Post election, the Alliance Party’s position is like…

…this quote from Joseph Campbell the late American mythographer, who once figuratively described a cautious careerist who “comes to that condition in late middle age: and he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, only to find that it’s against the wrong wall.”

For all its many successes in this election the Alliance party might claim that they are nowhere near the top of their ladder. And although they are a year older than the DUP, it may be too presumptuous to assert they’ve reached late middle age.

They have had another good election, their third in a row where they have exceeded expectations. Two seats in East Belfast, almost knocking the DUP off its Castlereagh perch (but for a pragmatic move from the UUP rump to reassert a Unionist majority). New councillors everywhere (in greater Belfast).

To top it all, not only does it have another major vote catcher in South Belfast who seems quite capable of taking a large number of Catholic votes, Anna Lo, but two Ministers for the price of one.

So why the melancholic twist in the ladder story?

Twenty years ago, according to Robinson and Cross, in the Catholic Diocese of Down and Connor nearly 20% of all marriages were mixed. Indeed, in Holywood it was often said that you daren’t throw a stone at the Catholic church for fear of hitting a relative.

Yet in Downpatrick and below, as one well-known and well informed wag put it last Monday, a mixed marriage is more likely to indicate a union between a couple from Armagh and Down. Beyond greater Belfast, the Alliance Party has limited supplies of social capital for its cross community, a-constitutional project.

Witness for example the collapse in Harry Hamilton’s vote in Upper Bann, and the return of a liberal Unionist in Joanne Dobson running under the supposedly toxic UUP ticket.

Alliance’s influence remains fixed solely in those eastern areas where the Ulster Unionist party was once popular. They have just begun to make inroads into the SDLP, particularly in South Belfast, where Anna Lo could talk a Westminster seat with votes that once helped Alisdair McDonnell over the win line.

With Alliance in a position of relative strength, it must be time to pause and take stock of how it got here and where it wants to go next.

They have stolen a march over both its larger rivals though the professionalization of its GOTV operations. Indeed the application of a clear scientific thinking to the voting process probably saved the parliamentary party from almost certain oblivion in November 2003.

What replaced it was a clear sense of its own mortality, and that tough choices had to be made.

So back to the ladder. Although there are still gains it can make, Alliance is coming to the point where it may have hoovered up much of the support it can easily find; the low hanging fruit. Further gains will only be found it if can find some way to unlock the strong cultural resistance to its profoundly liberal project.

So my question is: does or can this ladder take the party any further? Or is this the top? And is it stuck permanently against the elegantly constructed non sectarian walls of liberal Greater Belfast?

 

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  • carl marks

    alliance has a problem maybe one that they might see as not altogether as a bad thing as i see it it is this.
    members and voters of the party ae mainly there because there is nowhere else to go it is the only truly non secterian party in ni even if it is small u unionist when the rest of the population catch up with them in terms of voting outside orange and green tribes and start to play real big boy politics then have to decide if it is left right green middle or what.
    as it is a broad church i dont think it will survive the voters growing up this will b a pity but hopefully its abilty to see beyond what we had and have now will be its legacy (my god did i really say that about a bunch of liberals)

  • They had a good election but if they are going to break communalism, they will need one election where they take large chunks of votes from the other 4 parties.

    I think there is a slow underlying trend of people becoming increasingly fed up with tribal communal politics. For that reason alone, I think Alliance will get stronger. The question is – at what rate will it get stronger? I think their rate of progress will depend, largely, upon how the public see the performance of their two ministers over the next 4 years.

    If I was David Ford, I would pick Stephen Farry as the second Alliance Minister for macro and micro-strategic reasons. He is not just a very capable politician. The raising of his profile would set up a second MLA and possibly an MP in North Down in 2015.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Stephen Farry will almost definitely be the next Minister, absolutely no doubt about that.

  • Framer

    Oddly Alliance picks up the British vote in East Ulster but is determinedly antagonistic to participation in UK politics e.g. Naomi Long not linking to her (doomed but powerful) LibDem colleagues. She sits as an Ulster MP.

    So Alliance just becomes another whiner party divvying up the English money.

    Now Anna Lo taking out big Al, that’s a pleasant thought.

