Thursday 29 October 2009

Political suicide

It is rare, though not unknown, for a political party to deliberately narrow its appeal in order to reduce its potential vote. The British Labour Party did it in 1983 (through the manifesto that was described as 'the longest political suicide note in history'), and the US Republican Party appear to be toying with it in the aftermath of the Obama phenomenon. But usually such retrenchment is associated with earlier political defeat – and certainly is associated with subsequent political failure – it took the British Labour Party 14 years to get back into power after first ditching the entirety of Michael Foot's suicide note.

The normal path of political parties in their ascent, and those wishing to reverse their descent, is to broaden their appeal through a move towards the centre ground. Stealing your opponent's clothes often gains you their votes too, and building a broad moderate coalition close to the centre usually ensures a long period of power. The British Labour Party discovered this, and spent its wilderness years crawling back towards the centre until Blair – the ultimate political chameleon – stole enough Tory policies to get his party back into power. The English Tories, in their turn, tore themselves apart, and further from power, over extremist positions vis-à-vis Europe, until they too learned the lesson and started their (as yet unfinished) crawl back to power.

So what can be made of the DUP?

From long-term position of marginality in Northern Ireland, always on the sidelines sniping at the UUP, the party learned to steal the UUP's political clothes – and their voters – until they eclipsed that party in 2003. But rather than capitalising on that victory, and trying to mop up as much of the unionist vote as possible, the DUP seems to have set out on a suicide mission.

Rather than broadening and generalising their appeal, the DUP are retreating backwards into a narrow, sectarian and orange laager. Their stalling on the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Executive has now been revealed as a ploy to extract concessions for a specific narrow interest group – the Orange Order! They recently sponsored a motion in the Assembly that was undisguised sectarianism, their members openly support anti-Catholic organisations, and their behaviour is increasingly that of a 'Protestant Unionist Party' that is seeking only the votes of the most narrow-minded and intolerant.

The middle ground – liberal unionists, liberals of any hue, young people, Catholics, the unreligious – none of these potential vote-mines interests the DUP. They spurn the support of gays and those who support gay rights. They retreat backwards into the cold arms of the capital punishment lobby. They dislike and distrust 'Europe'. They look for enemies everywhere, and where they don't find them they make them.

This is the behaviour of a party in crisis – just like the British Labour Party between 1983 and 1992. But they were out of power and defeated. What has possessed the DUP to adopt the behaviour of a party in crisis when it is close to the top of its historical support?

Faced with competition from its right – the TUV – the DUP did not seek to spread over the middle ground where it had the UUP on the ropes. Instead it has charged out of the middle ground, right back over to the right wing to try to stem any loss of support at the extreme. Normal parties do not do that – they accept that the cost of winning the prize of the middle ground is the loss of a small (but often vocal) group on the extreme edges of their previous position. The British Labour Party ditched its Militant wing in order to win (so far) 12 years of uninterrupted power. The Tories have parted company with some of its more extreme Europhobes (to UKIP) in order to be able to present a more moderate front to the voters. The DUP lost Jim Allister, and rather than treating him as the embarrassing and sad left-over from a previous period it is putting all of its energies into trying to reclaim his supporters, even at the cost of losing any support it had in the centre.

History shows that the centre ground is the key to political power. Those who fail to learn this lesson are usually consigned to temporary or permanent oblivion. The DUP appear to be placing their hopes – and gambling their future – on the belief that this rule does not apply in Northern Irish unionism. Either that or they are a party deeply in crisis even though they are in power.

One thing is certain, though. By chasing the extreme-unionist vote they will alienate not just the nationalist and the centre parties but also moderate unionism. Far from ever being able to create a broad anti-Sinn Féin coalition as they sometimes seem to wish, the DUP may end up being the victims of a broad coalition of the centre. Alienating a wide range of opinion both within Northern Ireland and elsewhere is no way to retain support or power. Adopting ever more extreme positions to gain the support of the dwindling orange element, they will eventually make themselves irrelevant in Northern Irish politics. The DUP and the TUV – the two bald men of northern politics – can fight over the comb while other move on.

21 comments:

Scamallach said...

Horseman I think you've ignored a crucial point - of the three largest Unionist parties the DUP is the only one which is supportive of power-sharing. The UUP are actually more extreme than the DUP on this, even though they were the leading Unionist party when it was introduced. All Unionist parties have retrenched. For whom does a liberal unionist vote now??

SocialistIreland said...

"The British Labour Party ditched its Militant wing in order to win (so far) 12 years of uninterrupted power."

It ditched more than it's militant wing to gain power - it abandoned to the tender mercies of the market millions of decent working people. Never has the wealth gap in The UK been wider than it is now.

Do you think it was the act of a socialist to aid the American war mongers in their attacks on Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan? Do you really think that America would hold back from doing the same to Ireland if it's interests were threatened?

hoboroad said...

Don't worry SocialistIreland I am sure David Cameron will be there to hold Mr Obama's hand when he bombs Iran.

SocialistIreland said...

Yes, and that's what you'd like to see I suppose?

Fascism is a razor blade in the hands of capitalism. Do you think the ruling classes really care any more about sectarian nationalists like you than they do about democratic socialists like me? Open your eyes mate, your being used.

Anonymous said...

On another tack, how would the inclusion of N.I. change the political dynamic in Eire? would it become more conservative or liberal? Which parties in Eire would benefit? Which would suffer? Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Eire is a basket case, politically.

Anonymous said...

The DUP finding middle ground is against who and what they are. They are, and always hsve been, an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-any change in society bunch of bigots who dream of the days when Britania ruled the waves and Ireland was supressed by a minority of native Orange stooges controlled by the English.

The only reason so many ordinary decent Protestants vote for them is because they fear Sinn Fein and see the backward Protestant Ulster mentality of the DUPers as the only way to slow down the inevitable slide towards a United Ireland.

Seymour Major said...

Scamallach,

I Have to disagree with your statement of the UUP position on power sharing where you say.

"The UUP are actually more extreme than the DUP on this" It strikes me that you are Assuming the UUP want Power Sharing to end in order for Unionism to dominate, as they did in the past. Unfortunately, the past leads commenters to assume that the UUP are as they were in the past. I wish to disabuse that.

The UUP position on power sharing is the same as the Conservatives. Power sharing is not wanted because it is not an ideal model for good government but it will remain for the foreseeable future. There is a commitment to explore ways of dismantling the present system when the time is right.

For goodness sake, what is wrong with looking forward to the end of power sharing? Power Sharing is constitutional sectarianism. It is completely reasonable and right to want power sharing to end once sectarianism is out of the system.

This is not an extremist position at all. Quite the opposite.

Just to emphasise the point further, the Conservative/UUP position is hardly any different from that of the SDLP. Here is a quote from Liam Clarke (quoting Mark Durkan) in the Sunday Times

"He said it was necessary to have communal protection for nationalists and unionists, or Protestants and Catholics, while the new institutions bedded in, but that this essentially tribal arrangement should not become permanent. “As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice,” Durkan argued"

MaleStripper said...

Anonymous said:

"The DUP finding middle ground is against who and what they are. They are, and always hsve been, an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-any change in society bunch of bigots who dream of the days when Britania ruled the waves and Ireland was supressed by a minority of native Orange stooges controlled by the English."

The sectarian Irish Nationalists finding middle ground is against who and what they are. They are, and always hsve been, an anti-Protestant, anti-British, anti-Jewish, anti-abortion, anti-any change in society bunch of bigots who dream of the days when Irish priests could bugger children and the Provos could blow their arms and legs off."

Anonymous said...

Catch yourself on MaleStripper. What a sad bigoted person you are. Bigotry and sectarianism is inherent in Loyalism and always will be.

picador said...

So what does SF do now Horseman? They can drag this charade out to 2011, can they? Stormont election to coincide with Westminster election in the spring? Unionist realignment to follow?

picador said...

I meant they can't drag this charade out to 2011

Horseman said...

picador,

I don't know, tbh. But 2011 is not so far off - barely over a year. And SF tend to play a long game. This could all be part of the long learning process for unionism, designed to let them realise themselves that NI is a failed political entity. They didn't seem to like it when they were told that by CJH, so perhaps SF is simply letting the reality sink in to their consciousnesses very slowly, until they start to accept its truth.

Then, and only then, will real change come.

picador said...

The problem is if they let this stonewalling continue they look weak among their own base.

Anonymous said...

picador,

I agree - SF need to pull the plug if it is clear that the DUP are not interested in the transfer of police. They would probably come back as the largest party and they will then strengthen their negotiating position with the new Tory government.

picador said...

Horseman,

Do you reckon Robinson is still calling the shots in the DUP? Or is it his own authority which is shot?

Anonymous said...

Picador,

it would be useful to have some SF clarity on Ashdown's proposals. There appears to be some dithering but possibly there is some action behind the scenes between Ashdown's committee and SF.

picador said...

If they can make the councils foot the bill (as happens in Scotland I believe) for policing of parades Ashdown's proposals might actually be worth something!

Watcher said...

Horseman said:

"SF tend to play a long game."

You can certainly say that about their touts, Scappaticci and Donaldson were sending Republicans to the grave for years before they were caught on. O'Callaghan even managed to sit in on army council meetings and was appointed head of The Provo southern command. God knows who else was working for The UK state, and who still is - bound to be a few within SF as always (and at all levels).

Anonymous said...

> God knows who else was working for The UK state, and who still is - bound to be a few within SF as always (and at all levels).

Won't change anything.

Anonymous said...

excellent piece