The Day That I joined The SDLP…They Stopped Listening To Me

I like Dawn Purvis. I have met her twice now and found her extremely pleasant.

Some might regard her previous membership of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) as baggage…because of its perceived links to the UVF. The real point is that Dawn Purvis has made a journey. I have made a journey. I like politicians who have made a journey and do not have much time for bloggers/blaggers who do not acknowledge the fact that many politicians have made a journey.

Dawn succeeded the late David Ervine as the PUPs only Stormont MLA in 2007. She split from the party in the summer of 2010 over its UVF connexion. She lost her East Belfast seat in the Assembly Election of 2011. I think that is a great pity.

Part of my own journey has been to re-evaluate Dawn Purvis. In the later stages of the Peace Process, she was a figure….”the woman” standing behind Ervine and Billy Hutchinson. Ervine is much celebrated as a major contributor to the Peace Process….an articulate……even verbose man, who was a marked contrast to the rather sinister men around him.

On his death, Dawn succeeded him…….and at that stage of my own journey, I would have tended to dismiss Dawn Purvis as a politician out of her depth. Dawn (who is from the loyalist lower Ormeau area of the city) is not unlike many women from republican Falls Road. Already an adult, she took a degree in Politics and Womens Studies at Queens University Belfast…itself my old stomping ground.

For those of us of a working class background, QUB can be …a problem. Our social ring of no confidence can hold us back. Many of the professors are decent enough people who probably neither know or care about our backgrounds………and yes some despise us………….but theres a few who adopt us as a project. I think this happens to women. A bit like Professor Higgins adopted Elisa Doolittle as his project.

My impression circa 2007 …..and I am probably totally wrong …is that Dawn Purvis would be such an educated Rita. My revised opinion (2010-2011) is that Dawn is not for adoption or patronising by Belfasts academic or journalistic (or blogging?) elite. She is very much her own woman and blossomed in Stormont and blossomed further after leaving the PUP.

Her own research into the way young working class Protestants are left behind by the education system is her legacy.

But I was a little taken aback that Dawn was a guest of the SDLP in South Belfast last night. I should not have been surprised. It is not about her baggage or even mine. And Dawn is certainly left of centre. I cant imagine a bigger asset to the SDLP than Dawn Purvis.

But of course the SDLPs position as the only local party affiliated to mainstream European Socialist Parties such as the British Labour Party and the Irish Labour Party is not ……enough. The SDLP believes in Irish unity and many “Protestants” who lean leftward are uncomfortable with that and they have no real political home. The biggest losers are the Protestant working class. All unionist parties are conservative. All nationalist parties (SDLP and Sinn Féin) are socialist.

Some call for “normal” politics…..but frankly thats not likely or desirable. By “normal”, people mea “normal British politics” where people vote Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat. A homogenous Norn Iron. But a homogenous Norn Iron is a Bristish Norn Iron. Of no interest to me.

It follows that leftward leaning “Protestants” cant be seen to endorse the SDLP even though SDLP might be natural allies in terms of health care, workers rights, public sector, welfare etc. The “Protestant” or “unionist” socialists keep their distance.

The SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) is of course itself a coalition……nationalists, republicans, human rights and socialists. While all sign up to the party, it is natural that some lean more in one direction than the other. The cliché is that the SDLP “socialists” are in Belfast and the “nationalists” are west of the River Bann.

While the “Protestant left” and “non-nationalist left” cant actually bring itself to join SDLP and make it stronger, I wonder if the SDLP facilitates the luxury of their semi-detachment too much. Does the SDLP make it too easy for them.

Thus at the 2010 SDLP Conference, speakers in platform discussions included community relations activist Duncan Morrow and Patrick Corrigan from human rights organisation “Amnesty International”.

I wrote then that the SDLP listens to every voice but its own. And I think one of the reasons for the SDLPs poor performance in the 2011 Assembly Election was that it had as much interest in listening to other people than actually representing its own members and voters.

Of course listening to other viewpoints is good. John Hume memorably spoke to Gerry adams and the Hume-Adams talks in the 1990s were the first steps in the Peace Process.Arguably then and now the SDLP places its own interest second to the broader “national” interest. The SDLP is in decline and I would argue that it will not see an upward swing until it at leasts balances listening to outside voices with listening to its own.

Of course Alasdair McDonnell has been leading the SDLP since November 2011. His manifesto was to stop the decline and listen and re-organise. The runnerup in that contest was Conall McDevitt who is a leading SDLP voice in the Platform for Change pressure group……a “lets get alongerist” fantasy devoted to changing the nature of politics here. Conall is a leading member of the Balmoral branch at which Dawn Purvis spoke. Last night Conall tweeted that “Dawn Purvis was an inspirational guest speaker on the future of progressive politics here”.

