Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Garden Centre Prod Myth

In my recent piece on Unionist Unity for the Open Unionism blog (now on sluggerotoole) I gave a brief analysis of the garden centre prod myth:

"Anyone who tries to peddle the myth of a problem with garden centre prods should be taken to such a centre and introduced to a large shovel until they recognise the evidence of box turnout and voter registration shows a working class problem. The core reason the UUP has been unsuccessful in tapping this vote for the past decade or more is because it isn’t there."

In this blog I will try to demonstrate in more detail why it is a myth. The theory of the 'Garden Centre Pod' is sound. It is essentially an Ulster version of 'Mondeo Man'. This is the ability to profile social categories based on their brand preferences and connect that with their voting patterns. This data from the likes of Experian can then be used to target such groups with a tailored political message. However, this is were the GCP theory falls down. It was a term created by a group of people close to the NIO and Ulster Unionists around the time of the referendum of a perceived social group. So unlike Mondeo Man, it had no statistical basis and owed more to a small group imagining their own predispositions were very widespread.

Following the increase in turnout in the referendum the term then took off with estimations of the size of this vote of 100,000 or more. This inter-linking of the GCP theory with the increase in turnout was based on it being a more East Ulster phenomenon that West. However, in the scrum it over-looked a number of central weaknesses in this.

First the turnout was up pretty much everywhere - working class and middle class areas - so it is wrong to interpret the increase as a middle class thing. Second. in East Ulster there are minority Roman Catholic communities whose size means there is little point in voting - in the referendum the circumstances were different so it is wrong to assume it is a 'prod' vote. Third, as Ulster Unionists considered the agreement good for the Union, they presupposed that this was the motivation of voters. This overlooked that the referendum campaign (which predominated over the UUP's) pitched the deal as nothing to do with Unionism and Nationalism but as a vote for peace. This would appeal to voters who reject identification with either ideology or politics in general so it appealed to a centrist vote - so it is wrong to assume it was a Unionist thing. Take all this into account and the estimations of its size of the GCP start dropping significantly.

Furthermore, as pointed out above the GCP theory is undermined by the fact that middle class areas have consistently better turnout and registration rates than working class districts and that if we look back over decades the greatest drops have been in working class Unionist areas.

Beyond the perceived reward of 100,000 votes there were two other reasons why this became popular within Ulster Unionism. In Trimble's grand scheme of cementing the agreement and destroying the DUP, the working class areas were to be left to his new found allies in the UDP and PUP to mop up. The GCP theory meant the UUP could afford to take this electoral hit and maintain if not improve its position. This pincer movement was expected to significantly limit the DUP electorally by undermining its working class base while these new votes would impact the power of its core. This didn't work as the UDP failed utterly and the PUP largely failed while working class UUP voters did not appreciate this de facto abandonment to the hands of the paramilitary parties and they swiftly headed towards the DUP. Meanwhile these 'new votes' did not appear at the ballot box.

The second reason is classism. The idea of spending lots of time with 'nice' middle class people rather than in working class estates that appealed to the social prejudices of some and the laziness of others. There were some of these 'social-climber' undertones in the Tory link-up as well. Although, it would be wrong to portray these as the motivation of many in the UUP but certainly of some. Beyond the UUP, it appealed to the media tyes who live in the 'North Down' bubble.

If we presume I am mistaken on this and the GCP theory has validity there is a simple reason why UUP appeals have not worked. The GCP theory was central in shaping Blair's five pledges:

  • No change to the status of Northern Ireland without the express consent of the people

  • The power to take decisions to be returned from London to Northern Ireland, with accountable North-South co-operation

  • Fairness and equality for all

  • Those who use or threaten violence to be excluded from the government of Northern Ireland

  • Prisoners to be kept in prison unless violence is given up for good
These five pledges were identified as needed when opinion polling and focus group work that showed a majority of Unionists were likely to vote No in the referendum. (Although again the theory that the concerns these dealt with were restricted to the middle class is mistaken, they were common Unionist concerns.)

The first three pledges were essentially a more Unionist friendly description of elements of the agreement. The other two were to deal with the objections of the No campaign that were resonating with Unionist voters. Four and five were not kept and were never intended too. They were not worth the paper they were written on. It was a classic Blair Campbell move to get the short-term result they needed. If you get a person to a polling station for the first time in a long time (or ever) on pledges that aren't kept then they will not appreciate being conned.

However, the GCP myth does highlight a deeper problem for Unionism. It doesn't have strong profiling of who its voters are and what their motivations are. It is something that it could be worth the two Unionist parties working on.

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