Back in the 2017 General Election, the SDLP struggled. They lost all their Westminster seats – Belfast South, Foyle and South Down – constituencies they have held for 76 years combined.
At this election, it would mainly be a battle to see which of these three seats the party could win back off the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively.
Firstly Belfast South. This was a seat the SDLP lost to Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP in 2017 in a surprise result, where she received a majority of almost 2,000 votes. However, the issue of Brexit was now far more important in this election, especially in this constituency which voted 69.5% to remain. At the beginning of the campaign, it was therefore seen as a three-horse race between the incumbent Little-Pengelly, Claire Hanna and Paula Bradshaw, from the remain supporting Alliance party.
Hanna was immediately helped by endorsements from both Sinn Féin and the Green party who polled over 9,000 votes together in 2017. Whilst these voters were not guaranteed to go SDLP, it would have been a game-changer for Alliance. Without this endorsement, it would be difficult for them to gather up enough remain voters to win the seat. Hanna had the clear advantage of being a popular local candidate, as well as continually being on the media circuit for the SDLP throughout the campaign.
There was, however, a clear issue for Hanna and the party. In February 2019, she resigned the party whip over the electoral alliance between them and Fianna Fáil, with leader Colum Eastwood (standing in Foyle) clearly being on the opposite side of the argument. Despite this, the issue hardly came up with the two candidates putting on a united front, sharing the same platform.
This unified campaign certainly worked as illustrated on election night with Hanna achieving a thumping majority of 15,401 votes, with a 31.3% swing in her favour. These numbers were an incredible endorsement of Hanna, but also a huge kick against the DUP. In fact, look more closely, and Alliance’s result here bucked the trend across the province. They lost votes in Belfast South, despite making gains in every other seat, most likely due to remain voters and non-DUP voters mainly coalescing around Hanna.
Foyle was the other interesting SDLP target of the night. Back in 2017, it was the closest seat in Northern Ireland with only 169 votes in it, when Sinn Féin won it off the SDLP’s one-time leader Mark Durkan. This time the party’s current leader Colum Eastwood (also an MLA in Foyle) stood here. He had a clear campaign message – a nationalist remain supporting MP who would actually sit in the chamber, unlike Sinn Féin with their well-known and well-criticised abstentionist policy.
This message played very well here with Eastwood being returned on the night with another large majority for the SDLP of 17,110 votes. There were worries that the smaller parties standing here could dent the SDLP’s chances of winning here. Most notably, Aontú following the SDLP’s involvement in the recent Stormont sitting, in regards to abortion legislation.
With such a strong performance in the Foyle SDLP vs. Sinn Féin race, you may have expected similar successes in South Down. Back in 2017, like Foyle, SDLP lost this seat to Sinn Féin, with a larger majority of almost 2,500. However, throughout the recent election campaign, it was clear that the SDLP focus was on South Belfast and Foyle. Their candidate in South Down, Cllr Michael Savage was also far less well-known than Hanna and Eastwood, making this a more difficult race to when Margaret Ritchie (also a one-time leader) stood for re-election in 2017. At the count in 2019, it turned out that Sinn Féin were re-elected but their majority surprislingly being cut by 826 votes.
If you look more closely at the numbers here, there is a clear pathway in which the SDLP could have won back this seat. Between 2017 and 2019, Alliance saw a positive swing of 10.3% with an extra 5,102 votes. If SDLP had got just over 16% of these Alliance votes in 2019 then they could have won back this seat. Whilst the Alliance surge was been prominent in the media, such large swings to the party were unexpected in seats such as South Down. Whilst in Foyle it worked to have a campaign based almost solely on Sinn Féin’s abstentionism, it may have been worthwhile targeting Alliance voters more effectively, even if they were never going to win this seat. There were maybe more similarities here to Belfast South than would first appear. The SDLP campaign in Belfast South was so effective because of its dual messaging against the incumbent DUP, whilst simultaneously challenging Alliance.
This was by no means the only seat in which the SDLP were affected by the Alliance party, who saw positive swings in all but one constituency. Swings against the SDLP were also seen in the likes of Lagan Valley, East Antrim and Strangford – all of which saw double digit swings towards Alliance. Whilst some Alliance vote gains also came from losses from other parties, there is no doubt SDLP will have lost some votes in these seats.
There were, however, successes for the SDLP in other seats, helping to contribute to 3.1% swing across Northern Ireland in favour of the party. Outside of their target seats mentioned above, the biggest SDLP swings to the party were seen in East Derry, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster. In each of these seats, all of which are west of the Bann, Sinn Féin all saw losses to their vote. The SDLP will be happy with this performance in these seats. However, a key issue in Westminster elections is the abstentionist policy of the SDLP – an argument that will not be at play in any future assembly election.
The SDLP will therefore have a difficult game to play in an assembly election. They must challenge other nationalist parties, most notably, Sinn Féin, along with some smaller parties. However, there are increasing challenges for the SDLP. It may be increasingly difficult to paper over party divides on the issue of the Fianna Fáil relationship. More locally, Alliance are continually sweeping up in the centre ground, and have the distinct advantage of also appealing to soft unionists, as well as soft nationalists who may traditionally have turned to the SDLP.
Peter Moor is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.