I suggested the problems with a Basil McCrea led UUP below. Hence, the only alternative is Tom Elliott. Here again there are problems albeit different ones.
Tom Elliott is a pretty hard man to dislike: he is affable, decent, honest and hard working. He has as Alex Kane suggests a much sharper political brain than he is often given credit for. The fact that Elliott speaks in a slow Fermanagh farmer’s lilt and is interested in consensus does not make him an idiot or a bad potential leader. However, his campaign so far has been poor to say the least. His handling of the Gay Pride Issue and attendance at GAA matches was poor and fed into a general media appearance of the campaign drifting. The fact that the questioning was a bit unfair is not the point: Elliott should have handled it better; he seemed somewhat indecisive and excessively consensual.
These sorts of problems and the general appearance of drift may severely damage Elliott. This could result in his election being far from resounding and may even result in him being defeated.
Elliott’s detractors see electing him as surrendering to managed decline. Ironically it is those who feel that the UUP is the rightful majority unionist party and that a simple wheeze will bring them back to their rightful place who are more likely to see in McCrea the necessary wheeze or trick to repair their fortunes.
Tom Elliott’s road back for the UUP is certainly longer and slower than the one offered by Basil McCrea. It is, however, more realistic. Elliott personally has a phenomenal reputation for hard work in Fermanagh: now probably greater even than Arlene Foster’s; though she is of course hampered by her ministerial duties. Elliott was heavily beaten in the 2005 general election by Foster. However, many think that had she and Elliott faced one another in this year’s election he would have done much better. Some of this will have been disaffection with the DUP but much is down to hard constituency work. It is ironic that despite Basil McCrea’s claims about wanting hard constituency work those with reputations for this such as Danny Kennedy in Newry and Armagh are backing Elliott. The vital importance of constituency work is of course no where better illustrated than in East Belfast as Naomi Long’s hard work is probably what ensured that the anti Robinson vote when to Alliance.
Elliott can offer that hard work more convincingly than McCrea, yet can also offer continuity. The simple fact is that many of those who have stuck with the UUP have done so in part because of what it has always stood for. To belittle the old fashioned cultural unionism of the UUP and give it scant regard would risk alienating more of the vote which has stuck with the UUP through thick and thin: one day it may revolt; or more likely the younger generation will loose the family habit of voting UUP and switch to the DUP.
It must be remembered that the UUP does not exist in a vacuum: the DUP is now the lead party within unionism yet its troubles, though much reduced recently, are still far from over. The issue of Robinson’s leadership is still out there and the contrast between the financial machinations of Peter Robinson and the solidity of Elliot would be significant. Furthermore the simple fact remains that although Basil McCrea’s UUP would be casing unicorns the real way back for the UUP would be to attract DUP voters and the non voting working class unionists. The former group especially is much more likely to be attracted to a Tom Elliott led UUP than a Basil McCrea led one.
Another group of potential UUP supporters are the disaffected hard line of the DUP. That may sound foolish and after the TUV’s poor showing in the Westminster election one might suggest that that vote is fairly small. However, it was 25,000 at the Westminster election and 66,000 at the European election. Hence, there is clearly a constituency to which the UUP can appeal (remember that most of Allister’s European transfers went to the UUP). Again that is a much more solid group of potential UUP votes than the unicorns and again it is a group to whom Elliott will have a much greater appeal than Basil McCrea.
Tom Elliott needs to present a steady gathering momentum type of a pitch both to win the election campaign and also to have any chance of the UUP regaining its position. . For him now to try to burst out as the exciting visionary candidate would look like a panicked reaction to McCrea.
Initially he needs to tie down the traditional support as outlined above. Then he needs to reach out to the non voting unionists and the support the UUP lost to the DUP. This needs to be done by hard work. However, in addition it needs to articulate an inclusive unionism cherishing both its traditions and also embracing change and moving forwards to gain support from areas not previously tapped. Whilst Elliott may not want to attend Gay Pride he needs to make abundantly clear that he has absolutely no problem with Gay Equality. Many homosexuals find the likes of Gay Pride a bit embarrassing. Hence, trooping along to show how “right on” one’s views are looks more like the antics of Student’s Union leaders than that of a serious politician. Few mainland GB politicians attend Gay Pride events, yet no one would accuse most of them of having an anti gay agenda.
The same strategy can be utilised by Elliott to appeal to Catholic unionists. Elliott should support monies for helping GAA grounds and the like. The fact that he does not choose to attend GAA matches would then be a non issue. Rather Basil McCrea would again look as though he were taking part in silly tokenism with his “I have gone to Gaelic matches.” Elliott might even try to have the nerve to go further and talk about the Irish language: however, that is probably too brave for any unionist politician
All the above, however, represents catch up in the pre election situation and that leaves the initiative with Basil McCrea: it might be useful after an Elliott victory but prior to it looks more like damage limitation. Elliott needs to go hard after issues of his own. So far no one has mentioned the likes of health in the UUP election campaign. Elliott should produce his ideas on that score especially in the face of financial cuts: after all the UUP does control health and Michael McGimpsey is backing Elliott’s leadership bid. A strategy for further and higher education and for increasing employment would also be useful, again a potentially actionable issue with Empey being minister for Employment and Learning.
More than anything Elliott needs to articulate a vision of the UUP moving forwards. He can be as consensual as he likes but also needs to move forwards. Jim Molyneaux managed to be a consensus leader and move the party forward. However, the UUP now needs much more than a Molyneaux. It needs a leader who can move the party forwards whilst holding it together. Rather than a Molyneaux it needs a Clement Attlee figure.
Tom Elliott needs to contrast Basil McCrea’s proposed whizz bang solution to the UUP’s problems with the gradual regaining of support. Rather than offering gradual decline he needs with some hard work and a bit of luck to offer the beginning of the path to recovery.
Basil McCrea is offering a Churchillian solution to the UUP’s problems but it looks suspiciously like a Gallipoli. Tom Elliott needs to offer them “blood, toil, tears and sweat” and after that the aim of “Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.” Melodramatic undoubtedly but the UUP needs to understand: the long slog with Tom Elliott might just offer them a way back; the Basil McCrea solution though attractive is likely to end in oblivion. The problem for Tom Elliott is that what he is offering is harder and less immediately attractive. It may fail but Tom is at least proposing to build his house upon a rock. Will the UUP join him or are they still chasing unicorns?