Thursday, May 19, 2005

Voters never vote for pale imitations

Brian Feeney:

After Michael Foot led the British Labour party in 1983 to their biggest electoral defeat for generations, everyone in the party vowed "Never again".

In 1992, after the third consecutive defeat they were still saying it. For more than a decade the Labour party had torn itself apart arguing how to restore its electoral fortunes.

In the wake of the disastrous 1983 election, the left wing argued blindly that the party lost because it was not left-wing enough.

Nothing could convince Tony Benn and the closet Trotskyists who supported him that Labour lost the 1983 election precisely because it was too left wing – 'loony left' in the words of The Sun.

That reaction to defeat is far from a Labour monopoly.

When the Conservatives were slaughtered in 1997, the right wingers argued the defeat was because the party had abandoned Thatcherism.

The warnings of the party's most high-profile victim, Michael Portillo, fell on deaf ears. No-one could persuade the men in the No Turning Back group that the Conservatives lost in 1997 because they were too right wing and nasty.

You're going to hear exactly the same arguments as the Ulster Unionist Party rends itself asunder in the coming months.

Already you've heard from the political genius David Burnside, a man who lost his seat, attacking Lady Hermon, a woman who kept her seat. How would she know what to do? After all, she was the only successful UUP MP.

What does Burnside want to do? You guessed it. Push the party further towards the DUP, who already control the market. It seems to remain eternally beyond the grasp of failed politicians like Burnside that voters vote for the real thing, not pale imitations.

One sign that the UUP may have realised the folly of trying to out-Paisley, Paisley is the choice of its interim committee to run the party – Lord Rogan, Sir Reg Empey and Lady Hermon, all people who resolutely support the Good Friday Agreement and who would like to lead unionism towards genuine accommodation.

Unfortunately the omens are not good. They have to deal with the legacy of their awful leader Trimble, who bequeathed an unreformed, ill-disciplined rabble rather than a modern political party.

They will have to contend with the dreaded 860-strong Ulster Unionist Council, first thrown up as an ethnic umbrella to shelter all Ulster Protestants 100 years ago.

Some of its members look as if they were present at that first meeting. The UUC still retains its Orange bloc as of right. Many members will have voted DUP in the election on May 5. Many will believe that the party needs to move to the right to compete with the DUP.

Watch for the bizarre sight of former leader Lord Molyneaux and former MP Martin Smyth arguing for policies indistinguishable from the DUP.

Didn't they endorse the DUP candidate in South Belfast and support only those MPs who opposed the official UUP line in May? Yet they're still UUP members.

So anyone who imagines a new leader will emerge on June 23 and point the way for the UUP to recover its dominance in unionism is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

The UUP is finished. There's no way back.

You're probably too young to remember the UPNI, the party which emerged in 1974 after the UUC rejected the Sunningdale agreement. It staggered on until 1981 but it was a headless chicken by 1976.

That's the option that faces Lady Hermon and those in the UUP who hold liberal views, too few to be called a 'liberal wing'. When the UUP splits later this year, she will stay on as an MP, a voice in the wilderness. For the others, their political career is over. In the next election, assembly or general, the DUP will gobble up those who haven't already switched sides.

Why should this be? Two reasons.

First, unionists have yet again voted overwhelmingly not to share power with their fellow citizens. There's no political mileage in any unionist leader going against that.

That's the message from the election, dress it up as you will.

Secondly, the DUP succeeded in persuading the majority of unionists that Sinn Féin could become the largest party in the north if the UUP managed a large vote.

For unionists it would be unthinkable that a party which aims for the abolition of Northern Ireland should outvote both unionist parties in the place Britain gave to unionists. How could they explain that to the world?

Of course the big question here is now that the British colonists have realized that they can no longer afford the luxury of two Unionist political parties, will the indigenous Irish accept the fact that they can no longer afford the luxury of two Nationalist ones?


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