Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

SDLP conference: There's still time to impress, but now he must deliver on his pledges

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell with his daughter at the annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell with his daughter at the annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel

Dr Alasdair McDonnell has clearly failed to enthuse his party.

Our snap survey of delegates showed that, but just because he doesn't command unquestioning loyalty it doesn't mean that his job is in immediate danger.

His low overall satisfaction rating conceals the fact only a fifth of those surveyed were actively dissatisfied, and he faces no obvious challenger.

Talking to delegates, there was no demand to dump their leader with three years of elections ahead. He still has time to impress.

Next year's European and council elections will be a real test. The SDLP vote has been in freefall since before John Hume resigned as leader in 2001. In 2004, it lost its European seat to Sinn Fein.

Our last three LucidTalk polls suggested that the slide has been halted on Dr McDonnell's watch and the vote may even creep up a little. In May 2012 the party scored 12.5%, in November last year it was 13.5% and in September this year it hit 13.8%.

There are benchmarks to meet. In a recent interview he said he would count it a failure if the SDLP didn't win 70 seats in the local government elections. That is a big ask, given the number of councils will be slashed from 26 to 11. He could regret setting the bar so high.

He also has to struggle to maintain unity. Margaret Ritchie, his predecessor, drew a round of applause when she called for the party to go in to opposition in Stormont by Christmas, a policy to which Dr McDonnell has expressed public opposition. His deputy, Dolores Kelly, expressed the same view.

This sort of high profile defiance is a danger sign but, as those close to Dr McDonnell see it, calls for opposition mask a deeper dissatisfaction with playing second fiddle to the DUP and Sinn Fein in government. The SDLP yearns to get stuck in to the two bigger parties; it is not lacking in fight or ambition.

That is a healthy sign, but Dr McDonnell will be in trouble if he fails to deliver.

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