Thursday, January 14, 2010

Never say never again

A year ago I left the Irish Labour Party, with very great regret. I felt it was my political home and I was prepared to devote considerable effort both to party administration (I was Treasurer for several years) and to developing the argument that the party should have an all-Ireland remit with a specific appeal to all communities in the North.

I’ve spent the time since then thinking about what to do next politically. The answer ‘nothing’ was pretty far up the list, usually followed by a resolution to spend more time in the office (sorry, Nick!), courtesy of the Research Excellence Framework.

A second answer was just to keep blogging, but to tell the truth it’s rather isolating and there are too many good political bloggers out there for me to do it for any other reason than because I enjoy it. My blog isn’t only about politics anyway.

The third possibility is single issue campaigning. I’ve never been keen on this unless it’s conducted within a wider political framework, but have joined Amnesty and also, locally, signed up to Platform for Change. But it’s more about writing letters than going along to events.

So then I started to think about whether I could bear to join another political party. UUP or Tory? I’m neither a unionist nor a conservative. Alliance? I’m still not quite sure what they stand for, apart from on community relations. Green? Not as a fairly frequent flyer and a very frequent car driver, although I respect them enormously. SDLP? I know more individuals whose views I share in the SDLP than in any other party, but I still can’t join it because I’m not a nationalist. Worker’s Party? Seems rather stuck in the past to me, and very male dominated.

The net was closing. How about re-joining Irish Labour? No chance, partly because several other people I enjoyed working with stepped down at the same time as myself.

Well, in the end I’ve decided to join the British, or should I say UK, Labour Party. I don’t intend to be a particularly active member, perhaps just go to the odd meeting now and again. I certainly won’t take part in any moves to contest elections in Northern Ireland, because something I learned through the Irish Labour debacle is that such decisions are made on a top down basis, not through pressure from members. If the UK Labour Party elite decides to contest elections in Northern Ireland, it will do so because it has calculated that there will be a political advantage. Local members’ wishes will carry no weight.

So I join with many reservations, but I hope having a party card will get me back into the swing of collaborating with the people whose views I share in all the parties I don’t feel it would be right for me to join – perhaps most particularly the SDLP. I’m a pretty mainstream democratic socialist nowadays, probably centre left rather than left, as reflected by my new party membership. Part of the thinking over the past year has been about facing up to that.


Ian said...

Do you think that if Irish Labour organised electorally that you would rejoin?

democratic_Centrism said...

Same here, been a sleeper for a while but even though it doesn't contest here on the members page there are some excellent campaigning publications and tips. And to be frank I'm glad Labour isn't contesting as it is nowhere near having a proper debate on how it would set itself out as offering a different alternative to the other parties here.

There were a high number of SDLP cross-overs who were members of Labour, or at least those that I messaged and spoke to were active in SDLP.

The problem with the SDLP is that if it is to be modern and recapture new votes it will have a long time shaking off its old conservative nationalist stigma.

The younger generation are into their music, going to clubs and after parties, dabbling in recreational drugs, travelling, living together cross-community style and tend to want to have money and a fair legal system that uses reasoned penal policy and one that doesn't run off relgious moral judgements. On these counts alone the SDLP and in fact all nationalist parties here are way off this electoral ground - as was Alliance, blue Liberals or red tories perhaps?

Whereas the beauty of a new Labour party standing here is the fresh start and a chance to capture voters' imagination for change without all the compromising baggage from the peace-processing problems over the years and the failure to live upto expections of those big Agreements; I hope the more modern voters will be more flexible and tolerant in outlook. I think a new Labour party must reflect popular culture more and reflect modern living and become de-aligned from the old nationalist unionist debate, perhaps by designating as both to make a mockery of the system. And to press for change of the institutions, a change that isn't prejudiced in such a devisive way.

Ultimately the main goal for me is to have a party that manages to shift the negative debating stances of SF and the DUP over to more positive ones of hopes and aspiration and prosperity.

Failing that I'm content with the Labourism aspect of Labour politics, I have a particular grudge against the Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000. (Complete violation of workers privacy with no one checking the checkers!)

And on the analysis of capital I'm with Will Hutton and back his collection of ideas in the book "The State We're In".

Jenny Muir said...

Ian - interesting question. Irish Labour seems to be heading new Labour-wards so it would depend on the situation at the time. But given that dual membership is allowed, if it happened tomorrow then I'd probably rejoin and keep my UK Labour membership as well.

DC - absolutely agree with you about the SDLP, and some of their younger members don't really buy into the more traditional approach to nationalism either. I don't htink UK Labour woudl be seen as a new party over here though, given it has in effect ruled NI since 1997, without our say so. But you are right that a debate is needed about how election campaigns would be fought, and it takes years as that's what we did in Irish Labour.

I think trying to engage young people in politics is overrated - I can understand why they are off doing other things and only get interested once they are a little older. As long as Labour doesn't try the DUP approach :)

Incidentally DC, have you stopped writing your blog?

DC said...

Well the problem with engagement is that if you don't opt for a more popular culture approach and more modern take on life here you are left falling back on old conservative politics - and it's well catered for.

Yes, I gave up my blog as I've been into my music these days and learning new software on computer plus reading other stuff in my spare time.

I still feel Labour would be new in terms of no baggage and more importantly no electoral roots so it's all to play for in terms of starting afresh and being appealing.

Whereas the deal makers in unionism be they DUP or UUP have been constrained as a result of their conservative-minded electorate.

And pegged back by the likes of Jim Allister or when it was Trimble - Paisley.

Tip is if you want to progress with versatility - don't draw votes from conservative-minded electorate. And to become more modern and flexible you need to tap into such voters outlined above.

You know the likes of Conall McDevitt of the SDLP envisions people being more tolerant and forward-thinking, he's right - but they are also outside of the conservative electoral footprint. Which is why politicians here bemoan the old fuddy-duddies and lack of new blood etc. Try being modern and getting with it and ditch political moralism and religious-viewpoints by arguing for more reasoned science-based policies.

Like for instance, drugs policy is one - fully in support of Professor Nutt's views on the basis of why should black market take the profits while the taxpayers pay for the healthcare further on down the road.

Useless moralism getting in the way of reasoned policies and people opt out of politics as is out of touch with their lifestyles.

Except of course when capital dries up completely as like the war years back in the 20C.

nineteensixtyseven said...


"The younger generation are into their music, going to clubs and after parties, dabbling in recreational drugs, travelling, living together cross-community style and tend to want to have money and a fair legal system that uses reasoned penal policy and one that doesn't run off relgious moral judgements. On these counts alone the SDLP and in fact all nationalist parties here are way off this electoral ground - as was Alliance, blue Liberals or red tories perhaps?"

As most people know I have serious issues with the SDLP on some things and you are undoubtedly correct that there is a major dose of residual nationalist conservatism in sections of the party, but I fear you are slipping into a simple caricature here.

On penal policy, cllr. Matthew McDermott has penned an extremely progressive document on the youth criminal justice system ( and the SDLP is very clear on the need for a strong criminal justice system with human rights at its very core. This is hardly a mainstay of Catholic conservatism and I think you are being unfair here. On issues like abortion you have a point but it is unfair to just dismiss the party right across the board.

On living in together in a cross-community way I would argue that no minister has done more to facilitate that and no minister believes more strongly in that than Margaret Ritchie. For example:

I take some of your criticisms of the SDLP and I agree with them but any criticism has to be grounded in reality with all its shades of grey, not based on black and white assumptions about the party.

Rabelais said...

Read this and understand entirely where you are. Some of your comments I could have written myself.

I tried to join the British Labour Party when I was sixteen but they knocked me back, sent me a poster of Neil Kinnock and said that even though membership wasn't open to me i could still donate money to the party and I was encouraged to join the SDLP. I had no money and was looking for an alternative to what I saw as the sterility of unionist and nationalist politics.

i drifted into far left circles and out again and have been looking for some way of getting involved in politics for years. I can't commit to the Greens for similar reasons to you. And I am utterly disinterested in joining any party here that's politics are defined largely by their Orangeness or Greenness (and that includes Alliance, whose political imagination is capable only of taking up a centrist position between them). I want a politics that doesn't ignore the dispute here but can consider it in the context of the broader social, political and economic forces that help shape it - global capitalism, Europe, the break up of the UK, the environment etc.

I just can't commit to New Labour. I'm way to the Left of it but I'm not a fan of the antiquated strategies of the various vanguard parties.

Northern Ireland needs a Left party. And I think that party, as political parties traditional do, has to take account of the national/international constitutional arrangements as it finds them. For me this means a party that can contest elections to the Northern Ireland assembly on a programme that is cognisant of local issues, but also a party that has appropriate and co-operative links to both the Irish and British Left. (We have a British/Irish Council after all). We also fight elections in Europe so links to the European Left would help to.

I see absolutely no prospect of this happening so I'm just gonna stay home and complain about Left's lack of organisation in Northern Ireland until somebody else does something about it!

Garibaldy said...

Do people consider the behaviour of the Greens in the south when they think about the attitude people in the north on the left should adopt to them? It is after all the same party, and I saw nothing in their behaviour in the European election that would make me think they weren't of exactly the same stamp up north.

In my view, environmentalism should be a key part of left ideology, but it is not a left ideology in and of itself. Far from it, as we can see from not just the coalition in the south, but elsewhere as well. If I were looking for a party, that would stop me more than anything else.

Regarding Rabelais' points. As a member of an "antiquated vanguard party", I would point out that the dominant struggle in terms of socialist politics now (along with fighting sectarianism) is to defend the welfare state. How do people trust better to do that? Members of the transformative left with a grasp of reality and the need for practical co-operative struggle whatever about different long-term gaols, or centre-left parties moving ever more to the right?

The search for means to bring people like Rabelais into active political activity, even if non-party activity, continues, and hopefully something will happen before too long.

Rabelais said...

Hi Garibaldy,
I have very mixed feelings about the many of the groups on the Left - Socialist Party, SWP, Workers Party, Communist Party etc. (And I understand that some of those parties will not appreciate being lumped in together.)

On the one hand, I got my political education among them and it's stood me in good stead (I feel). But intellectual and political curiosity took me beyond Marxism, even though I now feel that Marxism offers, if not a totalising analysis of the way of the world, certainly the best that I've read.

I got weary of the sectarianism among the left groups, many of whom seemed happier attacking each other than capitalism. And yet most people couldn't tell you the difference between the sects - the narcissism of small differences perhaps. Yet, when it comes to campaigning on issues such as the NHS and privatisation, I find the various Left groups are always the best organised and dedicated.

Separately, these parties seem sadly irrelevant. Collectively, with democratic constitution and a political culture of open debate, well, that would be very different. I'd be attracted to something like that (and I don't mean some sort of electoral coalition - I've been down that road before).

Also Garibaldy, concur 100% with your comments about the Greens.

Jenny Muir said...

Thank you all for these very interesting comments - fantastic to get some debate going.

DC - I think in order to plug into any tolerance and forward thinking that's going on in NI, parties need to make a point about being secular, and this will become even more important if the number of minority ethnic groups increase. Perhaps the events of the last few weeks have made clear the advantages of keeping religion out of politics. I don't think any party that appeals to a constituency based on religious backgroudn can claim to be secular, hence nineteensixtyseven I still have a problem with this aspect of the SDLP. Although there are progessive people in the Party, I beg to differe about the Shared Future housing schemes. They are not being used in areas which have real problems with sectarianism and I doubt that they are creatign more mixing than would otherwise have happened. What they ARE doing is setting out a good blueprint for being good neighbours, and for community development more broadly, which might reap dividends in the future in terms of less anti-social behaviour and more social capital. I think there are people at UU researching them and I would love to take a look at them myself one day. Returning to the subject of Ritchie, I don't think you can claim to be contributing to a shared future when your speech on housing to your party conference veers off into a hope for a united Ireland, to support your leadership bid.

