The Labour Party in Northern Ireland: the first ripple in a new wave of electoral dynamics?

Craig Harrison writes for us about the Labour leadership and the possibility of the party contesting elections in Northern Ireland

This week, Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham made a public commitment to review the party’s policy on standing candidates in Northern Ireland, arguing: “I want the people of Northern Ireland to make their voices heard in the Labour Party, and if I am elected leader, I’ll ensure that the party is listening”. If we ever want to see a normalization of politics here, this prospect may be a very good thing.

Electoral contests are fought in Northern Ireland on almost exclusively unionist-nationalist (or rather, Protest-Catholic) grounds. That this is currently the case however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for something better; real change will only come if we are optimistic enough to believe it possible, and courageous enough to seize opportunities to make it happen.

We must recognize that another party entering the electoral fray in Northern Ireland on a cross-community platform may represent such an opportunity. The Labour Party holds ideals and principles that many diverse groups here could get on board with. The party is economically and socially left-wing, which – combined with its explicit non-sectarian platform – is attractive to young, left-wing demographics. This could have particular pulling power among young Protestant voters, who for a long time haven’t felt fully represented by the main unionist parties and their attitudes towards some social issues, such as emancipatory measures for the LGBT community for example.

It is tempting to point out that Northern Ireland’s nationalist community may struggle to identify with a party ultimately based in mainland Britain, and to an extent this is true. However, the NI faction of Labour also makes no secret of its affiliation with the SDLP, its (nationalist) ‘sister’ party. Moreover, it is quite easy to imagine a stringent Sinn Féin supporter listing a Labour Party candidate among the lower preference votes on their ballot paper, given the socialist and socially liberal ideological tenants shared between the two.

That the party is by nature one of the working class may also find a lot of cross-community support in a country with a historical reliance on manufacturing, agricultural and other forms of blue-collar employment, and which to the present day has a large working class workforce. Indeed, Andy Burnham hit the nail squarely on the head when arguing that the NI faction of Labour could offer the electorate here “a socialist, non-sectarian party… that can appeal to people of all classes and to people of all faiths or none”.

Similar attempts to compete in Northern Ireland have of course been made by parties like the NI Conservatives, but it doesn’t have the ideological ingredients to attract support from more than one sect (i.e unionists) the way Labour does.

The point here isn’t that Labour candidates standing in Northern Ireland would completely change the country’s electoral dynamics. I wrote previously on our flawed power-sharing system, which goes a long way to ensure that unionist-nationalist cleavages take political center stage. Labour running in Northern Ireland wouldn’t change this, but it would represent one step toward addressing another key facilitator of sectarian politics: the lack of non-sectarian options which can attract cross-community support.

As long as the political offering in Northern Ireland is dominated by parties driven by their binary attachments to unionism or nationalism, politics will continue to be contested on these themes. If more parties competed on platforms separated from this however, then perhaps politics here can slowly begin to resemble other democracies, where parties are distinguished primarily on things like their competing economic or social agendas, rather than this being a secondary matter to religious affiliation.
The Alliance Party, with its eight MLAs and two ministerial portfolios, has already shown that this sort of politics can achieve success. If the Labour Party in Northern Ireland – supported to whatever extent by its British parent and the unions – could match or even build on this, then perhaps this could slowly contribute to non-sectarian, cross-community politics becoming the norm.

Arguably, political attitudes here are also growing increasingly ripe for the entry of such a party into the market; for example, in the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, a significant percentage of respondents stated that they considered themselves to be neither unionist nor nationalist.

We must proceed tentatively. Even if Mr Burnham’s plans fall into place, nothing will change overnight, and the DUP and Sinn Féin will certainly remain the biggest parties in the Assembly. However, if the NILP could achieve the things set out here, it could loosen, to some extent, the tight grip sectarian politics has on Northern Ireland.

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