A brave face will be put on in public. Various weak mitigating factors offered to try and reduce the bad look of the result. However in private, DUP members have to accept it was an well-placed electoral kick in the minerals.
The key facts of the result are simple. The DUP lost 2 in 5 of their voters. This 40% did not sit at home. It transferred en masse to a new party, Traditional Unionist Voice. This is too large a drop to be blamed on turnout or the candidate. The campaign was high profile and large, so the lack of a campaign is no excuse either. So what went wrong?
The particular circumstances of the Dromore by-election
1. An unnecessary election There was no need for this election. A simple co-option could have dealt with the matter. This was a self-generated problem and with the bad result, a self-inflicted wound.
2. The Town Hall symbols The pre-emptive decision to move the symbols did not need to be taken (both in principle and timing). The DUP did not take the decision alone but TUV were free from any taint of the decision.
3. A bad news month There was sustained bad news for the DUP on bigger issues. There were multiple Paisley Jnr revelations. This was interspersed with the Victims Commission shambles swiftly followed by the volunteer row. The town hall row also got plenty of coverage on top.
4. The TUV chose a very good candidate. A young intelligent personable professional who did not fit any of the stereotypes of a typical TUV supporter. He was not going to tie up swings on a Sunday, foam at the mouth or act like a perennial protestor.
The Jim Allister/TUV Challenge
The TUV and Jim Allister challenge has not been well managed by the DUP.
1. Heart v Head Jim Allisters attacks are essentially an appeal to Unionisms heart. The DUPs broad response is an argument of the head. If responses are inappropriately handled (too hard-headed) it gives the impression of being unsympathetic and detached from concerns.
2. Replying to everything The DUP seemed to respond to everything Jim Allister said. They added to his media profile. Too often there was a JA attack, a DUP response then a JA response to the DUP reply a triplication of coverage.
3. Odd issues One issue of particular focus in the Allister/DUP exchanges has been the Dhondt system. This is not a Joe voter issue and not the best issue for Allister to pick a fight over. However, it was even odder that the DUP chose to get in a fight over it. The DUPs official position is that it dislikes the Dhondt system. Why get involved in defending it? As for the more recent FoI line of attack I am left completely mystified how it is believed this has any serious traction?
4. There is no alternative I do not dispute that TUV does not have a developed alternative. However, the DUP adoption of this line made it look and sound like the Trimblites. Hardly an impression the DUP would want to encourage.
What should have been the response? The approach to JA and TUV should have been one of understanding rather than all-out assault, a tactical disagreement not a fight on principles. When Dhondt was attacked, agree with him in its problems and remind people that this is one of the outstanding issues the party wants to address in future. When he raises the Paul Quinn murder agree with him that it is an issue of serious concern etc etc. St Andrews was not a complete piece of work and the DUP should not behave or talk as if it is. Such things have been said by DUP spokespersons but they are the minority. Attack, dismissal and nit-picking were the more common approach.
Its a one off
This is just one by-election. Take a chill pill fair deal. You are reading too much into this. Dont over-think it. However, this result is not the first sign of problems.
1. In the St Andrews consultation it became clear that the DUP had not done enough to prepare its grassroots. The 12 apostles showed uneasiness about St Andrews also existed at a senior level.
2. The Assembly 07 election was an alright result for the DUP. It did see a growth in its MLAs but at the low end of expectation levels.
3. In the Assembly 07 election it could be argued that the DUP lost about 3% (or 1 in 10 voters). Nothing too serious in the context of what was going on. However, Unionist turnout was not good. Despite a serious attempt at creating the bogeyman of a Sinn Fein First Minister, the enticement of a chance to tackle a series of dodgy direct rule initiatives and a restoration of devolution Unionists were not flocking to the polls. Also those who sat at home for the Assembly election may explain the large jump from 1 in 10 voters unhappy across Northern Ireland to 2 in 5 unhappy voters in Dromore. Did they adopt a wait and see approach?
However, the establishment of devolution distracted the party from these issues (and others). The Assembly vote level was considered in the bag and in time the 1 in 10 could be attracted back. Dromore challenges both those assumptions.
Part II the deeper issues and suggestions on DUP responses