Local press reflect on SDLP conference, support for McDonnell, abortion & other NI leaders

The Belfast Telegraph published the results of their straw poll survey of 50 delegates at the SDLP party conference on Saturday. When walking through the exhibition space outside the main hall I declined the opportunity offered to answer the interviewer’s questions.

SDLP 2014 conf delegates - should McDonnell lead SDLP into 2016 Assembly election32% of surveyed delegates did not want Alasdair McDonnell to lead the SDLP into the 2016 Assembly election. And only 36% positively did want him to, leaving 32% undecided (or unwilling to express an opinion). From the mood of delegates at the last two SDLP conferences, and conversations with elected representatives and ordinary members, the low level of support for Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership does not surprise me.

Gerry Moriarty sums up the dilemma well in his Irish Times piece this morning.

There’s a sizeable rump in the SDLP which believes that this time next year the party will have a new leader … The Westminster general election is coming in May and right now nobody in the party is seriously thinking of pulling an Ed Miliband stunt by suggesting he should stand down ahead of that poll. “That would be stupid and counterproductive – the last thing we need going into an election,” said one senior rebel.

So, they’ll wait. They will kick into the election campaign presenting a united front and sometime thereafter they’ll attempt a velvet coup, they say. “We’re hoping for transition rather than expulsion,” said one senior player.

The Irish Times’ northern editor went on:

However, apart from some of the leadership speculation taking place on the margins, the conference was all rather flat … In the main conference room there was a sense of demoralisation and almost helplessness. How all the Maíria Cahill publicity has not damaged Sinn Féin was also adding to the dejection.

… overall it’s a muddle. At the conference no one had a clear idea of how fortunes might improve.

Behind the Irish News paywall, columnist Tom Kelly remembered the ‘old’ Alasdair McDonald, the one who “was bursting with energy, a pioneer of cross-community projects with Reg Empey when they were a pariah” before going on to describe him as “a default choice” of leader, “the least offensive option”.

Three years ago in the same Ramada Hotel hall, the SDLP held hustings between the four men standing to replace Margaret Ritchie, announced the results of the election, and witnessed Alasdair McDonnell’s unfortunate moment in the spotlight.

The results of that leadership election should be noted. Eight delegates (in green) wanted anyone but Alasdair McDonnell. The MLA who this weekend looked most like a party leader – Alex Attwood – came last … perhaps with too many enemies made during political battles to ever get him over the line. If there’s an orderly succession, will a party grandee take over temporarily before a younger leader breaks through the grey ceiling?

Voting and transfers at SDLP leaders poll November 2011

Tom Kelly also picked up “sectional lobby groups” who “pepper SDLP policies with trendy issues”.

The problem for the SDLP is that there is no electoral benefit for the party in letting them drive the SDLP agenda. It’s like decorative icing on a Christmas cake, nice to pick off but not the substance of what you are eating.

He also commented on Mairia Cahill’s presence at Saturday’s conference saying that it “may have appealed to the conscience of the party by doing the right thing but it seemed like voyeuristic window dressing”. Tom Kelly finished:

There seems to be an over reliance on the use of tactics as a substitute for strategy and there’s certainly a need for consistency between the policy and actions of the SDLP in office. The Chines military strategist Sin Tzu [sic] said that “tactics without strategy is merely the noise before defeat”.

SDLP 2014 conf delegates - should abortion laws be relaxedOne policy in which the SDLP are not taking a lead from lobbying organisations like Amnesty International is abortion.

Health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney told the News Letter in October 2014 that the party remained “fundamentally opposed to any extension of the 1967 act to Northern Ireland” (even in the case of fatal foetal abnormality).

But that’s not the view of a majority of the delegates surveyed for the Belfast Telegraph, 54% of whom supported a relaxation of abortion laws “to make it easier to obtain an abortion”.

BelTel 17Nov2014 front pageOne final curiosity from the Belfast Telegraph survey. Which leaders in NI did the SDLP delegates trust the most and the least?

David Ford and John McCallister topped the poll with 64% trusting them, with Stephen Agnew on 58%. At the other end of the scale, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were not trusted by 88% of those surveyed. PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton will probably be pleased with his middle-of-the-road rating.

