I should start by declaring an interest. You all know that I am a member of SDLP and more so I first joined SDLP in 1973 and while I voted Sinn Féin from 1993 thru to 2009, I am at heart SDLP “gene pool” and really “socialist, republican, nationalist” says it all.
What you may not know is that just over a year ago, I applied (stop sniggering at the back) to be a SDLP Press Officer. As well as having a degree in History and Politics, a dissertation (supervised by Sidney Elliott) on electoral politics in West Belfast 1964-2007, a knowledge of SDLP that exceeds Wikipedia and not least, a pretty darn good blog, while independently minded is the only one that is actually supportive of SDLP. Throw in (I daresay) thousands of pro-SDLP comments on the likes of Slugger O’Toole (not friendly territory for SDLP) and I might have had reasonable expectations of making my case at an interview with SDLP. Alas not….YOU dear Reader might actually think that this Blog is pretty damned good…but the people in SDLP who drew up the shortlist aren’t nearly as enthusiastic as you are.
Let me emphasise …NOBODY who pays a £10 annual subscription, who attends some fundraisers and pays £20 for an Annual Conference “pack” is entitled to a paid post in a political party. That’s not actually the point I am making. The point is I might have had a reasonable shot at being short-listed.
Of course, a crazy person does the same thing twice and expects a different result on the second occasion. Being a certified lunatic, I applied to be Policy Officer with SDLP. Last week I received their “Dear John…….Thanks but no thanks” letter. Again I am not short-listed.
With respect to the person (my money is on a 15 year old PhD) who gets the job , SDLP Policy Officer is a piece of piss. Just write one word DECENCY…on a manifesto and you have the SDLP in a nutshell. The SDLP are simply more decent than Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party.
The SDLP are decent to an almost unreasonable extent…except of course with each other and their friends. That’s how it is. Born in the heat of battle and with a serious commitment to Peace and Justice, SDLP notoriously don’t get on with each other (although I would qualify this by saying that this is not necessarily the case at grass roots level).
It is no great secret that there is some animosity at the highest levels in the Party.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the Leader is allegedly prickly. He lost the Leadership race to Margaret Ritchie in 2010, largely as a result of a”Stop Al” campaign. That should have been the end of the matter except for the fact that Margaret Ritchie was an unmitigated disaster her leadership saw SDLP lose two Assembly seats(down to 14) and saw Alliance (8 Assembly seats) overtake SDLP as the third Party in terms of Executive seats.
Ritchie had to go. And in November 2011 the “Stop Al” people had rallied behind Conall McDevitt but McDonnell won the Leadership. Already a man in his sixties, it could reasonably be anticipated that Conall (around forty) would succeed him. Indeed I think the period of the next eighteen months was marked by Alasdair addressing some organisational issues and Conall settling down as the “SDLP Dauphin” who would become Leader in a few years. Certainly that was my honest observation and I certainly sensed relief that things were very civilised.
I think that Conall’s sudden resignation from politics in August 2013 changed everything. It seemed to stun his supporters in the Party and left the “anti Al” faction leaderless with no obvious candidate to succeed a Leader to whom they had never warmed. Dolores Kelly the Deputy Leader is 55 years old. So is Alex Attwood.
If Attwood is to become Leader, it is less likely to as a consequence of Alasdair succeeding as a Leader an retiring in glory. Logically it is more likely if Alasdair is pushed.
But why would he be pushed? Well his detractors might say that the Council Elections in May 2014 were bad for SDLP. But most reasonable people say they were bad for nationalists and good for Apathy.
The stark facts are that notionally SDLP lost just one seat. Sinn Féin lost ten seats and Alliance (from a much lower base) lost two seats. The fall in first preference vote share was mitigated by being transfer friendly. In truth, the Council results do not give comfort to either faction. The loss of one seat hardly proves the pro or anti Alasdair stance.
So where does that leave the people who make no secret of their distaste for the Party Leader?
Well it is a bit awkward for them.
I think most would analyse that SDLP will lose the South Belfast seat at Westminster next year. The Party Leaders seat. Alliance will be strong, a likely unionist agreed candidate and self publicist, O’Muilleoir for Sinn Féin should all mean that SDLP lose out. The mainstream party may not be so forgiving if they thought any votes were lost thru stabbing Alasdair in the back. Ironically in the unlikely event of Alasdair holding South Belfast, he would have to resign as MLA at Stormont and the Leadership. It would also mean the South Belfast members co-opting a new MLA. And that could be interesting. A likely consequence of Alasdair losing his Westminster seat is that he and Fearghal McKinney are Assembly candidates in 2016. Of course the only way his opponents can address that is to launch a challenge for Leadership at the Party Conference in 2015 but whether those most identified with being anti-McDonnell benefit is another question. Colum Eastwood might be a better option.
If there is a dream ticket Attwood and Eastwood, Who would be the Leader? Good question and it might hinge on the Party choosing the least troublesome path.
But all this cant be SEEN to be about Personality. There has to be an issue.
The issue is Opposition. Should the SDLP leave the five party coalition government and go into Opposition. Well the great problem with the Stormont institutions is that there is no constitutional place for Opposition. If the SDLP goe into Opposition, there is no support structure, no government money to finance an Office of Opposition. Staff will lose out. Yet it seems that these difficulties can be overcome. Where there is a will…there is a way.
For what its worth, I believe SDLP should have gone into Opposition in May 2011.
The Assembly Election produced 92,000 votes and 14 seats for SDLP…51,000 votes for Alliance and 8 seats. Yet the LetsGetAlongerists operating in a narrow base in suburban Belfast took two Executive seats and the SDLP just one Executive seat.
Since then DUP and Sinn Féin, aided and abetted by Alliance and a friendly media have sought to marginalise SDLP and UUP (also on one Executive seat).
I emphasise that was the point SDLP should have said that they wanted to part of the gerrymander.
It is an odd coincidence that we have coalition government at Westminster (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) and in Dublin (Fine Gael and Labour). Conventional wisdom says that in order to survive …the Lib Dems and Labour need to distance themselves from unpopular governments and re-connect with their core supporters. Surely before the 2016 Assembly Election and the current carve up being seen as a carve up and a farce, one or more of the smaller parties will jump ship and try to find the high moral ground. Frankly the party (SDLP, UUP or Alliance) who jumps first has a lot to gain.
Alasdair McDonnell is broadly in support of staying in Government. Those lining up against him are pro-Opposition. This is a position which has strong advocates in South-West Belfast. But there is at least two ironies. First of all Alex Attwood is not exactly in a good position to lead calls for Opposition. His position has to be nuanced,not least because he was Minister for the Environment from 2011 to 2013. It seems a bit contradictory to be pro-Opposition now. Dolores Kelly might be a better choice to call for an “internal party debate” with all options on the table.
SDLP meet in Conference in just three weeks time. Dolores delivers her Deputy Leader speech on the Friday night. Alasdair makes his Leadership speech on Saturday afternoon. The body language and standing ovations should be as interesting as anything actually said.
But the pro-Opposition faction have another problem. The current five-party coalition arrangement was deemed alright by SDLP when they had the lions share of nationalist votes and influence. They have to deal with the point that it is not just sour grapes. They can make the valid point that DUP-SF and their Alliance puppets have abused the system. But they might take notice of the fact that some of those retired party leaders, now loudly advocating Opposition got it wrong in the years after 1998.
They must be honest about the performance of SDLP Ministers in the first coalition. They ned to honest with the Party that the Party Leadership since 1998 has been poor (Mark Durkan is the only one I would not criticise). The SDLP needs to stop blaming the British and Irish governments for being too anxious to transfer real power to DUP and Sinn Féin.
So is all lost for SDLP? No. The May Elections basically stopped the rot. But there are warning signs. Realistically the only Election that matters is The Assembly Election. There are contradictory messages.
The starting point is fourteen seats. On the evidence of May, the third SDLP seat in Derry, the second seat in South Belfast, the North Belfast seat and West Belfast seat are vulnerable. The Election might give the SDLP just ten seeats. But Fermanagh-South Tyronðe is likely to be regained and there were positive signs in South Antrim, Newry-Armagh and South Down. Far too early to write off SDLP on worst case scenarios. Attwood will hold West Belfast, Nichola Mallon currently starring as Mayor of Belfast should take North Belfast and Derry …the third aeat is marginal.
The second seat in South Belfast will probably be lost. And an irony here. South Belfast is very much divided into pro and anti McDonnell factions. They may not like it but they need each other.
Really its not about POLICY.
Policy is the space between POLITICAL ETHOS and ELECTORAL POLITICS.
The SDLP has a good ethos and it needs to translate that ethos into a manifesto. It also needs to tell the people that SDLP represent best…the disadvantaged, the low paid, the public sector workers, migrants…that SDLP NEEDS and DESERVES their votes. The Trade Union leaders, Victims Support Groups need to get off the fence and involve themselves.
The SDLP, especially the Youth Group need to start thinking clearly and avoid grandiose statements calling for big social change on esoteric matters. DONT ROCK THE BOAT!?
So best wishes to the new SDLP Policy Officer.
Clearly he or she is better at this game than I am.
But alas…my own political career is behind me.