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The Workers’ Party Decision Not to Stand in the UK General Election April 7, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in Northern Ireland, Workers' Party.
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CLR regular Left At The Cross has asked me if there is anything I can add on The Workers’ Party’s decision not to stand in the forthcoming UK General Election. Rather than bury the discussion in another thread, I thought it might be worth a thread of its own, partly because of the issues it raises about the position of the left as a whole in Northern Ireland. Needless to say, these are my own thoughts, giving the reasons as to why I think the Party has reached this decision. As noted in the statement announcing the decision (linked above), this was not an easy decision for WP members.

This was a difficult decision given our past commitment and long history of providing the people of Northern Ireland with a socialist alternative to the established sectarian political camps.

In the period of my own involvement in politics, this has seemed to me to be the primary reason why The Workers’ Party should be standing in Westminister elections – the importance of flying the (red) flag for secular, progressive, class politics that rejects the division of the working class into two sectarian all-class blocs, and holds out the prospect of a different type of society. Or, as a phrase we used in the late 1990s that I liked put it, to offer a socialist alternative to the perverted, polluted, poisonous politics of unionism and nationalism. And while the existence of the various local assemblies was precarious, and Westminister elections were perhaps the major focus of what passed for politics in NI, the Party’s electoral strategy had to reflect that. Council elections did not offer the same opportunity to get the socialist message across. Even at a crude but practical level, the free postal drop offered by a Westminister election was a simple means of getting the Party’s message to the largest number of people possible, when it was of the utmost importance that we did so given the static nature of political life in NI.

A further consideration, and one which was of pivotal importance in reaching our decision, is the relative diminution in importance of Westminster in the day to day lives of citizens at a time when Devolved Government is firmly embedded in Northern Ireland. This is not to gainsay our many criticisms of the actual implementation of government by the Assembly and Executive … It must also be noted that the Assembly elections, and also the elections to the reorganised Local Councils are scheduled to take place in May / June 2011

The situation has, however, changed since 2005, now that the Assembly and Executive are bedded in. There is no doubt that the issues that fall under the devolved powers of the Assembly are the main focus for what now passes for political life in NI. Although the overall budget is still determined in negotiations with London, and there are no tax raising powers, spending on health, education, and other public services is determined at a local level. The decision on whether to implement water charges and privatise Northern Ireland Water will be made at a local level, and the (currently laughable) strategy for building a shared future and combatting sectarianism also lies in local hands. In short, Westminister elections are now not the main electoral game in town, and, as with European elections, the general public is not as focused on them as it once was. Given that there are local and Assembly elections within about 12 months, it seems to me sensible to husband precious resources for those elections, when people’s attention will likely be more fully focused and when the message of a socialist alternative is more likely to get people’s attention and win further support. Not standing in Westminister elections that are of diminished importance both practically and symbolically allows the Party extra time and space to dedicate to building the Party organisationally and to concentrate its electoral strategy on the most important elections for the people of Northern Ireland.

The party has striven for a number of years to build a left anti-sectarian platform which could put forward an agreed platform of candidates. No later that last October we dedicated our Northern Ireland Regional Conference to this topic and invited a broad range of speakers. However, for various reasons it was not possible to make any progress with this project at this time … given the current challenges facing the party and the Left in general, the conclusion was reached that contesting these elections would be counter-productive.

So what of these elections and the left in general? I think it is worth bearing in mind just how weak the left in NI is. As far as I know, there is not a single one of Northern Ireland’s 582 councillors in its 26 councils whose primary political identification is as a socialist. Whatever about the left credentials of individual councillors within certain political parties, the reality is that those elected are almost entirely unionist, nationalist, Alliance, or Green. Parties that present or presented themselves as primarily of the left in the south, do not do so in NI. There was no left candidate at the last European election. When the number of local councils falls to 11 next year, things will become still more difficult for the left to make any electoral breakthrough. As things stand, in the General Election, I expect there to be two PBP candidates in Derry and West Belfast (and there seems to have been a split in the SWP in Belfast over that). Perhaps the PBP are standing in Derry to build momentum for the Assembly election in the hope that McCann might sneak into the Assembly at the next election, but I doubt that this is possible. I think that in their last results, the two candidates benefited from dissident nationalist votes, and there is more likely to be more attractive candidates for that element this time out. I don’t know if any of the other left parties and groups are planning on standing any candidates. But this is the harsh reality. In these circumstances, it makes sense for The WP to concentrate on the council and local elections, and for the left as a whole to explore more seriously the possibility of agreed candidates.

