Saturday, February 06, 2010

SDLP Conference: social, democratic, a bit like New Labour, but I’m still not really sure what they stand for

Margaret Ritchie poster in Newcastle - one of many on which the ink ran in the rain!

The SDLP’s annual conference was a curious beast. It still retained the traditional party-centric inward nature while squeezing some public facing sessions into the middle.

With 172 motions to consider – down on the 215 from last year’s conference! – there was an enormous amount of business to get through on top of the televised speeches. (Update - you can read some more about Friday night's motions and debate over on Mr Ulster's blog.) There was also the small matter of a leadership contest, and less-well publicised party executive elections.

The Open Unionism blog ran a couple of posts by Bobballs on the subject of party conference innovation and promoting political engagement back in November. We even talked around it in episode 5 of NvTv’s Blog Talk.

A couple of years ago, the BBC started to broadcast a couple of hours of the main party conferences live on the internet and BBC Two. It fundamentally changed how the local party conferences run. The speeches from party leaders no longer finish the conference but are now in the middle of the day to coincide with the live broadcast. Other topical speeches and presentations were squeezed in on either side of the leader to present as positive image of the party to the viewing public during the broadcast window of opportunity.

A lot of parties – eg, UUP, DUP, Alliance – have turned their conferences into crisp, media-friendly, voter-engaging meetings with no internal business visible other than a handful of high profile set piece resolutions on the important political issues of the day.

But the SDLP are unlike most parties. They run a 48 hour conference stretching from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. They seem to truly put the “social” and “party” into the Social Democratic and Labour Party! So for those staying over in the Slieve Donard Hotel, a leisurely breakfast seemed more important than obeying the instruction to be seated by half nine.

An empty hall after the morning session was meant to have started

Business finally started about 25 minutes late with only 30 delegates in the huge conference room. Numbers rose to 400 or more by the time the leadership candidates gave their speeches. With such a small audience, there were few contributions from the floor. Declan O’Loan expressed his annoyance at the debates on important issues of justice and policing (motions 57 – 75, though they stopped after 61) being cut short in this way.

On the subject of parading, Declan O’Loan felt that “far more parades should be contentious”. In other words, all parades marching through an area that predominantly voted differently from those marching should automatically be deemed contentious and problematic.

Considering the idea that local councils might have a role in making parading decisions within their boundaries, Brid Rodgers was unenthusiastic about the idea of Craigavon Council making a decision about the Drumcree parade.

Both party leader candidates had a chance to address the conference on Friday evening, and again this morning. Alasdair McDonnell was up first. The speech was ok; the delivery was awful. Looking back over the printed version of the speech, it is obvious that he was trying to appeal to the grass roots members of the party who all have a vote this weekend. He made it personal, and pointed out his weaknesses as well as those of the party.

McDonnell identified that the party needed more smart professional young people, citing Orla Beattie in Limavady as an example. He went on to suggest that

“We have drifted for too long, allowed ourselves to be taken for granted for too long and we have tolerated analysis and further analysis of analysis, in place of action for too long.”

He admitted that some of those in the hall would have borne the brunt of his anger and offered a badly worded double-negative assessment of his strengths:

“... shying away from our problems, not being straight and shirking from a fight are not among my faults.”

He ended by promising to “make the changes needed to deliver at least 20 seats in the next election”. Hopefully referring to the next Assembly election (where the SDLP currently have 16 MLAs) rather than an over-ambitious plan for the next election to Westminster!

Margaret Ritchie listening to Alasdair McDonnell's speech

Margaret Ritchie followed. Her speech ticked the boxes of name checking party greats (John Hume, who she wants the new bridge across the Foyle to be named after), her campaigning (“I licked the envelopes and knocked the doors because I believed in this vision”), her political career (25 years on Down District Council, Party Offices, “spent more time as a Minister in a Northern Ireland Government than anyone in the history of the SDLP”). She talked as if she had already won the vote – which is a good technique.

