Commentators seemed to view the overwhelming victory of Tom Elliott in the Ulster Unionist Party leadership contest as the Party taking a ‘traditional’ and safe option, rather than the more media savvy and ‘liberal’ option of Basil McCrea. There is something about that analysis that seems too simple to thedissenter.
The result would suggest that ‘liberal’ unionism is now a marginalised group of around 30% of the Party. If this group is passionate about change and maximised its vote, in fact it is only 15% of the Party; as the 1000 or so attending the election meeting amounts to around half the membership. What this actually represents is a decreasing element in the Ulster Unionist Party, which broadly reflects a wider disillusionment and disaffection with liberal Unionism that has been building for some time, the outcome of which is electoral decline.
Most would agree with the notion that while David Trimble may have been elected as a ‘hardliner’ he ended up a ‘liberal’. Trimble’s successor was not a hardliner. The battle for the leadership in 2005 was hardly one which reflected a strengthening of the ‘hard line’ within the Party: quite the opposite. David Trimble’s right-hand and supporter of UUP acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement won in 2005, defeating Alan McFarland (who would not be described as a champion of ‘traditional’ unionism). David McNarry, who also ran in the three-way race, gained only 8% of the votes, while McFarland gained 43% and Sir Reg Empey won when McNarry’s vote transferred to the least worst alternative of Sir Reg who had gained 48% in the first round of voting.
In that context the vote for Basil McCrea of around 30% was a surprise and represented either a sharp decline in liberal unionism or a woefully bad liberal champion.
Why did Basil lose?
First Basil. Basil McCrea is intelligent and articulate. He has been described as modern and media savvy. It is certainly the case that Basil is a crowd pleaser, not least the media crowd. He has the eye for a media or photo opportunity. He uses what is to hand and uses it well. Yet, there is another side to this. It is exemplified by two points in his campaign.
One: the post from Jeff Peel which pointed to Basil’s previous dalliance with the Northern Ireland Conservatives; in response to which Basil wisely stayed silent. Two: was his campaign launch speech. His speech was well received, as being current and addressing the ‘now’: any analysis shows it exactly ticked a range of current themes. That is what Basil seems to do best. He is a man for the moment, as with his interest at a point in time with the Conservative Party. This does not lead to consistency, and nor does it indicate deep commitment to policy or principle in pursuit of political advantage.
Second, what of liberal unionism? This is not a fixed or settled idea. Bob McCartney might be considered a ‘hard line’ unionist, but he is undoubtedly a liberal in broad political outlook. Alex Kane presents the case for being uncompromising as a unionist, but a hardliner?
There are many who describe themselves as ‘liberal unionist’, not least in the blogosphere. There has been questioning over what has happened over the past year with UCUNF and moving forward. However, some of those who comment or blog from this personally considered perspective too often seem to be embarrassed by party political unionism in any form; sometimes suggesting that liberal unionists should in fact be ‘neutral’ on the union (surely a contradiction). These tend to have a quintessential negative view on political Unionism – that it fails to be positive, progressive, fair, inclusive, non-sectarian. This leaves others to presume that political unionism is therefore negative, reactionary, partisan, narrow and sectarian; though sometimes little is left to presume.
Yet, the present champions of liberal unionism lack a distinctive narrative that does not belittle other Unionists or offer a coherent policy agenda as an alternative. Liberal unionists may retort, ‘an alternative to what?’; perhaps, but that does not amount to a cast iron liberal case.
Nor have the emergent political champions of liberal unionism acted in such a way that evidences a mature political personality. Basil McCrea wanders around with barely concealed resentment at having lost, Trevor Ringland petulantly struts out of the Party, and Paula Bradshaw snipes from her blog. Coming together around a broad ‘2010 Group’, perhaps being joined by Alan McFarland (?), they might well have a useful forum to consider why it was they lost rather than the UUP.
Besides a lack of narrative, and poor leadership, liberal unionism is not of this political moment. Sullied by the collapse of electorate trust in the UUP under David Trimble’s leadership, compounded by the hapless political ineptitude of Sir Reg Empey, ‘liberal unionism’ has been to the fore of Ulster Unionism for more than a decade and seems to have left, literally, the Party in a state of near terminal decline. To that extent, the election of Tom Elliott is more properly viewed as evidence of the membership’s determination to stop the ‘liberal’ rot.
This reflects widespread unease among the unionist population about the political future. While the Union 2021 series in the News Letter has evidenced remarkable confidence in the Union, that does not alleviate unease at the unrelenting obstruction of Sinn Fein to making Northern Ireland work – not least in respect of education – and a perceived inability of Unionist politicians (not unique to the UUP) to present a framework for moving forward that out-politics Sinn Fein.
Although Basil McCrea lost the leadership contest in the Ulster Unionist Party, the margin by which Tom took the leadership is flattering. Neither candidate presented much by way of a vision for either the Party or Northern Ireland through the leadership campaign. Both placed undue focus on Party structural issues of little interest to the electorate, or generated rhetorical disputes on hypothetical scenarios. Neither showed an ability to rise above well-worn propositions.
Tom was not Basil. Still, there were factors Tom Elliott’s favour, and it would be wrong to suggest that his vote was largely undeserved. Perhaps not an exceptional speaker, but at least what he says is consistent and thoughtful – even if not always articulate; the GAA/Gay Pride kerfuffle was the result of clumsiness rather than any malicious prejudice. On balance what may be regarded as personality or presentational weaknesses in Tom Elliott are capable of being corrected in time, whereas Basil is just Basil.
