Thursday, September 22, 2011

Refounding Labour in Northern Ireland (2): Have we been conned?

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.


Anonymous said...

You've been had.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - Hmmm. Time will tell. Any advice on what to do next, from your perspective?

Carnán Lao said...

So Jenny does this mean Labour members in Northern Ireland now have the much longed for prize of standing Labour Party candidates in clear sight following their long & stubborn campaign? Perhaps not!
A rump of Irish Labour Party members in the North have an historic antipathy to ‘British’ Labour both for personal and political reasons. Dialogue for most of its Northern leadership is not an option; for some the idea of standing candidates has been expressed as not the purpose of membership – so why talk to that lot? The SDLP remains in some chaos, leaderless and split on the future direction of the party. Most members, it seems, long for the days of its pre-eminent position as the leader of northern Nationalism. Not a good place to start a dialogue on collaboration or partnership amongst comrades? And as for the Labour CLP itself, for many in its leadership the idea of a dialogue with the SDLP or Irish Labour may be a betrayal of their perceived fundamental right to stand Labour candidates. Indeed for several the antipathy which they feel to those who have a different Labour label may well define their ability to have a reasonable conversation about the future.

However stranger processes of dialogue have started in more difficult places. Finally Labour under Ed Milliband, recognises that members in Northern Ireland might actually have a point and a critical mass of people in its senior decision making structures are seeing a different future for Labour here. The Labour CLP and the other parties have some very capable and creative thinkers who know about managing difficult conversations. And the prize... the offer of a smart social democratic/labour collaboration to the voter which can only be a winning outcome for all on the left.

Jenny Muir said...

Well, Carnalea, you sum up the position very well. Let's start with your final sentence: 'the offer of a smart social democratic/labour collaboration to the voter which can only be a winning outcome for all on the left'. The outcome is worth pain and perhaps even compromise, in my opinion. However, I'm neither a career politician nor an ideologue.

Let's start with Irish Labour. Although I may have great affection for some individual members, you are right about their general approach. But I would make a distinction between the Northern rump of a party that remains in the wake of the decision not to stand for elections, and the potential should they change that position in Dublin. I understand that some Labour types would prefer to join a party linked with Dublin rather than London - for example perhaps in future some current SDLP members - and if they had the chance of a political career up here then the character of Irish Labour North of the border may well change.

Regarding the SDLP, there's no point in talking until after the leadership election, and depending on the result I accept it may be difficult. If the Labour-minded contingent win, there may be potential. If they lose, it depends on what they do next. I hope they all defect to Irish Labour, but if so it would have to be with a guarantee from Dublin that they could stand in elections. And the community designation of that party might also be a problem.

And regarding my own comrades? Yes there are different views about whether we should talk to other parties. There have been and will continue to be lively debates. I don't want to say more, but there are clear patterns in who wants to talk and who doesn't, which have noting to do with opinions on the border. That means arguments can be won or lost, and I can participate in that process. I do think my personal position of a joint platform and manifesto is likely to remain a minority view, unfortunately.

Incidentally it's clear that the membership numbers impressed the Refounding Labour team. I would urge anyone who supports Labour standing in NI to join up and boost the numbers still further.