Jenny Muir said...

Responses to comments contd....

Rabelais - absolutely understand what you are saying, and I am signig up somewhat reluctantly, as I said. I'm beginning to wonder if democratic socialists exist in a state of permanent apology! - having faith that it's possible to make state structures work in favour of working people rather than to overthrow them and start again is a difficult balancing act. I think any political party which is serious about organising in NI has to have links with parties in the Republic and GB, I don't necessarily mean formally but the Greens do and Labour certainly should.

I think Rabelais and Garibaldy you are botyh beign too hard on the Greens! - they do have other policies and the problem in the South has been that they had to make the decision whether to take power or not, which is always difficult. I'm aware John Gormley is doing some good things, most particularly in planning, but I said at the time it was wrong to go into coalition and I do think they have been damaged by association with FF.

Garibaldy - interesting that primary goal of the Left should be to defend the welfare state. I woudl say also to try to change it to suit us better. I suppose I think of Left goals in a more abstract way aroung things like empowerment and citizenship, but in hard times you may well be right. I look forward to discussing this further...

DC said...

I couldn't agree more about the secular approach however in order to get that turned into votes and be able to have a political mandate for such secular action you still need to appeal more broadly than just that concept i.e. non-religious. I reckon for the sea change in politics a party must be able to sum up the lives of people who don't go to church and do religion at all but instead live the popular culture lifestyle, the hedonistic ones, those ones that are tainted by hard work during the week that make the weekend possible.

I'm not talking about reflecting the Jeremy Kyle stuff, but if you ask the people in their 20s / 30s etc what they did at the weekend they will likely tell you they were in pubs and clubs and partying to European music. Much of the dance music is made by German producers for example in Shine (Queens student union place) or rap or other pop music is american and African american etc.

It's really about being able to envision that in the politics and govern to that style. A mixed bag of cultures and represent a slight hedonism - as that is why people migrate to avail of freedoms not be pegged back and placed into religious pigeon holes.

But the key thing is always an analysis of capital which is what should keep Labour modern, and regulation of the workplace - as everyone works so there is the main relevance of having a Labour party.

I put it to Labour NI members (at a meeting last year) that all NI members should hold Irish Labour membership even as sleepers to project a style of politics that was bi-national from the outset and to designate unionist and nationalist in the assembly to promote a new style of politics here. The proposal certainly went down well on one side of the house, noticeably it was the older (more-unionist) and more-to-the-left Labour NI members who were aghast by the idea!

I said a good start is half the battle, and it isn't baggage Jenny re Blair, it is the only legacy left from his painstaking work and he brought devolution. The research shows that people are for the principle of devolution it is the style of governance that is making people curdle, particularly as the corruption comes to light, against the backdrop of persistently preached moral clarity.

Humans are flawed, is a good basis to start from. And knowing all political careers end in failure too. This is my mindset, it's called going for broke as if all political careers end in failure anyway then we're damned from the outset. Bring it on!

Garibaldy said...


I think that a concern with the goings on of other groups is a feature of many parts of the further left, though not all. It is extremely unedifying, and the writing of huge screeds about the failings of another party has always struck me as a waste of time and energy. Like you say, it also puts people off.

You seem to be hinting at some sort of catch-all party, of the type the Left Party in Germany is trying to be. I don't think that is a runner in Ireland, north or south, for very many reasons. Some form of electoral coalition is more likely to do the job, but I'd say we are a while away from that, especially in the north, as the Euro elections showed. In the meantime, what to do?

Regarding Marxism. I think whether one wishes to call oneself a Marxist or not, the continued centrality of class to politics and society is undeniable, like you say yourself. I think the days of a schematic and simplistic Marxism are gone - the question seems to me to be how we can take account of cultural factors, identity etc without losing the centrality of class as the New Left did, and subsequently the Eurocommunists. I think than can be accomodated within Marxism if applied imaginatively as a tool of analysis rather than a set of sacred texts.

Garibaldy said...


I think the hard reality, especially if the Tories win significantly, is that it is a matter of defence rather than improvement. Citizenship and empowerment and the like are important, but we must not end up thinking like Hazel Blears. She talked an excellent game, but when it came down to it was a huge disappointment. I saw a piece in the Observer, by Barbara Ellen I think, saying that racism trumped class as the major issue in British society. Fantasy in America, and certainly fantasy in the US. Unless citizenship, empowerment etc are treated in class terms, I fear it ends up as Blearsite (and Blairite) rhetoric that ignores the factors shaping these things. But more citizenship and empowerment is definitely of importance to (re)building the left.

Jenny Muir said...

DC - I agree that Labour has a key role in regulating the workplace, which used to be done more widely through the trades unions and I hope can be done this way again in future. However, not everyone is in the workforce.

I was interested in your point about dual membership, as I would find it hard to re-join Irish Labour now as I feel they've made such a huge tactical mistake. But if both parties were standing candidates (ref. Ian's question) then it would make sense, as members could then influence policy in both countries which affect our lives.

Garibaldy: yes I think coalitions are the way forward, most certainly when we have so many parties. I see this as entirely positive and I'm sure the electorate would too. Re. empowerment and citizenship, I think the challenge is to make such concepts mean something to people, for example through the way public services are provided.

bobballs said...

Just a quick line of appreciation on a great post. I do empathise - didn't really brim over with enthusiasm when last in the polling booth. Best of luck with your choice!

Jenny Muir said...

Thanks bobballs! Am enjoying your blog too.

DC said...

Jenny, Peter here aka DC.

To me the dual membership idea was and is extremely symbolic first and foremost. Call it pulling on your Irish jersey in support of a sister party.

Secondly you cannot claim to influence Irish labour and hope to receive information on social policy and insight into their party and have knowledge of pending proposals and hope to influence them unless you are a member.

The notion of two parties standing and contesting elections here is complete duplication to me, it's about consistency of message and having a cohort of people agreed on goals and actions for the future. This only takes one party, not two.

The contesting elections thing doesn't matter as the two different jurisdictions see to that, except when the British and Irish Parliamentary Body gets up and running then this insider knowledge will be important. Knowledge is power and that is why membership of Irish labour is essential and membership means a right of say and to know, and it ought to give an insight into the Irish political system as part of the deal.

Now it might seem like a waste of money re two memberships but that depends on what benefits stem from it in terms of developing a labour-ish body politic across these isles. The ability to effect change is first and foremost and can be done under any Labour party the content and style of the party will be shaped by local members and the relevant life experiences. Hopefully reflective of British and Irish identities.

Irish Labour party membership if held by a high number of Labour NI members should make Irish Labour reconsider the importance of co-operating with the region more pro-actively; but surely you can't doubt the powerful image this would project in terms of putting down and seeing off any sectarian claims re British Labour unionists.

As I said earlier, a good start is half the battle, let's come out of the traps right. It's all a long way off even in terms of Labour standing here, and it may not happen at all.

By having this sort of stance a vision of Northern Ireland could be created, one where N Ireland is the apex of British and Irish relations, forming a positive compact between the two states, getting the benefit of being greater than the sum of its parts.

Personally, people should be excited by the opportunity to take part in the Dail, be elected to Westminster and do Stormont, all of this is an option, and it beats being holed up in some crummy council or sucking up to Conservative MPs to go easy on people of Ulster etc, as was the case back in the 80s, early 90s.

nineteensixtyseven said...


I have just read your post and have not had time to formulate my thoughts on it fully but what you have described sounds quite an excellent idea. A founding principle of the Socialist movement has always been internationalism, and using supranational means such as you have described could be potentially very positive.

I know you have a personal history with Irish Labour, Jenny, but wouldn't it be worthwhile putting that behind you if they demonstrated a desire to make such a RI-NI-UK relationship work (which I accept is quite an assumption to make given your own experience)? Of course, the British Labour Party would have to demonstrate after the next election that they are actually interested in working people- an even greater ask in my mind.

Jenny Muir said...

DC and nineteensixtyseven - Hmmmm. A new model of working between the Irish and UK Labour parties could include automatic membership of the other if you joined one. Or, as you say, it could and perhaps should become commonplace to be a member of both. When I was in Irish Labour I felt that one reason this woudln't have been possible was that UK Labour was more right-wing, however Irish Labour is now heading that way too and so dual membership may not be such an ideological stretch as it was a few years ago :)

Seriously, the best way to run a Labour party here IMO would be a dual membership model and joint branches, which then as DC says would allow members to influence policy in both jurisdictions. Some members would be more interested in the South and others in UK policy. Sadly I don't see either party having the vision to embrace that. I remember talking to someone from the Irish Labour Commission on NI who just couldn't grasp that one party could operate in more than one jurisdiction, through a set of common values which could be operationalised with appropriate policies on each side of the border. I would be more than happy to help map out options for such a structure.

Garibaldy said...

I assume the person from the southern Labour Commission wasn't an ex-member of The WP. I think, given the way the politics of those at the top of the southern Labour Party regarding NI have been going for the last two decades, that it would be better for people to accept that rather than continuing torturing themselves over this. Better for us to concentrate on forging our own way forward.

DC said...

1967 "excellent idea" - it'll never work, let's try it!

Jenny, I know tell me about the brick wall thing. It's like all parties - the coterie gonna get ya. What I'm saying is that unless you're a snake oil salesman we all have to wait our turn and accumulate the interested people to amass the sufficient number to see change through.

If you have something prepared you know my email - democratic-centre at

You don't happen to know any snake oil salesmen/persons suitable to launch this plan?

Failing that, Ill see you at the next Labour meeting where we will appoint an ethnic minority officer to convene a panel to discuss a policy or two, a nice and quaint set up all the same, but little practical use to launching a labour party with key arguments and answers to the debates currently happening in the media.

For events dear boy events, a party needs an understanding of the public feeling and mood and therefore have at hand the relevant key arguments.

Economic fairness is relevant but so is procedural fairness and systemic fairness. And the whole Iris Robinson affair and corruption requires fast answers and very forceful arguments to get these people off the stage. A double fisted push into the chest off the stage sort of way. Thank-you and good night DUP-SF, see you later!

As I said earlier Labour NI is not even remotely near to that, let alone as you say launching this new vision for change, one in tune with post-GFA 98 and lives up to the expectations of building on peace, the natural next step would be cohesion then a positive regional identity and hopefully more prosperity!

As 1967 says above a labour party with an internationalist tradition is better placed than a conservative one - Tories seem to have form in looking and wanting to take powers back into the nation-state realm, despite social activity being hyper-mobile in terms of global travel and business.

Ps Yes I made a generalisation re everyone working but I made it to exaggerate my point in response to the charge "ah, sure what's a labour party for sure ain't socialism dead." Yes, old socialism is as flawed as neo-liberal economics and New Right Conservatism, but still I don't see the media writing off the Tory party and consigning it to history in that way.

DC said...

What about the Cadbury deal Jenny just as an aside to the local debate?

Is there not a Cadbury factory in Ireland - Dublin somewhere as well?

As Andrew Marr said in his history of Britain, yes Maggot Thatcher freed Britain from the sectarian-style socialism, but freed it up for what?

The Chosen few, the uber managerial of the very top. Ah well at least the impoverished ascension states of the EU might get a few Euros or whatever currency thrown their way while the bosses take an even bigger margin on the back of cheaper labour, and in its wake redundancies in Britain / Ireland.

Jenny Muir said...

Garibaldy - I don't actualy know if that person was ex WP but I suspect not! I think in retrospect that was when I realised the game was up.

DC - I expect to attend the AGM but that'll probably be about it. There's always a problem of where to start with these things. I'm rather hoping to find some kind of Left/ Centre Left coalition of like-minded people, can't start one because my job takes up too much of my time - roll on retirement!

Incidentally, my current dilemma is whether to sign the Platform for Change endorsement - any views on that from anyone?