When Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious contender for the Labour leadership, Northern Ireland was not left untouched by the surge in support for his left-wing, anti-austerity policies.
Membership of the Labour Party here swelled from a few hundred to over 3,000 members and registered supporters from across the sectarian divide, making it the second largest party in the North despite central leadership’s ongoing ban on contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
While only a small minority have become activists, the Socialist Party welcomed this as a positive development in putting anti-sectarian, class politics back on the agenda in a serious way and has worked fraternally with Labour activists in campaigns, as well as taking part in comradely discussion.
Unfortunately, the Labour Party in Northern Ireland hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in early August, with six members of its Executive Committee suddenly resigning their positions, allegedly because of other left groups – People Before Profit (PBP) and the Socialist Party – organising within the party. However, this explanation did not stand up to scrutiny. Former PBP members on the Executive left that organisation years ago and have every right to be Labour members, including to be elected to leading positions. A small number of Socialist Party members did join Labour. Some did so only to help defend Corbyn against the Blairite coup-attempt, others became active in their local areas in an open and honest way to help develop a broad, anti-sectarian left. However, none sought senior positions within the party and some of those who resigned from the Executive were not only aware of this for quite some time but actively encouraged Socialist Party members’ involvement.
In an opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph, former secretary Kathryn Johnston seemed to drop the ‘reds under the bed’ explanation for the resignations and, instead, focused on a dispute on the Executive over an organisational matter which led to allegations of verbal abuse and bullying on both sides. However, procedures to deal with such issues are in place and neither does this adequately explain the resignations of a majority from the Executive. This spat has dragged Labour’s name through the mud and been used to justify the suspension of all activity in Northern Ireland while central leadership conducts an investigation. So what was it really about?
While we cannot be definitive, the resignations have served to deflect attention from criticism about the stagnation of the party in Northern Ireland, with falling attendance at meetings, no progress in the campaign for the right to stand in elections here and a lack of direction in general. The Executive elected last year was seen as a shift to the left in the party. In last year’s Assembly election, three of the group who resigned had stood as candidates for the NI Labour Representation Committee (NILRC), in defiance of the London leadership. However, after taking office, they moved in a conservative direction and, against the wishes of a majority of activists, refused to allow members to use this banner to contest the election this March. While the NILRC candidates received no disciplinary action for their stand, two Labour activists have recently been expelled simply for signing the nomination papers of other left candidates in this year’s election.
What way forward?
This debacle has damaged Labour in Northern Ireland but the party’s activists can still play a vital role in the urgent task of building a cross-community, left alternative. However, this will require a determination to make labour politics relevant to the lives of working class people here, even if that means risking expulsion by defying the bureaucratic diktats of the party apparatus. Labour activists must campaign against austerity, for socialist solutions to poverty, for marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. They must also put labour politics forward at election time. What use is a Labour Party membership card if it prevents you from fighting for the future you believe in?
The Socialist Party supports the building of a broad, cross-community party of the working class to help challenge sectarianism and fight for the interests of the 99%. To that end, we worked with others to launch Labour Alternative ahead of last year’s Assembly election. The four candidates who have stood so far – mostly young, from across the sectarian divide – have won the highest left votes in their respective constituencies in decades. Labour Alternative has been to the fore in campaigns against austerity and for abortion rights. We believe this exemplifies the approach Labour Party activists should adopt and we appeal to them to work with us to help build the left voice so sorely needed in Northern Ireland. Amidst deepening sectarian polarisation, the enthusiasm for Corbyn’s left policies has created a window of opportunity which we cannot allow to slip by.
By Daniel Waldron