Thursday, September 22, 2011

Refounding Labour in Northern Ireland (1): The Argument

The Refounding Labour organisational review will be debated and voted upon at the UK Labour Party Conference next week. Here is a summary of the Northern Ireland CLP’s submission.

The full version is available here and is worth reading if you are interested in the details of the argument – in particular, I would urge those who think the Party is anti-SDLP to read pages 3 -4 .

A real Shared Future: why the Labour Party should stand for elections in Northern Ireland

Submission to the Refounding Labour organisational review by the Northern Ireland CLP

Our submission is the response of the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party to the Labour Party’s organisational review, Refounding Labour, and argues that the Labour Party should stand for elections in Northern Ireland.

The argument has three strands.

1.    It is the final stage in achieving a fully functioning Labour movement in Northern Ireland. As has been said many times by senior Labour figures, there should be no ‘no go’ areas for the Labour Party.  In a democracy, a prospective Party of Government should seek a mandate across the UK, including Northern Ireland.

  • Northern Ireland has a vibrant Labour moment including 350 paid-up Labour Party members, almost 260,000 trade union members, mostly in affiliated unions, and 32,000 trade union members contracting in to pay the political levy. Northern Ireland has the highest density of trade union membership of the four UK jurisdictions – and no other party in Northern Ireland has a structural link with the trade unions
  • Party members participate in an active Constituency Labour Party, assist in British and Irish Labour election campaigns, attend Conference and are active in the National Policy Forum. Standing for election is the last piece in the jigsaw.
  • Members also participate in their trade unions, socialist societies, the Co-operative Party, the Fabian Society, Labour Students and the Party of European Socialists activists’ network.
  • Northern Ireland’s Labour Party members are involved in a wide range of civil society organisations which seek to influence policy both at regional and UK level through lobbying.
  • It has been argued that Labour cannot usurp the SDLP’s position as the only Northern Ireland member of the Socialist International. However, fifteen countries have two SI parties as members, and one has three.
  • Although Labour members would have respect for the historical role of the SDLP and for many individual SDLP members, the SDLP is currently unsuitable to represent the Labour movement because (i) it has no structural connection with the trade unions, and (ii) its ‘nationalist’ community designation in the Northern Ireland Assembly prevents it from developing truly cross-community, anti-sectarian politics based on economic and social issues rather than on territorial position.

2.    The Labour Party can fill the political vacuum caused by the lack of a cross-community, anti-sectarian democratic socialist political party.  Labour in Northern Ireland provides a voice that is un-mediated by community divisions, a voice that can develop policies that will encourage sharing in a divided society and build a future without the fear of sectarian tensions.

  • Political identity and electoral behaviour in Northern Ireland is often erroneously presented as a simple territorial cleavage between unionism and nationalism. However, this disregards opinions on social and economic issues, and other aspects of political identity such as class and gender.
  • A review of the statistical evidence has revealed a political vacuum that could be filled by Labour. For example:
    • 43% of the population consider themselves to be neither unionist nor nationalist; and
    • in 2005, around 70 percent of people who didn’t vote said they had sympathy with the statement that ‘I would have voted if there was a strong non-sectarian party’.
  • Under the circumstances it is not surprising that turnout at elections is declining, and public confidence in the governance of the region is low. In such a climate of dissatisfaction and frustrated aspirations, Labour has to act.
  • Labour Party politics can offer a home to those disillusioned voters and to many more voters who simply put up with current parties because there is no viable, non-sectarian alternative. We believe that the best ‘cross community’ decision-making takes place within parties rather than between them.

3.    We have the capacity to build our case around the Labour values of social justice, equality of opportunity, strength of community and rights matched with responsibilities. The Labour Party in Northern Ireland accepts the duty to stand for Labour values, to use those values to promote prosperity and a shared future, and to represent the wider Labour Movement politically.

  • The Labour Party in Northern Ireland seeks to uphold Labour values in the context of a society trying to move beyond sectarian division and find a common ground based on values, rights and responsibilities we all share. We seek a new political paradigm that is not dependent on territorial politics and thus contributes to healing the divisions of the past.
  • The people of Northern Ireland want politics based on everyday issues such as crime, education, health and the economy – especially at the present time of economic uncertainty and constraint.
  • We can use our solid base of 350 members, plus substantial support in the wider Labour movement, to build electoral support through standing good, local candidates and seeking votes from all sections of the community.

The next stage of Northern Ireland’s ‘peace process’ is to work towards a genuinely shared society which acknowledges the importance of history but refuses to be held back by it. Only Labour can fulfil the role of a non-sectarian democratic socialist party in which all voters can have confidence.


Ed Simpson said...

I don't think the document adequately covers the issue of The Green Party in NI as a competitor to Labour. Indeed, the only negative it outlines is that the Greens have no formal link to the labour movement.

Whilst this could well be an issue in much of the UK, in NI, it isn't. What evidence is there that this is what the electorate really want, as opposed to just a genuine left wing, cross community party?

Without this evidence, the only 'but' attached to why the Green Party is not the party of choice for social democrats in NI is null & void and further reasons need to be found to justify a need for Labour in NI. That shouldn't be too hard a job.

LeftAtTheCross said...

I don't know what the official WP position would be on this but obviously there are huge positives in terms of moving beyond sectarian tribalist politics and that would be something to be warmly welcomed and encouraged I would imagine. I'm sure we would disagree that social democratic politics is any sort of silver bullet, but sure we'll be glad to debate that with the NI/GB/Irl Labour Party as part of the process of moving society towards a Left/Right political orientation. Good luck with your efforts.

As for the Green Party, the experience this side of the border would suggest that any adherence they may have to social democratic principles will be willingly abandoned in favour of neoliberal austerity, all for the price of some fairly inconsequential sops to the ecology agenda. Eco-socialists they are not. Unfortunately.

Jenny Muir said...

Ed - there are democratic socialists in the SDLP (a nationalist party) and of course in the Green Party (a party that puts the environment first). But in neither case do you have to be. I want to work with lefties from all parties when we agree, which I think we would a lot of the time. But in my party you have to be left or centre left, and that's the difference.

I think your point about the link with the trade union movement is wrong. I was surprised myself to learn that NI has the highest density of TU membership within the UK. I think you might find an appreciation of the work TUs do in representing their members, rather than the right-wing stereotype of workshy strikers. So I do think that link would count in our favour. More to the point, both the Labour Party and the TUs are part of the wider Labour movement mentioned in the paper as being the first of three reasons why Labour shoudl stand here, and that wider movement includes a great deal of involvement and support.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - Thank you for your good wishes and as you say we should be talking. I think you are a little hard on the Greens, but you make the same point as myself that an ecological approach doesn't have to be linked to a left or centre left approach to life. But in fairness I must also say that some of the most committed socialists I have ever met have been Green Party members.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Jenny, I can't dispute your comments about individual Green Party members obviously, but judging the party on their walk rather than their talk, and as an political organisation rather than as an intellectual collective, their participation with Fianna Fail and The Progressive Democrats in government was a classic example of a party being caught in the headlights of something (neoliberal economics) about which which they had neither any ideological comprehension nor any opposition. Their actions spoke louder than their words, and indeed their subsequent attitude of denial of any ideological errors and indeed the election of Eamon Ryan as party leader very much reinforces the impression that the Green Party was and is comfortable with right wing economic approaches and their performance in government. That's somewhat incompatible with a socialist worldview I would have thought, no? Perhaps there's an element of organisational dual-personality at play, but it is something which they will need to resolve. They might like to claim they're neither left nor right, but green, but in absolving themselves of the decision on where they stand on the left-right axis they in fact condemn themselves to sit by default on the centre-right. As I said above, I do genuinely wish it was otherwise, but they have used up any goodwill that may have existed towards them amongst the broad Left, at least on this side of the border.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - you pinpoint the problem with being a democratic socialist in a party that doesn't have that philosophy at its centre. Other ideologies can dominate at particular times or in particular places, and I woudl make a distinction between Green parties North and South here - I think the Nordies are more radial, but you may say that's just because they've not yet had any opportunity for power.

Obviously not everyone in the Labour Party is as left wing as I would like, but at least the continuum is recognised and therefore the areas of debate are clear cut.

However if Labour is in the process of selling us out in NI after all (see post 2), for me the Greens may very well be the next port of call.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Jenny, your point about being a socialist in a party that doesn't have that idelogy at its core is a very valid one. Personally I was briefly a member of the Irish Labour Party but found the absense of meaningful political content to be something that made me question the usefulness of being ideolically committed to something which was outside the frame of reference of the party mainstream. In conversation with others I have heard similar views expressed about membership of Sinn Féin, in the South at least, questioning their actual rather than rhetorical commitment to socialism, or more accurately their willingness to compromise on their nominal socialist credentials in order to progress their core nationalist worldview. And similarly with the Greens vis-a-vis their core of ecological politics. Clearly there is a global strand within Green politics which is Left in orientation, and some Green Parties do have socialist factions within them I believe, however the Irish Green Party is not structured in that way. Anyway, such are the dilemas of seeking to find a best match between personal political views and the available parties and organisations. It's impossible to find a perfect match, the best fit is a compromise, but such is life and no harm in it either or we'd all be disappearing up our individual backsides and unable to work with others to progress the politics in the real world.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - I couodn't agree more. And to your mix I would add my wish to be in a party that takes feminism seriously, by which I don't mean reserved places for women, but understanding and addressing issues of gender and power in society. Compromise is always necessary in a party that's big enough to make any kind of impact.