After #GE2015ni… The SDLP begins breaking tough…

The SDLP’s post election profile rarely makes good reading for party loyalists, but this year is at least a partial exception.

Alasdair McDonnell may not have turned round the decline the party has  suffered under its two previous leaders, but like a football team with very few opportunities to score, he has at least managed to successfully recycle the ball.

In Foyle an increase in the Durkan vote augurs well for Assembly team safety. In South Down, Margaret Ritchie’s 6.2% decline indicates little more than moderate Unionists no longer worry about her losing to Sinn Fein.

In South Belfast McDonnell had the toughest fight of the three to resist a huge political squeeze from several directions. But the seat is still the SDLP’s, so they get to fight another day.

If they didn’t score directly, it was their nationalist opponents who lost their seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone, and largely through the SDLP’s refusal to sign up to what would have been widely interpreted as a sectarian pact.

For a party that has seemed at times to have been afraid of its own shadow, sticking to principles and in the process dispensing damage to an opponent counts as a win.

McDonnell has also created a process for bringing in and, crucially, testing new political talent.

Daniel McCrossan will be a popular and capable replacement for Joe Byrne in West Tyrone whilst in Newry and South Armagh Justin McNulty has improved on what was dropping vote share for Dominic Bradley in 2010.

In Lagan Valley and Strangford where there are no current SDLP seats, there were modest bounces for the SDLP, at the expense of Sinn Fein. But after that, the picture gets much bleaker, not least in McDonnell’s native Co Antrim.

Of most concern is the continuing decline in four constituencies where the party still holds Assembly seats.  East Londonderry (-3.2%), Upper Bann (-3.8%) Belfast West (-6.5%) and Belfast North (-4.1%).

The drops aren’t necessarily fatal (differential turnouts in Assembly and Westminster elections are to be expected). But read against rises elsewhere they usefully demark areas where renewal is taking place, and where it clearly isn’t.

Even the ingenue John Coyle, under extreme pressure from a much larger Sinn Fein machine in Fermanagh South Tyrone, performed better than these four incumbents, losing just 2.3% of the vote last Thursday.

Notionally there are two SDLPs. One has begun to halt its regression. The other, consisting of senior and still hugely influential figures within the party, still bumbles downward in the same way they have throughout the era of decline.

Interestingly some of those in this faltering wing of the party were amongst the first to talk about a change of leadership. It’s a conversation prompted by McDonnell’s own announcement that he will be choosing Westminster over Stormont.

Laying aside the implausibility of an Irish nationalist party led from London, no one believes that the crux of  political struggle in Northern Ireland is anywhere but Stormont. Leadership from Westminster is a near impossibility.

In the next week the party will face important decisions. As Tony Blair put it to Labour on Sunday, “choosing a new leader is important, but not nearly as important as choosing direction.”

McDonnell’s achievement has been to bring in fresh legs, keep recycling the ball, facing down an opponent the party once thought invincible and, as Cllr Claire Hanna suggested on election night, enabling his party to see them ‘fray at the edges’.

Modest enough, and certainly no substitute for the convincing political narrative that the party really needs for a real and sustainable revival. Hard work alone is certainly not enough. But nor should it be dismissed as nothing.

If Dr McDonnell has shown his party anything it is that just laying around in a political bath chair with one foot firmly committed to the grave is not the only option.

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  • chrisjones2

    Another plug for Clare!!!! Can we set up a Clare Watch blog? Will she ascend to the leadership without a vote or appear the the faithful as an apparition at the party Conference?

  • Granni Trixie

    Even if it seems counter intuitive Mick, I’m not altogether convinced that a party Leader cannot do a good job whilst a Westminster rep ( in general – excluding the present SDLp case). If it is a person with the right personal qualities and determination, it could work.

    Would require an extremely hard working person as they would have to be across a certain amount of detail from current Assembly issues as well as Westminster responsibilities. Being well briefed would therefore be necessary but an adequate system of support could ensure that. All of which begs the question:what exactly does the role of party leader entail?

    Also leads one to ask if the rules of eligibility in the Constitutions of various political parties stipulate that a candidate for election to Leader must be an MLA. I know for sure that an MP can stand for election as Leader of APNI but do not know about the Constitution rules in other parties such as SDLP.

  • Granni Trixie

    I suppose people are preoccupied with what is after all SB SDLP ‘business’ because what looks to the public (and rivals for votes! ) to be an extremely capable local councillor was not selected last time round when instead AMcD zoomed in a man from outside the constituency. Seemed odd at the time.

  • Nevin

    “certainly no substitute for the convincing political narrative”

    I suspect ‘political narrative’ has little relevance in the context of the NI constitutional tussle and ‘sectarian’ is an inappropriate put-down. Moving towards a cross-community centre-left position would be moving towards a very small pool.

