#SluggerReport – We have to talk about the SDLP…

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.

, ,

  • willieric

    Tens of thousands of unionists and nationalists could not care less about flags or symbols or…. Dare I mention it, a United Ireland. One cannot eat a flag.
    If SDLP spokespersons would acknowledge existence of NI and that there is little possibility of union this century, in other words became LESS GREEN…, many soft line unionists would consider good socialist policies a worthwhile cause to vote for. There manifestly is a wealth of talent in the ranks of the SDLP. Big Al aside, the SDLP frontline men and women are respected and talk sense, unlike other parties where for example the women have their speeches ghost written or are wheeled out for photo calls.
    And only the most blinkered nationalist will fail to think hard before voting Sinn Fein, which has failed to promote the interests of their flocks north and south. Why are so many people in SF led Dublin and West Belfast on welfare, nearly 20 yrs after the signing of the GFA, while republican royalty can own numerous houses and hold government jobs?

  • Kevin Breslin

    There’s an assumption that “greening” is all to do with a United Ireland, as someone who is more of an economic nationalist than a “cultural nationalist” I would still disagree.

    To me the question is not really about Irish nationalism, but republicanism, true republicanism, power in the people’s hands, the “It’s Your Decision” of the GFA… and we have lost the sort of Res Publica from irridentist despots within Sinn Féin. Republicanism not as an ideology but as an emergent force, as we saw in terms of the equal marriage referendum in the south. A region that is as green, orange, white and beige and has the politics to account for all those shades.

    As a social democratic party, I think the focus too much is at the top, there does need to be more leadership outside the leadership within the SDLP. Nationalism is okay if the genuine question is “What kind of Ireland do you want to work for?” or “What kind of Northern Ireland do you want to work for?” throw even UK, GB or EU in there too … the emphasis has to be on inclusivity, diplomacy, responsibility and performance.

    I can understand why a lot of people on the border want unity and ignore divisions with the Republic from a cultural, social and political outlook … and that’s never going to change. Similarly links between Antrim and Scotland. I think any constitutional arrangement that is going to be stable for this region is not one that triumphantly imposes borders and boundaries but the ones that strengthen networks.

    At times I feel the Republic of Ireland is sometimes better connected to Great Britain by being independent and having that degree freedom, than Northern Ireland as a constitutional part of the United Kingdom, by being obsessed on many divisive issues. It is certainly worth the debate.

  • Granni Trixie

    I would like to know what evidence you have for saying that “SDLP frontline men and women are respected and talk sense” – surely you would agree that though this holds in some cases particularly if compared to an inarticulate leader, it definitely does not in other cases (clue:some sdlp tend to drone on,do they not?).

    Also, on what are you basing your assertion that other parties ghost write speeches for women? Wheeling women out for photo calls happens yes but not always.

  • Granni Trixie

    I do not rate AK analysis on UUP much. After he stopped working for them he was all against them but since the outcome of unionist pact he senses things could be on the up for UUP and has changed tack.
    Fair enough but he is blinkered long term re reading UUP as he does not factor in how this latest Nesbitt stunt is panning out even if the UUP leader claims he is “putting country before party”. ( pass the boke bag,please).
    also wouldn’t put a bet on their not being cabals in UUP.

    If I read Kane right
    he wants UUP and SDLP to go it together (in opposition?) It ain’t gonna happen. Each would have to put too much energy into getting along with each other that there would be no energy left to fulfil their raison detre.

  • Sharpie

    They have space and a little time to ask themselves what does radical look like? I just wish they would be brave on some stuff – when will they have so little left to lose that they will choose to do that. Rip up the script and play with radical solutions.

  • Ernekid

    The SDLP is a bit like the Simpsons. They were great in the 90s but they’ve been declining in quality since the millennium. They are still about as pale shadows of their former selves but they should be cancelled by now.

  • Gopher

    I think you can throw North Belfast into the mix as well. The advantages the UUP over the SDLP are legion. You cant shout Lundy at a free vote on Gay marriage or abortion you can be more flexible in using or not using a petition of concern. The UUP never have to race to save DUP personel the way the SDLP feel they have to save SF personel. Not only do the SDLP have to be Irish/Gaelic/ Nationalist/Oppressed/Socialist they have to be Republican ( that ethereal quality which is whatever Gerry decides it is on any given day). Nessy’s biggest success is stopping the DUP defining his party wheras the SF decide what the SDLP is on any given day.

  • willieric

    I have unionist acquaintances who would vote SDLP because of the quality of their regular contributions on the media, were they less green. Some might drone on because they have reasoned arguments and prefer not to rely upon sound bite phrase such ‘ very clear’, ‘mandate’, for which SF has summer schools.
    The very pleasant very young lady who was parachuted in to replace Conor Murphy was clearly not recruited for her decades of unselfish groundwork for the cause. Obviously a protege of the ex-minister and being schooled for the future. Her maiden speech was bland at best. Dolores Kelly however is as good as there is in the assembly, without resorting to rudeness or histrionics. During the Cahill debate her observation that ” Nobody does victimhood better than Sinn Fein, nobody on this island”, was a ball breaker.
    Sadly I was disappointed in F McKinney’s harangue on UTV last evening. Unconvincing.

  • Gaygael

    The SDLP

    Thanks for the commentary Mick. I have a lot of thoughts.

    North Belfast. Alliance have closed the gap and are likely to overtake them. Even a change of candidate may not help.
    West Belfast is interesting and I take Micks point about a resurgent unionism. I am not yet convinced that it will be enough but that last seat will be a scrape between a fifth SF, SDLP and a unionist (prob DUP). PBP will be safely above quota (bar an NI21 implosion) and Gerry Carrolls surplus may save the SDLP above the unionist. I’m minded early out to be 4 SF, PBP and SDLP.
    South Belfast.
    There are two solid safe unionist quotas here. UUP were ebbing away, but Mikes recent moves may help to shore up their vote. UKIP will be here with Bob Stoker who got a respectable 5% at Westminster. DUP balanced well last time but transfer toxicity didn’t help. Any wonder the parachuting of Bell and Pengelley recently. I reckon it to stay DUP and UUP.
    Amongst the other four seats, the second SDLP is at risk. SF have a safe quota, as do the SDLP, and Alliance who will prob run 2. Clare Bailey of the Greens got 6% at Westminster despite expecting a squeeze in a tactical election and they will have their eye on that seat. Her success will hinge on scoring more than the alliance and SDLP second candidates. It will be a very interesting scramble. Early I am going one each across the five executive parties and the greens.

    This could put the SDLP down to 1 in the capital. And if my haunches are right, nationalism will have lost 1 in north, 1 in west and 1 in south, to the gain of the centre.
    Additionally, at less risk are the third seat in Foyle and Upper Bann.
    I think Upper Bann will be tight for them to stay ahead of a better balanced Sinn Fein 2, but alliance transfers should see them safe. Foyle could be at risk from a concerted PBP effort.
    I don’t see any real opportunities for gain. Unless they surge. Even a new leader and his espoused ‘progressive nationalism’ is unlikely to turn that around so quickly. More on that later.

    Some of the suggested gains are Strangford, FST or North and South Antrim probably in that order.

    They have never held Strangford. Without a surge, they are unlikely to breakthrough. For the other 3, they held them in 2007, but lost out in 2011. They would need to be back somewhere near their assembly 2007 score of 15.2%. In assembly 2011 they got 14.2% (-1%) and in recent Westminster they got 13.9%(-2.6%)

  • Kevin Breslin

    We could pick all kinds of figures to prove this or that, Naomi Long once presided over the constituency with the highest mental illness rate. Do we make associations between Alliance and DUP voters with mental health issues?

    In terms of investment, We’ve had DUP ministers explicitly oppose investment on West Belfast brown field sites in favour for South Belfast which doesn’t have the room. In their own communities they seem to expect the local populations to be British defence force reservists or recruits.

    Instead of asking why people in West Belfast are voting for Sinn Féin, maybe we should ask what does West Belfast hope for rather than I hope the people of West Belfast stop voting for Sinn Féin.

  • Granni Trixie

    Delores Kelly can gve as good as she gets,that’s for sure. Why has she not thrown her hat n the ring for Leader – from the outside she is their strongest possibility for turning the ship round. From the inside do you know if she is part of the internal splits which are inhibiting recovery? Would also love to know if there are policy splits in sdlp over welfare reform? Or do they all agree it is best to follow SF lead?

  • Gopher

    I’m sorry Kevin but your tangents really lose me. The quote to hand is about Alex Kane’s view. I tried to the best of my ability, probably not lucidly enough to suggest from an objective position that I believe the UUP have created more space for freedom of action than the SDLP. Opposition will give them even more latitude. I disagree with Alex Kane about the UUP “harder” stance, Its nothing but faux to re-establish their own brand and fight the DUP on Social and other issues. For example Danny Kinahan, hardly the pit bull defeated the Witchfinder General. He did not win because he was “Harder” than McCrea he won because he reflected the outlook of South Antrim to more people than McCrea did. The SDLP have trouble with that concept.

    The problem for the SDLP if they want to remain Nationalist/Republican is SF have completely queered that pitch for them on every single issue unlike the DUP v UUP rivalry.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And Joanne Dobson was more moderate than Jim Shannon and couldn’t win. Westminster is simply a series of run off contests.

    And I disagree with the analysis that the SDLP ignores the outlook of the public because the SDLP went out to Foyle, South Down and South Belfast and won three seats, the UUP only won two and needed a pact to win one, they even increased their vote in some other constituencies.

    I think it’s a bit insulting to say the SDLP does not reflect the electorate, if they’ve got no support out there for who they are, why do they still have representatives?

    Also, in at least twelve out of eighteen constituencies they beat the Alliance Party, who are non-nationalist left wing rivals apparently and as a result have one councillor in all the border supercouncils. All parties have to engage with their electorate.

    The idea that people in Derry, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, North Antrim and South Down, West or North Belfast have to pretend they’re living in North Down or Westminster is something that I feel is out of touch with the electorate. In the case of the NI Tories Wimbledon or Surrey apparently.

    You can’t expect a homogeneity between rural border areas relying on SMEs and farming and urban areas like East Belfast who get income from retail and tourism and the nearest port to Britian.

    Alliance themselves were accused of going green for choosing Anna Lo as their European EP candidate, even though she is not a nationalist.

  • Gopher

    I think you mean Joanne Dobson was more moderate than David Simpson, dont worry about it I had Orson Welles suing Queensberry for five minutes on here the other day. Upper Bann was an interesting contest with all sorts of scare politics and as I have argued frequently those are always the battles the DUP will romp home in.

    The SDLP reflects a portion of the electorate, we are talking about ways of expanding that portion. Drinking from the same well as SF is not the way to go in my opinion but go ahead be my guest.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sorry I must have confused him with Jim Shannon to some extent.

    I think there’s a broad spectrum of issues on a constituency by constituency basis rather than some overarching zeitgeist. It’s a challenge for all parties here to find people who are concerned with politics and will do the constituency work.

  • Gopher

    Nope there is an “overarching zeitgeist” with every election in Northern Ireland. Unionist, Nationalist or Its not important.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I would disagree, I think one of the major political bottom lines for unionist, nationalist and other alike include social, fiscal and functional issues and whether they choose to go out to vote depends largely on these.

  • Gopher

    I would dispute your understanding of elections in Northern Ireland but you do reinforce my point that SF and SDLP drink from the same well (a limiting the vote pool) on every issue when you examine the issues you posted. So I will repeat the SDLP dont have the same freedom of action that the UUP has created for themselves in their present contitutional, social, economic and functional form. Feel free to have the last word.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t think the UUP has created more freedom, they’ve simply pushed out moderates and I would say modernisers like Ian James Parsley, Paula Bradshaw, Lady Slyvia Hermon, Basil McCrea, John McCallister, Harry Hamilton and to some extent David McClarty too. The Alliance Party a big beneficiary of this. They’ve abandoned the broad church approach that they had when they themselves were the largest party here to sip from the same well as the DUP.

    If the UUP are a party confident of Alex Kane’s “unicorn” support, why was it in the last Assembly election they struggled to even get a candidate for the second most Catholic constituency in Northern Ireland? The DUP in the same area were capable of changing their MLA 3 times over this term. Apart from fortress Fermanagh and maybe Newry & Armagh a lot of UUP border seats are in trouble.

    The SDLP is the third biggest party in the Assembly, it is the only non-unionist party with a seat in every supercouncils, and there are areas in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Newry and Armagh and Antrim where they can make in roads to. There are a lot of low turnouts in the West of the Bann in comparison to twenty years ago, whether it is a matter of nationalism, social democracy or rural issues there is certainly some scope to grow a vote in these areas through engagement.

    The SDLP in the past was a party that grew a vote for Irish unity, there was assumptions from the twenties to the sixties that Irish nationalism was in decline, that social democracy was in decline and for want of a better phrase “the government always wins”.

    It seems things changed. There were also assumptions that Scottish nationalism was in decline, or indeed Sinn Féin in the South drinking from the same well as Fianna Fáil and Labour. It’s not parties that determine these changes but people.

    There is certainly a need for a party like the SDLP in politics here regardless of the commentariat. Many of these commentators would simply back a single issue party fighting on a single caveat, that is not as broadly appealing as they think it is.

  • Gaygael

    ‘The SDLP is the third biggest party in the Assembly, it is the only non-unionist party with a seat in every supercouncils, and there are areas in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Newry and Armagh and Antrim where they can make in roads to.’

    Do you mean in council? Yes. Good strength and some new faces. I might broadly say that some of the council results west of the Bann were, but I would say they equally weren’t east of the Bann, particularly in Belfast. Barely registering in ormiston or titanic. Out of the race in court. Squeezing in in oldpark, black mountain and lishnasharagh. Barely a quota in botanic and just over in castle and Colin. With only balmoral any real strength and a potnetial punt at a second seat. Of the 7 seats, over half of those could be under threat.

    I don’t see any gains at upcoming assembly unless you get a tangible surge. And BELFAST looks in trouble at assembly.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Belfast certainly is a challenge, but there are fourteen other constituencies to focus on as well. I do feel Alliance are more a threat to the DUP’s third seat than the SDLP’s in North Belfast, they’d need to get ahead of the SDLP on the first count I’d feel, but they might just get DUP 3’s seat with UUP transfers. PUP are probably another one to look out for here.
    The more seats you have the easier it is to lose one as will be the case of the DUP and Alliance in the East, the SDLP in the South and Sinn Féin in the West. The advantage of the SDLP in South Belfast is that they are generally more transfer friendly than the DUP, but of course I’d imagine Stalford and Pengelly would be a lot less polarising than Spratt and Patterson though. Alliance could profit from a UUP collapse. I would say Carroll would have a seat if the election repeats itself, he had over a quota, my feeling is he will take a SF seat, as their vote was a whole quota short, and the main threat to Attwood’s seat will be the DUP. Sinn Féin would need a much higher turnout to keep their five.

  • submariner

    Define what exactly less green means?

  • Gaygael

    I think the PUP have the 3rd DUP seat in sight, and with UUP Andy Allens redeployment to east Belfast after a year of grooming him north and west means they will not be seriously challenging.

    The SDLP were 1% ahead of alliance at Westminster. I think they will fall behind and lose. UUP transfers may better help alliance and none to the SDLP. SF will have marginally more than 2 quotas and there will be very few transfers to SDLP in North Belfast. I’m pretty confident it’s a goner. Even with a change of candidate.

    Th east comment I am really unsure about? Are you suggesting alliance and DUP will lose a seat each in east? Maybe the DUP, yes but not alliance. They will be running 3.

    The inter SDLP battle in South will be interesting. How will they divvy up the constituency? Both candidates will know that one of the seats is at risk. I expect it to be fergal rather than Hanna. And it will be a bloody battle to stay safe. The inter unionist battle is interesting, but I expect a lot of the UKIp votes to return to UUP app ahead of the DUp and still feel it will be one each. Alliance will also be running 2. They will hope to stay ahead of the SDLP second. As will Clare Bailey of the greens.

    West is more open. I take your point however I still think PBP surplus will save the SDLP seat.

  • Kevin Breslin

    In the East 2 Alliance seats aren’t completely guaranteed, but with Long in the contest this time and the pact helping them I’d say they probably are. Parachuting Long into South Belfast might be a game-changer (though it could backfire) but I’ve a feeling Alliance could probably risk having a sweeper candidate in the East in order to cover more terrain.

    Bailey needs an Agnew-esque perfect storm, I can’t see that happening in the South. Seat six is still between DUP and the SDLP, if anyone is going to benefit from the split I’d imagine it would be Alliance. Bailey getting ahead of the second SDLP, DUP and Alliance candidates by getting UKIP transfers doesn’t seem very likely.

    My own view is in North Belfast that the polarisation of the contest by the pact will limit the unionist and nationalist community transfers that Alliance can get here.

    My guess is Sinn Féin will top the poll fielding one candidate (if Alliance field two) and be elected soon after, the SDLP are ahead of Alliance and the DUP on the council count in these areas. Also I’m not sure Fearghal will be the one struggling, it was believed Dr McDonnell rather than Conall McDevitt would be the one struggling last time around, but South Belfast saw it otherwise, that might be the case with Fearghal and Claire. Objectivism puts prescedence before wishful thinking.

