Well, Jim Allister put in a storming performance at the Euro election gaining 12.1% of the vote.
As we said in our pre-election review in the Belfast Telegraph: ‘....A ‘big name’ who’s top of the ballot paper, which is always an advantage. There is a big difference between the TUV running a candidate for the Euro elections, and that candidate being Jim Allister, the TUV leader........ He polled well in our recent opinion panel survey research, not particularly because people agree with his policies, but there seems to be a sneaky respect for Jim Allister and his sort of one-man opposition crusade in Stormont......’ (Belfast Telegraph, April 30).
Yes, we ended up under-predicting Allister’s Euro performance but our forecast was still within the error margin and our prediction system had built-in the Jim Allister ‘big name’ factor showing that the TUV would outperform their 2011 Assembly election % vote by a factor of 300-400%!
The Euro election is tailor made for ‘big names’, good orators, and good election campaigners like Allister. Plus he ran a clever campaign, didn’t frighten the horses, and it’s widely accepted that the TUV party election broadcast was second only to NI21’s as the best of the campaign.
However, the key point the TUV need to now consider is how will this all translate into next year’s Westminster election and in particular the Assembly election in 2016?
You see, we’ve been this road before. Jim Allister put in a thumping performance at the 2009 Euro election, was well beaten by Ian Paisley Jnr at the 2010 Westminster election, and the TUV ended up with only one MLA elected at the 2011 Assembly election (Jim Allister himself), and even then Allister had to wait until a later count to get elected. We’re now in exactly the same cycle of elections with Westminster next year, and the next Assembly election in 2016. The TUV needs to realise that each of these very different types of elections requires different tactics and strategies.
To maintain the momentum the TUV badly needs to get more MLAs than just Jim Allister himself, to counter the claim that the TUV is just a one-man band. But gaining new seats in an Assembly election is an entirely different proposition than the Euro election, and it’s not easy. Incumbents have a strong advantage in a NI Assembly election. It takes a lot of thought and strategy for another party to oust sitting MLAs and gain Assembly seats, and you usually have to target a particular incumbent MLA.
One good example of this strategy was Alliance gaining an Assembly seat in South Belfast in 2007. South Belfast is a prime target constituency for Alliance with its liberal outlook and chattering classes, and before 2007 Alliance hadn’t a South Belfast MLA. For that election, they sourced a good candidate with the relatively unknown (at that time) Anna Lo, and then they specifically targeted the second UUP seat by vigorously canvassing key support areas for that UUP candidate, and easily won the seat. A seat that the UUP will never win back. By the way, if this all sounds a bit ruthless – it is, as that’s the only way to gain Assembly seats!
Being a polling company we have good accurate data as to where Jim Allister’s key support areas are, and I’m sure the TUV have the same intelligence. There are certainly three or four potential MLA seats that the TUV could target (no suggestions here). So I would say to Allister and his colleagues, forget the Euro election big speeches for the moment, dust down the laptops and sit-down and analyse how you are going to win these extra TUV MLA seats, because with the DUP once again pushing the mantra ‘vote for us or you’ll get a Sinn Fein First Minister’ it’s not going to be easy for the TUV to gain these extra seats. Plus the TUV know (or should know) that if Jim Allister is once again the only TUV MLA after the 2016 NI Assembly election, it’s going to be hard for them to be taken seriously as a real political force.
Bill White is managing director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph