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.

  • “This would leave the UUP looking somewhat foolish for their lauding of her at their Party Conference”

    Lauding her? She participated in a discussion about successful women. If she did stand, which I doubt given that she will be fully occupied starting a new business, I see nothing embarrassing for the UUP in that at all.

  • x

    THe fact is the DUP don’t have a credible narrative, most of the electorate see the DUP as shallow, they believe the DUP agreed to the Belfast Agreement only when they had a figleaf from St Andrews and they were guaranteed money and power. Most beleieve they held out for the money.

    Diane Doods for many reasons is seen as light, her family connections turns the DUP into the family “Dynasty Unionist Party” and the ordinary unionist will walk away from this election.

    As for a “purpose for the positions and power” the majority of unionists and the electorate in general see the purpose as lining the DUP members pockets.

    Apathy and “a plague on all your houses” will be the victor in June.

    The Narrative has been written over the last 3 years and it doesn’t look pretty for the DUP and the UUP look paralysed

  • fair_deal

    Chekov

    “Lauding her? She participated in a discussion about successful women.”

    In the introduction to the session the following words were used to describe to the panel members:
    “inspirational” “capable” “driven” “successful”
    They were being presented as role models.

    Her diverse career in the private, public and educational sectors was highlighted as was the fact she was the first recipient “Public Sector Personality of the year”.

    However, if your assessment that she will not run is correct (I would tend to agree with you that she won’t) then it will be immaterial.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Very interesting piece(s), Fair Deal.

    Couple of points, though.

    I think you’re generously sticking to the party line on your assessment of Dodds. Her inability to retain the West Belfast seat confirmed for me what many on the Shankill were saying about her inability to communicate with the grassroots- and she also didn’t seem to get on with a lot of groups in the district as well.

    Secondly, Sinn Fein would be very foolish to publicly commit to the ‘top of the poll’ line for the simple reason that it ain’t gonna happen.

    Republicans are acutely aware that there will be vote slippage this time around- Fermanagh was an indicator of rumblings of discontent with the poor performance of both nationalist parties in the Assembly. The Education debacle will cost Sinn Fein votes, but there is little enthusiasm out there for an SDLP party which appears dead on its feet, having missed the opportunity to relaunch itself as a northern branch of Fianna Fail.

    Even that would’ve been a hard sell, particularly if the party kept Alban as a candidate instead of seeking out a fresh face not associated so centrally with the party’s agonising decline.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve got it as a DUP/ Sinn Fein one-two, with TUV not hitting your projected ceiling (the DUPers will sell the fear of a Sinn Fein top dog scenario better than SF) and Nicholson scraping in.

    The combined unionist vote will likely go up as a percentage, though only to the extent of confirming the growing presence of a non-voting nationalist bloc.

  • What another typically negative and appalling campaign from the DUP. They could pick a dog, put a sash on it, stick a big union flag and bully the unionist electorate with “You’d better vote for this dog or SF will top the poll”.

    And they probably would. Depressing…

  • This blog is really a game of “guess what the electorate will be thinking in four months time” Reading the narrative is like reading the form guide in the racing pages before the Grand National.

    The truth is, none of us have very much to go on.

    The Bookies make De Brun the favourite. I’m going to the bookies to put a punt on an outsider – Jim Nicholson to top the poll. I think SF have peaked electorally and that the “Ruane” factor will benefit the SDLP but not by quite enough to give the SDLP the second seat. I think Dodds will come in third

  • fair_deal

    CD

    “Her inability to retain the West Belfast seat”

    Her vote went up by 3.1 percentage points (a 40% increase) on 2003 and from 50% of the Unionist vote to nearly 85%, hardly bad going, plus when you are in a last seat battle voting patterns elsewhere play a role as much a role as your own vote.

    The lesson of that election for Unionism was the need to work registers rather than the candidate.

    “what many on the Shankill were saying about her inability to communicate with the grassroots- and she also didn’t seem to get on with a lot of groups in the district as well.”

    You have still some to learn about the Shankill and its particular ways.

    “Republicans are acutely aware that there will be vote slippage this time around- Fermanagh was an indicator of rumblings of discontent with the poor performance of both nationalist parties in the Assembly.”

    I acknowledge that the inner workings and developments in nationalist attitudes is one of my weak-spots but there is potential for slippage on the Unionist side too.

    “The Education debacle will cost Sinn Fein votes,”

    Leaving aside the Unionist/Nationalist battle I sincerely hope it does. Any of the four parties creating such a mess and not suffering electorally would not be good for the health of devolution.

    “For what it’s worth, I’ve got it as a DUP/ Sinn Fein one-two, with TUV not hitting your projected ceiling (the DUPers will sell the fear of a Sinn Fein top dog scenario better than SF) and Nicholson scraping in.”

    You will forgive me if I err on the side of caution and still do lots of campaigning.

    “with TUV not hitting your projected ceiling”

    As this is their first regional run out they are a genuinely unknown quantity and extrapolating from Dromore is very probelmatic.

  • fair_deal,

    Alban Maginness, not ‘Alban McGuinness’. Was that a Freudian slip, showing that the ‘Joint First Minister’ is always present in your mind, even when he is absent from your writing?

  • fair_deal

    Horseman

    LOL no more about the lack of impact Alban has made on my consciousness. There was me double checking the stats and I get a name wrong. I will correct.

  • PaddyReilly

    There is little enthusiasm out there for an SDLP party which appears dead on its feet

    Self serving propaganda, I am afraid. SF is a popular 1st choice, but picks up few transfers. The SDLP does less well as a 1st choice, but picks up loads of transfers. It is not as popular, and not as unpopular.

    The same observation is true of the DUP versus the UUP.

    And in any case, no party can expect to get and keep more than 25% of the vote. The excess is passed on to the next on the list.

    I think we may rest assured that political issues, particularly those of European governance, will play no role whatsoever in this election. Everyone will vote according to which foot they dig with, and order their preferences according to which class they think they belong to. So who does what in the Assembly is quite irrelevant.

  • Chris Donnelly

    “Her vote went up by 3.1 percentage points (a 40% increase) on 2003 and from 50% of the Unionist vote to nearly 85%, hardly bad going”

    Bless you, FD, for puttin’ a smile on my face this bleak afternoon. Lies, damnes lies and all that!

    She presided over an almost 2 percent drop in unionist share of the turnout in 2007 from 2003- a spectacular failing, given that she had taken the solitary unionist seat in 2003 and was in a position to argue strongly that she was the only unionist that could take a seat in the west- and agin the Sinners, no less!

    I recall running a similar campaign in Lagan Valley (insert solitary ‘nationalist’ for solitary ‘unionist’) and achieving a considerably more impressive result in less favourable electoral waters.

    btw LOL re Shankill ways- indeed I was smirking whilst typing- but I think my sources on this one aren’t far off the mark.

  • fair_deal

    “Lies, damnes lies and all that!”

    Always invoked when presented with some figures that don’t support the chosen argument 😉

    As Nicholas Whyte points out about the 03 result on the Northern Ireland elections website
    “Vote management is difficult when you have a lot of candidates. A more even split between McCann and Ramsey would have seen both elected, and SF taking five out of six. As it was Dodds sneaked in by 87 votes, the closest inter-party race of the election.”

    In 07 SF solved their spread issues despite the significant advances in Dodds personal vote.

    “I recall running a similar campaign in Lagan Valley (insert solitary ‘nationalist’ for solitary ‘unionist’)”

    A constituency with a steadily rising nationalist population is the comparison with a constituency with a steadily declining unionist proportion?

  • Chris Donnelly

    FD
    Boy, you’d try to sell snow to eskimos.

    “the significant advances in Dodds personal vote.”

    Dodds’ vote in ’07 was a mere nine votes more than she got in the ’05 Westminister campaign, by any measure a poor performance given that the former election wouldn’t have had the same incentive for voters to turn out, given Adams’/ SF’s massive majority in the constituency.

    She couldn’t galvanise a vote in spite of being in the perfect position to use the Sinn Fein bogey man as an incentive to turn out.

    But then you know that- hence the ‘working the register’ line…

    Regarding Lagan Valley: would that the nationalist population were increasing as rapidly as the ’07 vote suggests. In reality- as local DUP sources will confirm (but don’t ask Paul Girvan as he didn’t hang around to watch all the boxes) the Sinn Fein vote increase owed as much to a galvanised vote in traditionally non-Sinn Fein voting regions of the constituency as to the core areas turning out.

  • fair_deal

    05 was up on 03 and despite an overall decline in the Unionist vote it held up. I accept we failed to do all that needed to be done to keep the seat. However, that was the inter-election work e.g. registers not the candidate. Although somehow I don’t think we will concur on that.

  • x

    FD

    Regardless of your contortions, she lost the seat – on the basis of being a sitting MLA and the possibility of galvanising the unionist vote she failed. The word on the ground is she wasn’t popular, wasn’t approachable and overall not rated by the electorate.

