Len McCluskey’s appearances on the Labour conference fringe will generate plenty of headlines over the next few days. But one potentially consequential statement the Unite general secretary made this afternoon has passed by largely unnoticed.
Speaking at a fringe event hosted by the Daily Mirror, McCluskey said that his union was moving towards supporting Labour candidates in Northern Ireland, where the party has members but does not run in elections. It instead supports the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, its sister organisation.
Labour has hitherto resisted attempts by its Northern Irish members to run under the party’s banner for that reason. But times are changing. The SDLP lost all three of its MPs, who took the Labour whip, at the last election. It has been in steady decline for the best part of two decades and is set to merge with the Republic’s Fianna Fáil, who, broadly speaking, are no lefties (the planned takeover has divided opinion internally). Unlike previous years, its leader, Colum Eastwood, is not at conference.
Add to this the 37,000 trade union members in Northern Ireland who opt-in to pay the political levy that funds the Labour Party with their subscriptions and McCluskey’s comments make some sense. There is an emerging political context within which Labour could operate. Corbyn made a broadly well-received visit to Belfast, Derry and the border in May; the reception was so rapturous at Queen’s University that it was easy to forget that nobody in the room could vote for him.
But that isn’t to say that there is universal appetite for Labour to run candidates once the SDLP leaves the stage as a party in its own right. The politics of Ireland and its North are not those of Britain, new entrants to its political market typically struggle – and some believe that Labour should not enter the fray alone. Then there is the question of Irish Labour, another of the UK party’s sister oganisations. “If the SDLP and Fianna Fail merge then we, the Irish Labour Party and the trade unions need to look together at what can be done to ensure a democratic socialist option for people in Northern Ireland,” says a senior party source.
Conor McGinn, the Newry-born MP for St Helens North, said imposing a UK-wide party on the people of Northern Ireland risked alienating voters. “Working people across Britain and Ireland have much in common and face similar struggles and challenges, from falling living standards to the dire consequences of Brexit. It makes sense for our intertwined Labour movements to look at how the left can play its part at a time of great change in the politics of these islands. I think we best do that by supporting social movements and progressive causes in Northern Ireland, and working closely with our fellow centre-left and democratic socialist parties on the island of Ireland.
“In political terms, a UK-only structure headquartered in London would not appeal to people across the community in Northern Ireland and across the community in Northern Ireland and does not fit with the north-south and east-west dynamic that our party has championed. It’s a sensitive time in Northern Ireland politics, and our role should be continuing to be trusted honest brokers working with the local parties and the Irish government to restore devolved institutions and ensure no post-Brexit hard border.”