The DUP knocked to the canvas

A massive right hook was delivered by the TUV squarely on the DUP’s chin. It put the DUP on the electoral canvas so as it gets to its feet to receive its 8 count by the referee what should be going through its mind? NOTE: The following is written with hindsight at full value. Even on a worst case scenario I would have not believed a result like this possible (and managed to lose 100 notes as a result – serves me right for gambling). Post St Andrew’s and pre Jim Allister’s defection I argued that a new party couldn’t be created:

“A new political force cannot be created out of Bob McCartney allying with the likes of Jack McKee”

I was wrong – Jim Allister has created such a new force.

Unionist Parties and the Election Result

What do these results mean for the three Unionist parties?
DUP – The sheer scale of the Euro election result must be fully appreciated. In one election Jim Allister has achieved what it took the DUP 8 years and 4 elections to do. Comparable shifts are hard to find in Northern Ireland politics since the political turmoil of the early Troubles. 44% of the previous DUP vote was lost that is 9 in 20 voters. Every DUP Westminster seat is a marginal. Possible mitigations can be offered for this vote level but it was such similar thoughts that have led to the under-estimation of support for the TUV.
It would be an error for the DUP to blame turnout. Unionism maintained its overall position at just under 50% of the Euro vote so it was not the fundamental issue. The numbers also clearly show the electoral damage was exclusive to its right and there is no discernable ‘reward’ for the return of devolution.
UCUNF – For the UUP the Tory link has not cost them vote share but neither has it particularly gained them any. The internal divisions did not have a political cost this time. However by standing still it has managed to look good.
TUV – They have earned the name new force. It has established itself as a credible prospect to gain Westminster and Assembly seats. As it has received comparable levels of support in the two elections it contested it cannot be assumed the TUV vote is soft. The depth of opposition to power-sharing could very well be more widespread and deep-seated than most thought.

Unionism and the Election Result

Beyond the fortunes of the individual party were does this result leave Unionism?

The three way division creates a new set of electoral headaches. Unionism does need more than one party. Two competitive parties would be the best form. However, three parties with comparable levels of support allied with the personalised and often destructive nature of Unionist political discourse and First Past the Post is a potent mix. For the next year the Unionist electorate (consciously or unconsciously) has voted for its political young to eat one another.

How South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone could be won again will not be the primary conversation. Instead, if this result were repeated and nationalist and other voters plumped Unionism could lose as many as 5 Westminster seats (Upper Bann, East Londonderry, South Antrim and North Belfast to Nationalism and East Belfast to Alliance). This is most definitely a worst case scenario with 2 probably vulnerable but there is an electoral precendent of significant losses on such a split. In the October 1974 general election a three way split between Conservatives, Labour and Liberals in Scotland enabled the SNP to gain seats.

On turnout, problems were shared between Unionism and Nationalism but that should not be any consolation. The principle of consent means the Union will stand or fall on its electoral performance. Consistent and deep-seated decline is very unhealthy in those circumstances. If the 2007 and 2009 elections are looked at together as well as non-registration rates, then in a significant proportion of areas that Unionism gets its votes from non-participation is the norm neither has any of the Unionist parties succeeded in attracting new voters.

Palestinians are said never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Unionists may have developed a similar complex. SF and its ‘project’ have stalled. Their vote in Northern Ireland went nowhere and Republic of Ireland went nowhere or declined. When they performed badly in the last Dail elections it was thought that an economic downturn could be a means for new momentum in the Republic. It hasn’t happened. However, Unionism internal problems will prevent it from truly capitalising on this.

Politics and the Election Result

There has been much comment about how this result shows a clear Unionist majority for power-sharing. However, it ignores the comparable argument on policing and justice powers. The TUV is opposed and the UUP has been moving to a more sceptical position neither were the DUP in any particular rush. The practical vetoes may still lie in DUP hands but whether it happens or not is now as much the UUP’s political decision.

How did the DUP find itself in this position?

Various issues and problems have been highlighted in previous blogs here, here and here. It was an outworking of the failure to prepare:

“During the consultation it became clear that the party had not engaged in sufficient preparation of the party membership or education of its electorate. The Hearts and Mind poll shows how 1 in 5 DUP voters is implacably opposed to power-sharing but opposition to St Andrews is at 3 in 10 and scepticism at over half. The failure to prepare has created a stick for their own back.”

Since then the DUP has not developed a narrative or found a new language to explain what it is doing or where it wants to take Unionism. In its defence it was legitimately absorbed in various tasks of government, but this has hampered its message. It has distracted it from engaging with the emotional intelligence of the Unionist community. In fact the DUP has not made a serious or sustained attempt to communicate with its base since St Andrew’s, probably because it hadn’t worked out what to say to them.

In the absence of the new it re-adopted old narratives of Smash Sinn Fein and Top the Poll. Alternative narratives flourished in the vacuum:

“The ‘chuckle brothers’ became a gateway to the most harmful alternative narrative of all, the ‘snouts in the trough’ narrative.”

At this election the expenses saga performed the same function.

The scale of the lead over the UUP in 05 and 07 led to complacency and worse, it perpetuated even encouraged the trait of arrogance in the DUP’s attitudes and actions.

The Campaign

In the campaign itself a number of issues arose. The campaign was primarily based on a negative reasoning to vote for the DUP. This negative reasoning did have a track record of success but it was going to crash and burn sometime and 09 was the year it did.

There were too many different straplines that didn’t combine as a broad strategic message. This came across as a mixed and unclear message. For example, it mentioned the Unionist agenda. Is there one? What is it? Does the average Unionist know what it is? If they don’t how will they know whether it is being advanced or not? Is it relevant to them? Is it simply stopping Sinn Fein? If it is, why is that good enough?

This confusion added to the difficulty the electorate has understanding the complex politics of Stormont’s consociational structures. Are the DUP working with Sinn Fein or fighting with them? Our political structures as they work in practice mean both things are true at the same time. However a significant section of the DUP’s electorate are used to zero sum and finds this ‘quantum state’ difficult to comprehend.

As politics is a blood-sport there will be many who will gladly be lining up to stick the boot into the candidate. I don’t believe the campaign or performances were a true reflection of the candidate. It needs to be acknowledged that Diane Dodds had the cojones to take the nomination when others shied away. Also events and poor planning contributed to the problems with the Dodds candidacy

At the time of selection family dynasties didn’t seem a major issue, expenses certainly made it one. At the time of selection a dispassionate observer would have said she required a voice coach and media training, she didn’t get it. As she was part of the Belfast political bubble it was assumed too much that the electorate knew her, they didn’t and a regional tour targeted at local newspapers didn’t overcome this.

If the campaign didn’t succeed in properly introducing her, then for many the first introduction was the Politics Show Debate which was, by common agreement, a car crash and this over-shadowed all other campaign interviews and debates. As regards the core campaign messages Diane Dodds hammered them home relentlessly, the delivery wasn’t the core problem. The core problem was the message was neither resonating nor being listened to.

This core message was also delivered in a forumalic manner. The style and campaign approach of the Euro election was pretty much the same as the 07, 05, 04 and 03 elections. The main campaign slogan didn’t have a verb to communicate action. Overall it looked tired.

The campaign also did not respond quickly and sufficiently to events that undermined basic tenets of strategy. The ongoing expenses stories were the most obvious with the response proving too defensive then too slow and ultimately insufficient to address concerns or anger.

Additionally the economic downturn makes it extremely difficult to sell to voters that devolution is delivering. The gains of devolution are too generic rather than ‘Unionist’, difficult for one party to claim and lean towards stopping bad things happening e.g. water rates. Also the DUP has tried to remove the bedrock of its support from the Paisley brand to the collective brands of its MPs. The first DUP Euro election broadcast was a good example of this approach. The expenses saga made it the worst possible time to try to be doing this as MPs collectively and individually took a battering.

The disconnect with voters caused by the deeper seated problems and campaign issues exemplify how the DUP has not made the transformation from being a party of opposition to one of leadership and government. It also needs to be accepted that the staff team cannot be scape-goated for these issues. They have been left with little strategic direction too often and did their best to fill the vacuum.

What next for the DUP?

It needs to realise and then understand the scale of its task in the coming year and beyond. Quitting the Executive is not an option. They have made their decision neither is it in Unionism’s strategic interests. That excepted however, anything else should be up for discussion. Even if an issue involves a prominent personality that it should be no protection from scrutiny .

It needs to spend time listening to its voters. This blog and many others can provide a number of reasons for the result but the word of the political class shouldn’t be taken as the right word. First off the DUP needs to ask voters, why they didn’t vote? Why did they vote for the TUV or UCUNF? What are the DUP doing wrong? Do people want devolution or direct rule? It must simply listen at this stage not offer answers. After examining this feedback it must talk to people about possible remedies to see if they are sufficient and acceptable and challenge misconceptions. Then it should act and communicate repeatedly about how it has acted.

There also need to be cultural changes in the DUP. It needs to broaden out party structures so that more ordinary members hold office rather than politicians. It also needs to learn to cope with well-intended criticism even encouraging them in new forms such as blogging. It also has to adapt its headquarters and other structures to being a party of government.

The DUP needs to say sorry for its handling of the introduction of devolution, the disconnect that followed and for expenses. It must show contrition repeatedly. It must then act. The narrative that must be killed – at all costs – is the self-interest narrative.

Some or all of the following things should be considered to demonstrate that self-interest is not the motivating factor. Previously DUP ministers did not take their ministerial salaries and assembly office bearers (vice-chairs, chairs) only received half. This continued in the new Assembly but in a reduced form. The original policy should be reintroduced. The majority of MPs who are MLAs should stand down from the Assembly in the coming months. Any who remain should not take their MLA’s salary. MPs should consider paying back the food expenses.

Then it needs to unveil its new narrative with a strong communications plan that embraces new approaches. They cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media, press statements and speeches. For Westminster 2010 the model should be the UUP campaign of 1983. The UUP had to arrest the growth in the DUP and it did so by taking political risks. The DUP took a cautious approach and suffered for it.

If the DUP fails to embrace radical change it will fall. Internal and personal interests will push against some of this and no doubt some will threaten or actually defect claiming ‘principle’ as the rationale. However it has an over-riding responsibility to the cause of Unionism in this part of the Kingdom so it must make radical changes. Unionism here cannot afford returning to the do anything approach of the UUP or the do nothing approach of the TUV.

(Thanks to M & D for comments on earlier drafts).