SDLP15: A party more committed to its internal divisions than to doing what it needs to do

On The View on Thursday night Alasdair McDonnell finished with a remark that seemed to go somewhat over Mark Caruthers head: I know how to count the votes. What votes, thought Mark. There hasn’t been a vote yet.

That’s Alasdair McDonnell channelling LBJ. Votes matter and Alasdair has made it his business speak to everyone with a vote, directly and in confidence. If he loses today (of even if its incredibly tight), then some of those who said they would will have let him down.

The contest has been incredibly devoid of content. Perhaps that doesn’t matter as much as we tend to think. The last big UUP content settled down to one issue (going into Opposition) and the guy who won the argument against eventually did just that.

McDonnell’s public voice has been notable mostly by its absence. On Monday the Belfast Telegraph carried a rare interview with him by Suzanne Breen.

As Tom Kelly noted on the same day:

In his wake throughout constituencies, which bear his mark, unity is shattered leaving local organisations weakened with pro and anti McDonnell factions. The soul, which unifies the SDLP, is slowly evaporating.

Harsh, but pretty fair. McDonnell has been a bete noir for a sizeable chunk of the party for some considerable time. Arguably the election of Margaret Ritchie was the result of an Anyone But Alasdair campaign by Mark Durkan and others.

He’s not been the only one playing that game. If Colum loses today he may have less to do with him and his considerable communicative skills but the smouldering resentment created by that dry heave just after the May election.

Justin McNulty ran the party’s best campaign in Newry and Armagh for twenty years. But the heavy trashing of his energising campaign by the would be heavers went deep there despite Seamus Mallon coming out for Colum.

The awkward fact is that last great unifying leader of the party was John Hume and Mallon. But that consensus began to rot under Mark Durkan, by far the most able of Hume’s three successors.

Ever since the party has been on an inexorable slide that has been beyond the wit of each of them to slow down never mind stop. The panic this time is because some of those in the comfort zone are getting worried at losing their seats.

McDonnell has speeded up the process of division. It doesn’t help either that he substantially undershot the (hopelessly optimistic) targets he set for the party in last year’s local elections.

There is also now a glaring disparity between the SDLP and its natural demographic. Alasdair is a middle range Babyboomer, that generation which seized control of power and resources and is reluctant to let it go.

Colum on the other hand is right on the tail end of the successor Generation Xers that chunk of the party who have been waiting to get their boots on and take to the field of play but who have been blocked at nearly every opportunity.

Internally McDonnell has fought shy of attacking Eastwood directly. Instead he has focused on his alleged sponsors, allowing him to argue that this is a takeover bid by these older (and in some cases failing) rivals.

That though is to underestimate something Eastwood has McDonnell lacks, ie a voice and a command of the pugilistic art of standing up and taking hold of a public space.

The SDLP is slowly disappearing in its own persistent silence.

McDonnell has done the work he said he would. The poor results arise from his own inability to speak, the passive aggression of a media that will tolerate anything but change, and his own bed-blocking enemies (and some friends) within.

But as Tim Bale told Fianna Fail a few years back as a leader too much focus on some necessary jobs can lose you focus on others which are just as necessary:

– Don’t waste too much time on internal structural reform. Much of this organisational reform stuff, he suggested, was displacement activity, wasting time simply to delay tackling more difficult tasks. The ardfheis spent much of the weekend enacting one member one vote and other organisational rule changes. That’s all well and good, said Bale, but get it done quickly and get on to engagement with the wider electorate.

– Do all possible, visually and verbally, to signal change. The Tories hadn’t gone as far as changing their name but, when Cameron finally came around, they did change their look, tone and started saying and doing new and surprising things. The most important thing Bale said is to communicate that you are changing.

On the morning of Alasdair’s election Patrick Murphy warned that there would be no saving the SDLP: since it was not so much a political party as its own comfort zone. This morning Murphy says it needs a leader of an altogether different hue.

Certainly no Fianna Fail general secretary would permit an outgoing party leader to take one of the few television slots before the election results were actually counted.

Perhaps that is indicative of a party more committed to its internal divisions than doing what it actually needs to do to survive, which is to talk to and address those who don’t currently vote them.

In my humble opinion this was an utterly stupid time to choose a new leader. And there is every possibility that McDonnell is being conveniently scapegoated to cover the sins of the party’s old guard.

But there are more than that old guard quietly backing Eastwood. If he wins, it will in part because people are fed up with this silence. Or as Murphy puts it rather more cruelly…

…by following Sinn Féin’s policies and strategies so closely, your current leader is effectively Gerry Adams. That’s why it would appear reasonable to suggest that you still have the wrong leader.

It remains to be seen if the new (or old) leader and the party can survive a campaign in which the party has rather effectively sold its own weaknesses to the public. His best bet is that perhaps most of them have long ago stopped listening.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty