Thoughts on the UUP Leadership Part 1

The UUP leadership is finally becoming rather interesting. The establishment choice of Tom Elliott may have been the front runner but now the supposed outsider Basil McCrea is in fact becoming if not the favourite, certainly the media darling.

McCrea is seen to offer the new dynamic choice of the party. The Belfast Telegraph has pointed out that McCrea is trying to enhance the party’s appeal to younger people. McCrea himself made much of reaching out to disaffected unionists and non traditional unionists. He further pledged not to take a ministry until he becomes First Minister (maybe wisely he has said he will later review that pledge).

McCrea is undoubtedly the new exciting kid on the block (despite being older than Elliott). However, when the slick sound and presentation are stripped away the message looks remarkably like the one presented to the electorate by the UCUNF at the last election. At the last Westminster election the prospect of a shiny new non sectarian unionist party which pushed its business credentials and spoke of reaching out to disaffected unionists and non unionists was presented. That new vision was presented and failed utterly.

To fully understand that failure and the similarities that it has to McCrea’s leadership campaign it is worth going back over the failure. In seat after seat the flop was spectacular. As an example in East Londonderry, Lesley Macaulay ran: a decent and friendly person no doubt. However, she was a liberal unionist, chosen, no doubt, to appeal to the nice middle class voters of the Triangle. However, what the CUs forgot was that the middle class unionists of the Triangle had already defected to the DUP. The fact that they live in the nice houses along the Lodge or Mountsandel Roads and do not adorn their houses with union jacks does not make them liberals. Of course in pursuing that vote the CUs forgot that Coleraine contains larger numbers of working class unionists to whom the likes of Macaulay offered very little compared to Gregory Campbell. It also forgot the dour Orangemen from the likes of Garvagh and Kilrea. Some of them are middle class, some working class but most defected to Gregory Campbell from Willie Ross a decade ago and will see very little in the likes of Ms. Macaulay to bring them back to the UUP fold.

That seat is merely one example of the problem. It is replicated in the likes of East Belfast. There the problem was the failure to understand the constituency in a slightly different fashion. Trevor Ringland was too liberal too gain a significant segment of the harder line unionist vote and the liberal vote along with those who simply wanted to give the DUP and Robinson a blood nose has a more plausible candidate in Naomi Long. Naomi Long of course had further advantages: a track record of hard work. Basil McCrea promotes the idea of hard work but looks on less than solid ground as compared to the utterly hard working constituency representative which is Tom Elliott.

McCrea’s great pitches are to gain Catholic Unionists and the Garden Centre Unionists. The problem is that the Catholic Unionist is a largely mythical beast. In reality some Catholics might vote against a united Ireland in a referendum: it is unclear. However, to expect many of them at all to vote UUP / CU or whatever in the foreseeable future is extremely unlikely. I have suggested previously that part of the problem is that much of this argument is based on a purely economic analysis of voting (so beloved of certain Conservatives) and It’s not the economy: stupid in Northern Ireland terms. There is even the danger that the economic argument can actually be seen as an update of O’Neill’s line about treating Catholics better and them then behaving like Protestants. All are very close to the old bigoted insult of “They will not take the Crown but will sure take the Half Crown.” Whilst Basil McCrea and those around him are most unlikely to think like that there is a danger that by refusing to recognise the cultural and emotional aspects of nationalists allegiance to becoming part of the RoI they will fail to gain Catholic votes. Yet, having dumped their own cultural and emotional unionism they will fail to understand why nationalists hold to a cultural commitment.

Of course McCrea has not totally dumped his cultural unionism and that in itself could be an additional problem. Travelling to support Newtonbutler Border Defenders band parade may have been an attempt to gain a few Fermanagh votes in the leadership election but whilst entirely understandable from a cultural unionist position is less likely to improve his credentials in appealing to Catholic unionists.

The other group McCrea has targeted is of course the Garden Centre Unionist. The problem is that this beast also seems almost entirely mythical. A number of people have looked at the voting figures from a number of elections and whilst it is indeed true that many people who might be regarded as cultural unionists (ie Prods) do not vote, the demographics suggests that these people are proportionally more from a working class than a middle class background. It is no doubt true that some middle class unionists do not vote, however, the cold hard fact is that they appear to be a relatively small number. Clearly many of the middle class unionists who proclaim that they do not vote are actually lying: hardly a stunning realisation yet one which many CU types seem completely blind to. In addition it is far from clear that the non voting middle class unionists are actually liberal. They may proclaim their liberalism at dinner parties in Ballyhackamore but it is far from clear that they are not actually fibbing again. The larger non voting block of working class Prods has not been effectively tapped by either unionist party and despite McCrea’s claims in his speech the whole tenor of his message seems much more targeted to the non existent unicorns than the existent goblins of non voting working class and hard line middle class unionists.

A major issue which has not been mentioned much is the relationship Basil McCrea has with the rest of the party leadership: one which appears fairly fractious. He has already attacked a number of senior party figures and has pledged to create a system which will allow no confidence votes in MLAs. This may play well to the public but is actually pretty stupid politics. No successful party is a one man band yet by antagonising many of his senior colleagues McCrea will create a very difficult position from which to lead the party. Indeed his strategy seems taken straight from the Bob McCartney school of unionist leadership. McCartney remember was (and is) an extremely persuasive speaker and campaigner but one who managed the political inverse Midas touch of destroying whatever he laid his hand upon.

The UUP has been here before. When they elected David Trimble he was the outsider and a man known to have at times a fractious relationship with his party colleagues. In going for McCrea the UUP would be in grave danger of doing another Trimble. The new radical change may not be so new and radical after all.

Following on from that is the question of McCrea’s character itself. There is a danger of playing the man here but he has fallen out with many people with whom he has worked over the years. Additionally there is the appearance of ambition for its own sake: best stated by Alex Kane. That Kane has anxieties about a McCrea leadership should itself speak volumes. Alex Kane is a cultivated, moderate, civic unionist unencumbered by religious allegiance or ethnic unionism: he should have been one of McCrea’s cheerleaders in chief yet he has stated:

I have known Basil for about five years – since he cold-called me shortly before he threw his hat into the Lagan Valley ring for the 2005 general election – and in all that time I have never managed to work out what he believes in or stands for. Yes, he is articulate, but when you strip away the platitude and the charm, there really isn’t much in the way of substance or vision. He clearly wants to be leader: my concern is that he wants it simply as an addition to his CV

The reality is that a McCrea leadership, far from being a fresh start, looks like the restart of the fresh start which was the UCUNF experiment or even the Trimble leadership. McCrea might be a somewhat more plausible exponent of that experiment than Reg Empey but not necessarily so. In addition the simple fact is that the UCUNF experiment was only marginally more successful than Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas. When in hole one should stop digging. In electing McCrea there is a grave danger that the UUP will simply replace the JCB excavator with a CAT one.


  • slug

    Turgon is a TUV member it is worth remembering.

  • dwatch

    You seem to be forgetting one thing Turgon. It is not the overall N Ireland electorate who go to the polls at local & assembly elections who will be electing a new leader of the UUP.

    Hows about an article on how the TUV is going to preform in the next local & assembly election May 2011.

  • Dewi

    “At the last Westminster election the prospect of a shiny new non sectarian unionist party which pushed its business credentials and spoke of reaching out to disaffected unionists and non unionists was presented. That new vision was presented and failed utterly.”

    New vision ? Perhaps not:
    “…the Orange Order convened secret unity talks between the two main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, in early December.
    Party leaders Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey attended the talks at the Orange Order’s headquarters in Belfast. ……….(the talks)..They were chaired by the Orange Grand Master Robert Saulters and the Grand Secretary Drew Nelson. ”
    Not sure that that was totally congruent with the vision. Indeed I suggest that incoherence and inconsistency shone like blazing beacons throughout the UCUNF campaign.

  • slug

    Indeed. Sir Reg’s desire for consensuality was a weakness and created problems of inconsistency to which you refer. There is a real danger that Tom would be Sir Reg only worse.

  • UUP Supporter

    Maybe someone should be looking into those closely supporting McCrea’s camapign from within the UUP. Maybe not so appealing to moderate unionists or union supporting catholics after all.

  • Paul

    You couldn’t sell a “vision” of non-sectarian Unionism with simultaneously Hatfield and the communal candidate for FST happening. When the chips were down, the party elite headed back for the trenches. And whoever wins the contest, that elite will still be in place.

  • slug

    Thing is, the chips weren’t down at the time for the UUP. They were down for the DUP. There was no need for these communalist talks, it was Reg’s blunder in my view.

  • IJP

    I would say that it is at least arguable (to use a Blair term) that the UCUNF project did not succeed because it was *not* about liberal Unionism than because it *was*. The fact is, from Hatfield onwards, the message was mixed and, in any case, the candidates (including Lesley, who will make an excellent MLA) were chosen too late to present the message themselves.

    The question is whether the UUP is collectively capable of running consistently under a non-sectarian brand free from the poison of “Unionist unity”, even if they have a leader who wants to.

  • Paul

    The question is whether the UUP is collectively capable of running consistently under a non-sectarian brand free from the poison of “Unionist unity”, even if they have a leader who wants to

    With the likes of Cobain, McNarry, Kennedy all still in place?
    Unless they join the DUP, then even if McCrea wins, the answer to your question has to be a “no”.

  • bob wilson

    Less an analysis of the UUP leader than a twisted Ulster Prod trying to pretend all Prods are like him.
    UCUNF may not have succeeded and I think the reasons where as IJP suggests
    TUV solution? Rally the Protestant wagons.

  • Progressive Unionist

    McCrea is undoubtedly the new exciting kid on the block (despite being older than Elliott). However, when the slick sound and presentation are stripped away the message looks remarkably like the one presented to the electorate by the UCUNF at the last election.

    The huge difference though is that in the last election the UUP were hamstrung by the albatross of a link to the unpopular Tory brand – McCrea is unequivocally pledged to break the link with the unpopular Tories and regain the UUPs status as an independent party.

    I wouldn’t underestimate this. The Tory link split Unionism’s progressive, UUP-supporting wing completely in two on left-right grounds – McCrea has the potential to reunite progressives behind what is clearly a well thought-out agenda, which can reach out and bring in non-voters, pro-Union Catholics and moderate Protestants.

  • bob wilson

    Evidence of the unpopularity of the Tory brand? You seem to assume the UUP would have polled better on its own.

    What is this talk of uniting ‘progressives’? unite them behind what?
    ‘moderate unionism’? that’s not real politics.

    We need political parties with policies to deal with the economy etc that means placing yourself on a left right spectrum.

    For a unionist that should be involving oneself in the main political parties of the Union not creating ‘nice’ parties with no policies

  • Drumlin Rock

    I hope Basil isnt hanging about with this “supporter” anymore.

  • asitis

    Simple fact is that the UUP need to return more than 17 MLA’s next year, with Basil already stating he cannot work with three of the ‘shoe-ins’, including the party whip, does he really have a chance of increasing the size of the assembly party?

    He seems to be taking a gamble that the ordinary members do not like their MLA’s while surrounding himself with a number of people who have ‘personal’ issueswith the party machine.

    If this strategy fails, will he have any future in a party where he has ‘called out’ his colleagues in the assembly and the party officers group?

  • slug

    Of course he does. It’s important for the UUP to work together and use all the talents.

  • The Raven

    Your analysis of the vote around Coleraine is flawed.

    Defection to the DUP? There were turnouts in one “working class” area was as low as 38%. In a “middle class” area next door, so to speak, the turnout was – if I recall correctly – about 43%.

    The constituency may be won or lost in Coleraine – but when the seat is won on 21% of the potential vote, and huge swathes don’t turn out, I’d suggest that there are problems – and defection isn’t anywhere near the biggest of them.

  • Peter Brown

    “McCrea has the potential to reunite progressives behind what is clearly a well thought-out agenda”

    Surely the point is that McCrea has no agenda except to win the leadership – his launch was targetted at getting enough votes to win the leadership then we’ll hear about his agenda (assuming he ahs one other than to win the leadership).

    It’ll hurt him more than it’s hurting me but (here goes nothing) I agree with Alex Kane….think I (and probably he) need to go and lie down in a darkened room….

  • Nhoj

    Has anyone checked out Basils past? What did he do in NI when he came back after being a national accounts manager for Mars in UK? I would be very concerned about the future of the UUP if he won the leadership.He is being very quiet about his past employment.

  • Drumlin Rock

    I dont hear that coming from Basil Slug, tbh thats the thing that concerns me most, he seems set on confrontation and splits.

  • drumlins rock

    Nh, how long was Basil out of the country? all I can find onlnie is he left school in 78, went to Birmingham Uni, then entered politics in 2005, I know the unsucessful business must have been the few years before that, was he across the water most of the 80’s and 90’s in that case?

  • drumlins rock

    posted too quick, managed to find these bits, still gaps though, anyone fill them?

    The University of Birmingham
    B.Sc (Hons) , Chemical Engineering , 1978 — 1982

    National Account Manager – Mars Confectionary
    August 1982 — September 1990 (8 years 2 months)

    University of Ulster – M.Sc , Informatics , 2000 — 2001

  • “McCrea has the potential to reunite progressives behind what is clearly a well thought-out agenda, which can reach out and bring in non-voters, pro-Union Catholics…”

    IIRC, almost 20% (can’t remember the precise figure) of SF’s voters are pro-Union in reality. I suspect the figure is higher for the SDLP?

    I’d agree with Dewi and ‘Progressive Unionist’ that the FST shenanegans and the Tory link negate a lot of Turgon’s argument here. It was a muddy, messy and incompetent campaign and I’m surprised that the UUP isn’t stringing a few of it’s recent leadership up as a result of it.

    Living in London with no real NI party allegiances (I’m a member of the SDLP’s sister party in the PES, thassall) I’d offer this observation as an outsider:

    The idea of the UUP saying this….

    “The constitutional issue is entirely parked and nothing that happens in this election will change that. Given the huge need to focus on jobs and investment at this time, we’ve decided to leave all of the bickering and whataboutery around the Orange Order / flags / ‘the past’ to the DUP, while we concentrate solely on jobs and investment. We have the interests of Trades Unionists and businesspeople alike at heart. We’re not a party of either left or right, we will represent the economic and material interests of nationalists and unionists without favour to either side. We invite every voter in NI – regardless of their traditional affiliations to vote for The Party of Growth And Prosperity ™.”

    I suspect that, in doing this, the UUP could go after a slice of almost everyone else’s vote (though I still concede that SF will be the least vulnerable to this threat).

  • slug

    He has discussed some of his attempts at business creation in NI in the period after 2001 at his launch. Although I understand the success was mixed , this in itself is good experience for a legislator.

  • slug

    Interesting to see that there is something of a generation and gender shift going on in the selections that are being made for UUP MLA candidates. This is very welcome, not to be disrespectful to the older generation, who have served the country in very difficult times.

  • IJP


    Cobain is no “shoe-in”. Hence his recent outburst about Unionist Unity.

    Paul E

    The problem is, that’s the Alliance Party. Ask Trevor Ringland what happens when you try to out-Alliance Alliance!

    The leadership race has hardly inspired, but the blunt reality is the Ulster Unionists are in an impossible position on the standard NI spectrum (between a growing Alliance Party and moderating DUP); the link to the Conservatives was the only route to real relevance.

    Now, it seems to me they will be left to rely on the odd exceptional candidate and the mere hope that enough DUP-hating Unionists will be bothered to turn out and vote for the default.

  • Dewi

    I suspect Cameron is really regretting not spending the time and money he devoted to NI in Scotland instead. Haven’t heard anything much from him post election. Do Conservative Party members have a say in the leadership election?

  • I don’t know if that’s *the* IJP, but either way….