  • Gopher

    Alliance is the only post agreement party in Northern Ireland. Pardon the further Stalingrad analogy, whilst the SDLP engage in house to house fighting, unfamiliar terrain for them. Hurling themselves lemming like against hardened street fighters dug in only to be repulsed on a battleground long since sacrificed by unionism to themselves. Fired up on rhetoric from no longer relevant commentators they strive to claim they are the the greenest, the most working class, that they will subvert the agreement with a referendum too. Meanwhile apartment after apartment welcome their liberators the Alliance party, Whilst from the suburbs those unionists that do believe in dinosaurs are flailed towards the Alliance party in brutal uncultured swipes in the most chronic case of political agoraphobia in history. Of course the Alliance party will never get votes from unionists that don’t believe in dinosaurs and those that believe Cuba without the sunshine is practical and this will be proclaimed vehemently*

    *But in 5 seat constituency they will put Alliance in to keep the other out when quotas are in doubt strange that.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Oddly Alliance picks up the British vote in East Ulster but is determinedly antagonistic to participation in UK politics e.g. Naomi Long not linking to her (doomed but powerful) LibDem colleagues

    Do you have the faintest clue what you are wittering about ? There is only one NI party in the Commons with a link to a mainstream party, and that is the SDLP. Prior to this, the only other party to do so was the UUP, and that link was dissolved in 1974.

    I wonder what would have happened had the UUP gained an MP, and subsequently been compelled to go into the assembly elections defending the cuts.

  • Valenciano

    “Now Anna Lo taking out big Al, that’s a pleasant thought.”

    It won’t happen. The boundary commissioners will do for Big Al. South Belfast is either for the chop or will gain enough of West Belfast to tilt it to Sinn Fein.

  • Mick Fealty

    CS,

    You want to get after whomever wrote that on your wikipedia page. LibDems certainly exist separately in NI, but I know Annette Brook and Naomi used very similar marketing materials in last year’s general election.

    Valenciano,

    Which would explain Mairtin running in Balmoral…

  • aquifer

    Wither Alliance?

    They once had a strong social democratic contingent but the middle classes seem to run it now. The DUP SF combine are hard to combat. DUP make like a low tax party but Sinn Fein will get resources out to the poor, and the SDLP will try to outbid and outgreen them each time. The UUP cling to their own all class protestant alliance, papering over the economic cracks in that position.

    The only immediately available political space seems to be to be for a capitalist party to appeal to prosperous catholics and progressive prods who don’t do the loyalist orange thing.

    It does not look hard to do. Dress in suits, do powerpoint presentations, and talk about how much stuff costs and how important it is to make money.

    At some point former gun gang members and sectarian rabble rousers say money does not matter but everybody knows it really does and votes for the party that understands this.

    Maybe Alliance could pick a fight with organised labour to get them to organise politically (at last), creating a new axis of political conflict, or just attack the Greens and loose their ‘nice but wishy washy’ image.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick,

    I will leave it for someone in the party to sort out the wikipedia page 😉

    There is friendly co-operation between the parties but no formal link up.

  • Mick Fealty

    The no formal link is very useful at this stage (with the Lib Dems being relegated to ‘List status’ in Scotland. And it shows the importance of having a local brand, and local leadership.

  • PaddyReilly

    …King George IV or King Edward VII. You spend all your life waiting for your hopelessly reactionary parent to pass on, and yet they contrive to go on and on and on, meaning that when you do finally succeed it will only be for a couple of years.

    It is blatantly obvious that the Unionist vote has fallen below 50%, and the Nationalist vote is even less, and so, in a representative system Alliance would be holding the balance of power, with nobody else able to move without their say so.

    And yet, time and time again, the Unionist minority manages to achieve an absolute majority of seats, something that does not correspond to the voting percentages. Alliance would be far better off with the Welsh system of proportional representation, where there are top-up members who redress the imbalance thrown up by the constituencies. And yet, it was largely the Alliance members who designed the Stormont system which disappoints them.

  • Zig70

    I read the manifesto, not sure why they didn’t add teaching Ulster to sing to their wish list. I guess I’m just not liberal politically. I think whenever most people turn from tribal politics they’ll realize that they aren’t liberal either. IMO, Alliance will always have a place, just a small one. The lesson of the lib dems is that liberal thinking is not mainstream. Once we get a standard left & right party then they will suck a big chunk of voters back out.

  • iluvni

    If voters really cared about policy they’d have seen through the crap Alliance propose, splendidly exposed when Nolan made mincemeat out of the woeful Farry. .. as it is they are nothing more than the third option in the Prod/Mick/I’mbetterthanthat carve-up

  • GoldenFleece

    “And yet, time and time again, the Unionist minority manages to achieve an absolute majority of seats, something that does not correspond to the voting percentages.”

