Thursday, 30 September 2010

Can Elliott pilot the UUP towards calmer waters?

I'll add a link to the full article if and when it eventually appears on the Belfast Telegraph website, but yesterday I evaluated Tom Elliott's chances of steadying the 'good ship UUP', in the newspaper.

When UUP members elected a new party leader at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last week, they chose time-honoured Ulster values over the pluralist sensibilities and media savvy of modern politics.  Tom Elliott may be younger than his opponent Basil McCrea, but the delegates, overwhelmingly elderly and male, saw a man in their own image nonetheless. 
Elliott is a genial Fermanagh farmer of Orange stock, who represents a return to some old fashioned certainties for the UUP.  All the airy talk of normalising politics and building pan-UK unionism, which preceded the last election, is now at an end.  UCUNF, the new leader says, is dead, deceased, an ex electoral pact.  
Rather than develop a ‘big idea’ to replace it, Elliott intends first to shore up the UUP’s existing support, and then to eat into the soft underbelly of the DUP vote, which Ulster Unionists still consider theirs by right.  The party believes that a doughty unionist Everyman is needed to oversee this project and if he lacks torrential eloquence, far from proving a handicap, it might actually endear him to voters.
Tom Elliott fits the description and the theory perfectly, but his down to earth persona is at once a strength and a weakness.  Can he really hope to inspire the UUP and capture the public’s attention in a media age?  Can he even hold together a divided and demoralised party, after a leadership battle which exposed its fault-lines to the world?
I highlight the Ringland affair, which suggests that the new leader will have his work cut out.  And I observe that Elliott must find a way to reconcile the younger element, who supported McCrea, to his leadership.

They are the generation which UCUNF brought to prominence and they share a conviction that the old guard’s ham-fisted approach to the Conservative link-up contributed to its failure.  Having acquired some experience at the frontline, it’s unlikely they’ll want to take a back seat under Tom Elliott.  He must find a way to harness their energies or face internal disaffection. 
That means giving the DUP a wide berth.  Elliott rubbished the idea of ’unionist unity’ during his leadership bid, but defined the concept in deliberately narrow terms.  He spoke about ’cooperation’ with other parties and, conspicuously, didn’t rule out coordinating unionist Assembly election candidates with the DUP.  
If such an arrangement does not offend the principles of the new generation of UUP activists, it will certainly frustrate their electoral ambitions.  Ulster Unionists would necessarily be junior partners in any deal with the DUP, and that won’t be allowed happen, nor will the party forfeit the moral high ground over its rival, without an almighty internal struggle.
For all the emphasis which Elliott’s supporters put on his ability to unite the party, a split is possible.  Ringland could be the first, but if others follow, they will surely seek another vehicle for their political aspirations.  
The idea of secular, pluralist unionism strikes a chord with only a limited number of voters, but at the moment most of them support the UUP.  Many more unionists are at least sympathetic to the idea that Northern Ireland should play a central role in UK politics, even if they weren’t prepared to vote for UCUNF on its first electoral outing.  
If a new party espousing such policies were to emerge, it could spell disaster for a rump UUP.  Similarly, if the Northern Ireland Conservatives, who are quietly and steadily building up their presence at constituency level, attract high profile defectors, it could give the Tories the local identity they crave and prove more than a nuisance for Tom Elliott.     
Whoever emerged as Ulster Unionist leader, it was inevitable that the party would face a critical period in its history.  A majority of members trust Elliott to keep a steady hand on the tiller.  If he navigates the good ship UUP to calmer waters relatively unscathed it will be an achievement.  More likely it will perish on the  jagged rocks of an internal split, or simply drift quietly into political irrelevance.  

15 comments:

Phil Larkin said...

Owen,

I think that the key passage in this article is when you state that much will depend on how Elliott harnesses the considerable energies and high aspirations of those Unionists who supported McCrea at the recent leadership election. If he can reach a functioning working relationshipo with the McCrea wing of the Party, then I beleive that your prognosis of the UUP's demise is far too pessimistic. Such an arrangement is by no means impossible: Winston Churchill and Rab Butler established just such a working arrangement after the Tories defeat in the 1945 election. I do understand Elliott's point about not wanting to make a superficial gesture on GAA matches, but I do hope against hope that Trevor Ringland will not leave the UUP.

Tom only has a short time to make an impact on the Unionist electorate before the Assembly elections next year, and each hour must be used wisely. He badly needs people like McCrea and his 'young' wing of the Party to be able to speak on the same level as the unionist suburban middle classes, who still remain somewhat disengaged from political life. One way of doing this, as I have stated before, is to make economic issues a key plank of the upcoming UUP manifesto, which is why I was glad that Elliott alluded to the necessity of local control over Corporation Tax reduction in his victory speech, but wisely stated that the Party could not focus alone on this issue. Even Martin McGuinness has called for such a move, so this is one key issue on which the UUP could dish not only the DUP and SF, but also the SDLP, judging by their most recent plans for economic development contained in their manifesto.

