Sunday, 25 May 2014

DUP seeking to disempower voters by limiting choice

During the election campaign we heard the DUP leadership complaining about the split vote in unionism. For these elections that would have less impact as both our councils and European elections are determined by STV. However, as soon as these elections are over what do we learn but that the DUP are in discussions about forming an electoral pact with the UUP ahead of next year's Westminster elections.

They have only themselves to blame however. Three years ago they came out very strongly against the use of the Alternative Vote (AV) in Westminster elections indeed they viewed the referendum as an "unnecessary additional cost", while calling on other issues to be put to a referendum. They also said that AV "does not treat all votes equally and will further disempower voters by increasing the likelihood of hung parliaments". They also joined the rhetoric about deals being done behind closed doors as a result of those hung parliaments, but they appear to have no qualms about making those deals before the voter even has a say.

Is is this second statement that I want to look at. They said that AV would disempower voters, but as I said at the time when I was running the Northern Ireland Yes to Fairer Votes campaign the unionists themselves often disempower voters by forming their electoral pacts in seats.

Not every voter who votes for a unionist politician is going to support every other unionist politician and there are various reasons for this:

1. They may not agree with them on their stance of working with Ireland and/or Sinn Féin

This was particularly true in the early days of devolution. Indeed I know I wasn't the only person who refused to give a preference in the first Assembly elections to those parties or individuals who were opposed to the Agreement. That meant that the DUP didn't get a vote from me and others, also some individuals within the UUP also did not get my preference for their equally vehement opposition.

2. They may not agree with them on a specific issue

There are some hardline stances that the DUP take that the UUP allow as matters of conscious. These are common in the areas of LGBT legislation and abortion. There will be others but these are headline issues. On the former we know that some UUP individuals have been more in favour of LGBT equality and that is something that voters will be able to ask their candidates at the time of election and may well determine how they would vote.

However, if the two largest Unionist parties form a pact they take away the power of the individual voter in whatever seat they live in to make their own mind up about which of the two they prefer. Those people's votes have not been treated equally. They may be unable to vote unionist if they also disagree with the TUV who are likely to run a full slate or other smaller unionist parties if they have that option.

On the issue of same-sex marriage for example take away a supportive UUP option and the only way a voter might be able to express an unionist opinion would be if the PUP were to stand as they are the only unionist party to have adopted a policy in favour. No offense to the PUP but their chances of being elected are considerably less than most UUP candidates and certainly all DUP candidates would be. Therefore that person who wants to vote unionist but wants to show support for such an issue would find that their vote is not treated equally.

The DUP seem to think that all unionists don't care who they vote for as long as they can vote for a unionist. That of course is not the case and is making assumptions of the electorate. Also if they were to enter a pact with the UUP they would surely have to give up one or two of the safe unionist seats, which currently bar North Down the DUP hold exclusively, to make the offer enticing. So which of the DUP MPs is prepared to give up their seat for this electoral pact to work? Because if they only offer the UUP candidates in SDLP and Sinn Féin facing seats there would be nothing in it for the UUP.

Of course we all know the one seat that the DUP really want a pact with the UUP for. The crown in their view and the thorn in their flesh when they lost it in 2010. A seat they have tried to do everything to undermine the party that has held it since then, a party that they said was dead in the area but that this week's election results have proven is not the case.

So I conclude the DUP are prepared to disempower voters and limit their choice for their own petty political ends. That is not democracy that is despotic in behaviour.

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