Euro 09 and the DUP – Part 2

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 2 continues the examination of the main candidates and how the DUP message should be shaped. Part 1 here.The field – Jim Allister

For Jim Allister and the TUV this election will determine whether or not they can become a short-medium term feature of Ulster politics. However, what is a successful result for Allister? All indications are that he will not retain his seat. The only electoral evidence for their support available is the Dromore by-election (Note pdf file) so extrapolation has massive pitfalls but it is all there is. The TUV gained 19.5% of the total vote and 27% of the total unionist vote, with the DUP suffering the electoral harm (the drop in the UUP vote was most likely caused by the Alliance candidature). However, Dromore was a perfect electoral storm that probably inflated the TUV vote. The transfer pattern probably gives a better indication of TUV’s core vote, 54% of transfers went to the UUP and 46% to the DUP. The 46% that returned to the DUP at the first opportunity is the only indication of how much of the Dromore result was a protest vote. Arguably this makes the TUV’s vote about 10.5% of the total vote and 14.7% of the Unionist vote.

In 2004 Unionism polled 48.6% of the vote at the last European election thus the TUV range would be 6.8% to 13.2% of the total vote (approx. 37,000 to 72,000 votes). If Allister gets anywhere near 72,000 the DUP are in serious difficulties. However 37,000 is probably the more realistic figure and would be enough to rob the DUP of the top spot and barely above quota on a comparable turnout with 2004. The minimum target for the DUP should be to contain the TUV to 37,000. However at that level the TUV is a credible challenger for Assembly and Council seats. The maximum target for the DUP would be to contain the TUV to McCartney’s 1999 performance of 4% (approx. 20,000 votes). This is the first opportunity for those angered by the return of power-sharing devolution to show it, after almost two years will there be a significant protest vote out there? Has the post-Dromore changes by the DUP (change of leader, end of chuckle brothers, tussles with Sinn Fein) assuaged those with concerns? My assessment is the ideologically opposed remain just that while skepticism has declined but by no means disappeared.

Recent TUV leaflets would seem to indicate that it is going to pull all the emotional levers with the aim to turn the election into a referendum on policing and justice powers. This will test whether or not the pre-Xmas Policing and Justice deal has neutralized it as a key political issue or not? Certainly most of Allister’s doom-laden predictions at the time have not come true. Allister’s past talk of limited concerns e.g. the Army Council and the TUV alternative proposals of an ‘agreed’ assembly (basically lifted from the DUP’s Devolution Now document) will most likely be sidelined. However, he will find it difficult to counter DUP arguments about topping the poll as he himself made them in circumstances when the threat of SF topping the poll was much less realistic than it is now. He does bring his legal skills to bear but Unionism’s once great white hope McCartney became a living example of the limitation of those skills when applied to politics – bullying and negative with an ability to deconstruct an issue but not to construct anything in its place. He has contradictions in his present positions and past stances as well as not being good on the campaign trail on one to one terms with voters.

The field – Diane Dodds

Diane Dodds brings to the DUP ticket a reputation for hard work as evidenced by the increase in her vote in West Belfast. It is positive for Unionism that it has a female candidate (indeed half those seeking the DUP nomination were women, Marion Little would be pleased with such a list ;-)). Her own track record, as well as her name, is identified with the more traditional wing of the DUP which will help re-assure waiverers but not the outlandish wing of the party that would scare the soft voters.

In electoral terms, the targets for the TUV help define the targets for the DUP. The containment of the TUV to 4%-7% (approx 20-37,000 votes) gives the DUP a target range of 25% to 28% (approx. 138,000 to 155,000 votes). However, with the stated aim of topping the poll even at 28% (approx. 155,000 votes) this is far from guaranteed. It is hard to see how the UUP’s vote can be squeezed any more. Thus, for the DUP to reach such heights then it must increase Unionist turnout and get its vote up to around 30% (approx 165,000 votes) based on the 2004 result. Such a target is a very serious challenge. The bookies have de Brun ahead for valid reasons but the DUP are the only Unionist party that can conceiveably stop her. However, it is a challenge that seems to have been fully comprehended. At a meeting on Monday Diane Dodds set out what she considered the tasks of Unionism in the election going beyond topping the poll and adding the goals of two MEPS and maximising the Unionist vote. For the DUP to achieve such a target they will have to prepare a strong ground campaign.

So far the maximizing the vote debate, like so many in Unionism, remains more about the theory than the practical. Too many in Unionism seem to view their party participation as a form of debating society rather than something that involves basic political activism. It’ll be debated with great commitment and venom right up until election day then basically forgotten afterwards. The practical work (voter registration, identifying and targeting non-voters, door-to-door canvassing between elections, voter education etc) that could be going on in co-operation between the parties doesn’t happen and within the individual parties or at constituency level such work is patchy.

The field – Bairbre de Brun

Sinn Fein have stuck with their incumbent too, Bairbre de Brun. The top of the poll battle will be part of the election discussion, as well as the vote share. The electoral maths makes it a real and genuine prospect. The question is will Sinn Fein make it a centre-piece of their campaign?