What exactly does that mean? What is going on?

Well the next elections we face is the European Elections and three Members of the European Parliament will be elected. Currently Norn Iron is represented by Diane Dodds (DUP) Bairbre de Brun (Sinn Féin) and Jim Nicholson (UUP). It could be that Nicholson is vulnerable, as the UUP is in disarray.

I suspect Conall will be the SDLP candidate. But it would be almost impossible to take a seat without massive help (transfers) from the “left”. Can Conall persuade enough Protestant, unionist or broadly left people in the electorate to vote for him?

The problem with this analysis is that SDLP would need to soften its “nationalism” to attract such votes which of course leaves its “nationalist” wing vullnerable to Sinn Féin. Getting it right would mean that the SDLP stops its decline. Getting it wrong means further decline.

So did I make a mistake in joining the SDLP. Well I will know better when the 2012 Conference takes place in November. The point is that in 2010 and early 2011, SDLP people were encouraging me to join the Party. Of course I warned as many as I could that the SDLP needed to treat the Alliance Party as an enemy. I called that right.  And that Margaret Ritchie was  aliability. I called that right too.

When it became obvious that she would be ousted, I joined the SDLP. And what can I say……….thats the point where SDLP people stopped listening to me. They never listen to their supporters.


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4 Responses to The Day That I joined The SDLP…They Stopped Listening To Me

  1. bangordub says:

    Fair comment, however I think your point is general as in, not you in particular that they are not listening to? Anyhow, I too flirted with joining the SDLP. I made arrangements to meet a prominent representative for a coffee on the Lisburn Rd.
    He didn’t turn up, nor did he make contact with excuses etc, nor did he arrange a further contact with himself or anybody else in the party. Not impressed. Would you agree that sometimes it’s the detail that matters? After all, just like my other half, it’s being listened to that matters. Not necessarily the problem solving

    • I can certainly identify with what you say.
      Having been out of SDLP from 1981 thru to 2011….and understandably my focus was on family and career.
      In 2005 things changed……and again in 2009……..which opened up the possibility of resuming in SDLP after 30 years.
      Its a bit odd that some who have no reason to remember me…..actually DO remember me. And some who perhaps “should” remember me……..dont or claim they dont.
      I have been 30 years in isolation and I find the “networking” difficult….largely because I am not part of any “network”. When I speak it is only for myself rather than a group. And that limits my value. I have found that some people are simply more sincere than others. I have found that some are very kind to me (including those about whom I have not said pleasant things). But it is often the case that when people realise that I cant “deliver” a group or “organisation” then they cease to take an interest in me.
      I dont know if you watched Harry Enfield’s most recent sketch show but he featured a character whose catch pharase was “well actually I am much more important than you are” and I have had that feeling a various functions where politicians take an interest up to the point where somebody much more important than me walks past. And everybody is more important than I am 🙂
      I understand that. The SDLP needs to head hunt which means Dawn Purvis or Paddy Corrigan are more “valuable” than me even though they are not party members.

      In relation to Dawn on Tuesday night, I think its not unrelated to this networking. In some respects Dan needs the SDLP as a “go to” party within the system. SDLP needs Dawn in respect of forming a broad left coalition to fight the Euro Elections. So at this point in time Dawn, Brian Faloon of People Before Profit and socialist fringe groups are actually more important to SDLP, especially the “lets get alongerist” or the (often different) socialist wing.
      Just how this plays with the nationalist wing is a problem (hmmm three wings seems a bit too many).
      Previous flirtations with “lets get alongerism” (Margaret Ritchies poppy for example) have been counter-productive.
      I suppose SDLP deserves credit for plugging relentlessly away at this but there is a point where it all becomes an electoral liability.

      • bangordub says:

        Thank you for your comprehensive reply but my central point remains unanswered. Is it not crucial that emphasis should be on individuals, not groups.
        This is an anti strategy argument essentially. If the sdlp remains obsessed with strategic groups etc will it not lose sight of what matters? ie: People.
        examples are, SF built their base on delivering small things locally on the ground (The only big strategic plan was a united ireland and a wooly social policy)
        Ditto Fianna Fail, Ditto DUP ( Except for the obvious exception)

      • Yes youre absolutely right. There are perhaps too many “thinkers” in the SDLP and not enough “do-ers”.

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