A warm, sunny Monday afternoon sets the scene for the first post-election conversation with a party activist. Karl Duncan (as Chair of SDLP Youth) kindly accepted to be the first person under the spotlight in the COSTA coffee shop at Wellington Place. I asked the busy man how he felt the SDLP campaign had gone in the election.
He focused upon the fact that the party in his view campaigned on the “right issues” and seen the party standing on a strong track record of delivery in office, whether that be with Nichola Mallon as Minister for Infrastructure or Colum Eastwood at Westminster. Upon his first input to the conversation, I asked him about the amount of responsibility for the party’s defeat that Colum Eastwood bore. Karl Duncan isn’t looking for a change in leadership, instead citing the opinion that the Eastwood grip on the party has stabilised and united the SDLP.
However, he did point out that his party did have a “problem” with the “external brand” of the SDLP message and its policies. He contrasts the SDLP’s keen emphasis on policy detail to Sinn Fein’s campaign over the past few weeks to present Michelle O’Neill as a “stateswoman” for the post of First Minister. He points out that for those unsuspecting voters, the office of First Minister and deputy-First Minister are equal with the same powers –
“Michelle O’Neill can’t order paper clips without the agreement of the DUP.”
Pressing the issue of reasons as to why the SDLP didn’t perform well at the polls, I asked him why the party failed to hold four key seats (Belfast North, Lagan Valley, Upper Bann and South Down) against the electoral charges of the Alliance Party.
“It wasn’t our day.”
He points out the view that the SDLP put in the hard work with issues such as period poverty, public transport, cost of living and that his party provided the alternative to the status-quo with a “common sense government.”
On the question of the SDLP now part of an opposition at Stormont, he sees opportunities from the election of a Sinn Fein-DUP-Alliance government.
“The last time the SDLP was outside of the Executive, the DUP and Sinn Fein only lasted 9 months. It’s unbelievable that the two that want to work together are not in the government.”
The SDLP Youth Chair highlighted too that it was up to the UUP to decide which side of the Assembly benches did they wish to sit on – for his worth, the SDLP would be continuing their work by putting “people first.”
People First was the party slogan for the past few months, so I asked him what he thought this slogan meant to him.
“There has been too much protocol over the past few months and not enough talk about the bread and butter issues. ‘People First’ is about tackling poverty and the lack of opportunities across the north in search of a better future.”
From a journalist perspective, only time will tell if the message has resonated with the average working-class voter in future elections.
I raise the issue of the emergence of Aontú onto the election scene.
His response – “they are irrelevant to the SDLP’s performance. They could only muster 12,000 votes on May 5th, and we polled 78,000. Their presence as a pro-life, single-issue party didn’t affect the SDLP’s performance. The assumption that Aontú voters are ex-SDLP voters is ridiculous. They are a spin-off from Sinn Fein.”
Back to the main issue of the SDLP’s prospects, Karl assures me that the party “isn’t in crisis mode” and is not comparable to the UUP on the fact of electoral decline gradually since 1998.
“We are not sitting around after this low point. We will come back stronger. I think it can be best described as keep moving and keep growing – that’s what the SDLP will do. We will become that pro-active movement of people.”
I pressed him on the issue that the UUP have jumped between brands of unionism since Trimble – UCUNF, ‘Vote Mike, get Colum’ and now ‘Union of People.’ Karl is having none of it – the SDLP is sticking to the same message.
To finish, I asked much less aggravating-style questions. He recalls spending 27 long hours at the Foyle count and the fact he “really enjoyed speaking to people, talking about the cost of living. But I didn’t see the result coming.”
But there is always a silver lining when it came to the SDLP’s public transport drive!
“The campaign bus was comfortable and a great opportunity for the canvassers to get out and knock the doors.”
He points out that his party was not naïve in the campaign, putting it out that he wouldn’t have changed the way the campaign went nor how the party fought the election.
Out of my own voter curiosity, I asked him one final question. What does the SDLP stand for?
“The SDLP stands welfare, housing, social equality. We take a stand on the issues – we come up with solutions for the problems facing people.”
For the post-election spin doctors and analysts – why did ‘People First’ not resonate with more than just 78,000 voters?
After Karl leaves rushing for another meeting, I make a few conclusions from what both he said and what has happened over the past few years.
Karl is one of many SDLP activists still optimistic about the future under Colum Eastwood, determined to bring the ‘fallen soldiers’ from the election back into elected politics. From this perspective, the SDLP hasn’t fallen on its sword just yet.
However, does it have the determination to overcome the challenges ahead, promote ‘People First’ as a meaningful brand and election message and finally claw its way back to the top of the tree within northern Irish nationalism.
This is a question which the SDLP has to answer ahead of two more years of elections and endless campaigning! For Karl, it’s too early to make any predictions for the local elections next year and the 2024 Westminster vote.