Newton Emerson: Takeover of UK Labour Party in North all too easy
Labour membership in Northern Ireland up tenfold as a consequence of Jeremy Corbyn
“The UUP could be as readily seized as Labour because it has the same one-member one-vote rule that brought in Jeremy Corbyn (above).” Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
I must write this article carefully, as my mother-in-law is chairwoman of the UK Labour Party in Northern Ireland. The Irish Times must also edit this carefully, as mixing up the Labour Party in Northern Ireland with the defunct Northern Ireland Labour Party would be as unfortunate as confusing the People’s Front of Judea with the Judean People’s Front.
Political conversations in our family often descend to the level of a 1970s sitcom, just like the Labour Party itself (boom-tish). However, my mother-in-law is having the last laugh. Membership in Northern Ireland has risen tenfold in a year, to more than 3,000, inspired, it seems, entirely by Jeremy Corbyn. Similar growth in Britain has attracted much comment but the phenomenon is even more remarkable in the North, where Labour only permitted residents to join in 2004 and will still not let candidates stand for election.
Officially, this is because it is the socialist “sister party” of the SDLP. In truth, it is because an element in the British left considers Northern Ireland an embarrassing colony that should be not encouraged with Labour representation. Nobody epitomises that better than the Sinn Féin-supporting Corbyn. Yet people are flocking to Labour in Northern Ireland and pressing it to run for office, because they love Corbyn, who clearly wants nothing to do with them.
Assertive titleIn the Stormont election four months ago, the Northern Ireland party – it is organised as a single constituency association – rebelled and stood as the Labour Representation Committee, an assertive title, as this was Labour’s original name. The National Executive Committee in London threatened everyone involved with expulsion but failed to act, perhaps as it would have to acknowledge Northern Irish people were in the party before throwing them out.
Meanwhile, another 1,000 people have joined, taking membership to twice Labour’s 1,500 Stormont first preferences. Even allowing for the fact that it did not stand in every area, the party in Northern Ireland now has more members than voters. This has been noted as proof that Corbynism is about the entryist takeover of a movement, rather than an attempt to win power. No doubt many new members think they can do both, one after the other.
However, as the Corbynistas have unquestionably captured a major Westminster party, the most interesting comparison in Northern Ireland is how easily 3,000 people could take over a major Stormont party.
Assessing the relative size of parties is difficult because of varying membership types, rules and profiles. Labour’s 3,000 figure in Northern Ireland, for example, is split between 2,200 full members and 800 registered supporters. A party can also have many inactive members.
Northern Ireland parties are unusually secretive about their numbers, originally for security reasons but now just for secrecy’s sake. No less a source than the House of Commons Library, which compiles membership figures for most parties in England, Scotland and Wales, has given up trying to do the same for Northern Ireland.
Still, some insights are available. The UUP allows all its members to vote for the leadership and in 2012, during the last such contest, 668 ballots were cast. The SDLP’s constituency associations are supposed to send 315 delegates to its annual conference and still just about manage to do so.
Most years, the DUP fills a 1,000-seat conference venue to capacity. A Sinn Féin ardfheis can see twice as many, and as the party operates a delegate system its active membership is larger again, although that is for the whole of Ireland.
How vulnerable a party is to entryism depends on its structure. The UUP could be as readily seized as Labour because it has the same one-member, one-vote rule that brought in Corbyn. SDLP democracy is almost as direct: the 315 delegates pick the leader. Sinn Féin has a similar conference delegate selectorate, but only in theory and on an all-Ireland basis. DUP leaders are appointed by elected representatives, many of whom owe their seats to the leadership, leaving ordinary members often looking like bystanders.
Significant influenceNeither Sinn Féin nor the DUP has ever had a proper leadership contest: Gerry Adams came to power in a split and the unionists have always preferred coronations. Nevertheless, a few thousand or even a few hundred people of a like mind could exert significant influence over Stormont’s two ruling parties.
The rise of Corbyn is seen as an outworking of social media, certainly by others in Labour, who have complained of Twitter mobs and Facebook echo chambers. They might as well complain about the weather. This is the way of the world now, with technology bringing small groups together and beguiling them into thinking they speak for a multitude.
The difference in Northern Ireland is just how small a group can be and still take over a party for less than the effort of joining a sports club.