The UUP’s election: the past is another country

In the almost a month since the elections a number of attempts (Alex Kane’s is usually the best) have been made to analyse the UUP’s fortunes. The clear message from most (less so from Alex) has been that the UUP did badly and is in decline: quite possibly terminal decline. A number of reasons have been proffered for this state of affairs, most of them relating to the perceived rightward move of the UUP (again I point out that the perception of hard line unionism as right and softer as left is erroneous as is its converse on the nationalist / republican side but it is a useful shorthand) and its centre of gravity having shifted to the rural parts of Northern Ireland.

The UUP undoubtedly lost percentage share of the vote (down 1.7%) and suffered a net loss of two seats. They were saved from further losses in part because, having also underperformed at the last set of Stormont elections, they had a number of constituencies with extra fractions of a quota: hence, a loss of votes did not always translate into a loss of seats.

The picture is, however, considerably more complex than many have suggested. Even to divide it into east and west of the Bann is an oversimplification. However, that simplification has some merit.

East of the Bann and especially in the “nice” constituencies the UUP did do badly. Their share of the vote was hammered especially in North Down and East Belfast (they lost a seat in North Down). They also lost a seat in East Antrim though they have not been strong there for years and boundary changes have made that seat a more complex proposition to analyse. They also lost Fred Cobain in North Belfast.

That last seat is a relatively easy place to begin: Fred Cobain seems a pretty decent sort of chap but his star seems to have been waning for some years and the DUP have been steadily gaining in that seat for a long time: few will forget Cecil Walker’s disastrous TV performance caused by him not hearing the questions but not having sorted out that issue before he started the interview. However, the DUP have put the work in on the ground and Nigel Dodds has been one of their most effective performers. Fred Cobain was never likely to hold his seat and relatively little regarding the UUP other than general malaise can be read into his defeat.

North Down and East Belfast, however, have been seen as symptomatic of the UUP being left behind, being too rural and having not become civic unionist enough: North Down has always been very “civic unionist” and East Belfast provided Alliance with two seats at the election; all of which speaks to civic-ness and liberalism.

There is, however, an opposite reading that indeed the recent efforts at “civic unionism” helped cause the UUP’s disastrous performance in both these constituencies. Much of the rot in East Belfast was sown at the last Westminster election. Then the chief poster boy of civic unionism (especially its internet manifestation – its main natural habitat) stood. Trevor Ringland was the mould breaking, perfect unionist candidate according to many; a standard bearer for the Conservative UUP tie up. Unfortunately on the campaign trail he proved a disaster, lost badly to a truly effective candidate in Naomi Long, then flounced out of the UUP having failed to bully Tom Elliott and followed that with a bizarre volte face to supporting the likes of Dawn Purvis. With that debacle only a year previously there is no surprise at all that the UUP did badly there. It is rather almost a surprise that they managed to hold a seat at all such was the mess created largely by a man who rose to fame playing a team game but whose self importance led him to ignore that politics is also a team activity.

In contrast the Conservative UUP tie up deprived the UUP of its only Westminster seat. Sylvia Hermon was and remains a practically perfect example of a civic unionist. Unlike Ringland she has a track record of relating to normal people and a track record of electoral success. Much of the overall failure which was last year’s Westminster election and the failure in North Down this time was down to the loss of Hermon. That she was sacrificed on the altar of the Conservative tie up which was supposedly about civic unionism is one of the ironies to which civic unionism’s chief priests seem oblivious.

The other constituency where the UUP lost a seat was East Londonderry. Here the issue was not really civic unionism (though David McClarty is a pretty civic unionist) but rather an intra constituency party wrangle. Essentially McClarty simply kept most of his own vote whilst some other UUP votes defected to the TUV. McClarty’s two opponents were even more civic than him which was a mistake for the UUP in a constituency which is home to amongst the most hard line unionist vote. The UUP in East Londonderry seem incapable of realising how hard line East Londonderry is: presumably because most of the hard line part of that constituency party (the majority) gave up years ago. Had McClarty not stood, the DUP would have been well advised to run a fourth candidate who might well have got in: something the DUP should probably try next time in East Londonderry.

