Two years ago Alasdair McDonnell narrowly lost the SDLP Leadership and, with it, his parliamentary seat. His replacement, Colum Eastwood, was a lot greener in every sense, and his determination to try to match Sinn Féin’s position in everything has now delivered the most crushing electoral defeat in its history, including costing Mr McDonnell himself his seat as Unionists came out in droves to replace him.
Six weeks before polling day the Irish News ran a story on the front page that Sinn Féin and the SDLP had discussed a pact. Then MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie was horrified, tweeting immediately that the SDLP did not do pacts – partly no doubt because she recognised they would cost her lent votes from Unionists, but probably also because she believed it. Her Party Leader said little, however, and the news agenda was set. He was later forced to admit that they had been discussed. If Ms Ritchie had ever had any chance of nicking enough tactical votes to retain her seat, it was gone now and she probably knew it.
Three weeks before polling day the SDLP launched its manifesto. Speaking at the launch, the Party Leader chose to prioritise in his speech something which was barely in the manifesto at all – a “Border Poll”, and by the end of the decade at that. At that moment, it is not unreasonable to believe that 170 people of broadly unionist background decided they could not lend their vote to a party whose platform was now utterly indistinguishable from Sinn Féin’s in any case, and his colleague Mark Durkan lost his Foyle seat.
For all its honourable past, under current leadership, the SDLP offers nothing of consequence different from Sinn Féin. Brexit is bad, the DUP can’t be trusted, we should have a Border Poll more or less immediately, Tory cuts are terrible – in fact the only meaningful difference is on abortion, where it is Sinn Féin which takes the more moderate position. “Sinn Féin lite” with an added dose of social conservatism is never going to cut it.
As a consequence, the SDLP lost its entire Westminster representation and is now relegated firmly into the second tier alongside the Ulster Unionists and Alliance. It will no doubt point to 95,000 votes, but almost exactly half of those were cast in the three constituencies where the SDLP had the incumbent. In the other 15, the SDLP was a distant fifth – and with no incumbents next time, it is hard to see how any of the three previously held seats will not now swing to Sinn Féin the same way as Newry & Armagh post-Mallon or even Belfast West post-Hendron.
Like the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP shows no willingness even to learn that it will never ever out-do its communal rival on the constitutional issue. If I want a United Ireland tomorrow, I’ll vote for the party with Dáil representation thanks. If I want someone who will take their seat to take on the Tories on the NHS and welfare, I probably won’t want to risk those in a United Ireland tomorrow anyway (whether or not it is my ultimate aspiration).
You can shoot the messenger all you like, but try to ride two horses and you tend to fall off.