Alex Kane: UUP must find a way to deal with Alliance threat

In a tweet on Saturday Naomi Long reminded me of something I had written about her a couple of years ago: ‘When I became leader, you said Alliance needed to top 10% and get representation outside greater Belfast. You also said you weren’t sure if we could do it but if anyone could, I could. And obviously I couldn’t resist a challenge like that.’

Well, she has delivered on that challenge. Alliance has had its best overall electoral performance since the 1970s. She has grown the vote in the greater Belfast area and stretched the party right across Northern Ireland. Indeed, had a few more candidates been standing Alliance might have been nudging towards 60 seats. As it is, Alliance is just 1% behind the SDLP and about 2% behind the UUP in votes.

That was the first big story of the election. The second was the collapse of the UUP in Belfast. Down to just two councillors. The slippage didn’t surprise me; the scale of it did. But it’s part of a pattern which has continued for 20 years.

In the 1998 Assembly election, in the constituencies covering the greater Belfast area (North Down, Strangford, Lagan Valley and East Antrim) the UUP had 14 MLAs to Alliance’s five. That’s now 7-6 in Alliance’s favour (although the DUP also made inroads into the UUP). In the council elections, the greater Belfast vote (covering the Belfast; North Down and Ards; Castlereagh and Lisburn; and Antrim and Newtownabbey councils) broke in Alliance’s favour – and I’m indebted to Ian James Parsley for the figures – by 49,698 (19%) to the UUP’s 34,393 (13.2%).

Alliance leader Naomi Long (right) celebrates success in last week's Belfast City Council election with party members

The UUP has a problem with Alliance. It is running behind them in seats and votes in what were once ‘safe’ areas for the UUP; and each new election seems to increase the problem. Before the election elements within unionism were describing Alliance as an enemy of the Union. During the election a leaflet, apparently endorsed by two UUP candidates, stated: ‘The Alliance Party on Belfast City Council has demonstrated repeatedly they are closely aligned to Sinn Fein. Their record shows time and time again they vote with the Provisional IRA’s political wing. They have made their position quite clear that they are neutral on the Union.’

While it has been clear for some time (I’ve been writing about it for over a decade) that Alliance has been tapping into a ‘soft’ unionist demographic, with the UUP being particularly badly hit, the leaflet was still a spectacularly stupid response. I argued at the time that, rather than simply attacking Alliance as enemies of unionism, the UUP should be giving very serious consideration to the question of why their former voters were finding Alliance a more comfortable fit. Or, putting that another way, why would unionist party voters start to vote for a non-unionist party?

The answer is simple. They don’t view Alliance as an anti-unionist party. They don’t believe that a vote for Alliance presents a threat to the Union. Ok, Alliance may be viewed as neutral or agnostic on the Union, but since the constitutional question is one which can only be determined by a border poll at some point, it seems to be the case that many unionists will vote for Alliance for so long as they believe that it isn’t acting against the interests of the Union. Alliance doesn’t describe itself as a unionist party, so attacking it for not being a unionist party is pointless. Attacking it for being aligned to the ‘Provisional IRA’s political wing’ is a nonsensical charge when both the UUP and DUP have sat in government with Sinn Fein and will probably do so again.

The leaflet backfired. It galvanised the Alliance vote. It cost the UUP council seats and votes across the greater Belfast area; including the seat of one of the councillors who endorsed it. It made it impossible to reach out to those ‘soft’ unionists who had drifted to Alliance – in an effort to win them back.

It left the UUP fighting on two fronts: trying to contain electoral pressure from the DUP, while also trying to cope with a backlash in favour of Alliance. And, just over two weeks away from the Euro poll, it has made Danny Kennedy’s task of holding the UUP seat much more difficult. It is Naomi Long who has the spring in her step and the wind at her back.

At the start of the election campaign I noted that Alliance had to prove that a vote for them wasn’t, in essence, a wasted vote. The general response to that stupid, offensive, pointless leaflet has helped them prove that they no longer represent a wasted vote.

The important thing for the UUP to remember is that the picture, while not good, is not yet catastrophic in Belfast. The reduction to just one MLA and two councillors actually gives them the chance to bring in new blood and do some basic restructuring at branch and constituency level. They need to end their obsession with Alliance (a formal apology about the leaflet wouldn’t go amiss) and learn to work the doors again and get involved with the day-to-day issues at community group level.

They can’t just throw new faces into the electoral mix at the next Assembly, general and council elections and hope for the best. Recovery will be a long haul project. Short cuts and half-heartedness will not work.

The party also needs to decide exactly what it stands for: and, having decided, ensure members sing from the same sheets.

It faces two main electoral challenges, from Alliance and the DUP. It cannot address those challenges in precisely the same way because the challenges are different. But if the UUP is to survive the challenges must be addressed.

There is enormous talent within and across the party, but it must be gathered, harnessed and pointed in the one direction.