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Could Labour stand candidates in Northern Ireland?

There is a growing appetite in the local party - but both the diaspora and the national party fear the consequences. 

In the last few weeks of 2015, the Labour Party in Northern Ireland voted unanimously to field candidates in 2016. This will mark the first time the British Labour Party will have contested an election in Northern Ireland since 1910. At a time when Labour’s future seems uncertain within England, Wales and Scotland, running in Northern Ireland, and winning new seats, might help to mitigate other poor results. If Labour were to win seats in Northern Ireland, it would also make them the only political party to have elected representatives in all four nations.

While it seems very unlikely that Labour will take Northern Ireland by storm in its first electoral test there in over a century, the Northern Ireland Assembly is elected by a form of Proportional Representation, called the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which allows for smaller parties to gain far more representation that the First Past The Post (FPTP) system used in Westminster elections.

STV works by voters ranking their preferences in numerical order, usually with more than one member being elected in each constituency. Candidates are elected once they reach the set share of votes. The second preferences left over from winning parties are added, along with those from parties with the fewest votes, and distributed to the remaining candidates until enough of them reach the quota for the seat to elect all its representatives. This means that more votes affect the result than under FPTP.

Through STV, Northern Ireland is able to give voters multiple representatives in each area, helping to alleviate sectarian anxieties when one group is seen to dominate over another. This system could prove invaluable for Labour, as they may well find that they get elected through attracting the second preference votes from parties on all sides of the Northern Irish political spectrum.

But what does the Labour Party in Northern Ireland actually hope to achieve in 2016? I contacted Kathryn Johnston, Women’s Officer and Director of Communications for the Electoral Sub Committee for the Northern Ireland constituency. That’s right, there is only one constituency Labour Party for the entirety of Northern Ireland. She tells me that their hopes for 2016 are twofold: to stand candidates in this year’s elections and through that to progress Labour’s equality agenda.

In order to achieve this, they need a lot of support. A year ago, there were 350 Labour Party members in Northern Ireland. Now, there are over 1,100, along with around 700 registered supporters. So, in terms of people on the ground, they’re in a stronger position than they’ve been for a long time. The trouble is that the Labour Party has not yet endorsed candidates standing in Northern Ireland elections.

The Labour Party Irish Society supports this position. I spoke with its chair, Matthew Doyle, who expressed concerns that having Labour politicians on the ground would make it harder for a future Northern Ireland Secretary to appear neutral, something he believes is essential. Kathryn thinks this is nonsense, pointing out that it’s hard to see Labour as neutral when the party supports the, self-declared, nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). As the Labour Party Northern Ireland Secretary, Boyd Black, said to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell last week, “It is high time that the Labour party reinvents itself as an agent of reconciliation, dropping the colonial and dishonest “honest broker” stance, by accepting its responsibility to all alienated working class communities as the anti-austerity party of equality and social and economic rights”.

The General Secretary of the Labour Party informed them last month that the National Executive Committee is reviewing Labour’s position on this, but, as Kathryn says, “It beggars belief that the NEC would deny 1,800 members and registered supporters the right to stand candidates here and put our policies before the electorate”. A journalist herself, Kathryn has written about this several times.

The aforementioned spike in membership came about during the leadership campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s win, much like in the rest of the UK. In Kathryn’s experience, as an Andy Burnham supporter, there was interest in all candidates in Northern Ireland. Support for Andy Burnham, however, may have come from his commitment to fielding Labour candidates in Northern Ireland. This is an issue that Corbyn has yet to address, perhaps because he genuinely hasn’t made his mind up on the issue, but, with elections in May and the deadline to register as a party on 7 March, time is running out.

Labour aren’t the only Westminster party looking to Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been contesting elections in one way or another since 1989, but in 2012, the Tories broke away from a union with the Ulster Unionist Party and launched their own party in Northern Ireland. Since then, they’ve fought a general election, a European election and local elections in Northern Ireland, averaging less than one per cent of the vote, and gaining zero seats.

This suggests to me that there isn’t much interest in the Tories in Northern Ireland. Kathryn goes as far as to brand them toxic to other parties, stating that their alliance with the UUP in 2010 was the kiss of death for that party, as that was the year the UUP lost its only remaining Member of Parliament.

The Tories’ consummate failure to gain traction could dissuade Labour from fighting in Northern Ireland, but Kathryn believes there is a thirst for a new type of politics. She highlights Northern Ireland having the highest rate of young male suicide, the legacy of the Troubles, and women not having the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK, with none of the established parties in Northern Ireland addressing these issues. A recent opinion poll revealed 51 per cent of women and 52 per cent of young people don’t intend to vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections at all.

Kathryn states that, “Northern Ireland remains one of the most socially and economically deprived regions in the UK or Europe”. Instead of seeing these issues as insurmountable, Kathryn, like so many in Northern Ireland, believes that Labour, and only Labour, can deliver the changes Northern Ireland so desperately needs. “We stand for a society based on social justice, equality, human rights and high quality public services”, she says, “together with a strong, enterprising and innovative economy with optimum employment terms and conditions whilst resisting the development of a low wage economy”.

I tell Kathryn that I assume Labour’s competition is Sinn Fein and the SDLP, but she disagrees. “Sinn Fein have a growing problem fighting elections on an all Ireland basis”, Kathryn says, as they claim to be anti-austerity in the Republic of Ireland but can’t follow through in Northern Ireland. “The SDLP cannot claim to be an inclusive left wing party either”, she says. “They are equivocal on equal marriage, oppose the introduction of a comprehensive, fully integrated, secular education system here, and refuse to accept a women's right to choose. Most tellingly, they designate as “nationalist” in the Assembly”.

The crux of the problem, on both sides, appears to be Labour’s relationship with the SDLP. Matthew reminds me that the SDLP is Labour’s sister party; they believe standing against them, “would undermine the mainstream left party in Northern Ireland”. Furthermore they state that there is no evidence of any desire for Labour to stand in Northern Ireland. However, the Belfast Telegraph conducted a poll four years ago, in which 43 per cent of respondents said they wanted UK parties to contest Northern Irish elections.

Pragmatically, Matthew says there are no parliamentary seats that Labour stands any chance of winning, and doing so would only waste party resources. At the moment, the Labour Party in Northern Ireland don’t plan to stand in Westminster elections before 2020 anyway, and, as I wrote at the beginning of this article, the Northern Ireland Assembly elects via STV, a form of proportional representation. If Labour and the SDLP did split each other’s vote, then the party with more votes would attract the loser’s second preferences in subsequent rounds. In fact, Kathryn believes the flagging SDLP vote could be boosted by Labour transfers in many constituencies.

What ultimately separates Labour from all these other parties is a fundamentally different approach to politics. “The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement in 1998 took the whole question of the border out of the political equation”, Kathryn says. With the border no longer the central issue, she believes that Northern Irish people are crying out for a non-sectarian party: Labour members of the Assembly would designate as “other”, rather than “unionist” or “nationalist”. She believes, “Labour will provide the new non-sectarian politics that the people of Northern Ireland are desperate to see”.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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