I hadn’t blogged about “NI21” for the genuine reason, and I don’t mean this unpleasantly, that the formation of a political party is much less important to people than the press coverage would suggest. Sometimes people tend to treat politics like they treat football, as if we all have a different team to support and we can just rejoice or be sorrowful when that team wins or loses. But actually politics is, wait for it, more important than that because who wins and loses has an impact on policies, laws and finances which affect our daily lives – individually and as a society. It is great fun to speculate about whether, for example, Basil McCrea could hold his Lagan Valley MLA seat – but in the general scheme of things it doesn’t much matter. It only matters if his new party gains real influence and begins to have an effect on our daily lives.
So, when I am asked how I think the new party will fare, I immediately ignore the questioner’s usual desire to hear about its prospects at elections. What interests me is its prospects of real influence. These prospects, in my view and with great respect to the MLAs involved, are limited only to indirect influence on other parties.
Electorally, the truth is the McCrea project has already been tried and failed on countless occasions – UPNI, NI Conservatives, UCUNF, even NIWC, and so on. Ultimately, and I speak directly from experience, Northern Ireland allows you to be Liberal or Unionist, but not both, and frankly it would probably make most sense if there were just one party for each (albeit each with vigorous internal debate). The likelihood is that Messrs McCrea and McCallister will have left the elected stage, at least at legislative level, by the early 2020s and quite possibly by mid-2010s.
That does not mean they will have no influence. There are a number of ways in which they could – provided they focus on people out there in society as opposed to their own Leader’s position in the Assembly (thus far their only “policies” to speak of seem to consist of demanding the deputy Speakership and then making up some nonsense about a Committee decision on speaking rights when no such decision was made).
Firstly, it is possible that they will make more Unionists secure in being socially liberal. When people see that politicians taking socially liberal positions do not get eggs thrown at them by your average British-passport-holding Northern Irelander, and particularly not by your average young British-passport-holding Northern Irelander, it is possible more Unionists will be selected and elected on socially liberal platforms (even if not in “NI21”).
Secondly, it is possible that they will offer a degree of competition to the Alliance Party and Greens in the so-called “Centre Ground” (what I personally prefer to call the “Progressive Bloc”) which will make those parties more competitive – and thus expand that Progressive Centre Ground (again, even if not specifically for “NI21”). Many people tell me that, in their view, the Alliance Party is often too timid and the Green Party usually too forthright in pushing the broadly progressive agenda – if “NI21” can push them on to a more radical but still realistic platform, that will be no bad thing.
Thirdly, it is possible that many of the young people involved in “NI21” will go on to have significant political influence – again, even if not in “NI21” (and indeed even if not in elected politics). There is a double-edged sword here, though. Frankly, it is easy to get up in front of an audience and say, effectively, “Good things are good, bad things are bad, so we want more good things and fewer bad things”. But defining this more precisely without losing support, while at the same time doing the hard work on the doorsteps for constituents, is difficult and hard work.
As soon as “NI21” comes out with a position, say, on welfare reform, “Transforming Your Care” or selection at eleven, one of two things will happen: either the position taken will be detailed and thus cause consternation among many would-be followers; or it will be so vague that the accusation of “sitting on the fence” will simply rebound on them.
For all that, the main reason “NI21” will likely fail electorally is one oft repeated in the past. Many in “NI21” make a virtue of being “new to politics”, but successful political movements require political knowledge and nous, like it or not. Groups such as the Workers’ Party and the NI Conservatives have been holding rallies, raising media profile and hosting events for decades – but neither has had a single elected representative elected at any level in Northern Ireland since the Agreement. It is all very easy to criticise those who are elected from the armchair or the conference platform – much trickier to get elected yourself on the doorsteps and in the community centres. In the end, those who have the record of constituency service and the political experience are actually the ones who get elected.
Ultimately, the real currency of politics is not votes but influence. Focus on that, and many of those at the “NI21” launch will have a political future of some sort.