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Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party elects its fifth leader this coming weekend, with four male candidates in the running (the deputy leadership has been filled, without contest, by a woman). Since 1998, when the party topped the first preference tallies for the first Assembly election, the SDLP has lost votes and seats at almost every election cycle (the one exception being a sliver of a gain at the last European election) and now runs consistently 10% behind Sinn Féin, whereas twenty years ago it was the other way round. Margaret Ritchie, elected leader in early 2010, did not reverse the trend, and announced in the summer that she would not be a candidate for the leadership at this month's conference. The new leader faces quite a challenge.

I realised as I followed the UUP's leadership election last year that I had missed a trick by not giving the same attention to the contest between Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell a few months earlier, and resolved that I would do better this time. I vaguely know all four candidates. Patsy McGlone (52) is the outgoing Deputy Leader, the only candidate based outside Belfast, representing Mid Ulster in the Assembly. Alasdair McDonnell (62), the previous Deputy Leader who lost the 2010 vote, is the MP for South Belfast, the only one of the three SDLP MPs who has not held the leadership of the party, and also represents South Belfast in the Assembly. Alex Attwood (52), who represents West Belfast in the Assembly, is the party's only minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, responsible for the Environment portfolio. Conall McDevitt (39), the other MLA for South Belfast, is a former party staffer and rising media star though he has only been in the Assembly since 2010.

I have never been an SDLP member and I am not an SDLP supporter, and in any case I live in Belgium so my views are of limited relevance to the party delegates making up their minds this weekend. I certainly won't presume to judge the candidates on their political vision - I am not sure that I was right to make those judgements of the UUP candidates last year. I will note that all four advocate a United Ireland, and all four have slightly different ideas of how to get there; since I don't think that we will get there any time soon, this is not a subject that interests me tremendously.

I am, however, interested both in political communications using the internet, and in the detail of party organisation, and here I think I have enough data to rank the candidates fairly objectively in terms of their performance on the first and their credibility on the second. So I have duly done so.

Use of the Internet

Probably the last thing I did in Northern Irish politics as a participant rather than an analyst was to manage the website for one of the candidates in the last Alliance Party leadership election, back in 2001. (He won, by 86 votes to 45, though I cannot claim that the excellence of his website was a crucial factor.) Today, quite apart from websites, politicians have the options of Twitter and Facebook open to them. How do the SDLP contenders rank?

4) Alex Attwood has no personal website, no twitter account and appears to be invisible on Facebook. The http://www.alexattwood.com site belongs to a composer of incidental music for films and TV. There is a fake (and frankly not very funny) Twitter account for him at @AlexAttwood. As with McDonnell, I got his manifesto after phoning his office to see if they could send it to me.

3) Alasdair McDonnell's website is curiously silent about his leadership aspirations, and as with Attwood I had to phone his office to get his manifesto. But unlike Attwood he has a Facebook page and is vigorous on Twitter.

2) Not long ago I would have easily ranked Conall McDevitt first on performance in this area, with almost twice as many friends on Facebook as the other candidates combined and a vigorous Twitter presence. However, like McDonnell, his website is curiously silent about his leadership, his manifesto being available online at Scribd. His facebook page has two blog addresses, one of which is defunct and the other last updated in early 2009. So he loses points for failure to update and integrate.

1) Patsy McGlone has a dedicated website featuring his leadership manifesto at http://www.patsymcglone.com/, as well as being on Facebook and Twitter. I cannot quite give him full marks though; although his campaign materials are easy to access, look nice and are well produced, they were not adequately proofed before publishing and a number of misprints have survived to the final version.

I don't think anyone should take the above ranking as the sole criterion for judging between the candidates, but it may just shift the balance between two who may be otherwise equally ranked.

Edited to add: I have been informed that some websites are constrained from referring to their owner's leadership campaigns. That may well be so; I can only report on the impression I get of joined-up campaigning.

Internal organisation and campaigning

I was the Alliance Party's Director of Elections / Political organiser for three years in the 1990s, and then spent two years in the Balkans training local political activists on party organisation and campaigning strategy (where I probably learned more from teaching than I had by doing). I don't know if improved internal organisation alone will be enough to help the SDLP reverse its slumping performance; but I doubt very much that such a reversal can be achieved otherwise. In fairness, all of the candidates realise this, and Attwood and McDonnell both put out separate manifesto documents on this point alone. Again, I found it pretty easy to rank the candidates rather objectively on the strength of their proposals in this area.

