Record-breaking MP ‘quietly confident’ despite fierce battle

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell

The MP elected with the lowest share of the vote of any British Parliamentarian since at least the Second World War has said that he is “quietly confident” of retaining his seat.

Alasdair McDonnell won South Belfast in extraordinary circumstances in 2015, despite more than 75% of voters in the area voting against him.

The seat is an extreme example of how the first past the post system can lead to the winner being opposed by most voters in the seat which they represent – unlike proportional representation, which is used for Assembly elections and which allows voters for candidates who lose to still influence the outcome by transferring their vote.

Dr McDonnell, a former SDLP leader who has held the seat for 12 years, was elected in 2015 with just 24.5% of the vote – 906 votes ahead of the DUP.

Due to the fact that only 60.3% of the electorate in the constituency voted in that election, the former GP was elected with the support of just 14.7% of the electorate in the area.

Dr McDonnell told the News Letter that he was “quietly confident” of winning, despite a strong campaign from the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly as well as from Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw and Sinn Fein’s former Stormont finance minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.

Each of those three challengers could conceivably win the contest in the largely affluent and diverse university constituency if they can persuade enough voters that they are a serious challenger. The bookies make Dr McDonnell the favourite to win, just ahead of the DUP, Alliance and then Sinn Fein in fourth position.

The SDLP veteran is facing a strong intra-nationalist challenge from his Sinn Fein rival who has used controversial tactics. Mr Ó Muilleoir has declined to explain an inaccurate leaflet which claimed the SDLP vote had “halved” since 2005 (it has in fact gone down 19%).

In recent days Sinn Fein has erected ‘maintain the momentum’ signs across the area in an attempt to persuade nationalist voters that Sinn Fein’s surge will help them unseat the SDLP veteran without losing the seat to the DUP. Dr McDonnell dismissed that, pointing to the 4,000-vote gap between them in the last general election, when Mr Ó Muilleoir embarrassingly posted a video online on polling day in which he said that he was “topping the poll” only to finish fourth. Dr McDonnell insisted: “You gather votes slowly; you don’t get 4,000 votes overnight”.