Neil Wilson: What went wrong in Northern Ireland?

It was always going to be a tough ask, but for those of us who fight in the blue corner of the United Kingdom’s most westerly outpost, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections were disappointing.

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Following the absolutely devastating election count a couple of Fridays ago the East Belfast team who did so much to support me as their candidate did what any team of passionate political activists would have done. We hit the bar. Upon entering, the first guy who approached me to ask how I’d got on introduced himself as a Conservative. I said, not well, in my opinion the DUP’s entirely vacuous yet ultimately well-executed campaign had done us this time. “Indeed”, he replied, “I gave you my fourth preference because, you know, we don’t really have a choice”. Several pints later a friend who I had considered a dead cert admitted that I had only got their second preference. 

On both occasions the DUP had succeeded in knocking me down the ballot papers of these self-confessed Conservatives, ultimately rendering their sincerely-held desire for meaningful political change completely pointless. 

These revelations represent only the tip of the iceberg however. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who have approached me since to tell me that they are disappointed we didn’t do better, while admitting that they never gave me their first preference. 

We put twelve candidates up in Northern Ireland this time around in eleven constituencies and had hoped to build on our 9000 votes in 2015, targeting the three seats where we got over 1000 votes for Westminster - North Down, East Belfast and Strangford - as those with a reasonable chance of returning Conservative MLAs. 

It was not to be. Across the province, our vote sank to about a quarter of what it was in 2015 despite having put in about five times as much work, and in East Belfast fighting a campaign that put some of the ‘established’ parties to shame. After 25 years of fighting elections here, sometimes well, sometimes badly and sometimes not all, like in 2011 when we were disgracefully not allowed to stand candidates, people probably wonder why we seem unable to make an impact. So what happened? 

A combination of things. Firstly, in a General Election our leader is all over the TV every night, arguing for a Conservative government. In an NI Assembly election he plays no part and as a result of our lack of Assembly seats we don’t even feature on the airwaves very much. This analysis is backed up by box counts from 2015 and 2016. We reached into areas we never touched in 2015. In the same areas this year we didn’t even figure. All of our votes came from areas we turned over, and all of them, going by the transfers, voted in the way we explained they could. 

Secondly, we lack a clear overarching message. We attacked Stormont from too many angles and too often on the issue of competence rather than as a way of presenting a clear alternative. We failed to explain why what we believed would make Northern Ireland more secure and better off. 

Thirdly, while we could easily designate which seats were our targets, we lacked any manpower from outside these seats to throw at them. 

And finally, we underestimated just how hard the DUP campaign would hit us. The DUP has a fairly minimal party membership, very little in the way of campaign tech and an entirely unsophisticated machine on the ground. Yet they play to their strengths. They’re perfectly aware that a large portion of the electorate has been brought up believing that choice is a luxury they don’t really have and they know that electoral turnout is much, much higher in the lived-through-the-troubles 

generations. The power of the ‘Keep Arlene First Minister’ campaign was so great that it trumped everything else in the minds of many voters. How else could 29% of an electorate who had consistently expressed their desire for change vote for a party that had governed for the last five years with approval ratings between 6-12%? Yet they did, so how can a party break through in an electoral system where the voters want continuity and change at the same? 

I’ll deal with that tomorrow. 

 


 

Neil works in marketing for a large tech business and has been a Tory member since 2005. He’s been a candidate in both Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliamentary elections and an agent in marginal seats. A self-described campaigning addict, Neil believes that hard work (eventually) delivers results.