4) Conall McDevitt devotes least space to this issue, and unlike the other three I think that some of his ideas are actually wrong. He wants the SDLP to organise in the Republic, saying nothing about rebuilding in areas of weakness in the North where the party might actually contest elections and win seats; he wants the party's executive to connect better with local activists by making it smaller, an equation which I don't really see adding up; and he takes it upon himself to propose a new party constitution, sounding a bit like De Valera in 1937, without really mentioning how party activists will be involved with that process. On the other hand, he wants to convene all elected representatives regularly and to introduce a £1 membership fee for young people, senior citizens and those not working, which seem sensible enough ideas, and also talks about enhancing the role of the party's Central Council, a body of which I know nothing more than its name.

REVISED: 4) Alex Attwood's short paper (four pages, one of which is the cover sheet) on "Taking the SDLP Organisation Forward" starts off by demanding loyalty and discipline from members, and asking that "the Leader and Deputy Leader must have the authority to lead". I'm not quite sure what this all refers to but it sends an odd message, a bit of Das Volk hat das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt. He too wants to convene elected representatives regularly, and to move quickly to select candidates as soon as the party leadership has been given the new powers he wants (the document is curiously full of timelines). He praises the performance of his rivals in Mid Ulster and South Belfast in growing the party. I must say that would incline me to vote for a leadership candidate from Mid Ulster and South Belfast.

REVISED: 3) Conall McDevitt has now sent me a much more more detailed twelve-page paper with the title: "Uniting the SDLP: My Plan For Renewing Our Organisation" which I find a considerable improvement on the statements in his manifesto. In particular, two of the three ideas to which I objected are redrafted more sensibly here, in terms of building SDLP support groups in the Republic - "we will, of course, be focussed on growing our organisation in the North, particularly in those constituencies where we have suffered major decline" - and delivering a new party constitution, which is now to be drafted by a working group. I still don't see how a smaller Executive is going to be better at engaging the grass-roots, but that may not matter. As well as convening elected members and the Central Council regularly, and discounted membership fees, he also proposes early selection of candidates, training and performance monitoring for prospective candidates, and a permanent election directorate. I am not sure if performance monitoring for prospective candidates is such a good idea - sounds like this is a reference to problems that I don't know about - and I find the plans really a bit sketchy and managerialist, but they are closer to being in the right direction than Attwood's.

2) Patsy McGlone has some much more specific ideas about rebuilding the party through cooperation between leadership and membership. He wants each candidate to have endorsements from two non-party groups, which may not be implementable but would be interesting to try. He aims to have a functioning branch in every District Electoral Area, which I think is unrealistic but not a bad aspiration. I liked his proposals on this when I first read them; although they could be more coherent (and should have been better proof-read) they are a good set of ideas for party reformers to work with.

1) I had not expected to come to this conclusion, but Alasdair McDonnell has by far the best set of proposals on rebuilding the party. In a six-page leaflet with the title "Decline Stops Now", he starts at the top by promising to appoint a collective leadership with clearly defined roles, and then goes on to describe a "battle ready SDLP". If I were voting, he would have secured my support with the last two sentences of this section, "Where we have no current MLA or councillor there will always be a clearly designated and supported SDLP representative with recognised party status. As a top priority this will be implemented in the four Antrim constituencies, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Strangford." This seems to me more realistic than McGlone's aspiration for a functioning branch in every DEA. He tells the truth about the state of activism in the party: "There is a handful of active branches, usually built around a successful representative, others which are being valiantly carried by a few hard-working individuals, and many which hardly ever meet." And he promises a special conference on party organisation, as well as further thoughts on membership structures and fund-raising. I also like his line that "we should socialise together more". McDonnell gets it right on tone, analysis, and ways and means of finding a solution.

