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.’

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty