It’s never helpful for a political party when its media director becomes a big, negative story shortly after a fairly successful annual conference. The allegations (and that, at the moment, is all they are) made by BBC Spotlight against the PUP’s Winston Irvine –that he is UVF commander – merely reinforce the perception that the PUP and UVF are intertwined: and perception is often a key make-or-break factor when it comes to electoral progress.
The PUP has been attempting to reinvent itself over the past year and has already confirmed that it will be fielding more candidates at more elections, including the Euro election next May. It’s probably the last ever chance it will have to ensure its survival. Election results since 1998 have spiralled downwards, from an already low base of 2.55%, to around a very flimsy 0.5%. For all intents and purposes it is a party in name only.
The PUP (like the now defunct Ulster Democratic Party) is perceived to ‘represent’ a loyalist paramilitary group and the supporters of that group; whereas Sinn Fein – even though it is perceived to ‘represent’ the IRA – was also perceived to represent a much broader republican/nationalist community and voting base. Also, Sinn Fein has long had a reputation for both presence and hard work on the ground.
The PUP never had that reputation. Too many people (outside the narrow confines of loyalist paramilitary membership and supporters) viewed the UVF/UFF/UDA/RHC et al as criminals and ‘hoods’ feathering their own nests and bullying rather than helping their own communities. All of which explains why, irrespective of how much the PUP and UDP may have attacked ‘big house unionism’ and complained that the working-classes had been forgotten, those working-class unionsts/loyalists refused to vote for them. At the most opportune moment for them – the 1998 Assembly election – the combined PUP/UDP vote was just 3.62%.
Over the last year the PUP (along with people like Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer) has been trying to capitalise on the fallout from parades, flags and identity problems. It has been recruiting and says that its membership has increased from less than 100 to over 600. It has also picked up some new, interesting and articulate voices along the way; some of whom are genuinely progressive and genuinely committed to a left-of-centre political agenda.
But it seems to me that for so long as the links with the UVF remain then for so long will the PUP merely tread water, before eventually drowning in three or four years’ time. Put bluntly, too many people have very long memories and unpleasant experiences of loyalist paramilitarism in their own areas and will not be voting for the PUP. They may have no confidence in the DUP or UUP either, but they will stay at home rather than vote PUP.
The best thing, therefore, would be for Billy Hutchinson (and some others) to step aside and allow a new clean-handed, non-baggage-carrying leadership to emerge. In electoral terms neither Billy nor the wider UVF bring anything to the PUP: and he cannot deliver the critical mass breakthrough vote that the PUP needs if it is to become a credible political/electoral force – which is much more important for their future than the ongoing feet-on-the-street protests.
So, Billy and the UVF have some key decisions to make. They have to ask themselves if they are helping or hindering the chances of the PUP building a credible socio-economic platform and attracting the votes and input of the working-classes they claim to represent. They have to ask themselves if they are putting off potential supporters, rather than winning them over. They have to ask themselves if they are stopping the emergence of an entirely new leadership team. They have to ask themselves if it would be better for the PUP if they stepped aside and faded into the background.
I know that they will be tempted to write this off as ‘yet another attack by a biased, anti-loyalist media’. But the vast majority of the people they want to attract don’t read pundits like me and nor do they plough through the media morning, noon and night. The impression that most unionists/loyalists (irrespective of their social background) have of the PUP didn’t and doesn’t come from the media: we don’t, in fact, have that much power! The impression comes from the personal experiences that many people have of loyalist paramilitarism.
Let’s be honest, if ‘the people’ hated the media as much as some PUP and ‘loyalists’ say they do then the PUP would be zooming up the opinion polls. Indeed, in a recent interview with me UKIP’s Nigel Farage said that what ‘many people perceived as the media’s bias against us actually helped us to attract votes and reach people we would never otherwise have reached’. In other words, the PUP needs to stop blaming others and ask themselves why they haven’t made a breakthrough. And they should trawl through the papers from the 1996-1999 period, when the media did portray the PUP and David Ervine/Gusty Spence in a supposedly favourable light, and ask why even that sort of coverage didn’t deliver a breakthrough vote?
For years I’ve been arguing that mainstream unionism has left working-class unionism/loyalism behind and that unionism needs a ‘strong, coherent, credible left-of-centre voice and vehicle’. We cannot talk about a new era Northern Ireland if that voice is not heard in the Assembly and local councils. The PUP cannot be that voice and vehicle in its present form; because too many people retain a very personal negative impression of it. My advice to Billy Hutchinson and others is to let a new generation, untarnished by the past, take over and mould the PUP in their image.