Although the UUP did badly in East Londonderry (though the more typical UUP candidate, McClarty, won) in the rest of the places where there be dragons they did rather better. In F/ST they lost almost no percentage and Tom Elliott overhauled Arlene Foster in votes (though the DUP were careful about vote sharing probably artificially reducing her popularity). In West Tyrone they gained a seat from the DUP, though the vote shares were complex and the DUP did not do especially badly. Other places inhabited by dragons also showed UUP gains. In Upper Bann they made steady gains in voting percentage as compared to the last assembly election. This constituency was also instructive in that despite Alliance deploying the ex civic UUP Harry Hamilton they made little progress and the UUP vote was only 0.9% down from Hamilton’s percentage (and up from 2007). South Down showed a modest improvement and Newry and Armagh a significant one. In part this shows that civic unionism of the sort beloved by those on the internet and some within the Pale does not really work where there be dragons. In addition, however, a number of those constituencies are also interesting because they contain a strong party and also have hard working MLAs (exemplified by Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy).

Finally to prove that a truly strong candidate can benefit the UUP even east of the Bann, the UUP gained a seat in Strangford (though I am suspicious that the Ards peninsula may contain the odd dragon). Mike Nesbitt was practically the only shiny new civic unionists who stuck with the party and the only new civic unionist from the Westminster election debacle to have managed to get elected.

The picture which emerges then is one poor showings in the places east of the Bann where the UUP were already weak and especially where last year’s CU project either lost them an MP (North Down) or else resulted in a particularly poor candidate (East Belfast). In contrast with a truly good new candidate (Strangford) or in the traditional west of the Bann seats the story was one of minor losses, standing firm or even small advances.

Hence, one can read the latest Stormont election results as much less bad for the UUP than the last Westminster ones. This is important as the narrative suggested by the civic unionists is that their dreadful, dreary farmer leader helped loose the UUP lots of votes and seats: this is clearly utter nonsense. It does not even hold water in the “nice” areas as the disasters of East Belfast and North Down are much more due to the CU project of last year then they are because of farmer Tom. The contrasting position put by many in the Dreary Steeples is somewhat more believable: namely that the UUP needs to consolidate on its core vote, concentrate on constituency work, avoid idiotic splits and rows such as resulted in Sylvia Hermon and David McClarty’s defections. That analysis may well prevent some self inflicted wounds but it does not look like a viable strategy to regain the vote lost to the DUP. Some may claim that with the DUP moving “leftwards” and the TUV quite probably dying then the UUP will make subsequent gains. However, that is probably little less naïve than the civic unionist internet battalions’ beliefs. The DUP has not moved to the UUP’s left: rather it has done a Molyneaux on them and produced a party simultaneously to the right and left of the UUP; both more hard line (Gregory Campbell) and more moderate (Alex Easton).

The most accurate reading of the UUP’s election is probably that Tom Elliott has produced a situation of stasis / managed decline along the lines which the UUP have been experiencing since shortly after Trimble took power. Overall there may have been a small drop in the vote but there have been more significant losses in some East of the Bann seats resulting in almost destruction of the party there. In other areas where there is still a decent party structure and good candidates the situation is static and beyond the Pale, in the Dreary Steeples and in the middle constituencies there is some prospect of modest growth. In actual fact Elliott has stabilised the UUP to a greater extent than might have been expected. Had Basil McCrea been elected it is highly likely that the party would have split and that these results would have been considerably worse than they turned out to be. It must be remembered that the last two UUP leaders, Trimble and Empey, both led their party to much worse electoral defeats and much larger drops in percentage share of the vote than Tom has just done.

Having stabilised the situation Tom Elliott must now hope to move forward. However, although he has done pretty well on stabilisation the small steady drop in votes is still there and faced with the overwhelming machine which is the DUP there seems little obvious prospect for major improvements in the UUP’s position. By hard constituency work and traditional voting patterns along with the odd good new candidate it is highly likely that the UUP will not go away for many years. However, this stasis / minor managed decline is not going to bring back the halcyon days when the Blessed Viscount was in charge of one of the most effective election winning machines in the Western World (at least in part this brilliance was entirely accidental). Nor will these strategies bring back the days when Jim Molyneaux quietly yet effectively out manoeuvred the DUP and his other opponents to make the UUP top unionist party.

Those days are past and most unlikely to return: there is simply not enough in the current UUP to achieve that much, nor are the electorate the same as they were even twenty years ago. One of the biggest problems the UUP seem to face is that the DUP have simply become the natural party for unionists. The DUP have managed to claim almost all the credit for Stormont’s successes for unionism and accrue almost none of the blame for its failures. The DUP’s political narrative is simply more attractive than that of the UUP either the hard line or the civic unionist narrative. Those who are not political anoraks care little about the charges of hypocrisy that the DUP entered an agreement similar to the Belfast one. Unionists may now largely tolerate the agreement and they seem unconcerned that the DUP used to oppose a very similar agreement or that the UUP claim to have done “the heavy lifting.”

The past is another country we did things and voted differently there.