Could Labour open up a Pandora’s box by standing in Northern Ireland?

If elected leader of the Labour Party, Andy Burnham could allow candidates in Northern Ireland to stand for election. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) unanimously endorsed his candidature for leadership only a week after Labour’s catastrophic loss in the General Election. In a press statement from 15 May, the local branch’s Executive Committee said they made the decision in part because Burnham “has loyally maintained his support for Northern Ireland CLP’s campaign to stand Labour Party candidates in elections here”. With Burnham having already gained the 35 MP nominations required to enter the leadership contest, and bookies having him down as the favourite, the party’s Northern Ireland members may finally get what they want. But who stands to benefit and what would be the consequences of Labour’s entry into Northern Ireland contests?

Any progressive in Northern Ireland who desires to see a change in the quality of local politics can understand the reasons behind the aspiration of local members to stand Labour candidates. Who wouldn’t want to see a progressive, non-sectarian, centre-left party able to reach across communal divisions and unite people on the so-called bread-and-butter issues: health, education, the economy, etc.? The argument of Northern Ireland members of the party, as summarised by the NEC in a document from January 2013, is that “only Labour [can] bridge the sectarian divide which cuts through Northern Irish politics and that the Party should seek a mandate for government across the UK”. This was my motivation for joining Labour in Northern Ireland back in 2011. It seemed to me then that Labour could open up a new era of politics in Northern Ireland. As Alex Kane might argue, post-conflict politics requires post-conflict parties. Labour, I believed, could be one of those parties.

Boyd Black, secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, recently wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that the local constituency party wants “a cast-iron commitment that Labour will stop suppressing Labour Party candidates here and commit to transforming our politics as only it can do”. Burnham, who is currently courting Northern Ireland member votes for the leadership contest, would, presumably, need to offer such a promise. It’s important, however, to think through the consequences of such a promise—for the party in Britain and for Northern Ireland in general.

Progressives need to have an open, robust debate about the future of centre-left politics in Northern Ireland, indeed, across these islands. The social democratic cause across Europe is in serious jeopardy, and those of us in Ireland and Britain, especially after the last UK GE, need to be frank and honest with each other about where we go next. While I think Burnham could be a fantastic leader, offering a demonstrated commitment to the NHS, and helping the party reconnect with working-class voters, I now have serious reservations about Labour standing in elections in Northern Ireland. So, if this is the future direction of Labour, it needs to be thought through extremely carefully.

There are good reasons that the Labour NEC decided in 2013 not to allow the party to stand for elections in Northern Ireland, and they are still good reasons. The first was that if the party moved to stand, that the Irish Labour Party, who has many members based in Northern Ireland, would face irresistible pressure to follow suit. In such a scenario, Northern Ireland could hold elections where three centre-left parties (Labour, ILP and SDLP), all from the same European labour family, would be forced to compete against each other. As the NEC said at the time, “If either party [Labour or ILP] became involved in Northern Irish electoral politics it would be to the detriment of the SDLP, which is already weakened by the rise of Sinn Fein. [The ILP] had grave misgivings about harming a sister party in that way”. Even if, as recently proposed by the ILP, Labour and ILP jointly contest elections in the North, a position supported by LPNI, that still pits the joint Irish and British Labour party against the SDLP, their sister party.

No one benefits from the spurious argument that the SDLP is not a true centre-left party, a stance often taken by members in LPNI. It’s unfair to say that the SDLP, because of its stance on abortion, and its hesitancy, despite official endorsement, of same-sex marriage, is not a centre-left party. The party decides policy by democratic process and has a history of positions that many in Labour ought to look back at in admiration, not the least of which, the SDLP’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Being against abortion, as many in the SDLP are, does not preclude you from being against austerity. Opposition to abortion is the party’s policy now, but, like policy in other parties, it can move, so long as the members want it to move. It’s a position, not a value, though many in the party would say it’s a position that stems from traditional social democratic values (giving a voice to the voiceless?). On the SDLP’s constitutional stance, the party believes, like the Green Party and SNP in Scotland, that localising politics creates more dynamic, accountable governance. It’s unproductive to argue that simply because a party takes a stance on the constitution that it is inherently sectarian.

LPNI have always argued that Labour has a contribution to make to politics in Northern Ireland that the SDLP cannot fulfil. Even as someone who eventually became an SDLP member, I have to concede, this is probably true. But what Northern Ireland members of the party should also consider are the consequences of Labour standing in Northern Ireland for the party in Britain. LPNI members envision a party that unites people along similar economic aspirations while sidelining constitutional and identity differences. But consider the consequences for the whole party if it adopted a neutral stance on the constitution in Northern Ireland while running on a One Nation Britain campaign strategy in England, Scotland and Wales? Labour is a unionist party, and if it dilutes that stance, the consequences in England could be disastrous—even more disastrous than the last General Election. There were Labour members who in the Scottish referendum wanted Labour to take a neutral stance. There may be some serious questions for Labour to answer on this point, but for the time being, members in Northern Ireland should recognise that Labour, as long as it is unionist in Britain, cannot be neutral in Northern Ireland. This will be particularly true if there is another Scottish referendum in the next 10 years. The Tories in particular will use this point to relentlessly attack the party, saying Labour does not fully support the principle of a United Kingdom, seriously damaging Labour’s prospects of connecting with middle England. However much LPNI wants to see the constitution as a non-issue, it’s very much alive, and not just in Northern Ireland, but across the UK.

Any thinking about a new Labour party in Northern Ireland, as proposed by the ILP, needs to engage SDLP members and elected representatives. Further schism, as the Left is prone to, brings divisiveness and weakens the progressive cause. Labour does have a duty to provide leadership in Northern Ireland—I just don’t believe electoral contests are the right method of showing that leadership, at least for the time being. While I do think that Labour standing in Northern Ireland could attract a small percentage of non-voters, I no longer believe that such a move will have the transformative effect that local members desire.

I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.