The British Labour Party, Northern Ireland Labour and the Scottish Referendum

Since the countdown to the Scottish referendum began, a substantial corps of writing has been produced on the referendum and its impact. As far as the British Labour Party is concerned, it risks loosing some forty Westminster seats in the case of a ‘yes’ vote, which explains Labour’s strong activism on the ‘no’ side. In encouraging Scots to vote ‘no’ for autonomy and sovereignty over their affairs, Labour has come up with a range of intriguing arguments.

The promise of increased devolution in the case of a Labour victory at the 2015 UK general election is one. In addition, Labour’s legislators and MP-aspirants from ethnic minority communities have launched a staunch campaign, with Sadiq Khan MP reminding us that the first ever British Muslim MP was elected from a Scottish constituency.

Uma Kumaran, Labour candidate-designate for the Harrow-East constituency at the 2015 general election, wrote an emotional narrative, calling upon minorities and voters from migrant backgrounds to vote ‘no’ and help keep Scotland within the precious Union. In sum, there is not a speck of doubt that Labour is deeply committed to ensuring a) that Scotland remains in the Union and b) the continuity of its active political presence in Scotland.

As one observes Labour’s commitment to the ‘no’ vote, one cannot but be reminded of a committed Labour constituency within the United Kingdom that the British Labour Party categorically ignores, preferring a politically motivated partnership with another party. The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) has been systematically prevented from contesting elections in the province, due to Labour’s affinities with Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Indeed, SDLP MPs have a long tradition of voting with Labour at Westminster. NILP General Secretary Dr Boyd Black aptly sums up his party’s predicament, that they form “the Wretched of the Earth – when it comes to [their] relationship to the leadership of the [British] Labour Party”.

Preventing NILP’s sphere of political action is justified in two main ways. Firstly, Labour describes its NILP policy as a means of avoiding direct engagement in the province’s local politics, and thereby supporting the local parties in the Peace Process. Secondly, and taking this argument further, Labour has reached agreement with the Irish Labour Party to avoid direct political engagement in Northern Ireland. This position is justified as the best available option.

To many out there, Labour’s arguments on its NILP policy may sound somewhat plausible. However, it is important to highlight that a policy of this nature could, in the long run, only help entrench the existing political polarisation in Northern Ireland. The Unionist parties have historically shared an affinity with the British Conservative Party, whereas the Irish nationalists have a history of close ties with Labour, which dates back to the years of Unionist majority rule.

To cite but one example, Eddie McAteer, the leader of the old Nationalist Party in Northern Ireland, headed a delegation to London in January 1964 to raise issues of discrimination faced by the province’s Nationalist community, to the outrage of the Unionist establishment and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Capt. Terence O’Neill.

Over the same period, political developments such as the visit of Taoiseach Séan Lemass to Stormont prompted the Nationalist Party to assume its role as the active parliamentary opposition in Stormont, which provided further avenues for political lobbying in which relations with UK Labour were of pivotal importance.

Today, London’s emerging emphasis with regards to Northern Ireland is one of prizing ‘normalisation’. During his very first visit to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister, David Cameron made it abundantly clear that he wished to see Northern Ireland being treated as any other constituent part of the United Kingdom, and not as a conflict hotspot that requires tremendous financing from the British exchequer to keep the Peace Process and related special mechanisms alive. London is no longer enthusiastic about sustaining the province’s heavily state-subsidised economy.

Nearly five years later, the emphasis today is invariably on cuts that have come into force in other parts of the United Kingdom. In the absence of concrete incentives to the local polity to start a difficult march towards a new era of normalisation on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom, conflicts of interests are unavoidable, and could prove to be detrimental to the future of the power-sharing Executive. This is precisely where Northern Ireland’s local polity is at today, with the risk of an imminent political crisis never too far out in the horizon, with political tensions simmering, especially between DUP and Sinn Féin.

In this backdrop, there is a need, and a conspicuous absence, of efforts to carve out a political centre-ground of a new era, which includes the strengthening of political entities in which citizens from both Nationalist and Unionist political persuasions could seek to find common cause on grounds of policy, principle, and the best interests of their native province/counties.

Given its historical legacy of striving to reach out to the working classes (and indeed the legacy of challenges it has historically faced in garnering the Nationalist working class vote) as well as its present-day emphasis on inclusion and equality, the NILP today has all the potential to emerge as an influential party that stands at the political centre-ground.

It is well-disposed to adopt a non-sectarian political agenda, based exclusively on policy issues affecting all segments of the community, from housing and employment to pressing issues of sectarian concern, as well as ethnic minority rights and the rights of each community to express their beliefs and practices without undue hindrance, in a climate of forward-looking tolerance.

Despite the sheer lack of UK Labour’s interest or concrete endorsement, the NILP’s central committee has a laudable structure, with an exemplary pool of resource persons, including representatives for ethnic minorities, LGBTQ-I communities, women’s empowerment, and other key areas.

All that the NILP is short of is a more understanding and politically mature attitude on behalf of its political materfamilias. Indeed, Labour’s attitude towards the NILP stands in sharp contrast to its total dedication to the Scottish cause. Indeed, the obvious explanation is that of Labour’s higher stakes in Scotland, with an influential local branch, and many seats at Westminster as well as in local authorities. The Scottish power base is not something Labour could afford to loose, especially in the present-day political climate in which Labour is seeking re-election at next year’s UK general election.

Contrariwise, it could also be argued that the discrepancy in its attitudes towards Scotland and Northern Ireland is suggestive of Labour’s lack of a consistent strategy vis-à-vis the UK’s constituent devolved entities. This does not bode well with the image of an (if not the most) inclusive and cosmopolitan party that Labour is striving to project.

In Scotland, Labour campaigns desperately for the ‘No’ vote on a platform of inclusion, celebration of diversity, cosmopolitanism, the fostering of state services such as the NHS and the promise of more extensive devolution. In Northern Ireland, where those very same issues are extremely decisive – and with regards to which Labour could make a major contribution via NILP – Labour chooses to keep mum, and abide by the elitist, dispassionate and rather arrogant ‘old’ Westminster policy of avoiding direct engagement in Northern Ireland.

This used to be the norm in the period of Unionist rule in Northern Ireland from the end of the Boundary Commission dispute in 1925 until the violent eruption of protest in the late 1960s. Today, Labour hides under the ‘devolved powers’ banner, refusing to deal with issues of vital importance on the basis that they pertain to devolved prerogatives.

This article is written at a time of intense countdown, hours before the Scottish Referendum takes place. Irrespective of what the Scots choose (or, more realistically perhaps, what the British powerhouse will make sure that the Scots choose), the referendum and related debates (not to mention the unwelcome gestures Ed Miliband met with on September 16th) have served to powerfully highlight the need for Labour to develop a consistent, committed and sincere overall strategy for the UK’s constituent parts.

The time when Labour could bask in the Westminster bubble and leave the regions in the margins has effective come to and end. The policy of active engagement Labour has demonstrated in Scotland during the referendum ought to be extended to other parts of the UK, orienting its energetic involvement in accordance with local specificities.

This, if anything, is the referendum’s foremost lesson for Labour, which certainly is not inapplicable to the Tories.

 

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  • terence patrick hewett

    Seems an awful lot of words just to say “Jaysus we’re in the cr*p! best pay more attention to the oiks in the sticks”

  • Abucs

    I think the problem for British Labour in organising or taking interest in NI has always been that it’s a lot of effort for maybe only an influence in a handful of seats difference at the end f the day.
    The nationalist parties are either solidly behind Labour or don’t turn up.
    The unionist Parties when they are not splitting, run their own show and are very keen in keeping it that way.
    Labour probably figure that if a hung parliament happened where unionist seats actually mattered they’d simply compete with the Tories in who could appease them the most at the time.
    Until then, why bother?

  • kathrynjohnston

    Agree that the Labour Party should stand candidates in Northern Ireland? Sign, RT and share this Labour Party in Northern Ireland petition: http://bit.ly/1u2PBo3

  • via_media

    Chaminda, I kept waiting for you to clarify your argument. Great piece, with some real insight—labour politics in Northern Ireland is a topic I care a lot about. But what exactly do you want British Labour to do? Why not just spell it out. Is it time for Labour to stand candidates, and if so, how will Labour orient itself on the constitution? If there were a referendum here in Northern Ireland, would Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy lead a 100 days tour arguing that we’re better together? You say, “the policy of active engagement Labour has demonstrated in Scotland during the referendum ought to be extended to other parts of the UK, orienting its energetic involvement in accordance with local specificities.” Come on man, let us know what that even means. Do you want a unionist centre-left party that works to build the cosmopolitan society Labour wants to build in Scotland? Or does ” in accordance with local specificities” mean constitutional neutrality; and if so, why is Northern Ireland so different from the rest of Britain in terms of Labour’s positioning? If greater engagement means outside support, then does that mean there is a future in which SDLP and Labour have a closer working relationship? From the Labour NEC perspective, why should they pour in money into Assembly elections in Northern Ireland? What will they gain? Even over ten years Labour’s looking at a possible 3 MPs in General Elections (North Down, South Belfast, maybe one other area in NI). Not much to be gained for the party in Britain. So then we’re looking at what NI gains, because Labour doesn’t gain much. From an altruistic position, Labour could contribute to building centrist, non-sectarian labour politics. But why can’t that be done with the SDLP, Alliance, and Greens? A Labour Shadow Sec could redefine the role by encouraging more robust and active centre-left collaboration. Write another piece and tell us exactly how you see Labour’s role in NI politics playing out. —Barton