The future focus for the Party is clear, rebuilding a strong and relevant socialist party, which will be in a position to contest, and register significant progress in, the Northern Ireland Assembly arid Local Government Elections in 2011.

Elections for The Workers’ Party are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. In current circumstances in NI, they should be about not only promoting the socialist alternative to sectarian politics, but also about what will be most effective in building The Workers’ Party and the left generally. After a long period of difficulty, The WP has made unspectacular but significant progress, both at the last local elections in the south and in terms of re-organisation, whether in the creation of new branches, the re-establishment of the Research Section and an expanding range of new publications (including a recent one on the 1970 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis) or the rejuvenation of Look Left as a publication dedicated to engaging with the broad left and promoting left co-operation. While in an ideal world, there would be a strong WP and left presence in the general election in NI, the real opportunity for both The WP and the left generally in NI seems to me to lie in strengthening our organisations and getting our message across to the people, choosing the electoral and other strategies best suited to our doing so.

Comments»

1. The Workers’ Party and the 2010 General Election « Garibaldy Blog - April 7, 2010

[…] on next year’s Assembly and Council elections. I have discussed the issues more over at Cedar Lounge Revolution in the context of the NI left in general and this […]

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2. LeftAtTheCross - April 7, 2010

Garibaldy, thanks for that. Lots to think about there, both positives and negatives jump out.

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3. Mark P - April 7, 2010

It’s an interesting move.

Presumably part of it must be a realisation that the longstanding WP approach of standing a candidate anywhere where they can find a live body almost as a matter of principle wasn’t achieving anything. I’m a bit surprised that they aren’t picking a couple of constituencies to concentrate on though.

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4. Garibaldy - April 7, 2010

Left,

You’re welcome. I think your summation is not one I would argue with too much.

Mark,

While I would obviously disagree with your exact characterisation of WP electoral strategy, it is fair to say that the Party has seen the act of standing as an act of value in and of itself, especially in the north, as noted both by the statement and by me, but there are other good reasons to stand than the prospect of winning. It was particularly important to stand for Westminister west of the Bann in places like West Tyrone and Mid Ulster due to the strength of sectarianism there and the weakness of any alternative, not just the left (in the mid-to-late 1990s I think the big four parties were taking about 85% of the vote as a whole, with 95% closer to the norm west of the Bann).

I think that when it comes to the Assembly elections, we won’t be standing expecting to win seats, but as you know yourself, participation in elections offers other opportunities for organisation, growth and propagandizing. The picking constituencies to concentrate on logic may apply to those just as well as to the Westminister elections.

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5. splinteredsunrise - April 7, 2010

It makes sense to me on a pragmatic level, although it’ll narrow further what’s already a very narrow field. And I’ll miss the WP posters getting their outing.

It’s not easy to see what there will be outside the main blocs. McCann of course is running in Derry, and the Greens are going up in North Down. I wouldn’t be surprised to see renewed SP candidacies in South and East Belfast; as far as PBP in West Belfast goes, I have no information.

Still waiting to hear about possible republican candidacies. People who might know are mumbling noncommittally.

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Ciarán - April 8, 2010

I thought at first the WP weren’t standing because they had finally run out of those posters.

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6. Garibaldy - April 8, 2010

I’d be suprised if PBP didn’t go in west Belfast, especially after all that other stuff. They might keep the anti-water charges name though. RSF will run I think, and I imagine there will be a few dissidents. The IRSP I would think will be pushing for a Peggy O’Hara-type candidacy again. Who knows about éirígí and elements of the RNU. I think though that this could be an important election for the dissidents. They are trying hard to get their act together and find a suitable vehicle (I see there was a call for a republican congress for example). But to appear a credible alternative to the Provos, they need to start being more politically active.

Maybe Mark P can inform us on the SP’s plans. I wouldn’t be that surprised if they stood either, but equally I can see them waiting for next year too.

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7. THATS BOT MY NAMA! - April 8, 2010

‘William McCrea, who is the sitting MP, re-took the south Antrim seat for the DUP in 2005 with a majority of 3,448. Other candidates standing in south Antrim in 2010 are Alan Lawther of Alliance and Mel Lucas of the TUV. Sir Reg will stand under the Ulster Unionist and Conservatives banner’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8608573.stm

SP aren’t standing anyone. Don’t think Mitchell is for standing WB but it will be interesting to see the Leaders following after all that has came recently also in the East of the city. Republican may field in Mid Ulster (I would have liked to have seen Francie Donnelly) against McGuinness and McCann’s campaign will be interesting to listen to.. I wonder if anybody could fill us in on their (SWP) meeting in Wynnes tonight with Joan the future Mayor of Dublin on sectarianism?

splinteredsunrise you have some insight.. http://www.derryjournal.com/journal/Groups-must-unite-to-form.6205823.jp the Republican Forum now Network and possibly Congress could be one to watch, also, I wonder if there is any truth to the rumour about PBP and the IRSP?

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Ciarán - April 8, 2010

The Republican Network for Unity and the Irish Republican Forum for Unity are two different things. The RNU is an organisation in its own right, while the IRFU was an umbrella that included the RNU as well as the 32CSM and the IRSP. (That similar name problem has been commented upon many, many times.) The IRFU fell apart eventually, but now the RNU is pushing the New Republican Congress idea, which as far as I can tell will be an IRFU Mark 2.

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8. LeftAtTheCross - April 8, 2010

Garibaldy,

it must have been a very difficult decision to make, as both yourself and the statement have openly stated, in particular given the long history involved in the WP’s stance in providing a non-sectarian alternative to the electorate on NI. Clearly the Left in general has a limited capacity to campaign in elections and it is unwise to spread too thinly the limited resources that are available. That’s one of the sad facts that comes across in the statement and is reinforced in your own assessment, that the Left just isn’t popularly supported at the ballot boxes in NI at present.

What is positive though is the clear will and determination to fight the battles that have a realistic chance of being won, and the sense that despite the unpopularity of a Left analysis in the present circumstances the struggle will still continue (an unpolularity not just in NI but as has been noted elsewhere it’s a language and worldview that doesn’t resonate with many if at all in the under-40’s generation in the south also).

What occurs to me is the comment from Jenny in EastBelfastDiary some months back that when she was looking for another political home, after resigning from the Irish LP, she discounted the WP as an option because it was somehow stuck in the past (I apologise to Jenny if I have misquoted). However, the renewal you point to within the party suggests that there’s still plenty of life left in the WP, and a recognition that the past achievements and difficulties are just that, in the past.

Well that’s what I took from the statement anyhow.

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9. Garibaldy - April 8, 2010

LATC,

Such a decision was a difficult one. Having said that, and as you say yourself, it’s a matter of getting the most bang for your buck. And we can get a better bang from a better resourced Assembly and local government campaign than from stretching our resources for those and Westminister. There is of course also the question of the next southern general election not actually being that long after the Assembly/local ones in NI either. There are periods when it is just election after election, and you feel punch drunk.

Like you say, the past is past. We have, I hope, learnt the negative lessons of the past well, and are seeking to apply the positive lessons of our experiences of the growth in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit in radically altered circumstances that are much more difficult for the left generally. I think all left organisations need to work smarter given these realities, and we are trying to do that. This includes trying to co-operate better, and we are exploring various options on that front. But Jenny’s perception is a problem, and not just for any one party but for the left in general. Look at the language used about trade unions. The idea that strikes belong in the past has been a prominent theme of British media coverage of the BA and proposed rail strikes, never mind what we have in Ireland.

As for NI and the left. If people on this thread are right, we are looking at perhaps a single left candidate in the general election. We have to be realistic about what we can achieve. But as you say, there’s plenty of life left yet, even if electoral victories are some way off.

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10. THATS BOT MY NAMA! - April 9, 2010

éirígí Statement on British General Election
09/04/10

With a Westminster election due to take place on May 6, éirígí wishes to take this opportunity to place its view of these elections on the public record.

In the policy paper ‘Elections, Elected Institutions and Ireland’s Revolutionary Struggle’, éirígí has already comprehensively outlined its view of the role that elections can play in the battle for Irish national and social freedom. That document states that “éirígí believes it is possible for a revolutionary party to move closer to its objectives by tactically contesting elections and tactically participating in specified elected institutions.”

With regard to the upcoming Westminster election, the question is, therefore, a tactical one, summed up with the simple question ‘Will the contesting of these elections bring Irish republicanism closer to, or further from, its objective?’

éirígí believes that the answer to this question lies in accurately assessing the objective strength of Irish republicanism at this point in its historic struggle. Without such an assessment, it is impossible to navigate the future direction of the republican struggle and the role that elections might, or might not, play in that struggle.

Irish republicanism has suffered a major defeat over the course of the last 15 years. For tens of thousands of Irish republicans, this period has been defined by disbelief, disappointment, frustration, anger and, all too often, despair. A once strong, confident Irish republicanism is now in a state of confusion, division and fragmentation.

The demand for Irish national reunification and independence has been removed from the political centre stage, only to be replaced by a petty sectarian squabble, with the British government happily acting as the arbitrator of the ‘settlement’. While it may be unpalatable to acknowledge this reality, that does not make it any less true.

It is éirígí’s view, however, that all is not lost. As a result of the determination and selfless work of political activists around the country, Irish republicanism is slowly emerging from this bleak period of its long and noble history.

But the process of rebuilding republicanism has, in historic terms, only just begun. It is a process that must have a bottom up approach and be centred in every working class community in Ireland. That is the only way that a new, radical republican movement, one that is capable of challenging the vested interests of occupation and exploitation, can emerge. This will be a long and arduous task; one that will take place out of the glare of the media spotlight. It will be a process that will often seem thankless and painfully slow-moving. But it is one that must be undertaken if republican objectives are to be secured.

This is the objective reality against which any republican participation in the upcoming Westminster elections must be evaluated. From its current position of weakness any republican participation in this election would, in éirígí’s opinion, be unwise.

Irish republicanism cannot afford to have its political agenda set by the elections of the political establishment. Participation in elections should only be considered from a position of relative strength, where the results are likely to advance the struggle and not retard it. For this reason, éirígí will not be contesting the forthcoming election, nor will it be supporting any non-éirígí republican candidates should they choose to stand.

Now is the time for republicans to focus on the process of rebuilding the ideas, the organisations and the wider movement that will bring about the victorious conclusion of the struggle for freedom and independence. For its part, éirígí will be continuing its work to repopularise the socialist republican message in working class communities and to nurture the still fragile green shoots of a resurgent Irish republicanism.

http://eirigi.org/latest/latest090410.html

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11. wp - April 10, 2010

You all miss the point,if there is no socialist alternative how to you access the voters.Socialist should never be afraid of losing,get the message across is the answer.For to long the W.P.have fielded the same oul candidates ,let new blood flourish,if its there.The greatest northren rebublican socialist was Billy Mc Millen win or lose he gave a alternative voice.If you or mute you will not win anything speaking to the converted.Socialism is dead in Ireland if the W.P.do not let their voices be heard,especially in the north.

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WorldbyStorm - April 10, 2010

There’s something in what you say actually, albeit not simply restricted to the WP, that all socialist forces should be represented for the people as candidates, even if that can be difficult in a given context.

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12. paul - April 10, 2010

the beginning of the end i suspect

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13. Drithleog - April 11, 2010

wishful thinking Paul. Even though the Workers Party is not contesting the election it continues to promote its anti-sectarian socialist politics north and south on a daily basis. On another website a few days ago a commentator said that the party was entrenched in electoralism. Others here are saying it’s doing the opposite. Both are simplistic analyses and wrong. Clearly the party has to weigh up the pros and cons of fielding candidates but either way it is not simply just an electoral party.

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14. Ciarán - April 11, 2010

The thing that gets me about this statement is that the WP usually seems to get its best results in British general elections. And I don’t buy the line that Westminster is less relevant now with Stormont up and running. If anything, the debate around the devolution of limited policing and justice powers showed just how much control Westminster still has over affairs in the Six Counties.

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15. paul - April 11, 2010

drithleog its not just an electoral party ? what else is any political party? rebuilding over next year i dont think so. the wp has as much chance to take a council or assembly seat as the man on the moon. realignment is needed not rebuilding i think.

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16. CL - April 11, 2010

At least in Derry people can vote for the anti-sectarian Eamonn McCann.
http://www.swp.ie/index.php?page=841&dept=News&title=Help+Eamonn+McCann%27s+PBP+campaign+in+Foyle

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17. The General Election in Northern Ireland: A Look in CLR’s Crystal Ball « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - April 28, 2010

[…] The nominations closed last week, and we have 108 candidates for the 18 constituencies. In the absence of The Workers’ Party and other left groups like the Socialist Party, there is just one candidate unambiguously from the […]

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18. yawlred - May 9, 2010

forget it,comrades, THE PARTY is over!

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