Time for change as voters are longing for hope: Nesbitt

14/3/2012. pacemaker belfast. Mike Nesbitt pictured at Stormont today as he joined the UUP leadership race. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.
14/3/2012. pacemaker belfast. Mike Nesbitt pictured at Stormont today as he joined the UUP leadership race. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.

HAVING launched my campaign on Thursday morning, I was pleased to have a great straw poll test of the reaction that very evening.

I attended the St Patrick’s Day drinks at the British-Irish Secretariat in Belfast city centre. There you find in a single room a rare cross-section of our society, unionist, nationalist; community and voluntary sector; business leaders; academics; politicians and their advisers; ministers and priests.

It is always a very pleasant occasion. This year, it was simply affirming.

What has struck a note is my desire to begin with ourselves, the Ulster Unionist Party, its members and its organisation.

From a businessman whose acumen I respect, through a leading churchman, to political analysts, they all gave their nod of approval to my intention to start my leadership, if chosen, by moving the party forward as a business.

We are a business. Politics is a business, and any business needs to make a profit. In our case, that is measured in power, not pounds and pence. And like any business, how people view your business depends on what you do with your profit.

For me, making the Ulster Unionist Party more profitable is a means to an end, namely getting control of the levers that allow you to properly serve the people – all the people of Northern Ireland.

It is all fine and well having the best policies, which we have had for years, but you need power to exercise influence, make changes, and drive a positive, pluralist future in which everyone can prosper, economically, socially and culturally.

Worse, without power, those with it will simply repackage your ideas and claim them for their own.

In the last couple of months, I have run the party’s internal consultation process on our response to the Executive’s Economic Strategy.

It was heart-warming to see so many party members volunteer to give up an evening to add their know-how to the mix.

More recently, after being appointed as education spokesperson, I put a call out for volunteers to join an advisory panel on all matters educational.

The response was equally positive. What it tells me is that we are a large membership-based organisation, full of members bursting with skills, experience and expertise, just waiting to be asked to volunteer.

The first rule of marketing is to make what you are selling easy to buy. It would not be washing our dirty linen in public to suggest we are failing that test.

In the last week, following Tom Elliott’s decision to stand down, I have been inspired by the number of people who have made unsolicited approaches, by phone, cold call to the constituency office, social media, and by simply walking up to me in the street, to articulate their hope that I might just be the missing element that would make them start voting unionist again.

This is not to admit there are those who still want this contest to be over policies. But did Tony Blair revive Labour’s fortunes with policies?

No, he began with the structures and organisation of his party, and when he had that right, he was able to follow the first rule of marketing so successfully, he led Labour to more back-to-back General Election victories than any leader in their history.

Yes, he failed to deal with the tensions with Gordon Brown and that lesson is not lost on me. I am more in the Abraham Lincoln “team of rivals” mould, I am not one for a cabinet of yes-men.

The mood of the Ulster Unionist Party last time was for continuity, from Sir Reg Empey to Tom Elliott. I get a clear message that the mood this time is for change. I get the equally compelling message that the tens of thousands in Northern Ireland who do not vote crave someone and something to offer their allegiance to.

I sense a party and a people longing for hope, not in the Orwellian “You must not be negative” sense that we are hearing from the first minister and deputy first minister, but in the sense of a devolved government that is tuned in and listening to what people need, want and aspire to.

It’s the economy, stupid. I shall press for a government that recognises it is as much a part of the problem as the solution.

For example, we could open up the massive public sector procurement budget to make it as easy for our small indigenous firms to get a slice of the cake as the Welsh do with their Opening Doors policy.

We could start taking decisions ourselves, not creating commissions and quangoes and paying consultants to do our work for us.

We could recognise we have a generation of young people who need to experience the work environment soon, or they might never experience it.

The Ulster Unionist Party and the people want the same thing: action and opportunity.