SDLP commissioned report says party 'resting on its laurels'

Dr Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell's party were seen as having "no big figures any more"

The SDLP has been told it is resting on its laurels, is too complacent and too stuck in the past.

The comments are in a confidential report commissioned by the party.

The report, which was obtained by BBC's political programme "The View", also states many nationalist voters don't see the SDLP as a party of change or difference, but as a self-interested conservative force.

SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood rejected some of the findings.

"If there are perceptions out there, that I think are wrong, then we have to challenge them," he said.

"The talk about us being a middle class party is nonsense. Our activist base, our membership base, our supporter base and our elected representative base, it comes from all different social classes."

The report was carried out by a London-based political consultancy.

It was presented to party officials last month.

It is based on interviews with 50 people in five focus groups who were questioned in Londonderry, Antrim, Newry, Omagh, Ballygawley and Belfast .

Those questioned were nationalist voters open to voting SDLP, but not currently planning to vote for the party.

The findings for the SDLP are stark and many of the comments are negative about the party.

The report does contain positive things about past party leader John Hume and the SDLP's stance on Syria, but the report notes that positive comments are "few and far between".

Behind a mask

Some of those questioned said they saw the SDLP as "middle class time wasters" and "not doing much to stop violence around the flags protest".

The research also showed that older voters thought "the past hangs heavy with Sinn Féin " and some thought the party hid behind a mask.

It is the comparison with Sinn Féin that will give the SDLP hierarchy their biggest concerns.

Some of those questioned said they thought the SDLP was a "party of the past" whilst they said Sinn Féin were viewed as the "party of the future".

The SDLP were also perceived as "middle class" whilst Sinn Féin were seen by those questioned as "working class".

Alasdair McDonnell's party were seen as having "no big figures any more".

In turn, Sinn Féin were viewed as having "strong leaders".

Some of those quizzed also said they viewed the SDLP as "not sure if they are Irish or British", while Sinn Féin were viewed as "strongly Irish".

When quizzed those in the focus groups said they could not identify any policy differences between Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

'Stuck in the past'

Prof Rick Wilford from Queen's University said the report confirms that the party is in trouble.

He told The View: "It's seen to be a party that's stuck in the past. That there's no clear sense of vision or a clearly articulated project with a leadership that seems bereft of dynamism and a sense of real political and policy direction."

The report contains other stark conclusions on the state of the SDLP and states that "many nationalist voters don't know who you (SDLP) are or what you stand for anymore".

Another conclusion from the research which is confidential states that "many nationalist voters don't see the SDLP as a party of change, but as a self interested Conservative force."

Support

The report which has been presented to senior figures in the party also states that "many nationalist voters feel the SDLP is resting on it's laurels, looking backwards, too complacent, too stuck in the past".

This confidential report which was completed last month recommends supporting the leader in building party profile, campaigning strongly for the health service and delivering blunt messages about parades and flags.

The research says the party must promote more women and younger people to positions of real authority.

There is also this warning that unless the SDLP changes, its "future prospects look bleak".

Dr Cathy Gormley Heenan from the University of Ulster says the report obtained by the BBC adds to the debate about the SDLP leaving the Executive.

She told The View: "I think that everything in this document speaks very loudly and clearly to the idea that the SDLP should more seriously consider going into opposition in Stormont. That would speak volumes to a community and to a potential electorate who's not quite sure what the party stands for.

"It stands for, in an opposition, holding the government of the day to account."

In a statement to the BBC, a spokeswoman for the SDLP said the focus groups were conducted with people deliberately selected because" they were not SDLP voters or supporters".

"The SDLP wants to engage with people and hear all voices even if that includes negative views. The focus groups had a poor view of all politicians and felt let down by the inability of government to provide adequate health and education services in particular," the spokeswoman said.

"In the upcoming local and European elections the SDLP are focused on providing a strong and balanced ticket for the electorate that includes women and younger people. The SDLP may have challenges, but we are tackling these challenges head on."

Next year's elections will be Alasdair McDonnell's first test as leader and some observers say he desperately needs a good result.

Rick Wilford from Queen's University says next year's polls are crucial.

"Come next May, if the SDLP perform badly or doesn't make gains in May, then I think Alasdair McDonnell's time as leader of the party is probably over," he warned.

In 2011, when Alasdair McDonnell campaigned for the SDLP leadership he said he was not going to watch the decline and eventual disappearance of his party.

What is clear from this latest report is that unless his party takes radical action the future for the SDLP looks very difficult.

The View is on BBC One at 22:35 GMT on Thursday.

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