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.