For decades, elections in Northern Ireland have been little more than a sectarian headcount. In terms of the overall result, the upcoming Assembly election on May 5th is likely to be little different. However, it’s clear that a growing number of workers and young people are becoming increasingly alienated from the politics that dominate Stormont. The main parties bicker on sectarian division, but they are united when it comes to slashing jobs and services, giving tax cuts and handouts to the fat cats and denying women the right to choose.
There is a sharp disconnect between the main parties and younger voters who want to see society move beyond Orange and Green, who want 21st century policies on LGBT equality and abortion rights and a prosperous future. This alienation has been reflected in steadily declining turnout, particularly in working class areas, but now there are indications that a layer are grasping for a positive expression of the kind of future they want.
It is in this context that Labour Alternative has been launched – a new cross-community, left-wing force. Initiated by the Socialist Party (Ireland) along with independent trade unionists and campaigners, Labour Alternative aims to provide a radical alternative to austerity, discrimination and sectarian division. The formation has borrowed Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan ‘Time for a new kind of politics’, and that is precisely what it will represent for anyone under 40.
The group is also trying to revive Northern Ireland’s proud labour tradition, which is often written out of the history books. At its highpoint in 1965, the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) received over 25% of the vote, the second largest party and the real opposition to the Unionist Party and the conservative Nationalists. It had a base in both Protestant and Catholic working class communities, made up of class-conscious trade union activists. Unfortunately, at the outset of the Troubles, the leadership of the NILP failed to take an independent, anti-sectarian position and instead coat-tailed the Unionists and the party faded into obscurity.
It is crucial that the left learns this lesson – that working class unity can’t be built or maintained while bending to the outlook and aspirations of one community as opposed to the other. Most of the left in Northern Ireland – including the other established forces contending this election – have tended to bend the stick in the opposite direction to the NILP leadership, basing themselves almost exclusively upon the Catholic community and reflecting this in their political attitudes and positions. In this, Labour Alternative is distinct – rejecting the divide-and-rule games of the sectarian politicians, advocating compromise rather than conflict around the contentious issues that divide our communities, and emphasising what unites us.
The kind of left that Labour Alternative wants to build is reflected in the three young candidates it has so far accounted – Courtney Robinson (E. Belfast), Seán Burns (S. Belfast) and Conor Sheridan (E. Antrim). These teenagers – coming from opposite sides of the sectarian divide – are both socialist and trade union activists with a track record of campaigning against cuts, for equality and on many other issues. Labour Alternative may not win seats this time around, but that is not its sole purpose. It will seek to engage a new layer of workers and young people in politics for the first time and point the way towards the kind of genuinely cross-community left which is needed to challenge austerity, discrimination and sectarianism.
By Labour Alternative