In a advisory to a future Ulster Unionist Party leader, Owen Polley touches on the issue of the UUP's political culture. He argues:
"While attempting to be ’all things to all people’ is not necessarily a bad political strategy, it takes a more disciplined party to successfully walk the tightrope. Too often the UUP’s contradictions are played out publicly in clashes between senior figures or multiple takes on the one issue."
First this somewhat undermines his arguments against Unionist Unity - a broad church approach is possible if the internal culture of a party is strong enough to manage a range of messages to a diverse audience. However, it raises the issue of culture and mechanics.
Before I joined the DUP I had bought into the UUP belief that its internal discipline was due to highly centralised control. However, as a member, my experience is different. It is more centralised than the UUP of my day was but the core reason for maintaining its discipline is culture. The average DUP representative and member doesn't see the sense in public clashes so they don't, more is owed to self-control than central control.
A number of years after I left the UUP, it did adopt a more centralised structure (an early success of Sir Reg Empey's leadership). However, it did not result in any identifiable change in the behaviour of UUP representatives.
The mechanics of politics is often overlooked in the debating about the future of Unionism. Message and ideology is examined and re-examined. However, the duller topic of mechanics is just as important to success. For example, in the recent election the Liberal Democrats poll performance could not be transformed into votes because it did not have the structures across the country nor with 18-35 years olds (the age group within which it had the greatest growth in) to do so.
Sinn Fein is another good example of a party that owes more to mechanics than message. In message terms it's hard to see anything new that Sinn Fein has said in a dozen years if not twenty and their policy work does not seem to have moved on from the early 1980's. This explains their differential performance in the Republic and Northern Ireland. They had the machine here but that could only get them so far in Eire. Whenever their message came under the spotlight they hit a brick wall in public support. A brick wall that economic collapse has not enabled them to vault.
My hunch is it is the key reason behind Alliance's consolidation of its vote post-Agreement. The Alliance Party always performed better in local government elections that it did in Assembly and especially in Westminster. This habit of wandering off made it particularly vulnerable after the agreement. However, through voter identification/targeting it has managed to get its vote back and deliver a more consistent pattern of votes.
So getting better at basic politics may deliver as much or more than real or faux intellectual battles for Unionism, particularly among the most overlooked non-voting section, the working class.