SDLP And The “Lost Sheep” Vote

As I have stated here on several occasions, I voted SDLP from 1970 (Gerry Fitt was of course actually Republican Labour at the time) until 1993. From the period 1993 until 2009, I voted Sinn Féin. At first as anti-SDLP because of a dispute. And later as an act of conviction.

It is my perception that many of Sinn Féins vote is “soft”. It is also my perception that in the current decade of commemoration, Sinn Féin’s rush to be reconcilatory is compromising too much. This is exactly the same kinda behaviour which spooked moderate or mainstream nationalists to desert SDLP after 1998.

I think Sinn Féins “soft vote” or to characterise it another way…the nationalist/republican “floating voter” is under-estimated. Now in fairness during the ill-starred leadership of Margaret Ritchie (2010-2011) the SDLP could not capitalise on the earliest manifestation of Sinn Féin compromising too much. And of course SDLP had organisational difficulties.

Now SDLP is clearly addressing organisational difficulties. It is addressing recruitment. And for example last night SDLP Youth were leafleting Ballynahinch, Co Down.

But there are two distinct problems here. SDLP fights Sinn Féin all over Norn Iron. And it fights Alliance Party in suburban Belfast. Fighting on two fronts is difficult and SDLP has been using two different tactics on two fields of battle.

The tactic in dealing with the Alliance Party is to be reconcilatory. The tactic with Sinn Féin is to be confrontational. The SDLP must make a choice of one tactic.

Earlier today I was talking to a SDLP member. Political partisans are always different to mainstream voters. The SDLP person was extremely hostile to Sinn Féin. But I only stopped voting Sinn Féin three years ago. As the SDLP person said…….and I have of course heard it before “well I couldnt vote for murderers”. But the thing is….that view might well be held by a number of SDLP members. And held by a large number of SDLP voters. But the thing is that it is clearly not held by the persons who …..for one reason or another……stopped voting SDLP after 1998. And clearly it is not a view held by me.

I certainly had a problem voting Sinn Féin in the few years after 1993. I had even less problem after the Good Friday agreement. Now it strikes me that SDLP needs to win back a lot of voters from Sinn Féin. I certainly believe it is possible. But dismissing me as merely the kinda person who would vote for “murderers” is hardly the right way to go about it. A minority of  SDLP members need to stop thinking as Sinn Féin voters as children of a lesser God.

Best leave that kinda moral high ground for the scumbags in the Alliance Party.

As “lost sheep” go….I am hardly a “big fish” to mix the metaphor.

But it strikes me as absurd that SDLP are not making a more realistic play for ex-voters while chasing after votes that were never SDLP in the first place. To recover its position…..certainly possible…..there is a choice. And the more realistic choice is to go after ex-voters rather than new voters.

Too many SDLP Conferences have been treated to the assorted opinions of Duncan Morrow, Rev Norman Hamilton, John McCallister MLA……and Davey Adams for Gods sake.

It would be nice if an upcoming SDLP Conference was actually adressed by……say……Brian Feeney.

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6 Responses to SDLP And The “Lost Sheep” Vote

  1. I agree that Sinn Féin need to be seen as the competition and not the enemy. While the accusations of Sinn Féin stealing the SDLP’s clothes are somewhat true at some points both have simply worn matching outfits as nationalist parties. Indeed relativism can be a nasty mirror to oneself.

    Sinn Féin are only half a generation away from losing all the IRA old guard, so the “murderers” comment would be totally irrelevant.

    I do feel the SDLP needs to maintain a broad church of left leaning an constitutionally Irish nationalists free thinkers who believe in the power of social democracy and civic nationalism. And constituency awareness is needed as the candidate you would have in Lagan Valley would not be the same for Fermanagh-South Tyrone or for North Antrim.

    As I’ve said before it’s the “non-voter” not the voter that have punished the SDLP, in South Antrim, the boundary changes didn’t help but the SDLP was improving, Sinn Féin suffered the bigger loss of votes but kept Mitchell’s seat. Declining turnouts have always hurt the SDLP, the reverse is true also. Large turnouts in Newry and Armagh have seen the SDLP dominate there under Mallon, Margaret Ritchie perhaps in South Down may be another example.

    However the reason for the low turnout seems to be routed in youth and other population growth (immigration perhaps?) and while there is the argument win over the mother/father = win over the daughter/son in many constituencies this can constitute to nearly 20% voter increases.

    What is required is substantial, sustainable and perhaps somewhat subsistent economic policy that respects youth as being “the future economy” … Northern Ireland is pathetic at using talent or encouraging resourcefulness amongst young people and leading in that area, and perhaps the new social struggle in that area I believe people of all generations may be better off.

    The Republic of Ireland burdened with a higher youth unemployment ratio has no choice but the North can do so much more.

    • I think there are really three distinct groups that SDLP can “canvass” in the broad sense. New Voters (young people) will really only come into the system thru a form of altruism/idealism ie believing in things like universal health/education/civil rights etc..the check list of SDLP values……OR become increasingly involved thru issues eg student fees affecting them…..and later of course unemployment/mortgages/education/health.
      The second group is those middle ground voters, of whom SDLP make too much. The SDLP gives this group too much respect.
      The third group is the floating voter and I would argue going after that vote is more “cost-effective”.
      Simply easier to reach out to people who DID vote SDLP rather than those who never have.

  2. Mick Fealty says:

    I think that difference between committed ‘SF, Never’ activists and one like yourself who is prepared to make your own qualitative choice is an important one.

    What i genuinely don’t understand is why would a person like you come back to a party like SDLP. Maybe you don’t want to say.

    But I think the answer to that is important to know if the party is going to make its way forward.

    I think the middle ground obsession partly arises from the fact that the party has two MLAs in South Belfast.

    The problem is not that the party is wasting its time, it is more that it doesn’t have a strategy that allows it to advance on more than one front, if only over time.

    One front is where Dr Paisley was before Mr Robinson. As a result their importance was marginal.

    The other thing I would say about the SDLP is that it seems not to have the same hunger for winning that SF does, even if they don’t seem that keen on governing.

    • I think the SDLP has been fighting Sinn Féin in (say) the Bogside, Ballycolman (Strabane) and Ardoyne since the early 1980s. I ended my membership of the SDLP in 1981. Basically it was abad atmosphere for politics and I was getting married (1982) and moved out of West Belfast (after 27 years) and Dungannon (3 years) to set up home in a third constituency and almost thirty years later I dont feel at home in it. I had no involvement in Party Politics.
      I have always been very open about why I stopped voting SDLP. It was due to a legal dispute. And I am a much more unforgiving person than my wife, who took it in her stride.
      For several years I voted SF, partly out of resentment, partly out of ensuring our family vote was pan-nationalist/republican. Later I would say I voted SF out of conviction that it represented my ideals and interests better and the SDLP was frankly too eager to compromise my ideals and interests.
      I started voting SDLP again in 2009 (Euros) partly out of personal respect for Alban Magennis and partly because the tide had turned. SDLP represented my ideals/interests at least as well. Clearly the leadership of Margaret Ritchie was not a success.
      Why did I rejoinin August 2011. Well in part to be part of the solution. In part because of being increasingly close to SDLP people thru hustings, fringe conferences, fundraising events etc.
      And I am at ease with it.
      I have difficulty dealing with the emnity which exists between some elements in SDLP and SF. This is because this is new to me. In 1970s I never had a cross word with any SF person. The Brits gave us problems. And the Official IRA used to give us problems. Of course Official IRA/stickys were electoral enemies and SF (styled by Richard English, Brian Feeney or other in a book…cant recall without looking it up) the non combatants NEEDED SDLP to make representations (prisoners etc).
      Rather in same way SDLP is still doing that and SF isnt.
      And thats the crux. SF have deserted their own. I think the floating nationalist voter is under-estimated. Ritchies failed leadership covered a multitude. A better leadership could have halted the slide in 2011.
      The anti-Ireland, anti-nationalist group think on some websites aided by their occasional partners who advise the donors of a rival political Party are rather too anxious to write off the SDLP and I expect will be a little disappointed. 😉
      Obviously the nature of being a member of a political party prevents me from being too open about how I see things in the mid or long term but in a sense youve answered your own question. At this point in time SDLP ticks the boxes of self-interest and ideals that I have. Rather better than SF who are falling over themselves to go “outreach”. Which is just as phoney as DUP “outreach”.
      South Belfast is not the epicentre of lets get alongerism…….although part of it stretching along the North Down Coast.
      It is however the epicentre of “debate” politics…..QUB………where politics is an academic thing rather than practical and letsgetalongerists/wastes of space like Platform for Change are agenda setting. The SDLP can debate with anyone but its too much of a distraction to real politics.
      Incidently this post was supposed to be part of a series. The second will be called “This Place Can Suck You In”

  3. I look forward to reading “This place can suck you in”. On an interesting note about South Belfast however is that it is the Queen’s University Belfast constituency, and recent statistics have shown that Sinn Féin, contrary to stereotype but probably not to the surprise of me, you or perhaps even Mick here is the most popular party among students. I’d imagine the University of Ulster has a similar spread.

    There is a rising republican middle class but also contain a demographic who will unfortunately be sucked into the 65% of graduates and 45% of post graduates who will not be in graduate based work, paying back student loans and enabling economic growth. These will be future “debate politicans”

    Some of these Sinn Féin voting students will of course be from the Republic and despite the recession may actually stand a better chance of getting a decent job down there rather than up here where the money goes on tourism, construction and roadworks, and a rather conservative private sector reluctant to take a risk on unemployed people above the age of 24 with no work experience, and certainly less competitive in comparison to Wales, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland or any English region when it comes to Research and Development.

    The SDLP actually come second on the list in the Queen’s University Belfast political allegiance with not much to separate Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists, before we get to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the mainland Conservative party, the Labour parties, UKIP, Lib Dem, TUV and the rest.

    I’m aware of “debate politics”, and I’m glad to have experienced it with a broad range of people at Queen’s University Belfast from Republican Sinn Féin, Democratic Unionists, Conservative, Green Party, Alliance, Ulster Unionists, French Communist, Libertarian Republican and so many others. I agree that most people don’t care for it or see what it achieves. It might be good for forming “cross community alliances” to pass through one motion or the other but it’s the motion passing, it’s the that concerns the electorate.

    I’ve studied both science and engineering and I know there’s a need for theory and a need for practice, the theory is there only to get the practice right without big making mistakes, but it can’t be an excuse to do nothing. The same applies in politics, you have to avoid going gung ho and long no.

    Practical Politics has been an area where I think the SDLP is improving and it will be ultimately the thing that convinces voters to come back. The bill on ASD by Dominic Bradley is an example, he definitely got a boost in the polls as a result of his actions, the work of Margaret Ritchie and Alex Atwood as ministers, Mark Durkan MP’s motion on landmines and the Presbyterian Mutal Society. I can list many other examples.

    This strategy can be seen in Conall’s energy to press the issues, Patsy’s commitment to practical social democracy, Alisdair’s actions within the party to keep it active and fighting fit as well as being I’m sure one of the main people behind the economic strategies within the manifestos, and I’m proud to say in Foyle, 3 MLA’s who listen, who are emphatic and who really do care.

    People have been questioning the SDLP’s message can meet these and see for themselves, though the party perhaps needs to put out more of them.

    • “This place can suck you in” is still a work in progress but I have now hyped it so much that it will be a disappointment.
      Later tonight I am working on a “Bloomsday” post and one on the “Eucharistic Congress” as I was in Dublin twice this week.
      Im not a big believer in “debate” politics. It can be about “debate” and the “rules of debate” as much as the actual politics.
      Rather like watching Question Time on BBC with Dimbleby….it becomes ABOUT Debate rather than about POLITICS. A form of performance art.
      Rather like nearly 45 years ago, as part of A level Politics Class, we had to divide into Debates on a chosen subject and asked to speak for it, regardless of our own opinions. Thus it became about “Points of Order” and “Points of Information” rather than Reality.

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