The party gathers in hope as well as adoration. Enjoying a big rise in membership, the TUV should be able to put on highly vocal show. And whilst I might be in a category of one flying in from Liverpool for the event, there is plenty of interest in how the party might fare at the election 54 days’ time.
Buoyed by polling indicating possible seat gains, the event will be more poll rally than conference. That will not make much difference in the amount of deliberative decision-making. The TUV is not a party given to major introspection or policy-making agonies. This may be an asset. Its top-down nature — Allister’s Unionist Voice — contrasts with the chaos at the top of the other unionist parties in recent times.
UUP leadership contests became so routine as to be part of the annual show, whilst the DUP ought to have charged for the entertainment over the last 12 months. Regardless of their party’s fate, the TUV faithful in the hotel today will at least not fear their leader heading to Thiepval Barracks to muse opportunities in other parties.
In his quieter moments — assuming he has any — the brilliantly forensic Allister might wonder whether it would have been better to have made far more money at the top of the legal profession. Better that than the sums available via haranguing some hapless underprepared MLA at Stormont. Many of those MLAs quietly admire Allister’s skill and rigour. They also acknowledge his personal courtesy and warmth, very much at odds with the grizzled public persona. But Allister has long spurned possible riches to act as unionism’s conscience. Amid the U-turns and compromises of others, the TUV leader has stood by his principles.
Who, if anyone, will join him at Stormont? Allister ran a running mate in North Antrim last time but Timothy Gaston was nearly 5,000 votes behind his master. The 11 other TUV candidates averaged only 16% of the votes required for a quota. To come even close to getting over the line will require huge increases in first preference votes and a transfer-friendliness hitherto undetected for the party.
In West Tyrone, the TUV received one-third of Tom Buchanan’s DUP surplus but the UUP got nearly double that sum. In Mid-Ulster, the gap was less but the UUP was still by far the bigger recipient of DUP excess ballots. Meanwhile in Lagan Valley, Paul Givan’s DUP surplus travelled overwhelmingly to his party colleagues Edwin Poots and Brenda Hale. The few that strayed went to the UUP’s Robbie Butler though, with only a handful going to the TUV. The best hopes for Allister’s party might lie in East Antrim (25% of quota on first preference votes last time) and Strangford (21%) but both seem long-shots.
Of course, the TUV can fairly argue that the context of 2022’s election is very different. Whilst there remain doubts about the depths of hostility, opposition to the Protocol is extensive among unionists. The TUV has been in the vanguard of protest. Notwithstanding the heckling afforded Sammy Wilson by his fellow loyalists, there is a clear faultline between TUV/DUP willingness to collapse the political institutions and the UUP’s rejection of such tactics under Doug Beattie. Given this, it is logical to expect much bigger DUP to TUV transfers this time. The DUP might have fewer to spare this time of course and may be looking for plenty in return.
No party has varied more in its poll ratings in the last 18 months than the TUV. Its LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph score of 6% in autumn 2020 soared to a spectacular 14% by last summer, ahead of the DUP. It was still high at 12% in the most recent survey. The Social Market Research Belfast/Irish News/University of Liverpool survey had the TUV on only half that figure. Even 6% is more than double the TUV’s 2017 score, nonetheless.
A three-way split in the unionist vote is potentially disastrous for unionism, unless accompanied by rigid voter discipline in transfers. And a bad unionist result raises even more doubts about the Assembly. Despite being one of its most effective performers, with two of his Private Member’s Bills on the statute book, Allister has always been Stormont-sceptic. You can anticipate his bellowing scorn if the DUP goes back into the Executive in reduced circumstances of fewer seats, a Deputy First Ministership, Sinn Fein holding the top job and an Irish Sea border still in place.
The TUV has never been wedded to mandatory coalition, more interested in “standing firm against Sinn Fein” than the inevitable compromises required of government. An Executive coalition of the willing has takers as an idea beyond the TUV but is no guarantee of stability. And if no government can be formed post-election, who thinks unionism would prosper under direct Westminster rule?
There is a lot at stake for Allister’s party come May 5. The election represents the TUV’s best and perhaps final chance to realign unionism rightwards. Will it emerge as a very significant unionist player, attracting new members and even MLA defectors from the DUP, to accompany its new Stormont victors? Or will it continue to be a one-man band, a lone outlet for largely lost unionist causes? My money is still on Allister remaining a solitary TUV Assembly presence. It is entirely possible though that the TUV leader could make an even bigger mug of us commentators than he does of below-par MLAs.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool