I am more of a pessimist than an optimist but I have never bought into the narrative that SDLP is a political party in “managed decline” (Slugger O’Toole passim). It seemed too much like an agenda, driven by people who dont like SDLP very much.
Certainly since Christmas, I have noticed that some Sinn Féin supporters have become pretty hostile to SDLP. A lot of messages,I have got recently are more vitriolic than before. Is it in itself a good sign that SF twitterati are taking SDLP more seriously than before?
I have never bought into 2014 and 2015 being bad years. Lest we forget 2014 was a good year for nationalism at the local council polls. But while SDLPs main rivals Sinn Féin and Alliance lost ten and two seats respectively, SDLP lost just one. So in comparative terms, SDLP did better than their rivals.
Likewise in Westminster 2015, Sinn Féin lost Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Alliance lost East Belfast and SDLP held their three seats. Not enough credit has been given for this statistic.
In relative “clout” SF 4, SDLP 3, Alliance 0….is obviously better for SDLP than SF 5, SDLP 3 Alliance 1.
Observers will note there has been a change of Leader in late 2014 and Colum Eastwood is certainly young and energetic but essentially he is carrying on the work that was started by Alasdair McDonnell from 2011.
There are good signs. Most candidates for the Assembly Election are already in place and there is a younger and fresher look and a certain sense of purpose.
But one thing seems to have been overlooked by analysts. It is not just about first preference votes…SDLP look much more transfer-friendly. The stance on marriage equality opens up an avenue to social liberals, who do not like the fundamentalism of DUP or near-Fundamentalism of UUP. The “Welfare” issue…Sinn Féin u-turns and unionist-Alliance hostility to the under-priveleged opens up new ground.
And of course, SDLP has been more consistent on the Victims issue than any other Party.
Today’s news that the sole councillor elected on the NI21 ticket in 2014….Johnny McCarthy in Lisburn…has joined SDLP is news that will give a boost to SDLP members. And yet it seems part of a pattern.
In May this year, one SDLP candidate was formerly a member of Sinn Féin. And I know SDLP members who were previously members of the Green Party and LabourNI. So there are signs that are good.
The key thing is that the individuals who become activists are a sign that voters are also prepared to look at SDLP in a transfer-friendly way.
In May 2016, transfers will hold the key to the “sixth” seats in a lot of constituencies.