A bloody nose, but don’t write off DUP

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As I have said on many occasions perception is everything in politics. Most people just glance at the headline figures and move on: and the headline figures suggest that the DUP and Sinn Fein have done pretty well in terms of votes and seats – which they have.

Similarly, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance are still in the ‘big five’ mix, with a bit of slippage here and a little gain there.

So most people – by which I mean those of us who aren’t anoraks and nerds – will conclude that nothing much has changed, and that us-and-them politics will dominate the new councils as they did the old ones.

But, as regular readers will know, I’m also a Holmesian, someone who sets great store by the ‘observation of trifles’.

Let’s look at the UUP for a moment. On the surface they have improved their electoral performance by less than one per cent since the last council elections in 2011 – just 742 votes, in fact. Yet here’s an astonishing thing: the gap between the UUP and DUP in that election was 78,793, yet it has now reduced to 43,543.

And here’s an equally astonishing thing: the high point for both the DUP and UUP in the past decade was the 2005 general election, when the DUP polled 241,856 to the UUP’s 127,314 – a gap of 114,542.

In other words, the DUP has dropped almost 97,000 to the UUP’s 26,000.

Does this mean that the UUP is on the way back? That can’t be answered at this point. They are still below the 102,361 votes they polled in 2010 (when they were part of the UCUNF pact) and the 103,145 in the 2007 Assembly election.

Yes, they have put on 14,000 votes since 2011, but that was from their lowest ever level of support.

This is very modest progress and it looks better than it is because the votes/seats gap between the DUP has narrowed. It clearly isn’t a moment for cracking the champagne corks and getting carried away with nonsense about sweeping back to power. But it is a moment for welcoming the good news that they have gained rather than fallen: and an even better moment for working out how they can exploit the DUP’s underlying problems.

How bad does it look for the DUP, though? There are two things to remember about the DUP: it was written off by some in the late 1990s (although not by me), and it is always at its best when its back is to the wall. Nobody –and I mean nobody – should underestimate the ability of the DUP to analyse the electoral data and draw the necessary lessons. No party is better at taking a bloody nose and bouncing back.

But it’s hard to deny, as Lewis Carroll noted about something else, that they “used to be much more … muchier. They’ve lost their muchness”.

And they’ve also been losing votes on a scale that should worry them: a scale which, when it happened to the UUP over a decade ago, led to the UUP tumbling fairly rapidly from its position of dominance.

Gregory Campbell tried to dismiss the UUP’s performance by referring to Mike Nesbitt as “0.9 per cent Nesbitt,” hoping to distract from the fact that the DUP has lost four per cent and been hit pretty hard by the TUV and, to a lesser extent, by the PUP.

The DUP needs to deal with the facts rather than simply resort to the usual cheap shots because, for the first time in a long time, it is on the back foot on both issues and election results. I wonder if their seeming support for cuts in welfare benefit damaged them? Or the news that they were being courted by David Cameron.

It was also a good result for the PUP, their best since the late 1990s. Their problem, though, is that it doesn’t mean much in terms of the influence they will have at council level because, with just four councillors, they don’t have enough of them to make an impact.

But, like the UUP (whom they did better than in percentage gain), progress is progress and they now need to work out how to expand and maximise.

I think the TUV will be a little disappointed by their council performance in terms of seats gained and votes won. It’s their best performance since 2010 (their 28,310 represents an increase of just 2010) and a doubling of their vote since the 2011 council election – but it’s not hammer blow territory against the DUP. That said, Jim Allister will probably do better in the Euro contest, where unionists may have been willing to cast a ‘protest’ vote before returning to base in the council contest.

UKIP may be a little disappointed. Nigel Farage’s visit seems to have had limited impact and this vote would suggest that the party may struggle in the General and Assembly elections in 2015/16.

I don’t actually know why the Conservatives bother to field candidates here. The NI group is little more than a glorified supper club: they have no vote, no influence, and no purpose. NI21 did reasonably well in the circumstances: but those circumstances have now probably conspired to kill them off.

So, what do the results say about the state of unionism? Well, turnout continued to fall, meaning that more unionists/pro-union voters stayed at home. The PUP, TUV and UUP have reasons to be cheerful, while the DUP will be smarting – but it was by no means a catastrophe for them.

Yet all of them, including UKIP, will realise that they can’t all stand in next year’s general election without risking a loss of unionist seats. Most of electoral unionism is now on the right (as is the PUP on cultural/identity issues), which means there is a huge gap in the middle and on the left.

Whatever the parties may say now, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they will need to talk about electoral pacts or ‘arrangements’. To that extent at least nothing has changed.