I noted David McNarry’s joining of UKIP last week with a mix of incredulity and laughter. Having been silent for some months following dire threats of legal action against his previous party, the MLA for Strangford crawled out of the woodwork to make a big announcement. Was he finally going to the DUP given his much publicised flirtation with unionist unity? Was he returning to the UUP as the much chastened prodigal son?
Good grief, no! His announcement, made as all such things are in the Great Hall at Stormont was that he was going to split unionism even further. How? By starting his own party à la Bob McCartney? No, Mr McNarry decided that his way forward is to join the ranks of UKIP. Cue drum rolls from UKIP and much head scratching from everyone else. Then the laughter subsided and I began to consider how this impacts on Northern Irish politics and possibly UK politics.
At first blush, nothing much has changed. McNarry joining UKIP gives us at present simply another pro-union party with insignificant representation in the Assembly. The DUP has the numbers to continue to steamroll its agenda through the legislative process with the willing connivance of Sinn Féin. UKIP has no say in the Executive, nor much sway among MLAs and if McNarry remains their most visible politician this isn’t likely to change as he is not the most persuasive advocate for anybody. He’s still very much a lone voice for the time being.
However, if Mr McNarry manages to get re-elected under the UKIP banner at the next Assembly elections the situation will change somewhat. At that point UKIP can legitimately claim to be the only national party with national representation. Although it won’t have an immediate impact on the parties here, it has national implications. The problem at this point for both Labour and the Conservatives is that it’s not them who got here first.
Let’s leave aside Labour for a minute and assess how the Conservatives may be affected. As it stands nationally, UKIP is beginning to concern the Conservative Party. They’re third in most opinion polls, ahead of the Lib-Dems and merrily targeting Conservative seats and Conservative voters. This may mean the difference between a clean win and a loss to a still disliked Labour Party with a dysfunctional leadership.
However if, and it’s a big if, the Conservatives get properly organised here in NI they could begin to make inroads. There is increasing discontent at the failure of local parties to grasp the nettle and make unpopular but very necessary decisions on health, education and the economy. The number of potential voters who refuse to vote is continuing to rise.
The problem for the Conservatives locally is twofold. First, Westminster is making some unpopular decisions, which are likely to have a greater impact here than elsewhere in the UK. Why should the party nationally worry, since we can’t vote for them? But if UKIP gain a foothold, that idea has to change. The Tories cannot afford to let UKIP have a free run anywhere, especially not somewhere Cameron has poured so much energy into. Unfortunately for them the local party, despite recent attempts to re-brand and reorganise, has failed to make any inroads at all.
The leadership locally is a cabal of a few figures who wield the power. Problem is, they’re fairly politically naive in local terms. We do politics here from the playground and despite politicians’ beliefs, we’re fairly well informed. This means political innocence is simply a gift to the local parties. This was demonstrated in 2010 during the UCUNF tie-up. The NI Conservatives had the money, but no sneaky types to take on seasoned political operators, and it showed. Potentially good candidates in Sheila Davidson and Peter McCann were ignored in favour of UUP loyalists. This was enhanced by Owen Paterson’s choice of adviser. Jonathon Caine was more than happy to collude with the UUP to remove the Conservative part of the alliance and Paterson and others let him do this.
This leadership of the NI Conservatives has not changed. Indeed, it has increased its stranglehold on the party locally and continues to promise the sun, the moon, and the stars of defection from the UUP. It’s doubtful these long, long-awaited defections will come any time soon, yet still local activists are being told they’re on the way. The local media has been told this so many times that they routinely ignore anything in this vein from the Tories.
This continues to give the idea that Conservatives have no feet on the ground here, whereas in parts of the Province, there are active associations with people to pound the pavements. I’m thinking here of North Down, Strangford, East Belfast and Lagan Valley. There are hard-working volunteers here who are currently canvassing to show their existence and willingness to get their hands dirty on local issues, but no one is acknowledging their existence or hard work.
The very least CCHQ and David Cameron could do is ensure that an experienced leadership team is put in place and some real funding and expertise is sent here to build the Party in NI. Mr Cameron could do worse than turn up to thank his members here for their work and support, because many of them spend hours telephone canvassing in England to get him re-elected.
If CCHQ believes the threat from UKIP is serious here, it will have to deal with the problems I’ve outlined and that then means Labour has to organise. At the minute, they have a few hundred eager members, wanting to run in elections, but they’re denied the chance. The Labour conference last week showed Labour’s lack of enthusiasm for involvement here, indeed Miliband was very clear that his One Nation Labourism doesn’t extend across the puddle that is the Irish Sea.
So, how will McNarry’s horse switching affect the balance between national and local politics here?
In the short term it doesn’t, but if he gets re-elected (and I’m not sure his personal vote is up to it) and UKIP hold up and win seats in GB, then they’ll seek to improve their representation here. That is a direct threat to the Conservatives and ultimately to Labour also. It’s going to be a long game, but I think it could just be worth watching.Share on Facebook