Conservatives seeking Catholics and women as candidates…

Yesterday I had an impromptu interview with Owen Paterson, the Tories’ current Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Marion Little, the Tories ‘Battleground Director’ for the UK. Little has been with the party for thirty five years, through the fat years and the lean. She also had her finger prints all over the last few big Tory victories; including Boris Johnson’s convincing victory in the London Mayoral election last May. It was a fascinating conversation; my thoughts below the fold…They are keen to push a key message the Tories have been pushing right from the point they unveiled this new force: ie that Cameron is both serious and in for the long term about this venture. That’s not the way it’s been viewed in the local press, where it has often been viewed as a ‘sinister’ by many nationalist commentators.

One of their first priorities will be to bring modern techniques to the way the new party chooses its candidates. In the UUP this has been a notoriously anarchic bottom up process. One of the new innovations is to bring in a Parliamentary Assessment Board for the Northern Irish Westminster seats to impose minimum standards on those chosen to stand for the Commons.

Their priorities? Women and Catholics. The former will come as no surprise. UUP party leader Reg Empey has previously acknowledged that his party must improve on its abysmal record of getting its women members into politics. But the latter will be met with some scepticism.

Yet they seem serious about their intent. They are even prepared for the likelihood that running a Catholic candidate will lose them votes in core Unionist constituencies, for the sake of establishing the principle.

Paterson rails against what he sees as the false polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland:

“What strikes you immediately is the sheer violence of the language that’s used by Sinn Fein and the DUP over what are essentially trivial differences. You have Sinn Fein members depicting the likes of Gregory Campbell in a Nazi uniform; whilst Gregory cannot even bring himself to congratulate an Irish football team. And at the same time Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are touring the world together extolling the virtues of a powersharing settlement”.

But he is also keen to emphasise that ‘this cannot be respray of the UUP project’. For him the key is building confidence amongst those groups who have been alienated from politics. Mostly obviously he picks up on the business community:

“These are often highly articulate, well read connected and active citizens. They’ve not got involved in politics because here in Northern Ireland it has been a dirty, grubby and violent business. But those days are over now.”

I asked Little, what makes her think that they can succeed in bringing such people back in play when most of the ‘indigenous’ parties have thus far failed?

“This is not about one election. We need candidates who will speak to all parts of society. We’ve seen success in England come over two election cycles from candidates who were prepared to get down and connect with people outside traditional Conservative voting communities”.

She notes that in the Conservative heyday of the 1980s they had become complacent in terms of putting in the work on the ground. New Labour similarly has moved away from on the ground campaigning with the result that in succeeding elections the turnout dropped.

The new – UK wide – Tory strategy is to identify battleground constituencies and then to fight strongly in every part of that constituency. Something similar to the technique employed by the Obama campaign that tipped traditionally Red states like Virginia and Indiana into their blue pot.

She flags two now prominent Tory MPs who ran a two election campaign: Grant Snapps, now a junior housing minister; and Stewart Jackson for Peterborough, both of whom ran a two election campaign to take their seats in 2005. In both cases they campaigned relentlessly on local issues from a pair defeats in 2001.

The emphasis on renewed GOTV techniques begins with European elections in June, in which they’ll be looking for Jim Nicholson to increase his share of the vote in order to flag up progress both internally and externally.

Given the very short list of constituencies that are likely to fall to the ‘new force’; they are asking a lot from prospective candidates. They’ll be asking people to invest in a tough path that could take them to seven years to win a Westminster seat.

The emphasis on getting high quality candidates has become the party’s favourite tactic to overcome its lack of capacity in the ground lost to them in the 80s. In pursuing that tactic their choice of Boris Johnson as mayoral candidate raised more than a few eyebrows inside the party as well as beyond.

When Slugger spoke to Ken Livingstone in the summer of 2007; he was dismissive of a man who seemed incapable of understanding policy and seemed to have missed several opportunities to attack him over the delays in the various works in upgrading the London Underground.

In the end the race was much tighter in those inner London boroughs which traditionally opted into London politics. Johnson’s success came from engaging precisely those outer borough’s who had always felt vaguely embarrassed about belonging to the British capital. Boris enthused them into turning out, often for the first time. He also drew young often vociferous support into his campaign.

It’s a game plan the party is expected to re-employ in Mayoral elections across those parts of England where the party has long since ceased to be a local force in the political machine. Yet high impact players like BoJo are easer to talk about than to materialise.

Nevertheless, don’t expect the new force to play to local expectations. A Catholic candidate in say South Antrim is as likely to turn traditional Unionists off as enthuse others. But then again, these guys don’t expect to disrupt the local political game without disrupting the expectations of the reactionary elements in their own base.

The first disruption has been to eschew electoral pacts with any other party. To bring in Catholic candidates is a bold plan; and possibly nothing more than a triumph of hope over expectation. But with the possibility that the DUP peaked in 2005, there are two and possibly three constituencies (South Antrim, Upper Bann with a very outside chance of South Belfast) looking vulnerable even to a first phase counter play.

Norn Iron, it goes without saying is neither as open or as pluralist as the London electorate. But then again, it doesn’t have to be for this ‘new force’ to begin to make an impact in these particular target seats. Their opponents might be advised not to make the same mistake that Ken made of Boris over the last couple of years.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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