New SDLP leader blinded by the light

Last week my colleague Gareth Gordon had a bit of fun, analysing the unlikely rock anthems which political parties choose to play as their leaders stride towards their conference stages. If he had held off a few days he might have had another couple of ditties to add to his list.

Not so much Martin Solveig and Dragonette's "Hello", which greeted Alasdair McDonnell as he climbed the steps towards the SDLP's podium, but "Blinded By The Light", the old 70s Bruce Springsteen number taken to the Number One slot by Manfred Mann's Earth Band.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Mr McDonnell found himself in the spotlight - literally

Because that is all anyone will remember about Dr Alasdair McDonnell's maiden speech, not the descriptions of the DUP and Sinn Fein as "Afghan warlords" or "sectarian turkeys who won't vote for a non-sectarian Christmas", nor the joke about the South Belfast MP living up to his "bull in a china shop" image by promising his supporters a "smashing time".

The only memory will be that Dr McDonnell had to stop three times on live television to complain about the lights shining in his eyes, and didn't seem to have a good old fashioned script ready to hand to rescue himself from TV disaster.

Up to that point the election of a new leader had energised the SDLP gathering. Whilst some may have been surprised at Alasdair McDonnell's win, given his previous failure to overcome Margaret Ritchie, no-one could have predicted the weekend would end on such a flat note. Party activists didn't try to hide their dismay.

Dr McDonnell argues that commentators should ignore the technical difficulties and concentrate on the content. His problem is that the content was all about creating momentum during his first 100 days with a whirlwind of task forces and special conferences and better organisation.

In order to have momentum, as any physics student will tell you, you need both mass and velocity. "Big Al" may have the mass, but his first speech didn't generate the velocity necessary to speed the SDLP on their way.

In politics, style cannot be divorced from content. Witness the powder-puffed JFK overcoming the sweaty Richard Nixon in a US presidential debate, or David Cameron impressing the Tory grassroots by his ability to walk around a stage and talk without notes.

Much of the discontent with Margaret Ritchie focussed on her awkward TV performances - those who voted for Dr McDonnell must have assumed that, when it comes to TV, they had chosen a much steadier performer.

What is on the GP's side is time. The next European elections aren't until 2014, and the next assembly vote - for which he has set himself an ambitious target of 20 seats - isn't until 2015. By then it will probably be only the anoraks who will remember the incident with the autocue.

In the meantime, Dr McDonnell has to make a decision about whether the SDLP should reshuffle its minister. Yesterday the new leader told "Inside Politics" that keeping Alex Attwood in post was "an option". Today he told "Good Morning Ulster" he wasn't going to remove the West Belfast MLA and wasn't fudging his answer.

That said, Dr McDonnell has to find niches for senior party members, including Conall McDevitt who attracted an impressive 105 first preference votes. So it will be interesting to see how he puts the jigsaw together for his much touted "collective leadership".

One early issue on which the SDLP minister is likely to cross swords with the DUP and Sinn Fein is the streamlining of our local councils. On "Inside Politics" Dr McDonnell was forthright in his support for 15 councils, whilst the First and Deputy First Ministers have threatened to force their 11 council model through whatever the environment minister thinks.

Image caption Former page three model Sam Fox also suffered from autocue trouble

This may cause friction, but it's not the kind of issue on which the SDLP would be likely to charge off into opposition - in any case that option doesn't seem high on Dr McDonnell's agenda.

The SDLP might have worried that the MTV awards would steal their limelight - now they can at least take solace that it occupied newspaper space which might otherwise have been filled by more damaging coverage of the poor maiden speech.

Whatever you reckon to Selena Gomez as a compere, she certainly didn't bomb in the way Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood did when they presented the notorious 1989 Brit awards, fluffing their lines and struggling with a broken autocue. Afterwards Ms Fox said she had just wanted the floor to swallow her up.

Before Sunday I would have had difficulty finding anything much to link the new SDLP leader and the former Page three pin-up - but today I reckon that's a sentiment both of them might have shared in common.