May 2017        

British ruling class pays scant attention to the North

Tommy McKearney

Two months after an Assembly election, the North’s electorate is being asked to return to the polls in June. This time, though, the people of the Six Counties will have little say in the outcome or the policies made afterwards.
     Theresa May’s decision to call a general election was a purely cynical action, not designed to secure certainty over Brexit negotiations but an attempt to take advantage of a weakened Labour Party and thus extend her time in Downing Street.
     Since taking office ten months ago May repeatedly denied having any intention of calling an early general election. She has not only performed a barefaced U-turn but has also made nonsense of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (2011). Although opinion polls are forecasting a comfortable victory for the Conservative Party, the outcome may ultimately lead to greater instability within the United Kingdom.
     Whatever Theresa May’s underlying reasons for calling the election, the focus will be on Brexit. The Tory party will have to reveal in some detail its intentions in conducting negotiations with the European Union, and this is bound to cause difficulties. Although England voted to leave the EU, it did so by less than 7 per cent—a comfortable margin in a referendum but possibly less so when subjected to party-political differences.
     If the manifesto’s negotiation commitments are sufficiently robust to appease the Conservative Party’s hard-line Eurosceptics, it risks driving many middle-class swing voters back to the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, offering a soft exit might very well perpetuate the problem with Tory backbenchers that the referendum and this election were supposed to address.
     Not that reactionary Tories are Britain’s only source of instability. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that for the Scottish National Party this election would be about whether Scots want English Tories to have a free hand in determining their country’s future. With many Scottish voters already alienated by years of austerity and London arrogance, the prospect of yet another Conservative government is unlikely to be widely welcomed. A second independence referendum is already being mooted; and whatever the outcome, the Scottish Parliament will continue to create a challenge for a unitary British state.
     There is one possible result that might soften Scottish working-class anger, and that would be a left-leaning, anti-austerity Labour government determined to tackle the multitude of ills inflicted by four decades of Tory and New Labour neo-liberalism. Unfortunately, though, the prospect of such an outcome is slim. Blairite influence within the Parliamentary Labour Party is strong. Through their public criticism of Jeremy Corbyn, which is tantamount to sabotage, they have severely damaged his prospects of leading a new government.
     Nevertheless, a defeat for Labour could prove to be a pyrrhic victory for Britain’s ruling class. Corbyn might stand down, but the rift within the party would not be ended. Old-style British social democracy, which for decades shored up a cosy governing consensus, cannot answer problems created for working people by decades of neo-liberalism. Inequality and deprivation are increasing in Britain, where almost a million workers are getting by on zero-hour contracts,1 while the BBC recently reported that average weekly earnings are still £26 below where they were at their peak in 2008.2
     If, after the election, a defeated Labour Party rejects Corbyn-McDonnell economics in favour of returning to a Blairite programme, one of two things will happen: either the party will split, or a large number of working-class voters will desert, creating a political vacuum. Whether this space will be filled by UKIP or a British Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a moot point.
     It should come as no surprise, therefore, that during this election campaign the British ruling class is paying scant attention to Northern Ireland and its difficulties.
     Unionism is deeply worried by the implications of the recent Assembly elections, which saw it lose seats and its absolute majority in Stormont. Although not imminent, this has raised the possibility of an end to partition, with even the far from sensationalist Financial Times publishing an article last month about Irish unity.3
     Consequently, both the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party will treat this general election as a plebiscite on the union. To reassure their grass roots they will concentrate on amassing the largest possible number of pro-union votes by turning the election into a single-issue contest. This will reduce the election to an old-fashioned sectarian head count—because, in one form or another, partition has been at the centre of every election in Northern Ireland since 1920.
     What makes for a difference now is that there is evidence that the balance of power is slowly shifting away from maintaining partition and the union. Writing in the pro-Unionist News Letter a few days after the Assembly elections, its deputy editor, Ben Lowry, said: “If the correlation between Catholicism and Irish nationalism remains similarly high in the decades to come, unionism is in deep trouble given the small but relentless demographic change.”4 No-one should underestimate the impact this has within unionist communities in the Six Counties.
     In spite of this, both nationalist parties have decided to campaign on an anti-Brexit platform, stressing the possibility of a hard border and raising fears that this will have a detrimental effect on the North’s economy. On the surface this appears to be a more enlightened approach than that of the unionist parties; it is nevertheless both evasive and more than a little disingenuous.
     For a start, Brexit is now politically irreversible. EU regulations have a negative effect on the Irish economy, north and south, and travel restrictions will be at the ports of entry to Britain rather than along the border. Moreover, concentrating on Brexit is sidestepping crucial questions about the Northern state’s future.
     To avoid a repetition of past violence in the North it is necessary to emphasise the inevitability of change and is important, therefore, to demonstrate that, under certain conditions, unity can offer a better quality of life for a majority of people throughout Ireland. That “certain condition” is a workers’ republic; and to make it more than a catch-cry or an aspiration it needs to be promoted in both word and deed.
     This election could be used to launch a campaign for a public housing programme, workers’ rights, a genuine living wage, proper care for the elderly, and secular education—issues that would offer a concrete illustration of how we can transform society for the better in a workers’ state.
     Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, and, just as in Britain, uncertainty for the North’s working class will continue after the 8th of June.
     While it is unlikely that there will be significant change in the immediate aftermath of this election, it will be important that progressive forces within the wider labour movement in Britain retain critical mass. How successful these currents are at holding their ground is what should concern the left, both here and across the Irish Sea.

1. Sarah O’Connor, “Taylor confronts gig economy challenges,” Financial Times, 15 April 2017.
2. Kamal Ahmed, “Farewell to pay growth,” BBC News, 12 April 2017.
3. Vincent Boland, “Brexit brings Irish reunification back into the spotlight,” Financial Times, 31 March 2017.
4. Ben Lowry, “Northern Ireland’s future in the UK now depends on Alliance voters,” News Letter, 5 March 2017.

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