SDLP needs a real political debate and not another micromanaged succession…

After last night’s The View it’s hard to know whether to go with MacBeth’s “…art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?” for Durkan, or the Carry on Cleo, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy…” route for Alasdair.

Neither would quite be fair to either man. It’s hard, despite his protestations, to imagine Alasdair lasting for too much longer after Mallon pulled his support. Yet his reluctance to go quietly may provide the party with an opportunity to have a conversation they’ve obviously been avoiding.

These two comprise some of the last of the Baby Boomer generation who set up the party in the early troubles. Now as  their credibility as leaders has largely run their separate courses, the question has to be asked: is this all there is?

It’s easy to forget how precipitous a fall the SDLP’s has been. In 1998 the party was seen as the architects of the Belfast Agreement and picked up the largest first preference vote: 177,963 votes, a 21.97% share and 24 seats.

The flip point came three years later in 2001, when political nationalism was at its height. With Hume still at the helm they garnered 169,865 votes, 21.0% of the share and 3 MPs. A slight drop but, critically, Sinn Fein shimmied ahead.

Under Durkan’s leadership (who took over that November), the party’s appeal dropped like a stone. In the first election after his managed handover to Margaret Ritchie the vote total stood at 16.5%. Five years later it’s at 13.9%.

What’s remarkable about Durkan’s attack is not the attack itself, but the absence of any serious political detail from it. On the record of the last fifteen years, Big Al’s failure at the ballot box is every bit as partial Durkan’s.

Durkan’s wake up call was in 2004 with the loss of the third seat in the European Parliament. 18 months of hard grind later he secured his own Westminster seat and at the first opportunity renewed the party’s Foyle Assembly team.

That has stood Durkan in good stead for today. One of the few candidates at MLA level who is not tainted directly or indirectly with the post Belfast Agreement failings of the party is Colum Eastwood.

But this renewal process was restricted to Foyle. Durkan’s failure to bring wider reform and renewal convinced McDonnell to press for the opportunity to make the party a much less comfortable place for time servers.

The need to document the differential performances of the various players before the spin stepped in is what drove me to that micro analysis of the SDLP’s performance in this election.

The lack of any serious political difference is what’s striking. That’s partly the poor choices facing them, but it’s also a result of a culture of avoidance. As I noted back in 2009

…political leaders who try to engineer their own succession (and, presumably, what they see as their inheritance) are almost certainly condemning their party to a long lingering illness, if not downright fatality.

Examples abound. There was John Major after Margaret Thatcher, then Brian Cowen after Bertie Ahern, and even Peter Robinson after Ian Paisley.

None of the planned successions prospered because none was in a position to make a decisive break with their own personal mythology (despite better intentions); nor, indeed, to create their own separate vision of the future.

If the SDLP has a future (and that is a very big IF) then it is at least time for the vendettas and future blocking to end. To quote Blair’s recent intervention, the question that matters is not just the who, but the why and then the how?

At a time when Sinn Fein has come under pressure, and people exiting that quarter are looking for somewhere to go politically, the SDLP’s front door has a big sign on it saying ‘not open for business’.

They need a big fat row where uncomfortable truths about the party’s stubborn persistence in following failed strategies are raised and aired.

Did it really all just end with that massive vote of approval in 1998, and everyone is afraid to say it out loud that the party is over?

Durkan’s nostrum on the technical threats of the Tory plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights has all the popular appeal of McDonnell’s request for more powers for a Stormont that’s rapidly falling into public disrepute.

Good politicians keep their eye on the public mood and seek out principled ways to represent electors through all the shifts and changes. The People may well be the bastards of the old political proverb. But generally they’re not wrong.

Just getting rid of Big Al (and ignoring the things he did passably well) won’t help if they just have another micromanaged succession.

What comes next? Just keep watching this space…

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  • Robin Keogh

    Will ya stop going on about the bloomin SDLP and give us ur thoughts on the other parties after the election, pronto ! 🙂

  • mickfealty

    I will, I will, I will… But I thought this was worth stopping the roll for, could be the beginning of the actual end here…

  • mjh

    This isn’t the beginning of the end. Even IF the end does eventually come, the SDLP, left to its own devices, would probably soldier on for at least four or five more electoral cycles. The electoral system makes very long lingering declines much more likely than sudden collapses.

    A quicker end would require some sudden and massive external shock.

    I’m not even convinced any more that the SDLP should attempt to find a new strategy or sense of purpose. The attempt may well cause it at least as much damage as its gentle decline is doing. And in the somewhat unlikely event that some faction with a clear vision did manage to take control of the party the cost might well be a split followed by a more rapid exodus of voters.

