Alliance: successes and dangers

The Alliance Party seem pretty pleased with their election. They received almost 51,000 votes, elected 8 MLAs and saw their share of the vote rise by 2.5% from 5.2 to 7.7%. (The council elections were broadly similar with them getting 7.4% and 44 councillors). They gained 1 MLA in East Belfast (from the PUP’s prodigal leader Dawn Purvis) which was the first time they have ever gained more than one seat in a single constituency in living memory. This success along with Naomi Long’s victory in 2010 has put a real spring into Alliance’s step and along with their somewhat undemocratic gaining of a second executive ministry they seem to feel that these results may represent a real frame shift in their electoral fortunes.

There remain, however, some problems: whilst the gain in votes is significant it is largely in the nicer parts of the greater Belfast “Pale.” The three constituencies with increases of the Alliance vote greater than 6% were South Belfast, East Belfast and North Down. South Belfast and North Down are of course two of the “nicest” constituencies one could hope to find in Northern Ireland and are places where Alliance can usually expect to do well. However, in neither constituency did Alliance manage to gain an extra MLA. In South Belfast they did not run an extra MLA and in North Down Anne Wilson just missed out to Steven Agnew. That failure to capitalise on Brian Wilson standing down in North Down must be something of an irritation and a worry as Steven Agnew is young and may well be able to entrench himself with the sandal wearing, recycling brigade of the gold coast; making further gains there more difficult in the future.

In South Belfast Alliance may hope that they can further erode the UUP’s vote and take its remaining seat but that would also be a very big ask especially with DUP transfers. Indeed if unionism within South Belfast ever got itself organised it might begin to take back some ground. In all the other constituencies the increases in the vote were poor (apart from Upper Bann which I will come back to later) and excepting Upper Bann there is absolutely no prospect of significant gains in what have been called the “Middle Constituencies” of East Londonderry or Upper Bann nor in North Antrim.

What we are left with is a party which can consistently gain one seat at Stormont in overwhelmingly unionist constituencies east of the Bann excepting hard line ones such as North Antrim and Upper Bann (plus one in South Belfast and two in East Belfast). This leaves the Alliance Party as it always has been: the choice for nationalists in seats where they cannot get one of their preferred candidates elected and for non aligned voters. Overwhelmingly, however, the gain in Alliance’s share of the vote has been in certain unionist constituencies and largely at the expense of the UUP. The idea of unionist-lite as the main source of Alliance support is difficult to shake off.

Once of course alliance was specifically a unionist party albeit one with a small u. At that time Alliance enjoyed more support than it does now even with its recent gains: for example in 1983 at a Westminster election where they had no prospect of gaining a seat they won 8.0% and over 60,000 votes; 1975 convention elections 9.8%; 1993 local council 8%. More recently, however, there have been attempts to reposition it as a party truly neutral on the union. Alliance’s loss of support in the later 1990s and 2000s coincided with their move away from unionist-lite. Despite the recent successes, that repositioning may make gaining further inroads into the UUP vote more difficult.

The alternative which is clearly seen in the likes of East Belfast is Alliance canvassers and indeed representatives positioning themselves as soft unionists whatever the official position may be. That tendency combined with the UUP vote it is gaining simply feeds back into a soft unionist position. Even if their new gains are not the result of officially moving back towards unionism it is extremely likely that many of their new voters see it that way and that voting dynamic is also very likely to have a gravitational effect pulling Alliance in a more unionist direction.

Nowhere is unionist-lite demonstrated better than the defectors Alliance has gained over the past year: almost to a man and woman they have been ex UUP. Ironically many of these ex UUP types were leading supporters of the Conservative UUP link up: they then jumped ship to an Alliance Party which has, since the Westminster election, been distancing itself from its sister party in GB which has indeed gone into coalition with the Tories. The irony in this is probably lost on most of the defectors who seem to have been much more interested in their personal self advancement and are possibly insufficiently knowledgeable about mainland politics to see any difficulties in all this.

Even when Alliance is very clearly unionist-lite, however, it seems unable to make further inroads outside its heartlands. Harry Hamilton did remarkably badly in Upper Bann. As a UUP candidate he got 25.7% whereas at the assembly elections Alliance (with two candidates) got 6.5%: undoubtedly a good increase from 1.9% in 2005 but in reality a disappointment for the party and a disaster for Hamilton’s desire to change career. Indeed despite the Hamilton factor Upper Bann showed no change in the UUP vote as compared to the 2005 Assembly election.

Clearly in the seats west of the Bann Alliance is little more of a serious contender than the Monster Raving Loony Party. To illustrate the point in 2010 in FST Alliance got barely more than double the vote of the independent John Stevenson whose posters consisted of scrawled felt tip pen on sheets of paper put up in Enniskillen. It is in that context that Alliance’s doubling of the vote in FST as compared to last year needs to be seen.

Although the UUP may be in all sorts of trouble within the Pale its share of the vote seemed pretty solid in the dreary steeples and other places where there be dragons. Even in East Londonderry (where there are quite a lot of dragons) the reality is that its vote held up: it was just that their successful candidate had left the party. As such Alliance inroads into the rest of the UUP’s vote may become much more difficult to achieve.

A further danger is one which only a year ago seemed scarcely credible: that of the DUP. Most of the Alliance vote does seem to be unionist but until very recently they would have been of the opposite variety of unionist to the DUP. However, at the last Westminster election it seemed clear that some of Naomi Long’s supporters were ex DUP protest voters. Since that, as I alluded to previously, the DUP have developed their moderate face to an almost incredible extent. Much of what the DUP have been talking about recently will have been music to many Alliance ears: integrated education, moving Northern Ireland forward; remembering but not obsessing about the past. All these are issues which could easily be on Alliance election literature. Cynics might have suggested prior to this May that these were desperate attempts by Robinson to shore up his vote and prevent slippage to Alliance. That may be so but the attempts have been so spectacularly successful and the DUP is now such a broad church that not preventing slippage but rather eating into Alliance support must be a real and realistic target for the DUP.

The full brilliance of Peter Robinson’s new look DUP is now going to be deployed not only against the TUV and UUP but also Alliance. An openly unionist but modern, moderate, progressive and secular DUP could very easily take Alliance votes. There will be some who would never vote DUP but when Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and other DUP moderates are promoting such a competent and moderate face many may well be attracted. Alliance’s only defence might be to point to the past but that would be far from modern and progressive looking. Already one sees exactly this sort of voting dynamic. In North Down, home as I mentioned before, to the “nicest” most wealthy unionists in Northern Ireland the DUP had 12,412 votes (44%) and 3 MLAs this time: in 1998 at the assembly elections they had 2,600 votes and no seats.

As mentioned at the start the Alliance Party have had a good election. Their successes, however, underline the perception of them as unionist-lite, a position they had previously, at least theoretically, abandoned. Furthermore, it is difficult to see much room for further gains unless the UUP completely implode: something which is actually pretty unlikely and even if it did occur would be unlikely to benefit Alliance in the seats where the UUP still has mass appeal. In addition until the last Westminster elections the DUP were not competing for their vote nor had they any reason to do so. Now the situation is different and the overwhelming political machine which has almost destroyed the UUP will be turned in all its new charming, liberal but deadly ferocity onto Alliance. Alliance should enjoy its successes: more serious and dangerous challenges lie ahead.