I was not at yesterday’s SDLP Annual Conference in Derry. In spite of my absence…or because of it…it was by all accounts , a success.
Staging the Conference in March was a success. Assembly Elections and the fixed term British Elections take place in May…so changing the date of any Party Conference from early winter to spring makes sense. Having the Party Conference in the SDLP “spiritual home” Derry was a good move and staging it in a “hall” rather than a pricey hotel made even more sense.
I tend to see this Conference as a two parter. The launch of the SDLP manifesto in a few weeks is the second part. At that stage more detail will be added to the agenda sketched out yesterday.
To some extent, it was a non-conference. Nobody had any thought other than the Leaders Speech…again a format change…delivering it after 8pm rather than after lunch. To a degree, the series of warm up panel discussions on Heath, Education, Crime etc were time-fillers…albeit important ones…as Party spokespersons stepped up to the podium. A further marking of the changing of the guard as candidates like Daniel McCrossan, Nichola Mallon and Sinead Bradley had another chance of playing in the first team…and important in the context of this being an event just ahead of an Election Campaign.
The Party is clearly in good form. There is nothing artificial about the way SDLP feels at the moment. The Party takes heart from a fairly diverse group of candidates, including at least one who is openly gay and one from a unionist background. People born outside Norn Iron are now added to the gene pool and they are not bound by our political history or political language. And in the rank and file, there are defections from Sinn Féin, Greens and Labour NI…and it is a reasonable assumption that if SDLP can take members from other parties, it can certainly take votes from other parties….and of course those who dontvote at all.
How many votes?. Well…that is a very big question. But as I recall SDLP lost out on the final seat in seven constituencies in 2011 and a relatively few votes is required in (say) Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The big push is already underway to get people on the electoral register and getting postal votes organised. New members are a good sign…but actually the re-engagement of “friends of the Party” at social events seems a much more promising sign. Indeed my wife…a passive SDLP voter for over thirty years (much more consistent than me) has become very interested in Politics lately.
So….the Speech. If you are interested enough to read this Blog, you probably saw the Speech on TV or at least are familiar with the content.
For all their qualities, Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell always seemed ill at rase when making the Leader’s Speech. Members were clearly wishing Colum Eastwood well and flanked by the Party’s candidates, he delivered a speech that was well crafted and fluent. Ticked all the right boxes….Europe, Housing, Health, Education.
He spelt out the SDLP position for after the Election. Going into government depends on a programme for government to which the Party can sign up. Going into Opposition is a realistic alternative.
Good soundbites “we will not be raising our children for export”, “three into two wont go”, “Gerry-Come-Latelys”, “…we have your backs” (support for migrants) and the obligatory quotes from John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney.
And an emphasis on the Future rather than the Past. Sometimes old dinosaurs like me …need to realise that it is more about the Future than the Past …and get on board the train, knowing full well that I will never arrive at the destination.
I cant condemn my children and grandchildren to live in a God-forsaken “No-Mans-Land”, half-loving and half-hating the place where I have lived all my life.
So….Colum Eastwood is Leader for four months and he has spent that time within the Party. We are now seven weeks away from an Election.
Most SDLP people will say “Bring it on!”