Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

SDLP conference: Less than half of party are content with leader Alasdair McDonnell

Exclusive: Low approval rating blow for McDonnell in survey of grassroots

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell with his daughter at the annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel
Alex Attwood after his speech at the SDLP annual conference

Less than half (48%) of SDLP activists are satisfied with Dr Alasdair McDonnell's performance as party leader.

The Belfast Telegraph surveyed delegates at the party's two-day annual conference and found that only 48% were satisfied while the rest of those surveyed either felt neutral about him (32%) or were dissatisfied (20%).

The poll also showed majority support (62%) for the proposition that nationalist as well as unionist councils should fly the union flag on designated days as happens in Belfast. Currently nationalist councils do not fly the union flag at all.

In his speech to delegates on Saturday, Dr McDonnell described the Belfast decision as "Belfast City Council as a sensible compromise". Flags, along with parading and the past, is one of the topics covered in the ongoing Haass talks. Just over half of delegates believe that Dr Haass's recommendations would simply be a basis for further discussion, compared to 38% who believed they should be accepted in full. One topical result was that a majority of 58% would wear a poppy if attending a Remembrance Day event and only 2% would refuse, with the rest undecided.

There were a series of questions on abortion. Despite the SDLP's existing pro-life stance, 36% believed abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after counselling. At the other end of the spectrum, 26% held that abortion was murder. The vast majority (84%) would allow it where the mother's life was in danger and a smaller majority of 66% felt it should be available to rape and incest victims. Just under half (46%) would allow it if the foetus was unlikely to survive birth.

Delegates were asked which of a range of party leaders and other public figures they trusted. Basil McCrea of NI21 came out top with 76%, something which will encourage NI21 to seek SDLP transfers in next year's elections. Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, was trusted by 64% and David Ford, of Alliance, by exactly half (50%).

There was evident suspicion of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness who scored dismal trust levels of 10% and 8% respectively. This was far lower than Jim Allister, the hardline unionist TUV leader (38%) or Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, (34%).

In terms of satisfaction Dr McDonnell's overall satisfaction rating was +28%. This figure is arrived at when the 20% who gave him the least favourable scores of four or five is subtracted from the 48% who gave him one or two.

"Normally you would expect a party leader to get over +80% net approval amongst supporters," said Bill White of LucidTalk polling who calculated the result.

This is a weak showing for the SDLP leader at his third annual conference. By the same measure Mike Nesbitt of the UUP got a net satisfaction rating of +94% at last month's UUP conference where nobody gave him a low rating and only 4% felt neutral.

Dr McDonnell's score fell below the number who were satisfied with the performance of the PSNI. That came out at +42%, higher than the PSNI's +26% score amongst UUP delegates. At least Dr McDonnell avoided a minus rating, as happened to the First and deputy First Ministers in our last full opinion poll published in September.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness scored -10.7% and -2.6%.

We asked SDLP delegates how likely it was that their party would leave the Executive and go into opposition by the end of 2017. They gave it an overall likelihood of -4%, marginally below an even split.

Margaret Ritchie in favour of debate on opposition

Margaret Ritchie, the former SDLP leader and MP for South Down, made a dramatic intervention at the tail-end of the conference when she demanded that the party go in to opposition.

"I sat around the Executive table for three years seeing the very worst of DUP/Sinn Fein behaviour," said Ms Ritchie, a former minister. "Regrettably, I don't see the situation improving and yet all the while this proud party is being tarnished with their failure. And people are denied the exciting alternatives this party can offer.

"I'm glad that Alasdair, along with Dolores (Kelly the deputy leader), has opened up a debate on the question of going in to opposition."

She was referring to a debate that had been held within the Assembly and Westminster group a few months back and which many had thought was concluded.

Ms Ritchie and Ms Kelly are now doing their best to revive it and they are tapping in to a deep vein of discontent with a government dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"I will be arguing in favour of going in to opposition and sooner rather than later I would give similar advice to the Ulster Unionist Party, as I think we have reached the point that any party that wants to offer a credible alternative at the next election, needs to get out. If I had my way we would be in opposition by Christmas," she said.

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