|The UUP needs a fresh start.|
Without an MP for the first time in its history, the party has promised to examine its failure thoroughly and make itself relevant again.
This process of reinvention will involve three strands. Firstly, the UUP will complete the early selection of candidates for next year‘s Assembly elections. Secondly, it will choose a new leader to take over in the Autumn. Thirdly, throughout the summer, the party will review what went wrong in May.
Although candidate selection and self-scrutiny are critical to any resurgence, the leadership battle will determine the UUP’s chances of success. A new leader must set the party’s course for the next few years. He, and all the candidates mooted so far have been men, will be responsible for putting any other elements of the plan into practice.
Whoever emerges as the winner (Tom Elliott is a clear favourite) cannot simply wrestle with electoral strategy. It is more important to determine what the UUP actually stands for - what is its purpose and where does it hope to go? Unless the party can successfully engage with issues voters care about, and make sure its message is consistent, any amount of organisational tinkering will be in vain.
Certainly the late choice of candidates was a problem at the general election. In particular UCUNF’s foremost target seat, South Antrim, saw a lengthy wrangle which culminated in the selection of Sir Reg Empey, three short weeks before the poll. And the UUP leader was at least a recognisable face, others had to build up their profiles from scratch.
While a new leader will have to consider such details, he can’t lose sight of the broader picture, if the party hopes to reconnect with voters who chose to stay at home, or put their X elsewhere. That will involve making clear where the UUP stands on important issues, clamping down on internal dissent and defining a positive role for Northern Ireland in national politics.
Given the party’s history as a ‘broad church’, the Ulster Unionist leadership is hardwired to seek consensus and strongly inclined to keep all strands of opinion on board. The difficult truth is that this approach, which once ensured dominance, has been rewarded with diminishing returns since the 1980s.
The UUP is by turns both liberal and hardline, centre right and social democrat, anti-sectarian and intolerant. While attempting to be ’all things to all people’ is not necessarily a bad political strategy, it takes a more disciplined party to successfully walk the tightrope. Too often the UUP’s contradictions are played out publicly in clashes between senior figures or multiple takes on the one issue.
Rather than make the party tighter, more disciplined and more coherent, there is real danger that Ulster Unionists will attempt to rebuild the looser, less purposeful coalition that preceded UCUNF. This type of thinking is easily extended to some form of spurious pan-unionist pact.
The UUP needs to remember that its decline long preceded any dalliance with the Conservatives. There was already confusion as to what the party stood for, simply because it is perilously difficult to build a comprehensible platform on bread and butter issues, when everyone has a different opinion and there is little or no discipline to enforce an agreed position.
Ironically, the party’s decision to endorse a prospective centre right government actually compounded the electorate’s confusion, thanks to blatant ambivalence toward the project at the most senior levels.
Instead of burying its political differences in a display of false unity, the UUP should allow them to animate its leadership contest. Any prospective leader should set out clearly and openly where they stand on all the major issues, their plans for Stormont and how they envisage Northern Ireland’s playing a part in national politics.
Then, having received a mandate from the membership, they will have the authority to demand that the rest of the party backs their strategy. Because, for the Ulster Unionist party, it is no longer enough to be ’nicer’ unionists than the DUP.