The SDLP have followed the UUP's lead and have found a TV celebrity candidate to stand for them in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST). In fact, as the BBC reports it, "Former UTV Reporter Fearghal McKinney is expected to announce later that he wants to be the next MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The journalist is expected to declare that he wants to run for the SDLP in the forthcoming General Election." That gives the impression that it is McKinney himself, rather than the SDLP as a party, who will decide who stands. So far nothing has been heard from the SDLP's long-standing (but unsuccessful) Westminster candidate Tommy Gallagher.
McKinney thus follows in the footsteps of his erstwhile UTV colleague, Mike Nesbitt, who will stand for the UUP/UCUNF in Strangford.
The upcoming Westminster election is increasingly becoming a personality contest rather than a grass-roots political battle. More and more of the candidates put up by several of the parties are first-timers, without any political history. They are being proposed simply for their name-recognition rather than their political experience or wide network of supporters. In fact, outside of his own circles it is probably unknown that McKinney was even a member of the SDLP.
No doubt some of the people proposed for Westminster candidacies are worthy people in their own rights, and most probably feel that they could do the job if elected. But many of them simply do not know what the job is – they have never even stood in a district council or Assembly election, let alone actually been elected and had to deal with the complicated and demanding work of being a public representative.
One of the reasons why politicians work their way up from the bottom, often via voluntary or community activities, through election to a district council and/or the Assembly, is that this allows them to make numerous contacts, and allows the voters a chance to get to know, trust and depend on them. They gather around them a group of supporters who help them to get elected, and who, once elected, feed them information on what is happening in their area – who has needs, who has died, which organisation to visit, pitfalls to avoid, and so on. Celebrity candidates, who are parachuted in for the election, largely lack the local touch, and entirely lack any knowledge of the job that they are applying for. As such, they represent an attempt by their parties to fool the electors. The use of celebrity candidates is a cynical ploy by the parties – and represents an acknowledgement that they do not, in fact, have the kind of organisation on the ground that a successful MP would need. As such it represents a dishonesty vis-à-vis the voters – the candidate, if elected, would not be able (or interested) in doing anything for his or her constituents, but would simply become a figurehead for the party.
Celebrity candidates are not new, of course – Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two well-known examples, and the US is full of others. But in Northern Ireland they are new. Whether they represent simply a last-ditch attempt by parties on their way out to rescue themselves by using the 'brand recognition' of TV personalities, or whether it is a trend that is here to stay, is impossible to tell. How well such 'blow-ins' will be treated by the politically ambitious in their own parties – who see the higher levels of their potential political careers being stolen by celebrities who have effortlessly leap-frogged the years of hard work and effort that the ascent of the greasy pole usually required. Such by-passed local activists will probably not pull their weight for a blow-in, unless remarkably loyal to the party – more loyal, in fact, than they are to their own political careers. Perhaps the parties won't mind losing some of their most loyal supporters, if they feel that the brand-recognition of their celebrities will win them as many, or more, votes. But this ploy represents at the very least a gamble by the SDLP and the UUP. And gambling is usually something that you only do if you are getting desperate.