Looking back at the UUP

Tom Elliott is evolving. He’s more confident speaking than three months ago during the leadership campaign. He has a sense of timing, and avoids forced humour. When interviewed he gives brief answers that avoid waffle. Lots of people at conference described him as honest and genuine. And from within the party, there wasn’t a word said against him yesterday.

At times, he appeared a lonely, shy figure, wandering around the emptying conference hall rather than forcing himself out into the hustle and bustle of the exhibition area and the crowds. Given power and position, people often grow into the role – and Tom is heading that way.

In his leader’s speech, he claimed he was “no dinosaur”. That’s probably true. Instead, it’s the party that looks it could be put on the “at risk” extinction register. In the May elections, they’ll probably hold on to most of the seats they have, but growth is unlikely. Holding onto council seats might be a greater challenge and a better health check for the party.

Technically the conference was good. There were seats, exhibitors, a programme, a good set (though the party’s new strapline could have been plastered on the wall behind the main podium a bit more to fill the TV picture), good sound, nice video (with a wireless camera being used to good effect).

Inevitably given the seven day gap, the UUP conference was overshadowed by the DUP conference. Comparisons of size, gender balance, age profile, content, speakers and agenda all come to mind.

The conference wasn’t quite as well attended. The UUP had more in the morning than the SDLP and justified the larger room, but there were still seats free in the hall. Attendance really tailed off after lunch, with fewer than a hundred left when they stood to sing the National Anthem at the end.

There were pockets of young people there, but small numbers and they weren’t visible during the official conference programme. Going to conference doesn’t seem to be cool: more are expected to turn up at the Young Unionists’ Christmas Dinner.

Sea of heads from the front - UUP ConferenceSea of heads from the back - UUP Conference
Instead there were lots of older couples, or groups of men who had travelled together. From the back of the hall, heads were predominantly grey or bald, with the odd lady’s hat on display. John McCallister – deputy leader – sounds and feels young. Surely he needs to champion that end of the party and get them involved and more prominent in the party’s processes.

Unless the contributors are punchy and challenging, panels are tedious. In some ways, so far this conference season, the SDLP are ahead in their panel production with decent conversation rather than stilted dancing around the fixed outcome.

The moderates seemed to be integrated back into the folds of the party. Basil got lots of applause – perhaps too much given the way he ran over time introducing Matt Baggott. (Aside – having been invited to attend both the DUP and UUP conferences, nothing to stop Sinn Fein asking the Chief Constable along – he’ll not say no.)

Policy-wise, only holding two ministries gives the UUP less to crow about. It sounds like opposition will be a much more comfortable – and traditional – place for them to occupy in the years to come.

But there was none of the buzz of the DUP. None of the anticipation of electoral gains, or of hero worship for elected reps. No flag waving, jeering and cheering. It was a bit more sober.

While the UUP chairman tried to exorcise the ghosts of Trevor, Paula and Harry early on yesterday, the party’s disappointment at the candidates disloyalty was a bit unrealistic. Even as an outsider, I know that election winning is a long term game. If candidates stand for a Westminster seat that they’re unlikely (or would be lucky) to win, it’s about gaining brand recognition and building a vote. So while the UUP will say that the selection process is democratic, it’s clearly not practical. They’re being short-sighted and wasting their effort selecting candidates that they then discard – even if other candidates score more highly in the selection interviews.

Aiming to make a slightly different point, Tom Elliott answered a question on the Politics Show this morning saying:

This party is about freedom and democracy. All I can say is I’m very disappointed with them. We have invested a lot of time, money and energy into those people and they could have been there for the next election. Other candidates have not been elected or selected at stages throughout their political career but have come back. [Emphasis mine]

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  • Cynic

    “When interviewed he gives brief answers that avoid waffle.”

    ….and meaningful content

  • Francis Hutcheson

    What did he *say*, though?!

    What is the UUP *for*, rather than against?

  • Tom Elliott’s speech from the UUP website.

  • Carson’s Cat

    Tom may be evolving, but the trouble with evolution is that it takes a few million years to occur. The UUP has six months.

    If this cold weather keeps up though many of their members may not even see May!

  • Drumlins Rock

    Alan, think you cover it pretty well, on the whole there was a united atmosphere following on from a leadership contest, I think there is a strong does of realism that we are in for the long haul, but certainly there was no talk of fading away, more of gradual reversals,I think the most posative things is the wide scope of candidates standing this time, good mix of ages and views. May will be the big decider, and so much rests on their shoulders.

  • Cynic

    I see Tom now wants to be hold “conservative franchise” in NI.

    Now just why on earth would Paterson and Cameron align themselves with such an incompetent, sectarian, homophobic, out of touch organisation linked irremediably (while Tom is there ) to the Orange Order?

    Why would they want a link to a party that is on the left on social issues, wants big government and huge subsidies for farmers (naturally)? A party that cannot see beyond the end of the A5 and the size of chicken cages?

    If Tom really believes this reported piece, it’s self delusion of the highest order

    Paterson should tell him that, as it stands, the UUP isn’t fit to be a partner with the Conservatives, never mind a franchise holder

  • Cynic

    By the way, why is the Chief Constable addressing a party political conference?

    Will he do the same for SF? What about the BNP?

  • Nunoftheabove

    It may well be that they’re loathe to cut the orange umbilical cord for if they ditch that then they really will have no support base at all – that’s a measure of just how pathetic and paralysed and futureless this talentless pointless lot really are and also a measure of how parochial and reactionary they are and always have been. Looking forward to the demise happening, though – bloody good riddance to the whole shower.

  • billy

    Alan wrote,

    “Lots of people at conference described him as honest and genuine. And from within the party, there wasn’t a word said against him yesterday.”


    Aye, Alan, he’s a nice guy. And you know what happens to them…

    Probably the dullest party leader to have EVER risen to prominence in N. Ireland. One look at that bland visage has me reaching for the remote.

  • Cynic


    what prominence?

  • dodrade

    Cynic, Baggott also spoke at the first day of the DUP conference. I’m sure he’d address a SF conference too if asked, being a guest at one does not constitute a political endorsement.

  • Cynic


    But if he’s not invited to that or the SDLP it gives an impression of one sidedness, And in any case, these are intensely party political events. Do we want the Chief Constable to take part in what are purely political debates?

    It’s a ‘brave’ strategy

  • Cynic,

    > By the way, why is the Chief Constable addressing a party political conference? Will he do the same for SF? What about the BNP?

    He was invited to speak about policing at both conferences.

    As he walked past, I quickly asked him whether he’d be appearing at the Sinn Fein ard fheis and he said something like “Why not”. If they ask, I bet he’ll go.

  • He also explained during his address that when he took up the post he promised to be available to the public and seems to spend a lot of evenings/weekends addressing groups.

  • john greene

    Cynic: ‘Paterson should tell him that, as it stands, the UUP isn’t fit to be a partner with the Conservatives, never mind a franchise holder’

    My understanding is that Paterson has already told them this.

    BTW its a bit rich of Elliott to say the UUP invested alot of money in the UCUNF candidates as even a cursory glance at the Electoral Commission shows that it was the Conservatives who invested – only to be let down by a bunch of idiots in the UUP leadership

  • dennis
  • Neil McAdam

    Pte Elliott does talk nonsense. In todays Belfast Tele he says electoral rivalry between Conservatives and his Orange Unionist Party will “cause some problems for both them and us”
    How’s that Tom how will it cause problems for David Cameron and the Conservatives? Idiot

    Then on one hand he says he wants UUP to stand as a ‘free standing party’ then he says he wants to be ‘basically the franchise of the Conservative Party in NI’

    Does he actually understand anything outside Fermanagh?
    One is the current situation – Free standing and completely insignifcant in UK terms (no MPs and no chance) and increasingly so in NI terms

    The other is surely merger which Cameron offered? He doesnt think that Cameron is going simply to let him no want he wants, select whatever homophobic Orange nutters he wants and badge them as Conservatives?

    Elliott also ignores the fact that his Party is banrupt financially!

  • Cathy C

    As one of the youngest people there yesterday I was really heartened by Tom’s speech. When you look at Tom you see a good honest hard-working man. He doesn’t play up to the media because that’s not what he’s about, he’s about getting the job done. One of the key things on Saturday was the message of “Delivery”. Everyone knows that the current government is so inefficient and he highlighted that and offered people the alternative, a good government, lead by the UUP, the party for delivery. He pointed out how effective our Health and Employment and Learning departments are compared to the rest. I think it will become clearer to the electorate now, with Tom as leader, that the UUP are based on “principles of honesty, responsibility, vision and a dedication to delivery.” That’s why i vote for them and i’m proud to be an Ulster Unionist.