Wither the SDLP-Have they a future?

Conall McDevitt’s resignation from the assembly this week has provoked some debate about the future direction of the SDLP. With this in mind, I thought I would take this issue head on and ask the crucial question do the SDLP even have a future?

When you take a look at the figures of every assembly election since 1998, you can sum up the SDLP’s fortunes in one word; decline.

In 1998, the party took more first preference votes than any other party winning 21.9% of the vote.

The story ever since has been one of decline. Since 1998 the SDLP have lost over 83,000 voters with no sign that any of them are returning.  Just to put this in context, that is over 6,400 voters abandoning the party each year. Worse still, the party has gone from averaging around 22% of the vote in the nineties to averaging just 16% in the noughties. If this trend keeps going, the party will poll less than 90,000 votes at the next assembly election.

The 2011 assembly election should have been a wakeup call for the party as they won less than one hundred thousand votes for the first time in their history.

Yet the party seems to have learned no lessons at all from their defeat as Sinn Fein still by in large set the agenda for Northern nationalism. The dithering over the SPAD bill is a perfect example of how Sinn Fein still possesses the ability to out flank the party on key issues.

Where to now?

Does the SDLP have a future? My own personal opinion is that it does not. Political parties have a sell by date and outlive their usefulness. Once the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, the great mission of the party was complete. I would like to see parties from the Irish Republic to move up here and contest elections in order to give voters more choice. Recent polls show there is some appetite for this.

I have heard other options such as British Labour, Irish Labour and SDLP coming together to form one single centre-left party.

Or am I just being too pessimistic? Do the SDLP have a future that I am just not realising in my analysis?

There is clearly a political vacuum out there within Irish nationalism. I have my own views on which party could fill it. But I honestly believe this debate is far too important to limit our options or constrain our thinking on this issue. This is something I’ve given some thought to for quite some time. In writing this piece I hope I can contribute in a small way to opening up this debate.

Side Note- SDLP vote has declined by 83,677 since 1998. Yet the SF vote over the same period has increased by just 35,372. That leaves over 45,000 that have largely just stopped voting.

 

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  • Thanks to Mr Hutz for his forensic and serious contribution. I dont find much to criticise but would like to tease out some of this.
    Its fair enough to say SDLP had a lot of people retire around the same time. But I think that points up that there was a missing generation which was not in place to take over. The core reason is that there was no politics in the late 1970s 1980s…the democratic deficit meant that people did not get involved or drifted away.
    The SDLP with some accuracy say that they were let down by Irish, British and American governments to get the two extremes involved and keep them involved. Seamus Mallon calls it treachery but I think that over-states it.
    The same “generational thing” will indeed hapen to Sinn Fein but SF softens the blow for itself with its use of co-options. Twenty nine SF members were elected to the Assembly just over two years ago. Less than half-way thru the term and THIRTY SEVEN have signed the Members Roll.
    All kinds of reasons for that…double jobbing…but in a Party where people….we are told….earn the same….there is no difference in being a MInister, MP, MLA, Advisor. The pack can be shuffled and SF discipline accepts it.
    Of course that DOES bed people in…but effectively dispatching Ms Gildernew, Ms Anderson, Mr Murphy, Mr Maskey to the margins will have a negative effect.
    Some of the new people look “Carling Cup” material. Some will be culled.
    But the real problem might be that the third level of SF MLA has had to step into the second level.
    Some Sue Ramsey for example are future ministerial material but some other MLAs have been exposed.
    SF have been lucky for too long. The SF and DUP tactic of co-operating for ten months of the year and fighting for two….to keep the core vote on board is now too obvious to be ignored. But SDLP people need to make the point at every opportunity.
    It is of course entirely proper and very civilised that the current SF Mayor of Belfast goes off for a few days and exchanges tweets with his DUP Deputy that he is in charge ….but is this really two parties who are REALLY at war over Flegs and Parades pr do they just shamelessly use these issues to stir things up.
    Of course the key demographic for SF and DUP voter know and approve of the tactic but there is a floating voter for whom its wearing a bit thin.
    Do they turn away from SF…to SDLP or just not voting. Is an SDLP vote actually the same value as an Alliance vote. DUP-SF-Alliance have it sewn up.
    I actually think thats a bigger issue than The “treachery” of the three governments.
    The attitude to the Alliance Party needs to be addressed. They are limited geographically and culturally. But the SDLP has always assumed that Alliance were the good guys. A safe bet for nationalists in Larne, Newtownards, Bangor etc. This is plainly no longer the case.

