Opposition not viable where incumbents have a virtual monopoly of voice

Alasadair McDonnell made a couple of decisions yesterday worthy of note, besides that self administered hole in foot that Chris notes. One, was to can the idea that he would be leading his party into opposition. That will disappoint some, but most of them outside the party’s shrinking bounds. Sammy Morse thinks this new realism is a modest turn for the better:

No-one disagrees that the Executive at Stormont is not delivering much in the way of government. Legislation that is remotely contentious is delayed into oblivion by either Sinn Féin or the DUP. This needs to change – but the way to do that is to create that removes disputes from the Executive table and the influence of Special Advisors to a more amenable forum, perhaps a Conciliation Committee in the Assembly, loosely based on the German model, with personnel chosen by the parties for their problem solving and horse-trading capacity.

For all its faults, all-party government has brought us political stability. No major governmental crisis is in view, for the first time since the current system of government was introduced in 1998. I’m genuinely surprised how blasé most of the chattering classes seem to be about this. It’s a major achievement in a deeply divided society.

In any case, Sinn Féin, like the DUP, has a veto on constitutional change and will do for as long as a majority of Nationalists vote for them. At this stage, Sinn Féin regard an all-party Executive as one of the most important elements of our complex architecture of government, and they perceive that Unionist enthusiasm for the politics of government and opposition is a thinly veiled enthusiasm for excluding them from government at the first opportunity. Indeed they probably have a good point on that score.

Quite so. If anything, the so called middle ground parties have been dogged by the deeply unproductive thought that they (and not the actual winners) are the only ones worthy of leading the local administration.

The other decision , to use the next few years to rotate the one ministerial role they have in the bag (Environment), between two or three others is not ideal (as Sammy notes it will likely constitute ‘a recipé for permanent government by the Civil Service’), but it shows an uncharacteristic instinct for survival.

Given the DUP are already doing the same thing, and SF have already ported their best backroom talent to Leinster House, it’s hard to make that one stick to the SDLP alone.

There is a general sense that Alex Attwood has been a good minister. On balance, that may be true. But Mr Attwood also has a major task ahead of him in his constituency if the party is to stand the least chance of retaining their current strength in a Belfast that is likely to lose a quarter of its Assembly seats next time out.

But as Sammy points out, the party’s biggest problem just now is the profound indifference many in the media now feel towards them and their unionist cousins in the UUP. Most commentators are resiling to reporting what the DUP and Sinn Fein (the real nexus of what passes for power in Northern Ireland). That’s democracy.

It’s early days for the McDonnell leadership. But as Sammy says, he won’t get too many more opportunities to talk at length about what a new SDLP might mean in reality. The bottom up approach to rebuilding constituency parties, and encouraging positive candidate selections rather than defensive ones is fine and probably right.

But he will have to give people more positive reasons to reconsider the SDLP as worthy of their vote, if he’s going to stand a chance of effecting a revival. Bleating about MLA pensions, or complaining about worthy fights you’ve already lost does not show the sharpest grip on what makes the electorate’s heart beat faster.

Commentators always look for more than a party can give them. Sammy mentioned schools and the economy as two things the SDLP could take advantage of. The truth is though that far from being ready to take on Sinn Fein on these matters, the party doesn’t really know what it wants or thinks about education or the economy, or indeed the future in general.

McDonnell needs to create some new battlefields that he has a least an outside chance of winning. That will take time, but then again he needs something to leverage him the right kind of public attention.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Part of the problem for the SDLP is that they seem to lack the unity of purpose which would be required to make the most of the weaknesses of their political opponents (Sinn Fein.)

    A focus on schools and economics would require setting out a cohesive vision which differed from that of Sinn Fein. A pro-grammar school voice may prove a winner with an element of northern nationalism, but it is not a stance which the SDLP appear comfortable with.

    Similarly, a centre-right economic platform would likely consolidate the party’s support with a certain demographic, but again that is not what or who the SDLP see themselves as being.

    So we’re left with a bit of a muddle, a party which continues to be defined (by itself and others) more by what ‘they’ are not- ie associates of militant republicans. That was enough to carry the SDLP throughout the conflict; since the mid-90s, it simply hasn’t been enough.

    The irony is that there is plenty of room for another Irish nationalist party at Stormont besides Sinn Fein. But Alasdair needs a game changer to turn round a troubled ship that’s been heading in the one direction for more than a decade.

    If it’s not to be going into Opposition at Stormont, then he’ll have to think of something else.

  • michael-mcivor

    The new s.d.l.p leader is opposed to opposition now- 1 seat at the big table is all it takes to keep them happy- the s.d.l.p choose their new leader well- he will lead them to no seats at the big table after the next election-

  • Chris Donnelly

    Can’t see that happening.

    There will always be a sizeable rump of the nationalist electorate in the north which would remain loyal to the SDLP and deeply hostile to Sinn Fein regardless of the poor leadership provided by the party in the post-Hume/ Mallon era.

    Regaining a second ministerial seat would represent a marginal advance for the SDLP- indeed that was a very realisable objective in the last Assembly election in 2011 and should not be beyond the party in 2015.

  • michael-mcivor


    ” Can’t see that happening. ”

    Maybe not- but one can dream- and jolly boy Allasadair is doing them no favours-

    Still it would be good to see the two Allasdairs without executive seats after 2015 [ Jim Allister being the other one- ]

  • Mick Fealty

    If only for the reason that STV will always invite people to make a second or third choice, there will always be a product that moves outside two monolithic blocs.

    The question is can you be politically relevant enough to be an active primary choice. It’s clear that some important sections of the media believe it’s not. Or they have at least taken the view that they should only be woken up when the party has something important to say.

    Opposition was never going to be a game changer in and of itself. It might yet prove a useful tactical tool, if the trigger is pulled at a time of greatest convenience to the SDLP and least to its opponents. But it’s been so long since the party had to think like that, it’s too soon to judge whether they can find that deeply buried competitive instinct.

    When David Cameron came to his first Conservative conference, he only had one idea: to switch on the sunshine and get his demoralised troops to start looking up rather than down. Now he’s in power with his partner looking like getting a hell of beating in 2015, and Labour looking confused as to why/how they elected a leader few can remember the name of.

    Banal PR messaging you might say; but on some level it has worked (along with a few associated hostages to fortune). We don’t have the skittle alley electoral politics they have in Britain, so if there is a way back for the SDLP it will be hand to hand street battles.

    Yet it cannot be done without some kind of messaging. The ‘we’re not the Shinners’ party is not, as you rightly say, working any more. What Dr McDonnell needs to crunch down to fairly quickly is: 1, find out what those who still vote for them want; and 2, what can the SDLP offer them.

  • RyanAdams

    The SDLP lacked the electoral strength to challenge Sinn Fein at the last election, that or it was just laziness. I live in a predominantly unionist constituency, my door was knocked once, by Sinn Fein of all political parties, who had least chance of gaining a seat at either council or assembly level.

    My brother lives just a few miles away in Carryduff (In South Belfast) in a development off the Saintfield Road. He was canvassed twice, both times by none other than … Sinn Fein.

    That says it all in my opinion. If they want to change their electoral fortunes, they’d be wise to start listening to the concerns of their constituents, rather than pushing one way communication through the letter boxes of the electorate and hoping for the best.

  • cynic2

    “a cohesive vision which differed from that of Sinn Fein”

    ….on economics? What cohesive view have SF one economics? Its one of the areas that brutally exposes their failure to translate from protest to Government

  • Mick Fealty


    That’s where big Als constituency focus matters. The candidate selection in south Down was not far off what the DUP did in E Belfast. Putting in an older, but well established MLA in the rural middle and leaving the MP to cover Downpatrick and a younger councillor candidate to compete for a third seat next time out.

    Not surprised re Carryduff. There was virtually no thought given to constituency management outside Foyle, Mid Ulster and N Antrim. Even then it was chaotic and off piste at times.

    The Strangford candidate could have won if he’d got out of The Ards. But he didn’t. More importantly, the party centrally failed to deploy the necessary resources to get him out there.