SDLP 2014 conf delegates - how much did delegates trust other NI leaders

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Alastair McDonnell is not liked -( by his own party )-
    Alastair McDonnell loses South Belfast he will also lose the SDLP crown-

    ” How all the Mairia Cahill publicity has not damaged Sinn Fein was adding to the dejection “-

    The Stoops will be further dejected when they lose more votes next year and get less transfers in 2016-Vote days will see them pay-

  • LucidTalk

    Alan – It was a Belfast Telegraph survey. LucidTalk audited and authenticated the results so the Belfast Telegraph could say it was independently verified. This is normal practice. NB It was a survey not a poll, as it was a small sample of a pre-determined small audience, but with the response No. of 50, it is still mathematically representative of the SDLP conference to an error of less than +/-3%. NB You should have been asked if you were a delegate to the conference if you were approached to be part of the survey, as these were the instructions the interviewers were working to.

  • Colin Lamont

    I think McDonnell is ok for his seat. The only scenario I can see him losing is if Anna stands, if Mairtin stands and if a unity candidate is agreed. As a betting man that’s too many ifs.
    Despite being a unionist I almost want him to win the seat again. I respect his principled stand against pacts even though one would really help his cause.

  • Perhaps the first formal question after “can I ask you some questions” would have checked that …

    I’ve amended the wording to make it read like a BelTel survey rather than a LT one. I’d credited you with a bigger role given the paper’s “in association with LT” phrase …

  • LucidTalk

    Thanks Alan, it’s not a big issue! It’s officially a Belfast Telegraph survey supported and audited by LucidTalk. The questions are collated by the Bel. Tel. and we design the process. That’s why I say that the first question you should have been asked, if you were approached to take part in the survey, was ‘Are you an SDLP member attending today’s conference’? – Only ‘Yes’ answers to this should have been included in the survey.

  • Bryan Magee

    I think the Belfast Telegraph is just being a tad unfair on both the SDLP and the party’s leader.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    His principled stand- the SDLP stood aside for the IRA H-block leader in the Fermanagh South Tyrone by election in 81- When Vol Bobby Sands died the Brits made a law saying Prisoners were not able to stand for elections-so another by election was called in which the SDLP also stood aside and a supporter of the 5 demands got elected-the SDLP have a fond history of not taking part in all areas in all elections-

  • mjh

    Sorry Alan, but the survey’s leadership question tells us nothing reliable about the delegates views on Alasdair McDonnell.

    In normal circumstances the question “Should A McD lead the SDLP into the 2016 Assembly Election?” would be perfectly valid one. It is a standard formulation because it is simple and (normally) unambiguous. It also permits comparison with other parties when the same question is used.

    However the delegates will have been perfectly aware that if McDonnell is re-elected to Westminster he will have to stand down from the Assembly. Logically any delegate who believes (a) that McDonnell will be re-elected and (b) that the party should be led from within the Assembly, would have to answer “No” to the question – whether they are happy with McDonnell’s leadership or not.

    Under the circumstances it would have been much better if the question had been something like “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with AMcD as leader of the SDLP?”

  • Morpheus

    The wording of questions has been key in a few of the most recent BT polls but then again they say they are a campaigning paper so not necessarily objective and impartial.

  • Like your analysis – pity the other questions weren’t also asked!

  • Ian James Parsley

    It’s not true to say that someone who is “fundamentally opposed” to extension of the 1967 Act is opposed to abortion in the case of foetal abnormality (in all cases).

    I am opposed to extension of the 1967 Act, for the somewhat complex reason that the way the Act has been interpreted has led to a culture of “abortion on demand” (which was not the Act’s intention, actually).

    However, I am very much in favour of clarification along the lines currently proposed by the Department of Justice (and thus of abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormality).

    One of the difficulties with the abortion, alongside the genuine issues of conscience and emotion involved, is that it is not remotely binary.

    Anyway, back to the SDLP…

  • Brian Walker

    On trust the obvious conclusion is that the SDLP should cooperate
    with nice Mr Ford of Alliance – in the Assembly anyway. It’s a no brainer, honestly.
    . Anyone outside the sauna would tell you that. But sadly I see no sign of open thinking in the usual
    range of slick tactical comment, all so very IN and so very WEE. Unless parties elected by PR openly form
    alliances they are likely to hang on but won’t progress. The big lesson is that
    this applies even in elite-formed , top -down mandatory coalitions like the one
    we have .

    You really do have to start pitching to voters with something new.
    You can’t keep going on like this, nor can you blame only SF and DUP.

    To be fair
    to the SDLP from what I’ve read in Slugger and elsewhere, the party is groping
    towards positive positions but fuzzily and without making a wider appeal with a
    clearer message. And of course they need willing partners. Open up guys!

  • Bryan Magee

    I am actually not so worried. The SDLP if anything have quite a clear position. It’s a progressive left of centre party that is in favour of Irish unity. That’s a clear position and a lot can be done with that type of politics. It has a broad reach. Yes there is work to do in attracting people, but there is nothing wrong with the basic position of the SDLP.

  • Guest

    audited and authenticated by whom?

  • Kevin Breslin

    If I had attended conference David Ford would be lower down than Peter Robinson, Peter Robinson didn’t call the Saville Inquiry pointless.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The conference isn’t necessarily representative of the SDLP electorate. If you take 50 out of say 100,000 grassroots voters your standard error becomes exponentially bigger.

  • LucidTalk

    The survey questions were designed by, and the interviewers were recruited by, the Belfast Telegraph. When all the interviews were completed, LucidTalk then independently verified the results, and calculated the overall total results. This is normal process for surveys at ‘live’ events i.e. an independent 3rd party audits and authenticates the results etc.

  • LucidTalk

    Your point is absolutely correct – But the survey wasn’t meant to be representative of the SDLP electorate. As it says above, it was meant to be representative of the SDLP conference, made up of the ‘active’ SDLP members. The membership of any political party, and its grassroots voters, are two entirely different things!

  • Liam Clarke

    Whaty other questions?

  • Liam Clarke

    Bill Checks the figures for us. That is why it is in association with LuckidTal;k.
    Just to be clear the document with the polling quesiton given to each student is headed “INSTRUCTIONS: Ask and make sure each person you survey is an SDLP party member” in bold. I’d be surprised if they did not follow that instruction. Perhaps if you had agreed to do the survey you would have been asked at that point.

    The paper also described the methodology – this was printed under the results:-

    “The survey of 50 party members was carried out on Saturday, November 15 at the SDLP conference in Belfast in association with LucidTalk polling.

    Interviews were conducted by Meadhbh Brennan and Ryan Flynn, both of whom are studying Journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College.”

    This is 50 delegates at a conference, a large sample of activists attending the gathereirng. It has to be completed in two or three hours so it can’t be too ambitious or involved. It is, in my view, larger than a straw poll which is usually a few people being asked questions as they go out the door and, unlike those medai straw opolls, it is a fiarly large sample which produces precentages.

  • Liam Clarke

    The question was to find out if delegates wanted Alasdair McDonnell to lead them past the next Assembly eleciton, not if he was popular as such. He could lead from outside the Assembly as Gerry Adams leads Sinn Fein from the Dail and as it is likely the DUP will be led from Westminster next time. There is notihng confusing about this and I did mention in the copy that he would probably have had more takers to lead into the Westminster election. We’ll be asking the same question in relation to Peter Robinson at the DUP conference.

  • mjh

    Clearly SF activists are happy that their party leader is not a member of the Assembly. The activists of other parties may well feel differently. If the BT intends to ask the question at the DUP conference it might like to consider something in two parts along the following lines:

    1) “If Peter Robinson is elected as a Westminster MP in 2015 should he lead the DUP into the 2016 Assembly Election?”
    2) “If he is not elected as a Westminster MP in 2015 should he lead the DUP into the 2016 Assembly Election?”

    That would have the benefit of giving a clear answer, and also indicating how success or failure in 2015 might effect his position.

  • aor26

    S.D.L.P delegates place more trust in Jim ‘the DUP are too moderate’ Allister and the useless ‘Orange Card’ playing Tory Theresa Villiers than the leader of the largest nationalist party, Martin McGuinness!!!

    It’s not a bit of wonder that several months ago Adams’ said he had no faith in the S.D.L.P. I concur with Adams

  • Bryan Magee

    So Adams – Mr Honesty – has no faith in the SDLP. LOL.

  • tmitch57

    And the candidate originally chosen by the party to contest the seat was scathing about the SDLP’s decision not to contest the seat in his memoirs. Considering how both parts of the Republican Movement treated the SDLP in the decades since I think he has a very valid point.

  • mjh’s other questions looking at the difference between support for May 2015, May 2016 (if not returned to Westminster0, May 2016 (if returned to Westminster) … though I appreciate it can only ever be a short survey!

  • Liam Clarke

    PR woin’t stand for Westminster again. Few would really want a leader who wasn’t inovlved in a major scandal to leave this close to the May 2015 lectiojn, betweeen then and May 2016 was the window we wanted to hear about and we wanted to know what people wanted in the present cirumstances

  • Liam Clarke

    You have a point Alan but we kept it to one quesiton on leadership and the crucial one seemed to be about once the Westminster election was over.

  • aor26

    It seems he does not. And neither do I. And neither do the majority of those from a Nationalist background who vote. 28% of SDLP delegates asked placed trust in Jim ‘pander to the loyalist flegger lunatics’ Allister. 14 % could not work out if they had an opinion on Ulster’s greatest snarling bigot.