The question Ritchie and McGlone must answer: What is the SDLP for?

On Twitter last night Eamonn quoted Martin McGuinness’s quip that the SDLP and the UUs are now the grumpy parties. Certainly his own ‘firm’ has more politicians who pass the fabled beer test than perhaps any other party in Northern Ireland. But I am not sure I would describe the mood at the Slieve Donard last weekend as grumpy. It was, in fact, a party of two quite discernible camps and, by Sunday afternoon, they were both in quite different moods.There were 420 delegates, each of whom cast their votes on behalf of ten other members. I think I heard someone suggest that there were just five people who got away without voting. Unsurprising since they were being watched like hawks by both camps.

It was the party’s first open election, a rare event for any of Northern Ireland’s political parties. And in the case of the SDLP it may prove to have been a kill or cure event.

As well as energizing the party’s activists, it gave younger members jobs and a level of responsibility they would rarely get in the normal run of things. All before a general election in which they are likely to be on the defensive, getting people back on the front foot may prove the difference between getting their three MPs home safely, or not.

The cheers that greeted Margaret Ritchie were pretty ecstatic from those near the front of the hall. Amongst those towards the back the losing team, by contrast, were stunned and silent.

Ritchie’s winning margin was clear enough to be beyond dispute. But it was close enough to raise the possibility that the party’s strength might further diminish through pointless internal politicking over what are for the SDLP right now, utterly inconsequential matters.

In truth, the party is too small to sustain a split. Either a functional or dysfunctional one. The new leadership cannot afford to indulge in abstract differentiation over issues that in the short term have little bearing on the party’s future.

Their scope for further action is pretty limited. But future success depends on two things: winning people back from Sinn Fein; and energising their own stay at home base. Alan in Belfast noted the killer line in Alisdair McDonnell’s speech:

“We have drifted for too long, allowed ourselves to be taken for granted for too long and we have tolerated analysis and further analysis of analysis, in place of action for too long.”

The party’s broadcast from Friday night is a classic case of the nebulous and untranslated ‘overthink’ the party has indulged itself in during the last twelve years which has seen party support decline from 22% to 15% of the vote.

For all that this was a well organised, well managed conference it was, like last year, all about the past. Durkan’s speech was by many accounts the best of his career, but it had people asking why the hell wasn’t he still leading then? It also had the effect of showing up the limitations of the leading contenders.

And most importantly, it robbed Ritchie of the opportunity put what the new SDLP might stand for into the brightly lit, media friendly shop window of the conference. Instead, it raises questions of whether in fact this is a new leadership.

Subsequent events like the manhandling of the party’s first female leader up the stairs at Stormont by her own special advisor on Monday do nothing to subdue such speculation, no matter however unfounded it might be. Margaret must find a way to articulate her own voice beyond those of her no doubt well intentioned advisors and coaches.

So far as I could tell, much of the resentment on the McDonnell side related to the exclusion of their man as Durkan’s deputy. As a Derry Belfast partnership it was as dysfunctional as the relationship between McGuinness and Adams has been a success. That’s a plenary indulgence no party can sustain: least of all one as small and down on its luck as the SDLP.

In Margaret Ritchie and Patsy McGlone, the leadership has passed to two rural politicians, both of whom are much less well known to the party than any of their predecessors: much as you might expect of any party in serious long term decline. Much will depend on their ability to put together a credible fight back.

Ritchie has a good name with unionists for her efforts at outreach and reputation for not shirking a fight, even with the odds stacked against her. McGlone’s inaugural speech as deputy showed a grasp of the need for the kind of simple and positivist narrative which the party desperately needs.

Durkan’s six month long procession into retirement now leaves the new team only a few short months to prepare an agreed message for an April or May Westminster election. After the party conference there are few predictable opportunities for the party to grab the media’s attention in the next few months. Realistically, the Assembly elections next year will be their first big test.

Between now and then, they must keep it simple and talk some honest sense. John Hume, with his single transferable speeches, was a past master of a skill that almost completely deserted his successor.

Although Nationalists generally may not like the way Sinn Fein is treated by unionists, there also is a degree of disgruntlement at the way Sinn Fein have been serially outwitted by the DUP. Three years after being frozen out of the St Andrews Agreement (by SF/DUP), the SDLP are now in a strong position to criticise SF’s abysmal record in Government.

Both factions of the party do agree on one thing. They have been far too nice to their opponents for too long. It remains to be seen whether the fragmentation of the Durkan years continues, or whether the party can coalesce under a renewed nationalist focus.

Above all, they must quit asking rhetorical questions about what the electorate want and provide instead a few coherent and consistent answers on why the SDLP still matters to ordinary people.

Mark Durkan was given a picture of the Craigavon bridge in Derry, which, he quipped on Sunday, was an ‘order’ from the party to go back to Foyle and stay there. That’s good advice. Without an immediate repair to those rapidly degrading internal bridges, the party may gradually disappear in two or three election cycles.

Over the next eighteen months, between them, Ritchie and McGlone have a chance to shape a viable future for the party by making a dignified but focused appeal to the enlightened self interest of the nationalist electorate.

In that task they don’t need any back seat drivers trying to grab the wheel and insisting on taking them back down that obscure bog road they’ve been stuck in for the last twelve years.

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