    Perhaps the best course could be for it to keep muddling through in the hope that its bigger rival loses favour with the electorate. Over the course of the next 10 to 20 years who knows what electoral reverses Sinn Fein may endure.

  • Ernekid

    The SDLP need to figure out what they are.

    Are they a Civic Nationalist party campaigning for Irish Unity?
    If so they need a strategy for that. Do they want to run in elections in the South? do they want an pact with the Irish Labour Party or Fine Gael? Do they have a strategy for cross border cooperation and unity?

    Are they a Social Democratic Party?
    If so they need a strategy for that. Do they oppose Austerity? Do they have an alternative economic strategy for Northern Ireland? Will they work with the Conservatives and their neoliberal agenda?

    Are they a cross community party that wants to transform Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide?
    If so they need a strategy for that.
    How do they hope to attract the support of liberal unionists? How will they tackle sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland? How will they accommodate competing visions and cultural views in Northern Ireland?

    Do they want to be all of the above? Can they be? Do they have any idea how to achieve these goals?

    Personally I think any hope for the SDLP left with Conall McDevitt. He was starting to articulate a new approach for constitutional nationalism that could have been a game changer in the long run. The party has become totally moribund under McDonnell. I’m not sure if it can recover.

  • Gopher

    Everyone knows what the SDLP are. A Middleclass, Nationalist Catholic Conservative Party playing at being socialists.

    Take this latest coup attempt, there is nothing of substance to it. Its simply East v West. East thinks its being held back by the west while Alliance prospers in the City and commuter belt. West thinks its being held back against SF by Townies. . Quite simply they are both wrong.

  • Ernekid

    But they are failing to attract the support of Middle Class Catholics. Many MCCs have switched to SF or Alliance or voted Unionist tactically or more likely haven’t bothered to turn out and vote as the SDLP doesn’t appeal to them anymore.

  • Gopher

    Probably the best solution, if Andy Burnham wins Labour will likely set up here

  • Gopher

    The Eastern Seaboard and commuter belt has moved on quite a bit in the last 20 years, the SDLP has not. Dont think they are losing many Middle Class Catholics to SF anymore.

  • Sliothar

    As an outsider looking in, it’s very hard to determine exactly what the SDLP stands for at the moment and what they have to offer the RCN electorate. Being anti-SF just isn’t good enough. Their policies or what passes for them, like their leader, are tired, middle class and, it seems to me – in a clear departure from their secular social democratic roots – reflect a VERY Catholic and Church-led ethos – especially in relation to same-sex marriage and the FFA issue. Once they were seen as a leftish mirror of Fianna Fail or Irish Labour; now they are to the right of Fine Gael.
    Mick, on another thread, lauded McDonnell’s bringing in new blood. Which is fair enough if the new blood has vigour and a clear new view of how to inspire and motivate both inside and outside the party faithful. If, however, the new blood is brought in – or parachuted in, as in the case of Feargal McKinney – merely to ape the leader’s opinions, well, that ain’t gonna work from the get-go.

    McDonnell, although he retained his seat, was dreadful in the lead-up to the election. He was painfully embarassing on the now (in)famous interview on Radio 4 (Y’know, y’know, y’know) and chickened out completely on the Leaders’ Debate. A diversion has emerged that he can lead the party from Westminster. B*ll*x! He’s never, or very rarely, there in the first place. He is now the story and, as such, the end for him is inevitable. A leader in name only, he has to go to save the SDLP.

    As a South Belfast voter, he didn’t get my vote this time although I have voted for him in the past – nor will he in any future election. His time is up

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Why does the future of the SDLP rest on the fortunes of Sinn Fein? The SDLP once had vision and that vision had popular support. It needs to reconnect with the electorate rather than rest on dwindling support.

  • rapunsell

    the distinctiveness of the sdlp was its anti violence stance, but if they’ve not done so already the electorate are forgetting or happy to ignore SF previous support for violence. that distinctiveness is no longer an advantage. So the sdlp needs a new distinctiveness – that can only come from leaving the executive and starting to play an effective opposition role in the assembly and articulating new policy positions.

  • Robin Keogh

    The SDLP are going nowhere, they will shake themselves up and get out there for the ass elections. The upcoming debate on eu membership is NOT the time to implode. Its an excellent opportunity to shine.

  • submariner

    I agree Ernekid the SDLP has lost its appeal to many voters like me who always voted for them. The loss of Conal McDevitt was a hammer blow as he was a natural leader in waiting who i feel could have modernised the SDLP and made it appealing to a new generation of younger voters.