I believe that a figure like McCrea would be a Godsend in terms of banging the drum around the world (and in the Province also) for local trade and industry, so why not put him and his supporters within the party to good use, beginning today.

A bird needs two wings to fly, and it is no different with a political grouping.

Phil

Chekov said...

Phil,

I hear that Paula Bradshaw, a Basil supporter, and a rising star in the party has failed in her bid to be selected in S Belfast. Likewise Harry Hamilton in Upper Bann (although harry didn't declare for a candidate afaik during the election). Lesley MacAuley could be next. The prognosis I'm afraid doesn't look good.

Phil Larkin said...

Owen,

if this is the case, then no, it doesn't. I'm disappointed.

Phil

slug said...

I find it hard to believe about Paula. I am really discouraged at that news. Whatever disengagement from a political party sounds like, I am making that noise as regards UUP.

O'Neill said...

"He badly needs people like McCrea and his 'young' wing of the Party to be able to speak on the same level as the unionist suburban middle classes, who still remain somewhat disengaged from political life"

The Unionist Party of old was big enough in size and powerful enough at the ballot box to be able to accomodate the full range of pro-Union opinion; socialist, conservative, liberal, traditionalist.

The sad fact is that is no longer the case and Elliott's appointment to the leadership is the symptom not cause of that position. The party hasn't suddenly lurched to the geriatric, traditional, Orange right- it's just the euphoria of the UCUNF project blinded most of us to the reality as to whose beliefs really still ruled the roost in the party.

The way we're going Nesbitt will be the last Unionist liberal left in mainstream politics; Bradshaw, according to the BBC is considering dropping out of politics full-stop and Ringland will probably be doing the same at the weekend.

At the this stage, the Conservatives would need to be complete incompetent fools not to be at least putting feelers to those who fell their views no longer seem to have a place in the UUP. They should also be offering the electorate the choice at the ballot box next year.

Anonymous said...

The old adage about the parrot comes to mind , dead deceased etc.

The loss of the modernisers will destroy our party, I to have heard rumours about the expansion of the Tories in NI about 10 or 11 constituencies to date from an original 4 before the elections. That sounds like a statement of intent to be a serious party in NI, if they spent many many ££££ on the UCU's maybe they will spend it on themselves.

May be the place to go for many of us.

Anonymous said...

The truth is the Conservatives are just as bad as the UUP.

They had a well-funded Association ready to go in Strangford and then the local Area Executive intervened to deem it "illegal".

All it takes to form an "Association" is 3 people. Far from moving from 4 Associations to 11, they have in practice moved from 4 to 2 (Lagan Valley and South Belfast are no longer functioning)! That is why they have only selected one candidate - a candidate who, by the way, gets constantly attacked by his own side even though he's the only one of them with any political profile or any political nous!

The NI Conservatives are creating a facade of activity when in practice they have achieved nothing, ever, outside North Down.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the idea that many "moderate" Ulster Unionists should join the Conservatives is, well, that they're not generally Conservative!

After all, Hermon left because of the Conservative link, not to join the Conservatives!

Chekov said...

Anon - many of them were happy to stand under a Conservative banner at the election.

Anonymous said...

Chekov

I hope you don't get cold feet and refuse to post this. To those UUP members and candidates who were prepared to stand under a Tory banner I would ascribe the term opportunist. They never were Tories and never really believed in what the UCUNF project was about. They are liberals, closer to the Alliance Party than the Tories, hence they all rallied around Basil McCrea - a known critic of the project.

Chekov said...

Well there's a sweeping simplification if ever there were one.

Joanne Johnston said...

It is very rare to find me making comments on blogs - I cherish the right to pick my fights in person. However, I wish to make 2 points to the coward attempting to parade any semblance of authority using the original moniker 'Anonymous'; firstly, Lagan Valley Conservative Association & South Belfast are fully functioning. Indeed, Lagan Valley has welcomed a new member from a well known Lagan Valley UUP family!
In addition, the initial attempt at forming Strangford Association was done with enthusiasm - but we have rules to follow, we don't bend them, we stick to them. They exist for a purpose. Point made. Anon, if you wish to exist behind a shadowy persona, get the basic facts right.

Dilettante said...

What WERE the rules that prevented a Strangford association? And when will they be changed?

Anonymous said...

There is now a Strangford Conservative Association formed fully in accordance with the Conservative Party rules.

These seemingly include the bizarre notions that elected officers and those voting should actually be members of the party, that meetings require proper notice and that all constituency members are invited.

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