    having attended five successive SDLP Conferences, I do sense a sea-change. The Party faithful seem a bit tired of being lectured at by platforms that include Duncan Morrow, Rev Norman Hamilton, Davey Adams.
    The biggest cheer of the 2012 Conference was when Strabane Branch won (jointly) the Dan McAreavey Trophy …an annual award for a significant contribution to SDLP.
    The impressive Daniel McCrossan made a speech reflecting that membership in the Branch had spared in 2011 and 2012 when they had gone out to meet people.
    “We never left the SDLP ….the SDLP left us”
    Thats actually a message I get from SOME friends and family as my own connexion and occasional membership of SDLP becomes known. Frankly some will never vote SDLP again but a message I get more than once is ” I want to vote SDLP….give me a reason”.
    Outreach to letsgetalongerists is all very well. It has its place. But there are few concrete results.
    Letsgetalongerists like the SDLP but wouldnt want their daughter to marry one.
    There is that Metrotextual, metropolitan elite who have SDLP names on Twitter and Facebook but voting for SDLP is a step too far.
    Among the union stalls, charity stalls, human rights stalls at SDLP Conferences and Fringe meetings, theres a lot of hand-shaking.
    SDLP might be the Party which Human Rights organisations (Amnesty for example) might feel close to…or public sector unions (NIPSA or Unison for example) …or charities like Age Concern…..but would any of them actually step up to the plate and endorse a SDLP candidate at election time? No.
    SDLP has certainly improved in organisation terms. Theres no advice centre in Fermanagh SouthnTyrone, Thats a handicap. But at least the Party can be optimistic having narrowly lost out in FST, North Antrim, Strangford, South Antrim…..a crowded “middle ground” of Alliance, NI21, Conservative, Green will help.
    Necessarily the organisation involves Youth. But holding them past the university years and getting them to stop bantering tweets with young folk in other parties…that would be a good idea.
    For a Party that knows it has contributed to History, the SDLP is remarkably careless about its own. I dont particuarly want to develop that point here….its an issue that I want to address with people who care.
    But if you take an example an honourable football club…Manchester United, Liverpool, Celtic….the HISTORY is part of the Club….Its about Munich, Hillsborough and Brother Walfrid….the start of every new season does not wipe out the history. The Youth team players, the latest signings from Belgium and Uruguay are inducted in that history….SDLP ignore it in a way that Sinn Fein dont.

    Opposition? Is that the issue? …..

  • “Opposition? Is that the issue?”

    “Thats actually a message I get from SOME friends and family as my own connexion and occasional membership of SDLP becomes known. Frankly some will never vote SDLP again but a message I get more than once is ” I want to vote SDLP….give me a reason”.…..

    Forming an opposition would be a very good way of returning lost voters–presently non-voters–to the fold. But this requires to big ifs. First, it would require new legislation to build in a framework for opposition at Stormont. That would mean Downing St. paying attention to the NIO. The DUP and SF will be opposed to an official opposition. They presently have a duopoly on power, why should they risk it by empowering an opposition? This means that it would have to be imposed from without, possibly as part of a Haass talks package. Second, given the consociational nature of the arrangements at Stormont, there would have to be cooperation with either the UUP or Alliance to present a unionist component to the opposition.

  • Comrade Stalin

    McSlaggart:

    Comrade Stalin

    ” all I’ve heard from you is a suggestion that the tricolour should be flown on some days”

    Post a link to that please:

    What I wrote was:

    “The Alliance party in Norther Ireland wrote this “our shared values of equality, respect for diversity” about themselves.

    Taking that into account how the hell does flying the Union flag on St Patrick’s day in Belfast (something Alliance partly did) whilst telling people they should not carry their own national flag make any sense?

    If they cannot bring themselves to take down the Union flag surly they should say that the party supports Irish people using their national flag on St Patricks day.”

    That sounds a bit like you making a suggestion that the tricolour should be flown on some days.

    But to deal with where I think you’re getting at (which is unclear) .. there is a legal framework for designated days. There isn’t a legal framework for flying flags of other jurisdictions.

    I don’t care what flag is there and I doubt many people in Alliance do either, but it has to be within the law. If we’re going to argue that the tricolour should be flown on the “national day” does that mean that the US flag should be flown on 4th July, or that the Chinese national flag be flown on October 1st ?

    Comrade Stalin

    “Do you have any specific suggestions beyond platitudes ?”

    A simple one is to go round areas and get the people to take down all their individual flags and cover up all their bad paint jobs.

    Absolutely brilliant, why didn’t I think of that before ? I’ll put it on my list of things to do next to invading Russia this winter.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The SDLP with some accuracy say that they were let down by Irish, British and American governments to get the two extremes involved and keep them involved. Seamus Mallon calls it treachery but I think that over-states it.

    FJH,

    I don’t understand how anyone could see this as at all accurate.

