SDLP: Leave Everyone Behind?

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.




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15 Responses to SDLP: Leave Everyone Behind?

  1. Vince says:

    John, re: your last comment, keep doing it. You need to be encouraged and nurtured. I am tired of the constant drip of SF/Alliance propaganda on other sites, on TV and Radio, and in the Irish News, usually provide by “commentators” with a dog in the fight.

    Re: talent, they need to get “real” people with life experiences, contacts, understanding of the challenges that voters face – yes, social workers, business people, teachers, nurses etc. Individual fiefdoms, if they exist, are unhealthy – let talent emerge and blossom, get the best candidates, hardest workers, and let the votes look after themselves.

    • I agree…very unhealthy. There are some good signs. Foyle will be re-taken but I think Alliance are now favourites to get South Belfast.
      We need something good to happen but I dont think it is South Down.
      I am really too old for this Vince.

      • Vince says:

        Not sure about Paula Bradshaw and South Belfast. East Belfast for Alliance certainly.

        Next time there will be more taftical voting in S Down. Margaret Ritchie (certainly), Sinead Bradley (perhaps) have good chance of taking that back. The notion that “votes in the HoC don’t count” has been blown apart by the Brexit debacle and I think that S Down will not want an abstentionist next time.

      • I dont think Bradshaw will be the candidate in South Belfast. I think too many Alliance members are unforgiving of Mr Bradshaw….aka Ian James Parsley who was Alliance candidate for Euros in 2009. He had been an Alliance councillor in North Down.
        Then he was a Tory.
        Then he was UUP-Tory.
        Bradshaw followed much the same path and joined Alliance when she was not selected as UUP.
        The bottom line is that Bradshaw might get the “Village” vote but she is a political lightweight. And there might be a few old hands in the Alliance Party in South Belfast who remember she fought against them before
        It is ok giving her a run when Alliance wont win but as they will be favourites to win, you can bet some others will be sniffing around.
        Duncan Morrow is Alliance “royalty” and Emmet McDonagh Brown maybe.
        Not having access to spread sheets….waiting on last train to move out of Dublin but isnt Kkate Nicholl based in South Belfast….or one of the Castlereagh people.
        I would be amazed if they see a golden opportunity and pick a political lightweight.
        South Down…..three into two wont go. There are three strong geographical areas and it goes back to 1973 when SDLP picked up three seats of seven.
        1 Downpatrick….McGrady, Richie, McGrath
        2 Newcastle….O’Donoghue, O’Neill, SRogers
        3 Warrenpoint/Newry….Feely (still a power there), PJ Bradley, McKevitt, Sinead who I think is great.
        Thats the groups who will be at a convention and although she has a young family, Id say that Laurs Devlin would be the Newcastle candidate.

  2. Political Tourist says:

    Was the middle class Catholic community really that big back in the day? In 1968 my older sister graduated as a teacher, take home pay, £44 a month. I’d bet every young teacher was living with mum and dad.
    I always got the impression the Failed State was awash with politicians. Did it really need 3 MEPs, 90 MLAs reduced from a 108 plus 462 councillors reduced from nearly 600 for voters numbers the size of Greater Glasgow?
    The whole of Scotland has 6 MEPs!!!

