SDLP: The Next Step

First …a simple fact. SDLP held its three seats in the Westminster Election. The Alliance Party lost its only seat despite the best efforts of the Media and Slugger O’Toole. A lesser man than me would gloat at the grief of Mick Fealty, Brian O’Neill, Alan Meban and David McCann.

And Sinn Féin lost a seat also.

So worth saying that going into this Election, the scores on the doors were Sinn Féin 5, SDLP 3, Alliance 1. Coming out of this Election the scores on the doors are Sinn Féin 4, SDLP 3, Alliance 0.

Was it a successful Election from a SDLP point of view? Yes. “Success” is achieving a target. And what was the target? Well defending three seats….and positioning ourselves better for 2016. And introducing new candidates.

Of course, performances in individual constituencies were variable. West Tyrone and West Belfast.

But this is the second of three Election Years. In 2014, we had the Council And Euro Elections. Lest it is forgotten we lost a council seat…..Sinn Féin lost ten seats. Alliance lost two seats.

Lessons learned and on to 2015 and Westminster Elections. Sinn Féin lost a seat. Alliance lost a seat.

Of course, there were percentage drops related to nationalist apathy and/or tactical voting. Lessons learned? Well let’s see.

Of course, you wont reading anything like this on Slugger O’Toole. When Mick Fealty dared to suggest that SDLP had done pretty well, he was challenged by the Slugger core team of LetsGetAlongerists, including erstwhile Alliance candidate, Professor Nicholas Whyte.

Thats the problem with Slugger O’Toole. They have played the “managed decline of SDLP” so frequently that it is not really possible to challenge their own world view. Certainly in 2010, it might have been possible to make that case. Even in 2011, when SDLP lost two Assembly seats it was possible to make the case.

Certainly Slugger would have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of SDLP falling apart, gobbled up on one side by Sinn Féin and on the other side by Alliance. That process has been halted. In simple terms, Slugger’s beloved Alliance Party has missed the boat. In all honesty, I might have coined the phrase “LetsGetAlongerism” but Slugger has been playing the “three tribe trick” longer than I have. With SDLP positioned somewhere between Sinn Féin and Alliance, it needs to be taken off the board. And GOD knows Slugger O’Toole has played its part.

Slugger resorts to a lack of Decency. Is Alasdair McDonnell portrayed as a Nazi in a Slugger cartoon? I have asked Mick Fealty. There is no answer from Mick. But it is our SDLP brand and our image. Whatever we are…we are not Nazis.

Inevitably SDLP will be having an internal discussion, analysing how we stand as we enter into the Assembly Elections in 2016. The Party’s relationship with Slugger O’Toole must come into the review. Frankly few SDLP members pay any attention to Mick Fealty, David McCann, Alan Meban, Brian Walker and Brian O’Neill. The Internet is really “Politics as a Spectator Sport”. But actually facilitating the likes of David McCann and Alan Meban to sit at the back of Conferences, pretending to be serious commentators is a luxury we cant afford.

We need to look at why we accredit these people. At best they are harmless. At worse, they are downright dangerous.

The SDLP has a brand and an image. And we have a reputation. Fair Comment is one thing. Nasty Insults …quite another.

Of course the Press Office might look on at differently. The role of a Press Office is to get on well with the Media. But lets be frank….Slugger O’Toole is not the “media”. Mick is an actual real life journalist. The rest are posers…

I dont feel “poser” is an insult. The title of this Blog “Keeping An Eye On The Czar of Russia” is of course a reference to the grandiose claims of Bloggers to be important. Most SDLP people would dismiss me as a “poser”. The old man who writes the Blog rather than do something really useful like knock some doors during an election campaign.

They are of course right. One of the things the SDLP badly needs is foot soldiers. There might well have been thousands of people who joined Labour Party in the wake of their defeat  last month.Unlike Sinn Féin, SDLP is not a mass movement. We cant call on an army (I use the term deliberately) of volunteers. We certainly do well in places where we have large numbers of people…Downpatrick, South Belfast, Derry and Armagh…but in too many places, canvassing is done by a handful of dedicated people.

