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Can new head articulate message – if one is found?

My analysis of Tom Elliott’s leadership victory, which was published in Friday’s Irish News.

By Owen Polley

As expected, Ulster Unionist members elected Tom Elliott their party’s new leader at a meeting on Wednesday evening. A thumping majority of delegates voted for the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA, who favours a traditional brand of unionism, rather than Basil McCrea, whose politics are coloured by a more liberal hue.

Many grassroots Ulster Unionists will welcome Elliott‘s success. They argue that his opponent’s campaign relied on style rather than substance and they travelled in numbers from their rural strongholds, in order to back the favourite at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

The Fermanagh man certainly represents the innate conservatism of much of the Ulster Unionist membership better than his Lagan Valley counterpart. But his everyman image could also prove a handicap, if the party seriously aspires to win back over one hundred thousand votes which it lost over the course of the past decade. Basil McCrea is widely acknowledged to possess communication skills and media savvy which Elliott lacks.

UUP members have shrugged off common wisdom that these attributes are indispensable to a modern political leader, deciding that the unionist electorate looks for other qualities in its figurehead. It remains to be seen, though, whether Elliott can articulate the party’s message persuasively, even if it can find something distinctive to say under his leadership.

The UUP already has a chronic communication problem, which this election illustrated all too clearly. While the UK-wide Labour leadership battle included open hustings, television debates and a high profile recruitment drive, the Ulster Unionists’ deliberations took place largely behind closed doors.

Elliott was the candidate most resistant to free debate, refusing to appear on the BBC’s Hearts and Minds programme, or radio shows, at the same time as his opponent. On the Open Unionism blog, he justified his stance by arguing that the party should avoid ’washing its dirty linen in public’.

Indeed senior Ulster Unionists made a last minute attempt to avoid a vote altogether, investigating whether it was possible to broker a deal between the two contenders. Their attitude to internal democracy is badly out of step with modern political thinking.

A leadership election should be regarded as a chance to engage the public and canvass its opinions. It can result in an influx of ideas and reinvigorate a party for greater tests to come. Yet, presented with that opportunity, the UUP shied away from open debate and there were groans of panic and disapproval whenever public discussions of policy threatened to break out.

McCrea’s campaign hardly crackled with innovative thinking but there’s little doubt that Elliott was the worse offender. His pitch focussed squarely on preventing Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister and Ulster Unionist party unity.

It’s open to doubt whether he can deliver on either of these objectives. At the very least it will be difficult to achieve both at the same time. There is scant evidence that Elliott will persuade the government to revisit the St Andrews Agreement and change the mechanism for choosing a First Minister.

That leaves the tired old mantra of ’unionist unity’. Although the Fermanagh MLA rejected it during the campaign, his coy definition covered only the formation of a single unionist party. That won‘t happen, but there are other options, short of merger with other parties, which are equally unpalatable to liberal Ulster Unionists.

There is ample evidence, for example, that a drive to agree Assembly election candidates with the DUP is already underway, in Belfast at least. Elliott’s predecessor, Sir Reg Empey, endorsed meetings between the two parties, aimed at maximising unionist representation in the city.

That might offer the type of ’cooperation’ the new leader wants to see with fellow unionists, but McCrea and others are likely to regard it as counterproductive and divisive. If the process is widened and deepened it will certainly alienate the liberal wing of the party and a split can‘t be ruled out.

Of course, like David Trimble, who was perceived as a hardliner when he won the 1995 leader‘s election, Elliott could confound expectations. The Fermanagh farmer faces an entirely different set of challenges to Trimble. Whether he can rise to the occasion and, against all the odds, provide leadership that is both brave and inspired, we must wait to see.

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Filed under: UUP, UUP leadership election, ,

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