It might be premature to pronounce that ‘election fever’ has struck the blogosphere (preferable to swine flu), but a post from Turgon, on Slugger O’Toole, does reflect the fact that the focus of parties and commentators alike is now squarely on a 2010 poll. Cyberspace’s favourite Tuvvie does a fine job of describing the existing ramifications in each battleground in Northern Ireland. His piece is a good taster for local contests which will form an intriguing part of the national general election. However, until we have an accurate notion of which candidates are likely to contest particular seats, pre election analyses necessarily remain speculative.
I’d imagine that Turgon and I would disagree profoundly as to the qualities which the ideal candidate would embody. He alludes to the requirement for a ‘hardline’ Conservative and Unionist contestant in North Antrim, for instance. I happen to believe that a DUP / TUV clone would simply be ignored in favour of the real thing and could, additionally, seriously undermine the pluralist ambitions of the UCUNF project provincewide. From very different perspectives, then, we agree that selection is critical to the pact’s chances of success.
European election campaign not withstanding, the Westminster poll will form an important initial platform for the Conservatives and Unionists’ new take on unionism. It is critical that the eighteen faces chosen to launch this project, in earnest, can explain pan UK unionism and promote both local and national manifestoes wholeheartedly. It is entirely self-evident that voters will not get behind a message which is expressed equivocally, or inconsistently. Candidates should understand the principles behind the new deal and espouse them energetically.
With the selection procedure well underway, I am disconcerted by the number of old, predictable names, many of whom have suffered defeat before, which have already been mentioned in connection with important seats. Of course there is a long way to go before candidatures are finalised and rumours and fact do not always coincide.
My hope is that a relatively fresh list can emerge and that it will not, for the most part, be drawn directly from the existing UUP Assembly party. However, I remain a little concerned that forceful personalities will begin to assert themselves around the constituencies, and that the joint committee will be faced with a rather familiar line-up from which to choose.
Of course there are some instances when Assembly members do make the best candidate choices and old faces can best articulate a new idea. As long as there is a clear commitment to quit existing jobs, in the event of election, then involvement in Stormont should not preclude alternative employment at Westminster. The UUP must remember, though, that its ambition is to spread talent across national and regional governments.
I can see a strong argument that Sir Reg Empey should lead from the front in East Belfast. If he were to stand and if he were to win, he would be forced to decide whether he subscribes to Mark Durkan’s view, that a modern Northern Irish party, in a post devolutionary age, should be led from Stormont. There could be a reasonable unionist counter contention, particularly where the party professes to recognise the primacy of our national parliament. In contrast, across the city, in South Belfast, a fresh approach is needed. The UUP candidate from 2005 now has a crucial role in the Northern Ireland Executive and there is a cosmopolitan demographic which should be receptive to an energetic, liberal young voice.
The Conservatives and Unionists joint committee, charged with producing a final list of hopefuls, will decide between candidates chosen by a twin track process. Their deliberations, it might be argued, should also fall into two categories.
First, they must identify particular circumstances in every constituency, and deduce how each personality might be expected to perform, given local peculiarities. Second, and I believe that this is particularly crucial for a new force in politics, they should consider the eighteen candidates as a ‘body corporate’. That means developing a harmonious team with a coherent message, and avoiding inconsistencies in delivery across the constituencies. It also means selecting a group which embodies the project and its ethos.
If both parties keep these considerations in mind, from the beginning of the selection process, then the committee will have an easier task, as it submits its decision to the leaders.