Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Is full proportional representation the answer to our increasingly polarised political landscape?

The first-past-the-post system is no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced, says Alex Kane

Emma Little-Pengelly
Emma Little-Pengelly
Alex Easton
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

North Down has a reputation as a quirky, slightly eccentric constituency when it comes to electing MPs. And yet every one of its MPs since 1921 has either been a member or former member of the UUP.

The last three are particularly interesting. Jim Kilfedder (1970-1995) was first elected as a UUP candidate, fell out with it in 1977 over integration, stood as an Independent in 1979, and then, from 1983, stood for the Ulster Popular Unionist Party, which he founded in 1980.

His successor Robert McCartney (1995-2001) was expelled from the UUP in 1987 after he objected to the party's decision not to contest the seat and then contested it himself as a Real Unionist.

In the 1995 by-election he stood again, this time as a UK Unionist, and then founded the United Kingdom Unionist Party shortly afterwards.

His successor Lady Hermon (2001-19) was first elected for the UUP, resigned from the party over its pact with the Conservatives (UCUNF) and then defended her seat as an Independent in 2010, 2015 and 2017.

The constituency's fondness for the UUP should give the party a built-in advantage when it comes to elections, yet it hasn't fielded a candidate since 2005, when it backed Lady Hermon.

But in a constituency which supported Remain in 2016 and returned an anti-Brexit MP in 2017, and at a time when the DUP is very uncomfortable with Boris Johnson's deal and will face very difficult questions on the doorstep about its handling of its relationship with the Conservatives since June 2017, you would have thought the UUP tail would be up and wagging furiously for the fight.

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What it needs most, though, is a big hitter with a clear message. Mike Nesbitt (who ruled himself out early on) made an interesting intervention on Monday: "With the right candidate, we would be contenders to win in North Down, absolutely. He or she would have to be known to have strong Remain credentials and be a progressive candidate overall."

But who? There was never really a list to choose from, and even those who were mentioned almost galloped to the microphone to say no.

So, the task has now fallen to local MLA and former councillor Alan Chambers. He's not a big hitter but is well-known and has a solid track record of winning elections. That, in itself, makes him something of a novelty for the party.

The message is more difficult. During the Euro elections Danny Kennedy looked as though he was trying to ride a Remain and Leave horse - with no particular conviction for either position - and saw the seat lost to the much clearer message from Naomi Long.

With Stephen Farry already in the field, North Down will, unlike any other seat, be a rerun of the Kennedy/Long contest.

If the UUP has a hope of winning North Down it has to find a position somewhere between the solid Remain of Alliance and the increasingly ambiguous Leave of the DUP (and I'm pretty sure the DUP will have softened the Brexit language for its manifesto). That's not going to be easy.

Steve Aiken has been trying to shift the UUP's position over the last few weeks. He is a natural Remainer, but accepted the argument (as did Lady Hermon) that the referendum result should be respected and implemented, albeit with a deal that didn't damage Northern Ireland's economy or constitutional status and didn't undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

In his inaugural speech he went a little further: "We joined the EU as one: we either leave as one, or we remain as one."

That's a more nuanced position than it appears at first sight, nestling somewhere between Alliance and the DUP, but without much oomph to it.

And at a time when unionist wagons are being circled in response to Boris Jonhson's "betrayal", nuance is a very hard sell.

"Stop Brexit" is the Alliance message. "Stand together for the Union" is the DUP message. "Stay together or leave together" is the UUP pitch.

If Chambers is to win he needs to present himself as a clear choice between Farry and the DUP's Alex Easton, which, at this point, looks as though it could be quite difficult to do.

The party needs a massive injection of relevance right now because if it doesn't take North Down, or at the very least come close, then Aiken has a whopping problem.

Meanwhile, South Belfast presents a slightly different problem. The "understanding" between the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Greens has given the DUP's Emma Little Pengelly a massive electoral headache. The decision by the UUP to field Michael Henderson has only added to her headache.

But why shouldn't the UUP stand? Its position on Brexit is not the same as the DUP's. It is very critical of how the DUP seems to have made a dog's dinner of the trust it placed in Boris Johnson.

It argues that the DUP has not safeguarded the Union. It believes (and Steve Aiken said it in his inaugural speech as leader) that the RHI scandal raised huge questions about DUP competence.

And yet it is the UUP which is coming under pressure to stand down in South Belfast - the same sort of pressure it came under in North Belfast.

Yet the only arguments advanced for it standing down are that the DUP could lose the seat and the UUP "can't even win it".

But, looking at the 2017 general election numbers (with 9,384 Sinn Fein and Green votes now in play and with the UUP having got just 1,527 votes), it seems probable that it doesn't actually matter if the UUP stands or not.

Anyway, in 2005, when the UUP's Martin Smyth stood down, the DUP, aware of the risks of splitting the unionist vote, stood for the first time since 1983. Their argument then? "Let the voters decide."

Political parties have a number of functions, primary of which is setting out a stall and selling their wares to the electorate.

It is called choice. It is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is the surest way by which a party can measure where it stands.

Standing down in favour of a party of which you have been serially critical and with which you have fundamental disagreements doesn't actually make sense. And it only favours one of the parties.

I don't like pacts, understandings, arrangements, call them what you will. But with a first-past-the-post system and increasing polarisation of politics across the UK, pacts will probably become the norm - and not in a good way.

So, maybe we should face the fact that proportional representation is the best way forward for every election.

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