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Nesbitt leads UUP race, but not by much: survey

Biggest bloc still undecided on the day before vote

By Liam Clarke

Mike Nesbitt is ahead in the race to be new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, a new survey has revealed. But the survey of opinion in the party’s support base shows that neither candidate commands the backing of most UUP voters or potential voters.

The telephone survey, carried out amongst UUP members, voters and possible voters in six areas where the party is strong, by LucidTalk Limited on behalf of the Belfast Telegraph, showed that 26% supported John McCallister, 36% favoured Mike Nesbitt and 38% were undecided.

Both candidates pointed out that only the UUP’s 2,000 party members, and not supporters, could vote in tomorrow’s election.

Mr McCallister said: “After that is taken into account, these figures show that it is all to play for, the biggest single bloc are undecided. I think a fair number of people will turn up with an open mind and listen to our speeches.”

Mr Nesbitt also pointed to turnout and estimated that “perhaps half of the membership will turn up”. He was not complacent because of his lead in the survey. “I am fighting this like I am losing, because that is the only way to fight an election,” he said.

The survey showed slippage in UUP support, with 52% saying they were possible voters. Many of these said they were former supporters who no longer voted for the party, but might do so in the future if things improved.

However, there was pessimism that things would improve, with some respondents telling survey staff they doubted if either candidate could be an effective leader.

Almost half of those questioned in six areas where UUP support was relatively strong were excluded from the analysis because they said that there was no possibility of them supporting the UUP.

Of those who already supported the party, or who might do so in the future, only 22% believed that its fortunes would improve, 37% thought things would get worse for it, and 41% thought its position would remain unchanged.

The biggest single issue to emerge was whether to leave the power-sharing Executive, where the party holds one ministry, and go into opposition. Mr McCallister believes this is the best means of rebuilding the party, but it is opposed by Mr Nesbitt.

Voters and potential voters were fairly evenly split on the issue; 27% backed Mr McCallister’s line while 35%, slightly more than backed Mr Nesbitt as leader, wanted to stay in the Executive. Some 38% were undecided.

Mr Nesbitt said that a survey that was not confined to party members could not be a “robust indicator” of the outcome of tomorrow’s leadership election but that the results would be useful to the new leader afterwards.

“It shows a challenge to leadership. We need greater cohesion amongst the 2,000 members and also the tens of thousands of pro- Union people who don’t vote,” he said. “Fortunately there has never been a better time to promote the Union — the economic, the social, the cultural benefits are clear.

“That creates an opportunity. Some might see the survey as defining a problem, but it shows there is an opportunity to reach out to pro-Union voters. The key word is confidence. The membership wants to be confident again.”

Mr McCallister said: “I am not particularly surprised at those figures. This survey will be useful to the next leader. It shows what we need to do, we need to get clarity in our message and define the party’s purpose whoever the new leader is. Clarity has been lacking.”

He believed that the idea of opposition would gain ground, saying: “People won’t give an informed opinion until they actually know what an opposition would offer. If we were in opposition they could see the difference. We’d make more impact than we can with one minister.”

What now?

Today the UUP will meet to decide their new leader at the Ramada hotel at Shaw’s Bridge, south Belfast.

There are two candidates, Strangford MLA Mike Nesbitt and South Down MLA John McCallister.

Around 2,000 registered members are entitled to vote in the contest.

The result should be known by lunchtime.

The organisation behind the survey, who it talked to, and its interpretation of the results

LucidTalk is a polling and market research company recently set up by Bill White, who has previously worked with major polling companies in London and Manchester and is a former member of the UUP.

LucidTalk has been accepted as a member of the British Polling Council (BPC), the standards body. This project was conducted in consultation with Chambre Public Affairs. The survey was carried out by telephone between March 26 and 28, 2012. It was carried out in six areas where the UUP had relatively strong support, securing around 35,000 votes in each of the last three elections. Two Belfast areas along with North Down, East Antrim, Mid Down and Co Londonderry were surveyed.

Of 400 randomly selected voters interviewed, 193 said they were not members, supporters or potential voters of the UUP. 200 out of the remaining 207 were used in the statistical analysis. The sample size, about 0.6% of the total UUP vote in the areas, does not constitute a full opinion poll as defined by BPC. It is a randomised survey of opinion within the UUP’s voter base rather than of UUP members. It cannot take into account factors like turnout at tomorrow’s UUP AGM, but will give a reasonably accurate snapshot of opinion within the UUP’s support base between Monday and Wednesday of this week. Respondents were not analysed by gender, age group, social class, religion or area of residence.

The Key issues....where the contenders stand

Mike Nesbitt

FORMING AN OPPOSITION Mr Nesbitt would not withdraw from Government without funding and resources being made available. He wants a referendum on the issue, despite DUP and Sinn Fein opposition to the proposal.

UNIONIST UNITY A soft no to co-operation with the DUP. A Nesbitt-led party would end its current talks with the DUP. He does not want the parties to merge and hopes to force the DUP out of Government. Still, he doesn’t entirely rule out co-operation at election time.

SECTARIANISM Mike Nesbitt wants to build a unionism that can appeal to all. He supports sharing between Catholic and Protestant schools |as a first step on the way to his objective of a single, integrated education system.

VISION FOR THE PARTY He compares it to a business where the profit is power. His main aim is to improve internal cohesion by “breaking down silos” between elected representatives and bodies like the Young Unionists and constituency associations.

DAVID MCNARRY (The Ulster Unionist MLA who was suspended yesterday). Mr Nesbitt and Mr McNarry, who stand in the same constituency, do not get on or see eye to eye politically. However, Mr Nesbitt says he is prepared to leave disciplining him to the party officers.

John McCallister

FORMING AN OPPOSITION If he wins the UUP will leave the Executive this Monday and immediately form an official opposition in the Assembly. The UUP’s |solitary minister, Danny Kennedy in Regional Development, would be asked to resign.

UNIONIST UNITY A very hard no to unionist unity. Mr McCallister opposes any form of electoral co-operation or unity talks with the DUP. He wants to take them on from the opposition benches and offer the voters an alternative Government at the next election.

SECTARIANISM John McCallister supports sharing between the two communities in schools. He wants to “normalise politics and move away from the sectarianism of ‘them and us’”. He hopes to attract Catholic voters.

VISION FOR THE PARTY His stated aim is “to restore self-confidence in the party and remain unashamedly independent of the DUP”. He also wants to “appeal to the past agreement generation” and move elections away from the border issue.

DAVID MCNARRY (The Ulster Unionist MLA who was suspended yesterday). If Mr McCallister wins he had pledged there would be “no way back” for the rebel MLA. This candidate would like to expel Mr McNarry from the party for attacks he made on Tom Elliott, the current leader, on radio.

The final statements

Mike Nesbitt

‘This isn’t a quick fix, but we need more coherence’

On the eve of the election, I would like to thank all those members intending to accept the responsibility of voting tomorrow.

It is a critical decision that they will make. It is a decision not about where the Assembly Group of MLAs go on Monday morning, but where the whole party is going to be in five and 10 years’ time.

If it is me, I would like to lead through at least two election cycles, and leave the party with the welcome headache of choosing a successor from a whole pool of talent, men and women. Succession planning would be a key performance indicator of my leadership.

The main ‘KPIs’ are the electoral successes, without which we cannot serve the people and deliver our policies.

My main targets are: more councillors in local government; an enhanced vote in the European elections; and re-taking the Office of the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive.

There is no quick fix, and the only big idea is hard work. We need to find greater cohesion among our members and offer the public greater coherence in what we say.

We need better policies, better communicated and a better organisation, better resourced.

That is what I offer. It is in the hands of the membership. I shall serve as directed.

John McCallister

‘Time is not on our side. We must embrace change’

I am proud to be in a position to ask the party for support tomorrow.

Now is the time to lead for real change — to change Northern Ireland’s politics for the better and to change the fortunes of our party for the better.

As an organisation time is not on our side. We must embrace change. I need help to achieve this.

I have endeavoured to present a clear and definitive vision for this party. Structures put in place in 1998 have done their job. We have supplied capable ministers to the Executive, but we need to think anew.

Opposition lies at the heart of this election. Without an opposition, Stormont becomes a cosy club for politicians. In the absence of a constructive, positive opposition role for this party, we remain beholden to others.

But my leadership will be based around more than this. My politics is based on principles which lie at the heart of our party.

This year marks the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. The Covenant enshrines progressive and liberal values — civil and religious freedom, equal citizenship in the UK, and social and economic progress. As leader I will be unashamed in ensuring that progressive liberal values again shape who we are and what we do as a party.

I pledge to stand up for the UUP. I will build on our achievements and set a course that regains our political influence and reinvigorates the electorate.

Together we can lead real change.

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