An election for the Westminster Parliament will be held on December 12.
The main issue in this election will be the nature of Brexit. Currently the Conservatives are averaging a 12% lead over Labour in the first group of opinion polls released. This would result in a clear Conservative majority if this lead exists on election day.
Alarmed by the prospect of a pro Brexit Conservative majority, several of the opposition parties (Liberal Democrats, Green, and Plaid Cymru) recently announced a formal election pact involving over 60 constituencies. Only one candidate from those 3 parties will stand and the parties will encourage all their voters to vote for that one candidate. All of those candidates will be in favour of keeping the UK within the EU.
In Northern Ireland the DUP is the current coalition partner with the Conservatives and they have strongly supported a policy where all of the UK (including Northern Ireland) will leave the EU.
The DUP even prefer a Hard Brexit over the deal that Theresa May negotiated, a deal that could not be passed in Parliament. A week ago there were no signs of an electoral pact between the parties in Northern Ireland that wish to keep Northern Ireland within the EU (SF, SDLP, Alliance, Greens). The new UUP leader Steve Aiken stated that the UUP would stand in all 18 constituencies.
Then the unexpected occurred. Loyalist paramilitaries threatened the UUP if they stood in North Belfast. The UUP gave in to these threats and announced that they would not contest North Belfast. This appeared to cause outrage in the non unionist communities.
The SDLP announced that they would not contest North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down and urged their voters to vote for the strongest pro Remain candidate in those constituencies. This was followed shortly by SF announcing they would not contest South Belfast. The Green Party announced they would not contest North, South and East Belfast and publicly endorsed Claire Hanna in South Belfast. Apparently the Workers Party may not stand in North Belfast.
There are currently 10 pro Brexit DUP MPs in Westminster. Sylvia Hermon in North Down has stated she will not stand in this election and based on the 2017 election results the DUP would win the seat. The DUP could potentially return 11 MPs.
Could an electoral pact among Pro Remain parties reduce this number?
An electoral pact would be of no use in the constituencies of Strangford, Lagan Valley, East Antrim and North Antrim since the DUP MPs won these seats in 2017 with majorities of 57% to 62%. The other 7 DUP MPs could theoretically be defeated with electoral pacts.
There are not yet any formal electoral pacts among the pro Remain parties. The parties will not contest several constituencies but this does not appear to be part of any formal negotiations among the parties though the Greens did endorse Claire Hanna in South Belfast.
There are informal electoral pacts in North, South and East Belfast and I will now analyze the implications.
The 2019 District Council election showed a 3% decline in the total unionist vote compared to 2017. The DUP vote is unlikely to be any higher than 30% and may be lower since the Remain vote was 70% here. Since the SDLP will pick up most of the SF and Green vote the SDLP vote will be well over 40%. The DUP will lose this seat and there will be one less pro Brexit MP.
North Belfast- 2017 results
SF 41.7% (19,159)
SDLP 4.5% ( 2,058)
Workers Party 0.8% ( 360 )
Alliance 5.4% (2,475)
Green 1.4% ( 644 )
DUP 46.2% (21,240)
Nigel Dodds won with a 2,081 plurality over SF. Since the SDLP, Greens and Workers Party will not contest the election where will their votes go?
In view of the recent threats by Loyalist paramilitaries which forced the UUP to stand down and the fact that Nigel Dodds is strongly pro Brexit, I believe that at least 1,500 of the SDLP votes will go to SF. In the 2019 council election in the Oldpark DEA the SDLP transfers that went to SF or Alliance were 75% to SF. SDLP voters are also aware that SF declined to stand in South Belfast which will greatly benefit the SDLP.
Of the 1,000 votes for the Workers Party and Greens I expect over half to go to SF. The Alliance Party may pick up some voters from the parties not standing. However, the Alliance Party is very familiar with Loyalist threats and some Alliance voters will be tempted to vote for SF.
Voting for SF is also the only way for Alliance voters to defeat Nigel Dodds and have one less pro Brexit MP. It appears the contest would be even. However, demographic changes in the 2 ½ years since 2017 would decrease the DUP by 500 and increase the SF vote by 500 so SF should win by 1,000 votes.
Only poor nationalist turnout can save Nigel Dodds.
The DUP easily won in 2017 with 55% of the vote. However the 2019 council elections show that this is not a certainty in the 2019 Westminster election
The Alliance Party is the only Remain Party so they should receive 43% of the vote. Unfortunately the other 9% unionist vote is mainly TUV, PUP and UKIP so it is likely that all that 9% will go to the DUP so their vote should be 43%.
The big unknown is what will happen to the 14% UUP council vote. The September Lord Ashcroft poll showed that only 21% of Protestants would vote Remain if a new EU Referendum were held. The majority of those would be Alliance, Green and SDLP voters. However, some would be UUP voters and UUP voters are probably at least 25% Remain voters.
Will some UUP voters defect to Alliance? Who will the UUP candidate be? Will there be an increased turnout of pro Remain voters to vote for Alliance in order to defeat the DUP? East Belfast voted 51% Leave but the Lord Ashcroft poll shows that support for Remain has increased from 56 % to 60%. East Belfast would now likely vote narrowly Remain.
The 4 other constituencies where a pro Remain pact could defeat the DUP are North Down, South Antrim, Upper Bann and East Derry.
To date the Alliance Party has been unwilling to participate in a pro Remain pact. This refusal will cost them a potential seat in South Antrim.
In 2017 Sylvia Hermon narrowly defeated the DUP 41.2% to 38.1%. She will not contest this election. North Down voted 52% Remain and this would likely exceed 55% in 2019. The 2019 District council election give us an indication of what will happen in the Westminster election.
Other Unionist 8.5%
Most of the other unionist vote will go to the DUP so they should receive 38% as they did in 2017.
The only possible way for the DUP to lose is if there is an electoral pact among the pro Remain parties.
SF and the SDLP are not standing and they received 2.5% in 2017. SF, SDLP and Greens have already stood down in East Belfast leaving Alliance as the only Remain candidate. Alliance could reciprocate and Steven Agnew of the Greens would be the Remain candidate.
Since the combined vote of the Remain parties in 2019 was 42% it is possible that the DUP could be defeated. Not all Alliance voters would vote Green but most would in order to defeat the DUP.
These were the approximate results in the 2019 District Council election
The DUP are the clear favourite to win with the same 7% margin they had over the UUP in 2017. The DUP vote could be as high as 35% with votes from other unionists. However, if Alliance were to contest as the only Remain candidate the outcome would be very different. The combined Alliance-SF-SDLP vote is 42% which would result in the election of an Alliance MP.
The combined SF-SDLP-Alliance vote is 46% which is more than enough to defeat the DUP. Since SF and the SDLP would stand down in South Antrim, Alliance would not contest here and the Remain candidate would be either SF or the SDLP (depending on who the Remain candidate is in East Derry).
These were the approximate results in the 2019 District Council election
The combined Remain party vote is 46%. Depending on who the Remain candidate is in Upper Bann either SF or the SDLP would be the Remain candidate.
Clearly with formal or informal pacts among the Remain parties 7 out of 11 DUP MPs could be defeated. The informal pacts are already in existence in South Belfast, North Belfast and East Belfast. It appears that the main obstacle to further pacts is the unwillingness of the Alliance Party to cooperate with the other Remain parties.
It is possible that if these pacts were to occur in North Down, South Antrim, Upper Bann and East Derry that the UUP would decline to stand and support the DUP candidates.
This would damage the UUP in several ways. They would decisively side with the pro Brexit DUP even though a significant number of their voters wish to Remain in the EU. They would risk losing these voters to the Alliance Party. They would also essentially concede that they are only a branch of the DUP and offer no alternative views to those of the DUP.