Having accused Sinn Fein of lying, she proposed that they and the UUP support an SDLP nominee for Justice Minister. For the first and only time in my four hours at conference, she mentioned a United Ireland – surely a key objective of a nationalist party.

“We will, in time, deliver a United Ireland but we will be credible. (Our opponents think the takeover will happen in 2016 because it is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Not credible.”

To close, Ritchie laid it on thick with her praise for Mark Durkan (cue applause), stated “that Mark has agreed to play a key strategic role in my top team … and there will be an important role for Alasdair too”.

If a clapometer is an accurate indicator of support, Ritchie easily trumped McDonnell in the applause during and after their speeches. Towards the end of her speech, Ritchie mentioned:

“We have had a hell of a campaign but we are still friends. The fears some people had that a leadership contest would be divisive, have been proven unfounded.”

I beg to differ. I witnessed numerous visceral responses directed towards Alasdair McDonnell from party workers. Much swearing, little of it under their breath! While party loyalty may take over if he is elected, there is a fair degree of polarisation and consternation amongst core party supporters at the idea that either one of them will be in charge.

Other party members expressed the opinion that Margaret Ritchie was all style and no substance: the continuity leader who was getting implicit support from Mark Durkan and the party apparatus, bigger airplay in the latest Party Political Broadcast, but wouldn’t command the same respect (and votes) from the grass roots members.

Even the suggestion that all the Ritchie publicity posters erected on the roads into Newcastle where an attempt to boost her local profile and allow her to run for 73 year old Eddie McGrady’s South Down seat at Westminster if she didn’t get the party leader post.

Margaret Ritchie balloon along with Alasdair McDonnell in the background

The result will be announced around 12.30pm on Sunday – and should be carried live on the BBC One Politics Show.

In the meantime, the candidates’ youthful supporters were wearing branded T-shirts, and sticking badges on anyone who would take them. Unfortunately young women, wearing short skirts and “I’m with Alasdair” T-shirts didn’t really match McDonnell’s image. And I’m not sure Margaret Ritchie benefited from helium balloons and the outdoor posters whose ink ran in the rain.

Based on Saturday morning’s performance, I’d predict that Margaret Ritchie will win. However, it’ll be a bumpy road for the new leader, and I’d predict another new leader within five years.

Update - Sunday - Margaret Ritchie topped the poll (unoficially 222 votes to 187) and is the new SDLP Party Leader. No word about the executive election results.

After a quick break, Mark Durkan marched from the back of the hall through a scrum of cameras to take to the stage and deliver his last party leader’s speech. Seventeen pages of speech, read off the teleprompter like a pro. MLAs had been brought up to occupy the seats at the front. (Looks good on the telly as long as they don’t fall asleep!)

Durkan welcomed “the fact of a deal” at Hillsborough, but pointed to the effort that would be needed to check out “its detail – or lack of it”. He also welcomed the “date for the transfer of powers”. Sinn Fein got a page or so of beating for pretending to push alone for devolution, for mis-selling the St Andrew’s Agreement, for conceding a new veto to the DUP, for conniving with the DUP to circumvent d’Hondt”.

The Alliance Party had “spent years preaching and posing as the party of ‘principled opposition’. As they preen themselves for undue office, the opposition will be no more. Because the principle never was.”

The DUP had their turn too. “Peter Robinson was born again as First Minster this week ...”

Durkan said the SDLP had made a “strong submission to the Kelly Review” of MP expenses. Although he’d been challenged over a London hotel room claim

“the matter was easily cleared up and I wasn’t asked to pay back anything. However, I’m pretty sure I’m now in the a fairly unique category: perhaps the only politician who ever got into hot water for sleeping with his wife.”

