The numbers behind Nesbitt's stance

16 February 2017 - by Matthew Coyle

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt made news over the weekend when he stated his intention to prioritise transferring down-ballot non-UUP votes to the SDLP, ahead of other unionist parties.

Nesbitt, who lives within the boundaries of Belfast East, while also standing in Strangford, pointed out that he was speaking only for himself and did not expect his party colleagues to transfer to the Ulster Unionists’ nationalist Opposition partners.

Indeed, at a manifesto launch on Tuesday morning, Nesbitt suggested that, in his view, voting for the DUP after months of directing sharp criticism in its direction would be somewhat hypocritical. He urged the public to vote for those it trusted to govern competently.

Nevertheless, this nuanced position was not met with universal approval from Nesbitt’s team of candidates. Two former MLAs, Danny Kennedy (Newry and Armagh) and Rosemary Barton (Fermanagh and South Tyrone), and a third nominee, Alicia Clarke in West Tyrone, indicated their intention to prioritise unionism across the board.

So why the focus on vote transferring? Transferred votes constitute a central element of Northern Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system. If anything, Nesbitt has served to bring their importance back into focus.

The story has perhaps garnered enough traction to put the brakes on the UUP’s aggressive push to upset the status quo within the unionist sphere; whether it has the appeal to shift focus from constitutional politics is an ambitious strategy in any event.  

The move was not reciprocated from Nesbitt’s would-be partners in government, who perhaps elected for a more cautionary approach so as to stave off any potential criticism from Sinn Féin.

It is arguable, however, that Nesbitt’s ploy was not to sway his own followers; rather he sought to convince nationalists that this was a brand of unionism with which they could comfortably cast their lot in the privacy of the polling booth.

The statistics on this point are worth considering. According to a study conducted by the Assembly’s Research and Information Service, the UUP received 25 per cent of the 179,287 transferred votes in last year’s election. This placed it at the top of the list. The SDLP, meanwhile, sat in fourth place, earning 13 per cent of that number.

Transfers from within the UUP sat at 24 per cent, yet a fact that Nesbitt must surely bear in mind is that SDLP voters accounted for 759 (a mere 1.7 per cent) of all the party’s transfers.

Conversely, the figures indicate a certain willingness within the UUP voting base to follow Nesbitt’s personal lead. Twenty-six percent of the SDLP’s transfers were internal; 16 per cent were from Alliance and 13 per cent from fellow nationalists Sinn Féin. UUP transfers, meanwhile, amounted to 11 per cent (2,676), significantly outstripping the flow of votes in the opposite direction.

In 2011, the UUP received 31,333 transfers, from within and without the party. Nevertheless, the SDLP’s share of that tally sat at 0.67 per cent – 209 transfers. While not meeting its standard of last May, the UUP contributed 1,107 transfers (4.2 per cent) to the SDLP’s overall total of 26,292 transfers.

How the 2017 data looks after 3 March will go a long way as to whether Nesbitt’s approach to addressing post-tribal politics represents a wider move back to the middle ground.