Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Memo to Tom Elliott — old Alf's not the target vote

Why has the number of people voting unionist fallen so sharply? That is the million dollar question which unionist strategists and unionist-leaning commentators have been asking themselves -- and, in my view, generally coming up with the wrong answer. 
They are tempted to go for the demographic, which Ed Curran identified as 'Mr Mainstream Unionist' in the Belfast Telegraph and which was taken up with some enthusiasm by Alex Kane in the News Letter. Ms Mainstream Unionist doesn't figure in the analysis. 
Her male counterpart sounds like the last of a dying breed; he is the sort of curmudgeonly old git who is probably the salt of the earth in his private dealings, but whose views are getting as arthritic as his knees. 
Like the majority of delegates who turned up to vote in the Ulster Unionist leadership election, this good ol' boy has probably got his bus pass tucked away in his wallet; he may well remember the views of Alfred Edward Garnett with some affection. 
Younger readers -- the majority of voters, that is -- may need to be reminded that Alf Garnett was the central character in BBC sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part which aired between 1965 and 1975. Objectively, Alf was bigoted, racist and anti-Semitic. 
Misogynystic, too -- his support for the Tories flagged when they put Margaret Thatcher in charge instead of chaining her to "the bloody kitchen sink" where she belonged.
There was, though, something likeable about him. 
He was struggling to come to terms with shifting mores; he spoke for a lot of people dismayed by the pace of change. 
He was a rougher-hewn, working-class version of Victor Meldrew, hero of One Foot in the Grave, another show which Mr Mainstream Unionist may well have enjoyed. 
Mr Mainstream Unionist is a grumpy old man; Ed Curran describes him cringing at the thought of Sinn Féin in government and privately dreading nationalists moving in next door. He stands like King Canute attempting to hold back the filthy modern tide and looks to the Orange Order to give a lead. 
The Order's Grand Master, Robert Saulters, sometimes sounds like Alf Garnett in a sash. He is an affable man whose sincerity is obvious, but -- like Garnett -- his suspicion of social change can make him lose the run of himself. 
Saulters' recent rib-tickling description of the Public Prosecution Service as the "Protestant Prosecution Service" is just the sort of thing Garnett might come out with if he lived in Ulster. His description of dissidents as the "Roman Catholic IRA" is something else.
Society is always in transition and there are always people who hark back to past certainties. There is undeniably a market for golden oldies and some in the UUP hope that, by sticking to a tribute band playlist, they can halt the drift of votes to the DUP. We don't know yet if Tom Elliott is among them. 
The lost unionist voters aren't all affluent garden centre Prods. Canvassers at the last election found that working-class voters were increasingly concerned about economic -- not sectarian -- issues. A drift of loyalist working-class votes to Alliance is widely credited as one of the factors which led to Peter Robinson losing his seat. 
Disaffected unionist voters are as likely to live in housing estates as upscale developments. These people, like many Catholics, see the border issue as settled for the foreseeable future and want politicians to talk credibly about something else. 
In a recent University of Liverpool survey, only 5.9% of people opposed the guarantee that Northern Ireland remain in the UK as long as the majority support it. 
Irish unity was seen as the most important issue in the last election by only 3.5% of those surveyed, compared to 25.7% for unemployment, 17.4% for the health service and 22.4% for the economy generally. The peace process was issue number one for just 0.3% of those surveyed. 
What are we to make of Catholics who favour the union with Britain, but don't generally vote that way? In March, a Belfast Telegraph poll found that 26% of the Catholic population were closet unionists. In other polls, the figure seldom falls below 20% and the annual Social Attitudes Survey put it at 39%. 
These Catholics are unlikely to be Union Jack-waving loyalists. As Mr Mainstream Unionist might put it, in his old-fashioned way, they are probably more loyal to the half-crown than the Crown. 
They have concluded that the UK is a modern, multi-cultural society which underpins our living standards through the block grant. 
But Mr Mainstream Unionist makes them twitchy. 
They notice that he seldom condemns daft Orange Order statements and, if they vote, they are likely to choose someone who will speak up for their social and cultural interests. 
Some see Sinn Féin as the party that can keep the DUP in check, just as many former UUP voters saw the DUP as the party which could contain Sinn Féin. 
Such voters -- and non-voters -- aren't firm in their allegiances; they need to be constantly wooed. 
But they represent a significant opportunity for any party, whether it calls itself unionist or not, which can offer something new.
Liam Clarke
Belfast Telegraph - 14th October 2010

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