At the recent Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) AGM Mike Nesbitt made the usual party leader ‘fire up the troops’ pre-election speech. His speech was full of little contradictions, but this is usual for party leader speeches as they try to appeal to different elements of their support base. However, there was one major contradiction.
Nesbitt said the UUP had a problem in Belfast and needed to attract support from current Alliance voters. He’s correct, and it’s refreshing to see a UUP leader acknowledge this fact for once. This has been a problem for a long time, and Nesbitt is also correct in saying it will take a long time to fix. However, in another part of his speech, he went back to the old chestnut of suggesting vote transfer arrangements with other unionist parties at the forthcoming Euro and Council elections in May. The trouble is both these objectives are contradictory. You’re not going to attract current Alliance voters through the front-door if you’re going to have ‘deals’ with other unionist parties.
Nesbitt has tried these inter-party deals once before, and that was with the DUP in last year’s Mid-Ulster Westminster by-election. He ended up losing two MLAs and 1,000s of potential votes in and around Belfast. I remember the announcement of a joint DUP-UUP Mid-Ulster candidate, and you could feel those potential Belfast ‘Alliance type’ UUP voters, disappearing like snow of a ditch.
Admittedly Mid-Ulster was a Westminster ‘First-Past-The-Post’ election system, and the PR (1,2,3..) system to be used in the forthcoming May elections makes it easier for vote-transfer arrangements between parties to be arranged. Nesbitt is spot on with regards to voting right down the ballot paper in a PR election. If you want to maximise your vote, the mathematics say that if there are X candidates standing you should vote 1st preference right down to X in order of your preference. This therefore allows vote transfer arrangements between parties e.g. Unionists to other unionists, and nationalists/republicans to other nationalists/ republicans. Or even dare I suggest, between the two groups, with Alliance in there somewhere as well!
However, you can’t do vote transfer deals at a Westminster election, now only 13 months away, and what is Nesbitt and the UUP going to do then? I’ve said it before; LucidTalk’s analysis indicates that unionist pacts won’t affect the final result in any Northern Ireland Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. Of course Nigel Dodds (North Belfast), David Simpson (Upper Bann), and others, would like pact arrangements with other parties, as long as they remain the candidates! After all, that would make things easier for them. But our analysis shows that these two seats would probably be held by these two sitting MPs whether there’s any pact or not. I accept that at the following Westminster election in 2019/2020, the situation may be different in both these seats.
The only other two seats were pacts could conceivably make a difference at the 2015 General election are Fermanagh & South Tyrone and South Belfast. Yes, East Belfast is still a conundrum, and it will be a fascinating battle to see if Alliance’s Naomi Long can hold this seat. LucidTalk’s current analysis show that it is tight, with perhaps the DUP having the edge, but again whether there is a unionist pact or not will make little difference to the eventual outcome.
So Mr Nesbitt, have a bit of courage, and run your party as a stand-alone entity. The only losers from any pact deals with other parties will be you and the UUP.
Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph