SDLP Conference: Change can only come from the bottom up…

Comrade Stalin in the comments under Alan’s makes a reasonable point about the SDLP’s belated talk of opposition, given that party’s rather rigid come-what-may espousal of a settlement that crowds out any oppositionist voice.

Yet this is what happens the democratic world over when parties change their leadership. The change of personnel gives them latitude to change direction. For my part its inclusion in Kelly’s speech was an smart move on their part:

  • One, it’s flying a kite, not policy.
  • Two, it’s not the leader who’s advocating it, so individuals within the party are not yet forced to choose between their own sense of survival and the need to create a space to grow into in the future.
  • Three, it’s keeping any future departure conditional on some as yet unmet aspect of the public interest. This is what was missing from John McCallister’s campaign, which elevated departure to the level of single strand strategy.
  • Four, it allows the parties Councillors, MLAs and MPs to sample reaction from constituents long before any such plan of action is decided upon or abandoned. Think Reg’s premature engagement to the Tories before anyone in his party even knew.

The fact that the issue has made its way from ‘let’s not talk about that right now’ last year to the deputy leader’s speech (with virtually no spoilers in the media) in less than 12 months is, as Alan puts it in his is title, an encouraging sign of life.

Comrade Stalin raises the question of reform:

They are the chief architects of the system of government which among other things severely penalizes those who choose not to participate in the election. This was designed, at the time, to restrain wrecker parties such as the DUP (back then) but it works equally well to exclude anyone else who decides to take their chances.

It is, furthermore, a double irony because the SDLP are here again committing themselves to a refusal to consider reforming the institutions which act to marginalize them.

It’s an important qualifier  to the context at least. But it is not immediately obvious to me that Kelly is knocking reform completely out of the park.  It’s also not apparent what reforms are required, or how one would sustainably build a future coalition with sufficient nationalist ballast to anchor it.

Launching an initiative on reform of the institutions at this point, I would suggest, is neither necessary nor useful. The larger task is to start building a bottom up coalition for change. As Sinn Fein have discovered, the British government is no longer willing just to dump nice stuff in people’s laps.

In the old mantra, if you want change, you’re going to need a mandate for it.

I’m told the leader’s speech will be worth listening to this pm. If only for the sense that he’s got some control over the technology as well as then reigns of his party.

McDonnell may be a dull leader. But perhaps he can bring sufficient stability in order for the party to gather its wits, he may still be able to do it some small service.

FJH has said on his blog that they have had a good autumn. I’d agree with that. I’d only add that it’s been good mostly because they’ve stumbled upon some half decent power plays, like the motion of censure of Nelson McCausland.

I wouldn’t sniff at it however. That’s the difference between a party looking for a fight and one that’s been scared of one for most of the time since the ink dried on the Belfast Agreement.

But to win political battles rather than skirmishes, it needs to pick the particular fights that create the maximal space for future growth. We may or may not get some hints in the leaders.

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  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    Mr Fealty,
    Just about to leave for Armagh.
    The thing about the “O” word is how many times and in what context it is used today…..Alex Attwoods speech perhaps.
    There is a big difference between the institutions themselves and how they are being worked…for example the Bill of Rights, Victims etc.
    It is I am afraid the product of Creative Ambiguity. I have always held the view that this was the big flaw in the Agreement. Each piece of the Agreement is seen as an obstacle to Irish Unity by unionists and each piece seen as a stepping stone by nationalists.
    It might be one or the other. It might be neither. It is not BOTH.
    So Dolores was on very safe ground in saying that for example) there has been no progress on an Irish Language Act….and on safe ground criticising Sinn Féin.
    Kite Flying? Well yes although I prefer the term “preparation for a debate” because 18 months ago my position would have been to go for Opposition. (I was not a Party member then). Since then I have been somewhat convinced that there is no real provision for it. And now I would say I am agnostic.
    Not least because things WILL get worse. Cuts will bite deeply and there is perhaps a need to address that. For example…..an interesting feature of the talk in the bar was that the footfall of constituents needing advice or representation at tribunals has increased dramatically in recent months.
    That has to feed into the thinking.
    And I alluded to “lines in the sand”…….on pre-1998 issues.
    indeed 1970s issues. Back to the Future, if you like.
    The prospect of re-fighting battles already won forty years ago might not be possible in a Grand Coalition. Indeed the spirit of 1998 having already been broken, there is possibly the prospect of it being broken in fact.
    In other words it is a rolling process.
    And going into an election in 2015/16 on an Opposition ticket might be an advantage. Although critics would want to paint it as opportunistic.
    Change from the bottom up? I think so.
    Quite a relief to pick up the Conference Pack and realise that it was very traditional. Motions. Composite Motions, Amendments, on over a dozen issues……..and every voice was a SDLP voice.
    No lectures from outsiders……..Davey Adams, Duncan Morrow, Rev Norman Hamilton, Mary Hanafin, Brian Hayes, Joanne Tuffy….nowhere to be seen. And we are better for it.

    Sooner or later today someone will make a bad joke about “SDLP’s Got Talent” (sorry I cant be more specific) but then let me the first to say ……yes but have they the X Factor?

  • http://www.wordpress.ianjamesparsley.com IJP

    Mick

    You are being unbelievably generous there!

    You are implying there is some sort of strategy to Dolores’ remarks. It is quite evident that there isn’t.

    http://m.newsletter.co.uk/news/headlines/dolores-kelly-rocks-sdlp-with-opposition-call-1-446569

    Let us be clear: this is one faction, presumably led by Dolores, seeking to make it awkward for the McDonnell/Attwood leadership.

    Dolores actually said the party “may lose its soul” by keeping its Executive seat. That is not a “Let’s wait and see” line – yet McDonnell’s response was it is not for the current mandate, nor probably even for the next one.

    What will happen is the SDLP will now split just as the UUP has. Worse still, it will do so not over a matter of policy or competence, but merely over a tactic. If that’s its plan, it’s not a good one!

  • http://fitzjameshorselooksattheworld.wordpress.com/ fitzjameshorse1745

    I dont really know much about splits and defections.
    I think it might rest on the calibre of the people involved and how opportunistic or careerist they are.

  • Mick Fealty

    IJP,

    I’ve to go out now, but i will come back to that later..

  • http://nicentreright.wordpress.com/ Seymour Major

    My main criticism of the SDLP was not the fact that they were the chief architects of the power sharing system, as Comrade points out. Rather, it is the fact that they have neglected the development of policies for further constitutional reform since 1998.

    It is also perfectly clear that past SDLP leaders wanted further reforms to the system at the appropriate time. The following is a passage from a report for the Sunday Times (September 14, 2008) by Liam Clarke following an interview with Mark Durkan.

    “Durkan’s words were measured. He described how the present system of all-party coalition at Stormont had developed with the SDLP’s support, and suggested that it may be nearing the end of its shelf life. In particular, he questioned the tribal system of “community designation” at Stormont which parcels out jobs to politicians on the basis of whether they choose to be nationalists or unionists.

    “The system of designation was necessary because of where we were coming from but should not be necessary where we are going,” Durkan said. “I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed.”

    He said it was necessary to have communal protection for nationalists and unionists, or Protestants and Catholics, while the new institutions bedded in, but that this essentially tribal arrangement should not become permanent. “As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice,” Durkan argued, making the case for a bill of rights to protect against abuses before any changes are made.

    Durkan’s suggestion is for cross-community government with entrenched human rights safeguards, but not necessarily every party in government every time. He pointed to the cumbersome system of checks and balances which have paralysed decision making since devolution. “Protections of rights, interests and identities will still be needed but not only for, or only as, either unionists or nationalists,” he ventured. “

    That was 4 years ago yet only now we are seeing some ‘kite-flying’ about going into opposition.

    At the moment its leadership lacks moral courage. Perhaps it is too much to hope that there will be another John Hume. At the very least, the party needs a leader who is prepared venture outside its operational comfort zone. As was pointed out by Ian Parsley in another thread, the SDLP leader has made it clear that opposition is not part of its party’s mandate.

    In the absence of more substantial development, few are likely to take Kelly’s overtures particularly seriously.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think the SDLP’s mistake here is this unwavering 100% commitment to the GFA. All the other parties including Sinn Féin have abandoned that position and have adopted one which (one way or another) reforms or builds upon what was enacted in 1998. The battle for the principles of the Agreement has been fought and won. There is no need to die on the altar of no compromise.

    Furthermore I have an inherent distrust of any politician who refuses to countenance reform. I think good politicians, right or left, are always reforming – the old adage is that things often have to change a little bit just to stay the same.

    As IJP says, I don’t think this is a friendly joust from Dolores Kelly. The SDLP do infighting and rows like no other party and it is clear elements in the party cannot resist having their bust-ups in public.

    Speaking personally, I’m pretty close to the point where I can think of no reasons to transfer to the SDLP ahead of SF (although the recent attempts to interfere in police investigations count) or the UUP ahead of the DUP. I’m holding out the hope that change will come, as it often does, unexpectedly from somewhere offstage that turns the whole thing upside down.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick,

    There was a typo in my original contribution when I said “amongst other things severely penalizes those who choose not to participate in the election.” – I did of course mean executive rather than election but I assume most people got that.

  • Zig70

    Talk of opposition just says to me ‘preparing to fail’. Rather than lets build up our vote by having policies than people would like to put us in power to see implemented. Opposition seems an easy tag for politicians who can’t think of anything else to grap headlines.
    From the recent US elections were people complained of being phoned 20 times a day to garner a vote to here where the SDLP have never actively asked me for a vote except through circulars and adverts.
    Also the SDLP can’t point a finger at sectarian institutions unless it can figure out a way of being Irish without alienating the moderates with a British/NI culture.
    Otherwise it is just a light version of the of the gargoyls it points at and the perception of that has been part of it’s downfall.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Talk of opposition just says to me ‘preparing to fail’. Rather than lets build up our vote by having policies than people would like to put us in power to see implemented. Opposition seems an easy tag for politicians who can’t think of anything else to grap headlines.

    The SDLPs vote comes from hard work and effort even after a major leadership and organisational change and change in political climate. I vote SDLP because they introduced the Bradley Bill on ASD, they introduced an important hardship fund under … And they have been one of the most outspoken on STEM development, with the most contributions to the Matrix group, with a leadership speech at a major Engineering conference and with the most detailed policies on how to draw research funds from European Framework funds.

    From the recent US elections were people complained of being phoned 20 times a day to garner a vote to here where the SDLP have never actively asked me for a vote except through circulars and adverts.

    Even SF with all its US donations couldn’t fund a campaign to scale as that of the Democrats.

    Also the SDLP can’t point a finger at sectarian institutions unless it can figure out a way of being Irish without alienating the moderates with a British/NI culture.

    A nationality doesn’t make you a moderate, it’s possible to be one nationality and accept another’s. It’s called diplomacy.

    Otherwise it is just a light version of the of the gargoyls it points at and the perception of that has been part of it’s downfall.

    The SDLP lost its own vote while Sinn Féin tapped into a younger generation, now we see an even younger generation in WB and Foyle attracted to neither. They are welcome to join the SDLP and try to change it as Colin Keenan did. Those who never voted SDLP and never would for what it stop for did nothing to cause its so called downfall.