In ancient times the Oracle at Delphi was consulted before leaders took momentous decisions. It had a reputation of giving advice in riddles which could be interpreted in several different ways. The Dromore by election has similarities. Today does not represent some new dawn for Northern Ireland; I said in a previous post that I did not expect to be amongst a victorious throng at Stormont after this election. It was a council by election. To read anything too much into it would be grave folly. However, analysing this election will give me something to do tonight as I am away from home so here goes.A good way to look at it is to analyse from the viewpoint of each of the unionist parties in turn (the lessons for the nationalist parties are there but due to the constraints of space I will analyse them another time):
Firstly the TUV.
This represents a significant success. This organisation was written off as a group of flat earth nutters and of no political significance. They gained about 20% of the vote. Now we must remember that that is nowhere near the majority of votes cast, furthermore the turn out was not especially high (which would probably help the TUV). However, 20% is not an irrelevant percentage of the vote. We must also note that Dromore would not have been considered an especially TUVish place. Ballymena or Ballymoney might have been expected to be more TUVish. In this the DUP are quite correct when they say that traditionally Lagan Valley is actually UUP (as was Dromore) and only switched with Donaldson. That actually demonstrates that the TUV have some appeal outside of their fastnesses of North Antrim. Further some of these votes will have been old UUP votes on loan to the DUP which have set off again, on a quest to find a home in a similar place to where they felt they belonged, namely a traditional unionist party (Jim Molyneaux the Lagan Valley MP ran one of those and it kept beating the DUP but of course that was the past).
So the TUV has demonstrated that they can get some votes and in places not entirely expected. They have also showed the ability to attract a young, intelligent candidate who came across well. Last year one of the DUPs best posters on this site (Bigger Picture) suggested that a general election would have been beneficial to the TUV as it would have allowed it to gather momentum. In a sort of a way this by election was better than that for them. It was a very small outing and so did not tax a newly formed organisation excessively. It is a very small gain in momentum but it is a gain. The longest journey does indeed begin with the first step.
Of course there are major buts to this rejoicing. This success was as a protest vote. How long term a protest vote will last is very difficult to tell; certainly the DUP effectively existed as a protest party for many years. The TUV can continue as a protest movement and may well gain some more protest votes. However, as interested (another of the talented DUP commentators) has pointed out over on Petes thread this protest movement has significant centrifugal forces which could tear it apart. Countering that there is the suggestion from The Watchman that success has a centripetal effect and could bring them together. I agree that it is imperative to begin the process of producing policies and alternatives. I have my own opinions on this but to avoid an excessively long blog that must wait for another day.
This group has in some ways had the greatest surprise. They won (I suspect against their expectations) and that despite internal squabbles within their local party. They also managed to get a relatively young woman elected which will do their credibility no harm and may help project at least some momentum. However, the result also creates the greatest dilemmas for them. They did in actual fact loose percentage of the vote (albeit on a reduced turn out). A larger problem is the one which has bedevilled the party for some time now which is in which direction to face. Within the greater Belfast pale the UUP are in danger to Alliance and as such they need to safeguard themselves against this. However, most of the transfers which saw them elected were from the TUV (and most of their vote losses over the last 10 years have been to the DUP). As such moving to the right and attacking the DUP may seem the best way forward lest those TUV transfers stop in future elections. The possibility does exist of crossing the DUPs T to end up in a position more hard line than the DUP. This would get the UUP back to the sort of political position Molyneaux had them in and would allow cooperation with the TUV. However, it would ignore the last 10 or more years, would require the electorate to ignore / forget it and would require leadership skills and initiative which tomorrow and the ensuing days may suggest they lack as assuredly as the last number of years has shown they lack. This election has not replaced the UUP leadership; indeed it may have helped a rather inadequate leadership to stay in power and that is not to the long term good of the UUP. In addition the partys grass roots machinery has withered over the years. Whilst the UUP can celebrate tonight I do feel that Sir Reg Empey and Danny Kennedys excitement is a bit premature; though the St Valentines Day Massacre is the quote of the day just beating Jim Allisters Unhappy Valentines Day for Chuckle Brothers.
So turning (hopefully without to much schadenfreude) to the DUP. Clearly it must be remembered that they still got the largest 1st preference vote. They also almost won the seat. However, they lost a lot of percentage and the defeated candidate seemed to think there were lessons to learn. Firstly they should learn that their strategy was appalling. Initially they forced this election when they had no need to; they created their own defeat. I suggested they were making too big a deal of the election a few weeks ago. Had they played this as a low profile campaign the defeat would have been smaller; instead they sent practically all the partys MPs, MLAs and hangers on into battle. This simply increased media interest and made the defeat bigger. Had they won it would still have been a problem as it would have been seen as requiring this vast effort to win. Fair_deal has suggested that the maximum attack strategy was difficult for the DUP to get out of the mindset of and I think he is correct; the idea of underplaying ones hand in order to minimise risk seemed too subtle and clever for the DUP on this occasion. I do think that Robinson personally has lost a bit from this, it was almost certainly Robinson (or his advisors) who recommended this obviously flawed strategy.
So what should the DUP do? To change tack too radically would look like panic. Also Paisley is a pretty stubborn man. As such if I was a DUP strategist I would allow the Chuckle Brothers to continue. To stop it dead would be too obvious, too redolent of panic and panic could turn a set back into something worse. However, I suspect we will see an even harder line from Robinson in regard to Ruane and education, further sabre rattling about the devolution of policing and justice (do not expect that too soon now). Poots could further annoy nationalists with stuff on the Irish language and the Maze. Not a battle a day with SF; but a small skirmish every third day may be the best way forward at this point for the DUP. In addition, a scapegoat might help. No one too important or well known but some party person to take the blame would be useful to demonstrate to the party (and the outside politicos and media) that changes are being made. I know this will distress some of the DUP posters on this site but I would suggest the best victim would be a special advisor who could end up politically speaking like Roberto Calvi hanging from Blackfriars bridge, having apparently committed suicide but having actually been murdered (and clearly not in a robbery judging by the Patek Philippe watch still on his wrist). I do not know the advisors but I am sure one can be selected to do this for the greater glory of the DUP.
Others have suggested that this debacle might mark the end of Paisley. I suggest that may be overstating it. In addition my reading of the situation is that Robinson was the mastermind behind this destroy the TUV plan. On this by election (as on a few other things recently) Robinson has demonstrated an inverse Midas touch with everything he touches falling apart. In light of that, Dodds might be feeling just a little pleased with himself at the moment. Of course if one were truly Machiavellian one might suggest that Paisley has continued with the Chuckle Brothers routine during the by election campaign in order to damage Robinson for the leadership (that is probably too cynical).
So there are lessons for all three unionist parties in this election and not necessarily the obvious ones. As time goes on and we see how public opinion shifts we may need to reanalyse what has happened. In a few lines, however, the TUV have survived but must learn to walk before they run, the UUP must decide where to go and the DUP must make a few changes but not panic. As I said it was one council by election; to add panic to the errors which brought them to this would be an even bigger error.
Well that kept me occupied for a few hours since I am away from my beloved Elenwe on the most romantic night of the year.