A poll topping victory is a psychological success and can be used to claim forward momentum to its goal of unity. The ‘greening of the west’ was certainly milked for all its worth. They could even try to use it as the basis to call for a referendum, most likely an unsuccessful call, but it would put it back on the political agenda for a while at least. If they choose to make it a centre-piece of its public message it runs the risk of reinforcing the DUP’s message and encourage a higher Unionist turnout. However, if they do make it a central public message of the campaign and do succeed then the more significant the result. Alternatively they can copy what Hume did in 1999 – run a very strong election campaign, use it on the doorsteps but reject talk of poll-topping in the media message. With a low key candidate such as de Brun they will likely focus on the party brand and there is some indication this is the direction they are going.

The magic number for Sinn Fein, on a comparable turnout with 2004, is probably 28% (approx. 155,000 votes). Although as said previously a strong TUV performance will give them poll-topping status on what they polled then. Will the talked of disillusionment with Sinn Fein appear at this election? If it exists it is unlikely to appear this time. The European election is a core-vote election so this has the most reliable party voters. The personnel Sinn Fein has lost seem more to be some key activists rather than the mass membership, so they should be still able to run a good ground campaign. Nationalism has done better at getting people to develop a voting habit so disillusioned voters will probably go along but much more grudgingly. Disillusionment is more likely to manifest itself at the Westminster election with the Ruane-Ritchie battle the focus.

The field – Alban Maginness

Finally there is the SDLP’s Alban Maginness. Descriptions of his speech at the SDLP party conference would seem to indicate he is relishing his role as their candidate. However, it is hard to see his candidacy becoming part of an SDLP comeback. In North Belfast terms Maginness has not been able to contain Sinn Fein’s growth (although apart from Patsy McGlone no others have in the SDLP). The by-election performances do not bode well either. SF overtook the SDLP in Dromore for the first time and the SDLP vote sat at home in Enniskillen despite what was considered a good candidate.

Like the UUP there will be the temptation to go to the right of their chief competitor, Sinn Fein. However, it is hard to envisage Alban transforming himself into a green attack dog. If he or the SDLP does then the DUP will probably have fun quoting the attacks. The only glimmer is if the SDLP can capitalize on the Ruane factor. One section of society who seems particularly peeved by her shambolic behaviour is the Catholic middle classes. It is not often a minister stands up to formally announce their own irrelevance yet that is what Ruane did when she brought forward her guidelines. Incompetence rather than treachery may be the more productive attack line on Sinn Fein. The emphasis on the pro-European credentials of the SDLP is probably an attempt to increase the number of transfers from the centre, which narrowly broke in Nicholson’s favour the last time. Overall, standing still would be a success.

The DUP Message

The DUP has had some trouble with its narrative to the electorate for some time. This election provides it with its first clear opportunity to communicate a new narrative.

Last summer Robinson seemed to set out a process to start tackling it. A campaign to sell the advantages of devolution was mooted along with moves on a new think tank for Unionism and professional support for the campaigns in other arenas. However, this announcement ran straight into the hiatus in Executive meetings speedily followed by the credit crunch. This meant that such a campaign would not have had a particularly favourable backdrop and never happened. Instead it became part of the DUP press strategy.

It is easier to begin with what it shouldn’t be.
• This should not be a justification/victory lap. The overall balance may be positive for Unionism but that does not mean the negative does not exist nor is the general climate amenable to it. The previous attempts to declare victory i.e. after St Andrews fell flat. Also such a campaign would give a sense of laurel resting which is not were the electorate is at.
• This should not be a counter-strategy narrative. Planning a campaign on what you imagine your opponents message is going to be is never productive and it means you let them determine the debate.
• This should not be a technocratic narrative. Anyone advising the DUP to run an election campaign based on the core message of good governance of Northern Ireland should be smiled at nicely and shown into a side chamber where they can have a nice conversation with Dermot Nesbitt about it.
• This should not be a cuddly/soft/U-word avoiding narrative. It would feed a challenge from the right. It would jar with DUP voters who wouldn’t be a beagle’s jowl off John Howard’s ‘battlers’. Anyway the DUP doesn’t do cuddly so it wouldn’t be very good at it.
• This should not be a ‘No Surrender’ narrative. It won’t fit with being in a mandatory coalition. Also getting involved in The ‘No’ Candidate of 2009 contest will do nothing for the DUP or Unionism and just store up future problems. It should also be remembered that the DUP did not become the largest party with such a message. The ideologically opposed will not be convinced so don’t try.

So what should it be? First and foremost, it needs to be balanced, between the positive and the negative. In 2003 the appropriate balance was achieved, however, following that the negativity slowly but surely became more predominant again. Diane Dodds has said she wants to make such a positive message. It needs to communicate a forward focused agenda and momentum. St Andrew’s was not the end of Unionism political tasks rather it was the end of the beginning. The power and positions being sought are with a purpose. Concerns are not forgotten but issues to be worked on. It needs to work on three levels – address Europe issues, make a Unionist case and address regional/policy issues. It needs to communicate a clarity and firmness of purpose without sounding brittle – enough to convince the concerned voter. It also needs to be delivered by the DUP’s best organised European campaign in a long time.