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.