TUV the end or the end of the beginning
In a little over 72 hours we will know whether the TUV has been consigned to history like the UKUP and so many other unionist parties of the past or whether it can begin to form a proper opposition at Stormont. Jim Allister has set out his stall again arguing for a functioning opposition and moving towards voluntary coalition. The other candidates also feature on the TUV election broadcast. The other unionist parties seem to agree with the strategy but not the mechanism of getting there. The UUP seem to agree that Stormont is not working properly but again seem unwilling to form an opposition whilst the DUP also advocate change but not for at least another four years.
The reality is that the current system of government seems disliked by all the parties except Sinn Fein and both Stormont and our politicians seem to be held in contempt by large sections of the electorate. That mix managed to gain Allister a very significant vote in the European election but failed almost completely to translate into votes at Westminster. For a time after last May’s election it looked as though the TUV was destined to vanish. That it has not done so thus far is a testament to Allister’s strength of character but also to the simple and overwhelming accuracy of his contention that a working democracy requires an opposition and the ability to vote hold the parties of government to account.
I never do predictions but there are a whole series of constituencies in which the TUV have a fair chance: it would be most unlikely for them to win all the seats but it would also be surprising if they failed to win any of them.
Apart from North Antrim there is the neighbouring constituency of East Londonderry where Boyd Douglas has a track record of representing the agreement rejecting wing of the UUP especially around Limavady / Garvagh. If he could reclaim some of that vote and gain some disaffected DUP voters he could be well placed to pick up transfers. In Mid Ulster Walter Millar did better than most TUV candidates and is a well know local figure in a constituency into which the TUV have put considerable resources. As such Overend is by no means certain of taking the second unionist seat.
East and South Antrim provided poor pickings for the TUV last May but in an assembly election it is much more possible that they could get enough first preference votes to remain in the race. The idea that TUV would be transfer repellent has become one of the shibboleths of political analysis. Like many shibboleths it may be incorrect: some DUP voters will like the TUV more than the UUP and so transfer to TUV first: the same in reverse would apply to some UUP voters.
David Vance did not do well in East Belfast at the last election. However, that was an odd election there in every way. It became clear that many voters wanted to damage Peter Robinson (as an aside I suspect he may get a sympathy rebound this time) and Long was the best placed to gain that vote. Vance having had to move to fight the seat was not especially well placed. As such Harry Toan is likely to do significantly better than David did last time. Vance himself, whilst he may be the favourite hate figure of many sluggerites, has a much better chance in Upper Bann than he had last time. In a PR election with four unionist seats, the UUP having had problems in that constituency and Upper Bann’s hard line unionist credentials it is more than possible that as the transfers begin we will have David Vance MLA. The levels of distress that that would cause in slugger-land would indeed be epic but unfortunately elections cannot be declared void because the internet commenteriat do not like them.
Coming finally to FST. It would be a major shock if Arlene Foster and Tom Elliott do not get elected. That barring something truly bizarre would leave one usually unionist seat unfilled. Maurice Morrow is the sitting MLA and is from the South Tyrone part of the constituency, Kenney Donaldson has made a significant name for himself in FST and Alex Elliott is also a well known and respected personality. From the TUV’s point of view it comes down to just how many hard line unionists there are down here and also whether the traditional suspicion and antipathy between the UUP and DUP in FST cause major transferring to the TUV.
If (as looks highly likely) Allister gains a seat in the assembly it is inevitable that he will present a formidable opposition figure. If he goes there as the leader of a group of MLAs significant change in the governmental system may become difficult to ignore. If he is there alone the other parties will no doubt dismiss him as a voice in the wilderness. Those voices in the wilderness often, however, have a point. The critique of the current system of government is not going to go away.