Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Can NI21 appeal to the Great Silent Majority?

Basil McCrea (right) and John McAllister at NI21's launch at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast
Basil McCrea (right) and John McAllister at NI21's launch at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast

It was former US President Richard Nixon who first used the term ‘the great silent majority’, those who were as Nixon said ’not the shouters, the protesters, or the demonstrators......’ but a group that voted (sometimes!) in elections, and whose views were rarely heard on the media (especially on shows like Nolan!), at rallies, or marches on the streets.

Nixon, along with the pollsters viewed this group of ‘Middle Americans’ as crucial, and he was correct!

Over the past year LucidTalk polls, and other polling, has shown the existence of a Northern Ireland ‘silent majority’, those who are disillusioned with current NI politics and want something new.

This disillusioned non-voting group has been building-up for a long time, resulting in the turnout at the last NI Assembly election (2011) of only 55%, down 8% from the previous assembly election (2007), and all the latest opinion polls indicate that if an Assembly election were held today it would struggle to reach a 50% turnout!

However, it’s always been difficult to get this ‘silent majority’ group motivated to vote and to participate in politics, so it was quite a surprise to see several hundred people at last week’s launch of Northern Irelands newest political party NI21.

This is more than the usual attendances at Alliance, SDLP, or UUP conferences, and seeing the large number of new faces at the launch reminded me of Nixon’s reaction after a keynote speech appealing to the ‘silent majority’, which resulted in over 200,000 telegrams of support to the White House, and which prompted Nixon to comment ‘It is one thing to appeal to the silent majority, but it is quite a shock when you actually hear from them’!

According to polls, one key factor that motivates and attracts this ‘silent majority’ group to politics, are politicians who take a position and stick to it – politicians who are perceived to have principles, and are prepared to stand-up for those principles. NB I say politicians who are perceived to have principles, as it’s the image that counts, not whether the politician in question actually has principles!

Margaret Thatcher successfully cultivated the principled ‘Lady’s not for turning’ image, yet the record shows she did as many policy U-turns as her predecessors or successors! – but it was her principled ‘No U-turns, Iron Lady’ image that counted with the public!

Many of the people I spoke to at the NI21 launch said they were there because they admired Basil McCrea and John McCallister, in taking a principled stand, and a political risk, by resigning from the UUP and starting a new party.

Incidentally it was funny to hear Lord Empey saying last week that these two former UUP MLA’s had no mandate to do what they are doing; taking into account he has no electoral mandate to sit in the unelected House of Lords!

David Cameron currently scores very low in the polls in terms of being perceived as being principled. Recent polling in Great Britain (GB) has shown that Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum doesn’t seem to have had much impact with the UK public.

Polling for the Times (YouGov) has shown that most people in GB (the polling did not include NI) think Cameron is acting out of tactical calculation rather than because he feels deeply about the issue. Only 17% thought that Cameron’s European views were based on conviction, with 64% believing it was based on tactical calculation, whereas 55% thought that Nigel Farage’s (UKIP) European views were based on strong conviction, and only 17% on tactical calculation. Interestingly Pro-European Ken Clarke and Eurosceptic Michael Gove also scored more highly than Cameron in terms of putting their principles before tactics.

The polling also showed that the popularity of UKIP leader Nigel Farage is being driven not just by his stance on the EU, but also by respect for being thought to restore principles to politics.

Does this matter? – Yes it does. Voters, and especially the floating ‘silent majority’ type voters, tend to decide which candidate to support more on character than policy, with political parties and their leaders attracting more support if they are regarded as principled and competent.

If political parties and party leaders are thought to be driven by tactics rather than belief, they risk being seen as weak and end up losing respect and votes. Perhaps the DUP, and particularly the UUP should consider this before they decide to run joint candidates in selected seats for the Westminster election in 2015?

It’s hard to gain respect if two political parties are running a joint candidate in one constituency, and knocking lumps out of each other in the constituency next door! As the saying goes, ‘You can’t get a little bit pregnant’! 

The media, including opinion pollsters, are often blamed for encouraging political parties and their leaders to abandon principles and do what they think is popular with the public.

However, polling research shows that politicians should say and do what they genuinely think is right, as this is the way to attract the ‘silent majority’ voters. Of course everyone, and not just politicians, should probably do and say what they genuinely think is correct in any case, however politicians should also do this for their own advantage as the research shows this is actually more likely to maximise their vote!

Can NI21 tap into the ‘NI silent majority’, and can they motivate this group to stand-up, be heard, vote, and take part in politics? Maybe Basil McCrea and John McCallister with their perceived principled stance by leaving the UUP, and starting their new party NI21, can tap into Nixon’s ‘great silent majority’?

 

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast based Polling and Market Research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.

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