NI21 launches – looking for fresh voices rather than defectors

Basil and John tonight crawled out of their Team Jasil chrysalis to reveal the NI21 butterfly. Question is, will it take off?

NI21 John McCallisterLaunched in the Metropolitan Arts Centre, a cosmopolitan wine-drinking audience, and if they’d handed out much needed icecream cones to cool down the attendees, NI21 might have been Neapolitan too.

A few hundred supporters crammed into two rooms in the Belfast MAC and another two hundred watched online as John McCallister, party chair Tina McKenzie, and leader Basil McCrea talked about their vision for the new party.

The launch was professional but not too slick. It oozed enthusiasm more than cash.

The event was staffed by energetic volunteers and promoted articulately by a succession of professionals – young and middle aged – who explained that they didn’t have a history of voting.

The early discovery of the party name and website, the parody twitter account and even Martin McGuinness’ joke has boosted the brand awareness of the new party name beyond John and Basil’s dreams.

This is a party that wants the votes of people who have stopped voting (or never started). While they’ll eat into Alliance and the UUP – there were reps there tonight from Alliance, NI Conservatives and the SDLP – they’ll be pitching their effort and marketing at non-voters.

No surprises in the message from the two politicians tonight. It’s as it was at UUJ last month. Northern Ireland branded. Not keen on labels. Not unionist. Not nationalist. Pro-current UK settlement. They propose the removal of designation, but in the meantime it’s not yet clear on how they’ll designate – though the honest thing would be to sit in the middle and opt out of having any power for Petitions of Concern. They’re promising to introduce an Opposition Bill. Building bridges rather than walls.

Basil was keen to point out tonight that they were not going to be announcing the names of defectors from other parties. The focus was on fresh voices, and on listening to potential voters.

NI21 Basil McCreaTonight’s event was organised by Facebook and text. But it’ll take more than clever use of Facebook to reach beyond a few thousand supporters. They’ll need to rip a page or two out of Jim Allister’s playbook to learn how to rapidly respond to events, how to ask good questions that reveal embarrassing facts, and how to keep bumping back into the media cycle and punching beyond their light weight.

You don’t win any votes by launching a party. Though being able to execute a launch is a sign of some organisational skills and talent.

If they fail to quickly build momentum, NI21 and its clever logo will soon be erased.

If the volunteers can build a party structure, figure out a way for people to pay to join the party to raise much-needed funds, keep Basil and John from contradicting each other in public, grow candidates that are on message and attractive to voters, and not be discouraged when interest dips and negativity soars, they have a chance of muscling onto the ballot paper.

It’ll be a long, old slog. They’ve got the first few hundred people motivated. Now for a few tens of thousands. And some policies …

Claire Cromie has lots of details from last night in her Belfast Telegraph article. Other views in the News Letter and the Irish News. Fitz James Horse was in the MAC last night and he’s posted his views too.

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