Over the last two days, I have written about Sinn Féin…how seemingly difficult it is to join and how they use patronage to keep everyone onside…and quite a few people on the (perhaps mythical) average industrial wage.
As far as I know it is easy to join SDLP. Simply fill in a form and hand over £20 (£10 if you’re a senior citizen) and you’re a member.
A comment at the weekend on the Blog suggested that SDLP search out people who are solicitors, doctors, and other talented people. On the face of it this makes perfect sense.
In the 1970s, SDLP had the reputation of being the “teachers party”. People who saw limited opportunities for the children they taught and decided to do something about it. At a conference a few years ago Dr Joe Hendron said that his brother (Jim) was an accountant in South Belfast and joined the Alliance Party while he (Joe) was a doctor in West Belfast and joined SDLP.
Therein lies the difference.
Of course before Sinn Féin started wearing suits and getting nice haircuts, they charged SDLP with being “middle class”. I always found that a strange charge to make. The history of Socialism shows a lot of very middle class people sought to do good things for disadvantaged people. Tony Benn was once a hereditary peer of the English realm…Viscount Stansgate. Michael Foot was not working class. Jeremy Corbyn is as middle class as any man brought up in a 18th century manor house in Shropshire or was it Wiltshire.
Even Che Guevara was a doctor. Karl Marx did not work in a coal mine.
And no doubt if any leading Sinn Féin member needed a good solicitor, he/she would be getting the very best advice from a good working class solicitor working for the average industrial wage. And I am sure any Sinn Féin-supporting solicitor would only ask for the average insustrial wage when he is filling in a form to get legal aid for his client.
But Sinn Féin have a lot of people on the payroll. SDLP do not. And that in itself can cause tension.
I suppose each of the twelve SDLP MLAs has a staff of (I assume) two people, earning I think the same rate as a clerical officer in the civil service. There are maybe four or five staff at SDLP HQ. It is unlikely that SDLP has a payroll of more than fifty people. The nature of employment at a political party is that the staff are supporters.
There are also about sixty councillors elected as SDLP. I think the annual stipend is around £15,000. It is hardly a fortune but for many a nice supplement.
So allowing for the fact that some constituency staff are also councillors, there are less than a hundred people who “earn” something thru connexion to SDLP and several hundred who hand over £10 or £20 per annum for membership. Or buy a raffle ticket or attend a fund-raising event like a table quiz or a “Night at the Races”.
Of course a MLA or councillor is at the mercy of the electorate. But so too are staff. If a MLA loses her/his job, then the constituency worker is on the dole queue. Indeed if a MLA loses out to a running mate in another part of the constituency, the assistant might have to re-apply for her/his job.
This not only makes positions competitive in a party but is bound to create tensions. Unlike Sinn Féin re-assignment to another job in the party is not an option.
Yet I am left with three thoughts. My own negative experience with SDLP. The campaign for Locals and Euros which is generally accepted as being a success. And that recent comment on this Blog about attracting talented new blood.
I dont want to be arrogant but this blog “Keeping an Eye on the Czar of Russia” is broadly supportive of SDLP and maybe I even have some kinda talent. I have been supported, patronised and “played” by SDLP people but nobody has really encouraged me.
Is “Talent” actually an asset when you join SDLP? Or is it a threat to others? Is the cosy local structure of MLA, councillor team, staff actually afraid of new blood?
Was the recent Local and Euro campaign successful?
In retrospect, I think the local campaign was defensive? The Party largely defended its own seats and made little attempt to advance. I can understand that in places where there was a sitting councillor and around 0.8 of a quota, then logic dictates that there is one candidate. When there is maybe 1.4 quotas and a sitting councillor then there is an acceptable risk in running two candidates. There might just be a seat gained. The worst case scenario (allowing for bad vote management) is that the party retains one seat. Of course, the sitting councillor with twenty years experience may not see it that way if he/she loses out to a running mate.
Understandably SDLP HQ can get involved when a local party is too ambitious and nominates more candidates than is realistic but HQ should not be telling a local branch that there will be one candidate AND that the candidate is a sitting councillor.
There has to be a selection convention and transparency. Yet I hear stories where selection conventions did not take place. And even local meetings do not take place. There were occasions when members only found out on social media that Colum Eastwoods “campaign bus” was in town.
There cannot be a situation where the Party appeals for new members on the basis that the member will have an input into policy etc and then simply hand over the running of a branch to a few insiders.
Interestingly one of the party members who left SDLP over the Fianna Fáil connexion complained about lack of transparency and procedural problems. It rings true.
There are many young people who have left SDLP. Many have taken their “portfolio of skills” (as an Alliance MLA might say) into other sectors, occasionally with SDLP on their CV and a reference from a MLA. But as they step away from a public profile in politics, the connexion to SDLP is broken. In some cases it looks like they were disappointed by SDLP. In other cases, it looks like they used the SDLP.
For me, the starting gun for an Election is when the Electoral Office publishes the list of candidates and their ten supporters who have signed nomination papers. For a political nerd, there is a lot of information in there.
Traditionally nomination papers are signed by family members, a proud wife or husband and a proud mammy and daddy. And often other leading party members including ex-MLAs. It is a kinda laying on of hands…a blessing.
Curiously I did not notice so many big name backers in April 2019. Now this might be for a wide variety of reasons…unavailability, illness, simply not being asked by a candidate but it seems odd.
So who are SDLP members…or activists?
Well clearly almost 80,000 people voted for Colum Eastwood two weeks ago. Some of those voters are fully committed people who have been voting in their own areas for John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Bríd Rodgers etc for the best part of five decades. Some are not overly committed.
But there is a hard core. Now Party membership is not an option for everyone. Meetings can be good but the nitty gritty of leafleting, canvassing and standing on ladders putting up and taking down posters is not for everyone.
A lot of the people leafleting, canvassing and standing on ladders seem to be family members of those who are candidates. At one level, it is good that there are good hearted families who serve communities. On the other hand a family can actually dominate local politics to the extent that it becomes a family business.
But as for rank and file SDLP members, you can bet that the young leafleter who goes home is told by her parents that she wont get anywhere in the Party as it is “jobs for the boys and girls” and the woman who goes home after canvassing will be told by her hubby that the local chairperson will never select her as a candidate and that when the guy up the ladder goes home to his wife, she will tell him that nobody in the local party would risk breaking his neck for him.
There are even “SDLP gene-pool bloggers” who are told by their wives…”why do you do it? ………they dont appreciate it and they wont even short list you if you want a job”.
And here is the odd thing. At 7am on polling day, all of those who have been hurt, will travel to a polling station to vote SDLP.