Thoughts on the UUP leadership

One of the less kind texters to Good Morning Ulster on the day after Tom Elliott’s election described him as a non entity leader. It calls to mind that Churchill is reported to have said of Clement Attlee (though he denied it vehemently): “An empty taxi drew up outside 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.” Tom Elliott seems a modest man, again a denied Churchill quote about Attlee: “A modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about.”

Elliott was the front runner from the outset of the leadership race. There was a time about two weeks ago when his position seemed to be weakening severely. Basil McCrea seemed to capture the agenda in the contest. It was a severe simplification to describe Elliott as the traditional choice and McCrea as the civic unionist but it was both a simplification with an element of truth and one which looked plausible on the media. Elliott the sober, slow and softly spoken Fermanagh farmer and orangeman as opposed to Basil McCrea the voluble Lisburn based businessman complete with radical ideas and a Boris Johnston haircut to match. It was really not that Elliott represented the old school and McCrea the new civic unionism: after all several left leaning and liberal unionists supported Elliott. However, so successfully did McCrea seize the modernising and liberal civic unionism mantle that it forced Elliott to appear that way. Furthermore the media latched onto this and hence, the largely fallacious suggestion that Tom was the dinosaur to McCrea’s new civic unionist. As it turned out the we discovered that dinosaurs actually do rule (ask any 7 year old boy).

In reality a victory for Basil McCrea would probably have been an absolute disaster for the UUP. So successful had McCrea been at promoting the modernising idea that many harder line unionists might have begun to consider their position. Furthermore McCrea’s suggestions of getting rid of the officer team and possibly sacking multiple MLAs were almost calculated to sow division at a senior level within the party. McCrea also had problems with delivery. Despite proclaiming his intention to “Stop Ruane” he had failed to build an effective cross party alternative education plan despite being on the education committee. His speech to the leadership selection meeting was apparently marked by aspirations without any real policy meat.

A further though related problem problem with Basil was the fact that he seems to have an ability to fail to get on with most of the people with whom he has worked closely. This was only mentioned tangentially during the election campaign but many both within and without the party were aware of the problem: indeed it was rumoured that prior to standing for the leadership there had been moves in Lagan Valley to deselect him as the candidate at next year’s assembly election.

In contrast to McCrea’s headline grabbing campaign which was mostly style with the appearance of a lack of substance beyond antagonising senior colleagues, Elliott’s campaign was possibly pedestrian but with more policy. After the initial success of his endorsement by practically all the party hierarchy and the seemingly (and also in reality) unstoppable advantage he gained from it, the Elliott campaign faltered. The issues over attending GAA matches were not that relevant despite what Basil McCrea tried to suggest: the sorts of Catholics the UUP are trying to attract are unlikely to be obsessional attenders at GAA matches (unicorns do not tend to play GAA; their horns burst the ball) and even as a symbol the issue was always more likely to be relevant to Basil supporters and a few media luvvies than to any ordinary voters more concerned as they are about health, the economy and education. The gay pride issue was also not that big an issue: many homosexuals would be no more likely to take part in gay pride than Elliott himself. However, Tom handled the issue badly on the radio and the story began to look as if it could derail his campaign: it certainly played to the dinosaur narrative.

What won the day for Elliott was a series of things some which actually bode moderately well for the UUP. Firstly as mentioned above there was the Basil character issue: affable Basil may be but there are a trail of people who have known Basil better and seem, on closer acquaintance, less enamoured of the charm. Elliott again could not be more different: a man of overwhelming decency and honesty. I watched him in Kesh in August at the Black Parades and the time which this senior member of the RBP was prepared to give to anyone who wanted his ear was interesting: there were no cameras on him; these people were unlikely to have a vote in the leadership election but Tom spoke to anyone and everyone who wanted to speak to him. Additionally it is pretty obvious that this sort of behaviour from Elliott is not a one off: that is the sort of man and the sort of politician he is. A family friend recounts seeing Elliott bringing dozens of forms in for farmers to help get them the payments to which they are entitled but forms which are so fiendishly complex that not everyone can sort them out properly. Elliott had so many forms he was clearly going to be in doing this all day, yet was utterly sanguine about the task ahead.

There are other character issues which again put Elliott above reproach in unionist circles. His membership of the UDR in County Fermanagh is a plus point. That speaks to bravery and a willingness to take risks: it has been a long time since a unionist party was lead by an individual who not merely backed the security forces to the hilt but was willing to stand in the line against the terrorists. Some talked the talk: Tom has walked the walk. At one stage people touted Col Tim Collins as a UUP leader who would be a military hero. In Elliott’s case the bravery was not one speech and the invasion of Iraq but the willingness to put himself in danger year in year out here in Ulster. Republicans may try to tar Elliott with the bigot brush for being in the UDR but this will have grave difficulty washing except amongst their own hard line supporters. Elliott just does not look or act like a bigot. Indeed such attacks on him might even increase his standing within more sensible nationalist circles.

Elliott’s response to the challenge of McCrea was also instructive and spoke of practical politics from himself and his team. The provision of buses to transport people up to the Waterfront Hall was a practical and sensible step: the fact that people were willing to get onto the buses spoke of Elliott’s popularity within Fermanagh but the fact that the decision was made to charter the buses speaks of a practical determination to get the necessary job done. If those buses had been arranged to go the opposite way in May it is possible that Rodney Connor would the the MP for FST. If a similar practicality suffuses the UUP from now on it may achieve more than its detractors think.

