GE ’24: North Down Constituency Profile…

North Down had the sixth smallest majority in Northern Ireland in 2019, with only 2.968 votes separating the winner, Stephen Farry (Alliance) from Alex Easton (DUP). Previously the constituency had always been held by a unionist since its first creation in 1885.

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

Candidates

Chris Carter, Independent

Tim Collins, UUP

Alex Easton, Independent Unionist

Stephen Farry, Alliance

Barry McKee, Green

Déirdre Vaughan, SDLP

The DUP, TUV, Conservatives and 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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If you ever wanted a graph that illustrated tactical voting at its most obvious, feast your eyes.

2010 was the first Westminster election that Lady Hermon contested as an Independent, having won the two previous elections as an Ulster Unionist. By that time the DUP were outpolling the UUP by 3 and 4 to 1 in Assembly and Council elections. Others voted for her in droves.

To see the designation development in the raw, we will look at the chart without the Westminster elections.

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This provides a much clearer picture. Unionists have trended down 16% points. Others are up 15% and nationalists are flat.

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Vote share by party in Assembly and Local Government Elections

Given the large 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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North Down attracts a number of small parties and Other Independents who do not make it onto this chart. In the four Assembly elections in the period the TUV has only contested the last, drawing 4%. A figure it repeated in the following Council elections.

The Conservatives contested most of the elections, obtaining 3% early on, but dropping to 1% in the last two. UKIP appeared frequently up to 2019. Its highest score was 3% in 2104.

Independent Others have averaged 3%, as have the combined total of the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

Now to look at the trends:

The DUP has taken a mighty fall, halving its share over the period. In all it is down 22% points. Obviously in 2022, many of its votes went to its former standard bearer, the now Independent Alex Easton. But that is far from being the whole story. Even if we take the 2022 Assembly figures out of the mix, the DUP downward trend would still have been 16%.

Alliance, on the other hand, has trended up 14% points, the UUP 4% and Greens 1%.

Before we leave this section, it is worth pointing out that not all Independent unionists share the same outlook. While two of the three who stood in the last Council elections were former members of the DUP who resigned to support Easton, the two who stood in the 2011 Assembly elections were a former UUP MLA who resigned to support Lady Hermon and Alan Chambers, who has since become a UUP MLA.

 

Vote share in Westminster elections

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The ‘Other Unionists’ shown on the chart represents the total for the Conservatives, TUV and UKIP. For the 2010 election the Conservatives and UUP fielded joint candidates.

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 gives slightly 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.

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The first thing to note is the more than doubling of the Alliance number compared with the resource they had to work with at the time of the last election.

I have also shown the DUP here, although they are not standing in the election. That is because a proportion of their local membership may choose to give some assistance to the Easton campaign. I suspect (and it will be interesting to hear from commentators who live in the constituency) that the level of support they give Easton may be largely symbolic. Helpful comments, rather than actual bodies on the ground. It is to be expected that they will divert North Down volunteers and activists to help shore up their East Belfast campaign. Although it would be in their interests to have Easton sitting in Westminster come the next Assembly election, the need to prevent their own leader losing his seat next month will be far more pressing.

Although Easton is an Independent, I have shown one Councillor within his resource because one of his supporters was successful in the last Council elections. I am making the assumption that he will be pulling for Easton, although without a formal link between the two the reputational value to Easton may be reduced.

This election will be very much about tactical voting, so the ground campaign is likely to prove far more influential than in most constituencies. Personal conversations with voters will matter.

Factors possibly assisting Alliance

7.3% points ahead of DUP at the last election.

Doubling of resource since last election.

May be able to increase pre-2019 level of tactical squeeze on Green and SDLP voters. This could reduce any damage from those parties standing this time by 1 or 2% percentage points.

Factors possibly harming Alliance

Unlike 2019 there will be Green and SDLP candidates. That could subtract up to 5% points from the previous Alliance share. Based on each party’s estimated level of tactical voting pre-2019.

Factors possibly assisting Easton

Endorsement by TUV and DUP.

Increase in total unionist vote? There was no change in share between the last Westminster and the 2024 Council election. But the in the 2022 Assembly election, with a higher turnout, there was a 5% increase. The higher figure could be worth around 3% to Easton.

Possible non-unionist personal vote for Easton? This is a very problematic question. Easton proved at the 2022 Assembly election that he could draw votes as an Independent that he had been unable to reach as a DUP candidate. In all 17% of his first preference transferred to Others or nationalist; and a very high percentage (7%) did not transfer at all suggesting that he also attracted non-party personal votes. Retaining all those votes could add up to 5% points to his total.

Factors possibly harming Easton

Possible absence of non-unionist personal vote for Easton? Having received the endorsement of the TUV and DUP, plus being opposed by the more moderate UUP, will Easton’s Independence be seen in the same light as in 2022? Especially by those non-unionists who gave him a personal preference at the Assembly election. A tactical vote in a First Past the Post election is a greater commitment than a first preference in an election where you can also express additional preferences.

Absence of a dedicated major party machine. The embarrassment caused to him by the publication of tweets made by his election agent are a symptom of this. (Having announced that he would be dispensing with the agent, he has now decided that it is impractical to do so since it would mean re-printing all his leaflets.)

Any improvement to the UUP vote share.

The UUP and Conservative factors

When the UUP announced their candidate early, and effectively dared anyone else to split the unionist vote, it would seem that they were hoping that he would become a “unionist unity” candidate by default. Easton’s entry into the race killed that hope. At the last election the party would have received around 20% of the vote if they had kept the share that they won seven months earlier at the Council elections. In the event they only took 12%, suggesting that around 8% went elsewhere.

Probably some of it, up to 3%, went to the Conservatives, who achieved a 5% share. Most of the rest will have gone to the DUP.

To add to the complexity the Conservatives will not be standing this time.

The UUP candidate, Tim Collins, would not be out of place on a ballot paper in England under the Conservative label. Indeed he very nearly was in 2012, when he agreed to stand in Kent, but subsequently changed his mind. He may well appeal to North Down’s 2019 Conservative voters.

The choices made this time by the 19% of voters who went for the UUP in last year’s Council election could be decisive. If the UUP holds that share it could be good for Alliance. In the Easton camp they will be targeting UUP supporters and hoping for a UUP collapse.

Conclusion

Looking at the data, Easton’s and Alliance’s best-case and worst-case shares both look almost identical, with Easton just possibly having a slight edge. But if matters prove to be that close the actual result may well come down to the ground campaign. Who can do more canvassing to identify their voters? And who can run the bigger and more effective get-out-the-vote operation?

 


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