    Not only are the DUP and SF the big beasts, they are most likely to be the go-to parties for constituents choking in a sea of bureaucracy. Each has fallen back a little in this election but this could well be due to having to share the OFMDFM office. In North Antrim, the SDLP shut its constituency office in Ballycastle and its vote has gone down; the UUP increased its constituency outreach and its vote has gone up.

  • Gopher

    Mick there are some things we can take as certain, barring a huge scandal and it now has to be bigger than gay marriage, abortion, rape or rampant secterianism the SDLP vote will go down at the assembly elections. It went down 11,000 in this Westminster cycle. The SDLP vote always falls at assembly elections, that is a fact!

    Take South Belfast we know there are 14,000 unionist votes they arnt going to vote for anyone else come 2016, We now know there is 6700 Alliance votes, if they voted for Bradshaw they arnt going anywhere. How many of those 9560 vote are going to stay with the SDLP when you remove scary Bell. Greens, Workers Party, PBP (who will certainly stand). The SDLP better hope the ex mayor dont hit quota on the first vote. Rinse and repeat over the other 17 Constituencies

  • Gopher

    Next election is 2016 which will have resonance with every party bar the SDLP, Greens and Alliance. The Greens and Alliance are fully insulated against such nonsense. The SDLP arnt, I would start thinkng about 2016 after coffee this morning.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I find this analysis astonishingly starry-eyed.

    This was the SDLP’s worst performance ever at a full Westminster election, the South Belfast seat saved by a percentage vote share that in normal times would be a decent third place.

    In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the SDLP lost “just” 2.3% of the votes because they had so few left to lose; they got less than 0.4 of an Assembly quota. And if you are dismissing as trivial a loss of “just” 2.3%, it is rather odd to ballyhoo the relatively smaller gains in Lagan Valley, Newry and Armagh and Strangford, none of which put the SDLP in the territory of taking an extra Assembly seat.

    Meanwhile SF (who frankly did not have a good election either) were not far off getting three times as many votes as the SDLP in Upper Bann, and the second South Belfast seat will have to be fought for without McDonnell next year.

    It’s pretty clear where the work needs to be done; it’s not at all clear that theya re doing it.

  • mickfealty

    I could just have said nothing John or gone along with the consensus (and my own instincts) that the party is just a spent force), rather than take the trouble to root out the figures. There was no squeeze in UL or WB, though I take your point in respect of the other two.

    I’m only using it to signal where the red lights are flashing, not an exit. Consolidation is critical and that is what Big Al has brought.

  • Nevin

    When it comes to visibility, John, photo-ops and articles in newspapers, especially local newspapers, IMO are also significant.

  • mjh

    The first thing that should be said about the SDLP in this election is a word of praise for the guts of their leadership who stood by their principles and refused to enter any pacts. They knew it would put them under enormous pressure and would lead to a concerted SF campaign to squeeze their vote.

    Ironically this may have helped them in South Belfast, even if it hurt them elsewhere. McDonnell clearly benefited from tactical votes (no doubt along with his impressive personal vote), as the figures clearly show he has in previous Westminster elections, This despite the votes he may have lost to Sinn Fein who will probably not be too dissatisfied with the improvement in their performance.

    There is talk that McDonnell may delay his departure from the Assembly until near Christmas. Is this something to do with stabilising his leadership? Anyway it would be a grave mistake. Without the tactical votes he gained on Thursday, and deprived of McDonnell’s personal vote in the Assembly elections it will require a desperate fight to stand any chance of retaining the second seat. Whoever is co-opted will need more than a couple of months before the start of the official campaign to dig in.

    The other seat where they will have to regain ground if they are to hold on is Upper Bann. Yes they may well have been squeezed and they may well be able to get those votes back- but on the Westminster figures they would be toast. They should hold the selection meeting without delay and confirm their candidate. The next 10 months they should fight as a long campaign.

    Certainly Belfast North and West Belfast look wobbly, but they should just hold on again. Complacency in either would be deadly – they will have a real fight on their hands. Again picking their North Belfast candidate quickly would be sensible – especially if the baton is passing to Nicola Mallon.

    A quibble about Foyle, Mick. On the face of it Durkan showed a healthy increase in vote share. But this may have been by picking up nearly half of the share that went to Eamon McCann last time out. On the plus side, SF managed to slightly drop share despite the absence of PBPA. But if PBPA stand again next year and enjoy anything like the boost they received in West Belfast they could take a seat, and the SDLP seat looks more vulnerable.

    A final word. Although this election marked another small drop in the long decline of the SDLP nothing in politics is inevitable – as Mike Nesbitt has proved. But the secret of SDLP recovery, whatever it is, continues to be elusive.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think the comments were balanced, in comparison to the wipe-outs that UK Labour have and Irish Labour are going to experience, the SDLP have withstood what could’ve been a lot worse a challenge.

