It’s dark in the large room hosting the SDLP conference. So dark, that I can’t see my laptop’s keyboard. Delegates are seated around circular tables – wedding style – in the Shaws Bridge Ramada Hotel. The tables at the front are pretty empty, while delegates loiter around the back wall like teenagers at a youth club. There’s a general spirit of disinterestedness amongst some delegates this evening – the leadership is dominating everyone’s thinking.
The illumination is dull, and so too are the debates. Standing Order 3 is being enforced, so “if a representative of the organisation tabling a motion is not available to propose the motion, conference will move to next business”. This has resulted in several motions being skipped, including one by the Coleraine branch that “condemns the decision to defer the upgrading of the Derry-Belfast railway”. Perhaps they were stuck on the train! In one of the most spirited contributions of the evening so far, P.A. McLaughlin suggests from the podium that Translink know ‘Eff All’ about trains.
Earlier Declan O’Loan was as subltle as a mathematician when he criticised the set of health motions that were being debated tonight. They weren’t up to the standard he would expect from a party that was serious about being in “overall charge of the agenda”. He broadly supported the McKinsey report.
Clearly a health section of any political conference should be a major occasion. Standing as I am now outside the Assembly, I can look at a conference schedule with some detachment. I set a fairly high bar when I look at a conference agenda as to whether it reflects a serious political party that really is ready and able an active part of government. And for a start I think we should be seeing a far more active debate on the area of health that we are seeing.
When I look at the conference motions right across the schedule, and with particular reference to health, I think we should see a set of motions that indicate a comprehensive analysis of in this case the health agenda and the party that’s up for it and shows that it’s in overall charge of the agenda …
But when I look at the suite of motions that are provided here, I don’t they’re fully up to the act of what we need.
If we are going to be up to the act of being in government, if we are going to claim our right to more votes from people which will give us more representatives in the Assembly, which will gives ourselves more ministers at the Executive table, then we’ve got to be able to deliver properly across that agenda, show that we’re capable of delivering properly, and I don’t think the range of motions that are here or how we’re debating them are actually living up to that.
That’s the test I put before the conference. That’s the test that incidentally I put before any leader …
The four party leader delegates have stalls beside the conference registration desk. McGlone and McDevitt supporters are wearing branded T-shirts. Some candidates have recycled their election posters and erected them on the roads leading towards the hotel. Few people will confidently predict who will be named leader at 5pm on Saturday.
Before the last hustings event, there’s talk that that if Conall isn’t eliminated first, he may pick up a lot of second preference votes. However, Patsy still seems to be the candidate to beat. Alex’s vote has been growing during the numerous campaign events and some reckon he’s been the most impressive at the hustings, though stealing votes from Conall rather than Patsy or McDonnell.
The seats and tables within the hall are littered with literature to encourage delegates to vote various party members onto the SDLP’s executive. While some have opted for hand-folded leaflets, others have gone for professional printing of postcards. All very serious.
There aren’t any pop divas in sight. Margaret Ritchie arrived in the hall just before the 9pm hustings. She’ll speak briefly around 3.30pm on Saturday afternoon. The new leader will speak at Sunday lunchtime, in time for the Politics Show to cover it.
Patsy McGlone is up first with five minutes to make his opening remarks. He starts in Irish, welcoming the delegates. McGlone invites the delegates to “start the journey of uniting the island”. He welcomes the conversations that have happened as part of the hustings and leadership campaign. He explains that he joined the SDLP as a result of listening to Hume and Mallon. He talks about grass roots politics, and the party being under pressure. “Friends, I offer you here this evening as the candidate who can unify our party, unify our community and set us on a path to unify our island.”
Conall McDevvit says it’s not just been a campaign about the future of the party, but of a particular type of politics. He name checks Hume too, and says that our health service is an English model being applied to an Irish nation. “We may have stability at Stormont, but with it has come a terrible stinking stagnation.” He says the party needs to reform and unite, the representatives need to work as one, and members need to take the big decisions. “We need to seek to take to the highways of this island. We need to [rebuild] a good relationship with the Irish Government [and Irish political parties]”. He quotes Martin Luther King “the fierce urgency of now” and calls on delegates to make a brave decision and vote for him as leader.
Alex Attwood is introduced as the party’s minister. He reflects on the new politics emerging across the island, and says that the SDLP should be leading the new politics in the north. [laptop crashed about this point!] Attwood very clearly and quickly outlined the four planks of his leadership pitch. He said that tests facing the party would be many and would come thick and fast. “My message is very simple, we can shape the future as we shaped the politics of the past. He says he is the candidate with “proven leadership”.
Alasdair McDonnell welcomed the conference to his constituency where he had won a Westminster seat in a “staunchly unionist” constituency. “The decisions you make this weekend will be whether the party survives … or dies in the political margins”. He says the campaign was not about Alasdair McDonnell or about gimmicks. “We need more votes in ballot boxes so we can pursue our valuable ideas.” His voice starts to raise. “What we’re short of my friends are votes. Nobody’s going to listen to us if we don’t have votes.” He reminds delegates that he urged this strategy two years ago and that votes have been lost in the meantime. Voting for him will make us relevant again to lead in the re-emerging political debate in this island”. In a smart move, McDonnell praises an aspect of each of his competitors as he outlines what his own collective leadership approach would mean, also drawing in Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan for praise. He is the only speaker who gets applause during his speech, when he says the others have woven his ideas into their manifestos.
Following the opening statements, old and new media were evicted from the room. Of the 350 or so voting delegates, less than half are reckoned to have been in the hall. Around 90 votes had been cast before the hustings started.