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"First-past-the-post is a punishing system": Naomi Long on Northern Ireland's election

The Alliance Party leader on whether her party can sustain its electoral surge - and its priorities for the next parliament.

Who won Northern Ireland’s local elections this May? Interpret that question literally and the answer is as one would probably expect: the DUP and Sinn Féin. But it was the cross-community Alliance Party who had by far the best night. 

Amid deep frustration with the two-year impasse at Stormont and unease over Brexit, Alliance nearly doubled their haul of councillors. Its leader, Naomi Long, was elected to the European Parliament two weeks later - the first Northern Irish MEP to identify as neither unionist nor nationalist.

Can Long and her party sustain what commentators christened the Alliance surge, and with it reshape politics in Northern Ireland for good? The challenge facing them on 12 December is altogether bigger. Alliance have won a Westminster seat only once, when Long unseated DUP leader Peter Robinson in 2010. 

She would last only one Parliament - and, with Alliance having refused to participate in anti-Brexit electoral pacts brokered by other Remain parties in key constituencies in Belfast and beyond, the route to victory for any Alliance candidate is far from straightforward. 

In North Belfast, home to the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, the Greens and moderate nationalist SDLP stood aside for Sinn Féin - a prospect once unthinkable. In South Belfast, where a split Remain vote handed the most diverse seat in Northern Ireland to the DUP in 2017, the Republicans have returned the favour - complicating Alliance’s task in a patch it swept comfortably in May. Uninvited by Alliance, all three parties have done the same in East Belfast, where Long is once more seeking to dislodge the DUP.

As much as the two big parties of nationalism insist there are no pacts - and that their absence from any given ballot is really about maximising the chances of defeating Brexiteers - their critics, Long among them, say it is really a surrender to tribalism. Is she depressed by the trajectory the campaign has taken?

“Well, in one way I guess it’s depressing,” Long told the New Statesman in Belfast last week. “They will dress it up as a Remain alliance, or they’ll dress it up as trying to defend the Union. There’ll always be a reason for people to retreat into the trenches, but in reality, what we’ve ended up is are a series of Unionist and broadly nationalist pacts. And so that, at one level, is depressing, but on another level it’s an opportunity, because it distinguishes the Alliance from the others.

“We’ve been saying all along that we want to move beyond that kind of tribal kind of politics - well, the only way to do that is to contest elections on a different platform. Yes, this election will be about Brexit so I understand the motivation behind those who are saying, ‘Well, let’s make sure we maximise the Remain vote in Northern Ireland.’ But when you’re doing that to the exclusion of any unionists, and it has been to the exclusion of any unionists, it takes on a different dynamic. And I think it’s foolish to pretend that that no longer matters to people. 

“People see it for what it is and that’s how unionists see the pact - particularly between Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green party. Even though I think that’s slightly unfair, that is how it’s perceived. For us it gives us the opportunity to do something different. This is an all-or-nothing election. Technically we’re the fifth-largest party in Northern Ireland when it comes to Westminster elections, but we’re running more candidates than any other party in Northern Ireland in this election because we’re contesting all eighteen seats, which none of the other parties are doing for one reason or another.”

Other parties, Long believes, might live to regret the marriage of convenience. Though she does not mention the SDLP by name, it is clear who she is referring to when she says endorsing candidates who will not take their seats in the Commons could harm her rivals in the long term. “It’s very hard to take seriously parties who are saying in one place, ‘Vote for me, I’m an MP who will turn up and defend the Remain cause in Parliament’ when you’ve got a Remain abstentionist that they’re up against, and in another constituency they’re backing a Remain abstentionist against a Leave person who turns up. And those seem to me to be really confused messages that are coming from parties, and I think down the line that will be damaging for them.”

She does not regret putting up candidates in all 18 of Northern Ireland constituencies - despite being the only leader to do so. “When you knock on people’s doors they are not saying, ‘Why are you standing?’ They’re talking to us about the issues that matter. And those issues are Brexit and the Assembly. Those two things make up 90-plus per cent of the conversations that people raise with us on the doors. They’re concerned about Brexit, whether they’re Leave or Remain… For us it’s important that we make a consistent approach in that election and we give people that opportunity.”

The logic as Long sees it is stark and straightforward: “If you stand aside in elections then you give people no opportunity to vote for you.” Indeed, Alliance have been burned before.

“We learnt the hard way in that we did stand down in a previous election to save the Good Friday Agreement. We stepped aside in four constituencies. Two unionists, two nationalists. People who were under pressure at the time around the Good Friday Agreement and had an anti-agreement person trying to take their seat. Voters understood why we did it and the motivations behind it, they didn’t like it, and felt like we had treated them disrespectfully, and a bit like a commodity that we could just trade with other parties.”

But, with other Remainers coordinating their efforts, can Alliance sustain their surge? Long demurs. She concedes that Westminster elections are a different ballgame, but points to the £60,000 in donations that came Alliance’s way in the last three months - more than any party in Northern Ireland. “It’s a very different kind of election,” she said. Both the elections in May were single transferable vote elections - actually, historically we’ve done slightly better in first-past-the-post elections, because people are forced to make a decision, and people have generally plumped for Alliance. But in saying that, we recognise that our vote will be squeezed because it has become a very tribal campaign, so there is that potential. 

“We went into the election with our eyes wide open in that respect, but what we are doing is continuing to recruit new members. That is an ongoing, daily issue for us. I’m delighted to be able to get back from Brussels or Strasbourg and have a pile of letters to sign each week, from new members joining. So, there’s sustained growth on the ground which matters. We’re seeing new volunteers coming out in this campaign, wanting to knock doors wanting to get involved in the campaign, who have never been involved before and who feel that this is a great time to be getting involved in politics and supporting us. We’re seeing it in terms of people coming along and donating money to the campaign. Just regular, ordinary people willing to write a check or put their hand in their pocket and make a donation.”

She does not expect Alliance to replicate her own performance in May's European elections, where she won 19 per cent of first preference votes. “What happened, I think, in the European election is an extreme end of the surge. I mean, nobody’s going to argue otherwise from Alliance. We’re realistic about that. We were on the crest of a wave, there’s no doubt about that. I would love to think that we would grow from there, but it’s a very different election this time, with lots of different candidates and lots of constituency issues.”

A flash in the pan, then? Not quite, argues Long. “I think the growth is sustained. Will we see that translate into seats in this election? I hope so. I don’t take that for granted. First past the post is a punishing system for any smaller party, and I think all of the parties found that last time, with the one exception of Sylvia Hermon, an independent of eighteen years ‘experience. Everyone else was wiped out at the last election, bar the two main parties. I don’t believe that will be replicated this time - I think people’s votes will change - but whether or not Alliance will benefit from that in the medium-term I don’t know, but I’m optimistic, and there are certainly a number of seats where we’re challenging strongly.” She expects the Northern Ireland Secretary - whoever it may be, though she would prefer Julian Smith to keep his job - to call another Assembly election sooner rather than later in the New Year.

If Alliance MPs are returned to Westminster, what will their priorities be? “First and foremost, we want Brexit stopped,” says Long. “We believe the most democratic way to do that is via a People’s Vote, so we will try and achieve a People’s Vote, and we will do that on a cross-party basis with others who share that ambition. If we find that Brexit is to be forced through then we will be working to ensure that No Deal is off the table, and that includes at the end of any transition period. Because what we don’t want is people fooled into thinking that No Deal is off the table in the short term, only to find that in a year’s time it’s back on the table if a longer term agreement with the EU isn’t reached. 

“So we need to make sure that there is no risk of us going into some kind of cliff-edge arrangement in twelve months time, and that will be our priority in that context.”