    • There are three MEPs specifically so that there would be a nationalist.
      I guess in the 1960s, the only middle class people I knew would have been the doctor and teachers.
      Speaking of those primary school teachers, one lived in Holywood, two on Glen Road in Belfast…actually three if you count the guy that lived in that place…was it called Coolnasilla opposite St Theresas church.
      The headmistress of the girls primary was a rather spinsterish woman who drove in and out from Lurgan every day.
      At least two were unmarried and lived in digs around Broadway.
      My own cousin,,,farmers daughter from County Armagh studied in Newcastle in England and graduated around 1966 and lived in a flat over a shop on the Grosvenor Road and later over a shop on Springfield Road.
      I think the Education Act after WW2, 11 plus and all that produced a Catholic middle class from working class origins…eg Hume, Austin Currie.
      Nurses are interesting.
      Two of my (much older!) cousins trained at the same hospital in Manchester. Almost impossible for a Catholic girl to get into RVH to train.
      Ironically my father was hospitalised in the RVH in early 1970s and he kept telling me “see that girl…shes from Coalisland”….”see that one over there….shes from Castlewellan”
      He was actually excited by that. (I am using these towns cos I cant actually remember them now).
      Likewise in the 1980s when he was hospitalised, I remember him saying “see that nurse….shes from Wexford”.
      I think that the simple act of going into a bank and noticing that the name badge says “Eimear” or “Saoirse” is one of the pleasures a man of my age gets.
      Perhaps its not so pleasurable if youre a 67 year old man from East Belfast. The world turned upside down.
      But I think that there was an emerging middle class and a lot of them did not forget their origins.
      Perhaps now some middle class Catholics are second generation middle class. They have not seen any real hardship.
      We had a saying in work that “yer owns the worst” ie your Protestant supervisor is better to you than a Catholic suppervisor.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    Paddy Devlin or Gerry Fitt never struck me as middle class.

  4. Political Tourist says:

    Would be interested to see the age demographic of SDLP voters over the past nearly 50 years. Are they now all Baby Boomers?

    • No…no increasingly I think it is a family thing rather than generational. I think apples dont fall far from a tree.I think in any country there is a certain amount of youthful protest but people tend to return to the fold..
      Certainly ten years ago I would have said old people vote SDLP and then we just die. But I dont think Id say that now.

  5. Political Tourist says:

    Was never completely convinced by the whole SDLP middle class voter gig probably because there wasn’t wasn’t enough middle class voters in places like Derry or West Belfast to vote in an MP. I’d also met enough SDLP voters to know Republicanism ie armed struggle or vague talk of Socialist Republics wasn’t a real thing for a lot of people. They want civil rights without the fear of violence and if in some distant time there can be Unity then fair enough. They might have been from small n or big N nationalist families. I’ve found them to be pretty friendly folk without the hang ups some but not all Republican have.

  6. SDLP Activist - North Down says:

    Where are we with the FF merger? I wonder what the next step in that process is.

    • I think it will just fizzle out.
      I heard no mention of it at all during the campaign and I think SDLP have shown they are still relevant going into a probable (but not certain) General Election later this year.
      The southern experiments are not great…some SDLP leftistsneed to realise that Irish Labour has never been supportive (Conor Cruise O’Brien for example) and many are just indifferent to the north.
      Fine Gael (John “Unionist” Bruton) and Mark Durkans total failure to make an impact has probably damaged him within SDLP and also more broadly.
      Mark might be the logical candidate for Foyle if he is not too damaged.
      Otherwise it falls to Mark H Durkan who is a good MLA but not an orator.
      Colm Eastwood…he would win but if he goes to Westminster he cannot be Party Leader.
      So that would be a leadership contest between Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna who is anti-Fianna Fáil. Personally I think Nichola registers better in SDLP heartlands while Claire only registers in the metro-textual blogosphere media bubble.
      And that leadership election could bring the FF connexion to a head.
      So better if Colum stays as Leader….but that means one of the Durkans (Mark senior I hope) or one of the second tier SDLP people in Derry.
      The SDLP has the numbers in Derry but as I make the point in the original post, success produces problems with personalities and ambitions and being in the right place at the right time.
      So behind all the smiling faces at victory celebrations, I wonder how things are behind closed doors at constituency associations and at branch levels

      • SDLP Activist - North Down says:

        I never liked the FF thing as I mentioned before.

        South Belfast (where there is quite a lot of anti-Brexit sentiment ) is very vulnerable for the DUP and the SDLP should aim to be the party that gets an MP there. Alliance is a rival on that front. Claire is the person to do that battle I think. I think Mark Durkan (senior) is the person for Foyle. To get those two seats would be amazing and very exciting for the SDLP.

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