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”.