SDLP must progress or panic will set in

Posted By: March 12, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast), Saturday, March 12, 2016

Is the SDLP’s decision to hold a second annual conference today, just four months after the last one, an indication of progress or panic?

The party says it is progress, promising a “robust alternative” (to what?) and a new stage in its political life. The panic possibility is based on the premise that if Sinn Féin is Stormont’s Fine Gael, the SDLP is its  Irish Labour Party – and we know what happens to junior coalition partners.

The truth probably lies in the combined theory that the conference is an attempt at progress by preventing panic. (And with a loss of 80,000 votes between 1998 and 2011, this would be a good time to panic.) How well the party succeeds in 2016 depends largely on whether last week’s political earthquake in the Dáil election will trigger cross-border tremors.

As growing inequality prompts political challenge to many established governments across the world, will the north join in an all-Ireland electoral renaissance, or will we settle for another five years of sectarian subjection?

While the latter is more likely, it will leave the SDLP at significant electoral risk, for three reasons: its record of achievement in Stormont, its current policies and its brand identity. It can address the second two, but it is lumbered with the first one.

As well as entrenching sectarian politics, Stormont has developed a reputation for taking liberties with public money to enhance the financial and political prospects of at least some of its parties. It regulates its own ethical standards and it does it shamefully.

In that context, we can expect an increase in voter apathy, or greater support for smaller, left-wing parties. It will hardly be an earthquake, but it may eat into support for executive parties, particularly on the nationalist side.

We can only hope it does, because it will be a welcome alternative to this country’s tradition of expressing a lack of confidence in political institutions through violence. (“Save the peace process. Vote against the five executive parties”.)

Despite pre-election attempts to distance itself from Stormont’s worst excesses (“We were an opposition within the executive”) the SDLP is an integral part of the system. Its recent support for a petition of concern to block the introduction of fair employment legislation for schools ties the party to what has become an abuse of democracy.

Its explanation for supporting the PSNI’s training of the repressive Qatari police force was that the exercise was to see “how we can transform and change policing in Qatar.” (Civil rights, how are you?) The party might be better addressing the PSNI’s failure to achieve half its annual targets.

If the SDLP cannot change its past, what can it do about its future? In policy terms there is little to separate it from Sinn Féin, with the possible exception of their respective policies on abortion. The similarities between the two parties was illustrated when Martin McGuinness decided (as is his right) to stand in Foyle this year.

Instead of emphasising policy differences between the two parties, the SDLP compared Derry’s election contest to the Battle of Stalingrad. It was an odd electoral strategy, particularly since it did not specify which party they regarded as Russians and which was German. (You could suggest that Sinn Féin probably represents the Germans, who lost an entire army at Stalingrad. Sinn Féin has recently done the same. But it would ruin your chances of an OBE.)

The SDLP’s policy options are to remain frozen in time, or to become a Bernie Sanders to nationalism’s Hilary Clinton. The party will never get a better chance to make electoral gains, by recognising the growing popularity of left wing policies in Europe and the US.

It would also address its long-standing problem of brand identity. During the last SDLP conference in November, this column proposed that they should cope with electoral collapse by following Micheál Martin’s lead.

It suggested that his re-branding of Fianna Fáil could win 40 seats (he won 44) and, since the SDLP had failed to re-brand, it should seriously consider merging with FF. (Accepting that advice would have put a spring in their step today.)

If they will not copy centre-right Fianna Fáil, their only option is to move to the left and join the charge against an increasingly discredited Stormont from opposition.

That would mean copying Sinn Féin’s stance in the Dáil, but since they accuse SF of stealing their clothes, perhaps it is time to launch a retaliatory raid on SF’s political wardrobe?

Maybe that is what they mean by a robust alternative?