After #AE17, the SDLP…

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.

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  • Kevin Breslin

    I agree but Sinn Féin have 8 ex-prisoners in their MLA’s over 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, many were just caught on membership but around 4 of which have killed, bombed or attempted to kill.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t see the SDLP as all angels and Sinn Féin as all devils. However I think Sinn Féin have been just as good at the nice fenian image these days as the SDLP.

    I think though you are being disingenuous to say the SDLP are playing a unionist card. To be frank the SDLP is trying to represent everybody it can, as Sinn Féin representatives claim to do the same.

    If Irish Unity is to happen we cannot have a sort of Mirror Green State to the Orange State (I would argue we’ve already had that to some extent with the Early Free State/Republic of Ireland) where dissent triggers tribalism and segregation instead of debate and tolerance.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Opposition is certainly not a silver bullet. It is fundamentally about as you say connecting with the voters. And it is possible that a longer stint in opposition could see the SDLP connecting with their voters more easily than when they are in government. However it also carries as many risks due to the problem of handcuff in yourself to other parties.

    The important thing is to have a platform to voice an independent agenda that is clearly different.

    The other point is to be principled. If there’s one thing that the SDLP need to get back it’s a sense of integrity. I haven’t been impressed when they held out on welfare reform living in a fantasy land. Not because their opposition to it wasn’t well meant and justified. But because there came a point when it was just failing to face up to the reality without articulating a clear alternative.

    As for the election, the SDLP have come out by the skin of their teeth. It could have been a lot worse (although with an extra 500 votes in 3 constituencies it could have been a lot better). What they need now is time. Time to let their younger representatives build a profile and find their voice.

  • Jack fotheringham

    Yes he got more FPV because the 2 disgruntled sdlp ‘independents’ were not in the race so he got those votes back, but not all of them, and still less votes than his General Election outing despite a massive rise in turnout.

  • Nevin

    Daithí McKay was a victim of that little intervention.

    I think whistle-blowers play a potentially import role in our not-fit-for-purpose governance system but they often need a lot more support than they can get.

    I tend to bundle the SDLP and UUP together; they each lack the grit and determination of SF and the DUP; they’re amateurs in a professional game.

  • Nevin

    You’d need to ask an expert! All I can say is that John Dallat benefited when a DUP candidate was eliminated and later from DUP surpluses. The ‘anyone but SF’ card may have been played.

  • Gopher

    If the SDLP go into government now that they can be the biggest party outside it they are nothing short of nuts. The SDLP’s mistake was to give SF a bridge to opposition during that crisis. Learn from that and never do it again

  • cornelu mc grath

    The SDLP did well in the election to hold their own.
    Off course there are worries ahead for them, mainly the loss of Foyle and South Down to SF.
    On another day they may have held the two seats they lost but they can he targets for again. SF’s dominant position in West Belfast is not good for that constituency, nor would that result be good for any constituency for a party to be so dominant.
    I’ve seen SF activists on other sites laughing and taunting the SDLP saying that next time they are going to finish them off.
    Do they serious want a one party state for nationalists in the north?
    Every voter, nationalist or unionist should have a choice, every constituency should have more than one political persuasion elected.

  • cornelu mc grath

    You are correct. The tribal game in NI certainly does not suit the SDLP. The likes of SF and the DUP are clearly much better at stirring that pot.

  • Kevin Breslin

    McKay was a victim of his own bad judgement call.

  • Nevin

    It’s my understanding that Jamie pulled the plug when Daithí spoke out about a parading dispute last summer.

    Folk who have unwittingly shared information with me will naturally be apprehensive that I might do the same; hence one elected rep labelling me ‘a dangerous b***ard’!

  • Croiteir

    That is a faulty proposition, I think, as it hands all the seats to the unionists along with the funding which goes with it. I think that the better position is to win as many Westminster seats as possible and then boycott the foreign govt, sending the message that the assembly in London does not have any allegiance in any shape or form from us and does not speak for us. It also puts cash into nationalisms pockets which can be used against the very nation that pays it. But would the SDLP play along? I can’t see those naïve appeasers doing that.

  • Nevin

    I’ve just checked out the SDLP website to see how accessible the party is. When I entered my postcode the reply was ‘no results’; when I looked for an office where I could pop in for tea and a chat I got ‘write to us’, ‘telephone us [in Belfast]’ and ’email us’. Now I did media message several reps from a range of parties recently; I’d woken early and dispatched the messages about 6 am – the first reply came from a SF rep at around 7 am with an offer of support. There was no SDLP response either to me or to the person seeking relief from some Council harassment.

  • Old Mortality

    And what about Hilary?

  • Old Mortality

    Then your opinion is all the more to be respected, although since SF doesn’t really have any economic policies you may find no reason to not to vote for them. If you are a retailer, you might even have positive reasons to support them out of self-interest.

  • Jollyraj

    Never gets old, the Irish Republican Chicken Licken argument.

    ‘Run away! The sky is falling!’

  • cornelu mc grath

    Very good. It’s our local SF reps here that seem to be very slack. One is very poor replying to peoples queries and limped in last time. Another is very good. The local national rep was a no show during the last term. The seat was lost

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    We pay enough!!

  • Gaygael

    Why such a proponent of a party that professes socialism and a progressive tax system?

  • Skibo

    It’s what they are entitled to. I see no problem. The MPs represent the constituency and should work for the good of the people within the constituency.

  • mickfealty

    And be accountable?

  • Skibo

    I would suggest that standing on a table in the middle of a pub singing when Irish eyes are shining will have as much effect on the Tory government as SF ministers attending Westminster.

  • Skibo

    How are any MPs held accountable? Westminster doesn’t do it. The people do it at the next election. SF have shown that it takes a pan Unionist front to take a seat off them when they get elected.

  • mickfealty

    Well, Research Services Ireland was found out in the end. That’s a form of accountability, isn’t it? Erm, can we get back to the SDLP now?

  • Skibo

    Mick, care to follow the conversation? I believe it was yourself who raised the issue of SF not taking their seats at Westminster.
    Was Research Services Ireland not based fully on Stormont?
    Back to the SDLP, what have their MPs achieved for NI?

  • woodkerne

    While I’d like to see that, it’s not really the point (and as a matter of information for SF ‘ministers’ to make representations in Westminster, they’d already have to be in HM government. Now that would be worth waiting for.)

  • Skibo

    Sorry, miss print, should have read SF

  • woodkerne

    LOL, Loyal Orange Lodge?

  • woodkerne

    Ps – who is Miss Print?

  • woodkerne

    How many wives have you got?

  • Lionel Hutz

    One final thought on the SDLP this election. Will someone please please please tell Dolores Kelly the proper quote from Mark Twain. Two years in a row she’s fluffed.

    Rumours of my death are… know, ….therey’re emmmm they’re not all that accurate