Friday, 27 May 2011

Restructuring Left Politics in Northern Ireland

Having reviewed the Referendum campaign by the YES campaign, let me now progress to look at the other contests that took place on May 5th.

To me this was a real Jekyll and Hyde election. I was really overjoyed to see how real issues (like Health and Education) took centre stage in the campaigns. However I was also depressed at how, when it came to the end, these all got pushed aside and the old tribal politics of the past came out.

Standing outside a polling station, I heard one Council candidate admitting that if he had been standing for election in England he would have been a Labour candidate - so why wasn't he?

Unfortunately the obvious answer was not that Labour don't stand here - rather it was the section of the community that he belonged to- a victory for Sectarian Politics.

Turkeys do not vote for Christmas. Nearly all the current parties here are relics of the old order. And more importantly the same old test is applied to any party/independent that dares to stand - But are you Nationalist or Unionist? And the truth is that in the Assembly Election at least this matters in the outcome, because of the way the Assembly is constructed.

The Alliance and the Greens would seem to be the examples that disprove the rule - But despite their denials the Alliance is usually (if unfairly) regarded as "soft" Unionist, leaving just the Greens.

So how can we bring true Left wing politics to Northern Ireland?

The political experiment that Cameron's Tories undertook in 2010 shows how not to do it. The Northern Ireland parties will not be reformed from within. The old orders are too well entrenched. We have come a long way from when people like Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin could insist that "Labour" appear in the title of the SDLP. Plus by tying to one of the existing blocs, a large number of potential supporters will be alienated.

There are two choices that remain.

1) Leave it as it is and hope that eventually they will come to their senses and align themselves.

2) introduce candidates aligned on the Left-Right axis, but neutral on the issue of the Union.

Well 1) is obviously nonsense (turkeys ... Christmas remember?) so the answer is 2) ?

This is where the Greens have led the way. Admittedly their structure has probably made this easier, but the lesson for the rest of the Left is obvious.

The Labour Party has long held together many disparate elements, supporting all sides of the Northern Ireland issue. In order to do that they have consistently refused to stand in Northern Ireland - despite the long association between Labour and these parts. But in today's multi party politics under STV, and with the oft expressed demand of members here to be allowed to stand, it is clear, to me at least, that this must now be reconsidered and candidates put in place.

Success may not come fast, but remember that in the 1892 election in the UK when independent Labour first stood they only gained 1% of the vote and no seats, yet within 32 years they were the Government.

So for me a simple conclusion... Labour must stand candidates... not to destroy other parties, but to reform the politics to the real issues.


  1. I agree with you, some of us have given the old parties too much leeway to try and get them to reform unto recognised axis of politics not based on sectarianism hard or soft. Indeed both Lord's Steel and Ashdown in the 80s talked of Lib Dems standing here. Although they foresaw it as a coming onboard with the Alliance.

    During counting day I heard that one interview being held downstairs was emphasising how the Alliance MP had a great record of voting against the Liberal Democrats. I have to look fully at her record to see just if any of the things I consider to be truly liberal and centre-left issues are things that she has voted against. However, there are elements of Alliance policy that as a Lib Dem I wouldn't consider liberal or democratic.

  2. Never having been particularly excited by the 'constitutional question' and a person who fully identifies with the Labour camp this debate is one of particular interest for me. But as is ever the case it’s easier said than done.

    For example neutrality to the union raises an interesting question. Can a serious mainstream political party afford to be neutral on an issue? Is it even possible? Can you sell a political organisation on A, B, and C but say ‘oh no we don’t touch X, Y, and Z’ ? Sure you can allow a free vote in certain issues but this tends to be a short term dodge rather than a core position. And of course for British Labour to adopt a position of being neutral on one aspect of the union (NI) but not to others (Scotland and Wales) would leave themselves open to all manner of accusations from the Tories, SNP, Plaid Cymru etc

    Also it is possible for an organisation (eg the Trade Unions) to operate between two of the Belfast/Dublin Belfast/London nodes but it’s also very difficult.

    The unions in NI have had to remain silent in situations such as Bloody Sunday fall out, as to not fall into the old debate (and subsequently lose members). Selective silence is a luxury allowed to some types of organisations but not to political parties. The Greens in my understanding have used their imagination and gone for some sort of confederal arrangement however Steven Agnew being leader in NI but his North Down neighbour John Barry going for Dep. Leader in Dublin just confuses the issue.

    It's also a fair bet that if either Irish or British Labour decided to contest elections in NI then they would be branded nationalist/unionist respectively despite any possible declarations of being agnostic. So how do you prove that you're offering something new anyway? The multi-faceted aspect of identity here complicates things - if Labour found themselves in Stormont tomorrow what position would they adopt on an Irish Language Act, Parading issues or academic selection?

    And can we be really honest with ourselves here; would Labour vote on what they honestly believe to the best position or would they vote to reinforce their non-sectarian credentials? I would like to hope they’d remain principled but parties do like setting traps for each other (this is a challenge facing Alliance and Greens at the moment and to be fair the Greens at least stick to their principles)

    What about the lowering of corporation tax and the creation of enterprise zones? I can certainly see a schism developing here between the union members and the new labour wing. There’s only so broad a church can be before it loses any sense of focus and direction. And surely if Enterprise zones good enough for NI then it’s good enough for parts of London right?

    Theres a lot of aspects to politics and the reality is that politics in NI include issues of nationality and culture in a large way (frustrating as it is to many of us) but at the end of the day you don't get to choose the question only your answer.

    PS Apologies for cross posting

  3. sorry forgot to say, great blog and keep up the good work

  4. "I heard one Council candidate admitting that if he had been standing for election in England he would have been a Labour candidate - so why wasn't he?"

    That's a non-question.

    I've mixed in NI communities since the '60s, which was when I was also standing as a Labour — old Labour, and unafraid of the "s"-word on my literature — candidate in London borough and two parliamentary elections. The only time I had a serious brush was over the nonsensical "orange sponge" business.

    Look at the social policies advocated by each of the parties now represented in the Stormont Assembly: in every case one can detect left-of-centre ideas.

    Beyond that, look at the whole of the returns for the recent Assembly elections. Aggregate the fractured left-of-centre, non-denominational vote and it amounts to around the same as the TUV.

    Lose the denominational masks, and one might see that NI politics lean left of the UK, and certainly left of "New Labour".

    Perhaps the dynamic is already there, except we don't want to call it "Labour".