It’s Time for Labour to Disassociate from the SDLP

Labour's link to the SDLP should leave a sour taste in the mouth of any progressive or socialist.

It isn’t hard to find new alleys in which to attack Jeremy Corbyn for the same thing over and over. Fumbling and scrambling in the dark, the British media and the #FBPE crowd have made a startling discovery: not only does Labour have a sister party in Northern Ireland, it has a sister party that is urging it to “back single market membership.”

That the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is Labour’s sister might be news to some in Britain – and an opportunity for others to sneer about how Sinn Féin are actually Labour’s sister, because you can’t support Irish reunification without being in Sinn Féin apparently – but it is not to the frustrated members of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI), the regional section of Labour boasting 3,000 members and supporters. LPNI members have long been demanding that Labour run candidates in the north, but it has so far resisted the temptation and supported SDLP candidates, with SDLP MPs informally taking the Labour whip in Westminster in return.

There being an LPNI is a result of progress; residents of Northern Ireland were barred from joining Labour up until 2003, when Belfast GMB trade unionist Andy McGivern successfully challenged the policy. The failure of the National Executive Committee (NEC) to sanction the running of candidates since then boiled over in 2016, when eight members, under threat of expulsion, stood for Assembly elections under the banner of the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee. Predictably for a new party running eight candidates, none were returned. No candidates were fielded in either the 2017 Assembly or Westminster elections, resulting in the weeklong hunger strike of County Armagh activist Matt Beeching, who decried the “unfair and wholly undemocratic” process, as well as the failure of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form an Assembly.

One could accept if all of this inner strife was the result of a principled stand on Labour’s part. It might be acceptable if, led by a republican in Jeremy Corbyn, they had decided that a British party could not extend into Ireland while partition still exists without tripping up in the messy entanglement of colonialism, but that it comes as a result of support for the SDLP should leave a sour taste in the mouth of any progressive or socialist. Founded by some with real socialist credentials, such as Gerry Fitt, and others like John Hume who had been active in the northern civil rights movement, the party had lived out its usefulness once the Good Friday Agreement had been struck and it was no surprise to see it overtaken by Sinn Féin as the largest republican/nationalist party in 2003. Since the retirement of Hume in 2001, and especially since Colum Eastwood assumed the leadership in 2015, the party has retreated into a position of representatives of the reactionary middle class Catholic enclave in the north. This position has seen them sink into irrelevancy, supported by those who are nominally nationalist, but whose material conditions are comfortable enough for them to not truly care one way or the other. The SDLP has watched its vote share lessen in every Assembly election since 1998 and lost its three MPs in the general election of 2017.

It’s very simple to see how the SDLP have lost voters outside of their core base: 72% of people surveyed in 2016 supported a change in the north’s abortion laws, which outright ban abortion unless there is a threat of permanent and serious damage to the health of the pregnant person, yet in the recent West Tyrone by-election, the SDLP ran on an explicit “pro-life” platform. Britain’s Abortion Act predates the Troubles and with polling indicating that the legalisation of abortion in all cases up to twelve weeks in the Republic of Ireland is likely, Northern Ireland looks set to become the last corner of northern Europe where those seeking to terminate a pregnancy will have their bodily autonomy denied. Corbyn’s Labour are, rightfully, often cited as one of the most exciting prospects in present day socialist and progressive politics; for them to maintain a sisterhood – cited by Owen Smith as recently as May 10 – with a party committed to maintaining an oppressive status quo in regards to bodily autonomy is unconscionable. Coupled with an inconsistent record on same-sex marriage – supported by roughly 65% of people in the north and 92% of the republican/nationalist community – it is clear that the least Labour could do for their northern members is end their association with the SDLP.

The recently sacked Smith being the one to play to the SDLP and the headlines of the SDLP appealing to Labour to adopt a stance on Brexit that they have already ruled out should illustrate how useless they are to the Corbyn project. Despite its current partner in the north being estranged from them politically and lacking a single MP to adhere to the Labour whip, there is still fertile ground here for Labour should they wish to seriously consider running candidates more in line with the politics of the leadership. The number of LPNI members and supporters had increased tenfold by September 2015 – from 300 to 3,000 – following the election of Corbyn as leader and when Corbyn was challenged by Owen Smith in 2016, 541 of the 765 members who voted chose Corbyn. As noted by Boyd Black, the Northern Ireland representative on Labour’s national policy forum, 34% of northern workers are members of trade unions, a rate denser than Scotland’s 32%. Along with the re-election of People Before Profit’s (PBP) Gerry Carroll to the Assembly, this suggests that there is an appetite for a pluralistic socialism to grow in the north, if only someone big enough and brave enough could challenge the Sinn Féin-DUP duopoly.

The most galling part of this brazen lack of representation LPNI members suffer from might well be the financial aspect; Black estimates that Labour “may receive up to £300,000 per annum from Northern Ireland,” yet “LPNI receives a grand total of £3,542 per annum in return.” Labour has two choices: accept the demands of their northern members and begin to organise for serious and sustained electioneering that represents the concerns of the working class, as they do in Britain, or dissolve the LPNI and tell those paying members to take their money elsewhere, a new labour party or perhaps PBP. The third option, the maintenance of a status quo that leads LPNI members into supporting other parties while saddling Labour with the weight of a powerless anti-choice party’s corpse, does not bear thinking about.