Belfast Telegraph

Will Nesbitt really get insight into estate they're in?

Mike Nesbitt has begun as UUP leader with a high-profile statement which he may come to regret, says Malachi O'Doherty

The immediate aftermath of a leadership contest in a political party is proving to be a dangerous time for the winner.

Mike Nesbitt's preparedness to stoop and join the poor among us, to learn how they live, was not as shocking as the frustration with lighting that overtook Alistair McDonnell when he assumed the leadership of the SDLP. But really, you'd think a man in whom so many had invested their political hopes would allow a decent interval to elapse before making a clown of himself.

Instead we now have something like a tradition established.

Come the next election of a party leader the entire media will be poised for the pratfall, eagerly stalking the winner in the flush of victory for the first sign of weakness or folly.

And there is nothing wrong with Mike Nesbitt wanting to know how the poor live except this: he should know already.

He was a Victims Commissioner and before that he was the presenter of a news programme. He surely has met and talked to an awful lot of people about their lives.

He has also been a PR man, advising others on image, so why did he want to sound on his first outing like someone who was bereft of a basic education in the realities of life in Northern Ireland?

Yes, a political party should be accessible to all. Yes, the Ulster Unionists have a painful history of estrangement from the working classes.

There was a time when shipyard workers would look up to a Unionist leader like Terence O'Neill who didn't even speak English as they knew it, but today two things are different from then.

The most disadvantaged among us are not so easily identified by cloth caps and brogues.

Nor are they so deferential that a visit from a party leader would impress.

They include people of his own class who are strapped to negative equity; they include pensioners who live in homes they may own but can't heat. They include the families that care for someone disabled or mentally ill or anorexic or who has had a stroke.

It just simply isn't possible now - if it ever was - to locate a bottom rung on which the most unfortunate congregate.

If Mike Nesbitt needed some proletarian credibility, could he not have dug up a cousin in a cloth cap from somewhere or got Fred Cobain to stand beside him? Fred knows the poor and has been trying for years to get the Ulster Unionist Party to connect with them.

And the party needs to find votes in working class areas, among those with and without jobs.

In the nationalist community there is a social ladder from the street to high office because Sinn Fein managed to knit street level activism into parliamentary politics.

There is no such ladder in the Protestant community. But what has the Ulster Unionist Party to offer that might attract those who live in housing estates and manage on benefits?

It can't create jobs or raise the dole.

And as a PR man, Mike Nesbitt should have worked out the last thing you want a good stunt to look like is a stunt.

Look at David Cameron. Every time there is a health story now we get pictures of Cameron walking briskly down a hospital ward with his sleeves rolled up, as if he is about to perform an intimate examination on some unfortunate patient.

All Mike Nesbitt needs in order to look as daft is a shot of him sitting on a cramped settee while someone in a string vest hands him tea in a cracked mug and the cameras hover to see if he can bear to drink from it.

Worse still would be immersion among hand-picked members of the lower orders who could be trusted to look hard-up and needy but well-mannered enough not to tarnish the party or stain his suit.

Is he already discussing with his media team whether he should wear a tracksuit or a V neck sweater? Can't you hear them: "Pyjamas, Mike. Lots of the lower orders wear pyjamas all day long now."

Besides, all this enthusiasm for making direct contact with the disadvantaged in society is going to rattle the nerves of the charities that are already set up to mediate the concerns of the poor to politicians.

With Gingerbread, Save the Children, Age Sector Platform, the Child Poverty Action Group and the trade unions and the quangos and the commissioners, is there really such a dearth of advice about how hard it is to live off shrinking benefit when everything is going up, that political parties have to send their leaders into the living rooms of the desperate?

Maybe.

And maybe Mike Nesbitt can be a populist leader, impressing the disaffected with his warm heart and concern. Maybe he can persuade those who doubt politics can do anything for them that they should come out and vote for a party that has such shallow prospects of power.

Maybe.

One thing is for sure; the old ways of doing politics here will do nothing to lift the Ulster Unionist Party.

How does it distinguish itself from the DUP if not by having a smiling, touchy-feely leader who really cares, who only has what power the other parties will allow him, but who nonetheless feels your pain?

Let him get on with it.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph