The challenge for the Ulster Unionist Party AGM is threefold:
- That there must be a leadership capable of uniting the Party;
- That there must be a leadership capable of regaining the confidence and trust of the Unionist community;
- That there must be a leadership capable of providing professional and effective management of Party resources.
David Trimble’s leadership ended badly. While each of the two successive leaders offered promise in addressing the fortunes of the UUP, each has failed in his own way. Under the continuity Trimble leadership of Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist Party became even less of a broad church, and even more of a golf club committee that talked nostalgically of fish and chips, red telephone boxes and Mini Coopers.
While Tom Elliott probably better connected with the ordinary Party member and, possibly, the ordinary Unionist voter, the obvious disorder among the senior Party ranks undermined any electoral gain that may have, in time, been possible.
Added to which, the only consistent aspect of the Party over the past ten years has been an inept and amateurish approach to media and communication. That said, ‘poor communication’ is all too often a management excuse for a failed strategy and a team ill-suited to the task. Worse, ‘poor communication’ is often because the strategy is wrong, and the team simply does not understand the business: the electorate is the market, the arbiter of what product is attractive or not.
Who from within the Assembly Party, or the wider Party, has a political antenna to tune into the people (voters) and build a realistic, positive and credible narrative to move the Party forward? Where is the product? The UUP lost touch with the electorate and recent opinion has suggested the Party has lost relevance. It seems too to have lost its sense of purpose – it sometimes gives the impression it still believes itself to be the ‘natural Party of Government’: it is not, and there never was such a thing except among a certain class for whom it suited an inherited sense of self-value.
Like ‘poor communication’ Party rules are often blamed where it is the fundamental of politics that has been forgotten. The nature of Party rules and internal organisation is unlikely to be something the electorate cares much about, but can absorb massive amounts of time and energy. Substantial changes to Party rules were initiated under David Trimble to reduce the impact of the UUC (remember) and centralise authority.
It is instructive that rule changes have largely, then and since, increased the authority of the centre, but have achieved little by way of improving electoral prospects. The Party hierarchy seems to have been all too willing to externalise all blame for the Party’s electoral misfortune, despite de facto becoming more and more responsible for the decisions that have left the Party in such a perilous state.
This self-regarding attitude was certainly a factor in circumstances leading to the loss of David McClarty. The bumbling use of disciplinary procedures has most certainly exacerbated the situation with regards to David McNarry. In this regard, the UUP Officer team should take responsibility – though no doubt will be re-elected at the March AGM.
The Party needs a common view of where it stands at this point in time.
Strategies and plans must adapt to meet changed and changing circumstances. The DUP has been adept in this regard, while, electorally, the UUP has been punished for clinging on to hope and optimism when the realities beg to differ. The Party is now in the shadow of the DUP and at best stagnating in the polls, at worst on a loser’s run.
The UUP is viewed as being ill-disciplined, inconsistent and not having a clear view of where it is going. The way ahead is too often presented in terms of past achievement, not future goals. While it may well point to ‘success’ in Government roles, the nature of the Northern Ireland Government is such that success may be shared by everyone equally, and therefore achievement is unlikely to be credited to the Ulster Unionist Party alone – just look at the election literature at the past election.
The Ulster Unionist Party has a long overdue date with reality.
The Party has lost credibility, confidence and trust with the wider electorate. The Party base is ill at ease and unsteadied by the relentless negativity around the Party in the press, and disarrangement on the Hill.
A new leader, and leadership, must begin the task of real and credible change: reversing decline and determining what it takes to shape future reality. The start point is to acknowledge mistakes of the past, and explain why the future will be different.
Reversing a trend is a big challenge, and particularly where inertia and decline underscore that trend. The UUP needs a leader who has a clear vision to address the three points above, and is able to embrace and demonstrate an understanding of the three characteristics below:
- To lead from the front is laudable. But to lead so far ahead as to lose touch with your natural constituency is fatal. In politics no vacuum is left unfilled for very long – the UUP knows this to its cost. A Unionist leader who can’t win the hearts and minds of the greater number of Unionist voters is of little value. A good communicator is essential, but so too is someone who is able to communicate in such a way as to engage the trust and confidence of the electorate. That requires being able to demonstrate a track record of credible delivery. People want substance, not sound-bite. Words may be sound, but actions add volume.
- Credibility is earned. It is earned from having a simple consistent message that you are able to deliver time after time without contradiction – inconvertible truth, a clear purpose and intent. It is not about fancy words or labels. It is about offering a path forward on which people have a sense that the UUP will be sure footed and capable to leading to a welcoming destination. This helps build trust.
- Trust is easily lost and very hard to regain. The responsibility for losing the trust of the people, whether consumer, shareholder, stakeholder or electorate, rests with the person the top. To regain trust, there must be a clear step change away from the place where that trust was lost. Accepting that trust was breached, how and why, is a vital first step. Then, being someone trusted not to make the same mistake again becomes essential. For each of the contenders, who stands in the background and what does that support represent? What is new, or will it be same old, same old?
What should the candidates, and the UUP membership, be uniting around at this critical point in the Party’s history? Strategy, and common purpose, should be built on the broad values on which the UUP might regard itself as having once had, but seems to have lost along the way. Ulster Unionists need to be able to coalesce around a unity of respect, decency and integrity towards others – towards each other in the first instance. There must be a generosity of spirit, despite a steel determination in pursuing its purpose.
In policy it should focus on a small number of themes and work on taking a lead on the issues: improving fundamental education, creating a society where work and enterprise is encouraged, the vulnerable are supported, and the public sector reduced.
It has not been UUP core values that the electorate has rejected, it is a UUP that seems unable to articulate its values, create coherent policy propositions, and show self-belief in their relevance today. The new UUP leader must build on core values upon which so much trust was once placed, but in a way relevant to 2012 and beyond.
Whatever the outcome of the UUP leadership election the only certainty is that the Party cannot afford continued division, drift and decline. The new leader will need to enter the race with a team that he can trust, and that will engender trust from within the Party, that it will deliver to and for the electorate.
The new Ulster Unionist Party leader has a date with reality, perhaps a last chance to reignite it’s relationship with the voter. At stake is the risk that prolonged separation from the electorate may well end in divorce.