#LE23: The once underperforming middle ground has become the bloodbath of electoral politics

22 May 2023 - by Anna Mercer

Only a few weeks after the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which celebrated the role of the middle ground parties, the electorate weren't quite so complimentary last Thursday.

While both Colum Eastwood and Doug Beattie were reconciled to a bad weekend, both parties appear to be in freefall following the local government election results. This contrasts with the strong showing by the Alliance Party, who consolidated their growth, with an increase of 1.8 per cent to take a 13.3 per cent vote share.

The once nice, safe, if somewhat underperforming, middle ground has become the bloodbath of electoral politics, with the SDLP and UUP absorbing the bulk of the loses, cannibalised by Alliance and the big two. None of this comes as a surprise as results of recent years reflected a downwards trajectory for both parties. However, with the UUP foothold in a new executive and the SDLP’s strong showing in the 2019 General Election, returning two seats at Westminster, both parties maintained enough of a presence to stay relevant. After the weekends’ results, the question is now whether they can stave off further decline that could see the emergence of a three-party state.

Rewind back to 2016 and there was a sense of things being more settled. A new, post-Good Friday Agreement generation was coming of age. More people were identifying as Northern Irish' and an increasingly socially progressive society was emerging. There was more agreement and less to get angry about. Electoral turnout was down, and all five main parties saw their vote decline. This was most acute within nationalism, which saw a reduction of 2.9 per cent for Sinn Féin and 2 per cent for SDLP in the 2016 assembly election.

However, just one month later a new fault line in politics was drawn as the UK voted to leave the EU, setting the scene for the political landscape for the next seven years, both locally, in Westminster and in the Republic of Ireland. A moment of recalibration, this saw the bigger parties invigorate their messaging, with moderates increasingly moving to the Alliance Party, and a new momentum for Irish unification giving Sinn Féin renewed appeal.

Fast forward to 2023, and the local government election results bare the hallmarks of a changing society, but what do they tell us about why some parties are failing to attract voters? Firstly, brand matters. A strong, positive message that isn’t defined by others is important for momentum. Sinn Féin’s simple yet effective campaign galvanised support and cultivated an image that is almost unrecognisable to that of the party in 1998. Perhaps most impressive in this has been how they have managed to retain their base and at the same time attract a new, very different electorate.

Secondly, sometimes the opposition can be your greatest asset. We need only look at the boost that the DUP gave to Sinn Féin at the 'crocodile moment' of 2017 to demonstrate that sometimes, you can let others to do the heavy lifting. Thirdly, when the brand is weak, strong candidates can find a path through. The decent SDLP performance in Belfast supports this; where a strong presence and visibility is established, work on the ground counts, and weaknesses in party messaging can be overcome by personal brand and reputation.

Fourth, people didn’t vote on socio economic or environmental issues. At a time of unprecedented cuts to public services, a cost-of-living crisis and a climate emergency, parties such as the Green Party and People Before Profit were squeezed. Is there a way back for these parties? History tells us that electoral fortunes ebb and flow. With Doug Beattie clear that it will take more than one electoral cycle to make a comeback and Colum Eastwood acknowledging that Sinn Féin played a good hand well, both parties need to hold their nerve and vision, and start planning for the next election.

This article first appeared in The Irish News on 21st May 2023