Monday, 7 November 2011

The SDLP have bigger problems than bright lighting.

Unsurprisingly, a good deal of the media coverage of Alasdair McDonnell's maiden speech as the new leader of the SDLP focused on the mechanics. McDonnell, blinded by bright television lights, seemed unable to focus on effective delivery, went 'off script' several times, and stopped his speech more than once to complain about the lighting. The broadcast ended before the speech and so the SDLP missed the most important visual; their leader getting a standing ovation from the delegates.

Given that this was speech was being broadcast live this level of unprofessionalism is unforgivable. There is no excuse for it and if the SDLP want to be the party they need to be to win the next election, their media management will have to step up a level. Naturally, the SDLP have implored us to focus on the content and substance of the speech rather than McDonnell's delivery. Having done just that, I'm left thinking that the they should be thankful more people aren't.

The speech, absent the ad libs, weighs in at over 3000 words. Yet nowhere in the speech is there any substantive mention of the most important people of all - the people. The only slight allude to them is when McDonnell mentions how the SDLP need more votes. Apart form being blindingly obvious, that doesn't really cover the subject properly does it? Let's remember that politics is supposedly about serving the public so you would think a major speech such as this would at least make reference to the importance of appealing to the wider public.

McDonnell spoke, unknowingly, almost exclusively to party members & supporters and to their counterparts in the rival parties. You would hope he can rely on SDLP members to vote SDLP and for sure he cant count on not getting votes from party members, so why aim your whole speech at just them? What was there in the speech for the ordinary, non aligned voter? Where was the appeal to people, generally disinterested in politics, to pay attention to the SDLP?

If you were generally ignorant of the political world, listening to that speech yesterday would have given you no clear insight as to what separates the SDLP from Sinn Fein (or, terrifyingly, from the DUP), despite McDonnell's jibe about sectarian turkeys. He goes onto make the most substantive part of his speech, at least in policy terms, on the constitutional issue but echoes the old Gerry Adams mantra that Unionists just don't know what's best for them  when he speaks of 'teasing out where their best long term interest lie'. I'm sorry, Alasdair, but Unionists are quite capable of working that out without your help and have been telling you the answer for many, many years.

I'd like to see McDonnell take the fight to Sinn Fein and win: on a personal level, the SDLP are much more favourable than Sinn Fein. However, this won't happen by merely shaking up the structures within the party or by reviewing and republishing policy. It will only happen by building new relationships with the electorate and by repairing and rebuilding old ones. That means activists, not just members and it means them out, every week, knocking on doors, attending events, listening to the people and helping them. It means making the connection between the SDLP & the people. A good place to start doing that would have been the maiden speech from a new leader. Oh well.


  1. Good article Ed. Well written and well informed. One pertinent question remains: Will the SDLP ever rise again, or is this it?...

  2. I'm not prepared to write them off yet. For all the faults with the speech, there are those within the SDLP who know that they need to motivate party activists to get out and connect with people and make themselves known in the community.

    If McDonnell is good to his word and listens to his grass-roots he may still bring about a recovery.

  3. Things often have to hit rock bottom before they are overturned and changed for the better. The SDLP missed a huge oppertunity in overlooking Conall McDevitt in the leadership race - but whats done is done.

    The important thing now is that it is blatantly obvious to (the majority) of those within the party that they must reconnect with the electorate as well as young and future voters, and actions will now be taken to try to achieve this at all levels.

    With young representatives such as Colum Eastwood, Mark H. Durkan and Conall McDevitt there is most definitely a youthful appeal at the upper ends of the party than can be, and must be, utilised and built upon

  4. thats a great statement from colm,mark and boys never miss a trick

  5. Anon - I now can't read that 3rd comment without Conall McDevitt's voice in my head!

  6. Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Conal barely a elected representative for a year? Didn't he lose the election contest here too?

    The bias of youth against experience would've seen Hume replaced by Durkan MP or Attwood before the Good Friday Agreement and long before the SDLP.

    Let's remember Alisdair is barely a year older than McGuinness or Robinson or Ford ... why not just throw your backing behind young 48 year old Tom Elliot for that matter?

    The SDLP's success will be measured in votes not tricks.

  7. * long before the SDLP had the largest vote in the previous Assembly elections.