Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Unionist Party conference: Polling analysis

By Bill White

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has thrown out the first gambit in the never-ending debate about unionist election pacts with the DUP. With this in mind we ran an 'election' on the issue at last Saturday's UUP conference. 158 UUP conference delegates registered votes in our confidential ballot, and the results turned out as follows:

Question: Do you think the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) should engage in a pact with the DUP, and other unionist parties, to agree joint-candidates for the next Westminster election in May 2015?

YES - 129 (82%), N0 - 29 (18%)

Whether your answer is Yes or No, if a pact is agreed, which seats should the UUP prioritise as the best seats for the UUP themselves to run an agreed unionist candidate?

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: 82 (52%), North Belfast: 19 (12%), East Belfast: 15 (9%), South Belfast: 12 (8%), Upper Bann: 9 (6%), South Antrim: 7 (4%). There were 14 (9%) 'No to pacts' voters who didn't express any seat preferences.    

We did ask participants to answer the second question as in a PR election i.e. 1,2,3..., and we thought it would be interesting to see what were the three top seats 'elected', if the votes were counted as in a PR election.

But first of all, please note that unlike our main polling activities which provide accurate representations of opinion (e.g. our recent NI-Wide Belfast Telegraph poll-project), we're not pretending that this is representative of UUP voters. As with all political parties, the UUP membership doesn't accurately reflect their voter base. Plus the delegates attending their conference don't accurately reflect the UUP membership as a whole! For example, the UUP membership is heavily skewed towards the west of the province, and especially Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Plus taking into account the conference was held in Belfast, it can be assumed that the conference attendees had a weighting towards UUP members who lived not far from the conference location. 

As such, it isn't surprising that Fermanagh and South Tyrone romped home as the key target UUP seat among UUP conference delegates. This probably reflects the large Fermanagh and South Tyrone membership of the UUP - they certainly think that Fermanagh & South Tyrone is 'their' seat. As per above, we're electing three seats for the UUP to target, so on transferring the surplus from the Fermanagh and South Tyrone votes we get: Upper Bann 10 (+1), South Antrim 10 (+3), South Belfast 23 (+11), North Belfast 29 (+10), East Belfast 22 (+7). A No. of votes were non-transferable. Eliminating Upper Bann and South Antrim we end up with: South Belfast 27 (+4), North Belfast 30 (+1), East Belfast 25 (+3). So as can be seen, the three preferable 'UUP target' seats are therefore Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North Belfast, and South Belfast. Regarding North Belfast it should be said that some voters have probably got confused with Mike Nesbitt's announcement that he was offering this to the DUP, and thought this was linked to the UUP running in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In any case, although we didn't need to do it, if you transferred the East Belfast votes, then South Belfast went significantly ahead of North Belfast as the second most preferable seat.    

However, even taking into account the unrepresentative sample points made above, you would still have thought that Upper Bann and South Antrim would have scored a bit higher, and would have been in there at the end fighting for one of the three seats. We can also see that the UUP conference delegates still view East Belfast and South Belfast as key target seats.

NB It was interesting that although it was a confidential ballot , most of the 29 'No to Pacts' voters voluntarily expressed strong views to us that they were against pacts of any nature with the DUP. This included some high profile UUP members (no names here!). This is 18% of the sample (i.e. nearly 1 in 5 of UUP conference delegates) and this minority could be troublesome for Mike Nesbitt.

In terms of a general view, you can't blame the unionist parties for looking at possible pacts for the Westminster election. The root cause of this is the ridiculous 'First-Past-The-Post' (FPTP) election system, used for Westminster elections, which is divisive and ends up as unrepresentative. Even in Britain it's beginning to creak at the edges, as a viable system to elect a parliament, and questions are being asked about using other election systems. It's ironic that all the Unionist parties came out against the 'Alternative Vote' (AV) system at the referendum in 2011 - Not that the relatively small No. of votes from NI would have made any difference to the overall UK result. The AV system would be very good for unionism, and very good for the UUP in particular. For a start Reg Empey would be the MP for South Antrim today, and it's questionable whether Naomi Long would have won East Belfast, and unionism would be in with a fighting chance of regaining Fermanagh and South Tyrone (under the FPTP system that chance is close to zero). Plus it would remove all these divisive election pact and agreed candidate debates.

In addition, I'm not sure the UUP have considered both sides of the argument. It's alright to enthuse your membership with 'lets go and win back for Fermanagh and South Tyrone', and offering the DUP a solo run in North Belfast, a seat the DUP's Nigel Dodds will probably hold anyway, pact or no pact. But has Nesbitt and his colleagues considered the downside? - of having the DUP agreeing to a sole unionist UUP candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and that candidate ending up losing (like Rodney Connor in 2010)? Which as I've said above, is the likely outcome. How will this affect morale in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone UUP, and the UUP in general? Plus you can be sure that the DUP will then 'dump' all over the UUP with 'you wanted your one agreed candidate and he/she still lost', and of course the classic repost 'if you'd have allowed the DUP to run their candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone then we would have won the seat'! This later point is probably not true, but after the election there would be no way of proving that. Mike Nesbitt should remember that old line - Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.     

Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.

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