Euro 09 and the DUP – Part 1

The ‘Who’ question for the DUP and the European Election has been answered with Diane Dodds selected as the European Election candidate but what should the party’s message be? (H/T to those who reviewed earlier drafts/parts of this article.) Part 1 examines the broader battle and begins with an examination of the main candidates.The Unionism v Nationalism Battle
The Euro 2009 election will be the first region-wide election since devolution was restored. It will be the first opportunity for the electorate to give their verdict. It is unlikely that the election will offer anything radically new in the battle of ideas between Unionism and Nationalism.

Some may ask that as ‘The Union is safe’ has been declared, how can there be a battle between Unionism and Nationalism? First, it is a broad sweeping statement that is open to misinterpretation. Second, it was more a reference to the end of unaccountable Anglo-Irish rule and the problems it represented. The agreements made clear the competition between Unionism and Nationalism was to continue on two pitches, within the tightly controlled environment of devolved government with its check, balances and vetoes as well as at the ballot box. The ballot box is the agreed final determinant of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Thus, the potential ‘electoral’ challenge to the Union has not been abolished. It will not disappear as a formal challenge and will only disappear electorally when Unionism (in its various forms) gets its support consistently into the 60% percentile or more.

It is immaterial whether the UUP or DUP credit the Belfast or St Andrew’s Agreement with making the Union politically safe or how eloquently the intellectual bankruptcy of republicanism is articulated. If they fail to turn these declared gains into electoral growth it will have been an empty victory. At the last European election Unionism retained two seats and topped the poll but polled 48.6% of the vote while Nationalism polled 42.2%. This was both down on the 1999 election when Unionism polled 52.3% and Nationalism polled 45.4%. Is it not appropriate for Unionism to set itself the goal of three good news stories for in the European election with two MEPs returned, a unionist topping the poll and unionist vote up (e.g. a target of above 50% perhaps)?

Although the politically interested may have to consider that if the developments of the last two years have begun to ‘normalise’ our politics it is a distinct possibility that the verdict of the electorate will be a lack of interest. It is also highly likely that a key door-step issue will be nothing to do with the constitutional question or Europe but on the policy issues of education and the economy.

The field – The Centre

At this stage the one remaining question is who will be the centre’s candidate? This has particular relevance to Jim Nicholson’s campaign. It is widely believed John Gilliland did some harm to the UUP vote the last time bringing the UUP closer to the SDLP than was comfortable. A similarly credible candidate has the potential to repeat this. Naomi Long would be the strongest candidate for the Centre and one that should cause serious palpitations in UUP central. She would stand a reasonable chance of equalling Gilliland’s performance of 6.6% of the vote (approx. 36,000 votes). It would also provide longer-term electoral benefits for the Alliance party (although not necessarily for the longevity of David Ford’s leadership.) Fortunately for the UUP, the rumour mill says it will be highly unlikely she will run.

Another name is Eleanor Gill, formerly of the Consumer Council. This would leave the UUP looking somewhat foolish for their lauding of her at their Party Conference. Gilliland could run again as well. However, either Gill or Gilliland would probably struggle to match the 2004 performance. A creditable target in those circumstances would be around 5% (approx. 25-28,000 votes). Any improvement in Jim Nicholson’s performance could be as much to do with a weak centre candidate as any new Conservative wrapping.

The field – Jim Nicholson

The UUPCon alliance decision (presuming they resolve their outstanding issues) to run Jim Nicholson will give the DUP less to fear even with the ‘professional’ handling of the Tories. Fear of scaring the UUP horses was probably the rationale for not switching the candidate but it was not the strategic choice. Using an old vessel for a new message always hampers the impact of the message. This was recognised and acted upon by David Cameron from the beginning with the Conservatives. Additionally, a candidate who looks and acts like they are reading off a script is never a good salesperson. Also the evidence of past European elections is that Nicholson is a candidate that lives off the UUP party brand rather than added anything to it. Therefore it is hard to see how dropping him would have had any negative electoral consequences.

The TUV presence will also cause some difficulty for the UUPCon pact in terms of its message. The electoral maths will be a strong push factor to cosy up closely to the TUV. If the TUV challenge is successful the DUP will have little surplus to distribute and the only other avowedly Unionist pot of votes would be the TUV’s. However it will undermine any non-sectarian and inclusive message the Conservatives will be wanting. Cameron’s speech at the UUP party conference was clear on its support devolution and even welcomed the deal on policing and justice. If the DUP are supposedly persona non grata for UUPCon how can the more extreme TUV be acceptable? They may try to use surrogates e.g. Burnside’s recent intervention but surrogate attacks can be a double edged sword i.e. the Sam Foster sexism row. If they do go for such a starkly mixed message, the Tories rejection of electoral pacts partially because of the unacceptability of the DUP will be hollow. Alternatively they could target the Centre candidate’s transfers much more aggressively. This would be fitting with the more inclusive message that is expected. However, it runs the risk of diluting the message to the stage of it being meaningless a la Simply British.

As this is the first run out for the new UUPCon partnership there is also plenty of opportunity for tensions to appear. Since the UUPCon overtures were first announced there have been various times when the combined media operation has wobbled under pressure e.g. responding to DUP press office baiting and now the problems in the negotiations (Privately UUP members are pointed the finger at the local Tories for the problems, hardly a sign of early cohesion). Emphasis has been placed on the professional skills and finances of the Conservatives in assisting the UUP. This overlooks the UUP received training in Conservative organisation and campaigning techniques. These proved very hit and miss when applied in a Northern Ireland context. It was also Tory advice to concentrate on its supposed ‘core’ vote i.e. the middle classes that led to the UUP largely giving up on its then sizeable working class vote. Also much of mainland campaigning is based on polling data. Polling has shown itself consistently unreliable in Northern Ireland and it will be difficult to create models that take account of the broader social cross-sections of voters the parties in Northern Ireland can attract in comparison with the mainland. As for monies, the UUP has consistently demonstrated how it can fritter away tens of thousand of pounds with even worse results to show for it.

The only electoral data available on the state of play between the UUP and DUP are the Dromore and Fermanagh by-elections. In Dromore, the vote patterns show the UUP failing to make any impact on the DUP vote and showed its vote vulnerable to the Alliance party (although this can be over-estimated as Alliance had not contested the Dromore DEA in the previous election). In Fermanagh, it was basically an ‘as you were result’ between the DUP and UUP.

So what is a good result for Nicholson and the UUPCon alliance? A repeat performance of 2004, the UUP’s worst ever, would not be a successful result even if the UUP section would be tempted to take solace in stability. The minimum target for Nicholson should be to get back to about 18% (this should be enough to get back into six figures.) If there is a weak centre candidate then the target should be 20% voters (approx. 110,000 voters). Where will this extra 2% come from? They are less likely to be at the harm of another Unionist party rather the new alliance succeeds in attracting back some of the former UUP voters who seem to have been sitting at home since 2003 (rather than the mythical garden centre prod).

Part 2 and comments here.