The three main parties in Britain will be holding their annual conferences in the next month: first the Liberal Democrats on 19-23 September, then Labour on 29 September to 1 October, and finally the Conservatives on 5-8 October. These conferences will signal the de facto start of the Westminster general election that must be held by next June at the latest. They will provide the parties with a platform to set out their policies and to demonstrate to the electorate their unity of purpose and electability. From October onwards they will all be in full election mode.
If Gordon Brown stretches his doomed term to its limit, the election campaign could be over nine months long – long enough to tax the stamina and resources of even a large and well-funded party. Yet the parties will all have to remain on war footing for the whole period – any slackening could give the opponents a chance to steal the advantage.
As things stand at the moment the Conservatives are on course for a resounding victory in 2010 – but if a week is a long time in politics, imagine what nine months feels like to David Cameron! The conferences themselves can boost party support, but this is usually just a temporary bounce which will be long forgotten by next June.
Northern Ireland is, of course, caught up in all this but yet at the same time utterly marginal to it. Even Roy Garland has noticed that the poor UUP, despite their pretence of importance, are simply pawns being used to further British aims: "While we could not compare Sir Reg with Edward Carson, even the latter discovered he was but a puppet in a game to get the Tories into power." Northern Ireland may get a token mention at each party conference, but in the election it will scarcely count – the real battle remains one between Labour and the Conservatives in the densely populated heartlands of England and to a less extent central Scotland and south Wales.
Nonetheless, elections will also be held in Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies, and while largely irrelevant to the future of the UK, the results will be of great local importance. Northern Ireland's parties have neither the resources nor the necessity to commit to a nine month campaign, and so the increasing clamour on the other side of the Irish Sea will be viewed from here with a kind of envious detachment. Northern Ireland's parties will only really get active in the month or two before the election date – though some, like the TUV, will try to get publicity earlier, and the unionist media will no doubt give it to them to try to bolster the illusion that Northern Ireland really is an equal participant.
But the absence of any policies in the Northern Irish debate apart from the eternal constitutional question dooms the election campaign to sterility. It simply doesn't matter who wins seats in Northern Ireland because it will not affect the overall outcome, except in the highly unlikely event of a Tory disaster and the UUP holding the balance of power – a fantasy which even the UUP know to be almost impossible.
The interest in the election in Northern Ireland stems only from the light it shines on the relative sizes of the two main political blocks. Whether unionists steal Fermanagh-South Tyrone, or Sinn Féin retains it, is largely irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. Although the victor would claim it as a great victory, it provides him (or her) with no power or reassurance for the future. Only the aggregate votes of the blocks can do that, and if unionism achieves its objectives and snatches additional seats while at the same time suffering an overall drop in its proportion of the vote, these victories will be but Pyrrhic. A side-show in this election will be provided again by the TUV, but this performance will remain entirely within the unionist camp, and the overall effect for unionism will be zero. Nonetheless, it is always entertaining to watch unionist infighting so this blog will pay the TUV some undeserved attention.
In the run-up to the election campaign this blog will look at the profiles of each of the 18 constituencies – though the demographic data is getting old, and the electoral data will be three years out of date by June 2010 – in order to provide a basis for predictions of the outcome. Of course the actual outcome will in many cases depend on who stands (or doesn't, if there are pacts) and on the unknown unknowns that a nine-month election campaign will inevitably throw up.