  • Ernekid

    Whoever is going to be the new leader needs to courageous and that means taking the party out of the Executive. What does the party gain from the Environment ministry? What can they point to and say we did that and please their base?

    They gain nothing from being the fifth wheel on the DUP-Sinn Fein bus. If they went into opposition they could at least have a principled position to criticise the DUP and Sinn Feins many screw ups in government.

  • Ernekid

    They’ve lost out to Sinn Fein West of the Bann in Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry. Sinn Fein MLAs tend to have a strong constituency presence and are well practiced at operating the parish pump in more rural areas. They have Shaked enough hands at GAA grounds to guarantee their reelection next year. I’m not sure the same can be said about the few remaining SDLP rural and north western MLAs.

  • mickfealty

    I wouldn’t knock Fearghal too hard. The other man from the Telly did alright with the switch…

  • Gopher

    Seven of the SDLP’s Assembly seats are in the “West” , Two are in the Palatinate of South Down, One in a Marcher Castle on the Bann and Four are in Belfast. Belfast will soon have one. This is about jobs not politics like they say in the Godfather its buisiness. The Eastern Empire is about to fall and the “West” want to prosper where time stands still. Those seven are going to want to keep their lucrative jobs.

  • Gopher

    I see The Marcher Castle on the Upper Bann has decided they are part of the Western Empire. Its obviously about leadership not losing 1000 votes in a secterian headcount on the Bann and falling dangerously under quota. Who will the Palatinate of South Down back or will they wisely stay out of it?

  • disqus_JmCoqa6yB8

    I agree with Ernekid that Conall McDevitt brought a fresh dynamic to the SDLP leadership and Stormont. The SDLP are not ‘totally finished’ but they are sinking Titanic style if ‘big Al’ stays there will be a fight for whatever political lifeboats that are left.

  • tmitch57

    Agreed, but this is neither simple nor easy. It is not simple because of the structure of the GFA there is not really a role for an opposition. If one is created–a big if considering the power of the ruling duopoly–it might be designed so that BOTH a unionist and a nationalist opposition party have to together replace the ruling duopoly. This means that the SDLP would have to form an opposition alliance with the UUP or at least Alliance or the Greens. It is not easy because in order to go into opposition the SDLP would have to give up its d’Hondt share of departments in the Executive.

  • tmitch57

    “Are they a cross community party that wants to transform Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide?”

    They made a play at being this in the 1970s but this question was settled once and for all when John Hume took over as leader. Gerry Fitt was forced out of the party for being insufficiently nationalist.

    “Are they a Social Democratic Party?”

    See above.

    “Are they a Civic Nationalist party campaigning for Irish Unity?”

    Yes, but as you point out they have no real strategy to accomplish this–neither does SF but never mind they have the whiff of cordite about them.

    The SDLP is primarily a party of practicing Catholics and middle-class nationalists. It has a large enough electorate to survive in the Assembly and in local councils where they are elected by PR-STV. But in Westminster elections they are at a disadvantage vis a vis SF and may in the near future lose their seats in South Belfast and/or South Down but appear to have a safe seat in Foyle. The South Belfast seat will probably be lost to unionists rather than to Sinn Fein.

  • tmitch57

    I think that you are right about the franchise system being important if not determinate. In Britain the Liberals became irrelevant once the Labour Party surpassed them. They remained irrelevant until a split in the Labour Party produced the Social Democrats, who then failed as an independent third party and then were forced to merge with the Liberals to become the Lib Dems. Now it is a question if the Lib Dems can survive as a viable party in England and Scotland. In the United States the (American) Whig Party collapsed over a two-year period and were replaced by the Republican Party.

    In Israel, which has a PR-List system, the Israeli Labor Party was overtaken by the Likud in 1977 and remained competitive for two decades until 2001. In 2015 Labor was again defeated in Knesset elections, but showed considerable improvement over more recent elections. The problem is that the PR-STV franchise is used in relatively few countries, so there isn’t as much of a basis for comparison. It is also a compromise between FPTP and the PR-List system. If Irish Labour continues to linger on for another decade this should give hope to the SDLP. The SDLP can also take some comfort from the recent performance of the UUP, which after a five-year break went from having zero MPs directly to having two.

  • tmitch57

    The Titanic sank in about two hours; the SDLP has been sinking for about 17 years.

  • Gopher

    I see the senate has backed Caesar. Will the Lords of the West now call their banners?