The UUP: Tom Elliott, defectors, rats and Porsches

Tom Elliott has had very little of a honeymoon as leader of the UUP. Despite being elected by an enormous margin (still very large even if Fermanagh’s votes had been excluded): he has had multiple problems since being elected. Whilst the alternative leader (Basil McCrea) might well have resulted in an implosion it seems that even with Elliott the UUP may gradually atrophy and die: eighteen months ago, I described their better showing in the European election as possibly a “Dead Cat Bounce”. Thus far the danger of ongoing decline looks severe. Elliott has been trying to offer alternatives and move forwards: his problems, however, seem more systemic and from his own members (or ex members) rather than from any failings of his own.

At the time of the song and dance over Elliott saying he would not attend Gay Rights parades or GAA matches, Elliott pointed to his work with his local GAA clubs and the fact that he had nothing against homosexuals. As I mentioned at the time many GB politicians have not marched in a Gay Rights parade: yet are not denounced as homophobic. Subsequent to Elliott’s election he has met with the GAA and is to meet with Gay Rights groups. Thus far all the protagonists to the meetings seem to have been happy with these initiatives.

The main problem for Elliott has been the drip, drip of defections from the UUP. All parties suffer from defections at times but the recent ones from the UUP have played into the narrative of a party in gradual even terminal decline.

A unifying characteristic of the defectors seems to have been personal political ambition: there is actually nothing wrong with personal ambition in politics or elsewhere; those who put themselves forward to be elected political representatives should believe that they can and will do a good job.

There are specific problems with the UUP and its defectors: a scarce few months ago the UUP promoted itself as a party which was likely to gain multiple MPs. The link up with the Tories always looked more like a politico’s dream rather a real foundation to gain a huge increase in votes and hence, elected representatives. Now, following the disaster which was the UUP’s election, it appears that many of those promoted as Westminster candidates seem to have believed their own hype. As such they seem to feel that they personally should have won, that the UUP’s brand name dragged them down electorally and that in another party they could yet win senior electoral office.

Added to that problem is the fact that the UUP has not selected a number of them for Stormont and, hence, one is left with people whose profile, ambition and possibly ego has been raised recently and yet now have no outlet for that ambition. In a way this is one of the problems of not having double jobbing. Had the failed Westminster candidates been existing MLAs there is a considerably lower chance that they would have jumped ship. As it was the UUP was possibly foolish not to select the likes of Paula Bradshaw and Harry Hamilton as MLA candidates. Set against that Bradshaw and Hamilton’s vote was workman like rather than stunning. Many might suggest that a donkey with a UUP sticker on it would have gained much the same vote as those candidates received in their respective constituencies. However, the candidates’ egos seem such that, in their own minds, they have appropriated what was a UUP party vote as their own personal vote. A very similar situation seems to be the case with David McClarty: he has forgotten that whilst he has a certain personal vote around Coleraine, much of what is left of the East Londonderry UUP vote will vote UUP no matter who is the candidate. Willie Ross mistakenly thought that he could garner a significant personal vote in May when standing for the TUV: his failure should be noted by McClarty.

Added to the UUP’s problems with the defections is the fact that many of the Westminster candidates whose Stormont ambitions have now been thwarted came from the liberal wing of the party. Rivers of ink have been split (or more accurately internet server space consumed) over the best way forward for the UUP. The unicorn chasers have claimed consistently that there are masses of liberal unionists and pro union Catholics about to come enthusiastically to whoever can raise the liberal unionist electoral banner. When the unicorns failed to materialise electorally the blame was laid at the door of the UUP for not being welcoming enough for these unicorns. Then when the UUP elected Tom Elliott the unicorn chasers claimed that this was further proof that the UUP were out of touch and that only they had the magic formula to find the unicorns. The fact that much of the evidence seems to show that the garden centre Prod is actually likely to be hardline; the non voting Prod is often working not middle class; the unionist Catholic is probably still half a generation from voting for an overtly unionist party and the haemorrhage of votes from the UUP has been largely to the DUP are all ignored. The unicorn tamers like the alchemists of the middle ages are utterly convinced that lead can indeed be made into gold: that liberal unionism is indeed the sleeping giant of Ulster politics.

To add to the UUP’s woes is the fact that its extremely decentralised nature allows local constituencies to pick candidates almost completely autonomously. A central leadership might have kept McClarty on the ticket (though in the interests of modernisation there is no guarantee of that). It would almost certainly have retained Paula Bradshaw whose deselection looks more like the internal machinations of the South Belfast party than a wise strategic electoral decision.

Certain candidates failing to be selected as Stormont candidates after having been moderately (and only moderately) successful Westminster hopefuls might not have caused a problem if the UUP was seen as a party moving forwards and gaining momentum. In such a scenario an ambitious prospective politician might well be willing to sit it out and try for selection again next time. If the candidate did jump ship their departure might be seen as an irrelevance. However, since the narrative for the UUP has been one of decline these electorally failed hopefuls seem to feel that they are worth more individually than they were in the party. They also seem to feel that they will bring much of their previous vote with them to Alliance and tap further into that mass of unicorns and garden centre Prods: truly lead will glister as gold. In McClarty’s case he seems to feel that he has that formula without even needing the Alliance vote. To be fair considering Alliance’s irrelevance in East Londonderry, leaving them out is probably reasonable. In addition although I have never rated McClarty personally it is clear that he was not going to be able to make a subsequent comeback having been deselected by the UUP: hence, his decision to stand as an independent, though not laudable, is at least understandable.

The danger seems to be that these defections, caused in part as they are by the failure of the CUs to make any impact at Westminster, will feed into the decline narrative and will feed the media analysis of ongoing, maybe terminal decline for the UUP. Then if the UUP do badly in May the defectors will be convinced that they left at the right time and that if their leaving did damage it was to a party already holed below the water line. The fact that they will probably have failed themselves to be elected will undoubtedly be analysed by them as far from a personal failing but rather the fault of someone, anyone else and quite possibly the UUP again. That the defectors will have shot both themselves in the head and the UUP in the foot in such a scenario will no doubt be ignored.

All the above looks extremely pessimistic: There are some possibilities for hope, however. Tom Elliott seems to be carefully positioning the UUP back where Jim Molyneaux’s once utterly dominant party stood. He seems to be trying to be moderately hardline; yet nobody’s bigot. His decision to meet with the Gay Rights campaigners and the GAA and the positive messages flowing from that may help. If Elliott can mobilise some of the non voting Prods (the trolls) and recapture some of the DUP’s support then he may slowly achieve much. The problem is that standing still is probably a significant ambition yet politics requires forward momentum and currently very few are predicting gains for the UUP. That said very few of the cognescenti thought that the CUs would do as badly as they did at Westminster. If Tom can truly manage the Molyneaux trick of out righting and out lefting the DUP it will be a stunning achievement. Elliott has many personal qualities: so far Trevor Ringland has learnt to his cost that Elliott is not a man to be bullied; others may yet also realise that they have underestimated Tom. However, despite his personal qualities there is a high chance that he lacks the breadth and depth of talent in his team to achieve a Molyneaux-esque victory. As I said before the mountain he has to claim is no trivial Everest: more K2 in its lethal ferocity. If he fails, however, Elliott will at least go down fighting: a Fermanagh version of George Mallory.

For the defectors, however, the future is probably even less rosy: their chances of success in their new parties are lower than they were in the UUP. Their chances of winning an assembly seat as independents or with Alliance look extremely poor. If the UUP fail they will probably look like rats deserting the sinking ship for a life raft already containing half a dozen large cats. If Tom does achieve a remarkable success, however, the defectors would look even sillier: rats deserting the Carpathia for the Titanic; motivated by selfish political ambition and in their actions demonstrating the lack of political understanding and consistency needed to be serious political figures. Some may also look like foolish middle aged men who would have been wiser as part of their midlife crisis to buy a Porsche or Ferrari (I would recommend a Porsche) rather than stand for election.

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  • joeCanuck

    Turgon,

    Tell us again about your experience buying your Porsche. That was quite a step up from your old clunker 😉

  • Driftwood

    Hi Turgon
    The UUP now has something of the Trabant about it..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trabant

    Which kinda suits our wee Soviet satellite state, waiting for the Westminster handout. While none of the DUP or their SF colleagues are poor. The £10 Billion (annual-yes annual) subsidy money from England they grudingly accept is received as a Melanesian cargo cult. As if it belongs to us, even though we are GIVEN it, by Westminster.

    ALL local parties treat the subvention as a given. A gift from the ‘gods’, that has increased exponentionially over the years. It exceeds the Barnett fomula requirement. What happens if the ‘Gods’ (HM Treasury) decide to stop giving?

    Because the link to 10 Downing Street has gone and boy are we dependent on Westminster for survival.
    Some addictions no-one ever talks about I suppose. Being ‘English Dependant’.

  • dennis the menace

    DW

    you talk as if NI is the only part of the UK to received subsidies, do you even know which parts do not??
    also the subsidy isnt 10 billion, we do pay taxes after all.
    and do you know the meaning of “exponentionially” ( which i take you mean to be exponentially)

  • Barry the Blender

    An interesting read as ever turgon. Although I want to pick a number of holes.

    I don’t think it is correct to group McClarty in the same camp as Bradshaw or Hamilton. He wasn’t a great burning selfish ambition as much as a local man who was dumped in favour of some liberal bright young hope [sic]. What happened to McClarty is perhaps what defectors Bradshaw and Hamilton thought ought to have happened to sitting Ulster Unionist MLAs.

    Other significant defections in the shape of Alan McFarland MLA and Lady Hermon MP, although they did not take place during Elliott’s tenure as leader, undoubtedly will have an effect during it and perhaps should be considered too.

