Patsy McGlone…Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man.

On 1st August 2011, Patsy McGlone, SDLP Deputy Leader and MLA for Mid Ulster announced his intention to stand for the Party Leadership in November. I support him.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Margaret Ritchie who was elected to the Leadership a mere eighteen months ago. She is the first SDLP Leader to face a challenge to his/her Leadership. But she is no Gerry Fitt, no John Hume, no Seamus Mallon and no Mark Durkan. She has been over-promoted.

McGlones announcement “I’ve listened to what party supporters are saying and I’m standing for Leader of the SDLP – people are hungry for change.” references Party supporters rather than Party members. Rightly so. As I have said SDLP pay far too much attention to its political opponents. It is long overdue that it listen to its own voters.

I was watching the South Belfast “count” in the Kings Hall, Belfast in May and the “rumbles” in SDLP started from the moment the ballots tumbled out of the boxes.
It had been a reasonable enough assumption that SDLP would at least hold its own in May. It fell back by two seats. Any success would have been in SPITE of Ritchie not because of her.
But certainly the feeling at 9am on Election Count morning was that the SDLP had “got away with it”. By 11am it had dawned (via text messages from other counts) that getting a good reception on the doorsteps, being liked, getting second preferences and (eventually) finishing seventh in seven constituencies wasnt enough.
It would be wrong to suggest that Patsy McGlones leadership bid is specifically related to him being overlooked in relation to a Ministerial position in the Election aftermath.
By 1pm on Election Count Day he was already the name on SDLP lips.
The ring of Belfast suburban seats…..East Antrim, South Antrim, Lagan Valley, Strangford and North Down………divides Belfast where the SDLP is holding ok….from the West where SDLP lost ground.
Too many people in SDLP have fallen under the spell of “New Labour” type gurus based in Islington-in-Belfast on the Lisburn Road. The ridiculous spectacle of SDLP listening to every voice but its own……..Brian Hayes Fine Gael TD, Joanne  “Ive never really thought about a  united Ireland” Tuffy Labour TD, Mary “Im leaving early to go to a rugby match” Hanafin Fianna Fáil TD, Colin Harvey, Patrick Corrigan, Rev Norman Hamilton, Davey Adams (!!!) and Duncan Morrow…..gets lots of plaudits but no votes.
It merely emphasises that the biggest electoral crime is ……..LOSING.
Sometimes voters let down political parties by not voting for them.
Sometimes political parties let down their supporters by not winning….not providing leadership.
And I say ….in sadness that SDLP has let down its voters.

It would be easy for the “Islington” SDLP aided by the “Islington” media to depict Patsy McGlone as a cracker barrel politician with an unsophisticated accent from the other side of the River Bann.
But that would be to underestimate a dedicated and sophisticated politician.
Ironically the double jobbing thing (she is Westminster MP AND MLA for South Down)provides a dignified way out for Margaret Ritchie. She was just too “cute” on that subject, including for many party members.
Stick to Westminster Margaret.
Its a job for life. And you cant do any harm there. You will be safely anonymous.
This will put pressure on Alastair McDonnell (South Belfast) to do the same and will bring two new SDLP members into paid employment (salaried positions) which will compensate for handing out redundancy notices to staffers in the Policy Department.

So the rumbles have been ongoing since Election Day (at least). And it is the only conversation within SDLP circles. SDLP members have wisely avoided public debate..
I unreservedly state that I hope Patsy McGlone is elected Leader of SDLP.
Its not opportunism.
As Deputy Leader, its his duty.

The nationalist/republican community (like its unionist counterpart) needs “choice”, two electable parties offering leadership.
Like them or loathe them, the SDLP has at least offered leadership to nationalists in the north.
Too prepared to listen to voices outside the Party (not just my usual list of suspects) but spin doctors who have played at a high level and carry a reputation….the SDLP in its current form is embarrassed by the notion of leading nationalism/republicanism.

The consequence is that it is winning plaudits but losing nationalist votes.
The more nationalist votes that SDLP gets, the fewer SF get.
And obviously the unionist community has an interest there.
But its not just about personalities. Its about policy.
And paradoxically nationalist votes can only be won by being (in effect) less attractive to unionists.
The people who always write SDLP obits will state that its already too late.
I dont think so. I only know that my vote is up for grabs in 2015 and that the SDLP failure of leadership will be an issue for me.

