Election numbers bringing little cheer for UUP and SDLP

Posted By: May 12, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, May 12, 2017

The mathematics is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for both the UUP and SDLP.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the UUP took 12.6 percent and were lucky to hold 16 seats (at one point it seemed they would end up with 14). The SDLP took 12 percent and went down two seats, to 14. It was a bad day for both of them. In March 2017, against the background of a substantial 10 percent increase in turnout, the UUP managed a mere 0.3 per cent uplift in votes (losing 6 seats in the process); while the SDLP actually fell very slightly but enjoyed a little bit of the luck the UUP had in 2016 and held on to their 12 seats.

On June 8, both parties face another crucial test. Neither of the UUP’s two seats (South Antrim and Fermanagh/South Tyrone) is bankable; and the SDLP’s 3 (Foyle, South Belfast, and South Down) are also under huge pressure. The sort of luck that helped Colum Eastwood in the Assembly election doesn’t transfer easily to the first past the post system for Westminster, so they really do need to maximize their own turnout. He may have breathed a sigh of relief when the UUP and DUP failed to reach a pact for South Belfast, but I think that the DUP has a slightly better chance without a pact—because, with a pact, there was a greater likelihood of some SF, Alliance, Green and others shifting to Alasdair McDonnell.

Another concern for both parties is the looming prospect of yet another Assembly election sometime in September or October. If, as I suspect, the DUP and SF have a good day on June 8 then neither of them will be afraid of an election. Indeed, if the UUP and SDLP are hit particularly badly, then it might be in the interests of Arlene Foster and Gerry Adams to move in and finish them off. They will have learned from their mistakes in March (neither of them had done enough of the necessary homework for an early election based on five rather than 6 Assembly seats) and will be able to fine-tune their operations to grab a few more seats from the UUP and SDLP.

While it’s certainly much too early to be preparing obituaries of the UUP and SDLP, there are clearly questions that need to be asked about their long-term survival and relevance. Even if there isn’t another election they will have to decide about opposition again; although this time it will be Colum Eastwood who will be able to take the title—as Mike Nesbitt did—of Leader of the Opposition. That may be hard for the UUP to swallow. And given the fact that their opposition double act didn’t deliver votes, they may both decide that an executive role would be more appealing. Mind you; it’s also worth bearing in mind that another poor result in an early election could mean that neither of them even qualifies—under the present rules—to form the opposition.

The UUP may also be tempted by closer cooperation with the DUP. They are not a cash-rich party and poor results—particularly as part of an ongoing trend—do not attract members or potential donors. A lengthy period of the direct rule would also hit the UUP and SDLP very hard because they don’t have the ear of government in London or Dublin.

As I noted in last week’s column, political power and electoral dominance are centralizing around an increasingly polarized DUP/SF. That seems to be what the electorate wants: two governments in one executive, each pursuing and promoting mutually contradictory agendas. People who once voted for the UUP and SDLP have shifted to the DUP and SF—and a majority of the 10 percent increase in turnout in March went to the DUP/SF (62 per cent), with UUP/SDLP taking 20 per cent and Alliance around 18 per cent. In other words, almost two-thirds of those who haven’t voted for years came out and voted for polarization: while a fifth opted for parties with a very clear stand on the constitutional question.

Two trends are discernable in these figures (and yes, I accept that more drilling down is required): the UUP and SDLP are slowly, steadily, been worn down by the DUP/SF machines; and the middle ground (which has a number of very broad definitions, of course) is failing to make the sort of electoral breakthrough required to change the political dynamics here. Also—and again it’s an observation rather than a concrete fact—the evidence suggests that a majority of those non-voters who could be tempted to the polls again, look as though they’ll head towards the DUP and SF.

Finally, with Irish unity and talk of a border poll likely to dominate the political/electoral agenda for the next few years, I can’t think of a worse, more challenging time for those seeking an alternative to hard green/orange or even the slightly blurrier turquoise politics. Come on; there must be some younger, post-GFA thinkers out there. Even an old cynic like me would like to see something new on the political scene!