Trying to please all sides is causing Alliance to sink
The Alliance Party is losing support from the soft centre of unionism and is unlikely to make any more electoral gains, argues Alex Kane
Forty years ago, in May 1973, Alliance, which had been formed in 1970, won 94,474 votes at its first ever election.
At almost 14% it was the second largest party, polling better than both the DUP and SDLP. It was an excellent result for the party and seemed to confirm a demand for a new, middle-of-the-road vehicle in Northern Ireland.
Yet, apart from a 14.4% share in the 1977 council elections, this was to be Alliance's best ever performance. Indeed, at only five elections since 1973 has Alliance managed to get into double digit support, the last time being general election in 1987.
Given the nature of politics here, particularly before the 1998 Belfast Agreement, it's probably no surprise that any 'party of the middle ground' would experience electoral highs and lows: and, the longer the journey towards a solution the more likely it was that support for the centre would decline.
That said, one would have expected Alliance to have done significantly better after the Belfast Agreement was signed and when there appeared to be a broad based acknowledgement that the parties were going to have to work together.
What better time, in fact, to grow the middle ground? Yet in 2011 Alliance got fewer votes in the fourth election to the Assembly than it did in the first. Those 50,875 votes (7.7%) were around half of what it took in 1973.
Why should that be? Well, the most obvious explanation is that the peace process institutions and arrangements have resulted in Northern Ireland becoming more polarised with the centre ground continuing to be squeezed.
The less obvious explanation, though, is that voters (particularly the increasing numbers who have dropped out since 1998) don't really regard Alliance as a centrist, middle-of-the-road party at all.
In other words, rather than viewing Alliance as a party that sets out a distinct agenda which is entirely divorced from us-and-them politics, they view it as a sort of in-between party, a party which bases policy and position somewhere between the policy and position of Sinn Fein and the DUP: a party of permanent compromise, whose mantra could be summed up as 'we are for every community rather than just one.'
Now, the difficulty with occupying that position (or, at the very least, being perceived to occupy that position) is that you are then seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In essence, there is nothing new in Alliance thinking.
They still seem to be the party wedged between the two power blocs, sounding worthy and well-meaning but never having the electoral clout to convert their beliefs into deeds. Instead, they get the worst of both worlds by regularly annoying both sides.
Their opponents, on both sides of the fence as it happens, say that Alliance plays up its 'nationalist' credentials in some areas, while playing up its 'unionism' in others. And it's that particular aspect of their character which has earned them the ire of some unionist/loyalist elements, especially in Belfast. There is no doubt that in east Belfast Alliance has presented itself as a safe, comfortable home for small-u unionism, hoping to attract the softer end of the UUP. Naomi Long also played up her upbringing in a working class loyalist area.
Fair enough. Parties play the sort of cards which are likely to attract votes and the UUP/UCUNF/Robinson's personal problems background to the 2010/11 elections in east Belfast made the constituency ripe for the picking. But it did so at the price of Alliance persuading enough unionists that it was safe to vote for them.
So, to some extent, unionists/loyalists have viewed the past few weeks as payback time for Alliance and have gone out of their way to highlight what they claim is Alliance's lack of unionist beliefs.
The BBC's Spotlight poll (and yes, there are always caveats in these matters) suggests two worrying trends for Alliance. The first is that their supporters from a unionist background are very unhappy with their decision to back Sinn Fein/SDLP over the flag. And the second is that their level of support has slipped from around 11% in the last two Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk polls to about 10%. Put bluntly, if Alliance is losing those supposedly soft unionists then there will be no building on what they hoped were the breakthrough elections in 2010/11.