SDLP Leadership Contest

If you are travelling over the Glenshane Pass tomorrow afternoon, look out for a bus load of  SDLP “Derry wans” heading to Belfast. They are heading for the official launch of Colum Eastwood’s Leadership Election Campaign.

Thursday is of course a good night and Belfast is a good venue. BBCs weekly political programme is broadcast on a Thursday. The Prophet Goes To The Mountain? Not entirely …the event is specifically in West Belfast and that maybe allows Alex Attwood MLA to formally endorse Colum. As far as I know, Alex has not made any announcement but as key West Belfast people like Gearóid MacDomnall and Cllr Tim Attwood have already endorsed Colum, it would be a major surprise if Alex did not do the same.

As far as I recall, John Dallat and Claire Hanna are the only MLAs to have made a formal statement for Colum. SDLP Lurgan Branch (of which Deputy Leader, Dolores Kelly and I are members)  has nominated Eastwood.

Other names in the Eastwood corner include former ministers in the post-Good Friday Agreement …Sean Farren, Carmel Hanna and Brid Rodgers. So lots of good photo opportunities tomorrow night. Selfies galore on SDLP Youth members Facebook pages tomorrow night.

For the record, I rarely go to branch meetings of SDLP. As a blogger, I dont feel comfortable so I am not familiar with the timeline that made my local branch nominate Colum Eastwood. It seems strange, especially in the context that last year, it was widely speculated that Colum would challenge Dolores for Deputy Leader. As it turned out, there was no challenge. You might have an opinion but I could not possibly comment.

The Leadership will be decided at next month’s Party Conference in  Armagh. Again…for the record, the Contest will be dcided by the votes of delegates, mandated to vote for Alasdair McDonnell or Colum Eastwood. Again for the record…I am NOT a delegate at the Party Conference. I do not have a vote.

I do not have a vote…but I do have an opinion. Actually I have several opinions but you will forgive me if I only share a few of them.

First off…I think a Leadership Contest is a very bad idea.

Alasdair McDonnell is I think doing a good job as Leader. He has always been extremely decent and supportive of me. But there are three problems

….one there is no overwhelming evidence that he is succeeding. SDLP did better (one seat lost) than Sinn Féin (ten lost) and Alliance (two lost) in the 2014 Council Elections. And SDLP did better (holding its three seats) than Sinn Féin (one lost) and Alliance (one lost) in the Westminster Elections in May. Yet there is a consistent narrative that SDLP is in “terminal and managed decline” (Slugger O’Toole passim). And thats unfair.

A reasonable person might say that the slide thru the last ten years has been halted.

…and this brings us to Alasdair’s second problem.  There is a solid bloc of SDLP people who would rather peddle the “terminal and permenant decline” narrative than give Alasdair any credit whatsoever. If any MLA endorsing Colum Eastwood can explain away how they are turning their own seats from “safe” to “marginal”, then GOD knows I would love to hear it. And if any former Minister endorsing Colum Estwood tomorrow night can explain how the SDLP declined from 24 seats (1998) to 14 seats (2011) without pointing a finger at the British, Irish and American governments for stabbing the SDLP in the back….then I am all ears. Certainly they have a point but I would love to see them acknowledging that they themselves got it wrong…rather more than Alasdair did. After all he was winning the SDLP an unlikely seat at Westminster.

….the third problem for Alasdair actually has substance. Should the Leader of SDLP be based at the Assembly (one of the current fourteen MLAs) or based (like Alasdair and his two colleagues) at Westminster. I am increasingly of the opinion that Stormont is a more logical base.

….there is a fourth problem….image. Alasdair is older than me, a medical doctor from the Glens of Antrim  who is based in the Lower Ormeau Road, a working class area where he has served all communities in very dark and dangerous days in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. But South Belfast is also home to QueensUniversity, (academic) politics and the metrotextual bubble who dismiss Alasdair as a country bumpkin …the bull in the china shop. It is a grotesque misrepresentaion. People need to catch themselves on. Alasdair has been involved in real politics all his adult life. The young fogeys who think that owning box set DVDs of “The West Wing”, “House of Cards” and “The Thick of It” and strutting their stuff as “staffers” to MLAs really need a reality check.

There is an irony here. My first choice to succeed Alasdair would be Colum Eastwood….in different circumstances….a dignified resignation from Alasdair and the whole hearted appreciation from SDLP of a job well done…is an ideal scenario. The scenario being played out is tacky.

There is a curious pincer movement going on. There are logical and decent reasons to support Eastwood…he is a committed nationalist, outside the metrotextual bubble and he is based at the Assembly. There are very bad reasons to support him…the sheer unpleasantness of the “Anyone But Alasdair” camp.

Curiously Alasdair’s legacy might be better preserved by Colum than the next person to be nominated by Alasdair’s detractors. For sure as Hell, they wont go away ya know.

Which brings me to the question of the Deputy Leadership of SDLP ….Fearghal McKinney MLA (South Belfast) is standing against Dolores Kelly. It seems likean act of revenge (and I appreciate that kinda thing) for Fearghal is effectively Alasdair’s “right hand man”. And that has caused friction.

I like Fearghal. He is after all a journalist and the single most supportive person in SDLP of this Blog. But I cannot seriously see how two people as close as Alasdair and Fearghal and from the same constituency can realistically be Leader and Deputy Leader. The Party would not accept that. Ironically Fearghal would stand a better chance of becoming Deputy Leader if Colum won the Leadership and the “Anyone But Alasdair” party-within-a-party” certainly deserves a rebuke.

Bur the Leadership and Deputy Leadership contests distract from potentially more interesting things going on within SDLP. While some people selected to run for the Assembly are known to be in one camp or another, wisely some of the new people are not committed, view it all with distaste or are keeping their powder dry until Conference.

But there is something else happening. All SDLP MPs and exactly half of the MLAs are from just three constituencies and these three constituencies have multiple branches within them and (I hate the word) “fiefdoms” of the most powerful figures in SDLP.

It is a worrying sign. The incresed power of branches (and their delegate power at Conferences) distorts Democracy within the SDLP and marginalises small branches like (say) Magherafelt, Coleraine and Ballycastle. Staffers attached to MLA offices are at times more “political” than strictly necessary…forming strategic alliances with other branches, offices and staffers to promote their MLA. I dont like it.

The rise of the “staffer” (someone on the payroll) who has positioned him/herself between the MP/MLA and local councillor, branch officer and rank and file member is a worrying development.

This is why the list of “Runners and Riders” for the Party Executive….is a contest worth watching. It was once the ideal opportunity for rank and file members of SDLP in Keady, Coalisland and Oldpark to see how the Party worked. There is a good case for “payroll” members being ineligible for Party Executive.

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2 Responses to SDLP Leadership Contest

  1. John says:

    You have written an interesting article, but I do have some observations of my own 🙂 To start I am an SDLP voter, have been since the early 80s when I was first able to vote.

    I think Alasdair has been a decent leader for the SDLP, but then again Brendan Rodgers was also a decent manager for Liverpool, he didn’t deliever results that he promised, and nor has Big Al. Speaking to different SDLP people I get the sense that its not so much they are lining up to support Colum, more I sense they are really waiting for him to give them something they are missing with Al. Advantage Al.

    Alasdair has what 4 weeks? to try and convince those people he actually has a plan to win seats next may, the very thing he was put into the position for. I know you say the SDLP only lost 1 Cllr in the locals, but they lost a big share of the vote. They done better than expected in Newry/South down because of transfers…..they done poor in places like Mid Ulster, Derry, Belfast and sadly his name was coming up on the doorsteps as a negative. He has brought in new faces who won seats, he has also tried to prevent others from becoming candidates who won seats. He strikes me as a person who will back you, until something better comes along, loyalty is needed.

    Loyalty is the one thing that Dolores Kelly doesn’t have. She is an MLA very much in danger of losing her seat, she seems to be more interesting in attacking Alasdair over the last 4 years than doing her own constituency work. SDLP need a leader/deputy pairing that works, and if Feargal wins and Al loses, i really don’t see him being as disloyal to the party as Kelly has been.

    You are spot on about Staffers in parties going on to being MLAs without actually doing the hard work. Many of them are very capable people, but to chose them over those on the ground who have been doing the work (often paid a lot less money than those staffers) is worrying.

    The SDLP are a capable team, but they have not had the strategy to win against SF. They are old looking, tired, repetitive but the public still want to back them, they are simply asking for the SDLP to give them a reason for it. A bad election will see the SDLP go down to 10 seats, a decent election will see them on 16, a good election will get them to 18, a great election will get them 20. Can they really afford to stick by a man whose greatest achievement to date it only losing a few votes and personal changes?

    I think the branches that nominated him is telling. I would have thought areas like Mid-Ulster would have been his natural ground, yet 4 branches there voted against him? why? Surely that was a place with “personal” changes? Upper Bann was expected, given Kelly disdain for Alasdair, but then again, Colum didn’t get universal approval either. West Tyrone is ripping itself apart “again” over staffers v councillors.

    • Thanks John.
      You will appreciate that as a SDLP member , I cannot be as open as you as a SDLP voter.
      I would have to say that Dolores is actually a good constituency MLA and she has sorted out an issue for my family so I am grateful.
      She is also good with Policing bOard but a branch should be representative of the Party as a whole. If any branch becomes overly identified with one politician or a faction, then it can be a “cold” place for any SDLP voter who decides to join SDLP and doesnt want to associated with a faction then its a bad thing and that can have long term effects.
      To be clear …if Eastwood is elected, then Id like to see McKinney as his Deputy but I suspect there is a trade-off between Eastwood supporters and “anyone but Alasdair” supporters which would ensure Kelly is elected.
      I would hate to see Colum become a hostage of the “Anyone But Alasdair” faction especially if they are thinking two or three steps ahead.
      I keep hearing that aLasdair is a liability but if his opponents keep saying that, then it becomes part of the narrative….and I also keep hearing that Conall McDevitt is missed (I agree) and that he was a vote winner (no I dont agree). But I usually hear that from McDevitts supporters.
      2016 prospects…..we are in the range of 12-16. Anything better is a bonus.

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