In Westminster they say being leader of the opposition is the worst job in British politics, if we were to extend the metaphor to Northern Ireland, then being the SDLP leader must be one of the worst jobs in Stormont.
Think about it for a moment, your party has just come out of a leadership contest and electorally you’re down in the dumps. This is Colum Eastwood’s inheritance and the task he faces to turn this ship around.
His first conference as party leader this weekend in Derry will give him a key opportunity for him to spell out his vision and get his party on a war footing for the upcoming Assembly election.
Here are some of things he needs to do;
- Define the SDLP post May 5th– Becoming leader so close to an election provides Eastwood with an opportunity to draw a line under the past and spell out a new direction after the election. He needs to say how the party will be different in its approach to the new Executive and find some semblance of relevance that it desperately lacked during the current term of the Assembly.
- Good Friday Agreement- If you attend SDLP events, you notice the party loves the Good Friday Agreement and their own role in bringing it about. Only problem is that yes whilst this was a solid achievement, the voters rewarded the SDLP for it in 1998, it’s now 2016 and nobody cares anymore. Turn the page on the Good Friday Agreement.
- Sinn Fein-The SDLP’s main opponents in the city of Derry have had their own problems over the last 18 months. Eastwood needs to utilise the confidence of the SDLP’s strong 2015 general election result in the city and show that he is not worried about Martin McGuinness coming to town.
- It isn’t all about the Maiden City- When your leader and the conference are based in the same location, it is easy to fall into the habit of speaking on to its local concerns. However, in Belfast the party is under real threat of losing two seats. If this conference doesn’t do anything but talk about local Derry issues, then Belfast SDLP representatives will get little bounce from it.
- Make them believe- One thing that strikes you about Alliance, DUP and Sinn Fein conferences is how much the delegates believe in the party and its goals. This has at times felt lacking in the SDLP, Eastwood needs to have the delegates leaving with a spring in their step and a belief that this election is a do or die moment for the party, which nobody can afford to sit back and do nothing.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs