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Labouring to make an impression on politics

After a disastrous Assembly election for the NI Labour Representation Committee and the PUP, Dr Aaron Edwards asks: what now for our democratic socialist-based parties?

Published 16/05/2016

Kathryn Johnston polled just 243 first preference votes in North Antrim
Kathryn Johnston polled just 243 first preference votes in North Antrim
Billy Hutchinson

In elections there will always be winners and losers. Even in those places around the world where the single transferable vote (STV) system has replaced the first-past-the-post system, there is every likelihood that parties will still suffer defeats at the polls.

STV is, of course, thought to be a fairer and more equitable redistribution of votes, where candidates that fail to meet the quota can still benefit from transfers from voters who have placed them further down their list of preferences. This means that even small parties have the opportunity to do well at the polls.

The recent Assembly election did not produce much in the way of surprises, with the notable exception that it enabled smaller parties to make breakthroughs in constituencies which had been dominated by bigger parties.

The most notable beneficiary of STV in the election was, of course, the Green Party, which enjoys strong support in middle-class areas such as South Belfast and North Down. It more than trebled its share of the vote from 6,031 to 18,718, winning an additional seat.

The anti-austerity People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), which drew on strong support in the marginalised working-class areas of West Belfast and Foyle, won two seats, taking 13,761 first preference votes. It had previously polled only 5,438 votes in the 2011 Assembly election.

West Belfast and Foyle are areas which are predominantly Catholic and nationalist in religious and political terms, though they do have a smaller number of Protestants residing within their electoral boundaries.

As a consequence, both Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann made the point of telling voters on the campaign trail that they are "neither orange nor green", thereby seeking election on a cross-community basis.

The PBPA's main focus is on protecting the rights of working people, the unemployed and the disabled, many of whom feel marginalised by those traditional parties they see as having done little for them during the long years of austerity. In this sense, Carroll's campaign almost certainly benefited from a protest vote against Sinn Fein.

The agenda of protecting the most deprived and marginalised people in society has a long tradition. McCann was a founder member of the Derry Labour Party, which was part of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), until his stance on civil rights led to a parting of the ways in the late-1960s.

During the 1950s and 1960s the NILP was the third political tradition and won around 100,000 votes in the 1964 and 1970 Westminster elections.

After the outbreak of sectarian violence, cross-community parties became a rare species. The Alliance Party, though attracting Protestants and Catholics into its ranks, was born out of the collapse of the old-established Unionist Party. It has always appealed to a middle-class agenda.

The NILP's vote collapsed in the 1970s, but the party limped on until the 1980s when some of its leading lights threw their energies into the Campaign for Labour Representation (CLR). The nucleus of the CLR pressure grouping wanted the British Labour Party to organise in Northern Ireland.

It was not until late-2003 that the Labour Party was forced to concede membership rights to people living in Northern Ireland. This only happened after a successful court case brought by GMB official Andy McGivern.

After the election of Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015 there was some speculation about whether the party would finally contest elections in Northern Ireland, as its Conservative rivals has repeatedly done.

Labour declined to take up the banner of democratic socialism in Northern Ireland, and even went as far as to ban its members from contesting elections.

Eight members defied the ban and ran for the Assembly as the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee. It polled only 1,577 votes - fewer votes than its claims to have members and supporters.

Its leader, journalist and author Kathryn Johnston, polled 243 first preference votes in North Antrim - fewer than half the votes of Green candidate Jennifer Breslin.

In East Belfast Erskine Holmes, who served as a NILP councillor in Belfast in the 1970s, polled 78 first preference votes. The best-performing candidate, Damien Harris, polled 285 first preference votes in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

That British Labour has shown no interest in contesting elections in Northern Ireland must also be seen in the context of a reversal of fortunes for the party in Scotland.

The One Nation project, instigated under former Labour leader Ed Miliband, seems to have been jettisoned by the current leadership.

This begs the question if there remains a viable labour politics in Northern Ireland.

Since the demise of the NILP, British Labour has intimated that its "sister" party is the SDLP, which was unlikely ever to appeal to the Protestant working class.

The labour tradition in the Protestant community tended to percolate through former NILP activists, who drifted into other parties.

Notable individuals included Jim McDonald and David Overend, both of whom were responsible for formulating labour-orientated policies inside the PUP from the late-1970s onwards.

For much of the 1980s and 1990s the PUP imbibed a democratic socialist ethos in its politics.

This was to change under the successive leadership terms of Dawn Purvis and Brian Ervine, who emphasised liberal and centre-Right tendencies respectively.

The election of Billy Hutchinson as party leader in October 2011 stabilised the party's liberal-Left tendencies until the influx of new members in the wake of the flag protests.

Throughout 2013 the PUP saw its membership rise from less than 100 to more than 250. However, this placed tremendous strain on the party's Leftist credentials and saw a broadening of its support-base to include loyalists more in tune with The Sash than The Internationale.

The PUP failed to capitalise on its impressive showing at the 2014 local government elections, where it won more than 12,000 first preference votes and saw councillors elected in North/West Belfast, East Belfast and Coleraine. It won only 5,955 votes in the 2016 Assembly election.

That the DUP managed to reinforce its 38-seat lead in the recent polls suggests that either the PUP failed to make its message relevant at a regional level, or, more plausibly, that the ethnic rage and angst produced by the flag protests led to an artificial swelling of votes for the PUP. In both cases it appears that those with a natural political home in the DUP have simply returned to that fold.

The attempts to reconcile two increasingly divergent strands - cultural loyalism and civic unionism - running through the party have come at a price. Outwardly, at least, the party has made a trade-off, jettisoning some of its democratic socialist, pluralist and civic unionist ethos for the short-term political gains offered by ethnic-based protest.

A quick glance at the PUP's policies is instructive here. On devolution, for instance, the party has not really defined what it understands by unionism and may even have retreated into a centre-Right position on "more stringent background checks" for economic migrants. However, on education, social development and justice, it appears to be more liberal and forward-leaning.

If the party is to reach out beyond this residual cultural loyalism that has come to dominate its support base, it needs to construct a more confident, outward-facing unionism.

In light of this, what then is the future of democratic socialist-based parties more broadly in this part of the United Kingdom?

That is difficult to forecast with any kind of certainty. If the past century is anything to go by, we might well see the resurgence of a cross-community labour tradition.

Now the best chance appears to come from the People Before Profit Alliance, provided it ensures it does not get entangled in the barbed wire of national or religious identity that has long plagued Irish politics.

If the Assembly election demonstrated anything, it is that the radical impulse for the basis of a new labour politics is more likely to come from within Catholic nationalism than from Protestant unionism.

  • Dr Aaron Edwards is the author of A History Of The Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism And Sectarianism (Manchester University Press, 2009). His latest book, UVF: Behind The Mask, will be published next year

Belfast Telegraph

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