Election: a litmus test of Unionist futures?

Interesting line of argument from Alex Kane in the News Letter:

The question which this election may answer, albeit partially, is whether or not the Conservatives themselves can deliver. They have been here since 1989 and have failed to make an electoral breakthrough. I sense that the UUP core vote is holding and Nicholson may even be attracting back some of the former voters who wandered to the DUP between 1998 and 2007. But since Jim Nicholson is a jointly endorsed candidate the real test of the relationship will be how many new votes can be delivered by the ‘Cameron effect’.

From what I have seen, the Cameron factor is still very weak in the mix the voting public has so far seen. Fair enough. It is only six months since the big launch at the party’s annual conference. Yet both parties to the agreement will be looking to an improvement in Nicholson’s vote to test the emergent pact.

If it holds up, then the pact has a future. But the Nicholson campaign has been muted and jarring (‘Time for Change’ when your candidate is 20 years at the job for instance). The party may have asked itself that vital post Agreement question, “what are we for?”; but the answer is still vague and buried in the machine.

If the pact is deemed not to have worked, then they are back to the drawing board with a sense that despite having played such a big card, the drift continues… You have to back Nicholson for that third seat, if only because as polling time approaches he is at least a unionist and viable. And the numbers still tip in that general direction.

Upset scenarios all revolve around the ability of Jim Allister to push his vote significantly above expectations. This, in order of likelihood might: allow Bairbre de Brun top the poll (though I suspect that was always on the cards); ensure Nicholson scrapes in under quota; levels the second place unionist vote sufficient to let Alban McGuinness through the middle; elects Jim Allister.

More prosaically the other things to look out for are not necessarily who wins, but where the votes are piling up away from the main parties. Allister’s campaign may say they are looking for a win, but they’ll be wanting to pile up the anti DUP votes in enough constituencies to get them a credible (and disruptive) voice inside the next Assembly.

Also, keep an eye out for the Alliance vote totals. Just matching John Gilliland’s combined vote in 2004 (allowing for a drop in turnout) would be a major step forward, and perhaps that they are becoming competitive enough to increase their seat totals in 2011.

Adds: That might be something for the Cameroons to bowl at. Cameron’s primary message is socio economic one, rather than a constitutional one. It’s about waste in government, and re-engagement between the haves and have nots… None of this message is yet in place or localised sufficiently to have an effect. If anything, the Alliance is getting there before them.

In short, for this to work properly, the UUs have to make the new liberal Tory project work in a local accent if it has the least chance of working at all.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty