It beats me why anyone would want to be leader of the South Down and Londonderry Party. And yet, incredibly, two people do want it, with both social development minister Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and incumbent deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast) now having declared themselves. What’s even odder, as Brian Feeney points out in a pithy analysis, is that the SDLP has been in existence since 1970 and this is the first time it’s ever had a contested leadership election. Gerry Fitt was leader at the foundation (had anyone chosen to challenge him, they would have soon discovered that Gerry was a dab hand at mobilising the graveyard vote); John Hume was proclaimed leader by acclamation, as was Mark Durkan.
Indeed, the party wouldn’t be having an election now if Alasdair McDonnell had his way. He’s publicly called for Margaret Ritchie to withdraw from the leadership race and form a “dream ticket” as his deputy. She won’t, of course, but it just goes to show that there’s nothing more elitist than Humespeak.
It’s not exactly a glittering field. In political parlance, neither is ‘a big beast’.
Well, we know Brian has a rather sour attitude towards his former party colleagues, but he does at least know them well. And what’s at stake for the party?
The party has been bleeding votes for a decade, a loss which became a haemorrhage in 2004 when the party dropped 100,000 votes in the European election.
Next year’s general election is another critical test. The SDLP must hold its three Westminster seats.
The immediate task for a new leader is therefore clear: to restore organisation and morale and stem the flow of votes.
In short, it’s a task that makes Gordon Brown look like he was born under a lucky star. The major talking point about the SDLP in recent years has been whether or not it would expire before the Unionist Party did. Look, for example, at the results from the 2007 Stormont election. The SDLP’s first preference vote was below one quota in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, East Derry, North Antrim, South Antrim, Upper Bann, North Belfast and West Belfast – although it retained seats in all these constituencies, these MLAs had to be elected in the later counts, largely via the transfer of PSF surpluses. In West Tyrone the party actually cobbled together slightly more than a quota, but lost its seat due to a lunatic strategy of running three candidates. The SDLP has very few surefire winners even in a Stormont PR poll, never mind for Westminster.
Mark you, even though the SDLP has no chance of increasing its three-seat haul, it does have some advantages. Mark Durkan is justly popular in Derry and, while Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money, it would be a huge shock if he failed to win there. In South Down, despite Eddie McGrady’s advancing years, he does have an incumbency advantage and can’t have been harmed by Caitríona Ruane’s travails as education minister. South Belfast, of course, is a hugely unpredictable three-way marginal. It will be a close-run thing.
So what do the candidates for the party leadership have to offer? Here’s Brian:
Organisation and finance are areas regarded as Alasdair McDonnell’s forte. A successful businessman himself, he is also a formidable motivator, but a polarising figure in the SDLP.
He and Mark Durkan did not gel as leader and deputy leader. McDonnell was not allowed a free hand in organising as he had hoped and allowed his frustration to show.
The good doctor can be ruthless and forceful and does not suffer fools. For some in the party his elevation to deputy leader was a shock and the same people now fear for their future if he were to become leader.
Interestingly enough, he’s less popular with those who’ve have close experience of him than with those who know him as a competent media performer. Nobody doubts the man’s ambition, but along the way he’s seriously pissed off so many party colleagues as to put a question mark over his electability within the party. Note also Durkan’s resignation statement drawing attention to the issue of double jobbing, something that could very easily be interpreted as a dig at Alasdair. Lucky for him that it’s a delegate conference and not the Assembly party that decides the contest.
You could see some of McDonnell’s opponents lined up behind Margaret Ritchie as she declared her candidature.
One is Carmel Hanna, MLA from McDonnell’s own South Belfast constituency. Another is Alex Attwood from West Belfast.
I like Carmel Hanna, but her influence is limited by Alasdair’s iron grip on the South Belfast SDLP. And wee Alex’s record as an electoral strategist surely counts against him.
For many people in the party Margaret Ritchie is the ‘Stop McDonnell’ candidate. For every member who believes McDonnell is exactly what is needed to shake the party up, blow fresh air through it, there’s a member who would be horrified if he became leader, fearing that he’s too brusque, volatile and unpredictable. It looks like a tight race which could turn pointed.
And it would be none the worse for all that. A cobbling together of a “dream ticket” that would paper over the very real differences in the party would arguably be far more damaging in the long run than a big barney that would at least get those issues out in the open. You can’t plot a strategy if you’re not going to have an argument about strategy.
Margaret Ritchie hopes to garner support among the party’s strongest areas: South Down and Foyle where the biggest branches are. Ritchie’s popularity in the SDLP has soared after her dogged stance against money potentially going to fund groups connected to loyalist paramilitaries. Being attacked by Peter Robinson didn’t do her any harm either. However, while Alasdair McDonnell could never be criticised for lack of ambition and drive, Margaret Ritchie has always been content to remain in the shadow of Eddie McGrady, working for decades in his constituency office and unhesitatingly accepting his decision to stand again for Westminster, both in 2005 and again next year at the age of 75.
She is the safe, establishment candidate. She will rock no boats. She threatens no one in the SDLP.
Indeed not, if she can’t suggest gently to Eddie McGrady that he might like to consider retirement.
The same can’t be said for McDonnell who believes some people in the SDLP need threatened. He’s a firm believer that in political parties hot air rises and dead wood floats and that, if there isn’t change, the SDLP will submerge under the weight of that dead wood.
I’m not sure about this theory of regeneration through hot air, but Alasdair is surely the man to test it out.
Where will he get his support if Ritchie holds on to the big branches?
First, his own constituency. Although his running mate, Carmel Hanna, supports Ritchie, McDonnell still rules the roost there. Other parts of Belfast are not important because there are no SDLP members in large swathes of the city.
This is true, as Brian well knows. In West Belfast, for instance, there is still a substantial SDLP vote, but the party probably has fewer paid-up members in the constituency than the Workers Party. One can extend this to many of the rural areas, where local fiefs can get elected by name recognition without needing branches. This doesn’t necessarily make for bad representation – someone like Dominic Bradley, for instance, is a decent and useful public representative – but there’s an obvious problem for the longer term in that many of the fiefs are getting a bit long in the tooth. As Brian points out:
The technicalities of the election aside, the new leader faces serious problems, the first of which is the average age of party members and elected representatives. The SDLP seems to have frozen about 25 years ago, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Incredibly, Mark Durkan – the outgoing leader at 49 – is their youngest MLA. Margaret Ritchie is 51 and Alasdair McDonnell 60.
Compare David Cameron (43) or Brian Cowen (49). There’s something wrong with a party whose current leader is its youngest MLA.
There are no visible young figures in the party. Yes, they do have a few young councillors, but none has developed a political profile. None is an obvious candidate for stardom.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Gerry Adams is a good dozen years older than Durkan, and most of his kitchen cabinet are about the same age as Gerry, but he still looks like he leads a more youthful organisation. Does the SDLP have people who are analogous to Conor Murphy or Michelle Gildernew or John O’Dowd? If so, they’re well hidden.
Finally, policy. What does the SDLP want now that the Good Friday Agreement has been achieved?
They exude an attitude of entitlement and bitterness, forgetting that voters don’t care about past achievements.
The leading figures spend their time attacking Sinn Fein’s policies. When John Hume was leader everyone knew what the SDLP wanted. They were sick hearing him repeating it. What does the new SDLP leader want? Can either McDonnell or Ritchie enunciate a separate identity for the SDLP, look to the future, carve out a path to follow that will not only enthuse members but attract new young recruits?
And this theme of entitlement and bitterness rings quite true. Alex Attwood has often seemed bemused at why voters don’t turn out in droves to thank the SDLP for having pioneered the peace process. Moreover, you can’t base a popular appeal on “we hate the Provos”, as the Workers Party discovered – although to be fair, the WP always had some positive ideas too. You need something that you actually stand for.
And the lack of actual policy is striking, although par for the course in the north. The Phoenix was saying the other week that, where Durkan was a Labour man, McDonnell was essentially a Fianna Fáiler. If this is so, it’s a matter of milieu, as Alasdair went to UCD and is mates with lots of FFers, while Mark worked closely with John Hume and so would have had exposure to the European social democrats. None of this has filtered through into any clear ideological division.
This, ultimately, is what’s going to be the new leader’s task – to lay out what the SDLP is for in the New Dispensation. If the winner can’t do that, it may well be that, as Brian speculates, the party’s first leadership election could be its last. Often with a Brian Feeney article on the SDLP, there seems to be an undertone of “Why didn’t those bozos make me the leader?” Today, Brian may feel that he had a lucky escape.