Belfast Telegraph

Do we elect the person or the party?

By Bill White

Lord Empey of the UUP recently commented on the BBC Hearts and Minds programme that Basil McCrea and John McCallister had no right or mandate to leave the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and form their new party NI21. Mind you a follow-on question could be asked - What mandate does he have to sit in the unelected House of Lords?

We often hear from opponents of Basil and John, and also from others who criticise elected representatives who resign from their party, or change political parties, after they’ve been elected.

When Jeffrey Donaldson left the Ulster Unionist party his former UUP colleagues cried foul saying he had no mandate to leave the UUP and join the DUP because the votes he received at the previous election were ‘Ulster Unionist votes’ and not his. However, at the following election, we found out that those Lagan Valley votes were very much ‘his’ votes, indicating that people were voting more for Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley and not the UUP!

So do McCrea and McCallister have the right to change Horses in mid-stream, or does Reg Empey have a point? The simple and direct answer is No Reg, you’re wrong, and this answer is based on electoral law and our electoral system, and is not just my opinion.

Under our electoral system for the NI Assembly we elect people to represent us; we don’t elect a political party. In Scotland they use a party-list system for part of the representation in their assembly, which allows voters to select a party preference and then the representatives are appointed (by the respective parties) on that basis. We don’t use this type of party-list electoral system for the NI Assembly, and the very fact we don’t implies that we elect people and not political parties. Yes, it could be argued that we should have some sort of partylist system for part of the representation in the NI Assembly, in order to reflect party preference, but that would be a subject for a separate article all on its own!

The fact is that the people of Lagan Valley elected Basil McCrea, and similarly the people of South Down elected John McCallister. Both were elected to make the best decisions as they themselves judged, for their constituents and for Northern Ireland, for the period of the Assembly. They were not elected as members or representatives of the UUP.

To those who say they always vote UUP, or for some other political party, this should serve as a warning. The UUP, and indeed any other political party,  should be very careful who they select as candidates, as after that person is elected he or she has a mandate and complete power and authority to do exactly what they want, for the full NI Assembly term. 

Of course, after the Assembly term is complete and there is a new election that is when the people can once again make their views known.


Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.

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