Elliott has also managed to be elected by the largest margin for a unionist leader in living memory: with his solid character, honesty and the backing of so many within the party one might suggest that the halcyon days might yet return for the UUP. Certainly Elliott is well prepared to repeat the Jim Molyneaux trick of being a man utterly in command of his party and yet attracting a broad church which could expand the tent of the UUP and envelop much of the DUP.

All that is possible: however, the task facing Elliott is herculean in its enormity. When Molyneaux quietly took much of the DUP support it was from the position of lead unionist party. Elliott has inhered a UUP which is far, far from the position of the one Molyneaux led. Tom may have political talent and may be an improving media performer but his party’s brightest stars are mainly outshone by their DUP rivals. Certainly Elliott’s victory may put a spring in their step and his utterly honest image is a counterpoint to Robinson’s slight tarnished image complete with its £5 property deals. However, with the possible exceptions of the likes of Danny Kennedy and Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leadership cadre is still likely to be outshone by their DUP equivalents. The DUP can wheel out Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson, Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell: the list goes on and on. Against one of these Tom might hold his own as might Kennedy, Nesbitt and a few others but too few. Going down the seniority ranks the DUP has several more junior MLAs who are likely to be better performers than their UUP equivalents. In addition in the assembly elections there are more DUP members with incumbency on their side. The mountain Tom must climb looks not as trivial as Everest: more K2 in its lethal ferocity.

If the UUP are to prosper they must also decide how to fight. There is still a belief in some quarters, over represented in blogger land and on the media that at the last Westminster election the CUs failed by not being civic and liberal unionist enough. This goes to the heart of the issue for the UUP and one which the Elliott vs McCrea battle came to illustrate: whether the UUP should seek to regain the votes it lost to the DUP or whether it should seek the unicorns of the garden centre Prods and the Catholics who are itching to vote for a pro-union party. The liberal civic unionists maintain that last time the CUs were not civic enough and that is why the unicorns proved elusive. The alternative analysis is that pro-union Catholics are still at least half a generation away from voting for an overt unionist party; that the garden centre Prod is largely mythical and to the extent they do exist is actually more likely to be a hard liner. To change the fantasy creature metaphor the non voting garden centre unionist is actually not a mermaid but the less alluring sea cow. Furthermore as many have pointed out when the voting figures are actually analysed against the electoral register one finds than most non voting Prods are not middle but working class. Hence, again the civic unionist economically right of centre garden centre Prod appears to be a fantasy: the none voting Prods are not the garden centre unionists but the shell suit unionists.

The UUP need to decide which of these groups it is going to target. If it wants to go after the vote it lost to the DUP it needs to think more about candidate selection: running a slate of candidates the like of Lesley Macaulay in East Londonderry or Trevor Ringland in East Belfast is not the way to capture the votes lost to the DUP. However, whilst the UUP need less civic unionists to capture the grumpy garden centre and shell suit unionists they do need to make some effort to reach out to the any unicorns who might exist: there are no doubt a few and more than just the ones who inhibit cyberspace (their natural habitat). Hence, having the likes of Macaulay on the slate and a few other civic types helps: even better if they can be both civic and possess some talent such as Mike Nesbitt. Ringland himself might be worth another run unless his self importance and preachy petulance leads him to his own natural habitat of Alliance.

Elliott then would be wise to walk a tight rope of traditional unionism where that is sensible: west of the Bann and in the middle constituencies of Upper Bann, East Londonderry, South, North and East Antrim. Within the Pale (and maybe in some of the middle constituencies) a mixture of mainly traditional types along with one unicorn tamer per seat might be the best strategy. All that presupposes a high degree of central control of candidate selection; not something the UUP are known for.

Next it needs policies to attract people and to be realistic in the current climate. Policies to improve services and save money within the local NHS which is under UUP control would go a long way to convincing people of the UUP’s seriousness as a potential lead party in government. Such policies might have to be radical and be willing to rock the boat but would show a maturity which at times has been lacking in all the parties over emotive issues such as health. A real and effective proposed compromise over the Education debacle with a costed and realistic way out of the Ruane created morass would create significant credibility for the UUP amongst unionists and any nationalists who might be willing to contemplate crossing over in voting terms. Policies to improve further education and learning and yet save money would also be useful and, as with health, would be potentially actionable by the UUP. Success on these issues might help encourage DUP voters to switch back and would also make the issue of Elliott’s attendance or otherwise at GAA matches be seen as the storm in a tea cup which it is.

Finally and possibly most difficult the UUP need collectively to take the single most important leaf out of the Elliott book (little red book?) which is overwhelmingly hard constituency work. Many in the UUP have never been that good at this: once it was not necessary; unionists had no other choices. Now, however, hard constituency work is of absolutely vital importance: those UUP members who have done relatively well recently such as Danny Kennedy have like Tom Elliott gained a reputation for massive hard work. Furthermore it was in large part that reputation for hard work which allowed Naomi Long to annihilate Trevor Ringland and overhaul Peter Robinson. Not only must the other UUP representatives follow suit but the party workers and those people in the advice centres need to be equally committed to that level of work and for the long run rather than just the weeks and months before the next election.

As I said above the task Elliott faces is herculean. He may fail in this attempt to climb Everest (or K2), indeed it all looks a bit like George Mallory’s Everest attempt: the talent was probably there; the determination certainly was but the equipment and organisation were just not up to scratch. Elliott might not look like the man to create a political earthquake within unionism. Although Churchill won the 2002 BBC poll for the greatest Briton if the question is which British Prime Minister’s tenure most shaped post war Britain, Clement Attlee, the modest man with much to be modest about, would be the obvious choice. Elliott seems a modest man, whether or not Elliott can become a Clement Attlee figure only time will tell.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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