To a degree I sympathise with the dilemma posed by the proposed Ulster Unionist – Tory pact for those who share an outlook similar to Chris McGimpsey. He regards himself as a custodian of the working class community in West Belfast which he represented for many years. His view of UK politics is still formed by the assumption that the Conservative Party’s policies are inimical to the interests of poorer sections of society, whilst Labour’s instincts are more inclined towards social justice. Whether he still believes there is a clearly defined left – right divide, certainly he retains a strong aversion to the Tories.
I understand the instincts which caused McGimpsey to pen an attack on the possible realignment, but I believe that he is wrong.
Labour governments, under Blair and Brown, have instigated a string of measures which have all but severed any lingering association that party may have had with social justice. It was a Labour government which abolished the 10p tax band. The system of benefits and credits which Labour has constructed actually fails to reach the lowest earners and those suffering most deprivation, instead focussing on helping the aspirant lower middle class. The new system of taxing cars levies a surcharge on those who cannot afford to upgrade their vehicle to a newer model. It was Labour that oversaw the demolition of free higher education in this country. Labour has systematically removed legal safeguards and freedoms which underpin democracy in the United Kingdom. Labour has taken large numbers of young men, most drawn from communities like McGimpsey’s, and sent them to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the flimsiest of pretexts.
Although David Cameron’s rhetorical commitment to social justice has not been tested, there is not a shred of evidence to support the contention that his party would marginalise poorer communities any more than the current Labour government has already managed. Conservative inclination, under the present leader, strays far from unalloyed adherence to market economics and big business. Cameron’s developing credo is a communitarian conservatism, which prefers evolution to wholesale reform, but in its instinct to preserve the essential fabric of society, necessarily must address concerns of social justice. Whether these theoretical niceties will translate into effective policy remains to be seen, but amongst all classes, the perception is that Labour is demonstrably failing.
Although Conservatives have previously failed to establish a meaningful toe hold in Northern Ireland’s politics, Empey’s initiative is not, as McGimpsey contends, destined to fail. When Tory candidates previously stood, they were hampered, in large part, by a dominant centre ground UUP, which commanded votes from those who may otherwise have been inclined to vote Conservative. The proposed realignment should, by all accounts, retain a distinct identity for Ulster Unionist candidates, whilst making their concrete alignment with the Conservatives explicit. This is a very different model to the precedents which McGimpsey attempts to invoke.
Whatever proposals eventually emerge from the Working Group, by no means will the result deprive unionists of a vote for social justice. On the contrary, voting Ulster Unionist will be a positive step towards ensuring our representatives have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.