Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Changing leader regularly is not a panacea for any party... but we should not write an obituary yet

UUP leader Robin Swann with wife Jenny, daughter Freya and son Evan
UUP leader Robin Swann with wife Jenny, daughter Freya and son Evan
UUP leader Robin Swann with party colleagues Rosemary Barton, Steve Aiken and Doug Beattie
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

The imminent departure of Robin Swann as leader represents another blow to the long-ailing Ulster Unionist Party.

Admired by his members, Swann at least brought a sense of unity to an organisation which had seemed prone to a series of never-ending internal differences.

Since the UUP's civil war over the Good Friday Agreement, the party has suffered repeated reversals at the polls.

Swann had a tough baptism and an early disaster, as the UUP lost its two Westminster seats at the 2017 general election, captured only two years earlier. The UUP vote share fell 6% to a new low.

Things got worse - 2019 saw the UUP net its lowest ever percentage vote share in local council elections, its 14% share yielding only 75 seats, also a record low.

European elections brought even bigger woe, the UUP losing its seat and attaining a pitiful 9% vote share, 4% lower than any previous score.

How many nadirs can a party have? Yet little blame can be attributed directly to Swann.

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The departing leader stayed calm, personable, witty, collegiate and clear-thinking, with a good understanding of the UUP base.

His working-class background gave him insight into the concerns of ordinary unionists.

Swann was powerless, however, against long-term trends.

UUP decline has been impossible to reverse since the Trimble years saw Westminster representation collapse from 10 seats in 1997 to just one by 2005.

In putting his country before party, Trimble may have signed the death warrant for the UUP, a long, slow process of termination amid endless electoral decline punctuated by a few false dawns.

As Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson set about turning the DUP into a non-chaotic version of the party they had left, the UUP struggled to respond.

UUP members even seem unsure of their achievements, let alone their future.

Only a slight majority (53%) would vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement if a second referendum was held tomorrow.

Swann's leadership approach was to steady the ship - nearly impossible given the state of the craft.

Not for him the myriad of election strategies undertaken by his predecessors.

Unionist pacts, an alliance with the Conservatives and a cross-community "Vote Mike (Nesbitt), Get Colum (Eastwood)", UUP-SDLP link-up were all floated as saviours.

Only pan-unionism ever worked, and even that was based largely on DUP self-interest. "Vote Robin and you'll get an Ulster Unionist" was Swann's approach, bereft of experiments.

Whilst Swann did not repudiate Nesbitt's belief that the Ulster Unionists should be a pluralist party for a pluralist people, his priority was to appeal to the unionist core base.

The reality, as the SDLP is finding on the nationalist side, is that there is no longer space for two successful parties fishing in the same pool.

The unionist bloc is shrinking as the percentage of those eschewing such a label rises.

The growth of the non-aligned is witnessing an increase in Alliance Party support.

An obvious temptation is for the UUP to soften its unionism and pitch its tent close to Naomi Long's. But this is a party with three times as many members saying they like the TUV as they do Alliance.

An obvious question begged is who would want the leadership job?

Step forward, presumably, Doug Beattie. His combination of military background and social liberalism will appeal to different wings of the UUP. Given his military service in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, he should possess a capacity for dealing with dire situations.

The UUP membership remains considerably larger than the DUP's, those members are loyal and there is still a market of sorts, albeit shrinking, for a non-DUP unionist vote.

The UUP still has the capacity to revive and it is premature to write the party's obituary, but it needs greater policy distinctiveness and an implosion from Arlene Foster's party. Fallout from a no-deal Brexit might assist the UUP but given it has become pro-Brexit and anti-backstop, it is difficult to see how.

The UUP is every bit as anti-Irish Language Act as the DUP and its voters admired the deal the DUP struck with the Conservatives. So where is the niche?

Swann's successor will surely resist merger with the DUP with the same robustness offered by the outgoing leader.

The membership is overwhelmingly against fusion, only 15% favouring the idea.

There remains a UUP core vote resistant to the DUP. The party has recruited well at Northern Ireland's two universities in recent years.

However, only one-in-10 unionist electors aged under 25 voted UUP at the last general election, the party is expiring in Belfast and its highest percentage support and membership is in the least populated county of Northern Ireland.

Swapping leaders regularly is never a panacea for any party.

The UUP only needed four for almost five decades of dominance. Robin's Swannsong means the next leader will be the sixth in 15 years. That person needs to act fast to avoid being the last.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party, (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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