Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland needs the chance to vote Labour

The party’s HQ in London receives up to £300k a year from Northern Ireland, but spends just 1% on the local branch

By Boyd Black

The question of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI) running Labour candidates is currently under review by the Labour Party’s NEC. With our 3,000 members and supporters, LPNI has been marshalling its arguments in favour of us standing candidates.

These arguments have been well-rehearsed. To be denied the right to run Labour Party candidates is a gross suppression of our basic democratic rights and our human rights. We are disenfranchised.

Not only that, the suppression of Labour Party candidates drives us towards sectarian politics at a time when much of society wants to move in the other direction.

Northern Ireland is an increasingly heterogeneous and cosmopolitan society, with a growing ethnic minority population. This is reflected in evolving political attitudes and support.

Social and economic issues and issues of ethnicity and women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQIA rights are increasingly important in determining political identities and attitudes.

According to the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2015, 40% of the population think of themselves as “neither unionist nor nationalist”. Even in the “polarised” 2017 Assembly election, the moderate centre continued to strengthen.

A cross-community, democratic socialist Labour Party can uniquely help this society move from the identity politics of the past.

A neglected argument in favour of us running candidates revolves around the whole question of Labour Party funding. There are two main aspects to this. One involves the membership fees and donations our local members and supporters pay to the party. The second involves the political contributions of members of Labour Party affiliated trade unions such as Unite the Union, GMB, Usdaw and Unison.

There is a long and proud history of trade union activity in the north of Ireland. The TUC held its 1892 and 1927 conferences in Belfast. In recent years, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has been holding its annual congress in Belfast on a regular basis, including this year.

Much of this trade union activity has been anti-sectarian during difficult times and has involved many Labour members and sympathisers.

Trade union density — that is the proportion of workers who are members of a union — is high in Northern Ireland. At 34% in 2015, it was higher than in Scotland, where density is 32%. Over half of all employees’ pay is affected by a collective trade union agreement, the highest proportion anywhere in the UK.

There are 243,000 trade union members in the region at the last count. Over 70% of these are members of 78 different GB-based unions. Most of them are members of trade unions politically affiliated to the Labour Party. The four largest affiliated unions — by membership — are Unite the Union (43,129), Unison (38,994), Usdaw (18,079) and GMB (12,013).

In recent years, the local unions, organised in the Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) of the ICTU, have been very active in a campaign of resistance to the austerity cuts imposed by the Westminster Government through the Stormont House Agreement. They also have been campaigning for a better and fairer alternative for working people and their communities.

Crucially, however, the trade union movement as a whole is chronically weakened in its campaigning for economic and social justice in Northern Ireland by the suppression of Labour Party representation.

Most significantly, given the Labour Party’s refusal to run candidates, over 37,000 local trade union members have “contracted in” to pay the political levy, a contribution to their union’s political fund. Much of this normally goes to the Labour Party.

(Unlike in Great Britain, where members can “contract out” of the political fund, in Northern Ireland a member is legally obliged to sign a form and “contract in” if they wish to pay.)

According to the report of the Certification Officer, in December 2015 these Northern Ireland members paid a total of £219,768 into their unions’ political funds, much of which goes to fund the Labour Party.

These members, who have made a conscious decision to contribute to their union’s political fund are — like everyone else here — disenfranchised from any Labour representation by Labour in the Westminster Parliament, in the Stormont Assembly, in the European Parliament, or in local councils, the same as everyone else.

It is difficult to estimate how much our local Labour membership pays into central funds in membership fees and donations — perhaps £75,000-£80,000 per annum. Maybe more, as we know there are some very generous donors.

In addition, there is a considerable sum contributed by our registered supporters, who paid to vote in the Labour Party leadership elections.

Thus, we estimate the Labour Party in London may receive up to £300,000 per annum from Northern Ireland.

Currently, with over 2,000 fully paid-up members in Northern Ireland, LPNI receives a grand total of £3,542 per annum in return. This is unacceptable. It is not a fair deal.

It suggests that we can, both on equity grounds and on grounds of political need, demand the establishment of a regional office, with paid staffing. Our members need the assistance of a regional official.

But, most of all, we all need the democratic right to vote for Labour Party candidates.

Boyd Black is the elected Northern Ireland representative on the Labour Party’s national policy forum. He is a member of the LPNI executive committee

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