Pros and cons to success for latest pro-Union party
Can Basil McCrea and John McCallister defy the historical odds with the launch of their new centrist vehicle, asks Alex Kane
On Thursday, Basil McCrea and John McCallister will – four months after leaving the UUP – launch their new party. The name is not yet in the public domain, but at a recent University of Ulster event they indicated the party would be pro-Union, without having either 'unionist' or 'UK' in the title. So look out for 'NI something or other'.
Anyway, the new vehicle will be about the 20th pro-Union party to emerge since 1970. Although the bad news for John and Basil is that almost all of them have either disappeared altogether, or – like the TUV, Ukip, Conservatives and PUP – remain at the electoral fringes of local politics.
Indeed, of all of the unionist/pro-Union parties still active, only the DUP (which scored just under 5% at its first electoral test in 1973) is strong enough to take a few knocks.
So, at first glance, the odds don't seem to favour yet another 'new' pro-Union party. For, be they hardline (TUV or Ukip), moderate (Brian Faulkner's UPNI or David Owens' Social Democratic Party), or somewhere in the middle (Conservatives), the electoral appetite seems pretty limited.
Both men talk about a moderate/pluralist/middle-of-the-road electorate "waiting for something to vote for"; yet those voters haven't come out for other moderate parties (including Alliance), so why would they come out for Basil and John?
Because, let's face it, neither man is exactly 'new' to politics and neither of them persuaded their old party to embrace their principles and passions.
Their immediate target voters will be from the UUP and Alliance parties, along with Catholic unionists, non-voters, lapsed voters and an entirely new generation of young voters. That's a large pool, but it's also a muddy, diverse pool.
They will need to establish a platform and policy bank, which appeals to all of those groups without watering it down to the lowest common denominators of milk and Momma's apple pie.
They will emphasise the need for structural changes to the Assembly, yet if they are to make an electoral breakthrough, they will need to provide some convincing evidence that they are capable of delivering that change.
After all, a formal, funded Opposition has been talked about since 1999 and still hasn't happened. And, if John McCallister's private member's Bill gets crushed underfoot (which would suit the other parties very nicely) before the next election, then it will be a hard sell for their new party to convince voters that they could succeed in changing anything else.
That said, the new party would have a number of factors in its favour. There is a huge level of disengagement from and dissatisfaction with the Executive and the snail-like pace of progress.
If they can identify – and quickly – the root causes of that disengagement and dissatisfaction, then they may be able to address at least some of the problems.
It helps that they already have a presence in the Assembly and, if they look confident and seem to be picking up public approval, it is possible they could get one or two defectors from the Alliance and DUP, as well as David McClarty.
McCrea and McCallister are very good media performers and even better on the stump: so a summer/early autumn of roadshows and public meetings could help attract fresh blood and thinking to their cause.
A Euro election in June 2014 will also allow one of them to run – not to win a seat, but to have the opportunity to ask voters to endorse their strategy of new politics for Northern Ireland.
Their biggest advantage, though, is that the UUP and SDLP continue their downward spiral, while Alliance seems incapable of a major surge. There is a big gap in the market and a huge pool of potential voters.
The historical odds are stacked against them, but these two men are instinctive political gamblers; willing to risk everything and with everything to win.