The DUP conference took place last Saturday and we surveyed DUP members at the conference, as to their views regarding unionist election pacts with other unionist parties, and especially the UUP. We ran a confidential 'election type' ballot on the issue at the conference, and 226 DUP members participated and voted, and the results turned out as follows:
Question 1: Do you think the DUP should engage in an election pact with the UUP, and/or other unionist parties, to ensure the election of the maximum number of unionist representatives at the UK Westminster election in May 2015?
Yes - Include all unionist parties: 105 votes - 46.5%
Yes - with UUP only: 79 votes - 35%
Yes - UUP and TUV only: 25 votes - 11%
No - No pacts with anyone: 17 votes - 7.5%
So 92.5% of DUP conference delegates support a pact in some form. However it's interesting that 7.5% (i.e. 17 voters) didn't want any pacts. Frankly I would have actually expected this to be nearer zero. 1 in 2 (50%) of those wanting an election pacts deal (i.e. excluding the 7.5% who don't want any deals) want it to include all parties, although a number of voters wrote on their ballot - Not with the PUP. This was closely followed by those who wanted a deal with the UUP only. It's noteworthy that 11% wanted a deal with the UUP and TUV only, suggesting that nearly one in 10 of DUP members still 'respect' the TUV to an extent. Or perhaps they think the TUV are strong enough to cause a problem, so that they need to be included in any election pact deals?
Question 2: Whether your answer is Yes or No, if an election pact was agreed, which one seat would benefit the most from a pact, for the DUP and unionism in general?
In terms of the seat preferences, this came out as follows:
Fermanagh and South Tyrone: 117 - 33%
East Belfast: 92 - 27%
North Belfast: 58 - 16%
South Belfast: 47 - 13%
Upper Bann: 41 - 11%
NB a number of people voted for more than 1 option, hence the above total comes to more than 146 participants - ie a total of 355.
As expected there was strong support for Fermanagh and South Tyrone as the key seat to run with a united unionist pact candidate, closely followed by East Belfast. It is worth noting that a No. of conference delegates put comments on the ballot stating that they didn't think a deal was needed in East Belfast anymore, as the DUP would win it anyway. Maybe a bit of over confidence here? Interesting that North Belfast came ahead of South Belfast i.e. maybe this is because South Belfast isn't seen as that important by the DUP. Perhaps this is because they think of it as a sort of 'UUP seat' & there currently isn't a strong DUP 'Nigel Dodds' heavy-hitter type of candidate in South Belfast to challenge the sitting MP, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell, at next May's election?
As with our ballot at the UUP conference, and 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 DUP voters. As with all political parties, the DUP membership doesn't accurately reflect their voter base. Plus the delegates attending any party political conference don't accurately reflect the parties membership as a whole! As such this survey should only be considered as giving a good 'feel' for current DUP grassroots opinion re. this issue.
However, even taking account of these points, it is surprising that South Belfast didn't score a bit higher, as a target seat. Plus it isn't surprising that East Belfast recorded a high vote score for an agreed unionist candidate taking into account this is a seat that the DUP desperately want to win back. The trouble about East Belfast is that it's hard to know whether having Gavin Robinson (now officially the DUP's candidate) as a united agreed unionist candidate would be a help or a hindrance. There is a sense that this may seem like ganging up on the sitting MP Naomi Long and may cause a reaction leading to Long gaining more votes because of this. Interestingly this is reflected in our ballot of DUP members with a significant minority saying that they would prefer to have no 'official' Unionist pact deals for East Belfast, as they think they can win the seat without this. East Belfast is going to be fascinating stuff, and we'll be polling there in the build-up to next May's Westminster election. But we'll have to wait until the early hours of the May 8 2015 to find out the actual result, and to see if it ends up matching our poll predictions.
Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.