The Labour Party - Can a Red Rose Solve Northern Ireland's Problems?

30/07/2012 22:44 BST | Updated 29/09/2012 10:12 BST

Last week, Andy Burnham, Labour's shadow Health Secretary, threw his weight behind the campaign for the Labour Party to fight elections in Northern Ireland for the first time.

For the long-suffering Labour Party members in Northern Ireland - allowed to join the party but not fight elections - this is the latest welcome development on a long, long road.

After decades of not accepting members from the province (instead encouraging members to join the SDLP), the Labour Party finally permitted Northern Irish members to join in 2003 (mainly off the back of legal advice), and to set up a constituency organisation in 2009, after the threat of legal action. The Labour Party have had to be dragged into this, but with their most senior supporter yet in the form of a shadow cabinet minister and a decision on standing in elections due 'within months,' it looks like Labour's time could finally be here.

A new progressive mass party of ordinary working people, transcending the traditional barriers of Northern Ireland politics, is certainly a seductive idea. And in fairness, we badly need a strong progressive voice. A major report from the Community Relations Council recently confirmed what many of us suspected; that fourteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we are now more divided as a people than ever before. Sectarianism has also lended itself easily to racism and other forms of hate. Organised paramilitary groups have become organised crime groups. The emergence last week of a so-called 'New IRA,' formed from dissident republican factions joining together, is a chilling reminder that despite the inane, hyper "Northern Ireland - It's Our Time" tourist board adverts, we haven't moved very far at all. And to add to all this, we have double the level of child poverty than the UK average, environmental strain, economic woes and an oft-gridlocked political system where in the last election nearly half of those who were eligible to vote didn't bother. With so much going wrong, we are crying out for radical change to the political system.

But can it work? I'm not so sure. Labour's argument that they will be providing a cross-community party for ordinary people is a little simplistic. The issues dividing communities and the ingrained voting behaviour and attitudes run much deeper than simply who you choose to vote for. A simple red rose and a name on a ballot paper is not going to overcome cultural and political tensions stretching back through the centuries.

To use an obvious analogy, what kind of a platform could attract large amounts of voters from both the (nationalist) Falls Road and the (unionist) Shankill Road areas of West Belfast? If you transplanted the area to the north of England, their profile - urban, working-class - would be of a Labour heartland. Can Labour successfully avoid being tarred with a brush that marks them out as overtly favouring one side of the community? If they wish to grasp the nettle of divisive fault line issues such as parading, how to deal with the legacy of the past and academic selection, then they could run this risk very early on. Especially when you consider that the downfall of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, which had its brief heyday in the 1950s, came about through the polarisation of Northern Ireland's politics in the 1960s and continuing division within the party over the national question. If Labour wish to reach beyond the approximate 9% of voters who vote for already-established 'cross-community' parties (such as the Alliance Party, Green Party, etc), then their approach will have to be an unprecedented balancing act.

Will Labour in Northern Ireland just be offering the bland centrist triangulation of Ed Miliband? If they do want to carve out their own vote, they should consider being more radical. Even Hollande and the usually boringly centrist French Parti Socialiste, has realised that the time has come to return the traditional parties of the left to progressive politics. The faceless centrism of New Labour will give no voters any reason to switch their affiliation. Something radical, boldly addressing all the North's social and economic problems, is needed.

Northern Ireland's history is littered with 'Labour' groupings of various shades that have come and gone over the years. The list is endless - Labour Party of Northern Ireland, Labour '87, Belfast Labour Party, Labour Coalition... all have attracted little success. This is the first attempt by the UK Labour Party to organise here. Ed Miliband's party and their approach will have to succeed where all others have failed.

Despite all this, perhaps Labour's time has come. There is the potential for an interesting link-up with the NI trade unions. In the rest of the UK, most trade unions help fund the Labour Party. If Labour in Northern Ireland were sufficiently radical, and proved themselves to be viable, would trade unions here consider funding them? We badly need something to break the stagnant, degrading nature of our democracy. There are still many question. I can't see them being sufficiently radical, dynamic or successful enough to bring true, progressive politics to Northern Ireland, uniting voters from both the Bogside and Ballybeen. I'd like to be proven wrong.