It is now four months since the SDLP Annual Conference and the election of Alasdair McDonnell to replace Margaret Ritchie.
Although Alasdair got off to a shaky start…that initial speech will haunt him……..and there was that furore over MLA salaries, things look to be going reasonably well for the Party at the moment. Of course it is mid-term and the SDLP (and probably all other parties) are not ready to fight an election. There are however encouraging signs that the SDLP has finally “got it”.
By way of recapping………let me make myself clear. I was a member of SDLP from 1973 thru to 1981/82. I voted SDLP until 1993 and until 2009 I voted for Sinn Fein. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 I voted SDLP.
I am a socialist. I am a republican. I am a nationalist. I vote in accord with my ideals and the interests of my self and family……and indeed the ideals and interests of a wider community.
Since 2005 and more obviously since 2009, I have been active politically. I blogged in support of the SDLP prior to the 2011 election, attended four hustings and three SDLP fundraisers which led to connexions with several SDLP people. Although I joined the SDLP in August/September 2011, the Party still treats me as a detached, quirky and slightly maverick……even untrustworthy figure.
I suspect this is because I have not been overly supportive of some leading SDLP figures although the constraints and responsibilities of Party membership means that I am more cautious about what I blog. I think its also fair to say the SDLP realises its mistakes (even if it cannot publicly acknowledge them) and some people have changed………or simply improved their performance.
My position remains that the working class, nationalist and republican people need two political parties from which to choose and the decline of the SDLP has not been a good thing. Indeed the triumphalism of Sinn Féin needs to be countered. The arrogance of Sinn Féin has not been its most endearing feature.
Perhaps the most positive signs for the SDLP at the moment is that Sinn Féin has made some mistakes. The “Printer Gate” scandal in An Dáil has been a totally self-inflicted wound and of course Sinn Féin is involved in making more “cuts” in government than SDLP. There is an opportunity to exploit this. And the curious sight of Sinn Féin (and indeed DUP) rushing to the middle ground leaves it open on its republican wing. There is a certain challenge to the SDLP to hold fast to republican ideology and not fall for too much “lets get alongerism” in the decade of real and pretend centenaries. Obviously thats a delicate balance.
Perhaps the most interesting development within the SDLP has been the emergence of a strong SDLP Youth. There is certainly a lot of talent there. As I am an extremely old person……young people scare me…..and people of their generation will be around making decisions when I am officially past it. Increasingly it is THEIR world (politics is as generational as music and culture) and I feel uncomfortable in the world they are making. That is the nature of things. Yet there is also a lot of “heart”. And I can identify with that. The recent SDLP QUB Branch campaign to highlight restrictions on blood donations by gay people is a case in point. Obviously there is a danger that young people are seduced by the “social” aspect of politics.
Have the SDLP “got” it? Finally? Well the listening campaign seems to be going well. There is a certain enthusiasm for the fight among SDLP politicians. I believe they are a talented and sincere group………..but……….ah yes there has to be a “but”………….but I wonder if they may just be too nice.
The SDLP has got to rivals for votes. And its unfortunate that in all six counties the rival is Sinn Féin and that in Antrim and Down…..or more precisely Belfast and suburbia,, the Alliance Party (funded massively by Rowntree Foundation which is advised by Stratagem which is partner to the Slugger O’Toole website). This means that tactically the Alliance Party has slipped under the SDLP radar. And is a very serious rival in places such as South Antrim, East Antrim, Strangford and Lagan Valley. These are the places the SDLP should be targetting.
The relationship between SDLP and Sinn Féin in say North Belfast, West Belfast and Upper Bann has often been vitriolic. The relationship between SDLP and Alliance has often been pleasant. This needs to change. This is 2012……where Alliance Party feels “entitled” to two seats in the Executive with just eight Assembly seats and believes the SDLP is entitled to one Executive seat with fourteen Assembly seats. In the bad old days SDLP was formed to combat that kind of gerrymander. Lets be frank …this is NOT the Alliance Party of 1972..this is not a Party of Fair Play. It has a nasty right wing tendency……….note the inability to vote against welfare cuts. And that right wing……emboldened by UUP and “conservative” defectors to a so-called middle ground is growing. There is a tension there to be exploited by SDLP.
Essentially the SDLP is fighting on two battlefronts and needs two strategies, rather than one. Yet I fear that the Party may have talent, policy, even luck…….but I wonder if it really has the “bottle” to take on the Alliance Party.