After Mid Ulster: What lessons for the SDLP?

So what to make of the Mid Ulster by election? Well, the clear winner was, erm, the winner. Some slippage in the vote (5k in fact) for Sinn Fein, but even with a relatively weak candidate this remains a safe seat.


For unionists, Sam McBride pretty much called it.  Albeit weakly, this was an endorsement of unionist unity. No second DUP Euro candidate is an easy payment for the DUP. But there won’t be the same pressure to unify under STV.

Alliance can be pleased they ran here, but it proves once again that they have no natural constituency (or resonance) outside greater Belfast.

Which brings me to the SDLP. Their man was the only candidate who both increased his vote and his percentage of the the total votes cast. As we noted at the time, it was a smart choice, by a party not noted for the excellence of its choices.

To move your vote total at a time when: 1, the total value of the market is dropping; and 2, when both parties of OFMdFM are putting a big sectarian squeeze on you is no mean feat.

People will rightly say that Mr McGlone took less than 20% of the vote. It’s a fair point. Anything around or north of 20% would have been a decent position for stealing a second seat in an election or two.

But it breaks a pattern that’s been in train since 1998 (Mark McGregor’s graph from just after #ge2010). In that time both the UUP and the SDLP may not have exactly been in lock step, but as Mark pointed out their trendlines have been on the same gradient.

This bye election suggests that that parallel journey downwards may be coming to an end.

From this, I’d draw the following tentative conclusions:

1, Doing small things well matters. Mid Ulster saw an upgrade in the party’s tally operation, as well as an increase in the numbers and youth of party volunteers.

2, In this case, even though he had no change of winning, the party played the strongest candidate they had. That suggests to me there’s a new realism in the party. Running McGlone maxed their appeal at the bottom of the market and may have flushed out new potential voters.

3, This was, no matter in how small a degree, an endorsement for the leader’s strategy of absenting himself from the public stage and concentrating on rebuilding local organisations.

4, 20% was closer to the targets the party had set itself pre-election. Yet a shortfall may serve to  motivate  volunteers to redouble their efforts in an STV election where tribal bottom lines will not inhibit intra nationalist transfers.

Now the caveats. It’s not that – in the limited terms of this analysis – I have many. Most obviously  McGlone was not just the strongest man available in Mid Ulster, he’s also one of the strongest constituency MLAs in the party.

So in that sense it’s not clear how well his message that there is no substitute for hard work and unrelenting focus on voter intelligence will be taken up.

That’s a challenge for the leader. In the first place to make sure central resources and training are delivered to those constituencies where candidates are likely to be competitive next time out.

For now, it is too early to suggest, let alone argue, that the SDLP has turned a corner. These  lessons of hard work that have been learned before (think Mark Durkan’s work-a-thon in 2005), and they only get you off your knees.

Some of the drift in the SDLP’s fortunes arises from the fact that since 1998 they have had no clear story to tell either about themselves or the people whom they wish to serve. The party needs to develop its own post conflict narrative.

Any new story will face two challenges. One, from the DUP which will continue to bolster with reliable ‘support’ from Sinn Fein (even if it is reluctantly on the part of some) the ‘strong tribal heads‘ motif.

The other will be to challenge the six county party on the basis of their own Republican credentials. Tacking to the constitutional right has been tried and is not been yielding much in the way of value.

In its internal deliberations, the SDLP might take note of Spotlight’s Mori poll which alone of all the Northern Irish parties it got a boost on the unusual question of which party are you inclined to support, as opposed to intention to vote.

And outside of Alliance it is the only major grouping to attract some support from across the community divide. It suggests that the party is currently punching well below its natural weight.

Working hard for every vote is useful stock for any party under STV-PR. Yet the question they really must ask themselves is what must it take to persuade voters to risk them in the real seat of power: ie OFMdFM?

Working hard to deliver for every vote might be a better framework for such a project.

 In the meantime, a negative trend may have been bucked.

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