SDLP’s last advantage lies in their cross community appeal…

Okay, I’m deliberately turning this one on its head, partly because the question raised in Ian Parsley’s post poses is more interesting that way. So for me, here’s the payload in Ian’s post:

The DUP has proven masterful at taking fairly narrow policy positions and giving them broad appeal; it seems to seek out certain chunks of the electorate and prioritise one particular set of policies to them. The UUP and SDLP, on the other hand, try to sell their policies broadly and thus get them picked off too easily by people opposed to them. That the DUP is now in a better position to attract Catholic votes than the UUP is a staggering example of the outcome of all of this; that the SDLP responds in such a way as to show it has no idea of its own position only perpetuates the situation.

The DUP is not about to attract tens of thousands of votes directly across from the SDLP. However, as it becomes less toxic it will continue to attract new votes from various places; most importantly of all, it will reduce the likelihood that other voters (of whatever communal background) will feel the particular need to come out and stop them – so the DUP will only need to keep the same number of votes overall to continue increasing its vote share.

That the SDLP doesn’t even recognise the challenge is symptomatic of its own ongoing demise.

So here comes the old switcheroo. Ironically, as Mark Devenport notes, the SDLP is the by far the most successful of the constitution-based parties at attracting transfers from ‘the other side’ (13% as opposed to 2.2% for Sinn Fein or 2% each for the DUP and the UUP in the opposite direction). That could be seen (and is seen by some) as a weakness. In fact, were the SDLP not still in long term falling trend, it might be seen as more as a strength.

Given, as Devenport also notes, the DUP are building from rock bottom (and are joined by the UUP who’s rate has fallen from 7% per cent nationalist transfers in 2007) at 2%, political unionism is paradoxically behind in the game of penetrating wider nationalist sympathies. This is where I somewhat disagree with Ian’s case that the DUP might realistically take votes from the SDLP.

As well as being the highest recipient of cross community transfers (excepting for a moment the Alliance party ships them in big time from both ‘places’), SDLP voters are the most reluctant to ship their votes out. The people most likely to shift (broadly speaking that is) from nationalist to unionist preference, are those tens of thousands of middle class Catholics who have long since stopped voting for either of the two Nationalist parties.

Although I would caveat even that attenuated thought further by saying not voting is a bit like losing the habit of going to Mass on a Sunday, once you have lost the desire to register a preference in politics, it is not easy to take it up again. Some may resume by voting DUP at some point in the future, many more will simply be lost to the political game for good.

Finally, there is nothing inevitable about any of this. Except to say, that the SDLP can, like the UUP before them, throw away an innate cross community advantage (built up by the cross community polemic of Hume, Mallon etc) they can positively retain only if they heed Miyamoto Musashi’s sage advice that ‘in strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.’

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  • First of all I note that my phrase “lets get alongerism” in Mr Parsleys piece. It would appear that he reads my stuff.
    is it too late to copyright “lets get alongerism?”.
    Seriously folks feel free to use it. I am delighted it enters the political lexicon.

    I am not doubting that Peter Robinson is sincere in wanting Catholics to vote DUP.
    Few Sluggerites sem to doubt that he is at least sincere.
    Yet I dont doubt Gerry Adams sincerity in wanting to outreach to Protestants.
    Of course there is an element of “Sincerity” an element of “wishful thinking” and an element of “lip service”…… both DUP and SF cases (probably in equal measure). wont happen.
    Yet curiously the DUP position is actually critically analysed by folks who really should know better.
    To make the mirror image more complete Mr Parsley is absolutely right that the DUP strategy is actually about making themselves more attractive to UUP voters.
    And Id suggest that SF “outreach” strategy is primarily aimed at making themselves “less toxic” (as Mr Parsley accurately puts it) to nationalists.

    Time does not permit me to engage in the Mass attending Catholic.

  • ayeYerMa

    The electoral transfers from Unionists -> SDLP are a red herring. These are not in the main votes to keep a sectarian party like the SDLP in power – they are mainly transfers to try and keep the terrorists in Sinn Fein OUT.

  • IJP

    Thanks for encouraging the debate, Mick.

    I hope I was clear in stating that I do not, in fact, expect the SDLP to start shipping votes to the DUP. I would make three points:

    1. I wouldn’t read much into those “transfer rates”. They depend too much on who was eliminated and when in the count – a lot of second preferences cast were never counted. For example, we have no idea who was favoured by Alliance second and third preferences in North Down, as they were never distributed -and so on in lots of places with lots of parties.

    2. My point is that the (relative) de-toxification of the DUP will lead to fewer peoe voting against them, as opposed to lots more people voting for them. Overall the DUP’s and SF’s vote continues to fall, remember; just not as fast as their main rivals’.

    3. For all that, it is not inconceivable, within a decade or so, that the DUP will start taking pro-business or Christian-Social votes from the SDLP and others. Anyone who thinks that is ludicrous may note the DUP outscored the SDLP by only 500 votes in North Down in 1998; this year, that gap comfortably exceeded 10,000. Anyone who had suggested that 13 years ago would have been locked away.

    Nevertheless, my key point was that this is a move aimed at expanding the vote among Protestants. Ian McCrea probably proves that…

  • I am setting this reply against the background of Irish Catholicism and not English Catholicism which is more “conservative” and anti-Republican (thru its recusant and Jacobite tendency) and unionist (thru its imperialist Laudabiliter belief).
    Scotland is a slightly different position. The catholic Church is certainly at odds with the Labour Party…over such issues as Abortion……but the bulk of Catholics in Labours heartland seem to be mostly ignoring the advice not to vote Labour.

    I think it wasa well known local Protestant clergyman who claimed the best Protestants in Ireland are the Catholics. Certainly Catholics dont vote in accord with the advice of the Hierarchy.
    The charge that an American President (Kennedy) would vote his loyalty to the Pope ahead of his loyalty to the United States was denounced as a nasty trick by liberals in 1960 USA.
    So its odd that the spectre of Catholics voting in accord with narrow Church interests should be advanced by a “liberal” in 2011 Norn Iron.

    The notion that there are Catholics who are unionists is of course occasionally advanced………theres John Gorman……and er that student fella from the 1960s.
    There is notion that there are Catholics who are Conservatives… that fella off Top Gear.
    Theres a notion that there are Catholics who like grammar schools. Like er…..
    Now Ian Parsley advances the notion that there are Catholics who might be…..Catholics.

    And all these groups are just pining away looking for a chance to vote DUP? I cant see it.
    Around 1971, there was the notion that if you went to Mass once a week you were an SDLP supporter. If you went to Mass once a month you were a “Sticky” (who of course never actually existed).
    But if you went to Mass on a daily basis you were probably a Provo….this based on the devotional nature of the Belfast leadership.

    Of course 2011 is not 1971…….and at the risk of drawing vitriol from the usual sources, much has changed.
    Its a rather odd fact of Irish Catholic life that those who have the most difficulty with modern life are the middle aged.
    The Young have their certainties.
    The Old have their certainties (different ones) but are surprisingly liberal on most issues.
    “Worse things happen at sea”
    or “sure it could happen to the Bishop” are more likely to be said by the elderly than the middle aged.

    Its a simple fact that all families…..including devoutly Protestant and Catholic families have adjusted to new realities of divorce, unconventional family arrangements and all kindsa stuff thats not strictly “kosher”.
    They are ahead of the Churches and the Churches are running just to keep up.

    There was I think an ongoing debate in the 1970s about issues like contraception and latterly Abortion. And an ongoing dispute between liberals and conservatives which the liberals believed ended in their favour with the election of a non-Italian Pope (1978).
    How wrong they were.
    A look at The Irishmans Diary column in the Irish Times circa 1988 will point up the real ending of that debate.
    A newsletter from a parish in Co Kildare and the Parish Priest claims that its impossible to be “a liberal and a Catholic”.
    Fair enough.
    That answered the dilemna of many though not in the way that the Parish Priest intended.
    Certainly on the issue of contraception Catholics have been making their minds up for forty years.
    And on the issue of Abortion they have been applying the understandable of “whats right for my family”.
    That was possibly at the heart of the “X Case” (?) in the Republic where the family were actually anti-abortion but wanted to do right by their daughter.

    And its the same with divorce, education, broken relationships etc.
    There is of course a peculiar hypocrisy in relation to Abortion and Murder as conservatives would put it.
    I recall circa 1983 full page adverts in the broadsheets signed by Liberal MP David Alton and a parade of unlikely “life enhancers” from the Tory “right” John Biggs Davison, John Stokes, Gerard Vaughan (mostly catholics).
    No Catholic Labour MP from west of Scotland or South Lancashire signed or dared to sign.
    Yet the lesson for “liberal Catholics” was that the Catholic Church was against abortion but not enthusiastically against cruise missisle weapons being deployed or a right wing Thatcherite government introducing measures that broke up Society.

    Of course those early 1980s were the crunch years in Ireland too.
    Make your mind up time in relation to Abortion and for many the parting of the ways between liberal Catholics and their Church.

    In the North we have been largely spared the abortion Debate. But it would be wrong to think of Catholics…..generationally divided, geographically divided as a homogenous group.
    Largely spared the Abortion Debate………but not entirely.

    The Summer of 1983. A Redemptorist Retreat House on the Antrim Road, Belfast. A meeting of Engaged Encounter for couples who had married in 1982.
    The couples including several heavily pregnant wives were treated to a slide show on the evils of Abortion.
    But then a very peculiar lecture by lay people followed.
    We MUST vote against Abortion……..and NOT support those parties who supported it or were ambiguous about it.
    Curiously couples were invited to consider voting DUP and Unionist…..advocates of among other things shoot to kill and capital punishment so not exactly consistent in the old life enhancing stakes.
    The SDLP was predictably endorsed.
    As was Sinn Fein (fledgling Party in electoral terms) and then (?) opposed to Abortion.
    But perhaps even more curiously the were warned about the Alliance Party (sorry folks this IS about Alliance) whose “crime” was that they wanted the English laws adopted in Norn Iron.
    At least one man there…..a rather handsome man of 31….found this a curious situation particuarly as the Alliance Party had never actually killed anyone as the IRA had actually attempted to do on a border farm the previous day.
    For the first and only time in his life he found himself speaking up in defence of the AP. But the memory of so doing has scarred him so much that he would never admit to it now.

    So……did any Catholic ever…..except some weirdo…..actually ever tell an Alliance canvasser “on the issue of abortion, I refuse to vote Alliance”? I daresay a few have.
    Did anyone actually raise the issue on the doorsteps in 2011? Only those who have canvassed for Alliance can tell us.
    But if the issue was rarely raised……then the logical thought is that nobody is unduly worried.
    And the logical extension of this is to think that if no or few Catholics refuse to vote Alliance on the issue…….then precious few more will flock to the DUPs banner because of it.

  • Zig70

    Politics here is brand selling and the SDLP have most to gain because they are rubbish at it. For me it all misses the point that the SDLP have failed to sell to/motivate those that read an SDLP manifesto and think that’s my political home. Most of the recent articles focus on the non-typical SDLP voter. Whatever people think of John Hume, he made things happen. I wouldn’t expect the current lot in the SDLP to bake a cake without a 20page thesis. Sure the manifesto is lovely, full of nice aspirations, doesn’t even burn well. Leave the waffle to the AP and work for it. Then daft articles like Parsley’s won’t even get noticed.

  • Harsh.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Apparently everyone can just take SDLP votes. Perhaps the party should just auction them off. They seem to be the target of everyone. Sinn Fein for their nationalists, Alliance for its lets-get-alongerists (I’m doing my best FJH) and now the DUP for its emmmm Catholics?????

    I think that Mick’s article makes a good point. The SDLP have always been a party whose politics can be supported by many many nationalists and who can present nationalism in a manner that is not threatening to unionists. If only now they had the leadership to articulate this balance to the electorate. It is a winning formula. And I suppose I would only have one quibble with the article. The SDLPs does not have this advantage over the Alliance obviously. So really the SDLP last advantage is being a natioonalist party with cross community appeal. If they lose the nationalist bit, they would just be a less effective Alliance Party.

    IJP’s article shows another aspect of the battle that the SDLP face. He demonstrates the hostility that his former party have towards the SDLP. I think SDLP have to recognise the hostility that the Alliance and other letsgetalongers have towards them and be a little bit more strong against those people, who are getting away with so much at the moment. IJP descibes them as woefully inept, speaks of the SDLPs ongoing demise and its strategic falings in response to Peter Robinsons claims. He even says that they are not serious about cross-community stuff, being the “enitrely catholic, top-priority-united ireland, anti-Alliance-Justice-Minister SDLP.” The leadership should take not of that.

    Respect the challenge from all quarters and answer all of them. Its not about Sinn Fein. It hasn’t been for a long time. They should engage in debate with the DUP and argue with them on the basis of their right wing ultra-conservative policies. They should engage with the Alliance and point out the flaws in their vision of getting along. Ironically, I would say that in doing so they would take more votes off SInn Fein that anyone.

    Perhaps they should take a leaf out of Peter Robinson’s book, then.

  • July and early August will be interesting.
    Will a stalking horse emerge to challenge Ritchie?
    Or a genuine contender emerge?
    Nominations for Leader close in August.
    The only way that a challenge wont be made is if theres a deal to wait a year and put Margaret on notice.

    The contenders might want to wait a year to raise their profiles. But Id suggest that every TV appearance and press statement and post on a message board we see is now a manifesto of sorts.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Didn’t Alban Magginnis comprehensibly beat Ian Parsley in a European election? I think Jim Allister did too.

    … who better to listen to on how the masses could be turned?

  • Well indeed.he did …….SDLP 78,500 and AP 26,700.
    Mr Parsley was eliminated on the First Count.

  • sectarianheadcount

    Circa 2% transfers across the divide then between the big two.

    Yet we were told ad nauseam that this was a ‘bread and butter election’. Orange bread; green butter perhaps…

    Sectarian voting continues in statelet created and maintained by sectarian headcount shocker….

  • IJP

    It is usual, when you don’t like the argument, to turn on the man! A couple of two-footed challenges in there with the ball nowhere in sight…

    But ok, let’s start with the figures:

    1999 European Election:
    SDLP 190,700
    Alliance 14,400

    2009 European Election:
    SDLP 78,500
    Alliance 26,700

    The masses are indeed turning – away from the SDLP and, in smaller number, towards Alliance. Perhaps it was just the genius of the Alliance candidate in 2009, but I personally doubt it.


    I’m not sure “hostility” is the right term – I have a blog to write, I do so as a volunteer so it’s written quickly, and I want people to come back and read it again. Therefore you’ll appreciate it has to be a bit controversial – there’ll be no “letsgetalongerism” from me! 🙂

    However, there is a fundamental difference in how SDLP types and Alliance types view the problem, that much is true. Essentially, the SDLP talks openly about “two communities” and its analysis is based on an attempt to balance them (albeit in practice biased towards the one it overwhelmingly represents); Alliance talks instead of “all sides of the community” and rejects the notion that you can “balance two sides” because the two sides do not really exist in the first place. I wouldn’t say that creates hostility (look where my aforementioned second preferences went in 1999), but it does create a tension which is most marked during negotiations.

    I tend towards the latter analysis, although it is not perfect and it can be confused (many Alliance figures deny even the existence of two “sides” but at the same time manage to condemn any cultural expression which is representative of only one of them, for example).

    It is fair to say the SDLP slipped down my ticket this time (and would’ve been further down except I knew the candidate personally), but that is nothing to do with analysis and everything to do with prioritising the wrong things and whingeing a lot – a separate point!

  • FuturePhysicist

    Sorry IJP for the flying tackle, but it’s clear that disinterest is a more dominant trend in comparison to the days when the SDLP were a dominant party.

    While the SDLP are losing some ground, the Alliance party haven’t gone around the Bogside and Ballymagroaty or indeed the Fountain trying to pick up working class voters,

    yet boast that they are the answer.

    They haven’t gone around struggling farms in Fermanagh and Tyrone emphasizing how to improve their rural communities, yet they boast that they have answers.

    I hope that Alliance are not happy to see the social segregation continue, so long as its proportionate on both sides.

    I hope that Alliance are not happy to play the SDLP “people” as sectarian simply for political capital while kicking away the socioeconomic “ball”.

    Also, FJP has also pointed out that Alliance are bouncing back to their position around the time of Sunningdale.

    It is impossible to say where with any certainty they are gaining any ground from the SDLP, the SDLP did not lose one seat to the APNI, but to the TUV, DUP and Sinn Féin. Maybe South Belfast, but not Foyle, South Down etc.

    The theories as to why the SDLP has declined have yet to descend into astral signals and soothsayer signs as yet, but that is ultimately between the voters and the SDLP.

  • Im surprised that Mr IJP brings up his electoral record. AS he clearly believes its relevant then I would like to make the following observation.

    I dont know why Mr Parsley makes a comparison with 1999 not 1994 when his occasional Party backed John Gilliland who got er 36,000 votes.
    As Mr Parsley has chosen to comment on his own vote gaining abilities can I direct him to the only occasion on which he was elected (2005)……as a councillor for the Alliance Party (Holywood DEA in North Down)).
    Six candidates for five seats
    Mr Parsley got 343 votes and was bottom of the poll.
    He was over 200 votes behind the Green Partys John Barry.
    He made it on transfers only.
    Thats the electoral success.
    But in fairness to Mr Parsley, he did not publish this piece here on Slugger. He published it on his own Blog.
    To a certain extent his own ability to win or lose votes is irrelevant except of course he believes it to be. Hence his point at 9.47am.

    But a more relevant point is that standing as Alliance candidate in 2009, Mr Parsley has been a UUPUFNC candidate (2010) and a Tory and has canvassed in SIX constituencies for the Alliance Party (2011).
    He has sabotaged his own political career.
    I wouldnt really value his political nous.