Compare the two leadership elections taking place in the UK at the moment (we‘ll ignore UKIP for the purposes of this discussion). One includes open hustings, television debates and robust exchanges on policy and philosophy, the other takes place behind closed doors and there are groans of disapproval and panic whenever a public discussion threatens to break out.
I understand that selecting a leader is ultimately an internal party matter, but the UUP should learn some lessons from the Labour leadership battle, taking place across the UK. In a modern political party it is not sufficient to say, ’it’s our business, we’ll conduct this behind closed doors’. Even a leadership election is a chance to interact with the public and canvass its views.
There is, of course, a valid argument which holds that dirty laundry shouldn’t be washed in public. When a party takes part in the democratic process, however, its 'dirty laundry' is unavoidably the public’s business. A closed process will leave more questions than answers and the leader who eventually emerges will struggle to capture voters’ imagination.
I would urge Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea not to avoid conducting an open and frank debate, visible to everyone who is interested, based primarily on substantive issues rather than internal party politics. Elliott’s piece on Open Unionism seems to imply that policy is less important to his leadership bid than the internal dynamics of the UUP.
Has the party learned nothing from its recent bruising at the polls? Unless it has something clear, distinct and relevant to say to voters it will be ignored, and rightly so. This leadership election should be about who is most likely to find that message and that voice, rather than the integrity of the Ulster Unionist party.
If Ulster Unionists don’t find a way to make themselves relevant to the electorate again then fewer and fewer people will care whether their political club can be ’united’. If it only exists to ensure its own survival, the UUP doesn't deserve to escape oblivion.