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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