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Mike Nesbitt: A good UUP leader - and he's lucky too

Published 25/05/2015

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt

Napoleon said 'I know he's a good general, but is he lucky'? - Mike Nesbitt has shown that he is both.

I've had a go at the UUP on many occasions but I always try to give credit where credit is due.

Nesbitt has done a number of good things to turn the party around, and he's had the luck running for him when it has counted.

There's nothing wrong with luck and I'm not having a go at Nesbitt here because he said it himself on RTE's breakfast election radio show (just before I had my speak!) saying he knew 0-3 seats for the UUP depended on 1,000 - 1,500 votes falling the correct way in their target seats.

With that small number of votes you need luck if they are going to fall in your favour - Nesbitt got that luck on 7th May.

I've also said that in a Westminster election it's wining that counts and with that small number of votes the UUP have two Westminster seats. Yes with small majorities, but it's the win that counts not the majorities, as the actual vote figures are only really remembered in the long term by the pundits and election analysts like myself. In addition, these two seats will open up a significant amount of funding for the UUP from Westminster.

However apart from the UUP wins there are some warning signs out there for the UUP - Strangford wasn't a good UUP performance (NB Nesbitt's own home constituency for the Assembly), and critically Belfast remains a problem for the UUP. Again I'm not having a go at Nesbitt here - only agreeing with him, because he's said it himself. At a party meeting a couple of years back he said 'We have a problem in Belfast and it's going to take time to fix' - he's right and that problem is still there, and has been exacerbated by the 2015 Westminster election.

First of all, as part of the pact the UUP withdrew in two Belfast seats - North and East Belfast. They also withdrew in North Down where noticeably the DUP didn't, and they put in a thumping performance gaining 8,500 votes. It's always dangerous for any political party not to run in elections - your regular voters drift to another party and may not return. Remember voting is habit forming.

If you read our East Belfast analysis last week, you'll see that we estimated that  approx. 40% of the UUP vote in East Belfast went to Alliance. This is the problem - if you withdraw from elections you allow the opposition to move onto your territory and this has helped Alliance in East Belfast build up a 17,000 voter base. Yes, the former UUP voters in that Alliance total can be won back, but the UUP will now have to work extra hard to get them back. For the East Belfast constituency at the Assembly election next year it's looking like 3 DUP, 2 Alliance, and the last seat (of six) between the UUP and PUP. The PUP could be slight favourites for this seat, if they can field the right candidate, and not fall-out among themselves.

South Belfast was also disappointing for the UUP. The big threat to the UUP here is Alliance's Paula Bradshaw who on 6,700 votes polled nearly twice what the UUP's Rodney McCune achieved. Again the UUP's one assembly seat in this constituency looks in danger - certainly the UUP will have to think hard about running two candidates here at next May's assembly election, maybe dropping to only one candidate.    

North Belfast came in as we predicted with an easy win for Nigel Dodds countering many pundits who were hyping this up as a closer contest with Sinn Fein. However again in this seat, the UUP has allowed the DUP to consolidate their vote, so they'll have to work hard to win an Assembly seat here in 2016 (they don't have a N. Belfast MLA at the moment). Indeed there's a scenario on these figures that the UUP won't win any Assembly seats in Belfast - although they'd have to be unlucky for this to happen.

For the UUP, next year's assembly election is a bit like this Westminster election was for Ukip in Great Britain. It's a hard election system for them (or any small party) to make break-throughs and gains. Similarly the TUV will also find it difficult to move beyond one seat i.e. Jim Allisters. Plus of course the DUP have that big card to play - You have to vote for us to stop Sinn Fein becoming the largest Assembly party and gaining the First Minster slot. The UUP, TUV, and other smaller Unionist parties don't have an answer to this - because there isn't one.

But in the meantime, Mike Nesbitt and the UUP have scored a victory so congratulations to them. Winning is also infectious and if Nesbitt can keep the good mood going he could get on a roll going into next year's assembly election.

I remember asking a football fan about a certain striker who had a penchant for being in the right place to score goals - he said 'Son, he's good at what he does and lucky with it, and whatever you do in this life that's a very good combination'. Maybe Nesbitt has that combination going for him at the moment. Of course with a run of good luck you should enjoy it while it lasts, because it never does.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk. 

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