Opinion

Alex Kane: We need to talk about the UUP and SDLP

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt with Alliance's Naomi Long and the SDLP's Colm Eastwood. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP have both been overtaken by Alliance in the polls
Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt with Alliance's Naomi Long and the SDLP's Colm Eastwood. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP have both been overtaken by Alliance in the polls Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt with Alliance's Naomi Long and the SDLP's Colm Eastwood. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP have both been overtaken by Alliance in the polls

We need to talk about the UUP and SDLP.

I know they’d rather I didn’t talk about them, but the electoral and opinion poll statistics are crying out for attention.

In the 2022 assembly election their combined average vote was 10.1 per cent and in the council elections three months ago it had dipped to 9.8 per cent.

LucidTalk’s poll in May had their combined average at 9 per cent, dipping to just 8 two weeks ago. A Liverpool University/Irish News poll at the start of May indicated a 10.5 per cent average.

Read more:

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David McCann: Jeffrey Donaldson running out of time to get DUP back to Stormont

Patrick Murphy: Farewell to the SDLP

The UUP has a slight lead over the SDLP in the average of the two elections and three opinion polls: 11.5 per cent against 8. But – and this is a major problem for both parties – it’s the gap between them and their main electoral rival which tells the real story.

Using the latest LucidTalk poll as the yardstick, the UUP is 16 per cent behind the DUP, while the SDLP is a whopping 25 per cent behind SF.

Another worry for Doug Beattie and Colum Eastwood is that they’re both behind Alliance, which is continuing to add votes in each election and poll.

Colum Eastwood and Doug Beattie pictured at a UTV leaders' debate
Colum Eastwood and Doug Beattie pictured at a UTV leaders' debate Colum Eastwood and Doug Beattie pictured at a UTV leaders' debate

So, is there a way back for them – getting ahead of Alliance again and nudging closer to the DUP and SF? Or do they have to face the fact that everything they have tried to do in terms of reinvention and repositioning over the last decade or so hasn’t delivered the electoral goods?

Eastwood clearly has the bigger problem. If the present trend continues, the SDLP is likely to lose its Westminster seats (Eastwood and Claire Hanna) at a general election due before January 2025; and I’m not persuaded it has the numbers, just 8 MLAs, to provide an effective opposition if the executive is rebooted (it no longer has the numbers for automatic membership).

Parties on the downturn (think Labour 1979-1997 and the Conservatives 1997-2010) rely on five primary factors for eventual recovery: a new charismatic, or at least reasonably likeable leader; being taken seriously again by the electorate and media; a mountain of problems descending on their main rival; and the broader political agenda and circumstances drifting in their direction.

The most important factor of all, though, is the ability to read your core electoral base and keep them on board during the toughest years in the political/electoral wilderness. Something which Neil Kinnock and Labour didn’t do in 1992 and lost to a Conservative party with a weakish leader (John Major) and indifferent opinion polls.

It's now 20 years since the SDLP was eclipsed by SF in the 2003 assembly election and it has never come close to recovering both the seat and vote losses.

To be honest, I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of successive leadership teams, rather the fact that the political momentum has never been in its favour since November 2003.

I don’t for a moment believe that nationalism/republicanism has any particular fondness for the DUP, but for so long as it remains the lead party of unionism then an overwhelming majority of electoral nationalism/republicanism clearly prefers SF to protect and promote its collective interests. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Indeed, I don’t see it changing at all.

That being the case I don’t see an easily navigable route by which the SDLP returns to pre-2003 days. It will never convince enough voters that it is SF-lite and it will never outflank it on either the right or left.

It seems to be edging towards a new all-Ireland reconciliation project – the New Ireland Commission – but I can’t help thinking it has come late to the game.

Generally speaking, although I do have particular experience of the problem during a previous life in the UUP, beginning a new project at the same time as your overall vote continues on a downward spiral rarely ends well. And from what I gather, the ‘Vote Colum and get Mike’ SDLP/UUP ‘moment’ has also been quietly buried.

SDLP leader Colm Eastwood with former UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt at the Ulster Unionist autumn conference in 2016
SDLP leader Colm Eastwood with former UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt at the Ulster Unionist autumn conference in 2016 SDLP leader Colm Eastwood with former UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt at the Ulster Unionist autumn conference in 2016

When the UUP was eclipsed by the DUP in November 2003 it ended up in a similar position to the SDLP. In other words, if SF was to be the lead party of nationalism/republicanism then unionism/loyalism wanted the ‘tougher’ DUP as their electoral top dog.

And so, the electoral shift from one to the other kept on growing. Even when the DUP had very obvious difficulties, the UUP found it impossible to reverse the trend. Worse still, in the attempt to take on the DUP it actually found itself losing votes to Alliance as well – a trickle that became a river after 2017.

Doug Beattie is presently steering a very difficult course. He wants the assembly rebooted, even though the polling and election results confirm that it is a minority position within unionism.

Polling also suggests that around a fifth of UUP voters actually support the DUP/TUV position: a figure which I think is probably much larger across party members.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying he’s facing a rebellion, but there is clearly growing concern that his, what sometimes looks like a very personal strategy, is costing the party votes. And again, I don’t see an easily navigable route to an electoral rebound.

Their biggest joint problem right now is Alliance, seemingly established as the third party of choice, with 15 per cent in the latest poll – just one percent behind the UUP/SDLP tally.

Recovery requires votes – but from where? I don’t see much likelihood of a swing from the DUP or SF, let alone the TUV, PBP, Greens or Aontú. Alliance is a possibility, but not in huge numbers.

It’s beginning to look like the final countdown for both parties. And who would have thought that 25 years ago?

Alex Kane
Alex Kane Alex Kane