Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Where are we now? Will Euro 2009 change pro-Union politics?

Britain’s newly elected MEPs will today return to working lives of relative obscurity (unless they are Daniel Hannan), to emerge again only after five years have elapsed, in order to seek your vote. Such is the anti-climactic character of elective European politics. It illustrates the nominal nature of voter participation in the EU and the profound disconnection between its citizens and the institutions which shape their lives. Northern Ireland, for its part, experienced a European election which was by turns both low key and acrimonious. With Sinn Féin’s share of the vote dropping by just 0.3% and the SDLP enjoying only a negligible increase, it was the battle for pro-Union votes which has raised most discussion. Before we wish our three MEPs Godspeed, and they slip dock and sail for Brussels, it is worth surveying how precisely, if at all, Euro 2009 has impacted our politics.

Commanding most attention is the performance of Jim Allister, who defended his seat with spirit and retained 66,197 votes, despite representing his anti-powering sharing party Traditional Unionist Voice, rather than the DUP. There has been a degree of alarm that his success represents a dramatic shift for the unionist electorate. That is, at least partly, a misconception. The Democratic Unionists did not honestly subject their plans to operate devolution to the scrutiny of voters prior to the previous Assembly elections. It is the DUP which has changed its position, rather than its supporters. And although Allister will undoubtedly be pleased with the result, the TUV’s European vote may not necessarily transfer uniformly to candidates which the party decides to field at other elections. As a sitting MEP, with a reputation for hard work, his support ranged beyond a hardcore, committed to dismantling the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. Indeed the European election is perfectly suited to big name candidates whose popularity does not automatically reflect the standing of their parties, region wide. For many years Ian Paisley topped the poll, relying on an enormous personal vote, which remained steady irrespective of fluctuations in the DUP’s performance in other polls. Beyond Jim Allister, the TUV does not yet have a single widely recognised figure. That could change, but it would be wrong to assume that voters attracted by the barrister’s rhetorical flourish will back a motley selection of obscure Assembly candidates, simply because they are endorsed by their leader.

Similarly, it would be premature to suppose that the DUP is on the brink of a Labour style implosion. The party showed its contempt for the electorate on this occasion by fielding a patently under-strength candidate and delivering an almost non-existent prospectus for Europe. I suspect that it is more likely to repeat the latter mistake than the former. We may well see a less nonchalant approach to selection in future, which does not of course guarantee that the party will field quality candidates, particularly when its commitment to tackle double jobbing ensures that available talent has to be stretched a little further. The most profound problem with the DUP’s message in this particular campaign was that it was simply not credible. The party cannot expect to pursue the same attritional style of politics, to which it is so accustomed, and to which Allister is now a more convincing heir, when voters can see that reality is divorced entirely from rhetoric. Whether it is properly equipped to participate in normal politics or not, the DUP cannot avoid them indefinitely. It is in government, it is required to formulate policy and the electorate is not so myopic that it will accept the same old slogans when there is patently no substance behind them. The party must modify its message in line with its status and must engage seriously with its public on the level of policy, rather than communicating through the media of sectarian mantras. If it does not do so, it will become redundant if a more constructive vision of politics is available.

This brings me to the Conservatives and Unionists, who have enjoyed a relatively successful first electoral outing. For the ‘New Force’ the European election was Dromore writ large, as its candidate maintained his share of the vote (indeed he achieved a small increase of 0.5%) and came through the middle of the TUV and DUP to become the first unionist returned. I suppose, to begin with, Sir Reg Empey will be gratified that the Conservative alignment has not proved a turn-off for voters. Although Nicholson did not increase his share significantly, neither did it drop (in line with many predictions), which was a considerable achievement in an election in which the small parties polled particularly strongly. At the very least we can now say that the Tory link is not a liability to the Ulster Unionists. Of course I have already recorded reservations about the candidate and his campaign. I believe that the pan-UK nature of the unionism which the force is espousing might have been articulated more clearly. As an introduction of something new and exciting to voters, there were moments when the campaign was lacklustre and a little equivocal. Nevertheless, the net effect was to transfer successfully the existing Ulster Unionist vote, relatively intact, to UCUNF, a result which has to be replicated if the new dispensation is to work.