The strength of numbers turning out to vote for Tom from his local constituency Association shows strength in organisation and loyalty, which is mutual. The Ulster Unionist Party was once a formidable machine. 40 years of conflict took its toll on Unionist Party organisation; as communities disintegrated, the middle classes first fled to surburbia, eschewed political affiliation and preferred to keep their heads down. Even so, when David Trimble became leader of the UUP there was a strong quotient of younger politicos, and a decent constituency worker network. When trust broke down internally and with the wider Ulster Unionist electorate, the Party lost its youth, many of its best election workers, and depth in membership (yes that includes the break with the Orange Order). The Party lost what remained of its innate ability to connect across the wide range of ‘constituencies’ that make up the Unionist electorate. Fermanagh is an exception. The rest of the Party wants some of what Fermanagh has managed to retain, and a leader who knows what that might be.
The Ulster Unionist Party which Tom Elliott inherits is very much smaller than it was a decade ago: though not necessarily smaller than the DUP at organisational or Constituency level. It may not have the workers it once had, but then the TUV Annual Conference is populated with UUP and DUP election workers. However, a smaller party means that local cliques, personal fiefs and sometimes family allegiances have a disproportionate say in candidate selection and a wholly negative impact on recruitment.
Tom Elliott needs to focus on building the organisation but this is hampered by the state in which he finds the Party – aging, clique-ridden and drifting. Thrust into this mix is the selection process, which complicates Tom’s capacity to build party unity as a first step in strengthening the UUP’s core and building membership to extend reach and gain electoral impact. A look around the process, so far, of selecting candidates for next year’s Assembly elections presents the scale of the challenge and the complexity created by the two/three tier selection process: originally planned under Trimble’s leadership to help quell/suppress dissenting candidates.
It is viewed by the liberal wing of the UUP that the lack of female representation is to the detriment of the Party’s electoral fortunes, though it didn’t seem to do the DUP any harm in 2010. Following the failure of the most prominent female candidate in the 2010 Westminster election, Paula Bradshaw, to gain Assembly selection at the first hurdle in South Belfast, the issue of female candidates has once again come to the fore. It should be noted that in pure mathematic and electoral considerations the spread of the three candidates recommended from the initial South Belfast Constituency selection meeting made sense, taking a start point that Michael McGimpsey, the current Minister for Health, was a shoe-in. Paula Bradshaw has since left the Party.
Although David McClarty gained over half the votes of those gathered for the East Londonderry Constituency selection meeting, the second stage constituency/HQ election meeting selected the two candidates are supported by less than half of the constituency in the first instance. But David McClarty cannot now be selected on appeal to the Party Executive without the second most popular candidate being selected. The problem? That would mean candidates would both be men. On the other hand, there is a risk of alienating or demoralising a substantial proportion of the constituency association.
The Party’s Women’s Development Officer Sandra Overend was selected as one of two being put forward to the second stage of selection in Mid Ulster. However, her margin of victory was less than the number of family members at the meeting (she is daughter of Billy Armstrong, the sitting MLA). Oddly, the other candidate, a more experienced election campaigner, has since withdrawn from the selection process before the second stage: now no-one will able to suggest that Sandra Overend was selected on the basis of family connections or because she is a woman. She will probably join Jo-Anne Dobson from Upper Bann, to whom she presented the UUP Woman of the Year Award early in 2010, as one of two female candidates on the Party ticket for the 2011 Assembly elections. Jo-Anne was second, undoubtedly by merit, in a field of six seeking selection in Upper Bann.
Tom Elliott has a considerable challenge to present a credible Assembly candidate team, with a credible policy agenda (not being the DUP is TUV territory now) and a sense that the Ulster Unionist Party is worth voting for. Many blame poor public relations or lack of media sense, or lack of Party discipline as the reason for the UUP failure to connect with the electorate. Perhaps. More likely it has been a central vacuum in leadership and organisation, an absense of firm sense of purpose and apalling people management that is hampering the Party from moving out of the doldrums and onto improved electoral success. If there is a selection process which is endeavouring to politically engineer success (women √, youth √ loyal to leader√ etc √) it will inevitably fail where it lacks a direction as to what the Party is trying to build; focusing on the Party rather than the electorate or driven by personality rather than political sense.
The greatest challenge for the UUP (shared by all unionist Parties) is moving out of ‘peace process’ narrative that is deeply resented and mistrusted by the broad unionist electorate and to abandon any hint of ‘constructive ambiguity’ which is viewed as corrupting. Tom Elliott needs to be both liberal in the ‘live and live’ sense while having the strength of being honest and direct to the electorate (and political opponents) even if at times that could be challenged as ‘hardline’.
Given the strength of the Fermanagh organisation the Ulster Unionist Party membership may believe that Tom Elliott is the man to bring all the pieces together, in every sense, and to define a purposeful UUP with a distinct and positive outlook on moving Northern Ireland forward. This is essential to his most urgent task to reverse the UUP’s electoral flat-lining.
Basil lost the UUP leadership election. Tom Elliott has a great deal of work to do to prove that the 70% of the evening’s Party voters made the right choice, and he only has six months in which to at least start to make a difference. There is no doubt that Basil McCrea is ready and willing to be first to resume the challenge should Tom fail to make that start.