Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

We've heard the talk; it's time we saw some action

It's five months since his election as SDLP leader and Alasdair McDonnell has yet to make an impression on his party's flagging fortunes, says Ruairi O'Kane

A reasonable prediction for politicians to make is that they will never make predictions.

Given Harold Wilson's famed assertion that a week is a long time in politics, it must have been Alasdair McDonnell's thinking that a 100-day deadline to kick-start his recovery plan for the SDLP was both timely and achievable. But, five months since the bull entered the china shop promising a smashing time, the most enduring tales of destruction have been of the 'self' variety.

The 'blinding light' episode of his maiden speech was an unlucky beginning, guaranteeing the party a permanent slot on show reels of political bloopers, alongside the likes of Neil Kinnock's tumble on Brighton beach. However, it detracted from McDonnell's message that he intended to stop the decline of the SDLP.

His 100-day plan included the appointment of a collective leadership, the establishment of permanent election directorate, the selection of representatives to fill constituency gaps, the hosting of an economic conference and a fundraising target of £20,000.

Many of these targets are, indeed, worthy, but few scream electoral recovery. Collective leadership is wonderful in theory and an initiative not entirely new, either, in the annals of history, or within the SDLP, where regular leadership meetings were established and continued by the previous two leaders.

The wheels came off McDonnell's collective leadership when he made ill-advised remarks about MLAs' pay in an extremely loose New Year interview.

His call - contrary to SDLP policy - for a more generous pension provision and a small increase in pay sparked alarm and outrage in the party and the public, prompting senior colleagues to break ranks and set the record straight.

McDonnell did himself no favours with other comments about the party's position in government and his thoughts on the southern constitution.

The rotation of the party's single ministry may be sound internal party politics, but it is hardly a move likely to capture the public's imagination and will undoubtedly weaken the SDLP around the Executive table, where the forensic Alex Attwood is arguably the party's most capable operator at that level.

This move allowed the perception to exist that the SDLP was using its Executive position to bestow patronage, as McDonnell likened his decision to sharing out a cake.

His words on the reform of the Irish constitution - stating that he was happy to leave the Taoiseach and others to "tweak their constitution" - are not what you would expect to hear from the leader of a nationalist party.

The danger with further introspective examination of the SDLP is that it can be viewed as a displacement activity, which will delay tackling more difficult tasks.

As Tim Bale, the political scientist and author of the recently published The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, told the Fianna Fail ard fheis, it is leadership - not membership - which holds the key to comeback.

He would be better served establishing a strategy group, not just comprising defeated rivals and predecessors, but one containing supporters from academia and the public, private and community and voluntary sectors.

This group could be tasked with determining where the party is going, what has gone wrong and how it can be put right - including defining positions on Opposition in the Assembly and on all-island politics. Having no objection to the Labour Party standing in local government and Assembly elections is one thing, but does this apply equally to Fianna Fail?

No more can the party tolerate losing the likes of Helen Quigley, Pol Callaghan and Grainne Teggart, or fail to promote the likes of the highly-regarded Colin McGrath to its Assembly team. No party can afford to make these mistakes. And no other would have.

Questions need to be asked why the SDLP lost in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, failed miserably in East Antrim and limped over the line in West Tyrone in a way that achieves salvation, rather than producing recrimination.

This process needs to be completed quickly, so the party can concentrate more on positive campaigns and less on protest.

Recent conferences on welfare reform and an agri-food show were well-attended and well-received. Their conversion into electoral gain is the priority.

Becoming research-led would allow the SDLP to identify vote-winning issues which can be conveyed effectively to specific target groups.

Presentation has be taken seriously and if that means dropping McDonnell from the media frontline in order to minimise risk and allowing more polished performers to take the lead, then so be it.

But the intricate planning for the next elections needs to have begun - if only to anticipate and eradicate future arguments.

Parties with esteemed and august reputations and traditions seldom evaporate. But, with regards to the SDLP, who will be bold enough to make that prediction?

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