The Case for Labour in Northern Ireland

On the 30th of November 2015, the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party (CLP) unanimously passed a motion to run candidates. The only thing standing in its way is the Labour Party itself.

The motion states:

The NI Constituency Labour Party (CLP) noting: that the intentions of those who join the Party is to secure Labour representation at every level of government and political decision making affecting the people of Northern Ireland; and recognising that the influx of new members and supporters is a further sign of the disillusion of the Northern Ireland electorate with the dysfunctional political structures of Northern Ireland and the political parties that populate them; instructs our Executive Committee (EC) to ensure that the Party is equipped to engage in elections at the earliest date at which it is appropriate to do so.

Accordingly the CLP instructs our EC to:

Prepare and train members who would be suitable candidates; Establish a fighting fund to pay for offices and staff; Prepare a political programme to put to the electorate; Alert the National Executive (NEC) and the Party leadership to the evolving political situation in Northern Ireland and engage with them in the process of promoting Labour’s challenge to the sectarian status quo.

Despite this great news, the fact remains that there are some within the party that do not believe that the people of Northern Ireland deserve the progressive, socialist and inclusive politics of the Labour Party. In their infinite wisdom they have decided that as they believe in Irish reunification, we the people of the country in question should not be granted the democratic right of choice and of forming part of the UK government. I am tired of people with no connection with Northern Ireland and with shockingly limited knowledge of the region telling me that I am not entitled to vote for the party of which I am a member, for whom I have campaigned and that I want to represent me.

The Labour Irish Society is interestingly one of the most anti-LPNI groups:

The Labour Irish Society claims that its aim is to “work for the Irish community in Britain”. I put it to the society that the best way to work for the Irish community in Britain is to allow them to vote for a party that represents their views, let them have the representation they want and need and let them have MPs that could potentially be part of the UK government. The six counties of Northern Ireland have been officially part of the UK since the Act of Union of 1800, yet we still have no voice in government, little influence in the parliament and are ruled by people we do not elect.

The Labour Irish Society encourages supporters of UK Labour to vote SDLP in Northern Ireland. The SDLP is not representative of the values of the Labour Party. At the moment the most topical difference is:

Abortion Rights

It is important to note that none of the 5 Northern Ireland Executive Parties (Alliance, DUP, SDLP, Sinn Féin, UUP) support the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act in Northern Ireland which still works under the 1861 Act. (Yes you read correctly, abortion law in Northern Ireland is as old as Italy, which unified in March 1861.)

In 2014, Jim Wells (DUPlicity Party MLA and the then-Health Minister) proposed an amendment:

“to restrict lawful abortions to NHS premises, except in cases of urgency when access to NHS premises is not possible and where no fee is paid”

After much criticism of this stance (including from Amnesty International), David Ford (leader of the Alliance Party and NI Justice Minister) called for a public consultation on changing abortion law when:

“there is a diagnosis in pregnancy that the foetus has a lethal abnormality”

and when

“women have become pregnant as a result of sexual crime”

However, the SDLP still remains “unequivocally opposed” to changes in abortion law.

“The SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances  (i.e. the fatal foetal abnormality scenario, not in the case of rape) because basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate”

In summary: the SDLP is so pro-life that it does not support abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual assault.

 

Yet, the Labour Irish Society feels the need to condemn Northern Ireland for its abortion law. (This article was retweeted by the Society).

It also seems quick to criticise our lack of same-sex marriage…

Criticising Northern Ireland for its abortion laws, yet condemning the Northern Ireland CLP for running candidates is nothing short of full-blown hypocrisy that enables regressive social policies.

(For more information on some SDLP-Labour policy differences, see Labour Party in Northern Ireland’s page).

 

Sectarian Division

Another objection from Labour Party members about running candidates in Northern Ireland is that, being the UK Labour Party, it would be divisive. There is simply no evidence for this. In an RTE-BBC survey conducted last year it was found that only 27% of Catholics and 3% of Protestants backed having a United Ireland in the short to medium term. It is therefore highly plausible that a socialist, pro-choice, progressive Catholic would not mind voting for a UK-wide party, given that none of the NI Executive parties hold these values.

When asked which designation NI Labour would take, they replied that they oppose the system but if they were unable to designate themselves as “socialist”, they would go as “other”, reflecting NILP’s commitment to a policy of inclusion. Personally I think that if they are unable to be designated as “socialist”, they should refuse to designate at all; challenging a system that entrenches division and proving that they offer a different kind of politics.

An interesting move from the Irish Labour Party is having a “hybrid party” in Northern Ireland, whose members would be full members of both Irish and UK Labour. For me, this would be an ideal solution; a testament to socialist solidarity, co-operation and internationalism, while being highly pragmatic. However, due to relations between Irish Labour, UK Labour and the SDLP, this seems unlikely.

We need, want and deserve a party with principles

I am not a nationalist. I am not a unionist. I am a socialist. On twitter someone incorrectly concluded that what I wanted was a progressive unionist party (not to be confused with the Progressive Unionist Party), I sincerely don’t give a damn which designation a party gives itself at Stormont (Unionist, Nationalist or Other), what its views on the constitutional issue are and from which community its members come; if they represent my views, I will vote for them. In previous elections, I have voted for parties from each of the three designations. However it is clear that in Northern Ireland there is no single party that properly represents my views.

The Northern Ireland Assembly with its divisive system entrenches sectarianism and ensures that progress is postponed. Why hasn’t the NI political establishment changed all this? Because it keeps us divided for their benefit. Scare tactics are used to create hatred between communities and keep the parties in power. What’s the result? People blame the “other”, immigrants, refugees and the destitute for the province’s problems. Who gets re-elected? The people who caused the problems. Where is the opposition party that scrutinises the Executive, fights for workers’ rights and creates a society for all? We do not have one and will not have one unless NI Labour run in the May elections. We have the highest levels of homelessness in the UK, a 21-year-old faces a life-time in prison for having an abortion and our then-First Minister has stated that he wouldn’t trust Muslims following Sharia Law, but would trust them to “go down to the shops” for him. But what do we talk about?: flags, flags and more bloody flags. However, this could all change with Arlene Foster’s recent appointment as leader of the DUP…

 

 

Those who feel guilt for their ancestors’  treatment of Ireland and therefore oppose NI Labour somehow feel that by being fervent Irish nationalists, they can atone for their country’s former colonialism. This is understandable but misguided. The only way that we can create a progressive, peaceful and happy future for Northern Ireland is through self-determination. It is our country, our future and our ballot paper.

Solidarity, co-operation and internationalism are the foundations of socialism; why can’t the UK Labour Party live up to these values and back us?

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Can the Unelected House of Lords Be Justified?

The United Kingdom, Canada and Lesotho are the only countries in the world that have unelected second chambers. Is the House of Lords an archaic indictment of democracy or a necessary evil?

 

“In the majority of states, the second or upper house has a more restricted role […] checking or delaying legislation introduced by the lower house” (McLean & McMillan, 2009, pp. 114-115). This means that in the United Kingdom, there is an unelected élite scrutinising legislation and even delaying its passage into law. This is unacceptable and I therefore argue that an unelected second chamber cannot be justified in our parliamentary system. While unelected chambers bring some advantages, such as expertise and a different composition than that of elected chambers, I maintain that they do not provide a sufficient public service to be justified and that they are, as David Docherty describes the Canadian Senate, “a kind of legislative hall of shame” (Russell & Sandford, 2002, p. 81).

 

Norton argues that appointment can deliver a distinct membership in the House of Lords from that of the House of Commons and that this is beneficial while the House of Commons is becoming a “chamber predominately of career politicians” (Norton, 2005, p. 12). It is claimed that with unelected chambers there are no campaigns and therefore the members are not as political. This rationale, however, fails to stand up to scrutiny. In the UK, 71% of peers are members of a political group, whereas only 25% are crossbenchers or non-affiliated members.[1] This shows that unelected second chambers remain highly politicised and that its adversaries can argue that elected chambers are not necessarily more political, but certainly more democratic.

 

Richard Harrington MP also claims that, “No, direct election won’t boost the legitimacy of the Lords. We don’t need more professional politicians” (Harrington, 2012). While he is semantically incorrect in saying that election would not boost legitimacy, he argues that the ‘apolitical’ nature of unelected second chambers is of benefit. However, in the list of Dissolution Peerages of 2015, 31 out of 45 were former MPs, MEPs, Councillors, Mayors or leaders of a council (Perraudin, Mason, & Ruddick, 2015), meaning that 69% of new peerages were given to so-called ‘professional politicians.’ The difference an election would bring is that the people would have a choice over who scrutinises their laws. If creating a chamber of professional politicians is of concern, there are democratic alternatives. For example, elected representatives of each region could form an Electoral College, which could appoint individuals to the upper house, not unlike what happens in the USA, “[For] electing the President and Vice President of the United States a 538-member Electoral College is created” (McLean & McMillan, 2009, p. 276).

 

Supporters of unelected chambers also argue that they create chambers that are distinct from the lower, saying that this helps to counterbalance the government’s dominance within the lower house. This, however, does not actually require the house to be unelected. For example, the elected Australian Senate has a different composition from its House of Representatives that counterbalances the government.

The [Australian] Senate is largely popular […]. This may be explained by its effectiveness at holding partisan governments to account […] it offers them [parties of the opposition] […] a genuine opportunity to influence policy (Russell & Sandford, 2002, p. 86).

Therefore, in Australia, “it is government which tends to be the greatest supporter of Senate reform” (Russell & Sandford, 2002, p. 86). Whereas we can see from the sparse reform over the years that the government of the United Kingdom has little appetite to radically reform its unelected upper chamber. Surely this shows that elected second chambers can be better at holding the government to account.

 

It could be argued that having an unelected chamber means that appointment is by merit; a recognition of excellence in a particular field and thus is a way of making sure that important proposals are scrutinised by experts.

[…] how difficult it must be for the junior ministers dealing with defence. They have to face peers who have headed the armed forces, led troops into battle, or who have served as Secretary of State for Defence, […] leaders of the diplomatic service, members of MI6 and foreign secretaries (Norton, 2005, p. 19).

This, however, is not the only way for experts to have an influence in legislation, government policy is influenced by think-tanks, advisors and interest groups. Furthermore, everybody has their own experience and areas of expertise that they use to decide for whom they will vote in an election. Should ‘experts’ wish to express their political views, they have the opportunity to do so, like everybody else, at the ballot box or by contacting their representative.

 

“Output legitimacy flows from the way in which an institution performs its particular functions within the broader political system and meets the needs of the public” (Kelso, 2006, p. 566). This argument suggests that instead of from an election, the legitimacy of unelected upper chambers comes from the excellent public service they provide. The problem with this analysis is that of democracy. “Schnutter and Karl (1991) define democracy as: ‘A system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens” (Norton, 2005, p. 9). This means that unelected second chambers are unaccountable and illegitimate by default. If a member of an elected chamber is acting against the interests of the country, the electorate can replace him or her at the next election. In the United Kingdom, peers are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister. Membership by appointment therefore bypasses the will of the people and ignores their democratic right to have a say in the governing of their country, meaning that output legitimacy cannot possibly outweigh input legitimacy in a democracy.

 

Another problem arising from having an unelected chamber is that those who nominate people for membership often have vested interests. For example, the government could include many peerages for their own party in order to either make or consolidate a majority for themselves in the upper house, award political allies or damage major opposition parties. Such an allegation of foul play occurred recently in the United Kingdom when the Conservatives released their Dissolution Honours list “with 26 new Conservative members of the Lords, 11 Liberal Democrats and 8 Labour” (Perraudin, Mason, & Ruddick, 2015), meaning that 58% of appointments were Conservative (despite only commanding 50.8% of the House of Commons), 24% were Liberal Democrats (while representing only 1.2% of the House of Commons) and 18% were Labour (despite having 35.7% of House of Commons seats.)[2] Many of these new peers had retired from politics (such as William Hague) or had been rejected at the ballot box (for example, Lorely Burt). This has led to allegations that unelected second chambers act “as a pasture for retired politicians as well as a prize for loyal party services” (Russell & Sandford, 2002, p. 85). For example in the United Kingdom, “Tory donors such as JCB tycoon Anthony Bamford and Howard Leigh, owner of Cavendish Corporate Finance, were […] granted a peerage [of the House of Lords]” (Jones, 2015, p. 56). It could therefore be argued that unelected second chambers breed nepotism.

 

To conclude, surely an unelected House of Lords cannot be justified in our parliamentary system as it is unrepresentative, unaccountable and undemocratic. While appointment brings some advantages, such as producing a chamber of ‘experts’ and the tremendous output of some unelected upper chambers, the disadvantages outweigh them. According to Lijphart, one characteristic of “strong” bicameralism is the upper chamber having considerable powers (Russell & Sandford, 2002, p. 82). Unelected second chambers fail this criterion as they lack significant powers due to their lack of electoral legitimacy. They act as a breeding ground of cronyism and have no place within any democratic system. Upon gaining independence from the British Empire, Canada and Lesotho did not chose to have unelected second chambers due to their effectiveness, but took a carbon copy of the system of their former colonial power to ease their transition. If an upper chamber isn’t of and by the people, then it certainly isn’t for them.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Composition of the Lords. (n.d.). Retrieved from UK Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/lords/composition-of-the-lords/

Current State of the Parties. (n.d.). Retrieved from UK Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/current-state-of-the-parties/

Definition of ‘legitimate’. (2015). Retrieved from Collins Dictionary: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/legitimate

Harrington, R. (2012, July 9). Richard Harrington MP: No, direct election won’t boost the legitimacy of the Lords. We don’t need more professional politicans. Retrieved from Conservative Home: http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2012/07/richard-harrington-mp.html

Jones, O. (2015). The Establishment. Penguin Books.

Kelso, A. (2006). Reforming the House of Lords: Navigating Representation, Democracy and Legitimacy at Westminster. Parliamentary Affairs Vol. 59 No. 4, 566.

McLean, I., & McMillan, A. (2009). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, P. (2005). House of Lords Reform? lecture notes distributed in a Stevenson Leccture at the University of Glasgow, 19.

O’Leary, B. (1986). The Constitution of Lesotho: An Outline. The Comaprative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa.

Perraudin, F., Mason, R., & Ruddick, G. (2015, August 27). The new peerages and the new House of Lords – full list. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/27/the-new-peerages-and-the-new-house-of-lords-full-list

Russell, M., & Sandford, M. (2002). Why are Second Chambers so Difficult to Reform? The Journal of Legislative Studies.

 

Footnotes

[1] The percentage calculations are my own, based on figures from: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/lords/composition-of-the-lords/. [date accessed 15 October 2015] (Composition of the Lords, n.d.)

[2] Calculations my own based on official figures from: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/current-state-of-the-parties/ [date accessed 20 October 2015] (Current State of the Parties, n.d.)