Tough messages for the SDLP: Open up policy gaps and start speaking human again.

Nice work from Stephen Walker to get his hands on a confidential report based on focus groups across Northern Ireland. The leaker, no doubt, will be keeping his/her head down low (there’s a pun there if you dig not too deeply).

It’s hardly the best way to communicate tough home truths to: one, do it in the public domain first; or two have a journalist do it through access to a leaked confidential document, rather than your own leader.

Clearly not everyone is yet on board given the report’s suggestion the party might consider backing its leader.Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 15.00.27

That said, there’s surely no future for a party like the SDLP if it doesn’t confront itself with the hard facts of its long downfall. You could even argue that it’s come ten or eleven years too late.

But late is still better than never. [Still listening Mike? – Ed]

The piece begins by highlighting how big that swing between the two parties was. But the real  party to party movement was early in the period illustrated, and indicates a strong pay off for SF in signing up to the new Stormont institutions.

As David McCann has pointed out, most of what has happened since then has not been a further surge forward for SF, but rather a steady leaching away of voters from the SDLP.

The roster of SF’s advantages are familiar. Strong ownership of community activism puts them closer on the ground to their core working class community. The younger profile of their candidates (though again courtesy of David, five years in aggregate is not that much younger) making them more  easily identifiable with new generations.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 16.13.11

The SDLP also did badly on the clear Irish identity compared to Sinn Fein. In the past the party has tended to acquiesce in Sinn Fein’s rather narrow definitions of Irishness rooted sacrifice and martyrdom rather than broadening its own separate appeal in terms of culture, identity and common values.

Yet what really jumped out at me – although it barely got a mention in the rest of the programme –  was the fact that of those interviewed there is no difference on policy discernable between the two nationalist parties.

The report recommended getting more active on health and being clearer on parades and unionist excesses, or lack of leadership.  Both areas where the contact zone is more likely to be with unionism rather than with the party most responsible for its own decline.

Colum Eastwood’s follow up interview [that mustache is just a Movember thing, isn’t it? – Ed] was relatively upbeat and feisty. It may even prove to be little too feisty perhaps, since few of us will forget his now recorded attempt to get Mark Carruthers to take a bet on the SDLP taking a seat.

Of course the field was pretty tight last time so the UUP will make for an interestingly weak back marker, and Martina Anderson the non incumbent SF candidate may also, like the DUP’s Diane Dodds before her, leach votes from de Bruin’s poll topping position last time out.

The pro EU pitch is smart since it might allow them to scrum for votes across old dividing lines by opening up a serious policy gap between pro business/pro social Europeanism and the euroscepticism of all their rivals.

It’s a perfect opportunity to beat up all around them outside the limiting confines of the Assembly. Their real challenge will be quitting the ivory tower of theory politics and start speaking human again.

Learning how to win seats in a competitive market? Now that would be a whole new trick for the SDLP.

, ,

  • Newman

    The long staring tension between the green and red wings of the SDLP is a case in point. The suggestion that more left leaning radical social policies will (a) attract unionists and (b) undermine Sinn Fein is demonstrably muddle headed. The SDLP core remains the Catholic middle class and the rural vote that would generally be more conservative on social issues. Recent attempts to modify the parties pro life stance and a refusal to countenance proper conscience protection on gay marriage have rocked much of the core vote that would in European terms be aligned with the Christian and not the Social Democrats.The SDLP ignores this at its peril. Unionists as illustrated by various relevant Assembly votes prefer something robustly in favour of law and order (a possible SDLP strongpoint Newry play parks aside) and a conservative social approach. If Alasdair continues trying to fudge every issue he can forget about borrowing unionist votes in South Belfast. They need to be more Eddie McGrady and less Conal McDevitt.

  • 241934 john brennan

    ‘Recent attempts to modify the party’s pro life stance and a refusal to countenance proper conscience protection on gay marriage have rocked much of the core vote that would in European terms be aligned with the Christian and not the Social Democrats’.
    Couldn’t agree more, except for one small detail. Does Alex Attwood’s voting record on abortion and gay marriage not suggest the SDLP is no longer pro life? This raises the question – if he wins in May, will the party then seek to introduce into Northern Ireland, the lowest European common denominator in legislation relating to these issues?

