But none of this applies to the Mid Ulster by-election, where none of the four candidates has any substantive link with either the Coalition Government or the main Opposition at Westminster. Since Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein and UUP/DUP are all in the Stormont Executive there’s no opportunity, either, to pass judgment on how it has been performing since 2011. Adding to the overwhelming sense of dullness about it all is the fact that Sinn Fein (barring a miracle of epic proportions) is going to win.
So, why didn’t the DUP, UUP and even the TUV throw their hats into the ring? What had they got to lose? The chances of a unionist retaking the seat are non-existent so it would have been a good chance, surely, for the testing of waters? This is Nesbitt’s first election since he became leader and one would have thought he would have wanted to dip his toe in the water. Jim Allister has been badgering away in the Assembly for almost two years and, again, one would have thought that he would have wanted to test them, too: if only to see how his anti-Sinn Fein stance is playing with voters. Peter Robinson has been in ‘reach out’ mode since a series of speeches during the Covenant centenary and here was a chance to see if his born-again liberalism was scoring home runs.
Yet all three parties shied away from a contest: which leads to the conclusion that all three are lacking in confidence. And that meant that it suited all of their interests to trumpet the merits of unionist unity and hope that they could all claim success if it goes well, or, failing that, blame each other if the result is bad.
The biggest risk in all of this is for Nesbitt. He has already lost McCrea and McCallister and if the unity strategy doesn’t deliver a statistically important increase in votes then he’s going to have some explaining to do and difficult decisions to make. In a series of recent interviews he has refused to rule out unity candidates at other elections; yet if this one doesn’t deliver then surely he has to draw a line under what he has described as ‘an experiment’? But in drawing that line he will be admitting a failure of strategy. On the other hand, if Mid Ulster does deliver then he will find it hard not to repeat the experiment and that, in turn, will lead to continuing accusations that he wants the DUP and UUP to be much closer.
The other interesting feature of the unity campaign has been the reluctance of either the DUP or UUP to allow Nigel Lutton much unsupervised time with the media. It’s almost as if they are afraid of what he might say. There is, I suppose, some sort of logic behind the decision: Lutton is supported by three parties and they don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue. One ‘mistake’ would be exploited by the media and risk the loss of votes. Mind you, strategic coyness can be seen by some as fear or a lack of confidence, and that, too, can act as a turnoff for voters.
Is there any yardstick by which to judge Lutton’s success? Well, the 2010 General Election and 2011 Assembly and Local Government elections averaged about 32%, so anything above that would be counted as a reasonable/good result. The same figure, or worse, a fall, and it would be very difficult to construct any sort of argument for saying that the strategy had been worthwhile.
Alliance---which hasn’t broken the 1% barrier here---will be hoping to pick up some votes from those within the pro-Union/unionist camp who would be ‘supportive’ of McCrea and McCallister. There probably aren’t many of them, but against a background in which a unionist unity candidate can’t win the seat it does make sense for Alliance to do some fishing.
Had there not been a unionist unity candidate the SDLP might have hoped to pick up some small-u unionist votes, as they do in South Down for example. But most of the electoral evidence suggests that a section of the SDLP’s core vote will simply ‘lend’ their votes to Sinn Fein on this occasion---sending a not particularly subtle message to unionists that they don’t like this sort of sectarian headcount.
Some bloggers/tweeters have suggested that anything less than 50% would represent a setback for Sinn Fein. No--the only setbacks for Sinn Fein would be losing the seat or seeing their vote fall to the low 40% share: and it strikes me that there is no likelihood of that happening.
So, all in all, it hasn’t been an exciting election and I’m not anticipating an exciting result. The percentage to watch is Lutton’s, because that could have a dramatic impact on what happens to what has been an increasingly cosy relationship between the UUP and DUP. My gut instinct, though, (providing that the unionist vote doesn’t crash) is that the joint statement thanking Nigel has been written already and that Peter and Mike will continue down the path of ever closer cooperation.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKane221b