For better or for worse, the Northern Ireland Conservatives have given up their rebellion against CCHQ. They claim to have a package of support from CCHQ which
(a) Apparently increases their internal influence
(b) Apparently allows them to put up candidates in any election beyond the Assembly elections of 2011.
(c) Puts financial resources into it, including funding the employment of a full time agent in a permanent office.
They did not achieve the right to put up candidates in the 2011 Assembly elections. Early last December, CCHQs decision caused the regional Chairman to tender his resignation. This lends serious credence to the proposition that the Northern Ireland conservatives have achieved very little of substance. I am not alone in reaching this view.
The next elections after 2011 are the European Parliamentary Elections of 2014. Presumably, the Northern Ireland Conservatives will be allowed to run an MEP candidate separately from the UUP? Otherwise, the next significant elections are not until 2015. That is a very long time to wait for the Conservatives to seek votes from the Northern Ireland electorate.
I have said before that the interests of the Northern Ireland Conservatives and CCHQ are not the same. That difference is driven by National Party calculation relating to the strength of the Conservatives in the UK parliament.
With the UUP effectively left with no hope of making an impact in future Parliamentary Elections, one is left wondering why CCHQ did not give the Northern Ireland Conservatives their full support. Perhaps they believe that if they avoid antagonising the UUP, they have a greater chance of “scooping up” relict UUP support in the event of a “meltdown” of that party. This package seems to be designed to enable them to do that.
In the next 3-4 years, Northern Ireland Conservatives will set themselves the task of building up constituency associations capable of generating real support. They will also be expected to generate a significant increase in the number of grass roots members. Having surrendered the right to field candidates in the 2011 elections, Northern Ireland Conservatives will almost be back at “square one.” They will have to overcome the perception that they are not really serious about contesting elections on their own in Northern Ireland.
Even if they overcome the first stage by being relatively successful at building up the membership, there are further potential obstacles. The key question is whether CCHQ turns on them again. Assets on the ground are not the same thing as political assets in an elected forum. The pressure for numbers in Parliament is enormous. The Northern Ireland Conservatives will not be capable of producing an MP in 2015. That leaves CCHQ open to further corruption, perhaps from the direction of the DUP, if not the UUP again. If that makes the difference between winning any losing the next general election, Northern Ireland Conservatives remain liable to be disappointed again.
Unfortunately, the questions will, time and again, be thrown back in Conservative faces. That in turn weakens the estimation of the Northern Ireland electorate. Conservatives will then be forced to retort that they are moving forward. The negativity will not go away. That is another reason why the Conservatives will continue to suffer damage from this decision in 2015.
Unfortunately, their problems do not end there either. Being without resources on the ground and not running campaigns very well only partly explains Conservative electoral failure in Northern Ireland over the last 21 years. If the PUP, Women’s Coalition or the Green Party can win seats in the Assembly, why cant the Conservatives?
Being seen as an “English” party does not work for the Conservatives in Scotland. It will almost certainly not work in Northern Ireland either.
I have continuously argued on this blog, that the Conservatives are not capable of delivering non-communal politics. They only have a very limited chance of electoral success within the unionist voting block.
Those who have followed this blog will know that at the heart of the NI Centre Right campaign is a desire to see normal, non-communal, left-right politics in Northern Ireland and the belief that Conservative supporters were amongst those most likely to aspire to that as a priority. This latest package puts back the progress of that campaign by several years and places me on the horns of a dilemma. The following choices are now before me:
(1) continue a long–term debate within the Conservative party in the hope that a new independent party will “morph” from Northern Ireland Conservatives in the next few years as they come to understand the reasons for their electoral failure.
(2) leave the Conservative party with a view to the formation of a new NI Centre Right political party and try to build it up.
(3) leave the Conservative party and pursue the idea, recently advocated by Ian Parsley, that non-communal, left-right politics, could evolve through a schism in the Alliance Party after it has grown successfully to become Northern Ireland’s biggest party.
(4) Walk off into obscurity by giving up the NI Centre Right campaign altogether and leave it for a later generation to pursue.