A few weeks ago I placed a bet on Naomi Long to win re-election in East Belfast.
This was not because I think she is going to win — I suspect that she won’t in fact make it back to Westminster.
It is because I think her prospects of victory are not as remote as the bookmakers do.
The odds that I was offered, 9/2 (you win £90 from a stake of £20), made it a good gamble.
I hear that some people got 11/2 just after it was agreed that Gavin Robinson would be the sole unionist candidate.
It is not hard to see why the bookies have concluded that Naomi faces an almost hopelessly steep uphill struggle to retain her seat.
Gavin is still ahead. He has a bigger pool of unionist votes to fish in. But there is a big tank of non voters. They are mostly Naomi’s type of votersPollster Bill White
She won in 2010 because the total unionist vote (20,467 votes) split three ways, allowing her to scrape through with 12,839 votes.
If the unionist total is replicated this year, Naomi (the first Westminster MP elected under an Alliance banner) will lose by a large margin.
In fact, looking dispassionately at the voting history, it would seem that she faces an even more dramatic defeat.
Naomi’s vote five years ago was far above previous Alliance tallies in the seat, and came amid huge personal difficulties for Peter Robinson.
He was the only DUP candidate whose vote collapsed that year (down 20 per cent).
If the drop was a protest vote, as to some extent it clearly was, then presumably such voters will now return to the DUP, given that the party is fielding a different candidate.
Then subtract from Naomi a few moderate pro-Union voters who were unhappy at Alliance’s role in taking down the Union flag from City Hall, and strip away PUP supporters who are said to have backed her in 2010, and you could be looking at 24,000 votes for Gavin and 10,000 for Naomi.
In which case, things have changed little over the decades: in 1987, in what was in effect a two-way contest in East Belfast, Peter Robinson sailed to re-election by defeating Alliance leader John Alderdice 20,372 votes to 10,574.
But few commentators predict it will be so easy for Gavin.
The overall picture is complex, for four main reasons:
• First, Naomi now has an incumbency boost.
The benefits of incumbency only carry you so far, as Cecil Walker found in North Belfast in 2001, and Peter Robinson himself found in 2010.
However, Naomi is closer to the beginning of any incumbency curve than the end. Prior to 2010 she had a steadily rising profile, but now has had five years of the status of MP.
It might be that some swing voters are coming to see her as the face of the constituency, in the way that North Down voters have come to feel about Lady Sylvia Hermon.
• The second imponderable is whether dormant voters who never believed Alliance could win will now emerge (2010’s 58 per cent turnout was low – albeit typical of Belfast).
• Third, tactical voting.
This is linked to the previous point – some people who saw no point in voting tactically last time will now do so.
Naomi cannot get much more from nationalists. She in 2010 got a transfer of 40 per cent of nationalist voters but they are few in Northern Ireland’s most Protestant seat. The combined nationalist vote fell from 2,000 in 2005 to 1,200 in 2010. More came from the SDLP, which has a negligible remaining vote. Sinn Fein, strong in the Short Strand, cannot be far off its core either.
• Fourth, and most important of the unknown factors, how will the Tory-UUP vote of 2010 divide in a DUP-Alliance contest? There were 7,300 of them five years ago.
Trevor Ringland’s comments to the News Letter suggest it would be wrong to assume they go DUP.
For those who are foremost a Conservative, there is this time a Tory candidate, Neil Wilson, but most pundits believe that committed Conservatives were a fraction of Ringland’s 2010 tally. It will be a surprise if Wilson is not badly squeezed by the head-to-head.
The DUP claims its polls show three out of four Ringland votes going to Gavin. If so, he ought to be on around 18,500 with Naomi on 14,500 (assuming she can also retain her 2010 vote, an assumption the DUP would challenge).
However, if that three-to-one ratio can be altered back a bit towards Naomi, the overall arithmetic changes fast. If Naomi gets two out of five Ringland votes, Gavin’s lead gets thin: 17,500 to almost 16,000.
Add previous non voters and Naomi might scrape it. Then again, if a few hundred anti-tribal voters, more Naomi inclined than Gavin, go Tory or Green, victory could be beyond her reach.
It is unclear if positions such as Naomi’s emphatic support for same sex marriage and Gavin’s emphatic opposition will harm either of them.
So what do the number crunchers think will happen?
The electoral expert Nicholas Whyte has said that unionist voters in greater Belfast are uninterested in unionism. After 2010, he said: “I think the word unionist is going to be increasingly a turn-off for their target voting group.”
He told the News Letter: “The two seats in which turnout actually increased were the two seats in which moderate women won, North Down and East Belfast, neither of whom had unionist in their title and both of whom won by squeezing the unionist parties.”
The Lucid Talk pollster Bill White did a survey for the Belfast Telegraph which had the DUP top in East Belfast. The poll was taken in January, before the pact, but found a large combined unionist majority.
“Gavin will gain a chunk of the UUP voters, she will gain a smaller chunk,” he tells the News Letter. “Gavin is still ahead. He has a bigger pool of unionist votes to fish in.”
But Bill adds: “There is a big tank of non voters. They are mostly Naomi’s type of voters.”
Gerry Lynch, former Alliance Party executive director and a keen election statistician, says: “It is an uphill struggle for Naomi. But she is fighting one hell of a campaign and if anyone can pull it off, it’s her.”
He says of 2010: “People voted tactically for Ringland [to defeat Peter Robinson] who were normally Alliance. That’s one of the ironies.”
After the 2010 poll, Dawn Purvis told the News Letter that reports of her former party, the PUP, having urged people to vote for Naomi were “rubbish”, and attributed Naomi’s win to her being “a very popular figure in East Belfast”.
She said many “young people fail to identify as unionist or nationalist but identify as Northern Irish”.
If Mr Whyte and Ms Purvis are right, and Naomi’s win has tapped into a latent desire for non-tribal voices, she can win.
If not, and the real guide is the thumping unionist majority in the seat since it was created, then the bookies were right to offer the odds they did.
EAST BELFAST CANDIDATES 2015
BROWN, Ross (Green Party)
LONG, Naomi (Alliance)
MULDOON, Mary (SDLP)
Ó DONNGHAILE, Niall (Sinn Fein)
ROBINSON, Gavin (DUP)
WILSON, Neil (Conse
PAST EAST BELFAST RESULTS
MAY 2010 (Change on 2005):
Naomi Long (All) 12,839 (+9,093)
P.Robinson(DUP) 11,306 (-3,846)
T.Ringland (Ucunf) 7,305 (-2,404)
Sinn Fein 817 (-212)
SDLP 365 ( -479)
TUV 1,856 (+1,856)
Valid votes 34,488 (+3,657)
Electorate 59,007 (+6,108)
Turnout 58.7% (+0.1%)
Reg Empey(UUP) 9,275 (+Con 434 Combined 9,709 )
Naomi Long (All) 3,746
Sinn Fein 1,029
Valid votes 30,831