  • Fionn

    depends why unionists stop bothering to vote, is an ex-squaddie from the OO the person to get them back to the polling booth,

    I did find his reason for engaging with the gay community novel, apparently he discovered quiet a lot of content about himself on a gay website…really….just popped up on a google search I suppose

  • backstage

    With the TUV having removed the lunatic fringe and the UUP in disarray, the DUP must surely move to camp out in the centre ground. Even if they lose a few more to the TUV by doing so the gains would probably significantly outweigh the losses. Although our wee arrangement in NI has given power to the extremist parties, power normally lies in the centre ground.

  • Drumlins Rock

    backstage, its all very well saying that, but human personalities dont move around as easily as you think, ok the ex UUP members Jeffrey & Co. began the mellowing process and loosing some of the hardliners to the TUV took a bit of the hard edge off too. But essentially it boils down to a thirst for power that enables the appearance of a shift to the centre, much the same way New Labour & the Conservatives had to do on the mainland, however they both reverted to form so to speak over time, the old right and left causing divisions eventually. There remains a hardcore element within the DUP and someday they will assert themselves when they see some weakness occur, Irisgate was too soon and the snomen melted that time, but their day will come.

  • Bill

    Turgon,

    Not saying whether I agree or disagree with everything you say – although your ‘essay’ is very good analysis of a lot of points.

    I just want to correct you on a technical electoral point: You say in your first few lines that Tom would have won by a ‘very large’ margin even if you discount the Fermanagh & South Tyrone (F&ST) votes. This is simply wrong & I can say this, as I was someone who was heavily involved in that election process. If you lower the F&ST Tyrone vote to a normal level (i.e. comparable to the 17 other NI Westminster Constituency Associations) then Yes, Tom still wins, but by between a 55-56.8% margin compared to a 43.2%-45% vote for Basil.

    This could hardly be described as a ‘very large’ margin???

  • dennis the menace

    any more info on Brian and Mark Dunn leaving the UUP???

  • Barry the Blender

    any more info on Brian and Mark Dunn leaving the UUP???

    I haven’t heard any information on this. Seems you might have a much better source than the rest of us.

  • True Blue

    Yes the Dunn’s have left the Party, but wait for it… The excuse Dunn Snr gave during last week was he wasn’t selected to be the Assembly Candidate for East Antrim!

    Another man of principles…

  • dennis the menace

    barry, just picking up on eammons mallies twitter

  • Barry the Blender

    Interesting stuff.

    Although if a party tells you that Roy Beggs Jnr is a more meritocratic candidate than yourself then perhaps it’s time to seriously consider its foresight.

  • Droagh

    I am happy to leave this reply in my own name – Brian Dunn. True Blue either was not at the East Antrim meeting or is being used to cast slurs on me. I left the UUP because I was unhappy about its rudderless leadership and some internal goings on in East Antrim. The vast majority of members are honest decent people and I hope are still friends. I have fielded numerous telephone calls and personal visits from East Antrim members asking me to reconsider my decision. I have no regrets about not being selected to run for the Assembly in May. The prospect of walking the streets of East Antrim did not fill me with any enthusiasm and I put my name forward to help further the party as I do not have to rely on being elected to have a wage. The East Antrim UU Association selected their candidates and I am sure they are happy with their choice. If True Blue had been at the meeting on Friday night he would know the truth – or if he was, he is telling porkies. I post this as someone who made an honourable decision and did so in a way that I did not publicise so as not to harm the party. If True Blue is a member of the UUP why doesn’t he say so and we can have a proper debate. I don’t have an agenda. I am prepared to drift into oblivion. I don’t need elected office – neither for remuneration nor my ego. I have tried to be fair but if true blue wants to revert to slurs, it has certainly firmed up my resolve not to reconsider my decision.

  • Barry the Blender

    Thanks for clearing those things up Cllr Dunn. I think politics as a whole will suffer when it loses someone who wasn’t dependent on politics to make a living. Out of curiosity, when, if ever, are you intending to leave the council?

  • Droagh

    When the term ends in May. If I left now there would not be time for an election. If there was time I would go now.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I post this as someone who made an honourable decision

    Hmm ..

    The prospect of walking the streets of East Antrim did not fill me with any enthusiasm and I put my name forward to help further the party as I do not have to rely on being elected to have a wage.

    Top quality bit of honourable deciding there.

  • Droagh

    I have made my decision clear. I am not a regular poster to this site and I have no intention of becoming involved in a slugging match with regular posters, many of whom are either active members or paid employees of political parties. I have a job to go to tomorrow that does not allow me to monitor what people think about my decision and to some extent, I don’t particularly care.

  • dennis the menace

    CLLR Dunn can i ask about your son, is he intending to run again, either as an independant or for another party?

  • Cynic2

    Dennis

    Why do you want to know?

    What business is it of yours?