Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Struggling SDLP can't afford to be camera-shy

Sign of weakness: Patsy McGlone was keen but Alex Attwood decided against taking part in a televised leadership debate

You'd think, wouldn't you, that the SDLP would want to be on TV at the centre of political debate, showing that it has leadership candidates with real fire in their bellies and good ideas for the future? You might think that - but you would be wrong.

The party pulled out of a leadership debate on the BBC's Hearts and Minds programme tonight at the last moment. After much cogitation, the hierarchy thought it would be too divisive.

Perhaps they have learnt the Stalinist ways of the DUP and Sinn Fein, whose ministers and senior figures are surrounded by phalanxes of minders and whose MLAs live in fear of making any kind of statement that crosses the party line.

These defensive tactics may serve the big parties well - they are at the top of the political game and have ground to defend. The SDLP, on the other hand, is near the bottom and needs to make itself heard.

Let's be blunt. Unless the party shakes itself up and makes people take notice, the SDLP could be electing its last leader this coming weekend.

The next three to four years will be crucial, so they had better choose the right person for the job.

When a political party is on the slide like this, giving up a slot on prime-time TV for four of its leading figures to debate policy, is a sign of weakness, not a demonstration of strength.

Instead of debating openly, they have sent their leaders to debate at local hustings where 70 people is considered a good turn-out and no one outside the party will be any the wiser about what went on.

When a party loses support over the course of several elections and is on a clear downward trajectory, the last thing it should do is begin to turn in on itself. There will be no election until the European poll in 2014, so this is a safe enough time to air a few differences, get the debate going and judge the public mood.

That is what most parties who suffered a setback would do. As a BBC source pointed out: "The Labour party in Britain had the Iraq war, the Blair/Brown rivalry and two feuding brothers to contend with, but they still managed to do a debate on Newsnight after losing the election. We had hoped for something similar from the SDLP."

To give them their due, some of the leadership candidates see that. "I would debate anywhere. I was up for it," says Patsy McGlone.

"I don't see it as divisive at all. Four grown men should be able to conduct themselves in a way that would make sure it would never become divisive. I was very much looking forward to it," added Conall McDevitt.

Alex Attwood said he had originally been in favour of the idea, feeling that he would do well in debate, but was persuaded against taking part by other party members who discussed the issue with him last week.

Alasdair McDonnell said he was satisfied with the party decision, although he wanted a televised debate last year when his opponent would have been Margaret Ritchie.

This is one opportunity missed through timidity. It needs to be the last.

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