    Obviously the hit not just to the SDLP but from transfers from Sinn Féin are going to be hit where they might need them such as North Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone. You are right, but I think Mick is trying to say is that what is being applied in West Tyrone and Newry and Armagh, needs to transfer to Antrim, Belfast & Northern Down constituencies.

    The leading from Westminster argument is redundant as every SDLP leader has lead the party in Westminster. Even Séamas Mallon lead the cause at Stormont while not giving up his Westminster seat and was one of the best mandated Irish nationalist politicians for doing so.

    What they need is a Stormont leader anyway, Dolores Kelly and/or Patsy McGlone should be able to do the role there. I would say Kelly should pull rank as the deputy in the party, and have Patsy as her deputy, with Atwood third.

  • Kevin Breslin

    A quibble about Foyle, Mick. On the face of it Durkan showed a healthy increase in vote share. But this may have been by picking up nearly half of the share that went to Eamon McCann last time out. On the plus side, SF managed to slightly drop share despite the absence of PBPA. But if PBPA stand again next year and enjoy anything like the boost they received in West Belfast they could take a seat, and the SDLP seat looks more vulnerable.

    People Before Profit are a threat, but only if Sinn Féin stand two candidates and recommend it as the preferential 3rd option.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Claire, and as a International Development Secretary, she pretty much has ascended within the leadership by votes.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I take the point that losing no seats at all on a diminished vote is better than the sister parties’s prospects, of course; but that only says that the result was not a complete disaster!

    On the leadership issue, of course I agree; a mature political party should be able to find leadership roles for all of its talent, and the Westminster and Assembly roles are clearly divergent. Here in Belgium, the tradition is that parties are actually led by someone who is not currently a government minister, so as to avoid putting anyone in the position of trying to do two full-time jobs simultaneously (and also to maintain a distinction between the party’s position and the inevitable fudging of policy in a coalition government).

  • mickfealty


    I’m going to burnish ‘starry-eyed’ and put it on the mantle piece. I’ve never had one of they before. I was assuming (perhaps rashly, perhaps not) that the SDLP were already on a one way ticket to oblivion.

    You do make a good point on FST, but that was part of what was a hard decision on the part of the leader to take a punishing backwash from SF in his own backyard. This is what marks Big Al out from his predecessors.

    I know what you say about N&A, but whatever the hype beforehand, the reality is there’s a slight rally against trend there. For a party like the SDLP that IS is significant.

    The alternative to no having Strabane based McCrossan is having no alternative to Omagh based Boyle. That’s been the pattern of the party’s decline thus far.

    I will admit I’ve had to break my poor little bear brain to find some of the detail in this, and may be all it is worth is turning it into an asset rather than a liability for someone else to profit from (see the link to my post match video linked above).

    I go back to Alliance in 2003, and look at how low they were then. Almost everything good that has happened to the party since flows from that moment of realisation of its own political mortality.

    The SDLP has every opportunity to screw up a recovery. But Al will leave them in relatively better shape in parts at least than when he took over.

    And all without any kind of political story whatsoever.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I disagree, and it’s not been an issue that SDLP voters have complained about, or indeed neither is the opinion that the Assembly is now stronger and more relevant than it ever was.

    How can an Assembly that has struggled with more collapses and failures than the Trimble-Mallon period ever did be considered stronger?

    How can an Assembly with a lower turnout supporting it be more “relevant” than it ever has been? Surely turnout is the best guage of relevancy?

    On the term Leader must be based there, again there is no necessity here. Sinn Féin’s leader, deputy, chairman, and treasurers aren’t in the Assembly. Only 3 of the 19 Ard Chomhairle members are … Caitríona Ruane, Jennifer McCann and Alex Maskey. Sinn Féin’s leader in the Assembly Martin McGuinness (and they have a seperate leader of the Assembly in Raymond McCartney) aren’t even in Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle.

    You don’t need a “party leader” in the Assembly, you need a leader from the party in the Assembly.

  • mjh

    PBPA started the last Assembly with 0.6 of a quota. By the final stage of the count they were sitting on 0.71 of a quota, 959 votes behind Pat Ramsey who was elected without reaching the quota. (He had 0.88 of a quota at that point.)

    If PBPA take a seat it must come from either SF or SDLP, and on the figures SDLP looks more vulnerable.

    The party needs to realistically establish the degree of potential vulnerability in Derry and determine how to deal with the threat, rather than basking in its increased vote share.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Of course the SDLP are more vulnerable, it’s exponentially more difficult to win multiple seats the more you have.

  • Spike

    Mick I think you are correct about the downward spiral of SDLP – somehow they need an injection of life, vitality, whatever you want to call it but at the moment they look tired, outdated and without relevance – much like the good Doctor himself. Ms Hanna is constantly touted as a potential but appears too jittery for me to take seriously, though would be an able deputy . Margaret Ritchie is fairly toxic within the party, Attwood is a waste of time and Durkan has had his time but pops up momentarily with some good points. Is Patsy McGlone a contender? im not sure but he does have more support from the grassroots and is popular. I had hoped Justin McNulty would provide some interest but the walkabout with the football in hand lessened his credibility i feel.
    SDLP seem to hide away from the national question and Irish identity as if it would somehow offend their unionist friends. Until they defend their nationalistic position and provide a leader whom the party and the people can follow, i fear they are already doomed as they cant expect to survive every election on the back on tactical voting by unionists

  • barnshee

    Yes please

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’d imagine it’s not an enviable task to lead any party here, losing some talent like McDevitt wasn’t McDonnell’s fault, nor was the fact Claire Hanna wasn’t co-opted to replace him. There were similar pushes to get rid of Durkan and Ritchie when they lead the party, but both have proven to be excellent leaders outside the leadership. McNulty perhaps is a sign of new talent in, McKinney to another extent, they probably need a few fresh faces like those, not simply former youth rank members, but people who’ve got career experience outside of politics.

  • Robin Keogh

    Your post is indicative of the antagonism that exists between SF and the SDLP which in my view is one of the reasons why the overall nat vote is down. It is not enough for either party to simply look for scalps, while I accept of course that they both need to compete for votes, the constant sniping and back biting does nothing to encourage young nationalists out to vote. In terms of policy be it economic, social or the national question both parties have more that unite them than divides them. There is plenty of talent in the SDLP and New talent usually leads to new ideas. Hopefully the fifteen year slide will come to a stop come next assembly elections, but ignoring it or blaming SF seems a lazy cop out.

  • Robin Keogh

    I agree, there is little or nothing in the election for the SDLP to seriously celebrate, unless hanging on to a seat by the skin of your teeth is seen by them as a huge victory. I suggest though that many within the party do not see it that way. While AmD is surely a pleasant man, he is the least inspiring leader in terms of communication that I have come across for a long time. It seems the Rogers and Mallon are calling for him to step down, maybe he should heed the call?

  • Robin Keogh

    Are the political dynamics between the various parties in Belgium broken down in ethnic family based competition similar to here? Just out of interest?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Yep, with the difference that there are no centre ground parties; everyone is Francophone, Flemish, or (in a few towns in the far east) German-speaking.

  • P.J McErlean

    Patsy McGlone would be my pick!

  • Robin Keogh


  • Robin Keogh

    Nicholas do u have any published articles on Irish Unity that I could easily get my hands on, for my thesis?

  • Colin Lamont

    The fact is though they held their three seats, relatively easily in two cases. Whether McDonnell wins by one or ten thousands votes doesn’t make him any less an MP. A wins a win as they say. And they advanced in Newry Armagh with a pact candidate in the mix.

  • Robin Keogh

    Well maybe lets move on from that considering in the heat of election campaigns frenzies of all sorts kick in, by and large MoM seems a good sort and pretty popular on the ground, you may not like his tactics but it wasn’t as if he launched an outright attack on AmD family or spread nasty rumors to undermine him etc etc. Lets get things in perspective.

  • Spike

    He must be a frontrunner at the very least

  • Regarding the SDLP’s West Belfast MLA seat and how it’s potentially threatened by PBP’s Gerry Carroll, how much of Gerry Carroll’s 6,798 vote total was possibly boosted by tactical votes from Éirígí supporters, and generally the wider spectrum of republicans outside of Sinn Féin’s orbit?

  • Noe

    The sdlp in upper bann are in very serious trouble, with this result in Westminster they are going to loose a seat, and no change in Newry Armagh. Their vote increased slightly, but not nearly enough despite a strong effort, with plenty of resources from their billionaire sugar daddy. Dozens of paid Staff at polling station from Wicklow and Dublin even some with no English or Irish as their first language.

  • mjh

    It could be a factor in PBPA’s vote. But provided they are ahead on first preferences next year PBPA should pick up those votes again as transfers. And in Black Mountain last year PBPA got 65% more first preferences than Eirigi.

    Incidentally, the Westminster figures show that PBPA is taking much bigger lumps out of the SF vote than from the SDLP. As such it is much more likely that it would be SF that would pay the price of a PBPA victory.

  • In the 2014 Black Mountain DEA election, Éirígí’s Pádraic Mac Coitir got 1,026 votes, and PBP’s Gerry Carroll received 1,691 votes, which therefore makes me wonder how much of that Éirígí vote could expand in the rest of the West Belfast constituency.

    If they stood a candidate in the 2015 Westminster election, we’d know. Surprised they didn’t, given that election results are great PR for minor parties to try to emerge.

    Look at the boost Gerry Carroll’s vote total gave to PBP ahead of next years northern Assembly election, and the publicity it gives them through just speculating about their future electoral fortunes.