When Jim Allister stood in the King’s Hall to make his speech after the European election enormous things seemed possible for the TUV. The high likelihood of him taking North Antrim at the General election seemed clear. This morning to quote Harold McCusker: “I felt desolate because as I stood in the cold …..everything that I held dear turned to ashes in my mouth.”
Although that statement was by Harold McCusker regarding the Anglo Irish Agreement it could equally be used to describe the state of the TUV following this election. It may not have been a complete electoral destruction but it was remarkably close to it. It seems that the suggestions that Jim Allister’s European vote was a protest vote were correct and the Belfast Telegraph poll which I derided only a few days ago was wrong for over rather than underestimating the TUV’s popular support.
More difficult for the TUV is that they ran a remarkably good campaign: good in all save votes gained. No members said terrible mad things: none of us called anyone a bigot. The TUV representatives on television were uniformly well presented, articulate and coherent. It might have seemed fair at the time to complain that the TUV should have been involved in the leaders’ debate but now it looks reasonable such was their level of support. Furthermore the failure to put Jim Allister on with the other leaders cannot be pretended to have cost the TUV the 40,000 votes they lost between last year and this. In debate with Paisley junior on UTV Allister was felt by most independents to have come out the victor and he might very well have defeated the other leaders had he been on with them. However, it is most unlikely that Peter Robinson or Reg Empey would have performed as disastrously as Diane Dodds and it is also unlikely that Allister’s demolition of her was worth those 40,000 votes.
The TUV clearly did not stand in every constituency so some fall in vote would have been possibly acceptable even though it would have been contrary to the gaining of momentum which is always vital in politics. Again, however, there is no way that the seats which the TUV did not contest could have yielded the 40,000 votes they lost.
The blame cannot be laid at the door of the TUV’s candidates either: clearly Jim was the star but there were others who were far from poor candidates. One might argue Sammy Morrison was a bit young and parachuted into the area but he fought a quite brilliant campaign: brilliant until the voters entered the polling booths that is. Keith Harbinson was the near victor of Dromore and yet he little more than quadrupled his vote with an electorate almost ten times as numerous. If one suggests that Keith Harbinson was too young then the TUV had more experienced campaigners: David Vance, potentially the perfect age to go into politics managed a mere 5.4% of a massively unionist electorate. The fact that his vote was greater than the margin by which Peter Robinson lost might raise a wry smile but even if (and I doubt it) all those votes had gone to the DUP it is not something which hard line unionists should be crowing about. To see a party and a candidate agnostic on the union defeat a unionist no matter what the personal rivalries of the past is something not befitting traditional unionism.
Other TUV candidates had all the experience and gravitas one could ask for. Willie Ross might have been criticised as at times a less than perfect MP but he had an impeccable history of hard line unionism; had been an MP for years and for much of that time a popular one. He was running in a seat containing amongst the most hard line unionists in Northern Ireland: the CU’s candidate was butchered by Gregory Campbell the outsider from Londonderry city yet Willie Ross the local even harder liner was cast aside with only 2,572: a vote which made Lesley Macaulay’s pretty pathetic 6,218 look half decent. The story was the same in Strangford where Terry Williams the former mayor of Newtownards and hard working charity campaigner gained a derisory 5.6% of the vote.
The TUV’s campaign was as good as it could have been; the candidates were more than reasonable. The only conclusion therefore can be that the message was not one which unionists wanted to hear. One might try to argue that the TUV’s campaign was too negative and maybe it was. However, the discussions of sleaze and so forth helped secure Jim Allister those 66,000 protest votes last year. In addition Peter Robinson was almost certainly brought down by people being fed up with the taint of the Swish Family and as such pretending that it was a major mistake to go hard after the expenses etc. is not a fair explanation of the TUV’s defeat.
The TUV did have a positive message for the future: one of Voluntary Coalition with weighted majorities and the like. These are concepts promoted by many unionists and are almost certainly amongst the ambitions ordinary unionists might have for the longer term. They did have difficulties getting that message across but that seemed as much as anything to be because people promoting the message did not seem convincing. The suspicion seems to have been that the TUV had no realistic strategy for implementing these no doubt popular aims and in addition no matter how hard the TUV tried to dispel the impression some seem to have thought that admit the democratic rhetoric there actually lurked the “No fenians about the place” views of old: something unionists are not interested in going back to. In addition these constitutional issues failed to resonate as compared to the bread and butter concerns. Again the TUV had these policies but that always seemed drowned out by the constitutional aspirations which unionists seem to have deemed implausible.
The question then arises can anything be salvaged from the wreckage of this electoral campaign? The answer is probably yes: however, there is a second more pertinent question which needs to be addressed in a few moments.
There is without doubt an assembly quota there for Jim Allister at the next Stromont elections. He is an effective politician with a track record of hard work both in high politics and in working for constituents whilst an MEP. No matter how great the loss of momentum it is almost certain that, should he want to, he can be in Stormont in 2011. In addition there are close to quotas here and there which in an STV election might bring in Keith Harbinson, someone in East Londonderry and possibly Strangford. They might take a quota in one of the seats they did not fight this time round: Upper Bann would be the most likely. Hence, it is most unlikely that the TUV cannot live to fight again another day with the expectation of some form of success. However, it would be success of an order of magnitude less than they would have wanted a few short hours ago: that leads on to the second more pertinent question: Should the TUV go on?
The TUV’s aim was to bring down the current power sharing arrangement and remake it as a voluntary power sharing coalition: Jim Allister repeatedly talked of creating a bridge head of TUV MLAs to make the current Stromont system of mandatory coalition unworkable. Such ambitions have disappeared as snow off a ditch. All the TUV can hope for now is, at best, 2-3 MLAs and even that would be a major achievement. Such numbers would not bring down Stormont nor would it help refashion it. If the TUV do disappear then unionism collectively may lose a few votes though even in the short term most people who were willing to vote TUV will be unlikely to let their votes go to waste by sitting at home. Hence, there is little justification for the TUV remaining as a place for lost votes to go.
The TUV does have some political talent. Jim Allister has more than the vast majority of other unionist politicians. However, although I personally regard him as an affable, friendly man who will listen and take note of others viewpoints; that is not the opinion of most of his political opponents. It will be a long time before any other unionist party will be keen to have a man who sticks to principle so much that he will rip apart a party to keep to it and he is too honest a man to change his principles overnight. Other TUVists deserve an honourable mention. David Vance may be highly caustic on his blog but in public and in real life he is a good political analyst, though he is unlikely to be given a chance at representative roles outside the TUV any time in the foreseeable future. Keith Harbinson and Ivor McConnell have significant ability and are young: who knows where they may turn up in the future? Finally Sammy Morrison is (and I say this with no hyperbole) a young man of boundless energy and organisationally superb. He single handedly kept a significant political operation on the road for months. Unfortunately for him, he does believe in what he stands for and is unlikely to want to join another unionist party in the near future.
Overall then yes the TUV can survive albeit in extremely diminished form but I say this honestly to people whom I regard as friends: it probably should not. We aimed for something which history may show to be a silly footnote. It is now time to accept the electorate’s decision and join the UKUP, NIUP et al. in political oblivion.
As for me I will quote Tolkien for the first time: I should “diminish and go into the West.” But maybe I have already had the arrogance of my pseudonym Turgon, refused the warning to leave, and am already caught in the fall of Gondolin. No matter I have my health, surprisingly still a job and my family and who knows the News Letter may still have my ramblings. Mick has not thrown me out (yet) either.