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Ethnic divide in Northern Ireland leaves little space for people to focus on politics of Left and Right


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

The poet John Hewitt often outlined a "hierarchy of values". He was an Ulsterman, because he fundamentally belonged to the province in all its complexities; an Irishman, because he was born on a pre-partitioned island; British, by virtue of language and in being a part of the British Isles; and finally European, because we are on the archipelago tucked away in the north west of the continent of Europe.

The last was as much an intellectual breathing-space for Hewitt as anything else; a sign of looking outwards beyond the narrow confines of the tribalism of national politics.

For this reason Hewitt's other major identity was as a man of the Left and the British labour movement. He was a branch delegate for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) and would likely have contemplated the events of the past three weeks with bemused interest, puffing furiously on his pipe while engaging in the odd political row whenever it was required.

Shortly after the announcement of the referendum result, when 51.9% of UK voters opted to leave the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron tendered his resignation. He said he would remain in Downing Street until his party voted in a new leader to take the helm and conduct the terms of Brexit.

For Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn there has been no such resignation, no concerted effort to cauterise the deep wound that has opened up between him and the Parliamentary Labour Party over these last few weeks. Within two weeks of the referendum more than 80% had deserted him, citing their loss of confidence in his leadership.

It is said that leaders cease being leaders when they lack followers.

However, Corbyn has never been a leader in the conventional sense and has lost only the loyalty of the elected politicians around him - a general without his staff officers, but not without his vast army of supporters throughout the United Kingdom.

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There can be little doubt that the mass resignations of Labour MPs from Corbyn's shadow Cabinet, the vote of no confidence and the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the party in Parliament and the party in the wider country have irreparably damaged British Labour.

At a time when austerity measures are biting on public-sector workers and the hardest-hit working families, Labour - and the UK as a whole - requires a strong Opposition ready to exact pressure, contest a general election and step into government.

This is clearly not where Labour are at. While Corbyn is unable to organise basic meetings of the PLP, a whopping 100,000 new members have joined Labour since the European referendum, a large number with the express intention of keeping him as leader.

By their own admission, many of these new supporters are supporters of Corbyn, not supporters of Labour. Corbyn is, therefore, likely to triumph in the current leadership contest, possibly by an even bigger majority than that which propelled him into office in September 2015.

At the very least his opponents have underestimated his staying power, the stubbornness of his advisers and the size of his mandate.

Meanwhile, the local Northern Ireland branch of the Labour Party has stood by the leader. Its executive committee voted overwhelmingly - 10 in favour with two abstentions - to back Corbyn, curiously in light of his continuing refusal to allow it to contest elections.

But, aside from following the bipartisan-style approach of every previous Labour leader back to Harold Wilson, there are good reasons why the cause of the Left has been halted in Northern Ireland, above all by the deep ethnic divide that separates Protestants and Catholics.

Even on the issue of austerity it is more likely that voters will back a local political option. In Northern Ireland, one of the most-deprived parts of the UK, poverty has a peculiarly sectarian complexion.

The two main parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - do not compete against one another, except when using the other as a rallying call to mobilise voters to cast a ballot to maximise their own political project.

In a society like this there are few opportunities for parties like Labour and the Conservatives to focus people's attention on Left/Right politics. Ethnic politics show little sign of abating here, as repeated elections show.

Right across Europe the fault lines are shifting away from this old axis towards something akin to political hybridity. As a result populist movements are gaining ground in Italy, Germany, France, Spain and The Netherlands.

In Britain we see the evolution of politics towards a Remain/Brexit-style divide that has reportedly crossed traditional party lines since the referendum. But what of the traditional Labour voters, who decided to shake the British Establishment in casting a vote for Brexit?

Corbyn may not prove able to win back the white working class, who abandoned Labour. But who can?

The problem is that neither Corbyn nor any alternative candidate put forward by his opponents can be confident about winning back these once-core voters.

The lack of a credible candidate who could conceivably win a general election was one of the reasons Corbyn won the leadership so emphatically in the first place.

He has stood firm and, thanks to the National Executive Committee, finds himself automatically placed on the ballot paper as the incumbent in any leadership contest.

It is likely that Corbyn's victory in a second leadership contest will prompt the emergence of a separate party (comprising disaffected Westminster MPs), as maverick Labour backbencher Frank Field recently outlined in an article for a London newspaper.

At some point these seemingly irreconcilable groups may realign, but in the meantime a rather comfortable and somewhat hubristic Conservative Party will continue to rule the roost of mainstream British politics.

Dr Aaron Edwards is an academic, writer and historian. He is the author of A History Of The Northern Ireland Labour Party (Manchester University Press). Dr Connal Parr teaches history at Fordham University's London Centre. His book on Ulster Protestant politics and culture is forthcoming from Oxford University Press

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