Squabbling makes voters tune out

Alex Kane has another Ulster-born term to go with the more famous whataboutery and northsouthery. It’s ya-boo-suckery! Two polls have him worried. On in the London Times that says voters are fed up with squabbling amongst politicians. And the other is the Belfast Telegraph poll that contains an ominous message for the UUP: 16% and last place amongst the ‘big four’ parties. A poor place to be when, as he expects, the negotiations begin some time after the next elections.By Alex Kane

It has been an interesting week for opinion polls. One in The Times last Monday indicated that almost 80 per cent of respondents disapproved of negative campaigning and believed that the Conservative and Labour parties spent more time “attacking each other rather than explaining their policies”.

The DUP and UUP would be well advised to take note of this level of disapproval, for at the moment they seem to do little more than cut and gut each other at every opportunity. Day in and day out they accuse each other of hypocrisy or treachery, rolling out the same old arguments and clichés in order to make exactly the same points. The contents of the letters pages and press releases are stuffed with the same phrases and ya-boo-suckery, as each side tries to have the last word.

And to what end? It is quite clear that the pro-Union electorate are switching off in droves, with each election indicating a downturn in registration and voting. People are so sick of the Punch and Judy knockabout which passes for political debate within unionism, that they are voting with their backsides and refusing to make the trip to the ballot box.

Are there not more important issues for unionism to concern itself with other than incessant score settling and “slagging” off? The DUP’s only goal appears to be the destruction of the Ulster Unionists; and the UUP, meanwhile, fearing electoral meltdown, is trying to outflank Dr Paisley in the hardliner stakes. But neither approach will reach out to, let alone win over, the growing numbers who have tuned out of the babble and bombast.

Another opinion poll this week put the Ulster Unionists at 16 per cent in terms of voting intentions at the next election. This figure suggests the pitter-patter of the Death Watch beetle crunching its way towards Cunningham House. It is the lowest figure the party has recorded in an opinion poll and it is also the first time it has found itself in fourth position. Most worryingly of all, though, the figure comes at a time when the party has no public split, and when its PR wing has been targeting hundreds of thousands of potential voters in an ongoing leaflet campaign.

One can argue about the reliability and accuracy of opinion polls (although the company which conducted this one has a good track record in these matters), but it would be a very cavalier strategist who would pretend that there isn’t a problem for the UUP. Putting it bluntly, there are too many voters wondering if it is worth voting for a party led by David Trimble.

Only he can provide the answer to that question, for whether he likes it or not, the fate of the party now rests upon the public’s very personal response to his leadership and legacy. Putting it even more bluntly, the UUP is not going to be judged on leaflets, manifestos or campaign gimmicks; it is going to be judged on Trimble and Trimble alone. Only time, and the contents of the ballot box, will tell if he remains the electoral asset he was in 1998.

Yet another poll found that 72 per cent of the public thought that political parties and the media exploited certain individual cases for party advantage, rather than because they cared about the individual. I sense that much the same thing is happening to the family of Robert McCartney. Governments and parties are falling over themselves to heap praise upon the courage of his partner and sisters, but I suspect they are doing it simply to wrongfoot Sinn Fein. Once the election is over, however, and the whiff of fresh talks is in the air, I have little doubt but that the media, the governments and the parties will quietly drop the family and pick up with Mr Adams exactly where they left off last December.

The ultimate opinion poll, obviously, is an election. The fact that so many people don’t now bother to vote is a clear sign that political parties have lost touch with public opinion. And, sad to say, I think that six out of ten of that public don’t actually give a damn about the political parties, either. That’s bad news for democracy, but good news for the dictatorial cabals who now run those parties. Of course, that’s just my opinion!

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 12th March 2005