    The process in its current form is the way it is because John Hume made it that way. Had the SDLP continued with the Brooke talks in 1992, rather than pulling out, the powersharing agreement would have proceeded some years earlier except with the DUP on the Executive rather than Sinn Féin.

    It was John Hume who argued that you could not have a process without the extremes and he sacrificed the SDLP in order to implement that.

    The comments from Mallon and others blaming the government for ditching them are ridiculous. The SDLP – for whatever reason – lost ground to Sinn Féin. The governments did not create that situation. The electorate did because they were persuaded that Sinn Féin had a better use for their votes.

    As I have also pointed out before, the SDLP designed the assembly to use the d’Hondt system and the cross-community voting mechanism deliberately to ensure that Sinn Féin could not be excluded from power (even legitimately) and so that the voices of non-aligned parties would be formally disenfranchised. I have really no sympathy whatsoever for the fact that these cynical Hume tactics returned to bite the SDLP on the backside.

  • Charles_Gould

    The new SDLP minister, Mark H Durkan seems to have hit the ground running.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Comrade Stalin

    “There isn’t a legal framework for flying flags of other jurisdictions.”

    Not objecting to people to carrying their national flag has no legal implications.

    Alliance in Belfast have a tradition on flags. They voted that the Irish national flag should not be used on St Patricks day. They then force a vote to keep the Union flag flying on St Patricks day.

    Now when the sdlp was in power in Omagh they simply made a new flag 1987. Why did Alliance not take on the sdlp example?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Comrade Stalin

    The fact that you compare getting out on the street and tackling issues directly to “invading Russia” shows the level of fear Alliance has in the places it gets elected.

    I once went around canvassing with Sean Neeson in Carrickfergus Council estates (a very long time ago). A very nice man but it was obvious that Alliance had not been out working the areas on an ongoing basis. It looks like all these years later Alliance has not changed in that regard.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The fact that you compare getting out on the street and tackling issues directly

    Yes. It’s brilliant. I love it.

    Alliance should single handedly take on the UVF, UDA and IRA remnants and go around taking down flags. Because that’s a completely reasonable and normal thing to do.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Charles,

    The new SDLP minister, Mark H Durkan seems to have hit the ground running.

    Did he fall out of his ministerial limo or something ?

  • Mc Slaggart

    “Alliance should single handedly take on the UVF”

    Do you understand the concept of representative democracy ?

    Once you stand in an election you are putting yourself forward to elected representing a group of people in a given area. They may not have all voted for you but you should be in the business of representing them and putting your manifesto into action.

    No one forces people to become elected representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland but when they do they know that it may be a dangerous job.

    The sdlp are well aware of this fact of life in Northern Ireland did someone forget to tell the Alliance party people before they stood for the party?

  • Lionel Hutz

    Comrade,

    How is it than any most issues you can remain mostly sane but one mention of the SDLP and you turn into this unedifying creature we see on this thread?

    You have a real chip on shoulder about the party?

    Not surprising I suppose when you consider that for all the SDLPs problems they are still far more popular than the Alliance.

  • Charles_Gould

    To return to the thesis of the thread that David McCann has provided for us.

    It is another very good piece by David.

    I wanted to chip something in that Brian Feeney said, on Eamon Mallie’s site. He said that the SDLP should really focus on its conservative side, aiming on winning seats in the rural parts of NI, and forget about Belfast and should forget about West Belfast.

    What do people think of that?

    I can’t say I agree. Surely West Belfast, with its 5 SF MLAs represents a worthwhile target for SDLP? Shouldn’t the SDLP be doing more to build up in such a major constituency for nationalism, where at one time it was able to get a lot of votes?

  • The SDLP with some accuracy say that they were let down by Irish, British and American governments to get the two extremes involved and keep them involved. Seamus Mallon calls it treachery but I think that over-states it.

    FJH,

    I don’t understand how anyone could see this as at all accurate.”

    @Comrade Stalin,

    If this is a reference to the remarks that Mallon made a few years ago upon his retirement from politics about the two governments not taking the SDLP seriously because it didn’t have any guns, then I agree completely with him. The two governments decided, probably based on the results of the Sunningdale process in 1974, that both the Republicans and the loyalists had to be appeased. The best leverage that the British and Irish governments had over the paramilitary organizations was the prisoners that they had locked up in their prisons. They proceeded to give up this leverage with no quid pro quo from the terrorists. Eventually decommissioning was peacefully achieved but at the expense of the moderate middle. The DUP boycotted the peace talks after Sinn Fein entered and there after insisted on guns before government. They then took credit for decommissioning when it occurred. The SDLP looked weak because Dublin and London were intent on appeasing those with guns and not those without them. The lesson for the nationalist electorate was that moderation did not pay.

    Although I disagree with Mallon to the extent that he blamed Washington–it was not in the driver’s seat during the peace process.