  • Mick Fealty


    If I might be forgiven for the rugby analogy, the SDLP lacks intensity and focus. I’m not sure there’s been much attention been given to that dichotomy (between CDs and SDs) within the party membership.

    The party currently resemble the Ireland team that had their asses whipped by Australia rather than the bunch heros who almost took their first victory against the All Blacks.

    You don’t create intensity in a squad by running away from your opponents. They need to begin looking for trouble and start sailing right into the middle of it.

    Some of these arguments internally need to be chased out into the middle long before the battle starts with a good enough position taken to maintain unity of the internal coalitions.

    Ripping yourself to bits on something you have as yet little power to block or effect, is not smart.

  • Charles_Gould


    Mick makes a good point. Why focus so much on what is a very divisive issue. The consultants suggested a greater focus on healthcare issues. That might be less divisive.

  • Mick Fealty

    On what Charles?

  • Gopher

    “Better way to a better Ireland”. SF are campaigning on the same platform with a different tag line that is why the SDLP are beat. Pick any issue and it boils down to public purse nationalism from both parties apart from a abortion and it then it becomes

    A/ Public purse nationalists for some abortions

    B/ Public purse nationalists against all abortions

  • Charles_Gould

    Mick, the abortion issue.

    Mick, I think that on the previous page it was shown that SDLP need to convert SF voters into SDLP voters.

    By necessity that means appealing to the people who presently support SF.

    Attacks on SF may not work in this regard.

    What do we know about SF voters? Two things: they tend to be poor and young.

    So that suggests somewhat leftist policies that will help the kind of communities that SF voters live in.

  • Charles_Gould

    ““Better way to a better Ireland”. SF are campaigning on the same platform with a different tag line that is why the SDLP are beat. Pick any issue and it boils down to public purse nationalism from both parties apart from a abortion and it then it becomes

    A/ Public purse nationalists for some abortions

    B/ Public purse nationalists against all abortions”

    Not sure that’s fair.

    When SDLP say that they promote “a better way to a better Ireland” one reading of that is that it’s a better way than SF’s way. Hence, differentiation between SDLP and SF in terms of the way of getting to a UI.

  • Gopher

    It is entirely fair.I think between you pair you have just about squeezed out every voter possible on the Public Purse UI ticket. So now the only difference is limited abortion and seats at Westminster. Westminster of course being the vipers nest of imperialist aggressors when asked just like SF.

  • Charles_Gould


    Presupposing that SDLP stay left, what policy differences would you think would work in taking votes off SF?

  • Newman

    Attwood’s election would not affect de jure the party position on abortion as legislation a reserved matter. What I can say with some confidence is that his position on these matters will not be on balance a vote winner.


    Agree that these issues need to be sorted out internally . My criticism is that to date they remain running sores and attempts by some to close down debate are likely to prove controversial.

  • Gopher

    I would go for normalcy and perspective but it will be difficult unless your actual troops start to believe in it.

  • Charles_Gould

    Gopher will that take votes from SF?

    The one thing this thread seems to have concluded is that taking votes from SF is the name of the game.

  • Gopher

    This thread is getting a tad stale so I’ll wind up, My perspective is the SDLP is a middle class party getting on like teenage student union socialists high on mono cognitive nationalism.

    Basically its time for the SDLP to grow up and take down the Che poster of the bedroom wall and start behaving like a rational grown up party and representing people and not some faux cause that was settled a long time ago. Inflating the big orange monster only gets people to vote for SF. So chill be pragmatic explain to the people with crayon if necessary in rational pragmatic terms why your way is the best and belittle SF’s lack of perspective at every possible opportunity. Once you start to look like winners not some group of university dropouts you will find Derry will be saved Newry and Armagh will return to the fold and the rest will fall one by one. You might not win back West Belfast but who really cares.

