Friday 4 June 2010

A Unionist Labour Party?

The blogosphere has been buzzing with speculation about the future of Dawn Purvis and the PUP since their recent dramatic parting of company. Some of this speculation has even extended to the possibility that it is a sign of, or perhaps a catalyst for, a more fundamental realignment within unionism.

Purvis is reported to be a 'left winger' (this blog disagrees, but that is a different argument), and the speculation is whether she could find a home in any of the other unionist parties. The consensus appears to be that she would not be happy with any of them, as they do not match her 'feminist' and 'left wing' principles.

While Purvis may simply wander off into a political wilderness, there are many who would like to see her recent discovery of morality as a sign that she has a serious future in Northern Irish politics, and could join with others – some mavericks, others not – to form a new grouping based on left-of-centre politics. A Unionist Labour Party of sorts.

Other names being mentioned in connection with such a grouping include:
  • Sylvia Hermon, whose humble origins and undisguised opposition to the Tories make many see her as a de facto Labour MP,
  • Alan McFarland, a close associate of Hermon in North Down,
  • Fred Cobain, the UUP's man in North Belfast,
  • Chris McGimpsey, whose opposition to the UUP-Tory link was public,
  • Even Naomi Long is being eyed up, as a working class woman from East Belfast she is assumed to share many of Purvis's attributes (but not her (previous) support for sectarian murder, of course)
Of course, such a 'class-based' realignment of Northern Irish politics has been eagerly anticipated by many people for many years, but has never actually happened. The PUP itself was hailed as a harbinger of change – but failed to prosper, and now its single MLA (who received 80% of all the voters cast for the party in 2007) has walked away.

The Holy Grail for many unionists is the participation of the big British parties. They know that their own little parties will never attract Catholic support, and that Catholics will therefore continue to vote for nationalist parties, thus keeping the 'constitutional question' constantly in the spotlight. If the British parties – Labour and the Tories – could be persuaded to set up shop in a serious way in Northern Ireland enough Catholics might be lured away from the nationalist parties to ensure that they never come close to the 50%+1 threshold that unionists so fear.

This year the Tories made their most serious effort yet to set up in Northern Ireland – and failed quite spectacularly. But the Tories were never going to attract mass Catholic support – the Catholic community, for historical reasons, is largely statist and would be unlikely to vote for a party that promises a Big Society but a smaller state. The main hope amongst unionism is that the British Labour party – to which most Irish emigrants in Britain gave their votes – would come to Northern Ireland and sweep up large numbers of Catholic votes into what would remain a de facto unionist party.

So far, though, that has not happened, and the Mexican stand-off between unionism and nationalism continues.

But the absence of the British Labour party, and the clearly nationalist standpoint of the SDLP, has left working class Protestants poorly represented. The DUP takes their votes but provides them with a regressive and reactionary representation. Any working class Protestant looking for a socially liberal party is sorely challenged.

A new 'left-of-centre' unionist party would – so goes the theory – provide working class Protestants with a political vehicle that represents their interests. The fact that the proposed party must be specifically unionist is an interesting admission – no one is speculating about the formation of a cross-community left-of-centre party (the old one, the NILP, withered and died years ago). It is an admission that politics in Northern Ireland is played out in parallel in two different communities – as in Belgium – and that the hope of attracting the British Labour party is slim. If 'normal politics' are to be established in Northern Ireland, they must be tailored to Northern Ireland's unique context, it seems.

If a new grouping (or even a party) appears in the unionist community it will necessitate changes – there simply are not enough votes for so many real parties to co-exist. In order to have any impact a new unionist labour party would need to take votes from the DUP, the UUP and even Alliance, leaving each of these in danger of defeat in some areas. Proportional representation minimises the potential damage to unionism as a whole, of course, but considerable uncertainty would be added to an already uncertain situation.

The new party would clearly have a very Belfast-centric orientation. All of the names being mentioned are from Belfast or North Down, and the PUP's support was almost entirely in those areas. The new party would need to try to broaden its appeal, particularly in areas with significant working class Protestant votes – Coleraine, Larne, Carrickfergus, Derry's Waterside, Ballymena, Portadown, and so on – but these are precisely the areas that provide the DUP with much of its support. More than any other party the DUP has reason to fear any new party. Squeezed between a declining constituency in the 'west' and the challenge of the TUV in its heartland, the DUP cannot afford to lose the Protestant working class vote in Greater Belfast.

One possible scenario for the future is that a left-right realignment in unionism leads to the emergence of two parties – a new left-of-centre party that absorbs the PUP, leftist UUP members, and much of the DUP's urban vote – and a middle-class party (the DUP) that represents the farmers and the suburbs, and absorbs the remains of the UUP and sees off the TUV. This second party may be the 'unionist unity' party that the DUP are already trying to create in time for next year's Assembly elections. It would be ironic if they succeeded in finally taking over the UUP only to see a serious new competitor appear, this time to their left.

Of course, new dawns are commonplace in Northern Ireland, but revolutions are rare. It is just as likely that nothing will happen – Purvis will become an independent with a short political life, and unionism will continue its self-destructive spiral.

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