Friday, May 13, 2005

Durkan succeeds with class-based voting

Jarlath Kearney:

Prior to last week’s Westminster election in Derry, veteran activist Eamonn McCann was lobbying strongly in favour of cross-community, class-based voting. Ironically, despite his failure to get elected, analysis suggests that Mr McCann’s political goal was effectively achieved — by Mark Durkan.

Among those milling around Templemore Sports Complex after last Friday evening's count were figures such as Ian Doherty, a leading Derry businessman and long-time associate of Mark Durkan’s well-heeled clan. Mr Doherty was one of those who signed Mr Durkan’s nomination papers.

Nearby stood Ivan Cooper, another prominent figure in Derry’s business and political circles. Mr Cooper, a founding member of the SDLP, is well known for his background as a rural Waterside Protestant.

In symbolic terms, the supportive presence of both men points to the real success of the SDLP in getting Mark Durkan elected. It was the middle classes of Culmore and the Protestant punters of Waterside who made the numerical difference in Mr Durkan’s 6,000 majority last Thursday.

Sinn Féin’s biggest target for potential electoral growth over recent years has been the increasingly numerous Catholic middle class.

This was recognised as the point of attack by the republican party’s opponents, particularly in a traditionally Catholic and nationalist city such as Derry.

All the evidence indicates that Mr Durkan’s victory was not down to a sudden surge of personal support but rather the application of electoral tactics that he and others garnered from political training in North America over the last two decades. A central element of Mr Durkan’s political development has been his association with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

A long-term relationship between the institute and the SDLP began precisely because of the electoral threat that Sinn Féin began to pose in the mid-1980s. The institute’s modern political communication and marketing techniques were starkly evident in the latest SDLP campaign.

In presentational terms, Mr Durkan got a complete overhaul. His off-putting habit of stuttering through difficult interviews was corrected. His spectacles were consigned to the dustbin, and his hair was restyled to give it a bit more lift. There is no doubt that the SDLP leader has visibly increased in self-confidence.

This tough(er)-guy image was obvious in Mr Durkan’s calculated decision to break the confidence of apparently private discussions between himself and Sinn Féin leaders during pre-election media appearances.

On at least two occasions, Mr Durkan gave his version of private conversations with Gerry Adams at Leeds Castle in Kent last year and with Martin McGuinness before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

This conscious tactic of self-disclosure is designed to show one politician as inherently more honest than another. However, the potential problem for the SDLP is that disclosure could now become a two-way street.

In media terms, the SDLP leader applied the US tactic of talking in messages rather than dealing with issues.

On controversial issues such as policing, this meant Mr Durkan could largely avoid the onslaught of challenging discourse.

For example, when questioned at one doorstep in Shantallow a fortnight ago about the number of PSNI members who come from the west bank of the Foyle, Mr Durkan reportedly said that he was not certain but could get the figures. The voter retorted, accurately, that the number was in single figures.

In the media coverage of the election, Mr Durkan’s concentration on messages helped to develop a climate where debate on such issues was minimised.

On one occasion, Gerry Adams tried to raise the issue of the SDLP position on the Policing Board vis-à-vis plastic bullets but he was cut short by a BBC interviewer, who claimed it was too much detail for viewers to digest.

A key message developed by the SDLP leader was to compare this electoral battle with the 1992 election in which, with the aid of thousands of unionist votes, Dr Joe Hendron won west Belfast from Gerry Adams.

In terms of paid-for media, the SDLP’s use of generic billboards carrying Mr Durkan’s image across the North meant that saturation coverage was achieved in key areas of Derry city centre that have the greatest cross-community “footfall” and the most commercial spending — for example, around Foyleside shopping centre.

The US concept of telephone canvassing, which the SDLP has practised for the last decade, was on this occasion targeted vigorously on key voting groups — the middle classes and unionists. One unionist claimed he had received three different calls from SDLP canvassers asking for his vote.

In another very focused tactic, the SDLP used a private postal delivery service to ensure that election literature arrived through the letter boxes in predominantly unionist areas of the Waterside on Tuesday, May 3 — two days before the election.

Controversy had surrounded the issue of local Royal Mail workers delivering election material in a dispute over conditions. Consequently, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Socialist Environmental Alliance removed all their literature from the Derry sorting office.

Royal Mail confirmed to Daily Ireland yesterday that — in addition to the SDLP decision to opt for targeted private deliveries — some of Mark Durkan’s election leaflets were “already in the [Royal Mail] system” and so had been delivered by Derry postal workers.

Retrospectively, it is apparent that the SDLP ran a tightly controlled election campaign along the lines of a well-managed business plan, with substantial resourses focused on one objective — preventing a Sinn Féin win, the corollary of which was an SDLP victory.

The endorsement tactic of Irish government ministers day-tripping to Derry, and also South Down and south Belfast, was indicative of the value that the SDLP (and others) bestowed on reclaiming John Hume’s title.

SDLP party strategists were claiming on Friday night that they had successfully targeted SDLP non-voters in Shantallow, Pennyburn and Culmore on the west bank, as well as Prehen and Good Shepherd on the Waterside.

Certainly, there was no sign of major resources being expended in republican heartlands such as the Bogside and Brandywell. Subsequent informed estimates of tactical unionist voting range between 2,000 and 4,000 votes.

Despite the SDLP’s best efforts, the party’s vote share still fell by 3.9 percentage points compared to 2001, while Sinn Féin’s rose by 6.6 points.

Were that trend to continue, in a different political context and with SDLP resources spread more thinly across the North, Mark Durkan’s seat would be up for grabs.

The lesson for the SDLP is that, to sustain success, it must maintain capacity throughout Derry at current levels — a tall order by any standards.

The important thing here is that even in Foyle the SDLP are finding it increasingly difficult to win elections without the help of tactical voting from British colonists (i.e. Protestant Unionists). This means that the SDLP can not fully represent the needs of the indigenous Irish Catholic population without running the risk of alienating the British colonists on whose votes they have become increasingly dependent.


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