I am unashamedly parochial about the Refounding Labour organisational review process. I can’t afford to be anything else. Labour Party members in Britain may be getting exercised about various aspects of the final report, to go to Conference next week, or indeed about the ‘one document one vote’ approach, as amendments will not be taken.
Labour in Northern Ireland just wants the opportunity to do what political parties are meant to do - stand in elections.
Accordingly, the submission from the Northern Ireland CLP was based around this one point, as set out in my previous post. The question now is: after Refounding Labour, is our aim more likely to be achieved?
The starting point was unpropitious, as the consultation document didn’t mention Northern Ireland at all. Even allowing for the fact that Labour doesn’t really get devolution as yet, that was tough. However, it probably helped to produce the thorough and considered response, as nobody likes to be ignored. The draft was the subject of a long and lovely discussion at a members’ meeting, after which some changes to the response were actually made – in other words, a real democratic process and a tribute to all who were involved.
So, after all the lobbying and NEC discussions, what’s in the final report? On page 17, we have:
‘The growth of party membership in Northern Ireland is very welcome and we note a few submissions have been received, including a submission from our NI CLP, that have requested the party agree to stand candidates for election in Northern Ireland.
Recommendation: The party will continue discussions with our NI CLP, and enter into discussions with our sister parties the SDLP and Irish Labour Party’.
Some may say: is that it? Exactly how much better off are you now?
I disagree. Just suppose the report had recommended standing for election. What would have been the first thing we would have had to do? We would have had to ‘enter into discussions with our sister parties the SDLP and Irish Labour Party’. With the SDLP because it does contain Labour-minded individuals, and we would have had to see if we could find any common ground, or, if not, perhaps to persuade some to join us. The SDLP is, in any case, currently at a crossroads with its very interesting leadership campaign. The outcome will be very important for the direction of democratic socialist politics in Northern Ireland. We cannot and should not ignore the SDLP’s membership of the Socialist International, but there might be a question about how long that membership will continue.
And discussions with Irish Labour would be needed because our entry into electoral politics would change the dynamics of Labour representation on this island. We would want to have a close and mutually supportive relationship, and align policy as much as possible. In my personal opinion I’d like to try persuade Irish Labour to change their minds about putting up their own candidates North of the border and run a joint campaign on a common manifesto.
So I see no harm in strengthening the case by having these discussions before a final decision is made. Of course, either or both the other parties may refuse to talk, saying they are happy with the status quo, in which case we know where we stand.
Labour members will discuss the situation in mid-October and of course there will be different opinions. The other side of the argument is that we’ve been conned. As Andy Burnham said during the last leadership campaign, the decision to stand in elections should be for Labour members in Northern Ireland. Talks can go on for years – as they already have. But given that the next elections we’d want to contest are in 2015, or possibly 2014 for the European Parliament, I think it’s worth a thorough and comradely exploration of how to get it right.
After all, the reason for standing in elections is to give the Labour movement a voice, in the interests of working people, in order to try to improve their lives (or, sadly, to mitigate damage) at a very difficult time. We need to find the most appropriate way of doing so in a changing but still divided society.