A few weeks ago, I renewed my SDLP membership for 2015. Yes, late in the year, but that way I was able to canvass for Naomi Long in May and not feel conflicting loyalties. A little pharisaic, I know, but it worked for my conscience! Seriously though, I don’t think changing loyalties should really be that surprising in this political climate. Voting or campaigning for a progressive voice has always been most important to me, and that has sometimes meant different parties at different times.
I’ll admit that my membership renewal wasn’t with much enthusiasm, but then I haven’t been an active member for a while –my last branch meeting was years ago. No doubt my lack of effort is a contributing factor in my lack of enthusiasm, but added to that, the whole political ship has sailed into the doldrums; nobody has a master plan, in fact, to go further with the sailing metaphor, does anybody really know where we are right now?
I’ve been reflecting on what made me, someone from a moderate unionist background, sign up to the SDLP to begin with, somewhere around the year 2000. In doing so, I’ve had to consider if those reasons still hold.
It certainly wasn’t about nationalism. By that time in my life, my 27 year old self had seen quite enough violence to settle for peace in whatever form we could get it. In other places I’ve talked about having both a British and Irish sense of identity, neither of which are dependent on the border staying or going.
I joined for several reasons. Firstly, it was a party of social democracy; put simply, government works fairly for the good of as many as possible and, where possible, nobody gets left behind. Secondly, the SDLP is a labour party, sister party to the Labour Party. Yes, I know several of you have now scrolled to the bottom of the screen to take issue with this in the comments section, but the SDLP is a left of centre party, thus reflecting my own politics both then and now.
If I’m completely honest, I was probably also attracted to the party because of its size and prestige. There were 24 MLAs back in 2000; it was the party of Hume and Mallon whose intellectual and political capabilities made an impression on me. They had vision; they weren’t just muddling through day to day, they had a sense of where we needed to go.
While I have much affection for the Alliance Party, at that time it was smaller, less significant and, to me at least, had less dynamism. It certainly didn’t have a Hume. But there was one more factor, somewhere in my early twenties I had come to a conscious decision not to live solely in one community, but rather to intentionally seek to be in places where I would hear different narratives. There were two parties with much in common, and I chose the one that better represented me, but also offered a greater range of voices.
I filled in a form and posted it off (I’ve no idea where I picked it up from to begin with), and it wasn’t long before Carmel Hanna was on the phone to invite me to a branch meeting. I really can’t remember the first night, but I’m sure I was nervous. I had no previous experience of party politics and no real idea what I was getting into. It wasn’t long, however, before I began to enjoy the debates within the branch. I don’t know what people think goes on at a party meeting, but the one thing that dominated was policy. Not nationalism, not cunning plans for a united Ireland, but how to make Northern Ireland work under the new arrangements. Yes, it stalled and there was much discussion about what would happen next, but if you were to look back at branch minutes you’d see meetings were dominated by local government issues. Sometimes we invited guest speakers; Ivan Cooper stands out in my memory, as does Anne Tanney, principal of Holy Cross Girls.
After a while I became involved in other committees beyond the branch, Belfast District Executive committee, the party’s Policy Committee. I grew to enjoy canvassing and the camaraderie of election campaigns. I still do, and I intend to be involved again in May. I looked forward to conference, and in this wider contact with the party I came across a few other ‘Prods’. (In 2004 Billy Leonard, another SDLP ‘Prod’ and Coleraine councillor had just defected to join Sinn Fein. I was at conference later that year chatting to yet another ‘Prod’ who leaned toward me conspiratorially and said, “After Billy Leonard, I don’t trust any of them!”)
Not that I went looking; I wasn’t particularly interested in who was what because it was never about one background or another. I sometimes came at an issue from a different perspective, but then I wasn’t the only one, the SDLP is a broad church. I met many people who had been members of the UK Labour Party and had transferred, or were from NI but had joined the party because it was a labour party. I’m well aware that my experience of the party was Belfast-centric, which may well be very different to other parts of the country, but the perception of the party as conservative and Catholic, was never how I thought of it. Yes, more often than not the membership were Catholic, but what dominated discussion was policy and political strategy, where, in my perception, the party has been progressive. The SDLP has opposed academic selection at eleven since the early seventies, and while the specific date escapes me, I was present at the debate which saw support for civil partnerships become party policy, probably around ten years ago. It was hotly contested, but carried by a clear majority (and I was pleased that the SDLP MLAs’ votes finally reflected that policy last Monday).
In time, circumstances changed, my involvement lessened and I drifted away from regular party meetings, though I have canvassed for specific candidates at election time. Maybe if I had more time on my hands I’d leap back in again, but as I said at the outset, the party doesn’t excite me right now; it has struggled to find a clear voice post Hume. Hume was Hume, a one off who also had immense authority from the times he had lived through. It’s a hard task to find a replacement when the context changes. Mark Durkan is probably the nicest man in politics; honest, humble, intelligent and articulate, but he faced an uphill battle to bring order to a disorganised party. Alasdair McDonnell has undoubted organisational abilities and boundless energy, but can’t articulate a message. For that reason I ran against Alasdair in the Westminster selection convention back in 2005. I didn’t think for one minute that I would win, (and the result wasn’t close!) but I wanted the opportunity to articulate something in a way that Alasdair couldn’t. I still feel that way. I don’t say this easily, but the party needs better. Again and again when I mention the SDLP, the question I’m most asked is, what does the party stand for? There’s a reason people ask that question.
Personally, I would like the party to be known for social democracy and labour values first, and nationalism second, if it has to be there at all. I genuinely don’t care because the next local government election isn’t a referendum (although many parties will attempt to make it into one.) That’s a big ask for the SDLP however, because nationalism is something that many of its voters do care about, but if there are electoral gains to be made, it surely has to come from the almost 45% of people who didn’t vote at the last assembly election. That’s a hard group to motivate however. While some people genuinely struggle to find someone to vote for, many just can’t be bothered at all and behave as if their day to day lives are completely unaffected by local government!
Getting a share of that vote will be a tricky act to pull off; being a progressive party is tough in NI when so much of what is debated is tit-for-tat knuckle-head stuff. Progressive representatives are too often dragged into green vs orange debates they care little about. Often, to be heard on our many debate shows (tv or radio) you have to talk loudly and fight for air; the minute you do, you sound like everyone else. Tone then cancels out a more positive message, and we could really do with more positivity right now.
There is still a place for a left of centre, social democratic voice. It needs to be different; dynamic and imaginative. The north needs a vision of where we’re going, as well as the political skill to navigate out of the water we’re in.
It seems clear to me that the SDLP’s next leader should be Colum Eastwood. I’ve never met him, I really don’t know much about him, but he is articulate, and he seems genuine. Yes, I know that many of you are already thinking, what about that coffin? But I have respect for anyone who says “I was there to carry the coffin of somebody I knew very well. What kind of peace process is it if we can’t reach across the divide?” I think we should be less concerned about the coffin, and more interested in his desire to put a relationship first.
Is he the person to clear up the question about what the party stands for? Maybe. We’ll see. I’m hopeful.