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UUP conference: Looking good but a bit more 'fire in the belly' would help

Published 28/10/2016

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and wife Lynda at his party's Autumn conference at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast.
Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and wife Lynda at his party's Autumn conference at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
The UUP’s Mike Nesbitt and Sir Reg Empey chat with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
Ulster Unionist Party Conference 2016 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt along with his wife Lynda.

I attended the recent UUP conference and, as has already been said by other commentators, UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt gave one of the best speeches of his career.

However, speaking about this year's Assembly election he said: "We ran the right candidates and we did nothing wrong."

Sorry Mike but I've doubts on both points.

First of all the UUP made what can only be described (in sporting terms) as school-boy tactical errors in the NI Assembly election.

One example was running too many candidates in several constituencies.

A good example of this was in Lagan Valley were the UUP originally had three candidates on the slate - then one withdrew at her own volition, and the remaining two got elected.

However, if you look at the figures, if they had gone ahead with the original three then there would've been a good chance that only one would have got elected.

As such, the UUP were lucky with that candidate withdrawal.

Several other constituencies throw up similar tactical errors e.g. South Antrim, North Down, and in East Belfast there were also too many candidates but they got away with that one.

These decisions are not always scientific (i.e. based on electoral results etc.) and can be reversed the other way.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt giving his key note speech at his party's Autumn conference at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt giving his key note speech at his party's Autumn conference at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and wife Lynda at his party's Autumn conference at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

In order to maximise their chances in South Belfast, the UUP needed to run two candidates, instead of only one.

This is because of the diverse way the possible UUP vote is spread around that constituency. It was unfair to ask only one UUP candidate to capture and maximise all of the possible South Belfast UUP vote as that candidate couldn't have the capability to canvass, and get in contact with all of the potential South Belfast UUP voters.

Especially a candidate that was relatively new to the constituency.

Then we have the candidates themselves.

One thing observing politics has taught me is that it is a vocation - to be successful you have to really want to do it.

We see this in all walks of life. I recall the Ireland vs Argentina rugby world cup quarter-final last year, a game Ireland were expected to win easily - they lost.

In the usual post match analysis ironically it was former Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll who summed it up saying 'Look, Argentina wanted it more'.

Likewise I recall an interview situation when I wanted to offer a job to the more highly qualified candidate but my boss overruled me, saying he wanted to offer it to the other candidate - Why?, '..because he had fire in his belly'. My boss thought he wanted the job more.

Perhaps similarly the UUP had too many candidates without that fierce will-to-win that's required in politics.

Many of their candidates came in from other professions, and in some cases just a few months before the election, and usually from jobs that they could easily go back to if they didn't get elected.

That sort of gave the impression that they were 'giving it a go' and if it didn't work out then no great loss. A lot of electors see through this - look at Esther Rantzen's poor performance in Luton South in the 2010 UK general election.

The UUP should perhaps also note the post election polling that we did two weeks after the Assembly election, when we asked 'Why did you vote a particular way?', and 'Why do you think the DUP had a successful election?'.

Interestingly the three top answers across the unionist community were 'Better campaign', 'Better Leader', 'Better candidates' - ahead of Arlene's letter (remember that?), clearer policies, etc...

The 'Stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister' and 'Project fear' were mentioned, but interestingly these were well further down the list when compared to the first three reasons mentioned above.

It is a long way yet to the next election (unless Theresa May calls a snap Westminster election) so Mike Nesbitt and his colleagues have plenty of time to review and sort out their election plans and tactics.

But they need to start now, and perhaps they need to get a few more candidates (and party workers) with that commitment and 'fire in their bellys' that Brian O'Driscoll and my old boss talked about.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk.

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