The new leaders most important question: “What is the SDLP for?

Excellent analysis from Brian Feeney on the dilemma faced by whomever wins the leadership of the SDLP. Whichever way it goes, if the winner does not find an answer to the question of ‘what is the SDLP for, the very first open leadership election in the 39 year old history of the party may be its last:

The technicalities of the election aside, the new leader faces serious problems, the first of which is the average age of party members and elected representatives. The SDLP seems to have frozen about 25 years ago, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Incredibly, Mark Durkan – the outgoing leader at 49 – is their youngest MLA. Margaret Ritchie is 51 and Alasdair McDonnell 60.

Compare David Cameron (43) or Brian Cowen (49). There’s something wrong with a party whose current leader is its youngest MLA.

There are no visible young figures in the party. Yes, they do have a few young councillors, but none has developed a political profile. None is an obvious candidate for stardom.

Finally, policy. What does the SDLP want now that the Good Friday Agreement has been achieved?

They exude an attitude of entitlement and bitterness, forgetting that voters don’t care about past achievements.

The leading figures spend their time attacking Sinn Fein’s policies. When John Hume was leader everyone knew what the SDLP wanted. They were sick hearing him repeating it. What does the new SDLP leader want? Can either McDonnell or Ritchie enunciate a separate identity for the SDLP, look to the future, carve out a path to follow that will not only enthuse members but attract new young recruits?

Failing that, this leadership election will be the last.

For me that’s the bottom line issue for the party, but Feeney touches on important top line conditions in this particular contest:

She [Ritchie] is the safe, establishment candidate. She will rock no boats. She threatens no one in the SDLP.

The same can’t be said for McDonnell who believes some people in the SDLP need threatened. He’s a firm believer that in political parties hot air rises and dead wood floats and that, if there isn’t change, the SDLP will submerge under the weight of that dead wood.

Where will he get his support if Ritchie holds on to the big branches?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty