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Why leadership battle could tear party apart

The UUP leadership candidates represent such different strands of unionism it’s hard to see how they can create a party attractive to the electorate, argues Alex Kane

The UUP leadership election is not, in reality, a contest to pick a leader who will unite the party: it is a contest to decide which faction will have the upper hand for the next few years.

For this is a battle between east of the Bann and west of the Bann; between urban and rural; between a stand-alone UUP and closer cooperation with other unionists; between a supposed moderniser and a supposed same-old, same-old; between the party ‘establishment’ and the new kid on the block (even though that kid is actually older than Elliott).

Put bluntly, the party that Tom Elliott wants to lead is an entirely different party to that which Basil McCrea wants to lead.

And because the vision, ambition, direction, strategy and endgame of both men is so utterly different — indeed contradictory in a number of respects — it really is hard to see how the eventual winner would ever be able to build the bridges and produce the compromises which would keep both sides happy.

This lack of ability to unite the party around a generally agreed platform and agenda (and this is a problem which has dogged the party on and off since the mid-1960s, by the way) makes it very much more difficult to produce the ‘message’, impose the necessary discipline and improve the communications operation which both candidates have talked about.

And while McCrea has a point about candidates needing to be more reflective of the electorate (younger, professional and female) he needs to remember that that’s more or less what the candidate slate was like for the recent general election, yet the party got 1,000 votes less than the last Assembly election and 25,000 less than the last General Election.

But whoever wins faces a huge problem: how to stop and then reverse what appears to many observers to be an ongoing and possibly terminal decline of the UUP.

The statistics are bleak. At the 1997 General Election the party returned 10 MPs on the back of 258,000 votes. In May 2010 they returned none. In the 1997 council elections the party returned almost 200 councillors; by 2005 that had gone down to 115.

In the 1998 Assembly elections there were 28 UUP MLAs, yet now there are just 18 (with the likelihood — based on the General Election result — of that number being reduced to 15 next year).

In the general, local, Assembly and European elections between 1997 and 1999 the UUP amassed 725,117 votes on an average of 26.5%. In the same round of elections between 2007 and 2010 the total votes had fallen to 414,716 and an average of 16%. That represents a 10% fall and about 85,000 votes. For a small regional party those figures could yet prove fatal.

The fact that the UUP failed to seize the electoral and political opportunities provided by the huge internal and external difficulties endured by the DUP from mid-2008 onwards suggests a party which doesn’t really know how to get its act together.

But if it is to survive then it must get its act together in the very short time between the election of a new leader and the next Assembly elections in May 2011.

That requires two elements: making the UUP relevant again, by putting it in a very specific position in terms of policy and role; and either winning back one-time supporters or attracting new ones.

The former will be very difficult if the leadership election reveals a badly split party; and the latter, as has been indicated in the downward spiral of seats and votes, will be equally difficult.

McCrea wants to ‘reach out’ — but to whom? The sort of voters he’s after haven’t gone to Alliance; they didn’t go to the Conservatives (in the post-1990 period) and they didn’t go to UCUNF. So what would make them want to go to another reinvention of the UUP?

He may want to make overtures to the SDLP, but how does he live with their increasingly ‘green’ agenda? How does he win over that mix of non-voting ‘Garden Centre Prods’ and pro-Union Catholics without diluting his brand of unionism even more? And how does he build his pluralist credentials if he closes the door to UCUNF? Meanwhile, Elliott will want to attract back the voters who have left the UUP. But how does he do that unless he swings it to the right of the DUP — and in the process loses the McCrea wing of the party?

No one should underestimate the scale of the task facing the UUP’s next leader.

He has to unite the party; create a very clear and separate identity for it; replace the almost 100,000 votes it has lost in the last decade; get it taken seriously again by the media and the electorate; rebuild it at constituency level (where half of a dwindling membership are members in name only); make some very tough internal decisions on discipline, finance and administration; deliver — in a matter of months — some hard proof of political and electoral recovery; and, most difficult of all perhaps, instill the sort of confidence and enthusiasm which will encourage the canvassers to return to the doorsteps again because they really do believe they can win.

From what I have seen and heard so far I’m not convinced that either McCrea or Elliott actually appreciates the scale of the task they could face from September 22. There is little evidence that either has a strategy for success which will withstand the first brush with opposition or setback.

They represent strands of unionism so different that it may not be possible to bring them together. If that is the case, then the electorate may choose to pass by on the other side as the UUP roars downhill to electoral irrelevance

Alex Kane is a commentator and columnist and the UUP’s former director of communications.

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