UUP: progress, stagnation or decline?

There is a concept in the stock market called a “Dead Cat Bounce” whereby the value of shares having fallen steeply briefly rises before resuming its downward course. The rise in the UUP’s share of the vote may well be real, however, it may also be a political form of “Dead Cat Bounce.”

The UUP’s tie up with the Conservative Party was analysed in great detail at the time it occurred both here on slugger and throughout Northern Ireland politics. It was seen by some as a great forward step which would result in large numbers of new CU voters and indeed members from both sides of the community. It was also seen as an irrelevance or as an attempt by Reg Empey to save his lacklustre leadership or indeed as a purely cynical ploy by David Cameron. Now with the votes counted the CUs are portraying the result as a significant step forward: they certainly seem to have a spring in their step as compared to previously.

The reality may be that this is a massive step forward. However, we have to put the result in context: it is a massive step forward that they are no longer losing percentage share of the vote. Compared to the previous European elections the CUs gained a fairly insignificant 0.5% of the vote. That is maybe a little unfair as Jim Nicholson’s 17.1% of the vote compares more favourably with the 14.9% the UUP obtained in the 2007 assembly elections. However, even that rise is not a huge triumph and must be set alongside just how disastrous the 2007 showing was.

The CU campaign was not exactly inspiring: its message “Time for Change” sat ill with a candidate who sometimes seems to have been in the European parliament since the Ice Age and although acknowledged as a good European MP is rarely seen between Euro election campaigns. His avoidance of being tied to a pro or anti Trimble faction in the past is more a testament to his invisibility than political cunning or the ability to rise above such debates; he effectively sat below them such was his near irrelevance. Nicholson also at times seemed a little uneasy with the New Force and did not seem to relish his position as the first ever joint candidate.

Chekov has a characteristically well argued analysis of the CU position after this election which is neither too rosy nor too bleak and alludes to some difficulties which may continue to exist within the organisation. There is the suspicion that some in the UUP were less than delighted by the Conservative link up and some unionists have privately suggested that the organisation is in serious difficulties with large numbers of UUP types far from enamoured with their new friends within the NI Tories who in turn are less than delighted by joining up with the UUP. However, there are also members of both parties who are pleased with the link and success may breed happiness. As such it is in the best interests of the CUs to extol the stunning success of Jim Nicholson’s campaign and his shattering victory in order to convince both voters and (probably more importantly at this stage) activists of the wisdom of the current direction.

Of course the success of being the first unionist elected and reaching the quote is largely down to large numbers of Jim Allister’s supporters deciding to transfer to what they see as the “honest lundies” rather than the “dishonest lundies” of the DUP. Whether that particular voting dynamic will persist is unclear. In addition the current sight of CUs rubbing their collective hands with glee over the possibility of taking Westminster seats is largely due to the hopes of the TUV slicing off large numbers of DUP votes and allowing the CUs in through the middle. Such hope of advance through others misfortune (a sort of practical version of schadenfreude) is of course part and parcel of politics, but is not necessarily the firmest foundation on which to build political success: still a win as a win especially in a first past the post election. Even this avenue to success is, however, not without its pitfalls; although it is harmless at Westminster, in any future assembly elections the CUs will be hoping that the TUV continue to transfer to them rather than the DUP for their second preference. That could lead to the CUs being a bit anxious about adopting some of the Conservative’s more liberal (especially socially liberal) positions: that in its turn may reopen rifts between traditional UUP types and Conservatives.

One issue which may also be relevant is turnout; this has been analysed in a number of ways but one which has not also needs to be considered. It is sometimes assumed that when turnout falls, as it does at all European elections and at this one particularly, the centre parties like the UUP (and SDLP) will fare worse as they gain proportionally more of their support from those in the electorate who are less passionate about politics and hence, less likely to vote. I suspect that was traditionally the case: however, I would submit that this may have changed. Now the UUP voters may on average be the more committed ones to turning out. If one is an only moderately interested in politics unionist (a semi garden centre Prod, DIY centre Prod if you will) one used to vote UUP; now one is probably more likely to vote DUP. As such when the turnout rises as it will at the next Westminster election, it may well be the DUP who benefit more than the UUP (or indeed the TUV). Clearly the DUP would be very foolish to count on such an effect saving them but equally the UUP would be even more foolish if they assumed that anything other than this will occur.

The events of last week are being heralded by some in the UUP as the beginning of their return to power: that may be the case. However, it could also represent an irrelevant minor change in a party which is stuck at the bottom of its political futures where it will remain. Alternatively there is also a danger that as the DUP vs TUV fight continues, the UUP far from being seen as the sensible alternative, could be seen as a complete irrelevance, fated to have their vote gently fall in future elections.

In reality none of these conclusions can be safely drawn form this European election. The CUs came out of this election in approximately the same state as they entered it: that that is being viewed as a success could be seen as showing just how badly they thought they were going to do and just how bad their campaign was. Their campaign only looks a bit better when compared to the DUP’s attempt to surpass the trail of incompetence Trimble had blazed with “Decent People vote Unionist.”

A final issue which this election showed is the effect of a high profile heavy weight political candidate. That must ring alarm bells for Reg Empey and his team: there is currently no one in the CUs who could predictably defeat Nelson McCausland in debate and we saw on Hearts and Minds how even Nelson (decent debater that he is) was torn apart by the unionist man of the moment, Jim Allister. Many unionists like to have a charismatic effective speech maker as their representative, we saw that in Allister at the count on Monday; where is the CU who could match that? Reg has not even been the star turn at his own party conference for the last two years. The CUs have a cadre of decent but far from stunning elected representatives and these people are likely to be the ones wheeled out to do battle at the next Westminster elections. Almost all of these representatives were defeated by the DUP last time out and they may have significant difficulty mounting a credible challenge even with a TUV presence in many constituencies. The alternative, bringing forward unknown new faces may be a valid alternative but it could exacerbate tensions between the UUP and Conservative parts of the New Force.

Still these issues, important as they may be are the problems for the next time. On this occasion the UUP have survived and even gained a little; it would be churlish not to let them celebrate that.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.