For Unionist Unity, should we look to America?

Mark Irwin is a Researcher by trade with an Msc. in Geographic Information Systems.  He is also an active member of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Just when you thought the SNP drama was dying down, suddenly a fifty-two year old woman gets arrested and subsequently released. It was the turn of Nicola Sturgeon to face Police Scotland.

Against the backdrop of the SNP’s difficulties; Alex Salmond wasted no time writing to his former colleagues on the idea of a single Yes candidate at the next general election.

He proposed a ‘Scotland United for Independence’ pact, with only one pro independence candidate per Westminster constituency, to be made up of non aligned, as well as SNP and presumably ALBA candidates. details tbd. (As they always are) A show of force to the English, that the Scottish are still dead set on Independence. Running against one another can only hurt the cause, and instead they must work together to maximise their nationalist representation.

This parallels nicely to our own discourse here. Fresh from council elections, talk of Unionist Unity has reared its head as it seemingly does every few months.

The idea itself does have some merit. With a first past the post election system, a diverse range of candidates are punished, not rewarded. People are forced to vote tactically, rather than for their preferred party. All this leads to an intensification of our community divides, forcing people to choose the party of their grouping that has the best chance of winning. Against this kind of election, Unionist Unity makes the most sense.

Anyone who knows me well enough will be surprised at this, as I am not a supporter of Unionist Unity. Multiple parties allows for debate and I stand firmly by that principle. I am best described as small u unionist. I’m pro-union, but it is not the only issue that keeps me up at night. If we want progress In Northern Ireland, we have to have serious debates on the bread and butter issues that affect us all; health, education, infrastructure etc. Having three main pro-unionist parties benefits everyone as it creates space for debate, allows for differences in policy areas, and affords the public the opportunity to choose which direction of travel they prefer. Not all pro-union citizens think the same, and it would be foolish to treat them as such. If anything, I would support more unionist parties, I’m a keen supporter of UK Labour running in Northern Ireland; I may not vote that way but having more left of centre Unionist parties is badly needed. Especially ones without the baggage of the past.

Back to Scotland. Mr Salmond conveniently left something out of his letter. Who runs where? The SNP I’m sure are more than happy to run a candidate in every one of Scotland’s constituencies, whereas ALBA would be very happy to see a few stand aside for their own gain. Similarly in Northern Ireland, many who call for Unionist Unity are really asking the TUV and the UUP to step aside. It seems highly unlikely Mr Paisley is planning on giving way to Mr Allister or indeed Mr Swann anytime soon. Whatever decision might be made, the DUP is not going to endanger its current crop of MPs, and why would it?

I propose instead a much more radical approach, one with its basis in American Politics. Not a country I tend to look to for sound politics if I’m honest. Its an outdated, cumbersome and slightly undemocratic system, that might have looked good on paper but in practice does not function as well as it ought. However the world watches on every few years as the nation chooses its president. It begins with the primaries and the party caucuses. Party members gather together, listen to debates and choose their candidates to run for president. These are performed across the country in numerous different ways. Some are run by the parties themselves, others by the state. Rules on who is eligible to take part differ, whether it be members of the public, or confined to members of the respective parties. What doesn’t change is that is gives the American people power to choose their own candidates for President, before they then get to vote on for the real thing. The party can do its best to steer the people the way they want, but there are always upsets dotted along the way.

So, what if Unionists decided their Westminster MP candidates by Caucasus? My grand idea would be that any person who is a paid up member of their respective unionist party would be entitled to take part. Subject to a certain number of nominations, anyone could put themselves forward for each constituency. The members gather together in each constituency, hear the debates, and vote on their candidate. That candidate then runs for election under a neutral header; maybe Official Unionism returns to the fore. They are not whipped by any party, and their own party membership and allegiance ceases to exist for as long as they are elected. Instead they act on their manifesto pledges brought up in the caucuses and election cycle, and represent the whole country as a group of independents.

I feel a system like this could have a number of benefits. Firstly it removes the thorny issue of which party runs where, as the members choose, not the parties. For the political parties it avoids the disadvantages of standing aside for another party. Instead of completely withdrawing from an area, they still get to take part, interact with their voter base, build profiles and if the candidate is deemed elected, all councillors, and mlas have a contact they can work closely with as if it were one of their own.

Ignoring the severe voter apathy in America for a second, creating a caucasus system could help improve the unionist turnout at elections. It revitalises unionist party voters; it encourages party membership, and it helps to engage unionist voters across the country. It gives them a reason to join a party, more than just local branch meetings, and gives a great opportunity for taking part first hand in an election cycle. It also provides a regular forum for cross party talks and discussions, a place where all unionist leaning parties can come together, have frank conversations and benefit their understanding by hearing opinions contrary to what they may believe. It allows people to break their own party echo chambers and work together, much more constructively.

Finally running a caucus style campaign would have the added benefit of creating headlines. All publicity being good publicity. The media and the public could follow it each step of the way. They could report from the debates, talk to the members, and report on any surprise decisions, with power resting solely with the membership of a collection of parties, who knows which candidate would be picked in each constituency. As each of the mini battles takes place, there would be twists and turns, creating a more interesting election cycle. This in turn could help beat Unionist voter apathy, and help increase turnout.

Would an idea like this ever get off the ground? Of course not. MPs provide huge benefits to political parties. It provides a solid level of income to the party, and it opens the party up to a larger donation pool. It makes a political party much more relevant on the wider UK, and even worldwide stage. Having MPs gives the opportunities to be in government, participate in committees. No party is going to give that up, they’d be mad too.

Still, a fun thought exercise at least.


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