SDLP Game of Thrones2, August 2011 | By: Malachy Quinn | 1 Comment »
Chairperson of the SDLP in Coalisland, Malachy Quinn, gives his opinion on the party’s new leadership contest
Filming has begun in Belfast for the second season of HBO series Game Of Thrones, but come November Belfast will play host to a another battle, indeed a second battle for the leadership throne in the SDLP.
It has been only two years since their very first leadership contest, but the SDLP is set to make history once again with the first ever leadership challenge in the party’s 40-year history. Margaret Ritchie became leader two years ago after defeating South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell by 35 votes at a special conference. But despite having a personal victory in the 2010 Westminster election, criticisms of her leadership style and media appearances by people on the street and a very poor result for the SDLP in May’s Assembly election has left her leadership in question. Yesterday saw Mid-Ulster MLA and SDLP deputy leader Patsy McGlone officially stating his intention to seek election for SDLP leadership.
Two years ago the media were reporting that the SDLP were at a crossroads, bleeding votes to Sinn Féin and Alliance. Yet they were managing to hold their own core vote and it was hoped the leadership contest could spark a renewal in interests for them. Two years on the SDLP, while keeping their three MP Seats, have now lost a further 10,000 voters in May’s Assembly election and, more crucially, have lost two MLAs – when they were expecting to gain two or possibly three. If reports are to be believed from last week they have lost a lot of money from donations falling from £83,672 to £36,922, which will be a worrying figure for whoever takes over in November.
With nominations still open until the start of September, only Patsy McGlone has so far declared his intention to run against Ritchie. The media is heavily speculating that former leadership challenger Alasdair McDonnell will run – and he hasn’t ruled himself out. The Daily Mirror has reported that environment minister Alex Attwood and newcomer Conall McDevitt will also declare their intention to run for the top job while Margaret Ritchie has been defiant and seems determined to fight for her position. Both Attwood and McDevitt have both appeared to rule this out, but a month is a long time in politics.
There is no evidence that a leadership change will change much in a party. The Ulster Unionists went through the same motions when David Trimble was leader, with Jeffery Donaldson challenging his leadership until he left for the DUP. And Reg Empey and Tom Elliot have both failed to bring the party back to its former glory. Will a new SDLP do any different? What does the party need?
To me there is no magic solution, but the SDLP need to start doing things like a political party should. First they need to build an organisation, (an issue that should have dominated the leadership contest two years ago, but was dropped in favour of a personalities battle) in vast areas across the SDLP require root-and-branch reform. They need to start getting the basic structure in place in order to function properly. This has been a serious problem since the days of Hume and Mallon and everyone talks about fixing it. The next leader NEEDS to sort it out and, with three years before the next election, there will be no room for excuses.
Second, they need to work on the party message and they need to be able to put it clearly so that people will start listening . Last May they were accused of having a very muddled message and just being opposed to whatever Sinn Féin said. While anyone who read into it knew that was untrue, it was the perception, and the SDLP failed to counteract that message. It cost them in terms of seats. Communication is going to be key over the next three years and sorting out truly what the SDLP offers the people of the six counties that no other party does, and why is it them that will take the party forward. With the percentage of voters falling each election, the SDLP also need to find something that will make them relevant to those who don’t see politics as relevant.
Thirdly, the party need to start thinking strategically in terms of votes. If we take for example the one ministry they have. Alex Attwood is a fine minister, but there is no political gain from him being in that position. West Belfast will always elect one SDLP MLA – There is no gain for the party giving that ministry to that constituency. Sinn Féin are targeting extra seats in Mid-Ulster (all three MLAs now have elevated positions in government), in Upper-Bann (John O’Dowd has got education minister), and taking a 3rd seat in Folye (Martina Anderson is a junior minister). They already proved successful in this ploy with Michelle Gildernew helping take three SF seats in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Whoever leads the SDLP after November needs to start thinking in such ways. After all, they will all be implementing the same SDLP policy so it’s time to build profile in those areas that need it.
Fourth, The SDLP need to unite and get fixed on a common goal. There have always been divisions like in any other party but whilst Hume and Mallon didn’t always agree, they worked together and were always in sync when the way forward was shown. The new leader and deputy leader elected in November need not always agree, but they will need to unite a party behind a firm message, because there will be enough people trying to bring them down.
A message that is mixed between out-greening Sinn Féin while also trying to attract Unionist transfers simply isn’t cutting it. The SDLP need to start finding out who they are and not basing themselves on who others are. Banging on about past glories like the Good Friday Agreement is not as exciting as attending Republican memorials, and the SDLP were never about looking back but working towards a better future. Somewhere post Hume-Mallon, the party forgot that. The SDLP need to stop telling us what they have done and start challenging the wrongs the present government are making.
Other people have other issues and will address them as the leadership contest heats up.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the SDLP. They have 94,000 people who still vote for them and they attracted more transfers in the last election than any other party, so people still feel they offer something, it’s time now to challenge those would-be leaders to give them that long sought after answer. The debate has started and will be added to in the weeks and months ahead.