By pressuring Labour to stand down, the SDLP now has a moral responsibility to be the party Labour members sought to build: a non-sectarian, centre-left party that can usher in a new era of progressive politics in Northern Ireland. Many of my Labour friends will wince when I say this, and probably call me naïve, but maybe progressives should give the SDLP a chance? It is, after all, Labour’s sister party, and a closer partnership between the two parties could open up new avenues for progressive policies to emerge here in Northern Ireland.

The impetus is now on the SDLP to demonstrate to progressive voters that it can be a non-sectarian social democratic party that delivers on key areas like social security and social equity. It needs to give some clear indication that it is ready to make the necessary changes to attract new voters and members by building consensus around shared progressive values rather than communal identities. This means it must make space for new ideas, but also hold firm to old ones. To quote from the party’s first leader, Gerry Fitt, the SDLP must affirm what it set out to be: ‘a social democratic and labour party that would engage the sympathies across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.’1

The constitutional issue is important, and the SDLP clearly isn’t going to give up its nationalist designation in the Assembly, but surely, for a labour party, issues like job creation, fair wages, child poverty, and protecting the welfare state must come first in times like these? The green agenda isn’t attracting new members or voters, and polls indicate that interest in changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is at an all-time low. Even the SDLP party leadership appear more post-nationalist than nationalist, using the language of a federalist New Ireland that maintains power-sharing institutions, rather than a United Ireland. So why, on the official party website, under its sprawling list of twenty Ideas, does ‘United Ireland’ rank number one?

It’s not a new idea to put the United Ireland agenda on the back burner; just look back to the November 2003 Assembly elections, where the commitment to constitutional change came at the end of a list of SDLP pledges that included policing, economic growth, jobs, poverty, schools, hospitals, water charges and other important bread-and-butter issues. I don’t want the SDLP to water down its Nationalist identity, if that’s what the majority of people want from their party—despite what David Ford said on Radio Ulster last month, you can be both liberal AND unionist or nationalist. But the party might find new energy by foregrounding its progressive values.

The SDLP could channel its all-Ireland energies into building a stronger North-South regional economy and building North-South political partnerships on key issues like transportation and agriculture. In past manifestos, the SDLP has shown a preference for North-South speak rather than the language of a United Ireland, but the website still reflects the green agenda strategy. For example, making the Acht na Gaeilge (Irish Language Act) your second idea out of twenty with no accompanying English-language translation does little for the promotion of the Irish language, and very little for centre-left politics. And this is coming from an Irish-language enthusiast who believes passionately in protecting minority languages.

In a 2006 article, Jon Tonge argues that “the essential problem for the SDLP lies in the perception that it has now achieved its goals and can thus exit the stage.”2 I hope this perception is wrong. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement should mark the beginning, not the end of progressive politics, which is exactly what is needed right now. Northern Ireland is suffering from some of the worst unemployment in recent decades and more than 100,000 children are growing up in poverty. People need a strong-willed, centre-left party to stand up for the vulnerable, create jobs, and defend the welfare state.

Talking with some in the SDLP, I get the sense big changes are on the way. I certainly hope so, because the UK has become a model example of what not to do during times of recession. Austerity isn’t working, and neither are thousands of people who can’t get jobs. Fewer resources on the ground means increased communal tensions in interface areas. The SDLP needs to demonstrate it understands the hurt and anger people feel while offering much needed hope and moral leadership. Communicate and demonstrate to progressive voters you stand for Respect, Equity, Equality, Collective Responsibility, Compassionate and  Effective Government, and Cooperation, and they just might stand with you. This is what Labour hoped to accomplish, can the SDLP fill the void?

(1,2) Jon Tonge, “Polarisation or new moderation? Party politics since the GFA,” A Farewell to Arms? Beyond the Good Friday Agreement, Second Edition By Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke, Fiona Stephen

12 thoughts on “Should progressives give the SDLP a chance?

  1. Barton,
    I pretty much agree with all of that. The key as always is moving NI politics away from a sectarian divide and onto an agenda and idealogical driven basis which people can identify with in their everyday lives. The main unionist parties seem to be incabable of doing this. Alliance are so busy promoting the shared future agenda without any plan of applying practical ideas that they are making themselves irrelevant. The SDLP have an opportunity here. Will they take it?

