UUP entitled to be feeling good, but faces a brutal election fight with DUP

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The last time the UUP had such an upbeat, feeling good about themselves conference was 1997. It was David Trimble’s third as party leader and earlier that year, at the general and local government elections, the UUP had seen off the DUP by margins of 33 per cent-14 per cent and 28 per cent-16 per cent.

The UUP was feeling really positive about itself back then and had even begun to warm to Trimble the person, as well as Trimble the leader: he was, after all, delivering for them and making them relevant again after the ‘drift’ of the Molyneaux years.

Yet six years later, at the 2003 Assembly election, the DUP moved ahead of the UUP. By 2011 the party had lost all of its MPs and recorded its worst-ever results at general, Euro, council and Assembly elections. Worse – from the UUP’s perspective – the DUP had also established itself as the overall majority voice of unionism and Robinson appeared to be master of all he surveyed. It had taken the DUP almost 40 years to become top dog: how long would the UUP revival take? Indeed, was a UUP revival even possible?

Well, the UUP is certainly in a better position than it was in 2011, with an increased share – albeit modest – of the vote at the council and general elections and more councillors and MPs. It has done what parties love to do – defied the predictions of pundits and political opponents.

It has picked up a few defections and seems to be attracting new and younger members. Their withdrawal from the Executive wrong-footed the DUP and forced them into a bizarre and inexplicable in/out strategy with their own ministers. And Robinson’s hop, skip and jump back into the Executive after confirmation that he was probably locked at the hip to the IRA Army Council has made him – and his party – seem desperate for power.

So, here’s the big question for Nesbitt: how does he convert the upbeat mood of his party members into major gains at the Assembly election due in May 2016? He needs to begin by winning back the seats won in 2011 by David McNarry, John McCallister and Basil McCrea. That would take him up to 16 again: yet one of his inner circle told me, “16 doesn’t represent growth, Alex”. Which means knocking out Claire Sugden in East Londonderry (the seat formerly held for the UUP by the late David McClarty), trying to pick up second seats again in places like South Antrim, East Belfast, North Down, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Lagan Valley, East Antrim and winning back the seat the party used to have in North Belfast. It’s a huge target list, but at least half of them are ripe for the picking.

But where’s he going to pitch the UUP? Friday’s party election broadcast and his conference speech on Saturday contained some of the most liberal stuff I have ever heard from a UUP leader: indeed, it sounded like a blend of Alliance and NI21 in places. But his response to the paramilitary assessment panel and to Sinn Fein’s “constant denial” suggest that he is trying to outflank the DUP and attract potential TUV voters.

It looks like he’s nudging the party towards a ‘broad church” identity, yet the electoral history of the party suggests that ‘broad church’ only worked between 1921-72 when the party won election after election. That said, if the DUP is losing support that only came to it after 1998, if TUV/PUP/Ukip want their votes to damage the DUP, or if some non-voters think it’s time to rehabilitate David Trimble, then a ‘broad church’ pitch probably makes sense.

Nesbitt also needs to find an answer to the DUP line, “the DUP is the only party big enough to keep Sinn Fein out of post of First Minister”. He needs to take it head on. If the DUP is happy enough to return to an Executive while it believes the IRA and the Army Council still exist, then it can hardly get too precious about any Sinn Fein member as First Minister. Anyway, the powers of veto still remain. Nesbitt needs to push the argument, “don’t be scared or bullied into voting for the DUP”.

The other thing to bear in mind is, that in precisely the same way David Trimble had become a huge electoral problem for the UUP between 2003-05, Peter Robinson is now a potential electoral problem for the DUP. His replacement as leader is a matter of open discussion in the party (some members are even suggesting a handover process is being arranged in time for their November conference) and the recent headlines surrounding him are drawing unwelcome attention to the party. In other words, there may be a consensus building that a new leader would be a strategically sound move at this point.

But when all is said and done the DUP is a ruthlessly efficient election machine and is very, very good at the numbers game. It knows the seats being targeted by the UUP and it also knows that luck was on its side in the 2011 Assembly election, allowing it to pick up a couple of extra seats. So this has all the makings of a pretty brutal election campaign, with both parties having an awful lot to prove.

On a really, really good day, the UUP could reach 23 seats: but the odds still favour the DUP, so it looks like 19 or 20 for Nesbitt. He would be happy with that. And so would his party.