assumptions, and I could be wrong. Alternative comments, particularly from a unionist perspective, would be very welcome. But whatever the reasons, the DUP has to give those unionist voters a compelling reason to return to the polls – and it will need to do so quickly if it is to be effective because attitudes take time to shift.

Of course, the Stormont boycott could well motivate more nationalists, denied the nationalist First Minister position which they won in the Assembly election, to vote tactically for the candidate who appears to offer the strongest challenge to the DUP. Whether it is already too late for the DUP to defuse this threat is an open question. It may well be baked in. But what is certain is that the longer they leave it the less successful they are likely to be.

Alliance

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On the face of it, it would appear that Alliance is also eating into the UUP vote. If this were so it would be good news for the party which will want to squeeze that vote as much as possible in the Westminster elections to add to the tactical votes it historically attracts from Green and nationalist voters.

The first key Alliance Westminster objective is to retain North Down, and the second is to win East Belfast. They will have a third level objective to turn Lagan Valley and South Belfast and Mid Down into marginals; later in the campaign they will have to assess whether either of those offer a realistic opportunity for a gain and allocate their resources accordingly.

Taking the Council votes in North Down as a base, and applying historical levels of tactical voting plus the assumption that the Conservatives stand as they normally do would suggest a DUP Westminster vote in the region of 38% or 39%, while if Greens and nationalists stand the Alliance would be about 39% to 40%. Essentially neck and neck. With the poll showing both the DUP and Alliance up and the UUP down the picture is even more muddy.

Alliance best case scenario is probably around 46% in East Belfast, but this assumes unionist turnout remains weak and that the bulk of Green and nationalist votes move tactically to Alliance. This would likely give them lead of up to 4% over the DUP. But if the DUP can get unionist turnout all the way back up they could achieve up to around 48%. At the moment it appears that tactical voters and unionist turnout will decide the outcome.

This poll figure will be especially welcomed by Alliance in an Assembly context. A number of their 17 seats are marginal and this figure would make most of them safe. They could even increase to 18, or even 19 if things fell their way.

UUP

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This finding will be very disappointing for the UUP. The party will be hoping that it is just a statistical blip at the outer limits of the margin of error. They will be awaiting the next poll anxiously to see whether the drop is confirmed. An Assembly vote at this level would threaten the party leader’s seat in Upper Bann, which could fall to Sinn Féin. It would also move other UUP seats closer to the danger zone, although at a first glance none would appear to be obvious losses. The danger to any other UUP seat would come if a highly disproportion share of the vote drop occurred in a single constituency. This can happen.

There are no implications for Fermanagh South Tyrone, unless the DUP were to insist that it should be the agreed unionist candidate. However, this is very unlikely since the seat looks less winnable for unionism after the boundary changes and the DUP would not want to get the blame in the event of an increased SF majority.

SDLP

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SDLP do appear stuck. They will rightly point to having exceeded the LucidTalk poll at the Council elections and argue that they could do so again. Nevertheless, even the Council vote suggested that two of their 8 seats were at risk, with one loss almost certain.

The SDLP has one task to focus on, to retain its two Westminster seats. If it succeeds it will go some way to counter the “SDLP in terminal decline” narrative. As we saw in the Sinn Féin section above, the tide turned strongly against the SDLP in Foyle in the Council elections. In South Belfast and Mid Down it came in fourth, behind Alliance, the DUP and Sinn Féin, in that order. And yet they must currently be viewed as more likely than not to retain both seats: Foyle on the strength of anti-SF tactical voting, and SBMD on anti-DUP tactical voting.

In Foyle they have no competition for that tactical vote. In SBMD they will hold enough of it so long as they can maintain the perception that they have a stronger case than Alliance or SF to be the anti-DUP champion. The stars aligned perfectly for Claire Hanna in 2019. Although she may lose some of the political micro-climate factors which helped her then – the strong desire within the constituency to stymy Brexit when it was still possible to do so, the active campaigning support of the South Belfast Green MLA – and will face some minor headwinds from the enlarged boundaries which are unfavourable to the SDLP, she now has the priceless asset of incumbency. It is most unlikely, based on the Council election results, that Sinn Féin could assemble enough votes to defeat her. As long as she is seen as the best bet by Alliance and Green tactical voters she can almost certainly hold on. If those voters were to desert her, and Sinn Féin were to announce a candidate early, she could be in trouble. But as things stand the candidate for a party which could only command 16% of the vote six months ago remains the firm favourite to win again. It is a political miracle sustained so long as enough voters have faith that she can win and probably the strongest testament to the power of tactical voting.

A 6% vote share would imply that only 2 of its Assembly seats could be considered absolutely safe and that between 1 and 3 losses could reasonably be anticipated.

Other parties

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