The SDLP’s clearest future is ‘as a social-democratic and labour party’

I recall suggesting to a fairly senior member of the SDLP not 18 months ago that the party had insufficient political capital to squander it on a ‘Fianna Fail versus Irish Labour’ squabble. It was a counsel that, along with much else publicly expounded from this blog, apparently fell on deaf ears.

With which southern party do you want alignment may be a great parlour-game, but for a party in the SDLP’s perilous position, it is the wrong question (at least for now). Robin Wilson, writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph has a much more apposite one, first decide who you are! First he sets the scene, with a lightening recapitulation of the party’s history, which concludes with the following:

…the conservative, nationalistic assumption that all Protestants would always and only be British nationalists (unionists) and all Catholics (Irish ones) could only benefit the ‘republican movement’ of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The SDLP now finds its agenda set and the party divided by the slogans of its two competitors – a ‘united Ireland’ from Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, a ‘shared future’ from Alliance.

And Wilson is clear on where the open ground lies:

Only by investing in a forward- and outward-looking social democracy can the party establish a distinctive and unifying position. Alliance showed with its gains in the Assembly election that a progressive party can advance with a coherent message conveying integrity.

But liberal parties across Europe tend to command only 5%-10% of the vote, whereas social-democratic ones can surpass 20%, 30%, or even 40% at times. Alliance thus matches its potential, but the SDLP under-performs, partly because of its blindness to its potential secular-Protestant support.

Successful social-democratic parties have a core message of social inclusion: ‘Everyone on board’ is the slogan of the Norwegian party in the successful ‘red-red-green’ government there.

Northern Ireland has a huge problem of social marginalisation and only a party committed to social solidarity – including across the sectarian divide – can credibly claim that it can address it.

With all the other parties signed up to a right-wing (and economically ill-founded) ‘race to the bottom’ on corporation tax for the private sector, there is a big space for the SDLP if it supports solutions based on a strong and prosperous public realm.

Secondly, social-democratic parties believe that we are all, in the biblical phrase, ‘members one of another’. With growing disillusionment, reflected in plummeting turnout, with the sectarian policy stand-offs and inertia at Stormont – particularly over education – in the latest Assembly term, there is again a big space for the SDLP to offer a positive, alternative message in favour of a politics of the common good.

It can sponsor a political style in favour of progressive consensus and governance arrangements which sustain equality of citizenship, but favour collective commitment.

With devolution now a stable reality, the SDLP can climb out of the Hume trap on nationalism: in the spirit of the older socialist John Hewitt it can argue concretely for maximum collaboration with our fellow Irishmen and women in a spirit of reconciliation, as if we had a ‘united Ireland’, while simultaneously engaging to our benefit with the devolution and Left-Right divide that characterise contemporary UK politics – as well as, last but not least, taking part in the wider European debate about how we cope with the global economic and ecological crises that affect all our lives.

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

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