You’re the leader of the SDLP, your party was once the dominant force within nationalism, your predecessor was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and you have just led your party to its worst ever Europen and Local government result. This is the baggage that Alasdair McDonnell walks into his conference with on Friday.
There are enough people about the place pointing out where the SDLP has gotten it wrong and whether they have a future or not, but I want to focus on what McDonnell needs to do at this conference to help bring the party back from the brink.
Here are my three simple steps that I think can make a real difference;
1) Define a post-Good Friday Agreement vision-Nothing sets a persons eyes rolling more than when you hear an SDLP politician talk about the Good Friday Agreement and how the SDLP delivered it. But, what they haven’t figured out yet is that the general public thanked the SDLP for that at the 1998 Assembly Election and politics is actually about what have you done for me lately. They need to stop talking about the Agreement and pitch what they are actually about in the here and now.
2) Opposition-Like the UUP, the SDLP need a coherent policy on opposition. When you go to one of these party conferences and are struggling for a story, just got and find a stray Cllr or MLA and ask about opposition and hey presto you’ve got some copy. McDonnell needs to nip this in the bud and set out a process for the SDLP to leave the Executive. As I heard him speak on the Sunday Politics, I couldn’t get the suicide scene from Hook out of my head where the Captain proclaims loudly
There’s no stopping me this time Smee…This is it Smee, don’t you dare try to stop me this time…Smee try to stop me
McDonnell is a bit like this with opposition, he threatens it, gets to the stage where he might do it, but looks around to find somebody to stop him. Either commit to the Executive and say no opposition, or pull out.
3) Get clear blue water between SDLP & Sinn Fein-The debacle over things like the SPAD Bill and the voting against the budget, whilst staying in the Executive merely puts the SDLP in the same bracket as Sinn Fein in most cases. Those who do vote, see no difference and where they see Sinn Fein in a confident manner, people are more likely to support them. For those who don’t vote, they just sit at home because they don’t see the SDLP are a strong alternative. This is key, for every 10 votes the SDLP have lost, just three 3 have gone to Sinn Fein, the rest are staying at home. McDonnell needs to get their backsides off the sofa and to the polling station.
None of this is easy, but the SDLP cannot afford to lose any more ground. I have always held the view that once the SDLP hit 10 seats or below then it is game over for the party as a major force. This conference will be important and we just have to wait 6 days to see if McDonnell is up to the task.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs