The SDLP remains alive. That’s pretty much its greatest achievement in the post Belfast Agreement era. Estimates of its membership vary between 1,500 and 2,000 active and inactive members.
All attempts at reform have been partial, but where change has been forced through it’s been modestly successful. The most prominent example was the renewal of the party in Foyle under Mark Durkan.
It’s also a mark of one of its residual weaknesses as a party that no one has been able to push them through across the whole party platform. Big Al has made a wider mark but it’s hardly very deep and only in areas which have been co-operative.
Two things raise the bar for the challenger in the leadership contest.
One, is that he needs a springboard story. What sort of vision is he offering, what alternative to Alasdair’s leadership? The second is why now? What positive effects can he pull off between now and the next election?
As Alex Kane notes in today’s Irish News:
Eastwood is talking up something he calls ‘progressive nationalism,’ which seems to me to be little more than his personal acknowledgement that the SDLP hasn’t been green enough since 1998, leading to it being eclipsed by Sinn Fein.
Maybe he has noticed what Mike Nesbitt has done by shifting the UUP to harder ground in the last year and hopes to try something similar. The key difference, though, is that Nesbitt doesn’t have anything like the number of squabbling cabals and leaking dissidents that Eastwood will encounter if he wins.
And if he loses, albeit only just, he’ll still be left on the bench when another coup is attempted next May.
There’s a bigger question, too. If the SDLP and UUP shift to ‘harder’ ground, or if the SDLP just continues the downward spiral, where’s the genuine, credible alternative to the DUP/SF axis?
The serial criticisms of Robinson and McGuinness are justified, but in the absence of a clear alternative we’re stuck with them. That prospect should really shock the UUP and SDLP into doing something sensible and doing it together.
Maybe the felt priority within both parties is to just to get out from under their tribal bedfellows.
Kane is waving a finger towards the narrative issue (at a time when ‘doing something sensible’ feels like an unattainably radical form of politics these days). Brendan Mulgrew thinks it’s the right message, but the wrong time (in the teeth of an election).
Either way, both men would face an acid test of their leadership within months. Just holding their 14 seats would be an achievement. Long term decline now could put two seats in South Belfast, and one each in West Belfast and Upper Bann in danger.
As Tom Kelly has noted it the fate of incumbent and insurgent may rest with former leader Margaret Ritchie, who could end up in a decisive king making role, whenever the changeover comes.