Has SDLP Turned The Corner?

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.

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6 Responses to Has SDLP Turned The Corner?

  1. The next big challenge will be the European Elections … if Allister stands again he’d hope to bring through Nicholson home in third. Ironically, the SDLP would need transfers from the likes of Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party to even come close … maybe even broaden their appeal to the unionist left as part of a pan-national PES brigade. The other alternative would be to leapfrog Sinn Féin in the overall poll. To do this the SDLP needs to really go against the grain and really explain that Europe is still creating jobs.

    In a funny way, if the Irish people reject the Fiscal Compact and there’s austerity due to a removal of bailout funds, or turmoil in the Eurozone as every other nation thinks they can act as the big boys in Europe, while those outside Europe look at the 27 nations as fresh meat as the unified bargaining position goes. Then where will Sinn Féin’s populist rhetoric take them?

    • I have a feeling that the European Elections may not be the next one. There could easily be a surprise Westminster election. There is no guarantee that the British govt will go full term. Either the coalition could go to the country as a coalition (with an electoral pact) or one or other partner leave it.
      There are all kinds of scenario for SDLP in the Euros. Id assume Conall would be candidate and a good one. He certainly touches parts outside the core SDLP and can attract Alliance transfers. And I see Dawn Purvis, various lefties as part of an unofficial coalition which could help.
      But SDLP success in Europe depends on building a “coalition”.
      But success at Stormont means confronting much of that coalition.

      • Conall for Europe would be a good call I’d agree, Spanish speaker adds the package, definitely need a “reformist” and a very strong neck to stick out. McDevitt might need to even lose the SDLP tag to get in, dare I say it as a unity candidate.
        It’d take a spike in election interest and a broad appeal to get an SDLP man in, in terms of coalition partners … Fianna Fail, PUP, Dawn Purvis, Slyvia Herman and the Labours? Would it be enough, could it be counter productive?

      • I see Conall as a good candidate and even with a chance of doing really well.
        I speculated that Dawn Purvis at Balmoral was a feeler of sorts with Europe in mind.
        I suspect Dawn would rather see Conall elected ….more than any other candidate. But can she publicly endorse him without moving further from her base. And while Conall could probably rely on Workers Party/Green/Socialist/People Before Profit candidates….I think too much flirting with “lets get alongerism” such as the Platform for Change types would really only turn off core SDLP voters as inevitably Conall would have to adopt a different form of rhetoric.
        Unity candidate?…….no I dont think so. If on principle (a good one) we dont do it in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, we should not do it in the Euros. The idea is to re-establish the SDLP brand. A good fourth place under SDLP logo is a good option. Is Conall getting elected as SDLP-lite really better? Short term perhaps but within a very short time we would be struggling to re-establish the brand for Westminster and Stormont.
        No……on balance……..I think “no” to a unity candidate. If it is a pre-cursor to left/right non-nationalist politics then I think it would only strengthen Sinn Féin.
        Theres a debate to be had……downplay republicanism or embrace it.
        Handling it the wrong way would split the SDLP.

  2. Great post as usual John

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