The Labour Party and Northern Ireland
At the risk of sounding like I have too much experience of this, I imagine that being voted out of government must be a lot like getting chucked by someone you really liked. The initial shock is followed by despair – closely followed by the attribution of blame and an identity crisis. A process of rebuilding confidence and re-defining then starts.
This is where the Labour Party is at right now.
And part of this re-defining of the party has involved the re-surfacing of the age-old question: Should Labour contest elections in Northern Ireland?
The question is particularly relevant as Northern Irish members of Labour (now that they’re allowed to join) feed into this process of re-definition.
Through the decades of The Troubles, there have been many attempts to organise the Labour Party in NI – a ‘Campaign for Labour Representation’ sought to persuade Labour to stand in the late 1970s, continued through the 80s, but came to nothing. After decades of not accepting members from the province (instead encouraging members to join the SDLP), the Labour Party finally permitted Northern Irish members to join in 2003 – but only off the back of legal advice. This was followed by the setting up of a formal Northern Ireland constituency organisation in 2009 – again, after the threat of legal action.
Labour – or at least, the Northern Ireland members of Labour – had hoped to stand candidates in the recent local elections; that window of opportunity has now passed without any Labour candidates on any ballot. Despite this, the prospect of Labour standing in Northern Ireland in the future seems like a possibility.
The argument I hear most often (from a few friends involved in flirtation with Labour) is that it would bring a progressive voice to Northern politics. Would it? Adam Ramsay has already written articulately here on why Labour are not progressive, I don’t need to repeat that here. Those Northern members of Labour might rightly point back to the honourable progressive traditions of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party. But that was a democratic socialist party – not a Tory Lite party. Not that anyone I know in Labour NI are Blairites – but is the idea to present a democratic socialist platform? If so, organising Ed Miliband’s party in Northern Ireland won’t accomplish that. Some of the people that I know have joined because they hate what the Tories are doing – and rightly so – but it’s important not to divorce the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (if it stood in elections) from the same party that disappointed us all so much when it was in government. If NI Labour is going to be more progressive than its parent party, should it be part of it?
Another argument is the idea that it will fight sectarianism. Despite the seductive idea of a progressive party that could unite working people in huge numbers on both sides of the divide, Labour’s entry into Northern Ireland wouldn’t be a panacea to sectarianism. The issues dividing communities and the ingrained voting behaviour and attitudes run much deeper than simply who you choose to vote for. A red rose and a name on a ballot paper isn’t going to solve that – and previous attempts to organise Labour groupings in Northern Ireland (the list is endless – Labour Party of Northern Ireland, Labour ’87, Newtownabbey Labour Party, Labour Coalition, etc) have attracted little success. Will this attempt really be different?
Another off-putting factor for me is the way in which the Labour Party treats its Northern Irish members. Miliband’s first visit to NI came as a shock to the local Labour activists, and he didn’t even bother to meet with them. Even before this, it was the threat of legal action that allowed these activists to become members of Labour, and even more cajoling for them to be allowed to form a constituency group. Labour have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into Northern Ireland. Now its members fight their party for the right to go out and win votes for them.
From an outsider’s perspective, I’d have given up by now. Their perseverance is admirable. Labour is lucky to have people dedicated enough in the province to keep at it this long. To name but one, Queen’s University Belfast lecturer Boyd Black has been campaigning on the issue since the early 80s. Maybe Labour doesn’t deserve such dedication. If the Labour leadership haven’t got their heart in it, should those members contest elections on behalf of a party that treats them with such contempt?
So what is the natural home for progressive voters and activists in Northern Ireland? There’s a party out there whose policies are in tune with many Labour activists, but I would say that wouldn’t I? In any case, I doubt the party that’s “relaxed about people getting filthy rich,” – the party of cuts, tuition fees, private finance initiatives and the war in Iraq -can be the progressive future of Northern Irish politics. Progressive activists belong elsewhere.