    PaddyReilly, this is because Nationalists are more concentrated into areas, whereas unionists are spread all over NI (except West Belfast). This is why unionists have more seats, despite the percentages.

  • PaddyReilly

    Nationalists are more concentrated into areas

    But in the instant case we are not talking about Nationalists, but Alliance.

    Apart from in Belfast and adjacent constituencies, Alliance are too thin on the ground to gain a seat in a six seater system. They should have designed an Assembly which worked on much larger constituencies- province wide would be best.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick,

    There was never any real pressure internally for a formal link, and aside from that I can’t think of any scenario where there would be a benefit to having one.

    Zig70:

    The lesson of the lib dems is that liberal thinking is not mainstream.

    I don’t see any evidence of such a lesson; the Lib Dems substantially increased their vote (but not their seats) at the last election. The only thing I see evidence of is that the price of coalition may turn out to be too high for that party and that you get punished if you go back on your promises.

    Once we get a standard left & right party then they will suck a big chunk of voters back out.

    What timeframe do you have in mind ? And while you’re mulling about that, think about how the standard left and right parties in the UK failed to form a government in the last election.

  • Mick Fealty

    CS, Agreed. At this juncture the party needs to be free enough to decide it’s own future, and not be encumbered with a problematic relationship with outsiders.

  • Crubeen

    Post election, the Alliance Party’s position is like…
    every other party …

    The only reason to vote Alliance is to be able to strut yourself among the great and the unwashed with the “I’m not sectarian!” badge.

    It stands for nothing apart from sparing the blushes of those who don’t want to admit voting for the DUP or Sinn Fein … and some of them actually do vote Alliance…. just to prove the point!

  • RedTurtle

    @PaddyReilly

    It is blatantly obvious that the Unionist vote has fallen below 50%, and the Nationalist vote is even less, and so, in a representative system Alliance would be holding the balance of power, with nobody else able to move without their say so.

    And yet, time and time again, the Unionist minority manages to achieve an absolute majority of seats, something that does not correspond to the voting percentages.

    @GoldenFleece

    PaddyReilly, this is because Nationalists are more concentrated into areas, whereas unionists are spread all over NI (except West Belfast). This is why unionists have more seats, despite the percentages.

    No I do not think that is true, and since unionism and nationalism pretty much form a binary it doesn’t even really make much sense. If you pour milk in your tea the milk can’t be “more spread out” than the tea is at any one time (think about it). In any case it is NOT the reason that unionists have a greater proportion of total seats than they do of total votes.

    The reason unionists have more seats than their vote share, apart from mere random fluctuations and fluke, is easy to demonstrate – it is because unionists tend to win in constituencies with lower turnouts and nationalists tend to win in constituencies with higher turnouts, however the seats are divvied out geographically in proportion to the number of eligible voters for an area NOT in proportion to the number of people who bother to turn out and vote overall (which is what true PR would do). Unionists are in effect given extra seats above their vote share representing the people who didn’t bother to turn up in the low turnout seats they disproportionately win, who are effectively assumed to have been spoken for by those who did bother to turn up.

    This does not necessarily have anything to do with arguments about “garden centre prods” (though it probably does). It may be that nationalists in majority unionists constituencies have turnouts as low as unionists in those same constituencies and vice versa, without affecting what I’m saying, which is actually pretty unarguable because all the facts are there before us and the assignment is just a cold mathematical one rather than a matter of opinion.

    The reason for the bias against proportionality is the bias in turnout in constituencies where unionists or nationalists have the highest vote. Unionists tend to win more low turnout seats, nationalists tend to win more high turnout seats. Therefore either the total nationalist vote share is unfairly flattered, or the total unionist seat count is unfairly flattered, depending on which way round you want to look at it.

  • PaddyReilly

    This argument is frequently invoked, but it is not true. There was a low turn out in North Down, but Unionists only won four seats. There was a high turn out in Fermanagh/ST, but Unionists still won three seats. 46% of the people voting in high turn out FST were Unionists. Presumably also 30% of those not voting in North Down were non-Unionists.

    And indeed, when the vote is not broken down into constituencies, as in European Elections, we get the same effect. In 2009, the combined UCUNF/DUP/TUV 1st pref vote was 48.4% of the total. Alliance 5.5%, Green 3.3%. So under genuine proportional representation, Alliance would hold the balance of power.

  • Zig70

    ~CS My own opinion is that the tribal side will get worse as the sides grow closer, so you’re alright for a while yet.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Zig70, you may be waiting for quite a while. Look to our south and ask yourself when left/right “normal” politics were formed there ?