McDonnell (SDLP) 10,339 (32.3%)
Spratt (DUP) 9,104 (28.4%)
McGimpsey (UUP) 7,263 (22.7%)
Maskey (SF) 2,882 (9.0%)
Rice (Alliance) 2,012 (6.3%)
Gilby (Dream Ticket) 235 (0.7%)
Lynn (WP) 193 (0.6%)
To keep things topical, South Belfast has been in the news these last couple of days not for who’s running but who isn’t – namely, Alec Maskey. More on that momentarily, but first, an overview.
The South Belfast constituency is basically the southern quarter of the Belfast City Council area, spilling over into Castlereagh borough to the south and east. Its stereotypical image is defined by the leafy avenues of Stranmillis and the Malone Road, but that’s an oversimplification. There is the infamously clannish republican enclave of the Markets; there are a ring of working-class loyalist estates (Donegall Pass, Sandy Row, the Village) in long-term decline; there are some quite prosperous suburbs inhabited by young professionals; there is the huge student population in the Holylands and a growing ethnic minority population along the Lisburn Road. Generally it’s quite a well-off area, but there’s a lot of complexity there.
The 2001 census gave the community background as 52% Protestant, 41.4% Catholic and 6.6% “other”, the latter the highest in the north outside North Down; that reflects both a lot of people living here from outside the north, and the city’s main concentration of ethnic minorities, most visibly the large Chinese community, who could be playing a role in the electoral shake-up. Demographic change has been very rapid in South Belfast over the last couple of decades and is still continuing, stereotypically as upwardly mobile Catholics from West Belfast get settled in Stranmillis or Malone, while well-off Protestants move to North Down or to join the kids in England.
And that, in its turn, has played a role in the rise of the SDLP in the area. Back in the 1980s, the SDLP (represented then as now by Alasdair McDonnell) polled rather poorly, while Alliance used to come in second with well over 20%. There was certainly an element – and you still get this in constituencies like East Antrim or Lagan Valley – where middle-class Catholics, in areas that were unwinnable for nationalist candidates, would swing behind Alliance. That obviously changed when McDonnell began to look like a realistic prospect, although the vote that might previously have gone to Alliance has been through quite a few peregrinations in the meantime.
Add to that the fact that this is an unusual constituency in having something resembling an SDLP organisation with two functioning branches (although the Ormeau/Stranmillis branch, loyal to McDonnell, and the Malone/Finaghy branch, loyal to Carmel Hanna, have often resembled the McCoys and the Hatfields), and you see how McDonnell could have got to the position where he took the seat in 2005. Although that in itself required a split in the unionist vote, with the two unionist candidates polling 51% to 32% between them – this seat has always been a loaner. Indeed, boundary changes, with South Belfast taking in a couple of former East Belfast wards as well as Carryduff from Strangford, cut McDonnell’s notional majority from 1200 to less than 200; although demographics and turnout may offset that to some extent.
Over on the unionist side, the DUP has been gradually on the up over the last decade or so, though it may have been surprising that Jimmy Spratt managed to comprehensively overtake the high-profile UUP candidate Michael McGimpsey last time. Truth be told, 2005 was a raw campaign for poor old Gimpo, with him being stabbed in the back by two prominent UUP figures – outgoing South Belfast MP the Rev Martin Smyth and former party leader Jim Molyneaux – who publicly refused to back him, instead giving their benediction to Spratt. To make things worse, Martin was a former Grand Wizard of the Orange Order, with Jim having held the analogous position in the Royal Black Preceptory, and the loyal orders vote is not negligible in places like Sandy Row. The machinations of the OO and RBP around a “unionist unity” candidate this time is nothing new.
South Belfast, then, is a constituency where loyalties are fragmented and fluid, and there’s an awful lot of tactical voting. Hence the extraordinary events yesterday, when Sinn Féin unilaterally withdrew Alec Maskey – from their point of view, it’s mostly about the Save Michelle campaign in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but as Garibaldy points out, it fulfils a number of functions at once. Not the least of which is related to next year’s Assembly election, where Maskey may well not have a quota and is unusually transfer-repellent in the counts – anything that might persuade SDLP voters to lend him a preference would make sitting this out worthwhile. And on the other side of the fence, there is the extraordinary news of Jimmy Spratt offering Paula Bradshaw his Assembly seat if she would stand down in his favour. Alliance candidate Anna Lo reckons it’s a squalid sectarian carve-up, and she’s not wrong; but that’s how politics works here.
