Voter volatility has finally arrived in Northern Ireland, but what boats will it float on? – Puncher O’Toole
There’s a lot to digest in the latest Liverpool University poll for the simple reason that some of its questions dig a little deeper below the surface than we’re used to. None of this is entirely surprising to those of us who have paid attention.
Jon Tonge had the headlines on Twitter yesterday (NB he then changed the DUP’s rounded figure to 19% with the caveat that SF’s lead over the DUP is now 3.8%):
SF 23%, DUP 20%, Alliance 16%, UUP 14%, SDLP 10% (rounded to the nearest point). Institute of Irish Studies at Univ of Liv/Irish News/SMR Belfast released today
— Jon Tonge (@JonTonge) February 14, 2022
Our own David McCann has emphasized the most important feature of the poll (that is, a fifth of the electorate has still not made up its mind) in his analysis piece for The Irish News, he says…
Twenty percent of the electorate can move more than 12 assembly seats across Northern Ireland. In the last election in 2017, eight seats were decided by less than 1,000 votes.
So many people think our elections are over before the polls even open, but this survey shows that is not the case. Moreover, our politicians still haven’t sealed the deal with large swaths of the electorate.
This slowdown in the number of decided voters may be one of the main reasons why no one points out that despite its problems, political unionism seems to outperform political nationalism by 40 points to 33. If replicated in actual polls, that’s a big difference.
And that’s just the beginning of the interesting stuff. As some of us have been saying for some time, the Alliance push looks like a permanent feature of the new Northern Ireland (and not because of a tactical vote as some have desperately tried to claim) .
What takes us a little further is the measure of voter volatilitye. Something most polls neglect to ask about, leaving pundits guessing at the possible dynamics driving major shifts in voter choices (and Probably be mistaken).
No doubt the sinn fein vote is both the highest and perhaps the strongest. 92% of those who say they voted for them in 2017 plan to do so again. However in vote share they go from 27.9% in 2017 to 23.2% of first preferences.
However, nationalist rivals the SDLP is rapidly heading down the class. While 68% of their voters plan to support them again, except for a statistically insignificant 1% in SF, they don’t get support from anywhere else.
A May result of just 9.9% would be a resumption of the pre-Eastwood decline, but it also indicates that despite all the (quite previous IMHO) talk about the inevitability of Irish unity politically speaking nationalism is generally on the decline.
Even in the midst of a major crisis of confidence for the DUP. More than half of their 2017 support takes a distinct look at this party. They represent the majority of the undecided…
VSto run towards undecided from 2017 in descending order is: DUP 24.1%; UUP 16.8%; Alliance 12.3%; SDLP 11.6%; and the most stable SF at 6.1%. But in terms of inward unsubscribe the The UUP draws from both the DUP (7.5%) and the Alliance (11.2%).
On the other hand, the two nationalist parties only take voters from each other (largely from the SDLP to the SF). This is not really a surprise since nationalism has been absorbed in a conversation between those already converted to the nationalist cause.
DUP are the biggest losers, but since they lose to Don’t Knows, they and their rivals have something to play for. But seriously, how do you do a simultaneous game for Alliance and TUV defectors? An opportunity for the UUP?
With so much refusal to say who they are going to vote for, but saying that they will be vote, the result is really not obvious. Nationalism, however, resembles a trawler stranded on a sandbar whose captain confidently awaits a high tide which can never come.
Maybe that could fragment offer some tentative insights:
Constitutional issues come first for just 2.1% of respondents, with 3.6% of trade unionists giving them priority over all other issues and 2.1% of nationalists doing the same.
While the overall percentage of respondents who saw inheritance as the most important issue was only 1.7%, the proportion of nationalists (3.6%) was higher than that of trade unionists (0.6% ).
Right now, those are the only things that have been discussed in the public square for the past few years, but it turns out most people really don’t care (much) about the very issues behind the former primary division in politics.
Facing all parties (especially as the Alliance now looks set to be a solid third in SF and DUP’s top preferences) the question arises: first, how do we increase their vote in a way that, second, , strengthen their constitutional ambitions (if they have any)?
Voter volatility (so much a feature of the rest of the western world) has finally arrived in Northern Ireland.
Mick is the founding publisher of Slugger. He has written about the impacts of the internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty