Two days ago the SDLP ventured West of the Bann to Dungannon for the launch of their manifesto for the 2016 Assembly election.
The party was pledging a radical and ambitious plan for the next five years and this is the first opportunity that the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood has to stamp his policy direction on the party.
The full 49 page document is available here for you to read, but here are some of the key bits I found interesting.
The first thing that strikes the reader is the number of images of Colum Eastwood. Whilst in the past the SDLP has had to down play their leaders, this time they have done the opposite and really placed an emphasis on their leadership team. Another thing was the youthful candidates displayed throughout, which is another departure for the party.
The first section of the document talks about Colum’s theme of Progressive Nationalism. This section talks about the need to make Northern Ireland work and trots out some of the greatest hits with proposals such as presidential voting rights for the North and representation in the Seanad.
They also have a proposal on establishing a commission on building a framework for unity. This will comprise members of the SDLP and non members. However, we are not told how long the commission will be in post for and just exactly how many will be on it.
The SDLP propose a greater emphasis on STEM subjects and want to see the building of an academy for Technology and Coding during the next Assembly mandate.
They also support streamlining the public sector, however they are critical of the redundancy scheme arguing that through prudent management savings could be achieved.
The party also repeats its commitment for the devolution of Corporation Tax arguing that it can provide an opportunity for local businesses to expand and attract new foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland.
The SDLP proposes changes to how we build social housing and wants to mandate social housing providers to promote and develop shared housing.
The party proposes that this new system will encourage land They also want to take a broader view and want to see new shared housing as the centre of the development of shared services in the areas of schools, health and everything in between.
The party also propose a housing task force to consider measures of achieving a greater mix of housing in the private and occupied sectors.
This part of the manifesto hits out at the DUP/Sinn Fein model of shared education as not going far enough. Under the SDLP’s proposals school children in shared institutions will wear the same school uniforms, use the same facilities and be taught by the same teachers. The party argues that the current model maintains segregation and division in our society.
A big news story last week and this issue regularly came up during the last Assembly mandate and undoubtedly will be an issue that the next Health /Justice Minister will have to deal with in the next term.
However, the SDLP are not for turning on their current policy but will engage on a new cross party group on ministerial guidelines.
Mention is made of reforming the Petition of Concern and restoring it to its original purpose of protecting minority rights. However, no mention is made of just how this is to be done and what the SDLP specifically will do to change it.
There are other proposals such as the Transparency Bill which could led to the recall of an MLA if they have been found to be in breach of rules.
Overall, the party had pledged some big spending commitments on housing, reduction of fees and healthcare. Yet, I was wondering throughout how the party pays for all of this and I did not notice any new taxes being proposed or any rise in rates to pay for new spending.
To be fair to the SDLP, the DUP manifesto was equally not costed and had ambitious plans for new spending. The lack of any costing or mention of any tax reforms, got me thinking that this is something that an opposition party would propose. Populist in nature, critical of the status quo but essentially something to be proposed from the opposition benches, rather than implemented in government.
The focus on the leader throughout shows that they feel after a few months in the job he is a real asset to their campaign. They also have some new faces to showcase which is clear throughout the document and gives it a freshness that has been lacking the past.