When Jeffrey Donaldson became DUP leader and announced his intention to run in the Assembly election, the DUP had a problem in Lagan Valley.
It may have been 400 votes short of wining a third seat in 2017, but circumstances were different then. Bringing home three in May is, while not impossible, very unlikely: and the DUP didn’t fancy unlikely, particularly when the candidates (Donaldson, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan) were so high profile. That’s why calculations had to be made. Run three but ensure one of them is much lower profile seemed sensible.
If that candidate loses there’s a ‘better luck next time’ shrug of the shoulders; but if the candidate wins and the party returns three, then cue celebrations.
But which of the big three do you drop. If it’s Donaldson, there would be accusations he’s afraid he can’t win. If it’s Givan, you weaken the sitting First Minister. Poots seemed the best option, particularly if another seat is available.
There was South Down. That meant another selection calculation. Jim Wells has been the MLA since 1998, had won a seat there in the 1982 Assembly election and has considerable experience at local council level. His roots in the DUP go back to the mid-1970s, he has a high profile, he is popular with local DUP voters, and he wins a lot.
For the party to deselect him and hope another candidate (either local or parachuted in) would hold the seat was always going to be a huge risk.
There was no guarantee he wouldn’t stand as an independent or defect to the TUV. But the party made the calculations and decided to risk it.
The fact Diane Forsythe beat Poots in last night’s selection doesn’t change the calculation. But it may now encourage him not to run in Lagan Valley.
That’s what all candidate selections in every party — especially the big ones — come down to: how likely is the candidate to win or, at the very least, bring in enough votes to help their running mates across the line? Or the reverse of that, are candidates who won seats still up to the job of defending them, or would it be better to deselect.
Sometimes a party just wants to dump sitting members (Sinn Fein/DUP can be particularly ruthless) who they reckon could cost them seats.
Many good candidates won’t be selected. Older hands know how to play the game and ensure that selection committees have the necessary numbers to ensure their successful nomination. Younger hopefuls imagine an active social media presence will help, but it rarely does.
Others will have spent time working for the party in one job or another, hoping a nod of approval from HQ will help come selection time. Again, it doesn’t guarantee success because some will be briefed against by sitting members who fear for their seats if new candidates emerge. Occasionally parties will try and recruit high profile candidates from outside politics: Mike Nesbitt and Fearghal McKinney spring to mind.
McKinney was co-opted by the SDLP for South Belfast in 2013 but didn’t win the seat in 2016 (the election track record of co-opted members isn’t good). Nesbitt fought Strangford in the 2010 general election (for UCUNF) and then won an Assembly seat in 2011.
Sometimes parties will parachute a candidate into a constituency — like the UUP opting for Ian Marshall to be their candidate in West Tyrone in the coming election — but this often leads to internal divisions, particularly if the local association had another candidate in mind. Independent candidates tend not to do well at Assembly elections. In 2016, for example, Claire Sugden, the independent unionist for East Londonderry, was the only one of 23 independents standing who won a seat. Not only won a seat, but successfully defended it in 2017. That’s why the UUP has been keen to recruit her as one of their own.
But the failure of independents — quite a few who have defected from their previous parties — to win seats explains why it’s a dangerous route for those wanting to stand on their own feet. Selection processes, particularly for those setting out on their career, can be brutal. A nomination guarantees nothing and many soon discover that their greatest obstacle to victory is their running mates and competing canvassing teams.