'What's the name of that little place over there, where
we don't want to get our hands dirty with electoral politics?'
There’s a pretty consistent message coming out of the Shadow Cabinet on standing for elections in Northern Ireland. I find that disturbing given that there’s still a process going on: a process that is moving more slowly than Northern Ireland members expected, possibly because all the other participants (NEC, led by Vernon Coaker; Irish Labour Party; and SDLP) have no real interest in concluding it.
To use Ed Miliband’s words from last week, I am beginning to doubt that leading Party members and their advisers are the ‘honest brokers’ we had anticipated and that, as Party members, we have the right to expect.
In addition to Miliband’s comments last week, on 5th October Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tweeted:
On contesting elections in NI: it's sensitive. Ed right to say he's wary. Labour's National Executive continuing discussions on issue
And then, this week, Ed Balls visited Northern Ireland to discuss economic policy with the CBI. The BBC reported:
Mr Balls, who was accompanying Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman Vernon
Coaker on his visit to Stormont, said the party was still considering the matter through
an internal process.
However, Mr Balls pointed out that the party has no tradition of candidates standing in
Northern Ireland and said things had not worked out very well for David Cameron when
he had interfered in local party politics.
This ignored the fact that the Tories had an electoral pact with the UUP (although they now stand as a separate party). And if Labour were planning an electoral pact with the SDLP (which we are not) then it would be equally disastrous, perpetuating the same old divisive approach to politics.
Ed Balls was also reported in the Newsletter today as having sidestepped the issue, rather unhelpfully describing himself as a unionist in the process – when Labour in Northern Ireland has to struggle to get it into people’s heads that we are a cross community party and not the Unionist alternative to the SDLP. Balls was quoted as saying:
We are strongly committed to working closely with the region and with the [Stormont]
executive, and I think a Labour government is strongly committed to the Union but I
am not sure that necessarily translates into party political organisation here for us.... I
think you have to be quite careful about stepping into decades of political history and
suddenly deciding to do things a different way.
So the message is: we’re happy to come over here, tell people what we think is good for Northern Ireland and work with parties who have nothing to do with the Labour movement, but in order to be seen as even-handed we don’t want to allow our local members to get involved in politics and put our views to the electorate.
Anyone who thinks it’s colonialist for Labour to stand for election in Northern Ireland needs to think very seriously about what it is they are doing now.