The dust has far from settled on the TUV’s election but I thought a few first thoughts from the resident blogger who is a member of the flat earth party with no supporters might be appropriate.
Many people seem to have been astounded by the TUV vote: that surprises and does not surprise me. The Belfast based media tend to be poor at reading the unionist electorate. I do not mean that as an insult but as an observation: there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly hard line unionist support is rarely admitted to amongst the educated unionist middle class who are the unionists most journalists come from or interact with. A surprising number of these people actually support hard line unionism (and hence, now the TUV) but few will openly admit it, least of all to a journalist. I can imagine few people whom Martina Purdy would have at a dinner party owning up to TUV support (though Martina if you want to ask me round I will try to ensure the wife cannot come). In reality, however, TUV support is probably strongest amongst the dour Presbyterians of North and East Antrim, the Orangemen of County Londonderry and the border Prods of the Dreary Steeples (though no part of the province seems devoid of TUVists). These are not people that Belfast media types interact with on a regular basis and as such the media underestimate their numbers. In addition these people (especially the border Protestants) are extremely skilled at hiding their true political views: yesterday I met an man who only after five minutes conversation and much skirting around the issue until he trusted me, admitted to being a TUV voter.
Jim Allister complained both during and after the campaign about less media time for him than for other candidates and he has a very good point and it is likely that there is at least a little concious bias. However, to slightly defend the media, especially the BBC, I suspect they were as shocked as anyone by this result: they just do not understand unionists let alone rural ones. Even the News Letter, the house magazine of unionism seemed to grossly underestimate the TUV vote: that is a little less forgiveable; Darwin Templeton is from North Antrim and I would suggest that a look at the editorial direction may be indicated after this result.
There were, however, plenty of signals about what was to happen.
The fact that many people were unhappy with the DUP volte face two years ago must have been apparent to some at least. In addition the Dromore by-election, fought in a pretty medium unionist town, (no Aghogill or Cullybackey, Dromore) garnered the TUV a relatively similar proportion of the unionist vote to last week. Following Dromore we had the end of the chuckle brothers and indeed the end of Dr. Paisley thereafter many, even unionists for whose analysis I have a lot of time suggested the TUV had passed its high water mark. However, that was to wilfully ignore the sophistication of many of the electorate, the optics might have changed but the substance was no different.
In addition one cannot ignore the scandals about double jobbing, the woeful DUP campaign etc. However, in part these are symptoms of the disconnect between the DUP and the population: the possible DUP responses will be the subject of a future blog.
Some will try to suggest that the fall in the overall turnout magnified the TUV’s percentage. However, as I have observed previously there is no good evidence that garden centre unionists are particularly more liberal than their garden-less peers. In addition it is likely that once a person has made the leap to voting TUV it becomes easier to do it next time. Once one realises that far from being an insignificant minority one is part of a significant body of political opinion it becomes easier to vote TUV. So dismissed were the TUV’s chances that some may have felt it not worth turning out. As such it is by no means certain that as the turn out rises (as is most likely in the next Westminster and Stormont election) the TUV percentage will fall. New TUV voters may well be added to the ranks.
Also of course dire as the DUP campaign was there is no reason to suggest that the claimed need to top the poll was a completely ineffectual appeal. Some may have voted DUP to save Ulster from the dread reality of a Shinner topping the poll. The fact that this has happened and yet the sky has not fallen in may make some reluctant DUP voters feel that it is safe to abandon the party which they supported this time with a very heavy heart.
As such there is no reason to guarantee that the TUV has reached its zenith: surely this time the DUP will not be so foolish as to suggest such?
There are of course very significant challenges facing the TUV.
We played our greatest political asset in this election: Jim Allister. Clearly he will stand in North Antrim at the next Westminster election and whilst Arlene Foster was able to claim that the DUP would hold it next time; no one in the DUP can relish facing Allister there. However, we cannot stand Jim Allister everywhere next time and there is a need to produce high calibre candidates. In reality we do have a considerable number of high quality people in the party. The problem has been that many of them have little or no political experience (hence, the media know little of them). However, now in a climate where professional politicians are held in low esteem; it may be the perfect opportunity to wheel out business and professional people with good political brains but little experience to take on the established and at times rather tarnished politicians of the other parties. The next set of elections may be a time when a new face and real world experience will be more valued than a career as a Stormont functionary.
An additional strategy is to gain supporters, members and politicians from the non aligned and from other parties. Jim Allister both on the radio and at the thank you event for party workers specifically appealed to those who are in other parties (and indeed none) to consider joining the TUV. Clearly there is a problem for DUP MLAs due to the fear of being resigned by Peter Robinson. However, everyone knows there are sceptics within the DUP (most know their names) and some may feel that both their conscience and the likelihood of defeat next time round now argue for jumping ship. It is clear that any unionist with views similar to the TUV will be welcomed in the party and for some it offers a better chance of re election than to say put.
I have always argued that politics is in large measure about momentum: I argued this after Dromore. Now the TUV have gained vast momentum. However, we must also see a problem: Jim Allister is no longer an elected politician; there are no TUV members with a representative role beyond that of local councils. The media may now try to justify not interviewing Allister by pointing to his current lack of elected office. We can counter this by pointing to the size of our vote and the fact that the political views of a third of those who voted for unionist parties at this election are no longer represented in the assembly. However, there is the danger that after the current blaze of publicity the media will begin to lose interest. As such vast though our gain in momentum has been from this election, it will begin to dissipate. A week is a long time in politics and a year is an eternity. The coming months are a time for the party to consolidate and integrate new members, to refine policy positions, even maybe to look at focus group work (though I know some are suspicious of such things). In addition the party needs to take every possible opportunity to be seen on the media. When the next election comes round it is vital that we are ready and this time the media will have no excuse not to cover our campaign with the appropriate number of broadcasts etc. Next time we need not merely to upset the political apple cart but gain MPs, to fail to do so would be a serious set back: I have, however, always been confident that that is not too big an ask. The media and the political classes may have finally woken up to the fact that this is vastly more likely than they suspected a few days ago.