The Conservative and UUP leaders will remain hopeful that, if the wilder voices from each party (within Northern Ireland) do not prevail, a quality collection of candidates, marrying experience and fresh talent, can be fielded, in order to articulate an authentic, inclusive Conservative and Unionist message, in time for the general election. The problems which remain are Northern Irish problems and they need to be confronted, so that an explicitly pro-Union, Conservative voice begins to develop. The cultural remnant of the Ulster Unionist party must develop a sensibility more in keeping with promoting unionism as a UK wide phenomenon based on civic principles, or else it must disappear. The party should be committed to planing its rough edges and finding a vocabulary which is distinct from its rivals in Northern Ireland. The theory behind the alignment is sound, but unless that theory is articulated consistently, then its professed ambitions will not be realised.

Of course Conservatives and Unionists must also remain an unambiguously pro-Union party, albeit that its unionism can increasingly go ‘without saying’ if politics in Northern Ireland develop in the direction which Cameron and Empey envisage. Unionism is only akin to Protestantism, in Northern Ireland, if that is the manner in which it is articulated. The local Conservative party here has historically shown reluctance to identify itself as a unionist party, which is, to an extent, understandable, but to an equal degree nonsensical. If a party is committed to the United Kingdom, and nationally the Conservative party certainly is, then necessarily it is a unionist party. Naturally the UCUNF project is about advancing Conservatism in Northern Ireland, but it is also about strengthening unionism throughout the Kingdom, an aim which its leader is much less coy about acknowledging than some of his local members. David Cameron has been consistent in arguing that his party’s ambition to have representation in every part of the UK is intended to widen and deepen the Union. He does not understand unionism as entailing anything other than a commitment to the constitution of the United Kingdom. It should remain very clear to voters where the Conservatives and Unionists stand on the constitutional question and local confusion should not obscure that issue, otherwise we will end up with profoundly un-conservative nonsense, insensible to the view of national sovereignty which formed the European election manifesto’s basis! Down such a route lies the quickest path to electoral oblivion.

It would be easy enough to exaggerate the significance of yesterday’s election result and I am positive that many commentators will attempt to do precisely that. Predictably my view is that the most constructive development for pro-Union voters remains the Conservative and Ulster Unionist arrangement, which, as an edifice, at least is looking perhaps a little steadier after Jim Nicholson’s success. Now that a reasonable start has been made in this campaign, the key is to continue refining the message, which has to be delivered consistently, in a political vocabulary reflecting the Conservatives and Unionists ethos, if it is to convince voters in a general election. The means to achieve this is not to jettison either its conservative or unionist components, but to emphasise their compatibility and ensure that the correct type of conservatism and unionism are articulated. That means a socially aware conservatism which is progressive in intent and an inclusive brand of unionism which is civic and political in character.

8 comments:

Ignited said...

For UCUNF:

Positives,

-Halted the decline
-Added 0.5% to their vote
- Nicholson elected

Negatives,

- Difficult to interpret Conservative element to that vote
- DUP vote collapsed yet UCUNF have not capitalised on the swing away
- Allister's transfers made it look more impressive

Still, a solid result and not much to moan about. I think between now and Westminster GE the DUP will set out to transform themselves. Jim Allister will keep at the DUP, and UCUNF have to get their Westminster candidates selected asap.

Chekov said...

- Difficult to interpret Conservative element to that vote

I suppose it is Ignited, although I would make two points 1) the Conservative element certainly didn't effect the result aversely 2) if we assume there were some votes leaked to other parties due to the Conservative link and if we assume that with 2 other unionist parties to choose from losing some votes is inevitable, there must have been at least enough new votes to compensate for that. I'd imagine that we lost some to the DUP and Alliance as well as claiming some back from the same sources.

DUP vote collapsed yet UCUNF have not capitalised on the swing away

Those votes went directly to Allister. The DUP vote was aplit in two. It didn't collapse per sé. So no-one capitalised on that other than the TUV.

Anonymous said...