  • Comrade Stalin

    “Alliance should single handedly take on the UVF”

    Do you understand the concept of representative democracy ?

    Clearly I have a lot to learn from you.

    I’ll tell you what, I’m thoroughly inspired by your suggestion. I’ve emailed David Ford and proposed that on the basis of representative democracy, he should send an Alliance delegation to North Korea to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and overthrow the Kim dynasty. Because, after all, according to some random person from Tyrone, believing a world free of nuclear weapons requires you to put your money where your mouth is.

    Once that work is done the Alliance bridge players society will be dispatched to Eastern Europe where they will take down criminal gangs trafficking prostitutes to the West. Because, as you said, it’s not worth opposing human trafficking if you’re not prepared to do something about it.

    Once you stand in an election you are putting yourself forward to elected representing a group of people in a given area. They may not have all voted for you but you should be in the business of representing them and putting your manifesto into action.

    Holy shit, no way ? You mean we’re not supposed to just take votes from the electorate and then ignore them ?

    No one forces people to become elected representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland but when they do they know that it may be a dangerous job.

    Not merely a dangerous job – a suicidal one, according to your obviously-correct definition. I’m glad you were here to set me straight on this matter. Clearly representative democracy requires that anyone standing for election should be prepared, to run head-first towards the nearest machine gun.

    The sdlp are well aware of this fact of life in Northern Ireland

    Ah yes of course, that would be back when the SDLP Youth wing went to Cambodia and joined with the Vietnamese fighters to overthrow Pol Pot.

    did someone forget to tell the Alliance party people before they stood for the party?

    No, but I’ll be sure to pass your sage advice on. I’m so glad you took the time out from your busy schedule to dispense advice on how to run political parties to people who have been doing it for 40 years.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Lionel,

    How is it than any most issues you can remain mostly sane but one mention of the SDLP and you turn into this unedifying creature we see on this thread?

    You have a real chip on shoulder about the party?

    I think I have an equally low opinion of all four of the big parties.

    Not surprising I suppose when you consider that for all the SDLPs problems they are still far more popular than the Alliance.

    The DUP and Sinn Féin are more popular than the SDLP. That clearly proves, as an SDLP supporter you must be wrong about everything and in no way does it suggest that you may have subtlely unique and nuanced perspectives that have equal validity despite not being as popular.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Comrade,

    If you do have an equally low opinion you don’t express it that way from what I see. And the criticism of the Sdlp is very much a sniping kind of petty jibe style criticism. It’s unbecoming really.

  • Charles_Gould

    Nobody took up my question so undeterred I will ask again: should SDLP target West Belfast? It would seem to me to be ripe for attack from an energetic SDLP candidate.
    .

  • Charles_Gould

    There must be a lot of low-hanging fruit in West Belfast for the SDLP if they got a good candidate to complement Alex.

  • Morpheus

    Why West Belfast CG? Why not North?

  • Charles_Gould

    In West Belfast there are 5 non-SDLP nationalist seats up for grabs more than any other constituency.

  • Charles_Gould

    It’s really hard for a party to win 5 seats in a 6 seater; the electorate is unlikely to be that “homogeneous” for one type of politics.

  • Morpheus

    What makes West Belfast more up for grabs than North? Maybe with the demographics in North Belfast there could be enough ‘low-lying fruit’ up there to get an extra seat with a strong candidate?

  • Charles_Gould

    The reason West Belfast is more up for grabs is because there are so many nationalist seats there to win back.

    SF hold 5 seats – hard to do in in any case, and even harder for a “lead government” party.

  • David McCann

    Remember that most of lost SDLP voters-don’t vote.

    They have not went to SF.

  • Mc Slaggart

    Comrade Stalin

    Your Hyperbole does not hid the basic fact that Alliance does not directly address the issues in its stated manifesto. You have made it clear Alliance can only act if they get the correct department……

    sdlp has spent its existence

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00nm4dy
    Demonstration against internment on Magilligan Strand

    Noth Belfast 2013

  • Lionel Hutz

    I don’t understand the dynamics of west Belfast but I would have thought that any gains would be from playing a long game. I wouldn’t describe it as low lying fruit. Sinn Fein did a real number on the Sdlp there.

  • Morpheus

    The SDLP as a party need to do something special right across the board to get back to 1998 levels and become the voice of nationalism again. If it’s even possible

  • I believe that there will always be a role for the SDLP. For expediency they included Labour in the name and had a role for Gerry Fitt, Paddy Devlin and others initially but they were, at heart, a slightly right wing Social/Christian Democratic party and they didn’t waste too much time elbowing the labourites to the side door and then out. Their constituency will likely remain where it is and they will never get back to power unless they do something really different, They are more likely to just continue wandering aimlessly.