Thursday, September 16, 2010

Talking to Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea as they battle it out to be UUP leader

New UUP banner logo - cropped

In case you hadn't noticed, there's an election on. The Ulster Unionist Party - of which I'm not a member (nor any other party) - are in the process of electing a new leader to replace the outgoing Sir Reg Empey. Two very different candidates - Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea - are battling it out to win the votes of UUP members who get to vote online by post in person in the Waterfront Hall next Wednesday.

I did a quick interview with both candidates during the last few days. The videoed conversations are embedded below and you can head across to Slugger O'Toole if you feel inclined to find out what I made of it all and what Basil and Tom suggested during their 60 second leadership pitches as well as what they thought about the Tory link-up, changes they'd make inside the party, respect for leaders, unity following a divisive campaign as well as highlighting practical differences the wider community would notice as a result of their party leadership and Tom's U-turn on community engagement.

Both Tom and Basil were asked common questions in an attempt to expose any differences in substance as well as style. An experiment to see if new media could shine a different light on the process and the candidates.

In the end, it was their answers to one of the more flippant, rapid fire questions at the end that perhaps explained their differentiation the best.

[Alan] Mac or PC?

[Elliott] Oh, PC.

Tom is traditional, conservative, low key and low risk. There used to be a phrase in industry that said “no one ever got sacked for buying IBM”. And Tom fits that space. I doubt whether as leader he would change much of the party structures or its appeal, and if I was a UUP member I’d worry that his profile outside the party would be lower than Margaret Ritchie and David Ford. He comes across as steady rather than inspirational. A good man to have on your team, but does he have the right strengths to be coach and leader?

[McCrea] “Undecided. Dithering with a Mac, but probably PC.”

Basil comfortably lives life on the edge. He can make decisions, but he’ll postpone making the commitment as long as possible. While he projects the image that if he wins he’ll turn the party upside down, the reality might be more nuanced. He’s media savvy and comfortable talking. At Proms in the Park – on his Hillsborough constituency doorstep – he managed to appear on the big screen at the side of the stage twice by standing in the right place striking the right pose when the producer needed a fun crowd shot. While a (very) small number of MLAs and councillors might walk away from the party if Basil is elected leader, he’d be well shot of them, even if it means his chance of winning back lots of Assembly seats for the UUP is even more remote. He sounds like a leader, and projects a mood of hope: growing the vote, beating the DUP. But he’ll need all the hope he can muster along with asbestos underwear if the UUP members vote him in as leader in the Waterfront next Wednesday.

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