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“New parties” are easier said than done

February 20, 2013

Is running a political party easy? Think about what goes into merely delivering, say, 10,000 leaflets in a particular constituency.

Someone has to manage the process of writing the content; a team has to go out and get the relevant photographs of the relevant campaigners (probably over several days); someone has to determine where they are to be delivered; the local Association has to ensure it has enough people right across the constituency to deliver them; maps and delivery routes have to be drawn up to ensure no cross-posting; someone has to oversee the printing and dispersal to the deliverers; and of course a few people have to have raised the money in the first place to pay for the print run (ideally in colour, of course). This requires a combination of good management, political experience and a large number of willing volunteers. It is far from straightforward!

There has been raised discussion, given recent events, of new parties in Northern Ireland. This is far from new – when I myself left the UUP in 2010, discussions had long been on-going about the potential for a new party. However, over nearly three years, they have remained just that – discussions. This is at least partly because running a political party, or even an Association of a political party, is no small undertaking and requires a lot of volunteers to be effective. Before even asking where any “new” party would fit on the spectrum, some key practical questions need to be asked.

Firstly, a new party will need volunteers. Leaflet delivery is only a minor challenge, compared to the real need to be out knocking on doors, collecting polling data and engaging with the public at civic events. This will require literally hundreds of volunteers who are prepared not just to meet for the odd lunch or write the odd letter, but to go out regularly – in the wind and the rain – and do the groundwork. Where are these people?

Secondly, to do any of this, it will need funds. Even a basic electoral campaign costs tens of thousands, usually a six-figure sum. Add to this basic running and administration costs on an on-going basis (even just for printing leaflets etc), and the turnover required is not insignificant – and even this excludes research funds (below). Where are these funds to be raised?

Thirdly, a point which is often understated – such a party will require information. Without any prospect of an Executive seat or even a Committee Chair in the near future, a new party will be poorly informed at legislative level compared to the established parties. This brings with it the need for highly knowledgeable research personnel and further funds to enable them to carry out their information and policy work. After all, you cannot develop meaningful policy if you do not know what is going on at the heart of government! How could a new party match the research resources of established parties who have access to public funds and information for this work?

Fourthly, outside a few constituencies, such a party would have no reputation for delivery “on the ground”. When Unionists in East Belfast turned away from Peter Robinson they had the choice of a well-respected, high-profile Unionist candidate in Trevor Ringland – yet they chose Alliance’s Naomi Long. They did so because of her nine years’ hard work for people “on the ground”. If a new coalition didn’t stand a chance against that, what chance a whole new party?

Fifthly, it will have to be administered – so it will need to recruit people with knowledge and experience of the legalities electoral returns, the practicalities of good corporate governance and the management of sound financial arrangements, as well as a willingness to risk a career move to a party not yet off the ground. Where are these people?

Finally, even after all this, you have to be sure you are offering something new to the electorate that no one else offers, while at the same time being broad enough to make you attractive to voters in sufficient numbers. If you are “Unionist”, what makes you different from the DUP? If you are “Republican” what makes you different from Sinn Fein? If you are for a “Shared Future”, what makes you different from the Alliance Party? If you are so sure your distinct approach and policies are capable of gaining widespread support among the electorate, why do you think none of the established parties is offering it?

It is not as if this has not happened before. 20 years ago, the “national” Conservatives were the largest party in North Down Council; 15 years ago, the “integrationist” UK Unionist Party briefly held as many legislative seats as the Alliance Party; 10 years ago, the “non-sectarian” Women’s Coalition held two Assembly seats; yet within an electoral cycle they had each lost all their elected representatives. They, alongside the UPNI, UDP, NIUP and others, all show how difficult it is without the membership base, the funds, the researchers, the reputation on the ground and the electoral knowledge. This is even more the case when the reason you exist loses relevance, or when a larger party adopts your position, or when a main rival sorts itself out. Why would a new party now be any different?

Who knows, perhaps it is time for a new party to appeal to one particular segment of the electorate or another. However, those on the sidelines must realise that establishing a new party is much easier called for than delivered. It is only possible when all the above questions can be satisfactorily answered. Can they, really?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay25 permalink
    February 20, 2013 10:36 pm

    Basil, John and David can do it with your help Paula! They are all currently elected and this gives them some cash and rights in Stormont to get them going, and the fact they have a current vote and all that goes with it means they aren’t starting completely from scratch. I think there’s decent numbers on the ground who support them and that a membership and volunteer base is there. Maybe i am idealistic, but i think If the TUV can organise then so can a liberal union movement! Very informative article and insight, thanks, all the best

    • March 3, 2013 2:25 pm

      David McClarty is on the sectarian Unionist Forum. Basil isn’t.

      David McClarty doesn’t support designated days. Basil does.

      David McClarty is opposed to gay marriage. Basil is in favour.

      There is nothing “liberal” about David McClarty, and the fact Basil wants him on board merely proves he just wants to form another Unionist party for the sake of it, not for the sake of real principles.

  2. February 21, 2013 10:05 am

    This former General Secretary concurs with all that you have said above!

  3. Jay25 permalink
    March 3, 2013 7:05 pm

    Paula, we’ve all got to give these things a little time to find their feet. I don’t believe its another ‘unionist’ party, merely ‘pro-union’ – there is a difference, But to be pro-union and believe NI is best served within the UK does not make one sectarian. Basil and John are on about reforming the union to make it flexible secular and pluralist and to challlenge the DUP appalling ‘Prods only’ definition. You can be Catholic, Irish and pro-union and that is one of the dynamics this new party will seek to harness. Its an exciting expansion of the middle ground and I believe they will have decent support to get this thing off the ground. Lots of people feel pro-union but this is only a minor aspect of their worldview, but this is the basis for long term constitutional and general stability in NI. I honestly think you could spearhead this movement and be a real force for good change in it, I think if you stood for this new party in South Belfast you would easily get in as an MLA and you would be a brilliant voice for so many people in NI up at Stormont.

  4. March 5, 2013 9:49 am

    I wonder whether it’s too soon for new parties. Better to launch a thousand independents – well, maybe fifty – to start working in their communities now with a view to running for council. So few parties bother to campaign between elections, local people could convince people to give them a vote by taking an interest and raising their profile. Costs are lower – though a lot of doors need knocked to get a quota! Leave the party structures until enough independents have invaded the system and are happy to bunch into groups.

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