Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Elections round-up: SDLP consolidates its core base

LucidTalk continue their review of each of the NI political parties, how they fared at the recent European elections, and their prospects for the future – here we look at the SDLP.

The SDLP negotiating team (left to right) Joe Byrne, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and Alex Attwood, speak to the media ahead of a three-day session of intensive negotiations focused on long-standing disputes over flags, parades and the legacy of the past at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.
The SDLP negotiating team (left to right) Joe Byrne, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and Alex Attwood, speak to the media ahead of a three-day session of intensive negotiations focused on long-standing disputes over flags, parades and the legacy of the past at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.

The SDLP had a mixed result in the European election – their vote went up in real terms (compared to the last Euros), but their percentage vote went down.

Overall it has to be said this was a disappointing result for the party.

In terms of what we said in our pre-election predictions: "They (the SDLP) also performed reasonably well in our Opinion Panel survey, held over the past two weeks. ....Although they’ve taken an electoral battering over the past 10-15 years they still have a reasonable party machine, admittedly not as powerful as the big-two Sinn Fein and the DUP, but certainly still better than the UUP’s machine....’ (Belfast Telegraph, 30th April).

Undoubtedly the over performance of the Alliance party at the Euro election impacted the SDLP more than any other party. Alliance’s 44,000 was up more than 60% compared to the last Euro election in 2009 – this is a huge increase which wasn’t totally reflected in their local election performance, suggesting this vote increase was mostly down to their candidate Anna Lo.    

The SDLP are similar to the UUP in that they are really down to their core base in terms of voters. Core voters are people who regularly vote for particular parties regardless of policies or candidates. Voting is habit forming, and both the SDLP and UUP have been around for a long time enabling them to build-up core voter bases that are pretty solid. But with all things that suffer from the passage of time, these voter bases are in decline.

Based on our election count tallies from both the local and Euro elections, we are able to determine where the strong vote areas for the SDLP are. Not surprisingly most of their support comes from the areas where they currently have MPs, i.e. Belfast, Derry, and to a lesser extent South Down. They need to build on this, but also start growing in the west of NI, in areas where Sinn Fein are particularly strong.  In election terms there is a possibility that Sinn Fein may have reached a plateau which should provide the SDLP with an opportunity to grow.

The SDLP used to be the dominant force in nationalist/republican politics, much like the UUP used to be within the unionist community. In the 60s, a prominent US politician said ‘Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role..(in world politics)’. Both the UUP and SDLP seem to fit-in with that political line in that ‘they’ve lost their leadership positions within their respective communities, but not yet found a role in NI politics’.

This is the challenge for the SDLP. They’re still in a stronger position than the UUP having three Westminster MPs. Yes, I hear the reply, that it's the Assembly election that counts as the most important, and this is true because the NI Assembly election is NI’s flagship election – the same as the Westminster election is the flagship election for the whole of the UK. However, it’s very hard to have a good Assembly election performance if you don’t have a base of Westminster MPs. Every party which has a Westminster MP in a particular constituency ends up with at least two (and usually more) MLAs for that constituency at the following Assembly election. The same is true for the SDLP – in fact there are only three seats where the SDLP has two (or more) MLA’s, and that’s the three seats where they currently have MP’s – Foyle, South Belfast, and South Down. 

Therefore it’s crucial that the SDLP hold their current three Westminster seats at next year’s UK election, in order to ensure the SDLP hold their current MLA position at the 2016 Assembly election. This is particularly true for South Belfast, which is currently held by party leader Alasdair McDonnell. Like East Belfast, South Belfast will be a fascinating battle at the general election, and it could end up in a very tight result. So next year’s Westminster election will be crucial for the SDLP (and also for other parties), as the 2015 general election results will be a big factor in determining who will ‘win’ at the 2016 Assembly election.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph.

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