John Coulter writing in the Tribune magazine offers some advice to the British Labour Party in the wake of its poor performance in last month's general election. Dr John Coulter is a columnist with the Irish Daily Star.
After its calamitous general election defeat, Labour should take a leaf out of the Democratic Unionists’ tactics book and rebrand itself as a slightly left-leaning social democratic party – and go hunting in traditional Liberal Democrat territory.
For almost a generation since its inception in 1971, the DUP was invariably branded as a hard-line, right-wing, working-class loyalist movement, fusing together an unholy political marriage of working class Protestants and Christian fundamentalists.
For decades, both these factions had been the voiceless minorities of the Unionist family in Northern Ireland, which was dominated by the religiously liberal, upper-middle-class landed families from The Unionist Party.
But at the start of the new millennium, the DUP embarked on a new strategy – selling its policies to middle-class Protestants who formed the bedrock of the rival Ulster Unionist Party’s voter base.
By 2003, the UUP had lost control of Stormont; by 2005, the DUP had more MPs’ and by 2010, the UUP had no Westminster MPs.
Ironically, Sinn Fein implemented a similar strategy against the moderate nationalist SDLP, snatching its European parliamentary seat, Westminster constituencies and eventually becoming the latest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Labour can get back into Downing Street by adopting the Irish model – electorally plundering the centre ground which was once the bastions of the Liberals.
Granted, this is a high-risk strategy and sceptics may say that what works in Ireland may not work in Britain.
But the DUP and Sinn Fein strategies were not simply about canvassing raids into their opponents’ bases – in these cases, the middle classes. This was about capturing and holding those voters.
Indeed, it was about more than this. It was not just a protest vote – it was about seeking out a whole generation of new voters.
Just as Tony Blair conceived of New Labour to undo the years of Thatcherism and develop a new brand of Labour voter that was almost right-wing, so Labour now will only defeat David Cameron and rampant Scottish nationalism by developing the concept of Patriotic Labour.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein had past links to paramilitary groups in the Irish conflict and were viewed globally as representing the extremes in their respective communities.
Patriotic Labour – like the DUP and Sinn Fein – must come to dominate the centre ground. By capturing and holding the Unionist centre ground, the DUP has gone from an ultra-fundamentalist movement to a party which operates a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.
Similarly, Sinn Fein has gone from a group which gloated over the IRA bomb blast that killed Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979 to a modern party whose president, Gerry Adams, shook hands with Prince Charles, a direct blood relative to the murdered Mountbatten.
Sinn Fein is currently expected to make substantial gains at next year’s Stormont and Dail elections using this centre-ground strategy.
The DUP has become such a liberal unionist movement that even the man the party was set up to oppose, the liberal Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, would be very happy to lead it
This is forcing the revamped Ulster Unionists to have to make a stark choice – does do they fight the middle of the road Alliance for the centre ground, or do they reposition themselves as the voice of the new right in Unionism?
Regarding Scotland, Labour’s strategy should be to rebrand itself as a patriotic Scottish party. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon the Union.
In Britain, the Lib Dems have been left with the same number of MPs as the DUP in Northern Ireland. Just as the DUP embarked on a charm offensive in the middle classes, so should Patriotic Labour target middle-class Liberal families.
The time has come for Labour to develop its own unique appeal to undermine the Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP and even Tory wets.
What it must not do is fall into the same trap it did after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and become a party of the hard left. To defeat the Tories, Patriotic Labour must box clever. Stage one: win over traditional Liberals to its cause.