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.