Alex Kane: Alliance are as stuck on the fringes as they ever were

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Next April the Alliance Party will celebrate its 50th birthday.

It got its best ever result – in terms of actual votes, as opposed to percentage share – in its first ever election in 1973. That was for the newly restructured local councils and Alliance won 94,474 votes (more than the similarly newly formed DUP, Vanguard and SDLP) on a share of 13.7%.

Alliance leader Naomi Long gives her leader's address at the party conference on Saturday

Alliance leader Naomi Long gives her leader's address at the party conference on Saturday

Four years later it pushed the percentage share to 14.4, but with its vote down to just over 80,000. Only twice since then – in the general elections of 1979 and 1987 – has it nudged its percentage share into double figures.

In the last 20 years its average Assembly/Westminster/council vote has been around 46,000 – less than half of its heyday in May 1973: since when, of course, there has also been a statistically significant increase in the total electorate.

All of which raises the question: why isn’t it doing better? Back in 1998, a few days before the first election to the new Assembly, a then very senior member of the party told me: “If we don’t make a pretty dramatic breakthrough at this point, then I’m not sure that we ever can. This is the most important challenge for the political/electoral middle ground in my lifetime and Alliance must prove that it has tapped into the swell of extra voters who came out a few weeks ago to back Yes (in the referendum).”

That breakthrough never came: although it is worth noting that Alliance now has more councillors (8-6) and MLAs (4-1) in Belfast than the UUP.

It’s also worth noting that the party has seen an upturn in its electoral fortunes since Naomi Long became leader in October 2016. In the 2017 Assembly election, five months after she succeeded David Ford, Alliance, with 72,717 votes, recorded its best ever vote in an Assembly election (and I’m including the 1973 Assembly, 1975 Convention, 1982 Assembly and the 1996 Forum in those figures). Three months later, in the general election in June, the party got its best vote, 64,553, since the 1992 general election.

Long is the party’s most important electoral asset. Her next challenge is the local council elections on May 2 and if she can repeat the successes of 2017 then there is every reason to believe that she can push both the vote and percentage up again: in the 2014 local government elections Alliance won 41,769 votes on a 6.7% share.

But even if the party does better – and it probably will – there is still no reason to believe that it will represent the ‘dramatic breakthrough’ that was first mentioned to me in 1998. Even with the increased vote in 2017 (and factoring in the overall reduction in MLA numbers from 108-90) the party kept the eight seats it had. It needs to be pushing through the single-figure barrier if it is to convince the electorate that a vote for Alliance isn’t, when it comes down to it, a wasted vote. A matter of months from its 50th anniversary and it is still number five in the party rankings.

I have a theory about why Alliance never made the breakthrough: and maybe never will, even if Long adds to their overall vote and seat tally. I’m not convinced that the electoral space it occupies is the genuine middle ground. It has placed itself between unionism and nationalism, something it has done since it was founded. But is that really the middle ground? For people who aren’t hung-up on the constitutional question why would they vote for a party that plants itself between the parties for whom the constitutional question is the be-all-and-end-all? In that position all Alliance can do is tack between both sides: annoying one or the other in turn. Indeed, the increasing perception that Alliance is closer to nationalism than unionism is also a potential problem in terms of further growth.

Anyway, I have long suspected that the middle ground is somewhere else entirely; a place which remains uncharted territory. A place, if you like, which is Northern Ireland-centric and building on a very specific Northern Ireland identity. I’m not saying that I would vote for it, but judging by the number of people who seem to have an understanding and appetite for a Northern Ireland ‘identity’ it would make sense for a party claiming to represent the middle ground to explore and stake out that territory.

I’ve been at a number of Alliance conferences over the years and spoken to many of their members, but I’m still not really sure what they stand for. At Saturday’s conference, for example, I asked 17 delegates how they would vote if there were a border poll. Seven said they’d vote for Irish unity, six for the Union and four said they weren’t sure. When I asked if Brexit had a major impact on their thinking only one, who would now vote for Irish unity, said that it had. A couple of years ago an Alliance MLA chastised me for my ‘attacks’ on the secretary of state: that same MLA was cheering and applauding as Long put the boot into Karen Bradley on Saturday.

Interestingly, there was no applause at all when Long said: “If it becomes clear that there is no will to restore the Assembly, then it needs to be shelved and alternative arrangements put in place to make decisions as we cannot continue in a state of suspended animation forever.”

The biggest challenge of all for Long is doing something that no Alliance leader has ever done; take the party from the electoral fringes and right to the heart of politics here. I don’t doubt either her feistiness or her passion, but those qualities alone are not going to be enough to deliver the sort of difference she wants to make. Personally, I think it’s now too late for Alliance to deliver on the early promise of 1973 (when it was still regarded as broadly pro-Union). That said, I also know that Naomi enjoys a challenge.