Last week I did an analysis of the decline in the SDLP’s electoral support since 1998. In the piece, I questioned whether the party had a future if it continued losing voters.
A lot of these same problems affect the Ulster Unionist Party. This party which founded the Northern Ireland state had led every single government that the province had until 2007. Indeed, it is hard to the think that Ian Paisley was the first leader of our provincial administration who did not come from the UUP.
However, those days of dominance are over, as the party find itself in an existential crisis. The figures largely speak for themselves. Since 1998, the UUP has lost 84, 964 votes, this is roughly on par with the loss of support that the SDLP has suffered over the same period. Just to put this in context, that is 6,500 voters abandoning the party every single year.
Unlike the SDLP with Sinn Fein, a bigger share of the drop in the UUP’s vote has gone to their main rival the DUP.
Since 1998, the DUP has picked up around 61 per cent (51,447 votes) of the voters who have left the UUP. The other 39 per cent (33,500 voters) have from what I can see just stopped voting.
The great myth in Northern Ireland politics seems to be that Alliance are picking up bucket loads of disenchanted UUP voters. However, over the 15 years, Alliance has had no growth in the number of people voting for them.
Where to now?
Revolving door leadership-The easiest way to spot a dying party is to see a continuous chain of leaders come and go. This has been going on with the UUP recently has they have had four leaders (Trimble, Empey, Elliott and Nesbitt) in just seven years.
Defections-I know Basil and John’s departure earlier this year is not seen as a major threat and I don’t think it is. But we should remember that it makes the party’s recovery all that much harder. Even if NI21 only take 5-7,000 votes from the UUP it still can damage the party in places like South Belfast, Lagan Valley and South Down, where they need to either hold or make gains.
Purpose-Tony Blair always knew the most important question for any leader or party in politics is ‘what is the point of you?’ The UUP has since its foundation built the party’s strength on its links with the Orange Order, the Ulster Farmers Union and the fact that it helped found the Northern Ireland state.
These three pillars have largely fallen away for the party as the DUP have successfully made inroads in winning over the Orange Order and UFU.
It would be all too easy to confine the decline of the UUP to just 2003 onwards. In reality, since it lost government in March 1972, the broad coalition that it had successfully held together through power and patronage began to fall apart. Now that the party is likely to be out of any serious governmental positions for the next few years, I predict the remaining segments of this coalition to fall away gradually.
Mike Nesbitt was elected in 2012 as the potential saviour of the party. However, I think in a few years’ time, he’s more likely to be the chief the mourner at the wake. After more than half a century of dominance, I cannot help but pose the question, what on earth has happened to our grand old party?
Footnote-The real decline in the UUP’s vote did not come until the 2007 assembly election. The party had a 7.7% swing against it and lost 9 seats.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs