So how did the SDLP do? They had few opportunities to make themselves heard through the gales of outrage which sustained an often extremely petty two party media scrap throughout the campaign. And they had to fight it on a tiny campaign budget.
At best, I thought they could win eleven seats, or as few as nine. Whilst they did lose two sitting MLAs (West Belfast and FST) both had an uptick in vote share of 1.3%, and they picked up Upper Bann and Lagan Valley, both of which were deliberately targeted.
Not the best election in its history, but Eastwood is the first in a line of recent SDLP leaders not to lose a seat in an election. If you add in Gerry Mullan’s total (whom they ditched for purely pragmatic reasons) it’s possible to argue they didn’t lose vote share either.
In the new Assembly, twelve seats is a net gain: a party first since 1998, when they finished top by vote share if not seats. High points were Daniel McCrossan (+3.1%), Nicola Mallon (+2.5%), with a close run in Strangford for Joe Boyle (-0.5%).
Despite early speculation to the contrary, the SDLP is still very much standing. On reflection, it’s likely that opposition in the last term did not hurt them as many media commentators appear to have presupposed.
Survival at full value plus matters: even if the margin in some last seats remains extremely narrow and tight. Incumbency will count in future defence Winning back a seat like Upper Bann also shows that, with hard work, the decline can be reversed.
As we saw in the Alliance scenario of November 2003, when a new party leader managed to return six seats on just 3.7% of the vote, the important thing is not the narrowness but the victory itself, combined with the much tougher work that must follow.
This break in decline alone does not guarantee an end to the party’s misfortunes. It remains in clear danger of being eclipsed by Sinn Fein in its former strongholds of South Down and Foyle. The losses of UUP MLAs means that key transfer bonuses are gone.
Next time out (whenever that comes) it will also have more enemies: not least because they are much closer to the frontline with a Democratic Unionist Party that’s still furious at its losses than their erstwhile nationalist rivals in Sinn Fein.
The new level of work rate evident in West Tyrone, North Belfast, Lagan Valley, East Londonderry and Upper Bann must be continued past election and replicated wherever the party has lost voter share and in places where it can punch through to new territory.
As one of just two established parties in Northern Ireland that committed resources to the Remain side of the EU Referendum when it actually mattered, they should get a hearing on Brexit beyond the inevitable two woman show that will be the negotiations at Stormont.
It won’t be easy. But instead of running to help solve every crisis brought on by others, or high-handedly lecturing rivals on their honourable past during the troubles, they need to pick a side on issues that matter to the public and make sure they keep winning.
In Colum Eastwood, they have a young and plausible leader who has proven in this campaign that he’s better than most of his current rivals at trading (and evading) blows in the full glare of the media. Interesting times ahead.