Michelle Gildernew speaks at Sinn Féin's manifesto launch. Photo:Getty
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Sinn Féin manifesto: both more and less important than you think

Sinn Féin won't take their seats at Westminster. So what is their manifesto for? Mainly, it's a dry run for the contests that really matter to the party in 2016.

Sinn Féin's manifesto, launched on Monday, may claim to be about the 2015 election but in reality the policies are aimed at drumming up support for the Irish general election and bolstering support in the Northern Ireland Executive election, both taking place in 2016. Realistically, as Sinn Féin continues to abstain from taking their seats in Westminster, they can have little influence on the incoming government. It will be those elected as MLAs in Northern Ireland and TDs in Ireland that may be able to enact many of the policies mentioned in the manifesto. This is all but admitted in the manifesto which refers to ‘the island economy’ and references the support of people ‘across Ireland’, this support is hardly pertinent to the Westminster election where only a section of the island is represented and the majority is a separate jurisdiction.

One of the major themes of the manifesto is anti-austerity. Again, abstention means that they can't logically hope to influence any votes in the House, and therefore, can’t end austerity. However, anti-austerity is a platform that Sinn Féin have used extensively in Ireland and to good effect, such as utilising the anti-water charge protests to gain support. The latest figures show they are polling 24 per cent in the Irish polls suggesting that they have the chance to shape the next government. Interestingly, they also continually mention working on a stronger ‘island economy’. While naturally the Irish and Northern Ireland economies have many links and there is overlap in some areas, for example the two jurisdictions share a tourism board, it isn’t possible for the Westminster government or its MPs to control the economy of an independent country. However Sinn Féin are likely to retain their position in the Northern Ireland executive in 2016 and if they were to form the next Irish government, most likely as part of a coalition, it would make co-ordinating the two economies as easy as they can ever hope it to be without reunification.  

The manifesto also announces that Sinn Féin will call for a referendum on a united Ireland in the next parliament. To have a referendum on reunification would require the consent from both the UK and Irish governments. Simultaneous referendums on reunification are a key part of what Sinn Féin stands for generally, and it is likely that an Irish government if they agreed to reunification would do so subject to a referendum. It would also require the consent of the Northern Ireland executive unless they intend to have the Good Friday agreement collapse. They argue that this is a part of the Good Friday Agreement which has yet to be brought to fruition, however this is not strictly true. The Good Friday Agreement states that a referendum on reunifying Ireland should be held in a situation where it would seem a majority want reunification. Despite this being a vital and important part of the agreement, there has been no suggestion of increased support for reunification, therefore it is not an outstanding issue for the next British government. As such, while this is something that could be put in place if they had enough influence in Westminster, it would be a complicated situation and one the next government is highly unlikely to want to risk in the current climate. Although Northern Ireland is currently fairly stable, there have been some stalemates between the DUP and Sinn Féin such as the current welfare reform bill standoff. Attempting to introduce a referendum on a united Ireland at the moment, even if it were to be accepted by the Irish government, could cause lasting damage to the Good Friday Agreement and the Executive.

Finally, one of the few major pledges in the Sinn Féin manifesto that actually would concern MPs is the promise to obtain a further £1.5 billion in funding for Northern Ireland. Realistically, there have been massive cuts across the UK and whoever forms the next government will have to balance the budget carefully. Abstaining means that Sinn Féin has no negotiating power when it comes to voting in the House. With no sitting MPs, they will also be unable to strike a deal similar to the Gregory deal in Ireland in 1982, struck by an independent TD who negotiated extra funding for his under privileged constituency in return for his support to form a government. This was possible as the main parties were so close together in terms of vote share, he held the balance of power. Many small UK parties may well find themselves in a similar situation in the days after the election. Secondly, Sinn Féin claim they will demand a separate referendum on EU membership for Northern Ireland. This is entirely impossible, Northern Ireland is not a member of the EU as an individual jurisdiction but as part of the UK. As was clarified in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, should any part of the UK want to be a member of the EU in their own right they would need to reapply.

This manifesto is not particularly important in terms of the 2015 Westminster election. Realistically abstention makes the majority of their promises impossible as they have no bargaining power and their supporters are aware of this. However, it does have a purpose as dry run for Sinn Féin’s campaign in the 2016 Irish and Northern Ireland elections. They can test their policies in an electoral contest without major repercussions; losses in Westminster won’t be a dent in Sinn Féin’s influence. Defeats in Stormont or Dublin would leave a bigger mark.   

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In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it's possible we haven't hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.