As soon as we get to the point of selecting candidates for an election, we get some controversy…internal jockeying for position and the inevitable row betweendisgruntled locals and Party HQ.
Take the SDLP Selection Convention in West Tyrone last week. Predictably Daniel McCrossan (27) one of the bright young people in the Party has been selected. After all he ran reasonably well as the Westminster candidate in May. A declaration of interest. I like Dan. I first heard him speak at a Party Conference in 2011 andwas very impressed with him. He has done a lot to make SDLP credible in West Tyrone. As he told the Conference “the people never left the SDLP….SDLP left the people”. Dan’s base is in the town of Strabane. Frankly expectations for the Council elections in 2014 were over-hyped. But to balance this Danny did deliver for Westminster. He did more than enough to ensure that SDLP had a safe quota for next year and since 2011, he has been the annointed successor to veteran Joe Byrne MLA.
Yet West Tyrone is an area where SDLP consistently underperforms. And is divided by personal animosity.
Recent history makes grim reading.
In 1998, SDLP had 28% of the votes and two MLAs ….Joe Byrne (based in Omagh) and Eugene McMenamin (Strabane).
In 2003, the vote share dropped below 15% and Joe lost his seat.
In 2007, the vote share stayed much the same but McMenamin lost the sole seat. How is it possible to get a quota and still have nobody gets elected? Well….running three candidates was a very bad decision and the vote management was poor.
In 2011, the SDLP vote share fell below 10% but this looks worse than it actually is as McMenamin ran as an Independent. But Joe Byrne took back the seat.
The story of the last few years has been a slow but measurable recovery in West Tyrone and Daniel McCrossan has been at the heart of it. Certainly Dan ruffles feathers but surely his selection as SDLP candidate should be obvious.
So why the controversy? Well there are several people within West Tyone SDLP who think the Party should run two candidates with only one seat realistically attainable. Forty people have written to Party HQ and boycotted last weeks Selection Conference.
Seemingly the local Constituency Council decided to run two….a balanced ticket male and female and geographical with a candidate based in Strabane and another based in Omagh. Party HQ haunted by the over-confidence and mismanagement of 2007 has seemingly decreed one candidate.
Indeed one of the signatories of the letter is Dr Josephine Deehan, obviously female and Omagh-bassed and presumably a likely candidate along with Patsy Kelly (male and Strabane-based). Dr Deehan was one of the three candidates in the 2007 Shambles.
Who is right?
Well…strangely both. There is a quota and I actually believe two candidates would boost the vote marginally higher than Daniel’s Westminster vote. But I cant see any way it turns into two MLAs. The only real question is who gets the seat….McCrossan (or Kelly) or Deehan. To a large extent Dan has already dealt with the “geography” question by standing for Westminster. He is known thru the whole costituency.
More importantly, I believe that the time is right for Daniel. It does not always follow that “young people” (Dan is 27) are an answer to SDLP problems. Nor does it follow that unelected staffers (like Dan or like Conall McDevitt before him) are somehow better than elected local councillors like Patsy Kelly and Josephine Deehan (like Bernie Kelly).
So next step?
If Dan asked me….and if he has any sense….he wont!!!!……I would urge him to make the first move. Ask the Party to call a second convention with the intention of choosing two candidates. What is there to lose?
There is a 90% chance SDLP will take one seat (its what the voters want) and the balance of probability (80%) is that Dan will be the MLA.