There was emotion in Durkan's voice as he talks about his personal contributions to “real politics” which he summed up as “Service – not status”. Suddenly the SDL bits of the SDLP got some focus, with mention of public services, childcare vouchers, 10p tax, Presbyterian Mutual, Desmonds’ pensions, the Human Rights Act and the Bill of Rights, 42 day detention as well as standing up for the rights of others in Gaza, Lebanon, Burma and Tibet.

Then it was back to knockabout politics. The TUV’s Jim Allister was “the man who takes all the ‘fun’ out of fundamentalist’. The UUP “seem to be lining up more partners than Tiger Woods. And some dodgy ones at that. Reg … you devil!” (That last unscripted quip for a massive reaction in the hall.)

Durkan was all too aware that party members had been “bombarded with leaflets and literature” and phone calls during the leadership campaign. Twitter and Facebook got a mention. Alasdair McDonnell hid under table when Durkan mentioned his phone ringing during a live TV interview.

He used nearly an equal number of words to describe McDonnell and Ritchie. Of McDonnell: “He has again vocalised his strong commitment to the task of party organisation in his campaign.” Of Ritchie: “The DUP and Sinn Fein … may be able to outvote her. But they have yet to outmanoeuvre her.” Think Ritchie gets Durkan’s vote.

There was applause for Durkan’s warm words about Carmel Hanna. Her replacement as MLA, Conall McDevitt “brings youthful vitality and thoughtful vision”. A call for more new women SDLP MLAs. And respect for two councillors who died in recent months, Peter O’Hagan and Ignatius Fox.

Durkan introduced his speech’s strap line “dream big dreams” through a story about President Obama signing a copy of his Inaugural Address for Durkan’s daughter Dearbhail. And like David Ford’s speech which ended with his grandchild being brought up on stage, five year old Dearbhail was in her father’s proud arms as the press gathered around at the end of the speech.

The applause continued until long after the live broadcast had stopped. Some delegates looked teary – but will they be so emotional when the next leader steps down I wondered?

SDLP conference applauding Mark Durkan's last leader's speech

It was lunchtime, and I headed out of the hotel into the windy car park to return home to real life. The delegate pack says “Join us in our vision: a better way to a better Ireland”. But I’m not sure I heard that better way being articulated terribly clearly.

I saw an old-fashioned party with social media logos on their conference platform stage. I saw the golden opportunity of a live broadcast given over to the outgoing leader’s speech rather than launching the new leader’s vision. I heard no one say a bad word about Mark Durkan.

But for all the talk of change, I’m not sure how the public will notice the SDLP different next week, next month or next year.

Perhaps the change will be that the SDLP Youth movement will continue to feed quality people into party roles (elected/co-opted and behind the scenes) and in five or ten years time, people like Nicola Mallon, Maria McCarty and Niall Kelly will be holding significant party office rather than working to get McDonnell and Ritchie elected.

With careful management of the motions and the order in which they are debated, the SDLP conference probably never got to directly discuss motion 78 from the Cromac Branch:

Conference urges the Assembly Group to resign from the Executive and to form an Opposition to the DUP/SF Coalition.

I’d have loved to have heard the debate!


blank said...

great coverage Alan!

re leadership. McDonnell's delivery is always awful. But there's something about Margaret i can't bear. She really enunciates every vowel and is difficult to listen to. She speaks like English is her first language but its not ours. I get the sensation of being in a TEFL classroom when she talks.

Still, I do like her though. McDonnell on the other hand is very easy to dislike.

So is this a party that's going to wane? Does it look like its got a heart beat / reasonable self-belief that it won't fall further?

Anything else of interest from SDLP youth?


nineteensixtyseven said...

Fantastic coverage, Alan. We met briefly at conference when you were talking to Donal and photographed the balloon. I think posts like this one demonstrate just how important blogging can be for informing people of the real conference experience, beyond the glare of Jim Fitzpatrick and the live television cameras. Keep it up.

Alan in Belfast said...

1967 - Good to meet the Roe Valley Socialist at last. The balloon shot worked better than expected!

For me the fascination is the process, more so than the actual policies.