The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader against a background of witch-hunts and media slander shows the massive opportunities for a genuinely anti-austerity, left party. These opportunities aren’t confined to the other side of the Irish Sea. The Corbyn phenomenon has important implications in Northern Ireland.
Left alternative urgently needed
The Labour Party now has more than 3,000 members in Northern Ireland, making it one of the largest political parties here. The Socialist Party believes it is necessary to build a left challenge, not just to the Tories in Westminster, but also to the sectarian parties at Stormont who have implemented austerity while championing a corporation tax cut for big business.
Labour Party members are not allowed to stand in elections here. Instead, they are told to support their “sister party” – the right-wing, backward, nationalist SDLP. We don’t believe, however, that Labour members should simply wait from approval from Labour leaders, either on the left or the right of the party, to begin advancing the anti-sectarian, anti-austerity alternative which is needed. Labour members should be prepared to act independently in order to help rebuild Northern Ireland’s third tradition – which is not Orange or Green, but red. This could include working in alliance with others, such as the Socialist Party, who also stand genuinely in this tradition.
Sectarian division must be challenged, not ignored
In Northern Ireland, those of us rebuilding a political voice for working class people face the difficult task of challenging sectarianism. While important layers in both communities are enthused by Corbyn’s policies, there are significant complications. A party based in Britain which has a history of implementing repressive measures can be unattractive to a large section of Catholics. Likewise, Corbyn’s mistaken support for Sinn Féin and the republican movement have been used to undermine him in the right-wing press and can alienate many Protestant people from a political force under his leadership.
To develop a mass base in both communities, a new political force must be built locally, from the bottom up, uniting workers and young people in struggle. Such a party must fight Stormont cuts, but also develop, through discussion, a programme to unite working class people across the sectarian divide. That means grappling with issues such as flags, parades and the past, taking independent positions which engage with the fears and aspirations of people in both communities and can point a way forward to solutions that cut across sectarian division
Learning from the past
Historically, the example of the Northern Ireland Labour Party shows it is possible to build a left alternative here. The party had a thousands of members from both communities. At its high point, it won over 100,000 votes from across the sectarian divide and became the main opposition at Stormont. However, we must also learn lessons from the party’s demise. At the outset of the Troubles, it took one-sided positions, tailgating the Unionists, and was reduced to a rump within a few short years. In building a new voice of the working class today, we must not repeat this mistake
The Socialist Party and Labour Alternative will play a positive role in the process of building a new, mass party for workers and young people. We will work closely with our friends in the Labour Party to ensure the strongest left force possible emerges through the struggles to come.