  2. Spot on. They do have an opportunity. But what I am wrestling with, is do we have an opportunity? Should progressives transform this existing vehicle for social democratic politics? What’s your hold back? I can’t quite articulate mine yet.

  3. The answer to your question is no. The SDLP cannot appeal to all democratic socialists in NI whilst it continues to foreground its Irish nationalist ideology and to designate on one side of the communal argument. Then there is its anti-choice position on abortion, as highlighted recently by the alliance with unionist parties to try to shut down the Marie Stopes clinic. Personally, as an ex-Labour member, I have opted for the Green Party and feel very comfortable there.

  4. Barton…as you know (but many of your readers won’t know) I am a supporter of …and occasional member of SDLP. I describe myself as a socialist, republican and nationalist and a civil rights supporter. To get my vote a Party has to tick at least three of those boxes.
    But it’s my belief that the biggest “crime” a socialist party can commit is to leave the vulnerable unrepresented.
    Labour in Norn Iron is unfortunately non. -political or even anti-political …on the sidelines.
    As to hoping that BRitish Labour Party take them seriously …well SDLP has the franchise from European Socialists and apart from Hoey and Raynsford, few in British Labour care enough but organising here.
    And frankly the local leadership ofLabourdont care enough to contest elections.
    Labour in Britain is in fact a coalition…component parts, trade unionists, Fabian, co-operative movement….AND regional. Dropping Islingtons finest dinner party conversationalists…Bliar, D Milliband, E Milliband and Mandelson. Into Sedgefield, South Shields, Doncaster and Hartlepool is all very well but could they get elected in West of Scotland or Inded Wales .
    There are regional variations in Labour. Ken LivingSTone and Jeremy Corbyn are representative of London bed sit land. Ronnie Campbell of North East and there’s a particular brand of Catholic MP…John Reid, Adam Ingram taking care Of Scottish green and orange politics.
    And whole areas of South Lancashire…Geraldine Smith, Ruth Kelly types…and of course the Western Isles constituency is a place apart.
    I’d recommend a drama from 1970s to explain it best. Bill Brand was a drama set in Manchester…Bill Brand is a left wing agnostic MP who makes the critical mistake of falling out with his local Irish Catholic activists over abortion. Arthur Lowe from Dads Army played a Harold Wilson type Prime Minister.
    Frankly Labour in Norn Iron has been a failure. British Labour IS a nationàlist party…a BritiSh one. And the Labour people who gathered in Malone Venue last year to hear theDEPUTY spokesperson of the British Party (I sneaked in) patronise them are also nationalists. No less than me. Im an Irish nationalist.
    But later in 2011, I heard Vernon Coaker speak at SDLP Conference…so essentially Labour in Britain a accept the SDLP much more than they accept any local version.
    Frankly local Labour don’t have a good record on civil rights issues from the 1960s and beyond. Poor old Len Murray was cruelly dealt with in 1974…and David Bleakley, Vivian Simpson et al were a disappointment. The invitation to Simpson to join SDLP was extended. He declined.
    But ultimately there are “socialists” here who rise thru the ranks of trade unions on the basis of their NON membership of SDLP. They are Labour, People Before Profit or Workers Party. Showcasing their non sectarianism. But all of those groups are unelectable inStormont…so all of them find it handy to have the email addy of the SDLP MLAs…and who exactly is it who stand on the Stormont steps to receive the petitions from trade union officials who don’t vote SDLP.
    The only losers are the vulnerable.
    And the existence of Labour NI, People for Profit, Eamonn McCann and the Workers Party are luxuries that the vulnerable cannot afford. Labours reluctance tobe “sectarian” is no excuse.
    Nationalism IS a Civil Rights issue.
    The pursuit of nationalism is to attempt to right a historic injustice. That SHOULD be a Labour concern. And is there a time when it should be laid to rest? Post nationalism?
    Im not so sure.
    This is at the heart of Conflict Resolution. We can only say “get over it….move on” to defeated people such as Mexicans in Texas. it in an unresolved conflict we cannot say it.
    Basically it doesn’t matter.
    SDLPand indeed Sinn Fein lean to the left. Socialism is a component part of northern nationalism.
    Capitalism is a component part of northern unionism. And socialism has made no inroads into the unionist communities.
    It’s a matter of choice.
    The SDLP have nothing to gain by abandoning a key part of their raisin d’être.

