Some Silver Linings in the SDLP’s Dark Clouds

The results are in and for the SDLP again it is a story of decline as the party returns with 12 MLAs and continues to shed votes.

However, there are some silver linings for the party, that even a cynic like me cannot ignore.

The team is smaller, but arguably better– In past elections people would regularly point to the lack of new faces in the SDLP parliamentary party. However, this time there is a relatively fresh sense about this new group. Faces such as Nichola Mallon, Claire Hanna and Daniel McCrossan are not only new, but hugely able to take the party forward.

Leadership- Colum Eastwood performed reasonably well during the Assembly campaign with a message and some good performances in the TV debates. He also had one big advantage on his side which is time. Eastwood is young, but also has three years before he has to think about another election. In 2011, the SDLP wasted months as Margaret Ritchie stepped down as leader and the party fought a long contest. This will not happen this time and Eastwood now has time to plot out his own course.

Renewal- The defeat of Fearghal McKinney means that the party will have to elect a new deputy leader at some point in the future. Whilst the loss of McKinney is not a good thing for the SDLP, it provides a chance for the party to promote some of that talent in the new Assembly group. Figures like Nichola Mallon or Claire Hanna would be a huge plus alongside Eastwood and would reinforce his wider narrative of new leadership and fresh thinking.

Opposition- It is a leap into the dark, but quite frankly the SDLP need to change the dynamic and start thinking the unthinkable. Being a part of a DUP/Sinn Fein led Executive has not helped the party and ceding the opposition benches to People Before Profit and the Greens would be lunacy. Eastwood has time on his hands, opposition will allow his team to try new things and think differently.

Coherence-During the last mandate, stories abounded about splits in the SDLP over issues like Same Sex Marriage and Abortion rights. This problem again is unlikely to be as relevant as it was in the last mandate. All of the current MLAs (that I am aware of) largely sing of the same hymn sheet on key issues and this sense of giving the party coherence will help it avoid embarrassing splits. Disunity is death in politics and the SDLP has learned this the hard way.

None of this is easy, nor is it certain the SDLP rises to these challenges, but they do have post this election some ingredients that used properly could yield success for them at the local elections in 2019 which will then help the party fight the 2021 Assembly elections.