Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, membership of the Labour Party in Northern quickly swelled from a few hundred to around 3,000, making it the second largest party here. This reflected the huge enthusiasm for Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies and the desire for a left-wing alternative to Green and Orange politics, despite the ongoing ban on standing Labour candidates here.
Unfortunately, in August last year, the party’s name was dragged through the dirt when a majority of the local Executive Committee (EC) dramatically resigned from the body, complaining of ‘hard left’ infiltration. It quickly became clear this was simply a flag of convenience to distract from the real issues at hand. Fractious and personalised spats had broken out at an EC meeting, reflecting frustration at the failure of the EC majority to develop Labour as a campaigning force with real relevance to the lives of workers and young people.
This led to the local party effectively being put on ice by Labour’s central bureaucracy – its Executive was dissolved and official meetings and campaigning were banned. In this context, it is unsurprising that membership contracted, although reportedly remaining around 2,000.
Having previously championed the right to stand official Labour candidates in Northern Ireland, with some even defying the ban by contesting the 2016 Assembly election as NI Labour Representation Committee candidates, many of the ‘resigners’ have now changed their minds. On 2nd June, however, this recipe for inaction and retreat was roundly rejected when an annual general meeting of over 200 Labour members elected a new EC dominated by people committed to campaigning for the right to stand.
For Labour to achieve its potential, however, the new leadership must learn from past failures and go beyond lobbying the central leadership for the right to stand. Immediately, the party should be re-organised and re-orientated towards campaigning alongside trade unionists and other anti-sectarian lefts against austerity and for equal marriage and the right to choose.
A report into the question of standing candidates in Northern Ireland is expected to be released shortly, although the issue has been repeatedly kicked down the road already and the final decision will rest with the central National Executive Committee. Regardless of the outcome of this report, the Labour Party locally should plan to contest the local elections next year in a serious manner, whether as official Labour candidate or under another banner, mobilising the party’s membership and resources behind this effort.
We appeal to the Labour Party to link up with Labour Alternative – initiated by the Socialist Party – and other campaigners to present the strongest cross-community, labour movement challenge possible in the local elections. The need for such an alternative is urgent. Labour must not wait.
By Daniel Waldron