Like the new Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, she identifies the climate crisis as the next most pressing priority. “ I don’t think that anyone can turn a blind eye to climate change. I think that is a massive issue. I think we need to use this Parliament and the next Parliament for the next ten years to take action. Not to continue to talk about it and report about it and get analysis about it, but actually to take action that’s going to make a difference in setting quite stringent targets about reaching zero emissions. More ambitious targets. The government has set 2050 - we would like to see them say 2030 because 2050 is so far away for most people that they won’t actually start doing the work to achieve that until too late.  I think the thing to do is aim for 2030, and then if we even run over a little bit we’re at least on the right kind of pathway.”

Long’s parliamentary party would push for change at home too - and not just to politics. “I would like to see Northern Ireland politics on the agenda. I would like to see the Assembly restored, I would like to see more pressure applied to the parties here to get back in and do the jobs they’ve been elected to do. And I think there are ways that Westminster can feed into that constructively, whether that’s by reforming the institutions to make them more sustainable, dealing with things like the petition of concern and the parallel consent mechanisms so that it more reflects the diversity of Northern Ireland society now than perhaps 20 years ago. 

“We believe in a shared, more integrated, more prosperous society, and if you really believe in that you’ve got to believe in better work and welfare, better opportunities for people to get decent jobs, but also fairer welfare.” A package of funding designed to mitigate the Welfare Reform Act of 2012 for claimants in Northern Ireland runs out next March, and Alliance want it extended. But Brexit overshadows all. “If we’re going to grow our economy and boost our economy, spending the next ten years dealing with the fall-out of Brexit isn’t the starting point that we would want to be at. And we would far rather be starting out with where we are now and trying to build for the future rather than trying to repair the damage that Brexit might cause.”

Could Alliance emulate the DUP and put Boris Johnson into Downing Street? Or, for that matter, Jeremy Corbyn? “I’ve been asked this question from both perspectives - those who think putting Boris Johnson back into Downing Street would be disastrous, those who think putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street would be disastrous,” Long says. “To be honest, neither of them are really my cup of tea if I’m going to be honest. They certainly don’t impress me or my colleagues, but at the end of the day we don’t get to choose the Prime Minister. The voters in England, Scotland and Wales get to choose which party is the largest, and that party gets to choose who the Prime Minister is.”

She names her price. “What I’ve said consistently is that we’re willing to work with those who are willing to do what’s right by Northern Ireland. So, at every stage I don’t see us forming a coalition with anyone - I don’t see that prospect on the cards. But I have said consistently that if people are doing what is in Northern Ireland’s best interest they will have our support. And where they’re acting not in Northern Ireland’s interest, they won’t.

“At the end of the day parties will select their own people and that’s the process. What we need to look at is, ‘What are they actually going to achieve?’ And I try not to make it about individuals and personalities but about policy and practice. So, when it comes to trying to decide who we would work with, it would be the party that would be closest to us when it comes to policy and practice, and it wouldn’t be driven by the kind of tribal politics of there is government and opposition, and never the twain shall meet. I don’t think that’s healthy politics.”

Our discussion may yet turn out to be a completely academic one. But Long insists Alliance can still "of course" say it has had a successful election even if it ends up with no MPs on the morning of 13 December.  

“I lost my seat in 2015 and had a good election,” she says. “I polled 4,500 more votes than I did when I was originally elected. That for me was a good election. You never want to lose an election, but there’s always going to be someone who does, so constituencies like mine where there are only three candidates and only two that people actually think can win - there’s always a 50 per cent chance that the loser is going to be more or the other candidate. 

“So you just have to take that on the chin. But we’ll look at the campaign and we’ll look at the decisions we made, as we obviously do after every election, but win or lose I think what we’re doing is important. Giving people the opportunity to vote for something different. People keep telling us that they want change, and we’ve got to offer them that change. Because if we don’t offer it to them what other opportunity do they have to demand it? This is their one chance.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.