Turning the tide: How a sea-change could save the SDLP – By Feargal Ó Murchú

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As results began to trickle in on the 13th of December 2019 one story of the day fell under the radar, mentioned but not discussed. The election had seen clear winners and clear losers. The DUP had lost 2 seats and 5.4% of their vote. Sinn Fein, whilst maintaining their overall number of MPs saw its vote share decrease by 6.7%, the single biggest downward swing of any party. The spot on the winners podium deservedly went to Alliance and its de facto figurehead, Naomi Long. Although Long narrowly failed to gain an historic win in East Belfast the party did gain a seat in North Down and received a massive swing of 8.8% in their favour.

Further down the list of plaudits was the SDLP, with a gain of two seats. It was clear that the party received a huge boost in the form of an electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the Green Party in South Belfast to see the election of Claire Hanna. This does not tell the whole story however. Not only did Colum Eastwood receive a 17.7% swing to the party in its heartland of Foyle but the vote was up almost across the board. A party whose fate was once tied to the seemingly terminal destiny of the UUP appears to have tentatively turned a corner. How temporary that turn is and how great its impact depends on how effectively Eastwood and the wider party manages to capitalise on its reprieve. It is clear that the SDLP must change in ways which are both big and small in order to achieve this. Whilst it is impossible to create a roadmap which would clearly lead the SDLP back to its once lofty heights there may be steps the party can take to continue the positive reverse in its fortunes.

The data behind canvassing

Any politico, activist or branch member has at some point in their life contemplated the seminal quandary of “Getting the vote out”. A phrase which, rightfully, suggests that elections are won or lost on whether a party’s  core voters decide on the day of the election to exercise their democratic right and actually vote. Time and time again news of narrow defeats and wins in marginal constituencies show just how important it is to ensure that your core voters lend you their support on polling day (take for example Fermanagh & South Tyrone which came down to just 57 votes in 2019). In times gone by the SDLP could rely of its cabal of loyal supporters to not only vote, but to ensure that others followed suit. Whilst this still may be true to some extent it is clearly not the political machine it once was. Things therefore must change with the times. That change should, in large part, focus on one word; Data.

Party canvassers in London and Liverpool canvass in much the same way as those in Northern Ireland with one fundamental difference, instead of going in with background knowledge of a family’s historic and supposed voting record those canvassers knock doors armed with core and accurate data. Each canvasser is told who lives at which address, when their door was last knocked, what their previously stated voting intention was. Canvassers can identify where they need to turn “don’t knows” to firm “yeses”. They can identify core voters and help ensure they are convinced to send their postal votes on time or visit their polling station on polling day. They then return to their canvass organiser after each knock of a door to report updated information to be used for future canvassers. This helps ensure that their vote comes out. It helps ensure that a party targets key tactical voters. This difference cannot be underestimated. Modern technology should make this task a straightforward one for a professional party like the SDLP. It is a simple change but one if effectively used could provide the party with a firm and regular base on which to start its regrowth.

Quality candidates, quality results:

The 2019 Belfast City Council elections should be seen by the SDLP as a playbook for candidate selection. In the Oldpark DEA local social worker and community activist Paul McCusker topped the poll for the SDLP with more than 25% of the vote share. Paul is a popular member of the community who not only has its interests at heart but who understands its issues. This fact was clearly rewarded by local voters. This should be the model for candidate selection by the SDLP, a party which in recent years has, rightly or wrongly, undercome allegations of being too middle class and too out of touch. To identify local “pillars of the community” who are liked and respected in an area and then give them the platform to continue their work on a political stage will not only endear voters to the party but also help the party to create sustainable and real change in the areas it represents.

The SDLP has in the past suffered from a problem parties across Ireland, both North and South, face. That is, political dynasties and political promises being the greatest driver of candidate selection at a local and assembly level. Politics across the island has often seen party domination by a small number of families. A network of aunts, uncles and cousins being selected for various positions across a party. This is not always a bad thing. The SDLP has seen fantastic representatives come from the same families, not least stalwarts such as the Durkans.

It is clear however that this cannot be the core driver of why a given candidate is chosen given that the by-products can often be that the less able candidate is chosen for an electoral run, at the expense of the the very able and promising candidates. The second problem the party can face in its selection process is providing electoral runs to candidates simply on the basis that they have been a councillor for “x number of years” or because they are “next in line”. Again, sometimes natural succession is a good thing. Good councillors may make excellent assembly candidates but this is not a guarantee.

If the party is to succeed it must be brutal and honest in its selection process. It must choose the best candidate rather than the most convenient. It must decide whether its best local option maybe a person who sits outside of active branch politics. This may be a sympathetic member of the local community whose prominence or external professional experience would make them the ideal candidate to breathe new life into a tired or stagnant branch. This of course must be approached with a great deal of caution and sensitivity to ensure that there is not undue disillusionment of core branch members.

Young people as drivers of change

The above suggestions rest on a simple factor but one which can be the hardest to achieve; the active engagement of young people in the process of change. The foundations of the SDLP were the young, young civil rights activists hungry for change and ready to make a difference on the political stage. As the years have gone by this enthusiasm has appeared to wane. Whilst the party maintains a knowledgeable and encouraged youth wing it has failed to capitalise on this on a local level. The party must look at how its local branches encourage youth membership. Youth wings at a local level must receive more than words of encouragement. Young people should be placed at the centre of local branches. Their ideas and enthusiasm should inform the direction of the party. This allows for more effective canvassing and data collection.

As candidates, young people can bring a creativity that the party has lacked. Alongside their enthusiasm comes a new wave of support amongst their peers. Effective use of social media in conjunction with effective canvassing can produce a tidal wave of change, as seen across the world. As with Paul McCusker in Oldpark the party should be in turn following the example of Cara Hunter in the 2019 East Derry Westminster election. As a fairly recent addition to local council, Cara’s first Westminster campaign saw a 4.9% increase in the parties vote share, becoming the second largest party in the constituency, ahead of Sinn Fein. Cara’s campaign was marked by a positive social media campaign and a youthful campaign team. Given that the party’s last election in that constituency had seen a downward turn of 1.5% this should not be overlooked by the party as a potential roadmap to future success in other constituencies.

Adapt to thrive

The political landscape across the Western World has changed dramatically in the last 5 years, a change that has not bypassed Northern Ireland. With Boris, Brexit, increased mumbles of a border poll and a predicted return to Stormont the next 5 years will be even more pivotal than ever for NI’s political leaders. One of the keys to Eastwood’s success is how he captains his ship in the days to come. It is hard to say how Eastwood should react to any given scenario given that the landscape is ever shifting and treacherous, however some points are clear.

On Brexit, a now forgone conclusion, Eastwood has an opportunity to publicly hold Johnson to account in the House of Commons. The effectiveness of any intervention is not promising however, Eastwood has the platform to send a clear message to the people of NI, “we will not take this lying down”. A task for which he appears well capable.

On a United Ireland the SDLP must remain carefully attentive to the Zeitgeist and not forget its fundamental nationalist principles. As this conversation looks likely to develop the SDLP must stick to its strengths and remain the adult in the room. It should therefore become the advocate of a structured conversation. Eastwood and the party should take charge of the discussion of what a UI might look like for everyone on the Island. If support for a UI grows and Sinn Fein manages to control the momentum of the conversation it will be a body blow to the SDLP.

On a potential return to Stormont Eastwood should stay the course and remain as the official opposition party. Ordinary voters in NI may have different views to each other but given the recent backlash against the DUP and Sinn Fein what does seem to be important to most is an effective government. Providing a robust opposition to ensure accountability would appear to be the effective strategy for the SDLP to choose.

The road ahead is not an easy one for the SDLP. The foundations upon which the party was built now appear to sit on shifting sands. However, with change, not only is survival possible but the ability for the party to thrive and set itself aside from its competitors in Sinn Fein or the Alliance Party is within reach. What is clear is that Eastwood’s legacy will be one of two things, the leader who saved the party or the one who struggled against its final decline. Let us hope for the former.

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  1. What an insightful and well written analysis. This man should be employed immediately by the SDLP.
    I need to declare at this point that I am his uncle Niall aka Neely MacMurfaidh.

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