Why is that? Well SDLP is often insulted as middle class and middle aged and male. Take me…I am retired. I am 63 years old and with one pension in the bag and another in two years. My younger wife still works but will soon retire. She has dedicated nearly forty years of her life to a marginalised area of the Health Service . One pension and another in ten years time. Both of us from the back streets Of West Belfast and later Housing Executive Estates of West Belfast.  We are two people who have not forgotten our roots. We are proud of it.

If I am interested in Justice (Global and Local), Homelessness, Victims, Jobless, Disability…it is not because I am directly affected by any of this. It is largely because I care about other people. And I credit my SDLP colleagues of being of the same mindset.

We are actually advocating for other people. But I was sitting beside Alliance people at the Election Counts…highly motivated, well-heeled academics And quango-crats but the crucial difference between SDLP and Alliance is that we are advocating for other people and Alliance are effectively advocating for people like themselves.

Is it worth it? I dont know. Voting is not compulsory. Nor is gratitude. But whether its the individual constituent who wanted his Housing Benefit appealed or the institution (eg Trade Union or Charity) who seek SDLP help….it would be nice if someone spoke up for SDLP for a change.

Indeed it would be nice if SDLP spoke up for …SDLP. Was that cartoon in Slugger depicting Alasdair McDonnell as a Nazi? Mick doesnt know and Spencer, the cartoonist….did he comment? Anyway we are expected to believe that Spencer and Slugger O’Toole are Charlie Hebdo.

I asked the questions. I got no answer. So did unionist “commenter” ….”Turgon”. There was a time when the core team of Slugger O’Toole posed as sensible, decent people and were superior to the boorish extremes of people who commented. It is now a simple fact that some on Slugger’s core team have descended to the gutter.

The SDLP Press Office is not entirely blameless. They looked at the cartoon, analysed it and debated it and decided the Party Leader was NOT depicted as a Nazi. They might well be right. But I suggest that the correct procedure would have been to ask for clarification from Mick Fealty. Mick might well have treated SDLP Press Office with a degree of seriousness. I have no “clout”. Easy to dismiss me as a crank.

But without clarification SDLP should have reconsidered its relationship with Slugger O’Toole. What on earth was David McCann doing sitting at the back of the room when SDLP Manifesto was launched? That would be the same David McCann, lauded by Mick for all the hard work he put in, organising that head to head between Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson in East Belfast. There should have been no accreditation for David McCann at a SDLP event. He should have been told to “feck aff”. Likewise why is no SDLP event complete without a designated Stratagem staffer in attendance?

SDLP really need to up their game where the Media are concerned. I declare an interest. On two occasions, September 2013 and September 2014, I applied for Press Officer positions with SDLP. With commendable foresight, the SDLP did not appoint me. But it would have been nice to have been interviewed. Dammit….if they intended an interview to last thirty miniutes, I could easily have lectured the Interview Panel for several hours. It is not a matter of me actually wanted a job….I DONT!!!. But it is a matter that this is one area where I know what I am talking about and people at the heart of SDLP dont want to know.

Indeed I actually applied for a SDLP Press Office intern job. I could have been the worlds oldest intern in 2011. I was informally interviewd (twice) and there were vague promises that SDLP would utilise the Blogosphere better. All smoke and mirrors. It was pointed out to me that I would be entirelythe wrong person to be in a Press Office because of my hostility to journalists.

Well, I cant deny that. I take the view that SDLP should keep journalists at arms length. Journalism in recent years has done the SDLP few favours. Treat the Bastards as enemies.

SDLP is much too friendly to journos. Individual MLAs seem to have their favourites. One can only speculate as to why that might be.

But it is not just about the Media (TV and newspapers) and Fantasy Media (Slugger O’Toole) …Is there an issue? Is it Opposition.?

