This St Patrick's Day, Connor Veighy of the Northern Irish Labour Party makes the case for Labour to stand candidates for election in Northern Ireland.
“I do think we should have a Labour candidate that people can vote for wherever they live and depriving them of that is not the right thing to do.” Keir Starmer, 2021
Twenty years after Labour permitted us to join, members in Northern Ireland are still fighting for our right to stand election candidates.
NI is an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan society. 39% of people identify as neither Unionist nor Nationalist (55% among 25-34-year-olds). Trade union membership is the densest in the UK - ~40,000 members pay Labour’s political levy but receive no representation in local or devolved government. At a recent peak, The Labour Party in NI (LPNI) had ~2000 members, estimated to be the largest NI party. We pay the same fees, participate fully in Labour Party structures, regularly engage in activism in NI and canvass UK-wide to elect a Labour government.
Our Right2Stand campaign has been endorsed by GMB, Unite, USDAW and Community and by leading figures from across the Party, such as Andy Burnham, Luke Akehurst and George Howarth.
A 2022 poll by Lucid Talk (who were accurate to 1% in 2016, 17, 19 and 22) found a third of people want Labour to stand in NI and almost 2 in 5 would vote Labour. This is significant in a multi-member PR system. 6% would give LPNI a first preference representative - greater than both PBP (1.1%) and Greens (1.9%) who have elected representatives.
By not standing candidates, Labour is abdicating its responsibility to Northern Ireland.
LPNI would fully support a Labour government acting as an honest broker in NI and Stormont mechanisms would ensure this. LPNI representatives would designate as Other - neither Unionist nor Nationalist - which, in weighted cross-community votes, is effectively an abstention. LPNI representatives would therefore in no way impede the ability of the UK Government to maintain its honest broker role.
Labour’s position is totally inconsistent. They cannot be honest brokers while supporting a Nationalist or Unionist designated party. Keir Starmer rules out any deals with parties that want to break up the UK when referring to the SNP and Lisa Nandy states, “we’re not neutral, we believe in the United Kingdom”, yet Labour tells its own members to vote SDLP. LPNI has a much clearer position: designate as Other and offer Labour solutions to NI’s socio-economic challenges.
There is no left, liberal, Other party in NI, least of all one that could form the UK government and take decisions over the many reserved policy areas. People are forced to back a party they don’t support or be disenfranchised entirely. This voicelessness contributes to polarisation and violence. A Labour alternative to the old sectarian parties, offering real solutions and making devolution work, would transform NI society.
SDLP were until last year in an “official partnership” with the conservative Fianna Fáil, including canvassing against Irish Labour. Labour’s proud 96-year relationship with the Cooperative Party is betrayed in NI where the ban on Labour candidates is a ban on Coop candidates, despite the national Coop Party having backed our right to stand.
Labour have implied that the Party of European Socialists (PES) have a convention that sister parties don’t stand against each other. PES have since stated that they maintain no such convention. Indeed, PES member parties compete in a number of countries, including Belgium, Italy and Poland. Article 3.4 of the PES requires the promotion of close working relations between member parties. This means the SDLP cannot be allowed to veto LPNI standing candidates. Instead, the two parties should reach an accommodation on some areas of policy and/or electoral strategy.
LPNI initiated The British Irish Labour Forum to facilitate cross-party cooperation and have explored PES City Groups and a model similar to the Trilateral Agreement used by the student movement successfully since 1972 which could involve UK Labour and Irish Labour jointly sponsoring NI candidates.
Other cohabitation arrangements have proven mutually beneficial, such as resource targeting and vote swapping. We saw this in the Tiverton & Honiton and North Shropshire by-elections. But Labour doesn’t tell its English members to vote for a party they significantly disagree with. LPNI is nonbinary and inclusive on the constitutional question, whereas SDLP is exclusively Irish Nationalist. Similarly we differ on reproductive justice and a range of other areas. But polling actually shows LPNI could reach into areas SDLP will never win due to entrenched sectarianism meaning SDLP would actually benefit from Labour taking votes from other parties in those seats.
NI needs Labour and Labour needs NI
How can Labour ‘own’ the (post-)Brexit issue if they speak over NI heads without even seeking a mandate? Even the Tories stand at all levels in NI. How does Labour counter the coalition of chaos argument while telling people to vote SDLP? How can Labour’s social justice agenda be trusted while it denies it to 1 out of 4 nations – with one of the worst economic deprivation rates and mental health crises and lagging in civil rights access, such as abortion - and the 1.8m people who live there? With NI more in focus than ever, Labour should pre-empt these attacks before the next election.
Next month marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Now is the time for Labour to renew its commitment to NI. Now is the time for a truly unifying government, for representation at all levels and in all parts.
All Labour members in NI ask is the chance to vote for their own party.
Connor Veighey is Comms and Media Officer for The Labour Party in Northern Ireland.
If you’d like more information on LPNI or the Right2Stand campaign then you can contact LPNI or see their social media at linktr.ee/labourni.