Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Say what you like about the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and the SDLP, they know what they stand for ... not so the Ulster Unionists

Accusations of being 'DUP lite' haunt Robin Swann's party, says Alex Kane. It needs to discover a role and, more importantly, stick to it

Party leader Robin Swann has presided over three elections in two years and the results have gradually worsened
Party leader Robin Swann has presided over three elections in two years and the results have gradually worsened

At some point - and it may be uncomfortably closer than many of its key players think - an analytical piece about the UUP's latest electoral misfortune will be, in fact, the official obituary of the party.

How many more hits can it take? How many more references to the party's "lowest-ever vote"? How many more changes of leader and direction, or reinventions and repositioning?

How many more times will one of its elected representatives stand before a camera and, with little conviction, mutter a variation of Danny Kinahan's: "If we don't take on board there was a major protest vote, we are going nowhere. I think we have a lot of work to do."?

How many more leaders will echo Robin Swann's: "The UUP isn't going anywhere. We still have a message to give to unionists and the wider Northern Ireland."

Two weeks after those comments the UUP dropped another 40,000 votes.

A major problem for the party is mixed messaging.

You can say what you like about the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, but the electoral pitch they make is reasonably clear.

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More importantly, members and long-time supporters of those parties rarely, if ever, disagree in public about the message. That is not the case with the UUP.

There was very public disagreement, for example, over the party's stance on the EU referendum. The official line was supposedly pro-Remain, yet a number of very senior members expressed disagreement.

Adding to the confusion, the party did very little to make the case for Remain during the referendum campaign.

And then, during last week's European elections, it fielded a candidate who had backed Remain, but was forced to try and make the case for Leave.

So, it's no wonder that its voters stayed at home or switched to either the DUP/TUV or Alliance. Clarity matters when it comes to attracting and holding voters.

The UUP has never recovered from the civil war and fissure generated by the Good Friday Agreement. Those left feel hard done by. They took all of the risks only to see the DUP (including many UUP defectors) reap all of the electoral rewards.

When David Trimble stepped down in June 2005 - after the UUP was reduced to just one MP in the general election - the party set itself to the monumental task of rebuilding and regeneration. There have been a few moments of hope and raised expectations in the past 14 years, yet each hope has been dashed and every expectation brought crashing to the ground.

Sir Reg Empey's big idea (and, in fairness, it made sense at the time and might have been more successful if there hadn't been so much internal disagreement about it) was an electoral pact with David Cameron and the Conservatives. It generated huge publicity for the party, but didn't deliver any electoral dividends and caused the defection of Lady Hermon, its only MP.

Sir Reg was replaced by Tom Elliott, described by some as a "blast from the past", who shifted the UUP away from the Conservatives. He stepped down less than two years later, saying that he had never been given a "fair opportunity" and complaining - accurately - that he was being undermined by party members and representatives briefing against him to the media.

He was followed by Mike Nesbitt, seen by many as a breath of fresh air and someone who could attract votes from a much broader base.

But Nesbitt was mostly learning on the job and sending very mixed messages.

He co-hosted the Unionist Forum with Peter Robinson in 2013, which brought together most sections of unionism and loyalism; he agreed election pacts with the DUP (which did deliver an extra seat for unionism); he worked closely with the SDLP in Opposition; he suggested that he would vote for an SDLP candidate in his own constituency before other unionists; and, while the UUP gained two MPs and increased the councillor tally under his leadership, it also lost six MLAs in the 2017 Assembly election.

That was his first significant election defeat as leader and he resigned immediately, a decision that disappointed - it still does - many of his supporters on the liberal wing of the party.

Robin Swann has presided over three elections in just over two years, each one worse than the one before. There's no point being overly critical, because he has barely had a chance to get his feet on the ground.

But there is a very clear sense that the party has shifted back to the Right again, and the accusations of being "DUP lite" have gained traction and done damage.

Each of those leaders had their own strengths and weaknesses, and in fairness to Nesbitt, the least-experienced in political terms when he took over the job, he was getting the full measure of the role when he decided to step down.

I don't think another change of leadership would make a difference at this point. Anyway, I can't point to one MLA capable of bringing the party together around a clear, coherent message.

The present team of MLAs and officers don't share a common vision and there are clear differences on a range of issues, not least of which concerns the UUP's relationship with the DUP.

The party has four specific challenges right now. The age-profile of its core vote (those who have stuck by it through the most difficult moments) is elderly and dying off. It needs to attract increasing numbers of younger voters. The DUP will be working on a strategy to attract UUP voters and Alliance will be doing the same thing.

The party has to find a way of stopping that drift on two fronts. It needs to set out a very clear answer to the question (one I am asked at least once a day): what is the difference between the UUP and DUP?

Finally - and crucially - it needs to learn to campaign again. This is no longer about damage repair and structural overhaul, this is about the very survival of the party.

Can all this be done? Honestly, I don't know. I have spoken to old friends and colleagues in the party, some telling me that it needs to create a de facto merger with the DUP in the form of permanent election pacts, and others telling me that the party must stand on its own and reach out to a "pro-Union community which never has and never will vote DUP".

And that's the primary division every post-1998 leader of the party has faced - how to cope with the DUP. But coping with the DUP also requires a clear understanding of the UUP's relevance and role; a specific and unique UUP message; and, once a policy and strategy has been agreed, the ability to stick to it for more than a few months.

All other roads lead to extinction.

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