    Now she’s trying for Europe only because none of the DUP big guns are prepared to take on Allister – either because they are scared of him – or they believe they won’t top the poll and don’t want to carry the can or possibly they fear Allister knows where all the political bodies are buried.

    If the only thing Ms Dodds can offer the electorate is the old worn out mantra – vote for me to keep the Sinner form topping the poll – then she deserves to lose.

    Sadly collectively we don’t look at our politicians in any other way other than orange and green, so the donkey in a sash or the provo in suit, remains enough to get ass–les elected.

  • The only thing I’ll confidently predict is that turnout will be well down, lower than 2004’s already record low figure for a modern Northern Ireland election of 46.6%. I’d guess somewhere around 39-42%.

  • Fair Deal
    Total entries: 999

    Numbers 998 and 999 were good, fair_deal, but you’ve only got one bullet left. Use it wisely (but not in your own temple, as was too often the use the last bullet was put to!)

    Pity we won’t have your detailed input for the rest of the EP campaign … unless you break your pledge?

  • fair_deal

    Horseman

    “Use it wisely”

    It will be on the issue of multiple mandates and you will be pleased to know that I have no suicidal tendencies.

    “Pity we won’t have your detailed input for the rest of the EP campaign … unless you break your pledge?”

    I’ll be about the comment zone and personal circumstances in the next while will guarantee I keep my pledge.

  • Shankill Resident

    Chris Donnelly,

    and what the hell would you know about the shankill? What a pile of crap, i am sick of republicans coming on here and thinking they understand the Shankill. Diane Dodds was a fine voice for Unionism and an embarrassment for SF at having a unionist in their back yard. The SF leaflets at the last Assembly elections warned voters to come out and vote because 76 votes let the DUP have a seat

  • Chris Donnelly

    “and what the hell would you know about the shankill? What a pile of crap, i am sick of republicans coming on here and thinking they understand the Shankill.”

    Ahh, looking to put an end to our favourite past time, trying to understand the Shankill….I’ve no doubt you’d be seriously disturbed if you knew how many people from the Shankill I do know, though I make no effort to try and kid anyone regarding my understanding of that particular community, beyond passing on what I’ve been told by acquantainces from there.

    “Diane Dodds was a fine voice for Unionism…”

    And ‘I’ don’t understand the Shankill?????

    “The SF leaflets at the last Assembly elections warned voters to come out and vote because 76 votes let the DUP have a seat”

    Yes, and a fine piece of electoral strategy that was. The DUP tried something similar in Lagan Valley and failed miserably.

  • 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)?

    Ideally all three, but I’d settle for the first and last targets. If the Unionist vote is up in real terms and vis-vis Irish nationalism, that will give it a much bigger and significant psychological boost than SF being prevented from (see, even the terminology is back to the defensive there) topping the first preferences.

    And actually, for purely partisan purposes, would a reduced Unionist total vote (“all down to the electorate’s disenchantment with too much inter-Unionist fighting, we need more unity under one banner”) and a Number One position for Dodds not be the best outcome for the DUP?

    If the total Unionist vote is up, it will be largely down to the electorate being given a wider range of choice and that is something which should be borne in mind for not just the Westminster elections, but also the more important battle to consolidate our place within the Union.

  • fair_deal

    “Ideally all three, but I’d settle for the first and last targets.”

    Always better to strive for the ideal 😉

    “And actually, for purely partisan purposes, would a reduced Unionist total vote (“all down to the electorate’s disenchantment with too much inter-Unionist fighting, we need more unity under one banner”) and a Number One position for Dodds not be the best outcome for the DUP?”

    The worse it gets the better it will be scenario has not exactly worked for Unionism in recent decades. Conversely any good spinster would highlight it as it exemplifying the failure of the DUP leadership of the Unionism as responsible for the slide.

  • “I’ll be about the comment zone and personal circumstances in the next while will guarantee I keep my pledge.”

    Any truth in the rumour that FD is taking a new job? 😉

  • fair_deal

    Chekov

    £35K I’m not that cheap 😉

    World’s shortest interview

    What are you thoughts for the European election campaign?
    Dump your candidate
    Well thank you for coming.

  • Turgon

    fair_deal,
    Do you think you and me could do it as a job share?

  • fair_deal

    Turgon

    “Do you think you and me could do it as a job share?”

    Maybe consultancy basis, “Fairgon” political consultants is born.