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Ex-spin doctor: UUP Virgin Cola of politics, no one is buying it

By Adrian Rutherford

The UUP has been urged to refocus its aims by a former spin doctor who likened it to Virgin Cola - saying it looked nice but struggled to attract people.

Alex Benjamin, who was the party's director of communications from 2003 to 2009, spoke out after its former chairman resigned.

David Campbell, who was a party member for 35 years and served as ex-leader David Trimble's chief of staff, quit last week, accusing the UUP of "political mismanagement and amateurism".

Mr Benjamin echoed his comments, saying the UUP needed to move away from the past.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "Of course (David) is right. The UUP exists to reflect unionist opinion on all its swathes.

"For years we have been on a downward trajectory because we forgot that a political party exists to gather as many votes as possible.

"That doesn't mean you can't have principles and positions, but you shouldn't have them at the expense of being a successful electoral machine."

Mr Benjamin said Ulster Unionism needed "a dramatic refocus".

"It needs someone to grab it by the scruff of the neck. And it needs to stop harping on about being the guardians of the Good Friday Agreement," he added.

"Not only have most people moved on, but it's the equivalent of the Tories keeping talking about Maastricht during the Brexit debate.

"The party needs everyone to go away and lock themselves in a room and ask, what do we exist for? Who do we speak for? And why should they let us speak for them over the DUP?

"Once you have an answer you can start building again.

"Until then the UUP will remain the Virgin Cola of unionist politics. Perfectly nice, but nobody reached for it and it became obsolete."

Virgin Cola was set up during the early 1990s and was aimed at rivalling Coca-Cola and Pepsi brands - but it was a spectacular flop.

The Ulster Unionist Party declined to comment when contacted yesterday.

Speaking last week, Mr Campbell, who is chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), cited a series of reasons behind his resignation from the UUP after 35 years. He pointed to the party's reaction to the LCC's endorsement of unionist candidates, which had been rejected by both Robin Swann, the current UUP leader, and his predecessor Mike Nesbitt.

He also referred to the failure to consider a proper electoral pact with the DUP.

Mr Campbell said: "My personal view is that the party has gone past a tipping point. We did have a period before where we had no MPs before, but we had a strong assembly party.

"I think the electoral dynamic in Northern Ireland has changed irrevocably following the Sinn Fein success in the pre-emptive assembly election.

"That is pointing to two largely hegemonic parties in respect to nationalist and unionist communities and it is the prime reason that voters flocked to the DUP in this (general) election."

Mr Campbell said there had been a drift away from traditional Ulster Unionist values, with Mr Nesbitt and others declaring themselves liberal unionists.

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