Well well well, what have we here? A crafted PR exercise in extending the proverbial hand of friendship across the Irish Sea from none other than Labour leadership hopeful, Andy Burnham.
Candidate Burnham (not to be confused with Citizen Corbyn) penned a little article for The Belfast Telegraph yesterday, presumably at the bequest of one of his PR/Communications advisers. He essentially states that out of the Labour leadership contenders, he is the one who cares about Northern Ireland, and he is the one who will ensure the people of Northern Ireland have a voice, and are listened to. (As well many other political soundbites.)
I want the people of Northern Ireland to make their voices heard in the Labour Party and if I am elected Leader, I’ll ensure that the Party is listening.
Ah. It is rather the lovely sentiment, Mr Burnham, I concede this. But here is the problem: do the people of Northern Ireland want the Labour Party – or indeed, any traditional English-centric political party – to be their voice at Westminster?
Before I dive into the points made in Burnham’s article – and of course, offer my thoughts on same – a little lesson in UK politics 2010-2015 will commence.
Cast your mind back to the 2010 General Election, if you can. Yes, it was a hung Parliament which gifted the UK with a Con-Lib coalition government (which, given the 2015 General Election results, the Lib Dems must wish they had never agreed to). Yet it was the local and regional results across the UK which were interesting.
In Scotland, English parties contested all 59 available Westminster seats. Labour gained two seats it had lost previously in by-elections, taking its total to 41 seats, cementing its position as the dominant political party in Scotland. The Lib Dems retained its 11 seats, the SNP held six and the Conservatives just managed to retain their sole seat.
In Northern Ireland, the English parties in stark contrast were roundly rejected. I do not even have to hand the statistics for the respective local Labour and Liberal Democrat parties; I suspect that the Lib Dems were – and still are – virtually none existent here, whereas whilst the Irish Labour faction exists, it seemingly did not contest any seats. (If you have information to the contrary, please do inform me.)
The Conservatives, however, I do have polling stats on. It came to pass that there was an apparent ground-breaking deal struck between the NI Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists, under the snazzy Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force (or UCU-NF; avoid the temptation to do a Spoonerism a la James Naughtie) which was continued from the 2009 European Parliament election bipartisanship deal. It had been hailed as a union of Unionists. It was supposed to demonstrate that the Conservative Party would be the party to speak for Northern Ireland in Westminster, and potentially in government. It was roundly rejected.
The UCU-NF did not make any gains – Lady Sylvia Hermon managed to retain her seat in North Down running as an Independent, consequently meaning that the UUP had no parliamentary representation for the first time in more than 100 years. The Ulster Unionist leader, Reg Empey was unsuccessful in his attempt at the seat for South Antrim. This, his party’s electoral performance and the unsuccessful election pact ultimately led to his resignation as leader. Thus after 2010, all the sitting MPs from Northern Ireland hailed from Northern Ireland, and were all members of Northern Irish parties.
Fast forward then to the recent 2015 General Election. Again, let us focus on Scotland and Northern Ireland, those proud ‘Celtic countries’, and compare their respective results from both 2010 and 2015.
What a difference five years can make.
In Scotland, the three main English parties again contested all 59 seats. However, it ended up as being quite the bloodbath for these parties, as Scottish nationalism triumphed.
Unlike the 2010 General Election, where no seats changed party, the SNP managed to win all but three seats in an unprecedented landslide. The party ultimately gained a total of fifty-six seats. and became the first party in sixty years to win 50% of the Scottish vote.
Since the 1960s, Scottish Labour had held the majority of Scottish Westminster seats, a feat continued in the 2010 General Election. In 2015, the Labour actually went on to suffer its worst ever election defeat within Scotland, losing 40 of the 41 seats they were defending. Not only was Labour’s dominance lost and the party rendered virtually extinct, it lost several high-profile seats, including the seats of Scottish Labour Party leader Jim Murphy and then Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander.
The Lib Dems, who had retained eleven seats in 2010, lost ten of these in 2015. Again, high-profile politicians lost seats, with then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and former leader Charles Kennedy succumbing to the SNP take-over.
The 2015 Election also saw the worst performance by the Conservative Party in Scotland, which received its lowest share of the vote since its creation in 1965. It did, however, manage to retain the one seat that it previously held in 2010.
It should be noted that the 2015 General Election in Scotland took place in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, in which 44.7% of the electorate backed independence, whilst 55.3% did not. The consequence of such was that nationalism gripped the country, which spilled over into the General Election – and the rejection of the main English parties.
In Northern Ireland – again, in stark contrast -it was a case of same old, same old.
The Lib Dems and Labour again did not contest any seats. The NI Conservatives contested the 2015 General Election as a separate party for the first time since 2005; they evidently had learnt their lesson from 2010 when they had previously entered into an electoral alliance with the UUP. The party stood in 16 constituencies (sans Belfast North and Fermanagh and South Tyrone) and polled just over 9,000 votes in total. If you are one for the every cloud, silver lining optimistic streak, the NI Conservatives did manage to retain their deposit in one seat – Strangford.
In sum, the ‘Celtic countries’ in 2015 roundly rejected the English parties, who had sought to utilise these countries’ seats in their search for Westminster dominance. It is telling that in the 2015 campaign, when it was thought there would be a repeat of the hung Parliament situation from 2010, the Northern Irish DUP were tipped to become kingmakers if the Conservative Party wished to stay in government. The threat of the SNP as kingmakers for the Labour Party was exploited by the Conservatives, much to the detriment of one Ed Miliband.
What should be noted is this: traditional English parties such as Labour and the Conservatives are struggling to remain relevant in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. They will no doubt seek to address this and determine what exactly it is switching the electorate off from their respective parties.
This is especially true in Northern Ireland. Say of it what you will, but our traditional politics is steeped in history. The electorate here vote along deep-rooted community and culture lines; English parties cannot possibly hope to compete, not really.
And on that note, we return to Andy Burnham’s recent letter in The Belfast Telegraph.
Given the assessment of English parties in Northern Ireland as evidenced by the previous analysis of recent voting outcomes in both 2010 and 2015, the conclusion one firstly draws is that Andy Burnham must be desperate in his bid to become Labour leader and see off the threat of Jeremy Corbyn if he seeks to woo Northern Irish voters.
Considering the Labour defeat suffered in Scotland, losing to the growing trend of nationalism and the desire for a local party to be the voice of the people (a threat Labour did not take seriously in the 2015 election; indeed it failed to even acknowledge the threat of the SNP to its Scottish dominance until it was too late), how on earth does Mr Burnham suppose to ignite grassroots passion for the Irish wing of the Labour party in Northern Ireland, a country which has continuously opted for local parties who understand local debates and politics over mainstream parties?
Perhaps Burnham is seeking to prove his credentials both as a politician and potential party leader by considering a UK-wide party strategy, attempting to acknowledge that the UK electorate is not merely confined to England. Maybe he feels this will assist in setting him apart from the rest of the Labour leadership candidates, by speaking directly as it were to the people of Northern Ireland – demonstrating that he will try to represent the entirety of Labour supporters across the entirety of the UK, a ‘one nation Labourite’ (as opposed to the infamous ‘One Nation Tory).
Maybe he feels that he can use this to cast his arch rival Corbyn in a negative light whilst also benefiting from being branded the man of the Northern Irish people. How so? I hear you ask. Allow me to explain.
Mr Corbyn has come under criticism in the mainland press following the unearthing of historic revelations of his apparent close ties with terrorist organisations/members such as Hamas, including statements which could be construed as his implied support of their actions – such as accepting donations from organisations closely linked to Hamas. He has come under fire particularly in my neck of the woods following press coverage of his actions from the mid-Eighties onwards.
Prior to the IRA ceasefire in Northern Ireland, Corbyn apparently worked to establish links between Labour and the Provisional IRA, including regularly hosting senior figures from their political wing in Parliament. He also called for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, and paid tribute to those IRA members who were killed during The Troubles. Whilst his supporters may defend his actions and label him as one ahead of his time, his opponents argue that he gave the IRA credence. By attempting to establish a relationship with the Provos, this may have led the IRA to believe that their campaign was working. Consequently, they argue, he and others on the Left may actually have assisted in prolonging the conflict.
Such criticism was increased following from Gerry Adams recent tweeting of a photograph which shows Corbyn sitting amongst prominent Sinn Fein members (and a past IRA commander too) having coffee in the atrium of Portcullis House in Westminster.
Perhaps by extending a hand of friendship to the people of Northern Ireland, Burnham hopes to continue the negative press coverage of Corbyn’s past. After all, it was not Burnham, but Corbyn who provoked outrage after inviting Adams and other Sinn Fein members to the Commons in the weeks after the Brighton bombing in 1984. It was not Burnham, but Corbyn who observed a minute’s silence in 1987 for eight IRA members who had been killed by the SAS in an ambush in Gibraltar.
The result is that in Northern Ireland, the highlighting of Corbyn’s past history and his association with the IRA has resulted in the ‘Anyone but Corbyn’ mantra travelling across the Irish Sea and taking root among the small Labour grassroots. (It is estimated that there are 1,000 members of the Labour Party in NI, but an unknown number of registered or affiliate supporters.) A relative of an IRA hunger striker has even stated her belief that he has ignored Unionists and is too close to Sinn Fein.
Thus, the reasoning behind Burnham’s article appears to be, if Corbyn is viewed as too close to extremists and distant to the Unionists, there is an opening for Burnham to be viewed as the broad cross-community candidate, seeking to listen to both sides of the political divide.
Yet, for such an opportunity to be presented, I cannot help but feel that Burnham has failed to capitalise.
Let me go through some quotes and point out the flaws in the statements and the intentions behind them.
- ‘English heart, Irish blood’: Ah, yes. When attempting to woo the crowd, bring up a common connection. In this case, when an English candidate tries to expand his traditional English, mainstream party into new territory which has rejected said party in the past, prove you are one of them:
I am proud of my family roots in the North of Ireland and, growing up in Liverpool, the strong connection between that city and Ireland was ever present.
A lovely sentiment. But, Burnham has inadvertently revealed his lack of understanding surrounding NI politics. You see, referring to NI as ‘the North’ demonstrates nationalist sympathies; you view NI as being occupied by Britain and are awaiting the reunification of Ireland. In one sentence, Burnham has failed to recognise the identity of Northern Ireland (many here are proud to be referred to as ‘Northern Irish), irritated the unionists (who would not necessarily support Labour anyway to be fair) and so seems to continue with the Labour line of supporting nationalists – no different to the accusations lobbed at Corbyn. He displays nationalist sympathies; some nationalists may appreciate this but others will see him merely as pandering and lacking sincerity. Those nationalists who do appreciate the line will most likely never vote Labour anyway, preferring to stick with local political parties who understand the historic politics of NI.
2. ‘It’s the Tories’ fault, stupid’: austerity has been very much the policy of the Conservatives, starting from their transition to power in 2010 and continuing with Osborne’s latest budget. So what better way to help your leadership bid than by empathising with the people enduring austerity policies whilst attributing the blame for said suffering to the government?
For people in Northern Ireland, the prospect of another five years of Tory-imposed austerity must be extremely worrying. I believe that we can build a credible economic alternative to the Tories.
But here is the thing. The Conservative-led coalition government, whilst insisting that Stormont impose cuts in NI, actually assisted with bailouts needed to keep NI afloat and Stormont in business. (Literally. Stormont looked set to collapse prior to the emergency Stormont House Agreement.)
And, whilst Stormont is again at an impasse over welfare cuts, the people here view it as a local problem – that of Sinn Fein realising that is cannot be anti-austerity in the South and pro-austerity in the North, and therefore having to oppose the welfare cuts, even after accepting the Stormont House Agreement. Furthermore, if this ongoing battle fails to be solved at a local level, it is expected that the government will step in – the current Conservative government. It will not be welcomed or eagerly embraced, rather wearily accepted as necessary – but still accepted.
Also, someone from Labour trying to prove the party can provide a credible economic alternative? Let’s not even go there.
3. ‘Research? What research?’: before stating your policy intentions, it would be wise to see whether your policies fit with the locals’ desires.
I also believe in a truly comprehensive education system with opportunity for every child that isn’t determined by the postcode of the bed they are born in. The continued existence of selective education in Northern Ireland is opposed by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland and, as Leader, they will have my full support in campaigning against it.
Firstly, let me tell you the tale of academic selection and grammar schools in NI. By the time the Eleven plus was abolished (the final transfer test of that nature was in November 2008) a majority of parents in NI had spent time actively campaigning against its repeal. It did not help that its repeal was controversial and branded as sectarian politics, as the then Education Minister, Sinn Fein’s Caitríona Ruane passed the new guidelines for post-primary progression as regulation rather than as legislation. This then avoided the need for the proposals to be passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly where cross-party support for the changes did not exist. Thus, the abolition of the Eleven Plus is viewed harshly most predominately by Unionists, so once again Burnham has placed himself in the nationalist camp.
In addition, academic selection is still retained by a majority of grammar schools in NI – a move which is still supported by a majority here. Grammar schools are regarded as an opportunity for those students from working-class backgrounds to advance through academic ability. Being from a working class background myself, and having sat the Eleven Plus in 2004, I was fortunate to attend a grammar school – a competitive environment which I enjoyed.
The traditional Labour insistence of comprehensive education and the abolition of grammar schools/academic selection is still controversial in England and Wales. The education system in NI is evidently working when the national examination results are compared; education should be the discretion of devolved governments, tailored to the individual countries.
Good luck with your campaigning should you win the leadership contest, Mr Burnham. I cannot see such a campaign going far.
4. ‘Your laws are wrong because they are not what we have’: NI has its own, shall we say, unique way of debating bills and implementing legislation. That is the very foundation of devolution – a local government with local politicians debate on local issues.
The whole area of sexual and gender rights in Northern Ireland needs to take a major step forward. I know Labour Party members are at the forefront of the campaigning in the province and again they have my support. I have been highly critical in Parliament of Jeremy Hunt for his refusal to support equality across the UK in respect of blood donation from gay men and, as Leader, I will use every opportunity to press the Tory Government on these fundamental issues of equality and rights.
I will state that I am fully against discrimination in any form, and yes, perhaps NI needs to reconsider certain laws.
But maybe even the militant pro-choice campaigner, or ‘gay blood donation ban’ repealer in NI would bristle at the patronising tone of Burnham. I will not speak on behalf of others on such issues, but I will say that as a man who does not reside in NI, whose party only boasts a small membership, he has not earned the right to evaluate NI alongside other countries of the UK. He is not the Labour leader yet.
Northern Ireland is small-‘c’ conservative. We are a traditional people here; change occurs over time and at the will of the majority. Interference from the mainland, from politicians who do not understand our history or politics will not help, but may even hinder on the development of certain issues.
On a more basic level – for a man who had previously mentioned his pride in his family roots in NI, he is rather quick to criticise and assume the moral high ground.
5. ‘The alternative’s alternative?’: before proclaiming what a unique and special snowflake you can be, actually ensure that you will be a unique and special snowflake.
If those members decide that at election time the people of Northern Ireland need a socialist, non-sectarian party to vote for, a party that can appeal to people of all classes and to people of all faiths or none, then we should not stand in their way.
Now, correct me if I am wrong, but there is a non-sectarian, mostly centre-left/centre party which seeks to appeal to all regardless of class, community background or religion. That would be the Alliance Party.
A new political party tried to launch itself as the alternative’s alternative; the much-lauded and hyped NI21. Non-sectarian, centre-ground and non-religion/class specific, it aimed to be the saviour for NI politics and ‘modernise’ Stormont. However, following the revelation that it would designate itself as ‘Unionist’ rather than ‘Other’ (like Alliance) as a party classification in the NI Assembly, and the public disagreements between co-founders amongst other negative publicity, the party essentially bombed both in local elections and at the European Parliament elections in 2014.
As I have continuously reiterated in this post, people here seemingly prefer to vote for local parties over mainstream UK parties. Furthermore, the Alliance party is simply too well established as the ‘Other’ party in NI politics.
A good effort from Mr Burnham, but with stiff competition from Alliance, no real call from the electorate for a new political party in NI to answer and continuous election results illustrating the local loyalty for local parties, I cannot see how Labour plans to build a solid base here.
In sum, this article reads more as a reiteration to Labour supporters in the UK mainland of what Burnham stands for, rather than what he would actually do re NI should he win the leadership contest.
On one hand, I do somewhat appreciate the courtesy extended here via this letter by Burnham. It is a bold move, one which none of the other candidates have carried out. He is at least acknowledging that Northern Ireland does in fact exist, and has a presence at Westminster.
But on the other hand? Well, even the best of intentions (and I am too cynical to belief that this was not a PR stunt aimed for both sides of the Irish Sea) can be flawed. There are simply too many holes to pick in this letter for it to be truly effective. A lack of research in local issues, lack of knowledge re our complex political history and a rather condescending tone merely conjures to mind yet another English politician, trying and failing to understand that ‘wee country’ across the Irish Sea.
When in doubt, seek the Northern Irish out. But check that we wish to be sought out in the first place. We have seen this all before here, make sure you know what you are doing.
NB: I could, of course, have just devoted a significant period of time writing this post in the sense that Burnham may not even win, and will in fact lose to Corbyn. Ah, well. It is always enjoyable to write about politics – especially when mainstream UK politics and NI politics are suddenly entwined for the day.