UK General Election: Polling Update and Northern Ireland

Guest Post By Nathan Wurtzel

Polling Update

Saturday night’s terrorist attack in London throws yet another measure of uncertainty into an already uncertain election. It appears the Manchester attack of two weeks ago did not do much to change the state of the race; we simply have no idea if this will be treated the same.

Meanwhile, six polls were released for the Sunday newspapers and reflect the methodological disparity we covered last week.

The polls using a self-reporting method to predict turnout resulted in the following:

Survation/Daily Mail: CON 40%, LAB 39%, LD 8%, UKIP 5%

YouGov/London Times: CON 42%, LAB 38%, LD 9%, UKIP 4%

Opinium/Guardian: CON 43%, LAB 37%, LD 6%, UKIP 5%

Poll average, self-reporting method: CON 41.7%, LAB 38%, LD 7.7%, UKIP 4.7%

Assigning seats to national poll numbers, as we have noted several times in this series, is risky. Nevertheless, rough estimate of seats based on these three polls is: CON 320 (-11), LAB 250 (+18), SNP 51 (-5), LD 7 (-1). Prime Minister Theresa May most likely would be required to ask the unionist MPs from Northern Ireland to help her form a government, as she would be a handful of seats short of a majority.

The polls using models based on turnout in past general elections resulted in the following:

Orb/Telegraph: CON 45, LAB 36, LD 8, UKIP 4

ICM/Sun: CON 45, LAB 34, LD 9, UKIP 5

ComRes/Mirror: CON 47, LAB 35, LD 8 UKIP 4

Poll average, turnout-model method: CON 45.7, LAB 35, LD 8.3, UKIP 4.3

A rough estimate of seats based on these three polls is: CON 355 (+24), LAB 218 (-14), SNP 48 (-8), LD 7 (-1). This is quite a difference, as Conservatives would have a comfortable 60 seat majority.

We could further average the two groups, but the very clear multimodal distribution of the poll results suggests one methodology will correctly predict the result of the election and one will not. We will have the answer in three more days.

Northern Ireland

While Northern Ireland represents fewer than three percent of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, enough readers have asked about it that we shall attempt very briefly to explain the parties, the political situation, and the contested seats in the 2017 United Kingdom general election. There will be many simplifications in order to accomplish this.

The main political parties in Northern Ireland are either unionist, meaning they favor a continuing political union between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, or republican, meaning they favor seceding from the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland to become a single Irish nation. Most, but not all, unionists are Protestant and most, but not all, republicans are Catholic.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is the oldest and once was the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. It lost some support when the party leadership signed on to the soon-to-fail Sunningdale Agreement in 1973 and fell more significantly following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The UUP is considered center-right and has a history of cooperation with the Conservative Party, but that relationship has often been frayed.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) currently is the largest party in Northern Ireland and is considered a more right-wing and populist party than the UUP. It was formed in 1971 and steadily gained support through siphoning disaffected unionist loyalists from the UUP. Prior to the 2015 general election, when it appeared David Cameron and the Conservative Party might need a handful of MPs to form a government, there was talk of a DUP-Tory alliance, but it was problematic from the beginning and ultimately became unnecessary.

Sinn Fein is the largest republican party in Northern Ireland and the second-largest political party, just short of DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is the oldest party in the country and is a left-wing, populist party. Sinn Fein’s relationship with the Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorist organization is hotly-contested. Despite their strong social, cultural, and political differences, Sinn Fein and DUP have been able to work together in recent years, though that cooperation has been put to the test in 2017.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was formed as a violence-rejecting Northern Irish republican party in 1970 and was the more popular of the two parties from the late 70s through the Good Friday Agreement. SDLP is a socialist party with ties to British Labour, though as a republican party they would not be a part of any Labour government.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) currently is neither a republican nor unionist party, having evolved from its moderate unionist formation in 1970. It is formally affiliated with the Liberal Democratic Party of the UK.

This year in Northern Ireland, the Cash for Ash Scandal brought down the Assembly power-sharing agreement between DUP and Sinn Fein, which refused to work with DUP party leader Arlene Foster, who appears to be heavily involved in the scandal. New Assembly elections in March led to significant DUP losses and Sinn Fein came close to becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland. As Foster is still DUP party leader, Sinn Fein has refused to enter into a power-sharing agreement and negotiations continue as of this writing. If they are not resolved by the end of June, new elections will be held. DUP’s local problems could have an effect on at least one of the Commons races, as noted below.

Northern Ireland has 18 constituencies in the House of Commons. DUP holds eight of these seats, Sinn Fein four, SDLP three, and UUP two. The final seat is held by long-time MP Sylvia Hermon, a former UUP member who left the party in 2010 after being unwilling to coalesce with the Tories. She represents North Down as an Independent unionist and is a strong favorite to retain her seat.

Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take up their seats in the House of Commons, which effectively lowers the number needed for a majority to 322 or 323.

Belfast East was captured by DUP from APNI in 2015 after UUP agreed to stand down. With no similar unionist pact in place in 2017, it appears former APNI MP Naomi Long has an excellent chance of unseating DUP MP Gavin Robinson.

Upper Bann, containing the city of Craigavon and rural areas, is a unionist-leaning seat held by DUP. With DUP’s scandal-related troubles, it’s possible UUP could achieve the 2.5% swing needed for a conversion. If DUP and UUP split evenly with low turnout, there is an outside chance Sinn Fein could narrowly win this seat.

UUP is standing down in Belfast North, so despite a determined Sinn Fein challenge by John Finucane, son of Pat Finucane, who was murdered by a unionist paramilitary, the seat is likely to remain DUP.

DUP should have little trouble holding its seats in East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley, North Antrim, and Strangford.

Sinn Fein should have little trouble holding on to Newry & Armagh, to the south of Upper Bann, and no trouble at all keeping Belfast West, Mid Ulster, and West Tyrone.

Belfast South is a closely-run SDLP-held seat that had all five parties receive double digits in 2015. DUP has the best chance of the challengers to pick it up, but APNI is in the hunt. SDLP-held South Down is a Sinn Fein pickup possibility, but tactical unionist voters usually go for what they consider the lesser of evils and prop up the SDLP candidate. Foyle is a safe SDLP seat.

The large western rural constituency of Fermanagh & South Tyrone is the swingiest in the country. Won by Sinn Fein by 4 votes in 2010, UUP captured it by one percent in 2015. With DUP standing down as it did in 2015, UUP has a fighting chance to retain the seat, but Sinn Fein has successfully squashed down the SDLP vote and could win anyway.

The other UUP-held constituency of South Antrim, east of Belfast, is a unionist seat that could flip to DUP on a swing of 1.5% and ultimately will be a good test of the party’s standing with unionist voters.

Overall, DUP is likely to lose no more than two seats despite scandal, and could even end up ahead if the votes fall right for them. Sinn Fein is all but guaranteed its four seats and has a good shot at a fifth, as well as a longer shot at more. SDLP will be hard-pressed to hold its three seats, as will UUP with its pair. APNI has a good chance of regaining the seat it lost in 2015.

Should the self-reporting turnout-based surveys be correct and the general election result in a hung Parliament, the Tories will likely be able to seek eight or nine unionist MPs for support, while Labour will look for the support of however many SDLP MPs remain.

Earlier 2017 UK Election Posts By Nathan Wurtzel

Introduction to the 2017 UK elections

Scotland and Wales 

The North of England

The Midlands

The South of England

Polling and London

Nathan Wurtzel is a Washington, DC-based political consultant. You can follow him on Twitter: @NathanWurtzel