Louise Haigh’s comments that the Labour Party would be neutral in any future border poll on the status of Northern Ireland are not surprising. In fact, they reflect some improvement over her party’s historic position.
Prior to the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, there was a considerable body of opinion on the Labour benches that actively supported Irish nationalism’s claim on British territory, and Harold Wilson once considered an ‘Algerian solution’ of complete, unilateral withdrawal from the Province. Its parliamentary alliance with the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP), the constitutional nationalists, is an artefact of this historic stance.
However, it is the nature of progressive politics that a position that was a big step forwards a generation ago becomes backwards over time, and that is certainly true here.
Take that link with the SDLP. Labour use it to justify refusing to run candidates in Northern Ireland. This deprives voters there of the opportunity to pass judgement on one of the two parties ever likely to form a national government at Westminster, as well as depriving them of a moderate, centre-left pro-UK option at the ballot box.
In fact, for a long time Labour refused even to let residents of Ulster join as members, even as it banked the cash from the political levy paid by trades unionists there. It eventually took a defeat at court to end the ban, prior to which Labour HQ had directed would-be members, many of whom favoured Northern Ireland’s link with Great Britain, to join the separatist SDLP instead.
Even if Sir Keir Starmer refuses to do this, he should be much more careful about Haigh’s apparent attempt to conflate Labour’s political preference for neutrality with a Belfast Agreement obligation. It is no such thing.
Under the terms of that treaty, in the event of a border poll the Government is of course required to oversee the plebiscite in an impartial manner. That is not the same thing as a requirement on British political parties and activists from the mainland being banned from supporting their compatriots across the water during the campaign.
As for Sir John Major’s famous remarks about the UK having “no selfish or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, it should go without saying that this does not preclude taking an unselfish, fraternal, and patriotic interest in Ulster’s place in the Union, which is every unionists’ duty.
Welsh Labour form alliance with Plaid Cymru
When pro-UK commentators and analysts are minded to defend Welsh Labour’s lamentable record on the national question, it is usually with the claim that Mark Drakeford is simply denying political space to Plaid Cymru.
This argument has never been especially compelling. The electoral strength of the formally separatist party is not the sole measure of the fortunes of Welsh nationalism. One must be quite credulous, or simply not paying attention, to hold Mark Drakeford up as a unionist of anything but the most mercenary sort.
But it suffered a hopefully fatal blow this week when the First Minister concluded a formal agreement to bring the Nationalists back into government in Cardiff Bay.
Although the deal stops short of being an actual coalition, more closely resembling the ‘Lib-Lab Pact’ of the late 1970s, it will see Labour and Plaid collaborating to deliver an agreed policy programme that will doubtless reflect both parties’ fixation on finding north-south ‘Welsh’ solutions rather than building links with the rest of the country.
Sturgeon insists she’s staying put
Nicola Sturgeon has attempted to close down speculation about her political future by insisting that she will see out the mandate she won at this year’s Scottish elections.
This would see the First Minister, who has been in post since 2014, remain in office until 2026.
Following the bruising experience of the Alex Salmond scandal, a failure to win an overall majority at Holyrood, flatlining support for independence, and growing fractures within the Scottish National Party, press reports have increasingly turned to the question of whether she might be looking at ‘a life after politics’.
Her retirement would certainly be a blow to the SNP. There isn’t any obvious candidate amongst the Nationalists’ junior ranks who possesses either Sturgeon’s political skill or her connection with voters, which remains a significant plank of the party’s electoral success.