Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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”.

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”