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Alex Kane: Mike Nesbitt's SDLP comments make sense but he could have put it better

Alex Kane

When Mike Nesbitt was elected UUP leader five years ago, it was on the back of a commitment to steady the ship and rebuild, rather than take any more electoral risks.

The party finally decided that it had enough of the risks it had taken between 1996 and 2011, which had seen its vote decline from 181,829 (1996 Forum election) to 87,532 (2011 Assembly). Meanwhile, the DUP had risen from 141,413 to 198,436. Nesbitt’s leadership rival, John McCallister, was promising to walk out of the executive if he won, taking the party into an ‘opposition’ role that didn’t even exist at that point. That proved to be a risk too far for weary stalwarts and Nesbitt won with 80 per cent of the vote.

In fairness to Nesbitt, he did steady the ship; restored discipline, instilled confidence, made modest progress in the 2014 Euro and local council elections and (albeit on the back of a controversial pact with the DUP) saw two MPs returned to Westminster in 2015. Yet in last year’s assembly election the party had its worst ever result: not even meeting Nesbitt’s very modest ambition of two or three gains.

The party responded by taking a risk: opting out of government and taking on the role of official opposition, along with the SDLP. It was the right thing to do in the circumstances and, as I argued at the time, “if the UUP and SDLP get their act together over the next few years it’s possible that they will be able to present and promote themselves as a credible alternative to the DUP/SF axis.” But they got just eight months in their new joint role before facing an election in which the ‘Vote Mike and you get Colum….’ mantra was put to the test.

Given the reaction to Nesbitt’s comments on Sunday that he would transfer to the SDLP before any unionist other than the UUP, it looked like he hadn’t really thought it through. He must have known that it was a hostage to fortune and that a number of UUP candidates would be very unhappy. Indeed, one candidate told me that the comments amounted to, “an act of gross disloyalty to those of us trying to save his a*se after last May’s f*****g election disaster.” Worse, it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t discussed it with the SDLP leadership, either.

Which was a pity: because, in principle, it makes sense. What he should have said was something like this: “If you believe that the SDLP and UUP would make a better power-sharing combination than the DUP and Sinn Féin then you need to vote for us and transfer to us. If you believe that Colum and I could do a better job than Arlene and Michelle, then give us the mandate to do just that. This is not a vote about the Union or Irish unity: this is a vote about honest, credible, consensual power sharing in Northern Ireland. Colum and I believe that we can deliver that.”

That sort of language wouldn’t have unsettled candidates from either party. It wouldn’t have given his unionist rivals a big stick with which to beat him. It would have been a perfect contrast to the negative, confrontational spat between the DUP and Sinn Féin. It would have broadened the party’s transfer potential. It may even have attracted crucial first time voters; along with former voters who have tended to stay at home because they don’t think their vote makes a difference.

Even with that he would still have had a problem because, according to analysis of transfers in the 2016 election, less that 2 per cent of UUP voters transferred to the SDLP, while around 11 per cent of SDLP voters transferred to the UUP. Figures earlier this week from polling company LucidTalk (gathered before Nesbitt’s comments) indicated an increase in those figures; but unless both parties add substantially to their overall vote in 2016, even an increasing willingness to transfer won’t make much of a difference when it comes to their final seat tally. So Nesbitt and Eastwood will be hoping that Nesbitt hasn’t done too much damage and that enough people—particularly the crucially important non-voters and first time voters—will buy into their, ‘trust us to do it better, together’ project.

Power sharing, be it mandatory or voluntary, requires input from unionists and nationalists: in other words, both sides know that they need each other. The choice for voters on March 2 is a simple one: which combination of unionist and nationalist parties do they think is most likely to deliver consensual government and a less confrontational way of dealing with the outstanding, enormously difficult ‘big ticket’ issues?

That’s assuming, of course, that a majority of voters actually want consensus and what might be described as politically turquoise compromise.

As it happens, I’m not sure that they do.

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