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.