  • Gaygael

    In East Belfast in 2011, Alliance scored 26.3% and balanced their candidates exceptionally well. They were 300 and 400 off quota. Long got a whopping 42.8%. 2 Seats are safe, its running the third that is the risk. That must be Long and she will get preferences from a broad spectrum. The risk is she will mess up their balancing of other candidates and leak transfers.
    I totally disagree in North Belfast. Alliance were 1% behind the SDLP when their was a unionist pact at Westminster. I reckon they will ahead on of SDLP on first prefs and as stated, transfers will not be riding to the rescue from SF.
    Re South – Hanna will be getting her votes from Balmoral (where she is a councillor) and Carryduff. McKinney will be garnering his vote from Botanic and Lishnasharagh. It is apparent from local 2014 and Westminster 2015, that the SDLP vote is weaker in in what will be McKinney’s ground.
    Last time out, the SDLP balanced 14% for McDonnell and 9.9% for McDevitt. I don’t that the SDLP will hold those scores so both will be down. It’s likely too that this will be exacerbated for the second scoring candidate.
    If Alliance run 2, and they balance really well (like East Belfast in 2011) they could be both on 8-9%, if they can get back to that Anna Lo assembly score of 2011. That may run the risk of losing the main candidate in favour of the secondary one, such as was the case in Botanic in 2014, with Morrow and McDonagh-Brown.
    I mean with 1st preferences, it depends on the ranking of the SDLP 2nd, Alliance 2nd and the green once all the smaller parties and UKIP are eliminated. I didn’t say Bailey would rely on UKIP transfers?
    Its the same for the unionist seats. Its the ranking of the UUP and the 2 DUP that matter, but I think Mike’s recent moves and the UKIP votes coming home will keep the UUP safe.
    SF to top poll. Yes, but almost on the head of a quota.
    I live in North Belfast. I am born and bred here. We will agree to disagree.

  • Gaygael

    Bangor Dub and Faha have figures of south Belfast at council 2014 here.

    The SDLP were nudged into 3rd by alliance.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I stand by what I said, if the SDLP don’t get their vote out in South Belfast the DUP are clear favourites over the Alliance Party and well ahead of the Greens. Correct me if I’m wrong here but wasn’t the turnout for Westminster in South Belfast higher than local government?

  • Kevin Breslin

    The point about UKIP transfers is that Bailey would need a shoe up to challenge the second DUP, Alliance and SDLP contenders, she’s well behind half these party’s votes and the Socialist party, the Worker’s Party and the Independent republicans are not going to be enough to keep her in the race. Maybe bad votes management by one party might help, but all three seems unlikely.

  • Gaygael

    She doesn’t need to worry about the DUP second. She needs to be ahead of the alliance second and the SDLP second. If either of those are eliminated before her, their votes will primarily transfer to their running mate and should put them over quota with surplus. It’s this surplus and transfers should put her and the remaining alliance or SDLP 2nd ahead of a trailing unionist.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sorry but if Claire Baily is on 3-5% and the DUP and SDLP are both on 18%, the odds clearly favor her elimination unless she picks up transfers from not just the left wing voters but right wing voters too.

  • Gaygael

    At Westminster (a tight tactical election, where green support may have been depressed to save the good doc against the dup) she scored almost 6%. If the DUP and SDLP and ALLIANCE are all on 18% and split exactly evenly (which is unlikely), Bailey doesn’t have to bring in a whole load of new votes to be in the mix.

  • eamoncorbett

    Little possibility of union this century , there was little possibility of the British empire falling last century ,it did, little possibility of the Berlin Wall collapsing ,it did , but you obviously have insider information on the union , never underestimate the power of change , it happens ,no matter how much we try to prevent it.

  • Kevin Breslin

    She’s well below half a quota, nearly a third of a quota and she needs 14 to be elected at quota and at least 10% under quota. Westminster election results suggest her transfers take SDLP or maybe DUP over the line. Agnew got elected in North down with 8% and 3% nationalists, that’s a solid 11% 3 short of the line, which Alan Chambers and McFarland helped push closer to the line.

    Effectively you are talking about doubling the vote then picking up transfers from multiple sources.

  • Gaygael

    So again. 6% at a tight Tactical Westminster. There will be more greens in an STV election.

    8% would probably put her ahead of the alliance second, and at the tail of the SDLP 2nd (remembering McDevitt got 9.9%) and the sole UUP candidate (9.2%). There is a way through there. Let’s say this time , they get 9% and 8% respectively.

    The elimination of the alliance second would probably transfer 60% to alliance other candidate and then 15% green and 15% across both SDLP. This should put the first alliance over quota with a surplus. The surplus again will split in favour of green against 2 SDLP and small to UUP. I’m saying 50/20/20/10.

    It’s key here.