Throughout most of the election campaign there was a large billboard on the lower Newtownards Road with a picture of a young woman and the following quote “One year on still no one has delivered for working class unionism; that’s why I’m voting PUP.” As it turned out of course relatively few working class unionists seem to have decided to vote PUP and few unionists of whatever class voted for the PUP’s prodigal former leader Dawn Purvis.
The fundamental conceit at the heart of the PUP was that they alone could represent working class unionists. This was nonsense at a whole variety of levels:
Working class unionists like any other demographic group are not homogeneous: they vary in views, politics, the locality they live in and in innumerable other ways. The idea that they could all be pigeon holed into one group and represented by one political party is a piece of naïve, nonsensical class warfare politics which few outside the barmier fringes of the hard left would still adhere to. The PUP, supported by some in the media, however, seem to have propagated this idiotic and condescending notion.
The idea that working class unionists were wrong or duped if they voted for any other unionist party was also a major part of the PUP’s thesis: again this was a condescending and foolish notion, treating the electorate as little better than children. Working class unionists always have and will continue (like everyone else) to vote as they feel appropriate: they are, like the rest of us, quite able to decide for themselves whether or not to vote and for whom depending on their own views and values which as noted above are not all the same.
The next problem was the PUP’s definition of the unionist working class. As noted recently many people who would traditionally have self defined as working class now define themselves as middle class. As such the PUP were cutting themselves off from vast swathes of potential support by their insistence on using the tired rhetoric of at least a generation ago. Furthermore they seemed only to identify with working class unionists in Belfast, caring little enough for those in large unionist towns and not acknowledging the existence of working class unionists in the rural parts of Northern Ireland.
The quality of representation the PUP provided to their constituents was also far from clear: they may have talked a good game, but there often seemed little enough evidence of any actual practical help for real working class unionists.
There was, however, a group whom the PUP seemed much more interested in helping: the lumpenproletariat of the UVF. Brian Ervine when elected the PUP leader was keen to emphasise the link with the UVF as a “bridge”; he promptly went on to demonstrate his support for the UVF with an extremely ill-conceived picket of police headquarters to complain about the police arresting loyalist terrorists.
The reality has always been that amongst the greatest oppressors of the unionist working class have been the UVF and the rest of the alphabet soup of loyalist criminals. During the Troubles loyalist terrorists murdered over 200 Protestants, most of whom were working class. Since the ceasefires the UVF have murdered two dozen or more people: practically all of them working class unionists. In addition the UVF have (along with the UDA) continued to oppress working class unionist communities with their organised crime, drug dealing, prostitution and protection rackets.
The loss of jobs in traditional industries has been a huge problem especially for the unionist working class – there have been similar problems throughout the UK. In Northern Ireland and especially Belfast, however, the loyalist paramilitaries have added to this dynamic of social decay and helped create sink estates left by all who can and those remaining practically held captive by loyalist terrorists. Throughout all of this the PUP have argued that the solution is to help the paramilitaries: to provide more Danegeld, to look away when they spoil and even take lives; to pretend that loyalist terrorists are something other than a cancer on society.
The PUP seemed to have convinced some of the chattering classes, some of the more naïve well intentioned voluntary sector, some academics, even parts of the NIO (and most famously Mary McAleese’s husband) that they had cared for the interests of someone other than the loyalist terrorists. However, they conspicuously failed to convince the working class unionist population of their bone fides: this is hardly surprising as the working class unionists were the major sufferers from the PUP’s other halves in the UVF. On every occasion they were given the opportunity they voted for mainstream unionist parties in vastly greater numbers.
It is also completely unfair to claim that the DUP and UUP had no working class members. There is no doubt the UUP had fewer than it should have, though its deputy leader Harold McCusker was proudly working class based. The DUP were once very working class based: it is true that they have gentrified over the years but there are still significant numbers of working class based DUP members and also MLAs. In East Belfast this time Sammy Douglas was a new face from a working class base; in East Londonderry Arian McQuillan is clearly a working class based politician. The PUP would probably fail to recognise that someone from a village like Garvagh could be working class: however, contrary to the PUP’s world view not everyone in the likes of Garvagh is related to George Canning.
The defeat of Brian Ervine seemed inevitable to most involved in politics: however, the PUP’s former leader turned independent Dawn Purvis was touted as a possible winner.
Even before Purvis had left the PUP she was lauded by many in the media and others outside working class (or other mainstream) unionism. Purvis seemed the darling of some of the chattering classes: she was described as the authentic voice of working class unionism: her feminism and support for children’s issues was lauded; her left wing credentials praised. One commentator on slugger (I think Fitjameshorse) described her treatment as that of a sort of latter day Eliza Doolittle. Many of what FJH calls the liberal dissidents saw in Purvis a sort of champion of liberal working class unionism untainted by the awful mainstream unionists. The fact that Purvis was the mouthpiece in chief for loyalist paramilitaries for years was ignored. Her joining of the PUP as the UVF were murdering one of the oldest (and I think working class nationalist) victims of the Troubles – Barney Greene (87) at Loughinisland- was brushed under the carpet. As an aside I believe Purvis once claimed she did not know who the UVF were when she joined the PUP: if it is correct that she claimed that – the mind boggles. Purvis of course stuck with the PUP for years as they continued murdering their way through Northern Ireland (latterly predominantly murdering working class unionists). She demonstrated her commitment to children’s rights by supporting a child murderer and fellow PUP member Billy Hutchinson when he was arrested over withholding information regarding the murder of a Catholic child: Thomas Devlin. She demonstrated her commitment to women’s issues by not making any comment when apparently a UVF member along with one form the LVF murdered and disappeared Lisa Dorian.
Eventually, however, after the UVF murdered ex prisoner Bobby Moffett, Purvis left. It might have seemed to some odd that Purvis stayed with the PUP until that murder and how it was in some way the final straw when other murders seemed irrelevant to her. At the time Mark Devenport suggested that she might have been in danger of losing some of her Stormont allowances had she stayed with the PUP. My suggestion was that she thought she would lose her seat standing under the PUP banner and would try to dump the association with terrorism and stand as an independent liberal unionist: “a chance for her might be to leave behind the taint of loyalist terrorism and try to become another Naomi Long: a working class soft unionist albeit with a bit more unionism.”
Whatever the motivations Purvis was again lionised for her “courage”, “vision” and lots of other “good things” by large segments of the press and many of the chattering classes and the liberal dissidents. All the time, however, her grasp on the issues faced by working class unionists seemed to be reducing (to the extent that it had ever existed). She seemed to have one eye on the exit from Stormont: much of her time was spent trying to help her media profile for the chattering classes. The report on educational underachievement amongst working class unionist children was not particularity revolutionary, poorly proof read and proffered more platitudes and obvious truisms than anything approaching a suggested way forward. Predictably, however, the chattering classes and media loved it: interestingly it made little mention of the corrosive effect of loyalist paramilitarism on educational underachievement.
At the end of the day, however, despite the adulation of the chattering classes and despite becoming more transfer friendly Dawn Purvis was thrown out by the electorate: they always seemed less keen on her than their “elders and betters” told them they should have been.
Exactly what will happen to the PUP now seems unclear: they may pick up a council seat or two. It is to be hoped that even if they do their derisory level of support (remember vastly lower on a NI wide basis than the TUV’s) will result in the mainstream parties and the NIO ignoring them. However, many in the establishment have a track record of treating the PUP with far more respect than their level of electoral support deserves.
Purvis may be trying to set herself up for the likes of a Quango job: there has been a long tradition of failed politicians of whom the great and the good approve being given such opportunities to keep their snouts in the trough. If Purvis does get a job anywhere near anything to do with any commissions for children, human rights or anything remotely similar, it will be simply a further insult to the victims of those for whom she cheerled for so many years: at least the electorate seem to have seen through her self reinvention.