If TUV is a one-man band, can it survive without Jim Allister around?
In tomorrow's address to his party, how can the TUV leader Jim Allister encourage his troops, asks Alex Kane
When Jim Allister resigned from the DUP in March 2007 (following an overwhelming decision by the party executive to endorse an arrangement which would result in a DUP First Minister with a Sinn Fein deputy in May) it spooked the party. They knew they were taking a huge risk anyway, so the departure of their MEP was a blow. What they couldn't be sure of is what he would do next; with both UKIP and even the UUP suggested as possibilities.
But on December 7 he founded Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and committed the party to fighting against mandatory coalition and for the rule of law. Some sources within the DUP suggest that it was the creation of this new party on their right flank, combined with Ian Paisley's easy going 'Chuckle Brothers' relationship with Martin McGuinness, which led to the internal coup which toppled Paisley in May 2008.
The party's first electoral outing was a council by-election in Dromore, in February 2008, where it took almost 20% of the vote, with a majority of its transfers going to the UUP - enabling them to hold the seat - rather than the DUP. In June 2009 Allister failed to hold the Euro seat he had won for the DUP in 2004, but he still managed to win 66,197 votes (13.5%) and his transfers ensured that the UUP's Jim Nicholson was elected before the DUP's Diane Dodds.
And in a second council by-election, in Craigavon, in January 2010, the TUV polled 19% after the DUP stood aside and allowed the UUP's Jo-Anne to win with 63%.
At this stage it looked as if the TUV could be a real electoral irritant for the DUP, albeit in the sense that it seemed to be helping the UUP, rather than winning anything for itself. So the 2010 general election was going to a real test of TUV's impact. But it turned out to be a damp squib. In the ten seats it contested, it won just 26,300 votes, almost 40,000 down on Allister's 2009 tally; although it took delight in the fact that in East Belfast their candidate's 1,856 votes probably cost Peter Robinson his seat (Long's majority was 1,533). At the Assembly election in May 2011, the TUV contested twelve seats but saw their vote fall by another 10,000 to 16,480. Allister won in North Antrim, coming in on the last count, but, to all intent and purposes, the DUP had squashed the TUV.
So, when Jim Allister addresses the TUV conference tomorrow he doesn't really have much in the way of good news for them. Yes, he retains a personal following in North Antrim, but he remains the TUV's sole representative in the Assembly; and while he is still a potent force within the chamber, increasing media and public attention is being paid to the new official Opposition, and to the two Green and two People Before Profit MLAs. The 'naughty corner' has gone and he seems more lonely and isolated than ever before. He is always worth watching when he's on form - something even his enemies admit - but he seems to be at that point in his political career when he is more of a curiosity than an agenda-setter.
He's in his mid-60s (he'll be 68 at the next Assembly election), with no obvious high-profile successor waiting in the wings. There are only 13 TUV councillors out of a total of 462. It is true that he polled almost 76,000 votes in the 2014 Euro election, but in the council elections on the same day his candidates could only muster 28,310 of those votes. In the Assembly elections earlier this year that vote fell to 23,776 (2,524 fewer than in its first major election six years earlier), with Allister responsible for almost a quarter of them. All of which suggests that the TUV is a one-man band: and the problem with that sort of party (and we saw the same thing with Robert McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party a few years ago) is that they depend on the one man for everything.
So, here's the problem for TUV: what would they do if he wasn't there? Who have they got who can lift the reins and offer the prospect of the growth necessary for the electoral breakthrough they need to win seats without him? I threw down a challenge to them two years ago when I was guest speaker at their conference, telling them that they needed a strategy for expanding their base. In fairness to them they took up the challenge and launched their A Path To Making Stormont Work. Yet the electoral response suggests that it is a path which most unionists weren't interested in.
Allister can - and probably will - berate the DUP for the "sham at the heart of the back Arlene to stop Sinn Fein" message, but that message resonated within unionism and delivered a huge victory for the DUP and an overall majority of the votes cast for unionist parties. It's basically the same message he has been banging on about for the last decade, yet it isn't delivering in terms of seats or votes. So continuing to bang on about it isn't an option.
A lot of small unionist parties have come and gone since 1970; either because there wasn't a market to sustain them (and let's not forget that running a party costs a lot of money), or because some of their policies were absorbed by their bigger UUP and DUP rivals. Or sometimes it is because circumstances have changed so much that the message of the smaller party seems to be stranded in a world that no longer exists. The UUP crossed the Rubicon with their willingness to talk to Sinn Fein in the autumn of 1997, before the IRA had decommissioned. The DUP crossed its own Rubicon in the spring of 2007 when it agreed to share power with Sinn Fein-even though key issues remain unresolved. That's why Jim Allister resigned.
The TUV's core support seems to be people who didn't cross the Rubicon in 1997 or 2007. There's nothing to suggest that anyone in the TUV, let alone their leader, is ready to cross any time soon. So, what do they do? What message of hope, what strategy, can Jim give his conference tomorrow? How does he even begin to persuade pro-union non-voters, or people who are presently voting for other unionist parties, that the TUV is worth voting for? More important, how does he persuade existing TUV voters - many of whom will be downhearted after the Assembly results - it's worth supporting his party again? Tomorrow will be the most important speech he has given as leader.