Election cycle could change politics ... but probably won’t

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The Assembly swings back into action in the next few days: if, indeed, ‘action’ is the right word to use for a body that farms out so much stuff to consultation, puts so much else on the long finger and still relies on others to sort out local problems.

Anyway, the first plenary session is next Monday. It strikes me that the chances of much happening are pretty limited, not least because we have moved into election mode.

There are four elections scheduled between now and 2016: the Euro election and council elections in May 2014 (although there are still doubts about the new super councils), followed by the general election in May 2015 and the Assembly election in May 2016. This is a very important election cycle, certainly the most important cycle since 1998, and it’s not over-egging the pudding to suggest that the outcome could change the face of politics here.

Both the UUP and SDLP need very clear evidence of electoral recovery. They have both endured a downward spiral since 2003 and will need new votes and seats if they are to be taken seriously again. I would be surprised if the UUP lost their Euro seat, although they could take a hit if NI21, UKIP or the TUV (assuming it stands) takes a chunk of their existing vote. Losing the seat would be a catastrophe from which they would not recover.

Similarly, they need to do well at the council elections, because they will also be coming under pressure from a broad swathe of pro-Union alternatives.

The chances of winning back a Westminster seat don’t seem high at this point, particularly if they don’t have a deal with the DUP in South Belfast and North Down. Nesbitt has survived longer as leader than I thought (although there’s still no evidence that he has turned the tide for the party) but the UUP is not seen as the primary rival to the DUP.

The SDLP has no chance of winning back a Euro seat so, like the UUP, needs to do well at council elections. The problem it has is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate it from Sinn Fein: so the likelihood is that more nationalists/republicans will shift to the better organised, higher profile party.

They should hold at least two of their three Westminster seats, which is good for profile and finances but – like the UUP – I’m not convinced there is much chance of picking up Assembly seats. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there won’t be any significant recovery for either the UUP or SDLP. This cycle is probably their last hurrah.

The smaller unionist/pro-Union parties (UKIP, TUV, Conservatives, PUP and NI21) have a lot to prove between now and 2016. Jim Allister and the PUP have been making a lot of noise since last December, but will that noise deliver votes?

That depends on two factors: whether enough people believe that the PUP has reinvented itself and now has a relevant socio/economic agenda; and whether enough people believe that a vote for the TUV can deliver for them when voting for UUP, DUP and Bob McCartney’s UKUP didn’t. My hunch – and it is only a hunch – is that not enough people will.

As for UKIP and the Conservatives: the former is still very much a minority interest and the latter is, to all intents and purposes, dead.

The Euro election is a big test for NI21 and it looks likely that they will not be fielding either McCrea or McCallister. That said; they still need to do well. A low vote will have a knock-on effect, particularly if they come in behind Alliance, don’t take a chunk from the UUP and don’t attract present non-voters. If the council elections are on the same day I can’t see them making much of a dent, mostly because they haven’t had enough time to carve out a role and identity.

Alliance had almost three years to prepare between being founded and fighting their first big election.

What of Alliance? Well, they have struggled to break into double-figure percentages at any election since 1973 and there is no sign of that trend being bucked. They need to thump NI21 at the Euro election, because they will want to stop any momentum from them: and they will want to hold their balance of power role on Belfast’s council. That aside, the odds are against them keeping East Belfast (although it’s not impossible) and they’ll probably lose at least one Assembly seat.

Sinn Fein remains strong in both electoral and political terms. Yes, there has been annoyance about Jim Allister’s Spad Bill and the u-turn on the Maze, but neither will have done any damage to Sinn Fein’s voter base. Similarly, the SDLP hasn’t landed a blow on Sinn Fein and Alasdair McDonnell hasn’t even thrown a punch at them. So, it looks like they will continue to grow.

But will they grow enough to eclipse the DUP in electoral terms (which would have enormous consequences for unionism at council and Assembly level)? That depends on how much damage has been done to DUP since last December. On paper it is possible for the DUP to lose Assembly seats to the UUP, PUP, TUV, Alliance and NI21: and it is possible (some would say probable) that Sinn Fein could pinch a few from the SDLP. The odds remain in the DUP’s favour, but if my instincts are wrong then the DUP could do much worse than expected and Sinn Fein much better.

If that is the outcome – and I don’t expect it to be – then May 7, 2016 (results day for the Assembly election) could be a huge game-changer for politics here. My early call, though, is for consolidation of the DUP/SF duopoly and the cementing of polarisation.