Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thin Edge Of The Democratic Wedge

Reluctant Democrats

What is the Labour Party's hang up about allowing our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland(NI) to have full rights of Labour Party membership?

It took a serious threat of winnable legal action in 2003 to get the Labour Party to allow people in NI (for the first time) to purchase Labour Party Membership Cards.

As Labour has no structure in NI and does not wish to run candidates for Local, Assembly or Parliamentary elections it is not surprising that only around 100 people have since joined us in the Province. That works out at 5 or 6 per Constituency, compared to the mainland average of around 330.

Far from Labour engaging in the recruitment of members in NI, it places blocks in the way of people joining as you will see from this.

Next Small Step

Further legal action has now obliged the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party to take the next grudging step towards making such Labour Party membership meaningful. It has decided to allow members in NI to send a delegate to the Labour Party Conference, to vote someone on to the National Policy Forum and to establish its own Regional Policy Forum. But only when its membership passes the 200 mark.

Too Far For Some

According to the current issue of Socialist Campaign Group News, Dianna Holland and Peter Willsman voted against this small advance arguing that it was "the thin edge of the wedge" and that our card carrying comrades in NI would next be demanding the right to stand candidates. Shudder such thoughts: next our comrades will be like the Chartists and the Suffragettes in wanting to have political representation for people such as themselves !

What Is The Problem, Dianna and Peter ?

If the Labour Party in NI could see opportunities to participate in the electoral game, then why should they alone throughout the United Kingdom be refused this right? This certainly could not have been the view of Keir Hardie and company in the days when the Labour Party was made up of affilated Trade Unions, Trade Councils and Socialist Societies such as the Independent Labour Party. For Labour's 1907 Annual Conference was held in Belfast.

Surely, NI people can aspire to vote for or against a Party which forms its Government in Westminster. Watching Labour Party Conferences, might be a minority pastime. But as the people of NI are just as entitled as the rest of us to be spectators, surely they should not be barred from being full participants as well.

Equal Rights

Are the people of NI ever to be entitled to vote Labour, or are they to be permanently restricted to deciding between the extremes of the likes of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams ? In fact, the more Sinn Fein grows at the expense of the SDLP, the more redundent becomes the failed old argument that Labour people in NI (Protestants included) should really vote for our Sister Party - instead of for ourselves.

For Labour, the issue of whether we are for a United Ireland, for permanent intregration of Northern Ireland into the UK or for the logic of the Belfast Agreement is a matter for our own internal democratic structures.

Of course, our internal Labour Party democracy is itself in need of considerable improvement. But in tackling this problem, those 100 members from NI are also entitled to their full say.


jjb998 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom said...

The Labour party has always believed in Unity by Consent, and as such has always been softly nationalist, very much Like our socialist sister party, the SDLP... the point being of course that Northern Ireland isn't and is part of the UK at the same time... for de facto it is, but in terms of legitimacy, things get a lot more complicated... hence us leaving the SDLP to do the NI stuff.

Why would we want to nick votes from them?

Harry Barnes said...

el tom,


Labour moved beyond the impossible policy of Unity by Consent (for you can only have one without the other) when it adapted to the Belfast Agreement. Which is an attempt to build an artificial centre drawing in Nationalists and Unionists. Why then give our franchise in NI over to a Nationalist Party that alienates Protestants? We would certainly avoided the reverse position.

Unfortunately, the worst divides have been between the Catholic and the Protestant sections of the Working Class. We should have social and economic policies which pull elements of both sides towards us, where we can repeat the old NI Trade Union slogan -"Hands Off My Mate" where work mates cross the divide.

Bob Piper said...

Harry, I suspect El Tom is right though. The people in the North have one social democrat party to vote for and I suspect the SDLP would hardly thank us for taking their votes. But in reality I am sure the Party has never taken partition to its heart and identifies organisation in the north with colonialism. For decades the first thing people ask of their candidates is "where do you stand on the national question?" and Labour's answer alienates republicans and loyalists alike.

Harry Barnes said...


I am not claiming that Labour is anywhere near being in a position to run candidates in NI, but I am convinced that people in NI are entitled to the same rights within the Labour Party which the rest of us enjoy (even though these need to be greatly extended). This includes the right to work towards a position where it is feasible to run candidates. At the initial stage consideration will need to be given to whether our running candidates will set up a seat for either Sinn Fein or the DUP and damage the interests of more moderate Nationalist or Unionist candidates.So at times it might be wise to pull back.

If you havn't done so already, please read the link I give in answer to el tom.

I used to take the old pro-SDLP line, but changed my mind some time ago and have campaigned within the Labour Party and in Northern Ireland on the issue.

If some of us believe that Labour should appeal more to the working class in Great Britain, then why don't we seek to appeal to the NI working class , whilst trying to get them to overcome the widespread sectarian divide? The Trade Unions in NI have attempted to do this for years. It is time we joined them.

Coventrian said...

It is bizarre to want to stand candidates against a sister party of the Socialist International whose MPs take the Labour Whip at Westminster. Perhaps we can get the Irish Labour Party to stand candidates and split the vote three ways.

If a Protestant won't vote SDLP because he can't vote for a Catholic, he can stick his ballot paper where the sun doesn't shine.

Johnny Guitar said...

As an NI resident I'd like to answer a few points. Apologies if it’s a bit long-winded!

El Tom, 'unity by consent' may have been an admirable policy several decades ago but today it is dead in the water, and irrelevant in post-GFA Northern Ireland. All sides now agree that constitutional change can only be brought around by a simple majority voting in favour of it. The national question has, in effect, been put on the back burner by everyone from unionists to the IRA. The Labour Party should not let itself get sucked into one the two sectarian camps here in the province but place itself firmly on the left and firmly on the side of establishing normal left-right politics rather than Catholic-Protestant politics on this side of the Irish Sea.

Bob Piper, why should organisation in NI be equated with colonialism? Are Party structures in Scotland and Wales viewed as colonial by voters there? I honestly don't think this is an issue.

Coventrian, I understand your point about 'splitting' the left vote in Northern Ireland. What you must realise though is that there isn't really a left vote at all. The socialists who founded the SDLP (the late Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin) resigned from the party as long ago as the late seventies in protest at the nationalist path it had assumed. That has since been cemented and the SDLP today strives not to promote 'social democratic' or 'labour' politics here in Northern Ireland but competes with Sinn Fein to be the 'voice of nationalism'. What I would also stress is that there are numerous countries around the world (Belgium, Italy, Israel, etc) where the Socialist International has more than one party competing in elections. In the case of Northern Ireland, I cannot think of a place where a split between Socialist International organisations would be more justified!

The Party should take the plunge and organise here with a view to - eventually - competing in elections.

Tom said...

"All sides now agree that constitutional change can only be brought around by a simple majority voting in favour of it."

-ie. unity by consent.

Do you really think that the DUP agree with that policy?

I reckon the SDLP definitely do.

So, the SDLP takes the Labour whip on UK issues, and echos Labour policy on NI, whci I am unprepared to belive that the uninsinst parties do.

Most Labour people at least hope that one day the six counties will become part of Eire. I certainly do.

I don't wish for a bi-national party; in fact, I think it would present a long term setback for Irish unity.

Thus, I support our sister party, the SDLP, and would definitely vote the reformed Sinn Fein of today #2.

Your Only Man said...

The Irish Labour Party has been only too willing to take membeers in Northern Ireland and have formed a branch