It should have been different. The party had been doing so many of the right things. It had put the years of destructive dissension over leadership under Ritchie and McDonnell firmly behind it. It had recruited and groomed a new generation of talented public representatives. It had professionalised its organisation.
It had been rewarded with a modest improvement in its 2019 Euro election vote – which held out the promise that the party could put an end to the previous 20 years of uninterrupted decline. Finally, it played its cards very cleverly in the last Westminster elections, winning a stunning victory in South Belfast and routing SF to regain Foyle.
Things look very different today.
So, what should the party do now? What options does it have?
Their essential first step, and perhaps the most difficult, is to look dispassionately at the situation they now find themselves in.
The SDLP has just recorded a vote share of 9.1% and lost four of its 12 Assembly seats.
This is the very first time that the party has been in single figures.
This is the biggest percentage drop between Assembly elections since the party lost its lead within nationalism back in 2001.
Throughout this period it has dropped its share in each successive Assembly election.
It has dropped its share in each successive Local Government election.
And it has dropped its share in each successive Westminster election – with the sole exception of the Brexit election of 2019. That is when it increased its share by 3.2% – most of which came from Foyle and South Belfast – and in both of which those extra votes evaporated last week.
The immediate consequences
The party is still entitled to a seat on the Executive if one is formed. This would give it some visibility – although that did not help Nicola Mallon.
The loss of MLA’s will inevitably cost it public exposure on NI media – especially in the four constituencies they lost.
The party will also lose the publicly funded administrative and research backup available to 4 MLA’s. And it will no longer get money for offices in 4 constituencies. Constituency work will inevitably suffer, placing the party at a new disadvantage against incumbent MLA’s at the next election.
Mid term consequences:
LG elections 2024
If the next Local Government elections follow the same pattern, the party could be looking at the loss of up to 20 of the 59 council seats it won in 2019.
These Councillors form the backbone of constituency organisations. Just look at all the selfies produced by candidates of all parties during the recent campaign, picturing their teams out canvassing. Notice what a high proportion of the ground workers were Councillors. The party would lose election manpower and be less plugged-in to local community issues.
Westminster elections 2024 (or, unlikely, 2023)
Although SF has taken a 7% point lead over the SDLP in Foyle, Colum Eastwood still has a very good prospect of retaining his Westminster seat, with the help of tactical voting by supporters of other parties. But it could be close.
Claire Hanna’s situation is more complicated. Her party came third in her home constituency – 9.1% behind Alliance. SF now also has a 4.5% lead over the SDLP and might not stand aside for her next time – especially if they feel more secure in North Belfast. However, she is generally recognised as a good personal fit for the constituency and must, at this stage, be rated favourite to retain the seat. These considerations could be further complicated by boundary changes – which should be in place before the next Westminster election.
Assembly elections 2027 (or 2023?)
Six of the party’s eight seats look very safe for the next election – provided that the party can either stabilise, or else return to only modest decline. The major exception is East Londonderry where Cara Hunter escaped elimination by 15 votes.
West Tyrone could also be vulnerable under certain circumstances. A 1% swing from unionists to Alliance (less if there were also some swing from nationalists to Alliance) would have the potential to cost the SDLP the seat.
What options does the party have?
My purpose here is to identify all theoretically potential options. You may have others that you wish to add. All of them have their pluses and negatives.
- Business as usual
You could also call this ‘Avoid fundamental change’ / ‘Drift’ / ‘Manage decline’ / or ‘Hope something turns up – especially a stumble by SF’.
This would be a profoundly uninspiring approach. It would look like a refusal to face reality. Most importantly, it would abdicate any control by the party over its own destiny.
As long as the total nationalist vote has remained in the high 30’s the nature of NI’s voting system, and the size of its constituencies, more or less guaranteed that nationalism would be a two-party designation. Fortunately for the SDLP there is still no competition for the role of the second nationalist party.
There are two risks to the future of this two-party guarantee. One would be any significant future growth in the Alliance vote share. The transfer pattern already showed that SDLP voters were as likely to have a transfer relationship with parties from the Other designation as they were with the SF. Indeed, a transfer from SDLP to SF of over 50% when other non-unionist options were available had already become a rarity. The potential for a squeeze on the SDLP is obvious.
The other would be the emergence of a new alternative for nationalist voters, probably in the form of a serious entry by a major southern party.
But none of this necessarily means that ‘business as usual’ would be the wrong strategic choice for the party. That is because all the other options also carry profound difficulties and risks.
- Go into Opposition
This could be a helpful course of action. However, by itself, it is not a strategy merely a tactic within the ‘business as usual’ approach.
Opposition could also be a tactic within a number of the alternative strategic options.
- Become Fianna Fáil in Northern Ireland
The history of the supposed live-in relationship with FF was very unhappy, and both parties appear to have quietly gone their separate ways. Turning it into a full marriage would appear most unlikely. However, since the election, the SDLP has become more geographically orientated towards the border counties. To an outside observer, the opposition to the FF link seemed to come more from Belfast and the surrounding areas. The growth of SF in the south could also make the move more attractive to FF.
Such a move could enable the party to turn itself into a more effective competitor to SF. It would bring the benefits of scale, of shared learning, of visibility and of a renewed sense of purpose.
Could it be achieved without defections from the party? And might that still be a price worth paying in the long run?
And if not FF, then maybe FG or Irish Labour. The nature of the pro’s and con’s would be much the same.
- Become the NI section of UK Labour
The party would redesignate as Other. This option would create an easily understood point of difference from Alliance, and open the prospect over time of building an additional voter base outside of traditional nationalist communities. The key question would be how many of its current voters it could carry with them.
The proposal would face internal difficulties of a similar nature as joining a southern party. While the urban SDLP might be comfortable adopting an all-out Labour ideology, it is questionable whether this would fit as well with the rural and small-town segments of the party. This divergence goes right back to the foundation of the party and is the reason for the clunky full name which no one ever uses.
A variation on this would be to attempt to develop some sort of special relationship with both UK Labour and Irish Labour which went well beyond their current sister-party relationships. This would have to involve structural links and policy agreements. I must admit that I find it very difficult to envisage what this would look like and how it might benefit the SDLP – it would certainly be complex to negotiate. But sometimes there is milage in the most initially unpromising ideas.
- Rebrand and Relaunch
The most fundamental problem with this approach is that simply slapping a new coat of paint on a crumbling structure does nothing to preserve it.
New Labour was successful because it did so much more than change the colours, name and symbol on the leaflets, it redefined the purpose of the party, changed its constitution, abandoned old policies, and restructured its organisation – all to bring it into line with the aspirations of a majority of the people at the time.
Successfully emulating that would force the SDLP to first address the most difficult questions of all. What is the SDLP for? And what can it deliver for voters that no other party can?
- Declare victory and dissolve
This seems a very strange thing to say. But if the party cannot answer the two questions posed in the previous paragraph it would have a certain logic.
If you travelled back 52 years to its foundation, the party would have had no difficulty whatsoever in answering both questions. You would receive a long list of reforms to government policies to meet the demands of the Civil Rights movement from which large parts of the party sprang. You would hear about reforms to voting rights, local government and parliamentary structures to give nationalists participation in decision making. You would have heard about building cross-border relationships and institutions. You would have heard about opposing violence from any quarter and the need for purely peaceful politics.
All these things have been achieved. There would be no shame in the party saying, “Job done. We won everything we set out to do. Now we will celebrate our success one last time and permit our members to make new choices in the new Northern Ireland that we have done so much to create.”
It would be a more dignified – even heroic – ending, instead of waiting on steady decline to finally put out the lights. It could free its best public representatives to continue public service long into the future.
It is not my place, or that of any non-member to advocate one course or the other. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the party choosing the first option – ‘business as usual’. But that is a matter for the party members after mature reflection.
Michael Hehir is a retired sales and marketing manager. He studied in Northern Ireland but now lives between England and Italy.