Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Are The Fabians True Colours?

Fabians Join In the Crack

When Fabianism and Northern Ireland come together, I am bound to take an interest.

I rejoined the Fabian Society when I retired from parliament, having been a Local Society Secretary nearly 50 years ago. Speakers in those days included the local Labour MP, Mannie Shinwell. Whilst only last week I addressed the Sheffield Fabians even though I was somewhat under the weather.

On Northern Ireland, I served for almost a decade on both its Commons Select Committee and on the British Irish Parliamentary Body. So I was hardly ever away from the island of Ireland in that time. Yet I had never once visited the north or the south until I became an MP.

Labouring in Ulster

There are around 100 members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. They have no Regional or Constituency structure and the national Labour Party makes no efforts to recruit members or to run candidates.

It is only after a legal threat, that Labour decided to allow a Regional Forum to be set up if the membership in the Province ever reaches 200.

The Fabian Society has now stepped in by setting up a Local Society in Northern Ireland. As the Fabian Society has been affiliated to the Labour Party ever since the latters initial formation in 1900, this could be a significant move for those looking for Labour to have a future in Northern Ireland politics. It might even encourage those attending its discussions to join the Labour Party and for the Labour Membership to nudge nearer that 200 threshold.

Fabians Need To Be Well Red

But nothing is ever simple in Northern Ireland politics, even if we do now have a Paisley-Adams Alliance. In setting up a Local Society in Northern Ireland, the Fabians have changed their normal rules for membership.

Normally, membership of a Local Fabian Society is open to those who are eligible for membership of the Labour Party. Others can join as affiliates.

But for Northern Ireland purposes, the Fabians will also allow members of the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party to join their Local Society. Why are they doing this, when the people concerned could join in any case as associate members?

Labour has cultivated a position in Northern Ireland which is neither Green nor Orange, in order to enhance the principles contained in the Belfast Agreement. Why are the Fabians (who have a special relationship with the Labour Party) saying they prefer to accommodate the Green rather than the Orange?

Is it not better to keep out of these sectarian games? I managed to be immersed in the politics of the island for a decade without getting myself into a great deal of hassle. I always claimed to be neither Green nor Orange, but to be Red. It is something I recommend to the Fabian Society who certainly at one time used to be a bunch of democratic socialist intellectuals. They should know the significance of colour coding for Northern Irish politics.


Sunder Katwala said...


The new Fabian Local Society group has explicitly stated three things.
(i) It is not going to engage in the issue of Labour Party organisation in Northern Ireland, which is an issue for the Labour Party. Those organising the group want to create a forum for substantive discussion of social and economic issues in particular, and wanted to be quite clear that neither the local nor national society was seeking to intervene in the debate about Labour. (The Fabian Society does not, as you know, take organisational positions; but there was always a likelihood that some would ask whether this was part of a plan to increase Labour organisation, and since it is not, the decision was made to make that crystal clear).

(ii) That it will welcome participation from those of all communities, faiths and all parties and none in Northern Ireland, wherever people are interested in Fabian values and a left-of-centre perspective.

(iii) That its focus will largely be on social and economic issues, as these are underdiscussed and a forum for them could be valuable. That does not mean that it will never discuss constitutional/political questions; simply that these are

The issue of Full/Associate membership is not a change of the rules, but rather an application of the rules to Northern Ireland.

Members of no party can be full members, where they would be eligible to join the Labour Party. Elsewhere in the UK, members of other parties (Greens, LibDems, Tories) can become Associate Members. (In Northern Ireland, the distinction arises because the SDLP [and Irish Labour] are sister parties of the Labour Party and members of the PES, etc, etc - while Alliance,DUP, UUP, Sinn Fein and others are not.

This is something of a technical issue, arsing from the national rules, and efforts are being made to demonstrate openness across the political spectrum. However, in this context, the difference between Full and Associate is rather small (it is solely participation in national Fabian ballots, such as the Labour leadership election and Fabian Executive).

We take the point about perceptions, and perhaps an option would have been to treat SDLP members as Associates too - but the issue arises from the Labour Party's formal association with them, and so this is the same approach that applies to non-UK Fabian members (for example, elsewhere in Europe, if a member is part of a social democratic party).

The intention to be open to engagement with those from all of the domestic parties who are sympathetic to Fabian values has had a positive response from across different parties.

Harry Barnes said...


I fully accept the importance of your first three points. In expressing hopes that a Fabian Society in Northern Ireland (NI) would lead to a growth of Labour Party membership in the Province, I only saw this as an informal by-product of its activities and not as a matter of deliberate policy.

On the organisational points you raise, there is an additional area which is restricted to Full Members of Local Societies and isn't open to Associate Members. Only Full Members can normally be their Officers, Executive Members and Representatives and therefore (within the rules of the Fabian Society) speak for it and determine its programme of activities. Although I appreciate that matters effecting the latter will probably be worked out in a more informal way.

I still, therefore, feel that it is a mistake to have opened Full Membership rights in NI to members of the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party. You produce two related arguments for this.

First you point out that the Labour Party recognises the SDLP as a sister party through the Socialist International. The same, of course, applies to the Irish Labour Party. But in NI circumstances, this argument needs to be weighed against the fact that opening up such membership to two Irish Nationalist Parties will be perceived by Unionists as a being biased against them. Yet the Society should be wishing to attract left to left-of-centre Unionists into its activities. They certainly exist.

Secondly, you argue that members of the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party should qualify for full membership as this is the equivalent of what occures outside of the UK for members of Parties affilated to the Socialist International. Drawing an analogy between NI and countries outside of the UK will go down like a lead balloon amongst the Unionists you hope to draw into Associate Membership. They will tell you that they actually live in the UK already and are not outsiders.

Of course, I wish the Fabians well in NI and hope that my concerns come to little. And as you are still waiting for me to help establish a North Derbyshire Fabian Society, I am not really in much of a position to complain about the nature of progress elsewhere.

Alan Sheeran said...

Harry and Sunder,

Thanks for your comments. I chaired the Fabian meeting in Northern Ireland and would like to make a few clarifications.

Firstly, I agree with Sunder's comments on the issue of Labour organisation in NI. It is not what is intended through this group, nor would it serve to build socialist dialogue over here.

On Harry's point about turning off Unionist socialists - that is not my experience of talking the issue through with those unionists. Everyone has been anxious to say that they support the move and want to see the discussion of policy alternatives based on socialist princples.

We have consistently lost generations of young people from socialism simply because we have had no coherent, progressive alternatives in NI. We hope the Fabian Society can contribute to the reframing of political priorities here.

Harry Barnes said...


As you will see in my above comment, I fully accept the distinctions between Labour Party and Fabian membership in NI - influences either way can only come from via informal and entirely unplanned means.

I am pleased that Unionists arn't put off by the membershp structure and agree on the need for left of centre ideas to grow and develop in NI. Perhaps in time the Labour Party itself will decide to follow your approach.

Jenny said...


You are making the assumption that Irish Labour in NI is a nationalist party. Check out our web site and in particular the statement of 8th May 2006. We've gone to some trouble to develop a philosophy of 'part of both, excluded from neither' and that is reflected in our membership, which includes nationalists, unionists and people who just don't care but want to campaign on other issues. Personally I'm not in the British LP because I think they fail to understand the complexity of the border issue in NI - as well as not being keen on having to beg. And there was the little matter of the war in Iraq.....


Harry Barnes said...


I accept both (1) the Irish Labour Party are a thinner shade of green than the SDLP and (2) they are more of a democratic socialist party than New Labour is. But whilst I am all for power sharing within and across borders, I can't see the conceptually foggy idea of the sharing of legal sovereignty working in NI's cirumstances.

Given peace, the economy on the Island of Ireland will grow and intergrate.In terms of practical politics it is counter-productive to try to force feed this development via fancy constitutional formulas.

Whilst NI decides to remain part of the UK, we can only draw leftish Unionists into labourism by the later having a UK structure. Work needs doing to get my Labour Party to organise and recruit properly on NI. The more the ecomomy of the Island integrates, the more the two Labour Parties will then need to co-operate.