Worth noting, parenthetically, that McDonnell seemed less averse to a voting pact than Margaret Ritchie, and it may be that Margaret has kept him out of the loop on this. There’s not much love lost between them in the first place, but then a candidate trying to keep out Jimmy Spratt (and hoping for republican tactical votes) and a candidate trying to keep out Caitríona Ruane (and hoping for unionist tactical votes) will always have different priorities.
So, down to the tactical voting. As noted, in the last Westminster election, we got a result of:
SDLP 32.3%, SF 9.0%, Alliance 6.3%
But in the local election the same day, held under PR with no pressure for a tactical squeeze, we got:
SDLP 26.9%, SF 10.3%, Alliance 12.8%
Which clearly shows tactical voting for McDonnell to keep the DUP out, very much apparent with the Alliance vote (although that has some softness), to a lesser extent with the SF vote. In the 2007 Assembly election (again under PR) the results broke down as:
SDLP 26.8%, SF 13.2%, Alliance 12.6%
Which kind of proves the point. At Westminster elections, there is clearly a McDonnell coalition that’s a good bit bigger than the SDLP party vote. Now, the addition of the Maskey vote (some of the core SF vote in the Lower Ormeau and Markets is deeply allergic to McDonnell, but the majority of Maskey’s support is of the Sinn Féin Nua variety and wouldn’t have such qualms) clearly gives McDonnell a boost, maybe taking him up to the 40% mark, maybe even over. There is also the issue of whether a McDonnell candidacy that was more clearly identified as nationalist rather than centrist would put off some tactical voters from the Alliance camp. It’s difficult to call.
The Alliance vote is interesting in its own right, having slumped big time since its 1980s heyday in this area, but then recovered enough to put Anna Lo into the Assembly in 2007. The 6% or so who voted for veteran Castlereagh councillor Geraldine Rice probably represents the irreducible hard core of Alliance support that will never go anywhere else. Anna Lo, however, has other factors working in her favour. Her unique background – Hong Kong born and bred, but with 25 years of community work in Belfast to her credit – gives her a particular appeal. There are, as I’ve noted, plenty of ethnic minority voters in South Belfast, particularly the Chinese, who don’t usually vote for anyone but may well turn out for Anna – they wouldn’t for any other candidate. The area also has a milieu of vaguely left-liberal voters, who sometimes turn out for Alliance but for a while turned in numbers to the now defunct Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (essentially, the feminist wing of the NGO sector in alliance with the Communist Party), and who would be attracted to an Anna Lo candidacy on general principle. Anna’s high profile since being elected to the Assembly, and her record as a tribune for minorities, will mean she’s going to be battling hard and, despite the possibility of a tactical squeeze, may actually do well. At the very least, she’ll raise the profile further and should make her Assembly seat safe for next year.
The general outcome, though, will depend on how much the unionist vote can solidify behind a single candidate. As noted, the DUP has been ahead of the UUP in recent years, but not by an enormous amount, even in the UUP’s 2005 annus horribilis. That should, theoretically, put Jimmy Spratt in pole position, especially as he’s very much New DUP in style and wouldn’t put off the suburban voter in the same way that, say, Willie McCrea would – Jimmy could even win without a pact. On the other hand, we don’t know what sort of business UCUNF candidate Paula Bradshaw will do. She’s young and energetic, the sort of candidate who doesn’t make the “New Force” concept look like a joke; but she’s very much on the liberal wing of the UUP, and wouldn’t be a million miles from Alliance politically. (Though she’s also being backed by the TUV, which just goes to show you it takes all sorts.) She certainly isn’t the political heir of Martin Smyth. Paula also points to the meltdown of the DUP vote in last year’s European election as a sign that she may be the better placed candidate. There is definitely a market in South Belfast for liberal unionism; it remains to be seen how much of a market.
Impossible to call, this one. The Maskey manoeuvre notwithstanding, South Belfast is wide open – you may as well toss a coin as try to make a firm prediction. Oh, and one disappointment – I had hoped (on the basis of this tip) to see the re-entry here of Ayn Rand disciple Charles Smyth, who scored a mighty 22 votes in the last Stormont election, but he seems be sitting this one out as well.
Update on North Antrim: With nominations having closed, I see Lyle Cubitt is running as an independent in North Antrim. Lyle stood for Stormont as a UKUP candidate in 2007 and didn’t do too badly; but since his pitch is to be even more hardline than Jim Allister, it’s hard to see what he’s trying to achieve. North Antrim already having a wide selection of unionist candidates, his main impact will be to make things slightly easier for Baby Doc.