The history of labour politics in Northern Ireland and the FPTP voting system…

Northern Ireland has been governed under UK Labour Governments for something like 36 years since 1924, on and off, during which time as many as three in ten voters in Northern Ireland chose a labour option, but to no avail because the first-past-the-post voting system was used as a tool to block the rise of labour politics as an alternative to green or orange.

Jack Beattie MP was elected as a labour politician three times on three different platforms. In 1943, he won the by-election in Belfast West for the Northern Ireland Labour Party. He then stood successfully in 1945 as Independent Labour before helping found the Irish Labour Party in Northern Ireland in 1949. He lost his seat in the 1950 general election, but won it again for the Irish Labour Party in 1951. He retired from politics in 1955, having failed to retain his seat.

“Never comfortable with party discipline, he was, according to a colleague, ‘very much a one-man band’”

I don’t know as much as I’d like to about Jack Beattie, but his short biography tells me that he was born into a presbyterian family in Belfast, left school at 13 for the ropeworks, then joined the army in 1903 for three years’ service.

He then apprenticed as a blacksmith in Harland & Wolff’s and soon after joined the home-rule-supporting Independent Labour Party. His biography also recounts how he minded Winston Churchill at a home rule rally, intervening personally to protect him from a unionist attack.

Beattie joined the NILP in 1924 and was elected to local politics. By 1929, he was the only labour member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, for Pottinger in East Belfast:

“A staunch anti-partitionist, he claimed that he no longer wished to see Northern Ireland continue as the ‘moth-eaten tail of the British lion’ (Irish Times, 10 March 1960). Most of his electoral support was Catholic, but his trade union connections won him many protestant votes. A strong critic of the unionist government, in the early 1930s he was prominent in cross-community protests at its apparent indifference to economic hardship.”

Beattie’s biography and politics defies stereotypes and sectarian divides, and it is an example of what labour politics offered. (As another non-stereotypicalLabour politician, I could also mention Tom Johnson, the English pacifist and socialist who co-founded and later led the Irish Labour Party, and who was an active trade unionist in Belfast from the early 1900s).

The failure of labour politics in Northern Ireland was, in part, the result of the House of Commons (Method of Voting and Redistribution of Seats) Act (Northern Ireland) 1929, which abolished the use of proportional representation (the STV system) for the Northern Ireland parliament, replacing it with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system already in place for UK-wide elections

Northern Ireland’s prime minister, Craigavon, stated that the purpose of this change was to eliminate all electoral issues except the national question:

“What I want to get in this house and what I believe we will get very much better in this house under the old-fashioned plain and simple system [of first-past-the-post], are men who are for the Union on the one hand, or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other”.

The introduction of the FPTP voting system does seem to have done exactly what Craigavon wanted it to do. In 1925, the Northern Ireland Labour Party won 3 seats in Stormont with just 4.7% of the vote, as that election used proportional representation. But following the introduction of FPTP at Stormont, they only gained 1 seat for 8% of the vote in 1929 and 2 seats for 8.5% in 1933.

Despite the hurdle of FPTP, the various labour parties almost managed a breakthrough in the Stormont election of 1945 with a combined vote of 30.2% between the NILP (18.2%), Commonwealth Labour (7.8%), Independent Labour (2.8%) and Federation of Labour (1.1%), but this surge in popular support only resulted in four seats out of 52, a mere 7.7% of the seats for nearly a third of votes cast.

And the four seats were divided among three labour parties (NILP 2, CL 1, Ind. Labour 1). In contrast, the Ulster Unionist Party of the day gained 50.4% of the votes and 63% of the seats (33 out of 52). The Nationalist Party, with its vote concentrated in just some constituencies, gained 10 seats with 9.1% of the vote.

Support for labour parties and independent labour then fell below the threshold needed for a breakthrough at Stormont in 1949 (9.2%, no seat) and 1953 (18.7%, 1 seat) before a revival of fortunes in 1958 when the NILP emerged as the main labour option with 15.8% of the vote and 4 seats (with the Irish Labour Party gaining 3% but no seats), for a total labour vote in 1958 of 18.8%.

In the UK elections, which were always held under FPTP, the Northern Ireland Labour Party and Irish Labour Party won a combined 21.5% of the UK House of Commons election vote in 1950, but no seats. Jack Beattie was then elected for the ILP in 1951 (combined labour vote of 20.7%; NILP 13.5% and ILP 7.2%).

In later years, the best results of the NILP in UK general elections were when it gained between 12.2% and 16.1% of the vote in the 1964, 1966 and 1970 UK elections, enough to deserve one or two of the 12 seats available, but again it won no seats due to FPTP.

The NILP had two good Stormont elections in the 1960s, gaining 25.4% of the vote in 1962 and 20.4% in 1965, but only 4 seats and 2 seats respectively. Meanwhile republican labour won two seats in 1965 with just 3.8% of the vote, as they only stood in two constituencies. In 1969, the NILP gained 8.1% of the vote and 2 seats.

From 1973, the SDLP had entered the equation, gaining 22.1% of the vote and 19 seats, whereas the NILP gained just 2.6% of the vote and one seat. Gerry Fitt was leader of the SDLP, having had previously won a Stormont seat in 1965 and a House of Commons seat in 1966 under the banner of republican labour.

Today’s SDLP seems more nationalist than socialist, as was shown by its recent fling with Fianna Fáil, but Gerry Fitt was more clearly a politician in the labour mould, and labour politics in Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards was dominated by the labour component of the SDLP.

In Stormont, under Gerry Fitt, the SDLP gained 23.7% of the vote in 1975 and 19 seats. Fitt was followed as leader by John Hume, and the SDLP gained 18.8% and 14 seats in 1982. But then came the hiatus, until the 1996 Northern Ireland Forum election, when the SDLP gained 21.4% and 21 seats. Due to the Forum’s highly proportional voting system, the Labour Coalition also gained 2 seats for just 0.9% of the vote.

In the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which once again used a proportional representation voting system, the SDLP gained 22% and 24 seats (1998), 17% and 18 seats (2003), 16.7% and 16 seats (2007), 15.2% and 16 seats (2011), 14.2% and 14 seats (2016) and most recently 12% and 12 seats (2017).

Among the diverse factors for the SDLP’s slow but steady declining vote share is perhaps the weakening of its links to labour politics and therefore its narrower appeal, especially to middle ground voters. Arguably, by 1998, it was too late for proportionate representation to save the option of voting labour.

Meanwhile, to pick up the story of the UK general elections, Gerry Fitt won a seat in 1964 in Belfast West with 4.4% of the vote and again in 1970 with 3.9%, but by the time we get to February 1974, the SDLP gained a much larger vote share (22.4%) but still only one of NI’s 12 seats, followed by the same vote share (22.4%) in October 1974, but only one seat. In 1979, the SDLP gained 18.2% and one seat (still Gerry Fitt). One out of 12 equates to 8.3% of NI’s seats, highlighting the disproportionate nature of FPTP.

Under Hume’s leadership, the SDLP gained 17.9% in 1983 and one seat (John Hume himself, in Foyle). The SDLP gained 21.1% in 1987 and 3 seats, 23.5% in 1992 and 4 seats, 24.1% in 1997 and 3 seats, and 21% in 2001 and 3 seats. Following the election of Mark Durkin as leader, the SDLP gained 21% and 3 seats in 2005, followed by Margaret Ritchie as leader for the 2010 election, where they gained 17.5% and 3 seats, then Alasdair McDonnell for the 2015 election, 16.5% and 3 seats, then 11.7% in 2017 under current leader, Colum Eastwood, and no MPs, which recovered to 14.9% and 2 seats in 2019.

The disproportionate effect of FPTP for Westminster can be directly compared to the SDLP’s seat gains in Stormont under proportional representation.

So what do all these numbers really tell us about the potential for a predominantly “red” labour party in Northern Ireland as opposed to a green or orange one?

Across Europe, many new democracies introduced proportional representation in the early part of the 20th century as part of the expanded voting franchise. So did Northern Ireland! But the 1929 Act put a stop to it, whereas other European countries continued with some form of proportional voting to the present day.

One argument is that the old elite parties across Europe championed proportional representation to avoid being completely wiped out by socialist parties under FPTP. It seems the opposite occurred in the UK.

The elephant in the room is that the unionist parties of Northern Ireland have received a massive share of votes from the 1920s to the present. Unionist parties got over 46% of the 2017 Stormont vote and over 40% of the vote in the UK general election of 2019, and that’s at a low ebb.

Unionism has consistently put constitutional issues front-and-centre, squeezing out the political space for labour politics. And on the other side, the SDLP has become less red and more green, while the rise of Sinn Féin represents a darker shade of green despite some of their policies being socialist.

The project of stronger democracy is never ending, and the voting system can be a tool to liberate people or to constrain their choices. First-part-the-post played an important role in squeezing the labour option out of Northern Ireland’s politics from the outset, with results in Stormont elections like labour parties gaining 30.2% of the vote in 1945 but only 4 seats (7.7%), and the NILP gaining one in four votes in 1962 (25.4%) but only 4 out of 52 seats (7.7%). At various stages in its democratic history, many people in Northern Ireland voted for labour representation, but they were denied a fair share of seats by the voting rules.

It should also be mentioned that STV is among the less proportional voting systems, compared to list systems and other voting methods used across Europe. This helps explain why a third option didn’t emerge more quickly after 1998 when proportional representation was restored, although one could point to Alliance, the Green Party and others as having gained from that opportunity.

There are other reasons why labour politics didn’t re-emerge, including the still fractured landscape of labour tribes who have not come together due to differences of policy, personality and yes, different perspectives on the constitutional question.

Despite the real potential for a third force in Northern Ireland politics and voter volatility, and potential support in Northern Ireland for a Labour government in London, the moulding of politics by the constraints of voting systems helps to explain why the Stormont election in May will probably still be dominated by: “men [and women] who are for the Union on the one hand, or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other”

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