  5. Great contribution, thanks for this. I just want to look at the last part of your comment. I don’t think this is true: “SDLP and indeed Sinn Fein lean to the left. Socialism is a component part of northern nationalism. Capitalism is a component part of northern unionism. And socialism has made no inroads into the unionist communities.”

    First off, just look back to pre-Troubles election results. The party that caused the Unionists the greatest trouble was NI Labour.(http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/fw66.htm)

    Second, Northern Ireland’s British population have been sold a bad deal: to choose between the Union/British identity or a progressive, centre-left government.

    Third, your argument lets the SDLP off the hook too easy. It’s convenient to say that unionists are capitalists, and that’s that. It means the SDLP doesn’t have to make space for different identities and begin a painful self-relfection. The SDLP wants an Irish republic that respects all of Ireland’s different identities. Why not lead by example?

  6. Fitzjameshorse,

    How do you feel about the stance which the SDLP has taken on issues such as equal marriage and abortion? I am interested by what Jenny said – that being pro-choice swayed her to join the Greens and would like to see what a ‘socialist’ member of the SDLP thinks about that.

  7. I don’t think it is necessary to be pro-abortion or even pro-choice to be a socialist.
    That would be the fictional Bill Brand type of Labour.
    Or maybe London bed sit territory of the 1970s and 1980s. An easy sell in Paddington….but not such an easy one in parts of Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool…and not just a Catholic thing by the way. An issue that bothers people of many faiths and none. If Labour in those places don’t want votes from Catholic, other Christian, Jewish or Islamist people then they must say so.
    Likewise if they say that people from backgrounds such as Geraldine Smith, Ruth Kelly, John McFaul, John Reid etc cannot stand as Labour candidates unless signing up to Abortion, then that’s not exactly a good thing.
    For what it’s worth I am pro choice. Although neither myself or wife would feel that we would want to exercise that choice.
    As a REPUBLICAN, I believe that the primacy of the will of the people exceeds the will of any Church.
    As a NATIONALIST, I believe in Irish laws for Irish people. Therefore I can hardly be in favour of extending British laws to Ireland, including of course Norn Iron.
    Indeed unionism is little more than Norn Iron nationalism and therefore I welcome the fact that DUP, UUP feel Norn Iron is different enough from the DisUnited Kingdom to argue against British laws extending to the Six Counties.
    Really Labour NI don’t contest elections. They are NOT a political party. They are at best a pressure group arguing for the extension of British laws to Norn Iron.
    I suppose they are really the only real unionists.

  8. Oh Equal Marriage…it’s generational. I have absolutely no problem with it but at 60 years old, I think the word marriage is not entirely appropriate but the sentiment behind it…stable relationship for people of any sexuality to codify their love.
    I am married 30 years and quite like the institution to expand rather than be restricted as it has been in for twenty years.
    I am in equally in favour of heterosexual marriage and baulk at the suggestion that my wife is my “partner” because it means different things to different people.
    “wife” is extremely clear word.
    I do of course all due respect to the relationships my heterosexual and homosexual friends are involved. Any word “partner”, “girlfriend” whatever they use to describe their loved one is the one I will use. It’s only decent to so do.
    All I ask is that my wife is afforded the same courtesy by people.

  9. Barton, I wouldn’t be too carried away with Election results. I am old enough to remember Napier, Simpson, Holmes, various Boyds and Bleakley. Ultimately they didn’t speak up when it mattered.
    They didn’t tackle sectarianism at any level…in Sirocco, Mackies, Harlands etc.

  10. Barton…I think the Annual Report delivered to th Laour NI Conference at Malone Avenue in March 2012 stated that Labour had about 170 members. Presumably they vote at Elections…though obviously not for their own party. They don’t have any faith in their own convictions. Quite possibly they vote Peopple Before Profit or Workers Party before giving the SDLP a preference somewhere down the ballot paper.
    Being Chair, Secretary, Treasurer,Committee Member of Labour NI is really no active contribution to politics except it is a public declaration that a person is a socialist but not one of those awful SDLP people.
    Likewise trade union officials will often adopt the Labour mantle asa means of showing their detachment from local politics. All of which would be acceptable if they never voted locally. Incidently the number of people in trade unions CLAIMING to be Labour men and women is not reflected in Labour Party membership figures.
    For an aspiring trade union careerist, claiming membership or support of effectively a non-party is a good option.

  11. Pingback: Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? The SDLP, Part 2 | footballcliches

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