Belfast Telegraph

Ed Miliband, how can Northern Ireland treat you seriously if you won't take a stand?

By Liam Clarke

Will your best friend tell you about the elephant in the room? There was a recent flurry of media activity about this subject - should you tell people if they have an odour problem or their partner is having an affair?

In the case of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who is in town, I will try to be a good friend by telling him something that he may find unpalatable. Hereabouts, the elephant in the room is that "one nation" Labour won't contest elections in Northern Ireland despite having over 300 members in its constituency party. Worse, Mr Miliband regularly sends them begging letters urging them to dig deep to support Labour candidates.

This refusal to participate democratically goes so deep that it undermines anything he may do as an opposition leader here.

Thanks to Ivan Lewis, Labour's energetic shadow Secretary of State, Mr Miliband has associated himself with classy people. Professor Deirdre Heenan and the businessman Colin Anderson are heading a panel looking at "the root causes of intergenerational economic marginalisation and deprivation in Northern Ireland".

The results will feed into the Labour Manifesto and Mr Miliband is attending a hearing, but it must occur, even to him, that this is the sort of event you usually use to promote your local candidates.

It would be unthinkable to go to Scotland and take soundings about the Scottish economy in time for the election but not stand there. It can be argued that Labour would do as badly as the Tories have done, but then neither party is doing well in Scotland either and we hear no talk of them pulling out of that contest.

Indeed, both Labour and the Tories are giving their Scottish parties more autonomy to run their own shows and pick their own candidates. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, likes to say that he doesn't have to seek permission from Ed Miliband to do things.

Besides, Northern Ireland had a long tradition of Labour representation until the Sixties and standing here, even with a low result, would show a message of engagement.

Perhaps nobody tells Mr Miliband it seems strange him swanning in here as if he was the head of a think-tank, not a politician.

A couple of years ago when Rebecca Hall, currently student president in Northern Ireland, asked him about standing here during an open session at the Labour conference, he said no, arguing that Labour had to be able to act as honest brokers if it was in government here when there was a crisis.

Yet governments have to handle crises in areas where they are elected all the time.

It is normal.

Another argument put forward sotto voce is that Labour favours a united Ireland and doesn't want to dig in here. Again, that is specious. Under present arrangements, Irish unity can only be brought about by referendum, not by politicians at Westminster or Stormont.

Labour policies here can be a bit of a mess. In government it opposed the devolution of corporation tax here, so we know where the party's heart lies traditionally.

It now supports the enabling powers and says that it will make up its mind about the tax before the measure becomes operative in two years' time.

Unfortunately, this lead-in period is meant to be spent wooing foreign investors with the tax cuts, not making up your mind if there should be any.

Labour needs to make up its mind on this one.

Delaying corporation tax for another two years also delays its effects until the parliament after next.

Labour wouldn't mess about on such issues if it had to answer to a local electorate.

Read more:

Ed Miliband says private sector can drive Northern Ireland prosperity 

Miliband meets NI political leaders

Miliband pledge on Northern Ireland 

Oakeshott funding Labour candidates 

PM hails new powers of Holyrood

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