Whatever Nigel Farage’s qualities, his major flaw, according to UKIP colleague Patrick O’Flynn, is that he has become “a snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive man”. That perception didn’t deter almost four million people from voting for UKIP at the recent general election.
On first reading, it was a far more successful election for the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. His party managed to retain its three Westminster seats – three times as many as UKIP – but Dr McDonnell’s reward has been a determined heave against his leadership.
If there’s one charge you cannot lay against him it is that of being thin-skinned. The South Belfast MP must have a hide like a rhinoceros to insist on clinging onto the SDLP leadership after this week’s assaults on his authority.
The party which prides itself on its contribution to the peace process now finds itself embroiled in a civil war. McDonnell has spurned Seamus Mallon’s advice to resign as quickly as possible – “it would be good for him and good for the party” – opting instead to hang on and dig in.
Dr McDonnell insists the vast majority of SDLP members want him to remain as leader. That is a dubious claim in view of the personalities arrayed against him – Claire Hanna, John Dallat, Mallon, Brid Rodgers and now Mark Durkan. In any case, support within the party is irrelevant. It’s the electorate who count.
No one can take away what McDonnell has achieved in the three and a half years he has been at the helm: reorganisation; an influx of young new blood; more women. But one issue cropped up time and time again for SDLP canvassers during the Westminster campaign: their party’s leader. The ‘bull in a china shop’ has become an issue for potential voters.
Dr McDonnell is right about one thing – this is not “a silly personality contest or beauty contest”. It’s far more important than that. It is now a battle for the very future of the SDLP. As Councillor Hanna pointed out: “This is a ‘do or die’; it’s ‘fight or flight’ for the SDLP for the next twelve months”.
I suspect Hanna is being optimistic about the timeframe. Her party faces another election in less than a year and cannot afford to go into that campaign led by a man who has been criticised so publicly by so many of his colleagues.
Former leader Mark Durkan told the BBC programme, The View, last night that people wanted to see the DUP-Sinn Féin leadership at Stormont challenged in “a cogent, competent way, in a passionate way”. That is a withering, implicit criticism of McDonnell’s stewardship.
The party has to define what it stands for now. Should it remain tethered to an Executive which treats it with such disrespect? Should it be inextricably linked to budgets of which it is so critical? Would it be more credible and more popular in an opposition role at Stormont? These are huge issues which need to be resolved – quickly.
The Antrim Glens man had an embarrassing first party conference as leader when he was dazzled by the conference hall lights during his leader’s address. Those who care about him should hope he won’t be blind or deaf now to the personalities and voices urging him to go.
Claire Hanna is correct. This does look like 'do or die' for the SDLP. The patient is in poor shape. I wonder what a doctor would prescribe?