Seymour Major has strange ideas about politics and Conservatism that do not represent mainstream Conservative thinking. Thankfully he is in a minority of one or maybe two if Peel is included.

The UUP and Conservatives are not a match made in heaven as they only partially share common policies. The Conservatives want to lift the discussion away from SF and into mainstream politics. Some in the UUP have not moved on and do not broadcast the new message they are still stuck in the groove of SF/IRA in a never ending loop. They fail to see that is no longer relevant to forward looking discussions, the SF/IRA axis is now the preserve of TUV/DUP.

A slate of Westminister candidates with the right people in the right seats is required, based not on service but on capability, be it in politics or in another walk of life is what is predominant, their gender or religion or colour or which party they belong to is not important. Any idea that bloggins has been a councillor or MLA for years so it's his turn has to be banished from the selection committee. Selection has to be solely and completely on merit and electability.

Chekov said...

Couldn't agree more anon.

Seymour Major said...

I dont mind criticism. However, I would rather there was more detail to it than just being called "un-conservative"

Those who wish to preserve the union know very well that there is a demographic time bomb ticking and a constitution which allows Northern Ireland to be voted away from the Union.

David Cameron can reasonably expect to be at the top of politics in the UK for about the next 12 years. At the end of that time, that demographic time bomb will not have much time left on it.

This makes David Cameron's intervention into Northern Ireland politics extremely important.

So far, Ulster Unionists and Conservatives are doing absolutely nothing in terms of planning or policymaking, to tackle the problem of Sectarian voting habits.

Anybody who thinks that conservative politics and bog-standard conservative campaigning, on its own, is going to solve that problem, is being utterly naive.

My post was qualified. It was made very clear that it was not on the menu for today but if you think the suggestion is whacky now, I invite you to say that to me in 10 years time. There is nothing wrong with anybody debating what they see in their long-term vision and sharing their ideas with others. One day, such an idea could save the Union.

Jeffrey Peel said...

I note, Anon, that your referred to "Seymour Major" but I only got a "Peel". Thanks.

Frankly I'd be surprised if anybody agrees with me. Hopefully I'm a catalyst for discussion. Nothing more.

For me, though, "Unionism" is not used in a literal sense by most "Unionists". They don't even think about the Union when they use it. "Unionist" has brand baggage. Unionist is a euphemism for Ulster Protestant. David Cameron needs to realise that. Moreover for me I also associate it with Ulster parochialism and Prod "culture". It's, by definition, NOT inclusive and NOT anti-sectarian.

Moreover it's not a word we need to use anymore. It's not used in GB to any great extent - except where the union is under threat. Our constitutional status isn't under threat. Our political structures are now within a British context with better relations developing with our nearest geographical neighbour.

So let's move on with the Conservative brand pre-eminent. Because that is the surest way to get the best and most articulate candidates.

Anonymous said...

Peel

Only famous people get one name count yourself priviledged.

Chekov said...

I dont mind criticism. However, I would rather there was more detail to it than just being called "un-conservative"

To be honest Seymour by appending your suggestion to a long article and dealing with it in one sentence I was 1) being kind and 2) according it the significance it deserved. The point is that it is simply indicative of a certain brand of confused thinking on the constitutional question.

Read it back. For a start you're not even sure which is the centre right party in the Republic (naturally enough actually, it's by no means clear). In the end you plump for membership of the EPP which the Conservatives are about to leave because its members' sensibilities as regards Europe do not match that of the Tories themselves. You give no indication how this arrangement you envisage might work across a state boundary. It's steeped with a peculiar type of resignation about what Europe will become. You seem to think Federalism is inevitable. It pays no heed to the differences between cultural and political nationalism.

I'm sorry, but it's an horrendously woolly piece. And now, to compound the woolliness, you're submitting to extremely questionable demographic 'evidence'. Do you actually believe Horseman? I'll bet you 10 spacecakes that in 50 years, never mind 10, no-one will be talking about the Conservatiev party aligning with Fine Gael!

Peel

Only famous people get one name count yourself priviledged.


Does that make Jeffrey's supporters 'Peelites'? ;-)