Belfast Telegraph

Bill White: The pacts and plots of a Westminster General Election

Gavin Robinson makes his victory speech after taking the East Belfast seat off Naomi Long, following a unionist pact in 2015
Gavin Robinson makes his victory speech after taking the East Belfast seat off Naomi Long, following a unionist pact in 2015

By Bill White

It wouldn’t be a Northern Ireland Westminster election without talk of pacts between the political parties, particularly on the unionist side. The talks and debate is still ongoing but not surprisingly seem to have ran into difficulties.

The whole premise of pacts (or the cause of them) is the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) election system that’s used for Westminster elections. It’s a winner take all system well summed up by former US President John F Kennedy who said ‘In politics, a wins a win, coming close only counts in shuv’hapenny’.

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It’s a weird undemocratic system, which has caused tensions in British politics over the years. Bill White

The FPTP system means that the number of seats won is not related to vote share (in the wider country of region e.g. UK or NI). It’s the system that at the last UK General Election (2015) gave UKIP one seat in parliament with 3,881,099 votes, and the SNP 56 seats with 1,454,436 votes. It’s a weird undemocratic system, which has caused tensions in British politics over the years.

The basis of a pact is that if one party withdraws in support of another candidate or party, then all of that withdrawing parties’ supporters will automatically go to the polls and support the other candidate or party. But people don’t behave like robots.

Yes, there are some who will follow the party line instructions, but our polling over the years suggests this number is lower than what some people think. There is also the proven fact that you never maximise, particularly the unionist vote, unless you there are a good choice of candidates i.e. If you had two unionist candidates who ran in one election and had gained say 10,000 votes each, that doesn’t mean if you ran only one of these candidates the next time (with the support of the other) they would get 20,000 votes – that candidate would probably get around 17,000 votes i.e. 3,000 votes would ‘go missing’.

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This is the myth about pacts in FPTP elections, - let me say right up-front that any pacts in NI whether UUP-DUP, SF-SDLP, or any combination, will not make any difference in any of the constituencies, except perhaps Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Apart from Fermanagh and South Tyrone there are only a few other seats that are being discussed as part of the pact debates between the parties i.e. South Belfast, East Belfast, North Belfast, and perhaps Upper Bann.

So lets’ look at a few of these seats. In East Belfast, Gavin Robinson will win or lose whether or not he’s in a pact with the UUP i.e. any pact will have little impact, as Robinson will win or lose based on other factors, not whether he’s the sole ‘unionist unity’ candidate. Likewise, I’ve said that Fermanagh and South Tyrone is the only seat that is impacted by a pact (between the unionist parties) – Yes, with a unionist pact Tom Elliott has a better chance of winning, but that’s not to say he will definitely win with a pact (he could still lose).

With pacts, what you gain on the roundabouts, you lost on the swings. Bill White

Then we have South Belfast – a key ‘marginal’ seat that will certainly be included in any pact discussion between various parties. At the last Westminster election, the unionists say that if you add up all the unionist votes then that would’ve have exceeded Alasdair McDonnell’s vote (the current sitting SDLP MP for South Belfast) – This is correct.

But if there had have been one combined unionist candidate then undoubtedly a chunk of Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir 5,402 votes would have switched to McDonnell (as the only realistic nationalist who could win the seat) to counter-act the combined unionist candidate. Likewise, if the SDLP did a deal with Sinn Fein, then again using South Belfast as an example, - Yes, they’d gain a good number of Ó Muilleoir’s 5,402 votes (NB not all), but they’d probably lose a chunk of the Alliance and small ‘u’ unionist votes (annoyed at the SDLP-Sinn Fein pact) that McDonnell picks up just because he’s the sitting MP.

Basically with pacts, what you perhaps gain on the roundabouts, you could lose on the swings.

In East Belfast, the sitting DUP MP Gavin Robinson ran as an agreed ‘unity unionist’ candidate at the last 2015 election. Robinson gained 19,575 votes, and Naomi Long (Alliance) 16,978 votes. If Robinson hadn’t been the one unionist-unity candidate (i.e. other Unionists, particularly the UUP, also ran for the seat), then our post-election polling analysis shows Robinson would’ve got around 17,000 votes, and Naomi Long 15,000 votes approximately.

Yes, Robinson gained UUP (and other unionist votes) but Long also gained votes from, for example, disaffected supporters from other parties, former non-voters, and also some former UUP voters, all of whom disagreed with the pact. Basically Gavin Robinson would’ve won anyway, pact or no pact. Again, the gains on the roundabout lose on the swings argument, plays in.

If you’re the agreed one-unionist unity candidate, there’s nowhere to hide. Bill White


Then there is the personal reputation consideration with pacts. If you’re the ‘unity candidate’ with no opposition on ‘your side’ (i.e. unionist or nationalist), then you’ve nowhere to hide, and no excuses, if you’re running in a seat that you’re expected to win.

Again take South Belfast as the example, the DUP and UUP both ran in this seat at the last three Westminster elections, and the SDLP won all three times. But the DUP and UUP could blame each other for this.  There’s no way of disproving this and it’s a comfort blanket that the UUP and DUP can hide behind. But if you’re the agreed one-unionist unity candidate, there’s nowhere to hide.

You’re expected to win, and if you don’t, your personal reputation in politics will be seriously damaged. Put it this way, Gavin Robinson won the East Belfast seat in 2015 as a unionist unity candidate – but if he had lost, I suggest he wouldn’t be in politics today.

There’s also a cultural point with pacts, particularly on the unionist side. Pacts don’t suit the unionist–protestant psyche, which historically always has had a rich independent thinking streak. There’s always those who say ‘I’m a unionist, but I’m certainly not going to vote for THAT unionist candidate’. If you want a simple illustration of this independent culture, just count the number of churches the next time you travel through a NI town or village, - there’ll be one Catholic church, but many different types of Protestant churches.

So I would suggest to the political parties out there who perhaps are getting excited about pacts and agreements on seats. Don’t get too carried away, as in terms of who’s going to win, they have a lot less impact than you might think.

Bill White, is Managing Director of Belfast based LucidTalk Polling and Market Research. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter at @LucidTalk.

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