Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Good news ... but don't cheer too loudly, Alasdair

The SDLP has reason to be pleased with Patsy McGlone's performance in Mid Ulster. But it shouldn't get carried away by the outcome of a single by-election, says Ruairi O'Kane

Increasingly, by-elections are becoming the political equivalent of the internet phenomenon the Harlem Shake. Prior to election day, the parties dance and joust, while the general public pays little attention.

And, when the results are announced, politicians fall over themselves in convulsions trying to bend the figures like rope to suit their particular agenda. Meanwhile, the electorate quickly forgets about it until the next one comes along.

Last week's Mid Ulster Westminster by-election is widely seen to have offered up something for everyone who took part.

Sinn Fein held the seat, albeit with a reduced majority, the unionist unity candidate added to the party's percentage share of the vote while both the SDLP and the Alliance Party recorded modest increases in vote numbers and share. Therefore, everybody won, right?

Not really, given the biggest loser of all was probably the electorate, as turnout in a constituency renowned for high participation levels dropped to 55%.

Parties use by-elections to test the temperature of political opinion, but often the feedback and signs are often inaccurately interpreted.

The over-riding message from Mid Ulster is there is still considerable disengagement and disconnect from our political process and our elected representatives would do well to bear that in mind as they pore over the tallies from the ballot boxes.

The SDLP can generally be pleased with their performance – their first electoral test under Alasdair McDonnell's leadership.

Patsy McGlone upped their share of the vote and polled better than party colleague Tony Quinn did in 2010.

While optimists will see this result as the first green shoots of recovery, they should err on the side of caution.

Turnout aside, the anticipated squeeze on the SDLP vote did not materialise – in spite of the presence of an agreed unionist candidate.

Subsequently, the collapse witnessed in similar circumstances in Fermanagh-South Tyrone nearly three years ago was avoided.

In McGlone, a former deputy leader, the SDLP ran a stronger candidate, backed by a far superior local party machine.

He was fortunate to face not only a weaker Sinn Fein representative in Francie Molloy, but an elusive and publicity-shy unionist in the form of Nigel Lutton.

And, most significantly of all, there was never any real danger of Sinn Fein losing the seat – a fact not lost on the outgoing MP Martin McGuinness, who blamed complacency for his party's diminished vote.

In these circumstances, improving on Tony Quinn's 2010 result was well within McGlone's capabilities and it is worth noting that he performed more or less the same, if slightly worse than when he last stood himself, back in 2005.

However, if anything, Mid Ulster did prove that, electorally, Sinn Fein are human after all and among the tribalism there is still room for centre-ground politics and progressive nationalism.

Which is why the SDLP should be happy with the result, but should not get carried away.

The SDLP needs to ask itself why the majority of voting nationalists preferred an abstentionist representative, why unionists wouldn't back it and – most crucially – why huge swathes of the population do not care at all.

Rather than attacking opponents for absenting themselves from TV debates, the SDLP should have rounded on them for taking the electorate for granted.

Traditionally, in Britain, by-elections and other so-called 'second order' elections are an opportunity to give the Establishment a good hammering.

In Northern Ireland, the protest vote stays at home – not helped by the absence of a credible alternative.

The SDLP's Mid Ulster result is not sufficient to secure a second seat in the next Assembly election.

Nor will it signal any serious shift in party policy, because, as it is viewed as a success, it provides no reason to change.

Instead, it should actually accelerate radical transformation in terms of policy, personnel and organisation.

The SDLP needs to reach out to those who continue to be switched off by local politics. It must stand up for the hard-pressed working classes, stand by the under-pressure middle-classes and stand over big business and the prosperity it can bring.

Reconnection will not come about by lurching to the Catholic/conservative Right, or by attempting to outflank Sinn Fein on the dissident Left. Emasculated in government, it is even more difficult for the SDLP to distinguish itself.

The recent call by Brid Rodgers for the party to consider going into Opposition will go unheeded by McDonnell.

Expect to see McGlone rewarded with the Environment ministry and Alex Attwood left to mull over a possible tilt at Europe.

But sharing out the ministerial cake, as McDonnell puts it, will not have much impact on a population which is growing antipathetic towards who is in the Executive, or, indeed, at Westminster.

If it is to be believed that nationalists are beginning to see through Sinn Fein, then they still need to see much more from the SDLP.

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