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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