A member of the shadow cabinet has thrown his weight behind proposals for the British Labour Party to contest council and Assembly elections here.
Andy Burnham, who served in the last Labour government and is now shadow Health Secretary, believes that the party should start by contesting the council elections which are scheduled for 2014. He believes there will be a decision on the issue within months.
“I want to build Labour in Northern Ireland and contest elections, let’s be clear about that. It is the same issue as organising in northern England. Both areas need a party to speak up for ordinary working people in the way that Labour has traditionally done,” the MP said. He believed that by standing here Labour could help build politics which were not based on the border.
Labour currently recruits members here but the local organisation is not allowed to contest elections. There are 350 members across the province. However Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has traditionally held back from fighting elections here because of its links to the SDLP whose MPs often support Labour in the Commons.
Mr Burnham addressed a meeting of the Labour members during a recent fact-finding trip to Northern Ireland when he also visited Londonderry to meet the Bloody Sunday relatives with Mark Durkan of the SDLP.
Speaking after the Labour meeting he said: “The NEC are currently speaking to the Northern Ireland Labour organisation and to our sister party the SDLP. They agreed a process of discussion and they will bring back a recommendation later this year. A decision is coming in the near future and I think it will be linked to the 2014 council elections.”
In March Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, told the Belfast Telegraph he would not object to Labour standing in council or Assembly elections, which are fought on a single transferable vote system. However, he drew the line at Labour fighting Westminster contests because they were first past the post and he believed the SDLP seats could be put at risk.
Mr Burnham endorsed this approach: “We should absolutely start with the councils — we should test the water, sense what people want and not try to run before we can walk. We can continue to work with our Westminster allies in the SDLP. There is not a complete alignment between us but we have many shared values.
“At the same time I support the principle of contesting elections ourselves because we can offer something different and there are people in Northern Ireland who will want to vote for a party of the left like Labour.”
Boyd Black, secretary of the Labour Party here, said he welcomed Mr Burnham’s support and described him as “a committed supporter of our campaign”.
“Running candidates in council elections is a sensible way for us to start and we hope to have the go ahead later this year,” he said.