Alex Kane: UUP probably has just one more roll of electoral dice

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It doesn’t matter how close you come. It doesn’t matter if the tide is supposedly turning your way. It doesn’t matter if the percentages shift a little bit in your favour. All that matters is winning.

All that matters is winning the seats your opponents expected to win. All that matters is the media pointing the microphones and cameras in the direction of your opponents and asking them, “Where did it go wrong today?”

Robin Swann has to find a way of putting his fine words into policy positions

Robin Swann has to find a way of putting his fine words into policy positions

Perception is everything in politics, particularly when it comes to elections. And after Saturday’s conference the perception of the UUP remains the same: they don’t look like winning anything anytime soon.

Given the difficulties the DUP has had over this last year or so one would have expected them to be on the electoral back foot right now. No sign of a talks breakthrough and the return of devolution. An RHI inquiry which has drenched the party in a waterfall of embarrassment. Last November Arlene Foster assured her party conference that, thanks to the DUP and their relationship with the government, “the Union is secure.” Yet over the last few weeks she has had to issue one threat after another to Theresa May; while senior DUP figures have spoken very publicly about existential threats to the entire United Kingdom. There’s also chatter within the DUP about whether or not it’s time to replace Foster.

Yet no matter how bad it looks for the DUP it remains the fact that not enough unionists – and clearly nowhere near enough of those presently voting DUP – seem prepared to look at the UUP as a viable alternative. That’s partly down to the St Andrews factor – which allows the DUP to continue with the mantra, “we’re the only unionist party which can stop Sinn Fein taking the role of First Minister.” Ten years ago a DUP MLA told me: “St Andrews guarantees 100,000 first-preference unionist votes in the bag for us before we even get to our own core vote.” He was right. Yet barring a rewriting of that arrangement, or the complete collapse of the DUP for other reasons, St Andrews will always play in their favour.

That’s a problem for every other unionist party, too; which is why the DUP was so keen to get the rules changed as soon as it became the lead party of unionism in the 2003 Assembly election.

It was a top-dog strategy which Sinn Fein was always happy enough to buy into, because it allowed them to do to the SDLP what the DUP was doing to the UUP.

Ironically, the loss of the overall unionist majority in the 2017 Assembly election – along with Sinn Fein coming within 1,200 votes and two seats of taking the role of First Minister – has played into the DUP’s hands. I can already picture their campaign planners setting out the approach: “Yes, we made mistakes and we will make the internal changes required. We will also learn the lessons of RHI. But if you don’t vote for the DUP you will end up with Sinn Fein as the biggest party. How does that help unionism? How does that help Northern Ireland? At this crucial time in our history, Robin Swann and Jim Allister are just thinking about themselves.”

This was one of the most striking passages from Robin Swann’s conference speech: “We must make sure there is no one left in any doubt that it is this party that offers a vision of new unionism that will secure our place in the Union through our second century and beyond. We know that unionism is a movement of people who can come from any class, or belief, or race, or sexual orientation and find common cause in defending the Union. I’m not going to be a unionist leader who just plays lip service to inclusiveness in unionism. So let me be very clear. If you somehow have become confused and think that sectarianism, racism or homophobia are tenets of unionism, then I am not at all sorry to say that the UUP is not the party for you.”

I don’t disagree with a word of that. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been talking about and writing about for most of my life. But Robin has to find a way of putting all of that into policy positions.

He will, for example, be pushed on the issue of whether the UUP will support same-sex-marriage legislation. He will be pushed by the media. He will be pushed by the DUP and TUV. He will be pushed by his own MLAs, councillors and party members. He will be pushed by nationalists on whether or not his ‘inclusiveness’ extends to an Irish language act. He will be pushed by lobby groups on abortion. He will be pushed on the issue of Northern Ireland being regarded as a ‘place apart’ within the UK.

The biggest challenge of all, though, lies in his ability to set out the very specific differences between the UUP and the DUP. Can he, in other words, establish an overall strategy which can secure his existing base; win back voters who went to the DUP; win back voters who went to Alliance; win over small-u unionists who haven’t voted for years; and face down what would be a ferocious campaign against him by the DUP?

And let’s not rule out the possibility that Sinn Fein will try and damn him with faint praise: on the basis that every UUP gain from the DUP helps them. The fallout from Brexit and the background noise about border polls doesn’t help him, either.

The reality – and one should never ignore reality – is that this is probably the last electoral roll of the dice for the UUP. They can’t have an ok result in May’s council elections. They need something that makes everyone sit up, take notice and take the party seriously again. That’s the difference between a fightback and a Swann song.