I see merit in being in Government. I see merit in walking away. I see no merit in being semi-detached. Famously, the Good Friday Agreement only sees “inclusive Government” and doesnt see Opposition at all. That is a failing in the Agreement or more precisely the outworking of the Agreement.

And that presents the SDLP with a difficulty. Because the Good Friday Agreement is the Holy Grail. There is a nuanced argument here. The Agreement was great but undermined by sniping from Sinn Féin and DUP, the inability of Trimble and UUP to deliver and the way that the British and Irish Governments abandoned SDLP and UUP and started believing that Sinn Féin and DUP could deliver. That is a SDLP narrative. The Party was “stabbed in the back” by Tony B Liar and Bertie Ahearn. But that is only half true.

It takes no account of the fact that the Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of lifes work for an entire generation of SDLP politicians. And it takes no account of the fact that the SDLP performance in the years immediately after 1998 was poor. The senior figures of the time need”  to admit the failings before launching thinly veiled attacks on the current Leadership.

It might have seemed true when Seamus Mallon declared the Good Friday Agreement to be “Sunningdale for Slow Learners”. But this is just futile Triumphalism. Seamus would have known that in 1974, Labour politicians (Merlyn Rees and notably Stan Orme) in the Norn Iron Office had heated discussions with SDLP to water down aspects of the Sunningdale Agreement to “save Brian Faulkner”.

Did Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers, Mark Durkan not realise that a new generation of Labour people (SDLP sister party after all)….Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson, John Reid, Shaun Woodward and Paul Murphy would sell out SDLP?

Slow Learners? A little Humility might be a good idea?

I think SDLP has done pretty well with issues such as Welfare “Reform”. Certainly the position is more consistent than the Sinn Féin position. Likewise public sector workers (Fearghal McKinney has done well with the Health brief),  “Europe” and “Victims” issues.

As always we are let down by the people we help. The Green Party, the Workers Party and the ridiculous Labour Party of Norn Iron are luxuries that the working class, the marginalised and the disadvantaged cannot afford.

There are , I think degrees of membership in SDLP. The average punter pays £20 fee but really it is totemic. There are few big donors. It is generally about buying ballot tickets and attending branch fundraisers such as “A Night at the Races”
But this is really the bottom of the pyramid. The next strata is elected councillors….over sixty people getting around £15,000 (I think per annum) Add in the people staffing constituency offices (I am guessing around forty people on an average of maybe £25,000. Add in another twenty staffers at Ormeau Road HQ, Stormont and Westminster on variable salaries. Not to mention three Members of Parliament (£60,000 ) and fourteen MLAs (£42,000).
The effect is around 1,400 people who pay into party funds and maybe ten per cent who in some way are (unfairly) seen as benefitting financially.

I do not begrudge anyone having a career in politics. It is entirely honourable. But there is a “fear” factor that maybe makes SDLP too defensive as MPs, MLAs and Councillors defend their seat…and a career.
There are maybe cases where a sitting MLA would resist a running mate in his constituency. It might provide a second seat or it might mean the sitting MLA loses out to a fellow SDLP member.
And that might mean a change of location for staff or even redundancy.
SDLP is NOT Sinn Féin, where MLAs and Councillors are rotated around the SF sphere of influence. Thus Dara O’Hagan, a former MLA lost out to running mate, John O’Dowd now the Minister for Education. Dr O’Hagan is one of several Special Advisors to Martin McGuinness.
Take Mary McArdle, former Special Advisor to Caral Ni Chuilin and controversially removed by the Assembly. Ms McArdle is now in some SF Research Office.

Of course everyone in Sinn Féin is kept happy by the Party policy of everyone getting equal pay…the average industrial wage. Whether this is actually true is secondary to the point that there is much more patronage available to Sinn Féin Leadership.
Likewise as long as there are Quangos, no member of the Alliance Party will ever be poor.

Does this lead to bad blood in SDLP? No I dont think so but it is generally accepted that senior figures in SDLP dont get on very well. Thats a luxury that the Party cannot afford. The irony is that very few people actually know the reasons.
Is this behind the calls for Alasdair McDonnell to stand down as Leader?
Yes and No.
Although popular with the membership, Alasdair has a poor relationship with some senior colleagues who backed Margaret Ritchie for Leader in 2009 and Conall McDevitt in 2011. They will go on opposing him until they get someone…anyone …else.
But really the irony is that they previously backed losers and Alasdair might be unglamourous but at least he has steadied the ship. And surely he is the only SDLP candidate who could win South Belfast at Westminster.
Now he is obliged to give up his Assembly seat. And will do so in a matter of weeks.
This provides his opponents with the a “cause”. Is it possible to lead the SDLP effectively from Westminster which is effectively a sideshow to Stormont?

Yes it is possible. But personally I think that the Leader should be at Stormont. And with the hard core of “Anyone But Alisdair” likely to be joined by people who see the the Leadership role at Stormont, then I do think it is likely SDLP will have a new Leader. For the record, I would prefer Dr Al to any of his detractors, the ringleaders arent exactly vote winners.

I get a feeling that a deal will be done. The most credible Leadership contender is Colum Eastwood. But there are two other posts that will be settled in the next few months. I cant see Dolores Kelly going unchallenged as Deputy Leader and that will be a certain balancing act. The third post is arguably the one Executive seat available to SDLP. Currently held by Mark H Durkan, I just cant see two of the three most important posts in SDLP going to MLAs from Derry.

Fearghal McKinney and Alex Attwood (who many would back as Leader) might get Executive and Deputy Leader posts.

Colum Eastwood as Leader….would that be the NEW BLOOD, the SDLP craves. Well really SDLP needs an end to BAD BLOOD and frankly an intake of new faces would help.

The SDLP is notoriously bad about appreciating its own history. Too pragmatic to be sentimental or nostalgic. But not overly sociable. Men and women bound together by a common set of (decent) principles rather than personal relations.

In contrast, Sinn Féin have long established personal relationships. From Long Kesh cages to the Felons Club to the Twittersphere. When Máirtín Ó Muilleoir farts it is lovingly re-farted by his followers. Gaelic Football banter unites Sinn Féin.

The SDLP are a fairly diverse bunch of people. It should be a strength and yet it comes across as a flaw.

So if SDLP were to ask me to analyse their current position, I think my first point would be that the glass is half-full and half-empty.

As for the rest.

1 No More “Mr Nice Guy with the Real Media and the Fantasy Media of Slugger O’Toole.

2 Dont listen to the advisors and so-called “agents for change” who lack the balls to engage in electoral politics but always have an audience.

3 Recognise that the Alliance Party is not a “progressive friend”. They have been gerrymandered into the position of third Party in Norn Iron, thru a shabby deal between Sinn Féin and DUP. West of the Bann suffers from this in 2015 as the Bogside and Creggan suffered in the 1960s.

4 Opposition? Certainly an option and better than semi-detached “opposition in the Executive”?

5 Be critical about Sunningdale and Good Friday Agreement. More controversially analyse the performance of SDLP Ministers under Seamus Mallon after 1998.

6 Choose the right issues …Welfare, Health, Education and Victims and suggest we need the help of those we seek to help.

7 Go on the Offensive. Bold candidate selection .

8 Leadership….Get it right.

9 Look to an end to BAD BLOOD rather than spout clichés about NEW BLOOD.

There are issues around 1916-2016. Reclaiming the word “Republican” for a start.

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6 Responses to SDLP: The Next Step

  1. political tourist says:

    Will the SDLP even mention 1916?

  2. Croiteir (@Croiteir) says:

    I think the republican wing will not flap – Claire Hanna is no republican in the sense of Irish republicanism and she is the new MLA, McKinney will get the council as a second place prize.

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