The SDLP elects its fifth leader this coming weekend, with four male candidates in the running (the deputy leadership has been filled, without contest, by a woman). Since 1998, when the party topped the first preference tallies for the first Assembly election, the SDLP has lost votes and seats at almost every election cycle (the one exception being a sliver of a gain at the last European election) and now runs consistently 10% behind Sinn Féin, whereas twenty years ago it was the other way round. Margaret Ritchie, elected leader in early 2010, did not reverse the trend, and announced in the summer that she would not be a candidate for the leadership at this month’s conference. The new leader faces quite a challenge.
I vaguely know all four candidates. Patsy McGlone (52) is the outgoing Deputy Leader, the only candidate based outside Belfast, representing Mid Ulster in the Assembly. Alasdair McDonnell (62), the previous Deputy Leader who lost the 2010 vote, is the MP for South Belfast, the only one of the three SDLP MPs who has not held the leadership of the party, and also represents South Belfast in the Assembly. Alex Attwood (52), who represents West Belfast in the Assembly, is the party’s only minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, responsible for the Environment portfolio. Conall McDevitt (39), the other MLA for South Belfast, is a former party staffer and rising media star though he has only been in the Assembly since 2010.
I have never been an SDLP member and I am not an SDLP supporter, and in any case I live in Belgium so my views are of limited relevance to the party delegates making up their minds this weekend. I certainly won’t presume to judge the candidates on their political vision. I am, however, interested both in political communications using the internet, and in the detail of party organisation, and here I think I have enough data to rank the candidates fairly objectively in terms of their performance on the first and their credibility on the second. So I have duly done so.
Use of the Internet
Probably the last thing I did in Northern Irish politics as a participant rather than an analyst was to manage the website for one of the candidates in the last Alliance Party leadership election, back in 2001. (He won, by 86 votes to 45, though I cannot claim that the excellence of his website was a crucial factor.) Today, quite apart from websites, politicians have the options of Twitter and Facebook open to them. How do the SDLP contenders rank?
4) Alex Attwood has no personal website, no twitter account and appears to be invisible on Facebook. The http://www.alexattwood.com site belongs to a composer of incidental music for films and TV. There is a fake (and frankly not very funny) Twitter account for him at @AlexAttwood. As with McDonnell, I got his manifesto after phoning his office to see if they could send it to me.
3) Alasdair McDonnell‘s website is curiously silent about his leadership aspirations, and as with Attwood I had to phone his office to get his manifesto. But unlike Attwood he has a Facebook page and is vigorous on Twitter.
2) Not long ago I would have easily ranked Conall McDevitt first on performance in this area, with almost twice as many friends on Facebook as the other candidates combined and a vigorous Twitterpresence. However, like McDonnell, his website is curiously silent about his leadership, his manifesto being available online at Scribd. (He subsequently sent me a separate paper about internal organisation.) His facebook page has two blog addresses, one of which is defunct and the other last updated in early 2009. So he loses points for failure to update and integrate.
1) Patsy McGlone has a dedicated website featuring his leadership manifesto at http://www.patsymcglone.com/, as well as being on Facebook and Twitter. I cannot quite give him full marks though; although his campaign materials are easy to access, look nice and are well produced, they were not adequately proofed before publishing and a number of misprints have survived to the final version.
I don’t think anyone should take the above ranking as the sole criterion for judging between the candidates, but it may just shift the balance between two who may be otherwise equally ranked.
Edited to add: I have been informed that some websites are constrained from referring to their owner’s leadership campaigns. That may well be so; I can only report on the impression I get of joined-up campaigning.
Internal organisation and campaigning
I was the Alliance Party’s Director of Elections / Political organiser for three years in the 1990s, and then spent two years in the Balkans training local political activists on party organisation and campaigning strategy (where I probably learned more from teaching than I had by doing). I don’t know if improved internal organisation alone will be enough to help the SDLP reverse its slumping performance; but I doubt very much that such a reversal can be achieved otherwise. In fairness, all of the candidates realise this, and all but McGlone (as far as I know) have put out separate manifesto documents on this point alone. Again, I found it pretty easy to rank the candidates rather objectively on the strength of their proposals in this area.
