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.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs