On the back of a third major election in just over 12 months, Alex Kane analyses the fortunes of the UUP amidst successively worsening electoral results.
It’s the ‘yet again’ phrase, which is often the clearest sign that a party has a problem: because, ‘yet again,’ the UUP has recorded its worst ever electoral performance. Ok, it can say that it didn’t field candidates in every constituency; yet in every constituency where it did stand (with the exception of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, which has always been a law onto itself) it was hammered by the DUP. And hammered to the extent that it’s quite likely that it could lose another two or three Assembly seats if there’s another early election.
The other difficulty for the UUP is that it has reached the point at which it is almost impossible to convince itself, let alone anyone else, that a recovery is possible. Between 2003 (when it was first eclipsed by the DUP) and the late summer of 2015 (when it withdrew from the Executive) the UUP relied upon the DUP to make a mess of monumental proportions—the sort of mess which would send voters back to them. They replaced Trimble with Empey, then Elliott, then Nesbitt and now Swann. One minute they attacked the DUP; the next they cosied up to them in the Unionist Forum and electoral pacts. Their signals were so mixed they could just as easily have been sent by a blind, deaf semaphorist.
Their hopes were raised when Tom Elliott (albeit on the back of a pact) and Danny Kinahan were returned to Westminster in 2015; then dashed again in the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections and the general election. Opposition didn’t deliver votes or seats for them. Sinn Féin’s growing obsession with border polls and unity meant that elections became more of a numbers’ game than ever before—and that sort of game always favours the big two parties.
I’m not sure that there’s a reinvention, or rebuilding, or repositioning, or rethinking, or restructuring left in them. They’ve tried all sorts of things since 2003, yet none of them has resulted in the electoral breakthrough required for the party to be taken seriously again. It’s not enough to say, “We’re not the same as the DUP”. What people want to know is this: what, precisely, the UUP actually does, or stands for, anymore?
On 8 June, they gave Lady Hermon a free run and encouraged their voters to back her. Most of them shifted to Alex Easton. In Strangford, Mike Nesbitt recorded the party’s worst ever result. In places like South Belfast, East Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, South Antrim, Mid-Ulster, North Antrim, Upper Bann and East Londonderry, their vote plummeted. In the four Belfast seats they have just one MLA. And the defeat of their two MPs, along with six MLAs in March (not forgetting the absence of an MEP in several years) also represents a huge loss to their finances. Put bluntly: another early Assembly election or general election could cripple them.
It’s always unwise to pen the obituary for a political party, if only because circumstances can change so quickly. That said, I genuinely have no idea how the UUP comes back from the triple whammy of bad results since May 2016. There’s no point in them wasting time on the fanciful targeting of seats, let alone delusional rhetoric about ‘holding the DUP’s feet to the fire’. The UUP is 30,000 votes and two Assembly seats behind Alliance. This is now about survival: Nothing else matters.