SDLP delegates will of course be taking at least two other considerations into account as they cast their votes - the resonance of each candidate's political vision with their own, and the personal chamistry of each candidate. I am not well placed to judge on either of those questions. But the question of fixing the party's structures is, operationally, the most important problem for the SDLP today, and based on what I have seen from the candidates themselves, Alasdair McDonnell has the best ideas of how to do that.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
fitzjameshorse
Nov. 2nd, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
I am not sure that the tinternet is actually a useful tool in this election. If it has any value (and I am a tecno phobe)it is to reach more people. But with six Hustings for Party members, four launches for the "public and members" and groups of branches getting together to host their own hustings, there has been ample opportunity for every single SDLP member to engage with all four candidates.
Social networking....well I am a Facebook "friend" of the three candidates who use it....but Im not sure that Conall having 2,650 "friends" means anything at all. Indeed his use of the tintenet might actually be a turn off for me rather than a turn on. Knowing how to make an internet "twibbon" might be a good skill in audition for a Blue Peter presenter but its not a skill in the real world of politics. And being "liked" and having a campaign endorsed by some of those 2,650......enemies of the SDLP in the "letsgetalongerist" community is entirely counter-productive in a leadership contest.
The manifestos are essentially meaningless and could be reduced to a single page. There is no real divisions on Health, Education, Job Creation, Irish Unity......the only actual issue is Leadership itself. If I had a vote....and I dont.....Id really want the candidates to just cut to the chase.
In any case the manifestos paragraphs on organisation are meant to be expanded on and certainly at the two launches which I attended (one in Belfast, one in Derry), the two candidates put a lot of flesh on these bones. It can safely assumed thats the case at all those Hustings up and down North East Ireland.
Theres also some scope for reading between the lines or understanding a sub text in a candidates speech.
The only real issue is who can combine the three talents of (1)engaging with the SDLP membership (2) the broader SDLP family ...the long suffering voters
and (3)identify the real enemies of the SDLP in the EXTREME republican community,the unionist community and the letsgetalongerist community.
I think the election at the weekend is merely a starting point for whoever is elected Leader. Time after that to utilise the membership, engage SDLP voters and turn its attention outwards.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)
Website usage
Just to clarify, MLA's websites are often paid for by the Assembly and so cannot be used for internal campaigning for a leadership election, and that is why there is very little appearing on them - well, those of them adhering to the rules!
nwhyte
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Website usage
Understood; I can only report on the impression I get of joined-up campaigning (or not, as the case may be).
(Anonymous)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC)
Alex Attwood
Alex is now the environment minister Nicholas. His portfolio in the last assembly was social development.

J.
nwhyte
Nov. 2nd, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Alex Attwood
Cheers.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
Analysis
Your analysis is very Comprehensive and you have objectively assessed a number of key/core issues. but will the SDLP delegates do the same type of assessment of the candidates. Some of of them will try to turn it into a beauty contest and not a survival process. Just like last time
nwhyte
Nov. 2nd, 2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Analysis
Well, that's their business. And I think it's entirely fair to consider "beauty contest" criteria alongside the others I discuss!
stephensliberaljournal.blogspot.com
Nov. 2nd, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
It is indeed strange that Connall seems to have hidden his website. The defunct link you refer to was active 3 months ago according to my blog roll and was getting updated regularly.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 4th, 2011 09:00 am (UTC)
SDLP LEADERSHIP

If Mr McDonald is not the SDLP leader on Saturday night then that Party is dead and buried....Patsy McGlonme failed to show loyalty to his leader and is shallow in ideas and policies, Alex Attwood may be a good minister but in TV debates fails to impress andConall McDevitt does not have the experience of organising a constituency and got elected to the assembly on the coat tails of Mr McDonald...he should have held his fire until the next leadership contest ( which should be 7/10 years down the line)He should have thrown his support behind McDonald.
If McDonald is not elected leader of the SDLP ..then bye bye to tyhe Party founded by Hume, Mallon, Fitt etc and I will turn to supporting a Labour type party.


Realist
(Anonymous)
Nov. 4th, 2011 09:06 am (UTC)
Re: SDLP LEADERSHIP
I agree with realist.../he/she has made a correct analysis of this contest and A.McDonald is the person to render first aid and revive the party and win back at least 4/6 seats at the next Assembly elections...I wish I were a de;legate to the SDLP conference..If the South BElfast Mp is elected leader bthen I will join the party and work hard to win back a seat herte in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

I urge delegates to vote for the Saviour of the SDLP vbiz. Alasdair McDonald

(Anonymous)
Nov. 4th, 2011 09:19 am (UTC)
Re: SDLP LEADERSHIP
Patsy McGlone was right to contest Margaret Ritchie. She failed totally except to get Eddy McGradys seat and guarantee her seat in parliament for her retirement. She did nothing in her time as leader. Patsy McGlone is too parochial to lead.

Alasdair had the chance last time to become leader, but his campaign was weak and he did not look like a leader then and only marginally does now because the opponents are weaker.

Alex Attwood comes fifth in West Belfast- clearly a leader

Conal McWho?

The future looks bright...
(Anonymous)
Nov. 4th, 2011 09:12 am (UTC)
Waste of time
This contest is pointless as it stands. The SDLP has become a talking shop of self interest. The leader should be campaigning on wider issues and not the internal joke of party infrastructure. The voters could care less. The leader should be galvanising the media and the voters with policies that will bring the party to the fore.

The leader can try and fix the internal issues internally, they should not be the main platform, that is why this is a waste of time as by the time the internal issues are fixed and there are too many to count, voters will have forgotten the party by then...
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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