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SDLP Leadership Battle: A Race with No Real Winners?

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It's been a quiet summer in Stormont, as MLAs take a break from what few work commitments they have and enjoy their recess. Unfortunately for some, these quiet few months appear to have created ample opportunity for some restless SDLP members to engage in some good old scheming and backstabbing. They want a new leader and they want one fast.

Mid-Ulster MLA, Patsy McGlone has thrown his hat into the ring and posed the first official challenge to Margaret Ritchie. Ritchie, always considered a surprising choice to lead the SDLP, redeemed herself slightly after a good 2010 election, but lost credibility once more this year after a poor Assembly taking. McGlone, despite being from a strong Sinn Féin area, is generally considered to be one of his party's strongest candidates. I personally had him tipped for the SDLP's only Stormont ministry when they were being assigned back in May, and apparently wasn't the only one surprised when the Environment portfolio went to Alex Attwood instead. McGlone was reportedly so bitter about Ritchie's snub that he refused her offer of a committee chairmanship. Ouch.

So now Patsy is back in the spotlight, declaring: "The way forward for us needs three strategic elements: strong leadership, clarity of message and radically improved grassroots organisation". He has a point. The SDLP's main problem in the last few years is that they no longer seem to have a clue who they are or what purpose they serve. In terms of grassroots, Sinn Féin pretty much have it sewn up. As an (almost) lone SDLP voice in his own region, McGlone is not quite displaying the credentials needed to effectively build a nationalist grassroots movement that could be an alternative to the one on offer from Sinn Féin. If Mid-Ulster can't turn to the SDLP on Patsy's watch, how can the rest of Northern Ireland?

Their second problem is their distinct lack of identity. Although constantly waxing lyrical about North-South relations and "all-Ireland" solutions (including building an "all-Ireland economy"), the SDLP have no base or presence in the Republic of Ireland. Considerably smaller than Sinn Féin, they have just one Stormont ministry, rendering them generally ineffectual in Assembly decision-making. Floundering since the glory days of John Hume (who they still talk about all the time), the SDLP are in crisis, they have been for some time, and their problems are not all down to Margaret Ritchie. Patsy McGlone isn't saying that they are, but in challenging her leadership, he is implying it. But can he offer anything more than the same old "let's keep our heads down and hope nobody notices that we're in trouble" routine of the last few years? He admits that his party has a confusing message, but shows no sign of bringing any clarity to proceedings. Worrying.

For a while, the leadership contest looked to be shaping into a two-horse race between McGlone and incumbent Ritchie, but there have recently been rumours that the latter may step down before the party's conference this autumn. If this is true, there will of course have to be new entrants into the leadership race. Best bet on a challenger to McGlone's bid is Alasdair McDonnell, who was beaten by Ritchie in the 2010 leadership election. Personally, I think that an MLA who doesn't have a Westminster seat (the SDLP have displayed no interest in giving up Stormont/Westminster double-jobbing) would be a better candidate for the job. Somebody who spends half their week in London debating matters that don't even necessarily apply to Northern Ireland isn't quite embodying the grassroots movement that the party (as it is generally agreed) needs to take. I do reckon, however, that in a straight Patsy vs. Alasdair contest, Alasdair is more likely to win. The latter is also far more likely to stand if Margaret does indeed bow out.

Of course, the "will-she-won't-she" speculation surrounding Margaret at the moment is just that - speculation. It's silly season, and the papers need a story. What is certain, however, is that her leadership is being challenged. Not so certain remains the future of the SDLP. With or without Margaret, the party is in crisis, and only time will tell whether they can ever return to their glory days of post-Good Friday Agreement John Hume magnitude. We'll just have to wait and see.