4) Alex Attwood‘s short paper (four pages, one of which is the cover sheet) on “Taking the SDLP Organisation Forward” starts off by demanding loyalty and discipline from members, and asking that “the Leader and Deputy Leader must have the authority to lead”. I’m not quite sure what this all refers to but it sends an odd message, a bit of Das Volk hat das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt. He too wants to convene elected representatives regularly, and to move quickly to select candidates as soon as the party leadership has been given the new powers he wants (the document is curiously full of timelines). He praises the performance of his rivals in Mid Ulster and South Belfast in growing the party. I must say that would incline me to vote for a leadership candidate from Mid Ulster and South Belfast.
3) Conall McDevitt sent me a detailed twelve-page paper with the title: “Uniting the SDLP: My Plan For Renewing Our Organisation” which I find a considerable improvement on the statements in his manifesto. In particular, two ideas to which I objected in the manifesto are redrafted more sensibly here, in terms of building SDLP support groups in the Republic – “we will, of course, be focussed on growing our organisation in the North, particularly in those constituencies where we have suffered major decline” – and delivering a new party constitution, which is now to be drafted by a working group. I still don’t see how a smaller Executive is going to be better at engaging the grass-roots, but that may not matter. As well as convening elected members and the Central Council regularly, and discounted membership fees, he also proposes early selection of candidates, training and performance monitoring for prospective candidates, and a permanent election directorate. I am not sure if performance monitoring for prospective candidates is such a good idea – sounds like this is a reference to problems that I don’t know about – and I find the plans really a bit sketchy and managerialist, but they are closer to being in the right direction than Attwood’s.
2) Patsy McGlone has some much more specific ideas about rebuilding the party through cooperation between leadership and membership. He wants each candidate to have endorsements from two non-party groups, which may not be implementable but would be interesting to try. He aims to have a functioning branch in every District Electoral Area, which I think is unrealistic but not a bad aspiration. I liked his proposals on this when I first read them; although they could be more coherent (and should have been better proof-read) they are a good set of ideas for party reformers to work with.
1) I had not expected to come to this conclusion, but Alasdair McDonnell has by far the best set of proposals on rebuilding the party. In a six-page leaflet with the title “Decline Stops Now”, he starts at the top by promising to appoint a collective leadership with clearly defined roles, and then goes on to describe a “battle ready SDLP”. If I were voting, he would have secured my support with the last two sentences of this section, “Where we have no current MLA or councillor there will always be a clearly designated and supported SDLP representative with recognised party status. As a top priority this will be implemented in the four Antrim constituencies, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Strangford.” This seems to me more realistic than McGlone’s aspiration for a functioning branch in every DEA. He tells the truth about the state of activism in the party: “There is a handful of active branches, usually built around a successful representative, others which are being valiantly carried by a few hard-working individuals, and many which hardly ever meet.” And he promises a special conference on party organisation, as well as further thoughts on membership structures and fund-raising. I also like his line that “we should socialise together more”. McDonnell gets it right on tone, analysis, and ways and means of finding a solution.
SDLP delegates will of course be taking at least two other considerations into account as they cast their votes – the resonance of each candidate’s political vision with their own, and the personal chamistry of each candidate. I am not well placed to judge on either of those questions. But the question of fixing the party’s structures is, operationally, the most important problem for the SDLP today, and based on what I have seen from the candidates themselves, Alasdair McDonnell has the best ideas of how to do that.
(Many thanks to Mick for inviting me to repost this piece on Slugger.)
Husband, father of three, Irish, European, UK, Belgian citizen, liberal, political analyst, science fiction fan, psephologist, lapsed medievalist, aspiring polyglot.