In the last of this pre-election series of interviews with representatives from smaller parties contesting Assembly and/or council seats, I spoke to John Lowry, General Secretary of the Workers Party. (Update – adding link to their Election 2011 site.)
John Lowry is standing for the Assembly in West Belfast and Lower Falls for Belfast City Council. The party is contesting all four Belfast Assembly constituencies.
My earliest election memory as a child was pouring over the broadsheet 1983 general election results pages in the Belfast Telegraph. Back then, “(WP)” featured in the result summaries of many of the local constituencies … near the bottom in terms of votes, though well above the Noise Abatement Party. Nearly thirty years on, and the Workers Party are still battling elections in Northern Ireland.
John explained a little about the party’s background:
The Workers Party have a long tradition of involvement in political life in Northern Ireland. At all times we have sought to cross the sectarian divide, to particularly reach out to working class people, and to put on the political agenda a social and economic agenda because for long many a year social and economic issues were relegated to the bottom of political debate.
The constitutional issue and terrorism in many ways suffocated political debate so in some ways that has loosened up somewhat in the past few years – although I wouldn’t be entirely confident that tribal politics are still not deeply rooted and entrenched in Northern Ireland society.
In fact if we think about it, more so called peace lines have been established since the ceasefires. So in many ways we have become a more segregated society, and someone remarked with quite a degree of truth that the old battles are being fought in new types of battleground. So sectarianism remains an issue.
Allied with that, there is the major question of cuts being imposed in Northern Ireland society which will deeply impact upon public services and quality of life for people.
Does the Workers Party support any of the cuts proposed?
We take a completely different approach to this question than the mainstream parties. We don’t believe for example that cuts in public expenditure are inevitable nor necessary. For example, over £123 billion of taxes [across the UK] remains uncollected, lost to the public purse every year, largely through legal loopholes which allow big businesses – many of which are household names – to avoid paying any tax at all or very little tax. Likewise, we would suggest that if you can’t afford universal healthcare, if you can’t afford free education, and if we can’t afford the vital public services which we rely on, then we can’t afford to be waging war on Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s very much a question of political choice.
The Workers Party describes itself as 100% committed to a democratic, secular, socialist programme. They’re not alone in the political sphere holding those values, including in West Belfast where John Lowry is standing. So what makes the Workers Party different from the rest of the crowded leftist field?
The first thing is I wouldn’t really accept that all of them are committed to a socialist agenda. Nor are all of them committed to the democratic principles of consent for example. The SDLP and Sinn Féin are largely tribal parties, socialism is very rarely mentioned in their language at all. I don’t know about groups like Éirígí and so on. I suspect that they are a spin off from Sinn Féin and come largely from that camp. So in some ways that would differentiate us from them in terms of the democratic question and in terms of total commitment to socialist politics.
But what about the comparison between the Workers Party and say the Socialist Party who are anti-sectarian, very definitely socialist … and wear red ties too?
Parties like the Socialist Party … I have to say we have worked with, and do work with. For example, the Socialist Party and ourselves along with trade unions like the Fire Brigade Union and the INTO [Irish National Teachers’ Organisation] are members of the Stop the Cuts Alliance in Northern Ireland here at the moment and we have been responsible as a coalition for raising the profile about cuts and staging many worthwhile demonstrations and protests of late. So we are quite willing to work with others.
We recognise that we’re small. And we recognise that divided we won’t go very far. We also recognise that there is a serious left wing constituency in Northern Ireland. There are many trade unionists who describe themselves as on the left and they are looking for a political voice. So we are very open to political cooperation with people who are serious about developing an anti-sectarian and a socialist agenda. We’ve no difficulty working with others.
If elected onto Belfast City Council, how would the Workers Party use their position?
I think even one or two voices is important in terms of raising opposition, raising alternative issues. At the moment we have an almost one party state even if it’s made up of two parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin. Really it’s a case of separate but equal. It’s tribal politics at its best. Sinn Féin will look after the nationalist/catholic constituency, the DUP will look after the unionist/protestant constituency. As I’ve mentioned, we are still a deeply segregated society. None of those parties have a vision for a new type of Northern Ireland society, envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement., for example. They are more committed to managing conflict that they are to overcoming division.
So in terms of practical steps on council that would affect the electorate?
Many people will tell you in working class communities that they have lost the sense of political representation. Local councillors no longer deal with their day-to-day daily concerns, the sort of concerns that we see coming through our advice centres. Issues like housing benefit, issues of trying to gain access to a house, issues of recreational facilities for the communities in which they live. These are all major issues which will actually get worse if the Reform of Public Administration actually goes through. And what we will see will be lesser and bigger councils which will be even more remote from the ordinary citizen. So we would oppose that.
John Lowry believes that opposition – even on a small scale – works.
… we’re not on our own. There are other like-minded people. Small as we are at this point in time. But I think we can come together and that opposition does work from time to time. Remember, even this week … in the House of Commons for example, we have seen how the National Health Service bill has had to be stopped and amended, exactly because there has been a campaign of opposition from medical professionals and others in opposition to it.
One local example. Who wouldn’t doubt that we would already have water charges here in Northern Ireland where it not for the fact that the trade unions and others including the Socialist Party and the Workers Party have led a campaign of opposition to those water charges.
Though in the very same part of the Waterfront Hall a few hours before my interview with John Lowry, Peter Robinson spoke at the DUP manifesto launch and said that there would never be water charges, there was no need to separate them out, no need for people to pay twice, his party was for low taxes. He sounded nearly socialist!
I would doubt that very much! But I seem to remember his party saying six months before an Assembly was formed at Stormont that they would never return to Stormont, that they weren’t in favour of devolution. Within six months they were there. I seem to remember the DUP saying that they would never go into government with Sinn Féin. It didn’t take them too long to do it. So I wouldn’t put very much trust in anything that the DUP or the Sinn Féin party say.
The Workers Party vote has been declining over the last ten years or so. What’s kept them going?
We are committed to a political agenda which no other political party in Northern Ireland can offer the people of Northern Ireland. We do have a very distinctive political analysis of the situation here. And that’s coupled very much with a strong track record of work on the ground. Yes, in recent years we have not been quite so successful – that’s absolutely true – and like many other organisations and parties we perhaps do need to face into a period of renewal and we are quite up for that. But in many respects, there are greater opportunities for the kind of messages which we are putting put there to gain a more receptive voice. And already in this election for example we have many people contacting us who have not been members of the party, who have not been supporters in the past, who have indicated to us that they would like to help out in this election campaign. So we are quite hopeful that in the future that we can work in new and different ways to build that sort of left wing socialist constituency that I was talking about. And if we need to do that in collaboration with others then we’re quite willing to look at that possibility.
The Workers Party did propose that the parties on the left should fight these elections under a common banner.
The Workers Party did write to every single broad left grouping in Northern Ireland last September … saying that we perhaps ought to meet to discuss some sort of common intervention in this election. Now, possibly that was too late in the day.
Some leftist parties did campaign together for the recent Irish election.
I think the United Left Alliance concept did tap into a popular mood in the Irish Republic of a need for left constituency which has been vacated certainly by the Labour Party that indicated very strongly that they were going to go into government with Fine Gael. And I think many people who see themselves as seriously on the left were not prepared for that sort of coalition politics.
We need to look at how best we can maximise the left socialist vote in Northern Ireland. We preach anti-sectarianism. I think we as political organisations should look at ourselves and say are we sometimes too sectarian politically when it comes to the left.
Finally I gave John forty seconds to sell the Workers Party.
The first thing is that we do have a consistent track record of involvement on behalf of working people. That alone is worth of reward. That is one thing we can stand out there and say, look we are not Johnny-come-latelies, we have been here before, we have consistently carried on this work. But we’re not prepared to rely on our historical track record alone.
There is still a job of work to be done. Northern Ireland remains a deeply segregated society and the question of sectarianism remains to be tackled. I think we are the only seriously anti-sectarian party.
And thirdly there is the issue of cuts. Too many of the mainstream political parties have simply rolled over and accepted the necessity for cuts. We don’t. We say fight the cuts. There is an alternative and there is a better way.
The Alliance Party might have something to say about the Workers Party claim to be “the only seriously anti-sectarian party”!
The Workers Party has a long and intriguing history – one that I hadn’t quite grasped before the interview.
John is easily the most eloquent of the people I’ve interviewed in this series, which perhaps points to his previous teaching career. But with such a small platform, it’s hard to see how the Workers Party on its own will ever again achieve electoral success – particularly with in-your-face branding like People Before Profit challenging for the same votes. And yet, the reluctance across the left to collaborate and combine efforts seems like a missed opportunity.