Belfast Telegraph

It will take a lot more than a new leader to save SDLP

By Ed Curran

I suppose it had to happen. The party whose former leader persuaded the IRA to stop killing and start talking now struggles. Like the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP is a shadow of its former self. Both have slipped and know not where they are heading.

Both are the sum of individual personalities within their respective parties, rather than cohesive political forces.

The current SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie, is only 18 months in situ. Her frustrated deputy, Patsy McGlone, has decided to challenge her.

They haven't been getting on well together and he believes he can do a better job than she has to date.

How the SDLP puts across its message to the public is clearly important. The substance of the message is even more important.

And the question is: what is the message, what is the vision? Of Margaret Ritchie? Or Patsy McGlone? Or anyone else in the SDLP? Or, for that matter, the party's alter ego, the Ulster Unionists?

Sad that it should come to this. The challenge to Ms Ritchie appears to focus on her communication skills. Some political leaders have it. Some don't. Some chief executives do. Some don't.

Tony Blair had it. Gordon Brown didn't. David Cameron has it. Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband don't quite have it. Martin McGuinness most certainly has it. Peter Robinson less so.

In their heyday, Big Ian, John Hume and Seamus Mallon had it. Most notable of all, the Queen had it during her visit to the Republic.

I'm talking about communication skills - the ability to string words together in a manner that ordinary mortals understand; the ability to transmit them in a relaxed matter-of-fact manner, without notes or prompts, when confronted by a camera, microphone or inquisitive reporter.

Margaret Ritchie's leadership of the SDLP is in danger because she is not a natural television performer.

A question-mark rests over her appearances on the box during the last Assembly election.

In the cut and thrust of television debate, whatever X Factor she had swiftly turned to the Y or Z Factor.

In this era of the spin-doctor and the special adviser, performance is all on the political stage.

Gordon Brown's dourness proved costly. All attempts failed at lightening his darkness.

I recall attending a Christmas reception at the House of Commons when Mr Brown arrived beaming from cheek to cheek and stayed that way even as he ate lunch.

Some special adviser had instructed him to employ a Colgate perma-smile, but it didn't last and neither did he.

Whether Ms Ritchie survives the challenge to her leadership only the SDLP rank-and-file can answer.

She appears a very competent and compassionate politician, but clearly also has a touch of steel in her make-up to get where she is today. Undoubtedly, more charismatic leaders would help the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.

However, both parties need a heart transplant, rather than a superficial make-over.

They have seen their policies stolen before their eyes and, in the case of the Ulster Unionists, some of the most prominent personnel have gone, too. This political osmosis continues unabated.

Like the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP has been living in a land of diminishing returns ever since Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness agreed to share power.

Every year that passes takes the two parties which started it all further away from the prospect of leading the pack themselves.

They may have lost their best chance in the last Assembly; they failed to capitalise on the public's frustration and anger at the Stormont Executive.

Had the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists formed an alliance of constructive opposition, they might have regained ground.

They didn't do it and are locked into full membership of the five-party coalition.

The SDLP and the Ulster Unionists tell us they are different, but the first thing they do on re-election is to dive into the same pool as the people who are out to destroy them.

Ms Ritchie may, or may not, be ousted. However, it will take more than an articulate and charismatic leader to rescue her party - as it will the Ulster Unionists - from their continued slide towards political obscurity.

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