  • Barney

    Gopher wrote

    “Inflating the big orange monster”

    Now there is something about that phrase I like……

  • boondock

    There has been some talk on this thread about nationalists not registering to vote and how Big Alec is curtains in South Belfast. Latest figures show 88% of those eligible to vote have now registered with the highest proportions in those notable Unionist strongholds of er Newry and Armagh and West Tyrone. As for South Belfast the low figure is obviously due to the large student and migrant populations who are less inclined to vote anyway.

  • Mc Slaggart


    “Inflating the big orange monster only gets people to vote for SF.”

    Even “unionists” are fed up with the actions of Flag protesters and the need to endless parade. SF are holding a line which is not representative of the population in the “West”.

    sdlp should take the line it applied to SF parade in Castlederg to all parades. This would convert one of their weak areas policy to a strong one.

  • Gopher


    Since the last firgures were published there certainly has been a big uptake in registration in some cases nearly 20% in wards you would perceive to be uniformly nationalist. All makes for an interesting election cycle

  • FuturePhysicist

    Mick probably has probably ad libed something onto the report in terms of the “Speaking Human Again” part, there was a complaint about policy but none on that topic. There were issues about the SDLP not being Green enough or not being Red enough but nowhere was the Humanity of the party questioned.

    Being pro business/pro social Europeanism is a unique SDLP neesh, that arguably only the Alliance Party share with but it may not be who this group of voters want from them. Certainly many would even question if that’s what making them not red enough or not green enough. Certainly as part of a European network of 27 proud nations there is a capacity to ensure a balance which creates trade and creates jobs but allows people their personal and their regional freedoms.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Well I don’t think there was a question over the SDLP’s Humanity from the corresponders, that might be why Mick doesn’t vote SDLP, which is fair enough but he wasn’t elected spokesperson for these people. The Green and Red camps was mentioned earlier, certainly in terms of Ireland’s own independence, Northern Ireland’s autonomy on the Green side and Worker’s Rights and autonomy in the Red camp, the old Connolly expression that the Cause of the Worker is the Cause of Ireland, is nothing more than a mere soundbite to the real challenges faced in both struggles, and in deed the Irish workers who have to deal with both.

    I am willing to accept that “pro business/pro social Europeanism” is a neesh but in a time of bad buisness and the European bailouts in Ireland can we blame people for at least being skeptical of that neesh, especially an Irish “nationalist”, whether a Northern or Southern one?

    I’d rather reverse the question, by asking what will European skepticism accomplish? Would a bunch of Eurosceptics at the heart of the EU Parliament as have been only increase the levels of Protectionism, only detriment economies where natural immigration becomes forced? The EU is at risked of being run by Eurosceptics, skeptics that have forgotten it was pan-Europeanism that got Ireland, UK, France, Germany and the rest of the Continent out of the Depression!

    And what will the EU become if it is run by Eurosceptics, I doubt it will be a re-enabler of nations, nor would it “take back powers” if anything it would be a greasy talking shop of non-negotiation and bullying, a destroyer of national networks, and a paracitic parliament where the establishment is paid to rebel against itself and its own existance!

    UKIP might not be in any hurry to leave the EU they actually like being there complaining about it. Leave the EU and they’ll destroy their audience and purpose. The Conservative Party have said their main desire to leave/reform the EU is based primarily on Human Rights, on Worker’s Rights. The EU is holding them back from that.

    Would the Eurosceptics be willing to pull the trigger if they did have the mandate, or will they simply look at excuses to try to achieve more European networking power and a bigger personality profile?

    Sinn Féin vere towards Eurosceptism as do the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists, but arguably they are uncommited to the levels of Conservatives and UKIP, and indeed Sinn Féin often the radical left wing Nordic socialists they sit with. A lot of the European funding that has been given to this region to create jobs has been squadered or taken back.

    If Europe is to have strong networks and strong confidence in itself it needs a revolution from the centre, or else they may as well let the radicals on either side fight it out in the name of extreme neo-liberalism and neo-communism. To me the bottom line is are Martina Anderson, Diane Dodds and Jim Nicholson serious about making Northern Ireland a working component of the European network for the mutual benefit of itself, the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the continent or are they career politicians who’ll demagogue over all the bad things and offer nothing better in return.