    Fair point, but I’m not sure that the Alliance stood as a party that were *for* anything. They’re a ‘not the other lot’ party. The UUP have an opportunity to be a ‘can do’ party.

  • Granni Trixie

    But Paul, there is clear evidence to the contrary – infact Alliance campaigns tend to be based on showing evidence that they seek creative solutions to problems rather than to articulate an “against everything” message.

    Just because “the border issue” or what somebody’s religion or culture is doesnt matter to you doesnt mean that nothing matters to you. Its just that in APNI we have values based on other things.

  • drumlins rock

    IJP, despite the SF “threat” in NB Cobain still increased his vote, might still need transfers but should pull enough back to keep ahead of the third DUP candidate.

    you analysis sound just like the view of the Conservatives during the 90s, squeezed between the increasingly moderate Labour and right wing UKIP, it was only by reclaiming the middle ground they had lost to Labour that they recovered. Alot of the DUP voters of all shades feel let down, they jsut need a convincing alternative.

  • davidonlineone

    His own C.V. reads….

    1982-1990 Slough, England – Mars Confectionery

    1990-2005 Worldwide – Entrepreneurial Activity

    That is literally taken from his own C.V. from a few years back. Still mystery and intrigue!

    B.R.A. and University of Birmingham (Chemical Engineering) before that and a Masters with Distriction in Informatics.

    Doesn’t list his grades on the C.V. – not that it’s relevant all these years later anyway…

  • Don’t think that can be right. I worked as a marcomms consultant on hr & trade relations at Mars Confectionery at Slough during that period and dealt with all the National Account Managers. Don’t remember Basil – he would have stood out as the only Ulsterman. Unless he worked for Pedigree or Masterfoods, but then why would he say Mars Confectionery? (BTW it is ConfectionERY). I vaguely recall there were Divisional Account Execs who worked from a home base: however, the big jobs were based in the Slough office. I still have some contacts around Mars and my curiousity has been aroused. Small world.

  • davidonlineone

    Very encouraging stuff indeed:

    Some difference if the following happens based on who is in the mix so far:

    North Antrim – out Rev. Coulter (80+ years old), in Robin Swann
    Upper Bann – out George Savage, in Colin McCusker, out, Sam Gardiner, in Jo-Anne Dobson
    East L/Derry – out David McClarty, in Lesley Macauley
    Mid Ulster – out Billy Armstrong, in Sandra Overend
    South Belfast – out Michael McGimpsey, in Paula Bradshaw
    East Antrim – out Ken Robinson, in Mark Dunn/Rodney McCune
    Strangford – out David McNarry, in Mike Nesbitt

    New seats are possible in Lagan Valley and West Tyrone as well based on Westminster figures and boundary changes – Mark Hill and Ross Hussey getting the nods there.

    As a UUP supporter, it has a lot of potential, even if Tom Elliott gets the leadership, if the party are indeed putting up the range and diversity of candidates being touted we could potentially do well – even if it is only the 17 returned plus W.Tyrone and L.V., i would deem that successful on the back of the poor general election showing.

    The future of the party would also be secured surely?

  • slug

    Well let us not speak too soon on the last point. And some of your “outs” I don’t think are going out.

  • slug

    How many GCSEs does he have?

  • davidonlineone

    doesn’t list any – only that he has 4 A Levels, also wouldn’t have had “GCSEs” that long ago…

  • drumlins rock

    david some of your outs will be up to the electorate, but thats the way it should be, ie. McNarry & Nesbitt will both be on the ticket I imagine, and a good chance Gardiner will still be on with McCusker & Dobson. Prob the same story in South Belfast.

  • drumlins rock

    what is “1990-2005 Worldwide – Entrepreneurial Activity” ?

  • slug

    It would not be sensible to put three on the ticket in Upper Bann.

  • slug

    To get 4 A levels is good. Also he has a degree from a proper university.

  • Basil definitely worked for Mars Confectionery somewhere in sales and manufacturing between 1982 and 1990.

  • Nhoj

    Have heard that he was working for C & C in Belfast for a short time in the early 90s.
    Will this count as Worldwide Entrepreneurial Activity