In early 2010 Margaret Ritchie defeated McDonnell by 222 votes to 187.
Perhaps some of those who voted for the losing candidate are now convinced by Ritchies eighteen months in charge. I doubt it.
More likely at least 50, 60, 70 people who voted Ritchie regret the decision. She is simply awful.
And will lose a straight fight with Patsy McGlone.
In fact she should probably see the writing on the wall and stand down to avoid humiliation as the Ian Duncan Smith of Norn Iron politics.

She can survive Criticism.
She cant survive Pity or Ridicule.
And even her closest supporters must realise that.
I heard her quoted as saying that she has not heard anyone say that any other leader would do anything DIFFERENTLY.
That may or may not be so………but rest assured Margaret, they would do it a helluva lot BETTER.

Her behaviour in office was at least mixed in early days. Alienating some senior people but at least she showed a degree of ruthlessness that the SDLP had previously lacked and there were positive signs around the 2010 Election.
She made the fatal mistake of paying undue attention to Mandelson-like gurus (not necessarily with an official Party role) and that has cost her.
Likewise she allowed the Party to listen to such diverse voices as Duncan Morrow, Rev Norman Hamilton, Davey Adams (!!!) and got lured into a sense that SDLP was actually going to get rewarded for its “outreach”.
The Poppy nonsense said it all. A better tactic would be to have worn it and drawing attention to it being voluntary and that it should be in the BBC and UTV, where presenters from nationalist/republican backgrounds have no such choice..

But as I recall the 2010 SDLP Conference was held in the Ramada on the first week in November……poppy wearing season (which begins seemingly in September) and I only saw two people wearing poppies that day. One was a journalist and the other was Jim Wells (DUP MLA).
Presumably the 2011 SDLP Conference and possible Leadership Election will be held at the same time in poppy wearing season.
And I daresay some will follow the Leaders example and sights of poppys will be reported. But I doubt if the majority will be so inclined and the “red poppy” will be as iconic and a symbol of failure as the Jacobite “white cockade”.

Gerry Murray, a shrewd observer of SDLP and now designated as “former SDLP member” echoes my own thoughts that people voted SDLP in SPITE of Margaret Ritchie.
She loses votes. She does not gain votes.
Her 2010 Election performance was patchy but many gave her the benefit of the doubt as she was “new”. Her 2011 performance was simply a disaster.
Even if the SDLP had got away with it and survived with 16 seats, the writing was on the wall.
Success breeds Success and Failure breeds Failure.
So votes of 222 to 187 look a bit thin.
I suspect the vast majority of the 187 think they were right.
And I suspect a significant number of the 222 think they got it wrong.
Frankly shes……already in the Past Tense.
But she could get off the hook if the opposition is divided.
With McDonnell intent on standing for Westminster in 2015, he needs the support of the South Belfast branches which are generally pro-Ritchie.
There might be some choreography involved. He stands down as South Belfast MLA to facilitate the rise of an enthusiastic Ritchie supporter (Claire Hanna) into the Assembly. There will be cases of Quid Pro Pro when the Partys constituent parts…….Executive, Parliamentary Party, Councillors Forum, Womens Group, SDLP Youth start choosing sides.
There is all to play for.
And the mood music and optics at the Conference will be important.
Outreach type Conference set pieces? Surely not.
Fringe meetings with the Human Rights Consortium? Surely not.
A novel suggestion might be listening to voices like Brian Feeney and Gerry Murray.

With roughly 400 votes to be won, a lot depends on caucus meetings and informal contact. McDonnell has recently announced his intention to stand but frankly he is too associated with Failure and wont get anything like the 187 votes of last time.
Ritchie wont get 222 and (presuming its a three way contest) it depends who is left as the last two standing. I dont think anyone can win on the first count and second preference votes will be crucial.

Ms Ritchie looks as out of touch as Margaret Thatcher did in 1990. And I just cant see any way that she can win. But her Praetorian Guard has not yet told her that the game is up. Patsy McGlone will be the only candidate West of the Bann and the Derry votes which allegedly went Ritchies way eighteen months ago are certainly in play for him.

A lot of the initial disaffection with Margaret Ritchie started in the Clogher Valley within a week of the May Elections. Ritchie SHOULD have been able to rally the troops in Strangford, where it was reasonably predicted SDLP would pick up a seat. McGlone by contrast rallied the troops successfully in the target seat of West Tyrone.
Increasingly she looks like a creature of a SDLP faction rather than a Leader.

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