Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Unless Robin Swann's successor can slow the UUP's decline, he's just changing the name on the leader's door

Whether it's Doug Beattie or Steve Aiken, the job involves nothing less than the preservation of Ulster Unionism, writes Alex Kane

Doug Beattie
Doug Beattie
Steve Aiken
Robin Swann
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

Robin Swann's resignation announcement wasn't exactly a shock. Indeed, after the loss of the Euro seat a few months ago and the collapse of the UUP presence on Belfast City Council - thanks, primarily, to the Alliance surge - his departure seemed inevitable.

There was some surprise that the announcement came just before the pending general election, because it was read by some as a sign that he expected the result to be so bad that the party's 'grey suits' would have been presenting him with a bottle of brandy and a loaded revolver before the count had been completed.

In fairness to him, he has had very little control of circumstances, or events, since he became leader in April 2017.

Mike Nesbitt resigned following the party's unexpectedly disappointing performance in the Assembly election a few weeks earlier and Swann - who hadn't been plotting against him or making any obvious plans to be leader - found himself landed with the job.

And he had barely got his feet under the desk before the general election on June 8 saw the party lose its two MPs, while the DUP progressed to a crucially important king-maker role at Westminster.

He did make an attempt to put distance between the DUP and UUP on a number of issues, but the distance was never wide enough to persuade the media, or the electorate, that the UUP was a genuine, viable alternative to the DUP.

His other problem is that, while (according to The Ulster Unionist Party by Professor Jon Tonge and others) only 15% of party members support a UUP/DUP merger, 41% support "electoral alliances/pacts when it suits us".

Sign In

Those figures make life difficult for any leader who is serious about the UUP having a clear, unambiguous, stand-alone identity: the sort of identity which might attract some non-voting pro-Union support, as well as ending what has become a growing drift to Alliance from one-time UUP supporters.

The other difficulty for the UUP is that it has tried one thing after another to end the spiral of decline.

Reg Empey built an electoral policy/pact with David Cameron (the UCUNF project), but it failed to deliver any seats in the 2010 general election.

His successor, Tom Elliott, lasted less than 18 months and, announcing his resignation, complained that some people had not given him a fair "opportunity at developing and progressing many initiatives"; adding that the hostility began immediately after he became leader.

His successor, Mike Nesbitt, had a tendency to drift from one position to another. And, while his 'Vote Mike and get Colum' stance had merit, he never really took the time to persuade his grassroots.

The 2017 Assembly election, which saw MLA numbers reduced from 108 to 90, was always going to be difficult, while the UUP also found itself squeezed by the ferocious, post-'crocodile' battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

So, what does the UUP do now? It is inconceivable that the next leader wouldn't be an MLA and they only have 10 of those.

There has been speculation that Nesbitt might be tempted to throw his hat into the ring, but I would be surprised (although, as Mike himself would remind me, he has surprised me in the past).

There has also been speculation about Lagan Valley's Robbie Butler. He is enormously likeable and articulate and doesn't seem to have enemies across the party. That said, his profile is low and now is not the time for a leader with a low profile.

The most experienced MLA is East Antrim's Roy Beggs, who was first elected in 1998, but there is nothing to suggest that he has any interest in the role.

I'm also assuming, although I might be mistaken, that John Stewart, Rosemary Barton, Andy Allen and Alan Chambers are out of the picture. That leaves Doug Beattie and Steve Aiken, both elected in 2016.

Apart from Swann, they are easily the highest-profile members of the party and both would be firmly on the liberal wing.

But does being liberal actually guarantee more votes? The examples of Empey (seven years) and Nesbitt (five years) would suggest no.

Elliott (18 months) and Swann (30 months), both of whom would be regarded as coming from the traditional wing, didn't deliver votes, either.

Which leaves Beattie and Aiken with a huge problem: is there a 'magic' ingredient for rescuing the party? And, if there is, do they possess it?

Both men have admitted that they will be 'taking soundings' before confirming a decision to stand. Yet, that strikes me as just working out which of them would be the most effective at promoting a 'liberal' platform; a platform which mightn't even keep the votes of the traditional wing.

In other words, trying to reach out to the sort of pro-Union base which either doesn't vote, or has shifted to Alliance, or Green, might, in fact, do nothing more than shift existing UUP voters to the DUP or TUV, while not attracting the targeted new votes at all.

The UUP has always regarded itself as a broad church; a strategy that worked when there wasn't much choice for unionist voters.

But it's very hard to be a broad church against an ongoing background of electoral decline and falling representation.

And it's even more difficult to be a broad church when parties like the DUP, Alliance and TUV are catering for the specific needs of specific groups of voters.

So, a new UUP leader who starts from a position of being a 'liberal' risks perpetuating the decline if he is seen to alienate the traditional wing.

And he risks perpetuating the decline if he tries to cater for two internal groups with contradictory ambitions for the party.

He also risks perpetuating the decline - by losing the 55% of members who support either a full merger, or electoral alliances/pacts - if he tries to position the UUP too far away from the DUP.

How would Doug and Steve meet those challenges and deliver the thing which the UUP needs most: the slowing down of the decline and hard evidence of sustainable electoral progress?

Because, if they don't have a strategy for that delivery, then they are doomed to be nothing more than a new name on the door of the leader's office.

Unionism will face huge challenges if there is a no-deal Brexit, or a deal which unsettles the pro-Union majority.

In either of those circumstances, the case for a new form of unionist unity will dominate the political agenda. How would Doug and Steve react?

They are both men of honour, integrity and talent. The job both may seek is a daunting one: in essence, the preservation of the UUP.

Winning the leadership isn't enough. Both came into politics because of an innate sense of public service and duty. And both have much to contribute. I wish them both well.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph