Conservative by any name.


It was hard enough to achieve Conservative Party organisation in Northern Ireland in the first instance, back in the 1980s. Central office was hostile, and much of the Party leadership at best reluctant to become involved in the region. On the ground it might have seemed mad to set up Conservative branches in Northern Ireland at the end of 10 years of Thatcher Government and in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There was also an Ulster Unionist Party which was dominant within the unionist electorate and, despite the recent history, remained on friendly terms with Conservatives generally at senior levels and in Parliament.

Despite the turmoil, naysayers, hostility and challenges, the determination of those early pioneers of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland gained Council seats and had a reasonable stab at the North Down Westminster seat.

Fast forward thirty years and we find a Central Office bending over backwards to be helpful, a Party leader (now Prime Minister) who visits, espouses unionism, and encourages the local Party to be local and relevant to Northern Ireland.

Some local Conservatives, however, think the Conservative brand is bad and that is why they ended with nothing, zip, nadda after three consecutive elections – don’t think they see Jim Nicholson as ‘one of us’ – though some might point to other reasons for the Northern Ireland Conservatives to gain electoral traction.

thedissenter has not  been convinced of any principled or particularly practical or positive thinking  around the revamping, relaunching and repackaging of the Northern Ireland  Conservatives under David Cameron: electoral positioning always seemed to dominate his relationship to Northern Ireland; though not the only area that seems calculated and poorly considered.  But support from the central Party, including finance, is real and appears genuine.

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly elections there has been a bubbling undercurrent seeking to change the name of  the Northern Ireland Conservatives to something else. This was flagged up by Alex Kane in the News Letter. This resulted in a response from the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservatives Irwin Armstrong to which Alex responded in his weekly column.

Unfortunately for Irwin Armstong and the Northern Ireland Conservatives, those bubbles keep on rising to the top.

No doubt well-meaning, the thinking of those seeking change in the Conservative name are naively missing the point. There is a deep lack of political capacity within the Northern Ireland Conservatives, mostly being freshmen to politics, and inevitably there are those who would seem to be imposing an agenda on a relatively weak body politic. This is reflected in the arguments being made to underscore the case for changing the Conservative Party name in Northern Ireland.

Discussion around the  positioning for a newly titled Party is presented as being one where “centrist, moderate, pro-UK politics, can be delivered, in a way that engages people of all classes, genders, religious persuasions and ethnicities.” Fine. At the same time it is also suggested that there is great reservoir of support for a moderate centrist grouping among those disillusioned with the direction of the so-called ‘centre-ground’ as it presently exists. This does beg the question that if a centrist moderate proposition is not in the so-called centre ground, where is it?

The centrist moderate proposition seems to be revolve around everything that is ‘non-sectarian’; excluding the Alliance Party which is apparently a usurper in the centre, being in fact a product of sectarianism: thedissenter understands how the Alliance could be described as itself a product of sectarianism, but that does not make it sectarian. Defining something by what you are ‘non-of’ does not define what you are, it merely narrows the parameters to a greater or lesser extent.

Where is the centre of politics in Northern Ireland?  thedissenter is asking because this impacts on what might be the name of any new centrist-rightish Party that is not in the so-called centre ground. This question seems to be a preoccupation of those who are seeking to re-style the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Can it be described with terms such as ‘Right’  which suggests ideology?  Can it be described as ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, which have their difficulties for positioning your politics not least among the unionist electorate. Being truly liberal is certainly not being in the centre, and is positively radical rather than perceptively moderate in respect of policy development.

Then there is image and moving forward. If there is to be a break and repositioning away from the ‘Conservative Party’ brand then there needs to be a distinct local identity. Those taking the lead would need  to be local. That would also mean creating some distance with the central Conservative Party. Being a local cheerleader for David Cameron is a non-starter. Any plan to bring in big Conservative names as speakers would seem counter-intuitive.

Tie your funding, timetable and proposition to the Conservative Central Office and leading names of the Conservative Party and people will see that as being Conservative: if it looks Conservative, talks Conservative and walks alongside the Conservatives, then it is a Conservative Party. If you act and work as Conservative in all but name, why not be Conservative in name?

So let us presume the new Party proposition and new name is sorted. Where would the new ‘not-the-Conservative-Party’ voters be found? Yes there are many people who do not vote in elections. The argument goes that once a proposition that will be attractive to the ‘disillusioned’ is found, hey presto you can create a new space in Northern Ireland politics. Perhaps. Only if you understand who isn’t voting, and the sort of proposition that might capture their attention.  There has been a great deal of discussion about the BMW & BBQ group, with little convincing evidence that this is where elusive voters are to be found.

In the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections the Belfast Telegraph launched ‘True Colours’ which was a chance for readers to see which Party they might support: a questionnaire based on manifesto points. Not only did the result provide the Party for which you are most likely to vote, it also provided percentages on how close you were to other parties. Manifesto positions were not generally presented in forthright, black and white, like it or reject it terms – plenty of wriggle room. So change an answer here or there, and you could easily change your ‘Party preference’ outcome.

What was most striking about the True Colours exercise was how little it took to change Party, and how much of each Party (in percentage terms) with which you agreed (according to the exercise).  In summary, there wasn’t much between the Northern Ireland Parties’ manifestos on the left/right index: take away the ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ labels and they are all much of a muchness: middle-class, middle of the road; and effectively aimed at the BMW & BBQ set.

If you are looking for a disillusioned and non-voting public in Northern Ireland, by far the largest fertile territory would be the large sprawling estates in areas across Northern Ireland, but particularly in the larger towns and cities. Anecdotally, as few as twenty-percent of the electorate might turn out to vote from these areas. The UUP, which once held sway here, lost that vote a long time ago to the DUP, mostly. The DUP has more recently lost the trust and confidence among the estates as it moved into the UUP’s urban middle-class vote. Neither the DUP or UUP appear to have any strategy to win votes back.

A presumption that this electorate is alien to a Conservative message is wrong. Certainly it would be a challenge to win over.

Northern Ireland needs the sort of radical restructuring in economic and political outlook of the Thatcher years, updated, of course. More of the same will not deliver. What is absent from the discussion among Conservatives in Northern Ireland is what would make them stand out in respect of policy and principle that relates and connects with a broad base of unionist opinion.  In respect of available vote,  however, that will need to be wider and deeper than the existing parties to succeed.

Thatcher years saw Conservative policy standing up to entrenched interests which resisted change: policy that empowered the individual over the State, breaking monopolies of economic and political patronage. It championed the small businessman. It championed meritocracy and freedom: individual rights against the overbearing State.

No doubt the Conservatives would see the vast ‘loyalist’ (or ‘nationalist’) estates beyond their reach. That is not necessarily so. Thatcher built a policy agenda that addressed the economy and reform which appealed to that very constituency;  building an electoral base that carried the Conservative Party to successive election victories for well over a decade.

Putting principle at the core of policy development, Margaret Thatcher communicated a populist policy agenda that re-engaged the aspirant classes to the Conservative Party – much to the horror of the paternalist One Nation grandees, and to the Left.

There seems to be a similar debate in Scotland , though in truth the Scottish Conservative Party has elected representatives at all levels on which to build.

While there was little difference in votes at the 2010 Westminster election between the SNP, Liberals and Conservatives behind Labour, the Tory vote is spread too thinly to gain seats. The Conservatives rose to third largest Party at the Holyrood election, even through the electoral gap between the Parties was more marked. Then there are the obvious reasons not to change the Conservative Party name in Scotland which have been articulated elsewhere.

While history has been unkind, that latent base in Scotland may make it difficult to claim ‘we were Tory, but we are not any more, so forget about all that, we are all new and improved’.

Although very different in demography and politics, for the Conservative Party the discussion over names in Scotland and Northern Ireland has coincided. The same issues ought to be at the core of consideration.

  • If a constituent part of the Conservative family in the UK includes formal association with Conservative Central Office and Party structures, then what benefit would realistically accrue with distance from the name ‘Conservative’?
  • Where do you find an electorate that is not already bombarded with political offers that are at least as attractive on the broad centre ground, but for whom a new ‘distinctive’ message may be attractive?
  • How distinctively right-wing (philosophically, politically, economically) will you be to create a substantive real difference between you and other Parties? There is presently only technocratic differences; no matter what the roots, constitutions, or rhetoric of those Parties might present to the contrary.How do you find a local non-nationalist message that creates a distinctively regional voice that is not incompatible with your national unionist position.
  • The largest disengaged, disillusioned voting group is among the aspirant working people in urban estates across the country. How do you re-engage the aspirant working people that you have abandoned or ignored?
  • What if the largest disengaged, disillusioned voting group wants to have confidence in a Party that offers a more strident populist unionism that would potentially upset that huge vote you don’t have and have little hope of achieving because the element of the electorate to which you are most sensitive (to the exclusion of those who might conceivably vote for you) is overwhelmingly a) nationalist b) traditionally left of centre and c) hates Tories of any colour (or name).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a debate among Conservatives about the need to re-imagine the Party or restore its appeal to the electorate.  First things first. What electorate is it that you are challenging to reconsider voting  for a conservative Party, and what is the proposition that will convince them to give Conservatism a chance?

The electorate is not stupid and will look for substance over presentation, a unity of purpose in moving forward and a principle and policy that is coherent, credible and meaningful to them by values (usually historical/familial), present circumstances and future aspiration for themselves and their family. The first thing they will not think about is the name of the Party they are voting for, it will be an affinity and confidence in the values, policy and vision of a real alternative in which they can believe.

If we move away from politics and into the business of branding, of which name and visual image is a small part, we remember the successful Accenture or British Gas, while forgetting the failures such as Consignia or the visual disaster of British Airways World designs. We also neglect the most successful longevity of identity of companies such as Shell, or the ever changing IBM which still manages to remain true to its core purpose of making useful technology for businesses.  Evolution, not revolution. At the heart of any successful company is a certainty in its purpose and the determination, ideas and aptitude to deliver in such a way that exudes confidence to customers that the product or service is right for them.

The Conservative Party in Scotland and Northern Ireland needs to forget about changing name until they work out what they exist to do, and have a clear vision for Scotland or Northern Ireland and a clear idea (policy framework) of how to get there. Otherwise the Party may well invest in a big rebranding only to find that the electorate looks past that branding to see little to make Conservatism, by any name, any more attractive than it ever was.

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