I wrote on the morning of the count that the NI Conservatives and the Labour Representation Committee would receive only a handful of votes between them. So it proved.
There are no longer any excuses. The Conservatives had a funded office, the Prime Minister at their conference reception, the London Mayor visiting in the run-up to the election, a cabinet minister on the campaign trail with them, a proper canvassing operation and a complete set of posters and mobile billboards. The Labour Representation Committee also had a significant media profile and (apparently) a huge local membership from which to draw campaign support.
This is not to be disrespectful. On the contrary, it is hugely admirable that people would put such time and effort into a cause in which they clearly strongly believe. However, just look at the outcome. They are offering something no one in Northern Ireland wants.
It is time, once and for all, to accept Northern Ireland is not the English Midlands. People who would naturally be drawn to the Conservatives and Labour in England (a markedly declining number even there compared to a generation ago) already have a political home here.
For a long time, Conservative and Labour members have criticised the arrangement, insofar as one exists, between the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party. However, they should now consider seriously if this is not the precise model they should be following.
Because late on polling day, a Conservative was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. His name was Philip Smith and he was elected in Strangford. He was, of course, labelled “Ulster Unionist”. He had recognised, quite sensibly, that if you want actual influence over health, education and infrastructure policy in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives here simply do not offer a vehicle. He was, of course, far from the only one – most Ulster Unionists elected earlier this month would be Conservatives in England.
The Alliance/Liberal model is quite simple. Both parties are independent, but are members of the same European umbrella group and agree not to contest elections against each other. On that basis, it is permissible while being a member of one also to be a member of the other – but not compulsory. Thus Alliance Party members may, if they wish, seek to influence the direction of the Liberal Democrats at UK level by joining them; likewise, some Liberal Democrats with an interest in Northern Ireland join the Alliance Party’s external association. The parties are fully separate, but individuals may choose membership of both.
This is not a million miles from the SDLP/Labour arrangement. Again, they have a common European designation and indeed SDLP MPs take the Labour whip (a step beyond the Alliance/LibDem relationship). Presumably, again, individuals may be members of both as they do not contest elections against each other.
The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have a historically complex relationship of course, culminating in many people’s minds in the “UCUNF debacle” (a debacle which, by the way, yielded 12,000 more votes than the combined Conservative-UUP vote this month). Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at their voting record would tell you that Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan are, to almost every intent and purpose, Conservative MPs. There is simply no point in another Conservative (for “another Conservative” is what it would be) standing against them, potentially nicking a couple of hundred votes and handing the seat to someone else. Jim Nicholson, of course, remains a part of the Conservative group in the European Parliament. For a Conservative in Northern Ireland, the route to elected office – at any level – is already via the Ulster Unionist Party.
Disallowing NI Conservatives from running for election in Northern Ireland would appear harsh, but actually it would be advantageous to them because the likes of Philip Smith would not have to give up their membership in order to run for office electably as an Ulster Unionist. Allowing Ulster Unionist members, if they so chose, also to be members of the Conservative Party would allow them to participate in UK-wide policy making, strategy and vote in leadership elections. Indeed, there would be no need for Conservative Associations in Northern Ireland to disband – they would continue to play a role within the UK-wide party. Objectively, the advantages of such an arrangement clearly outweigh the disadvantages – indeed, it is almost certain that the outcome would be members of the Conservative Party becoming MLAs in Northern Ireland, something which is currently an impossibility.
Nor is such an arrangement even particular to Northern Ireland. Across Great Britain, the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party have a not dissimilar arrangement, enabling the latter representation it otherwise would lack, while saving the former campaign expenses it would otherwise incur.
I do not expect either the local Conservatives or Labour representatives will listen to a word of this. They would do well to note, however, that the national party in each case is probably having thoughts not dissimilar to those outlined above. Politics is the art of the possible. Those striving for the impossible generally get ignored. It’s a brutal game.