Ian Parsley recently posted about the changing attitudes of the Labour Party to Northern Ireland. The focus of his piece was on how this demonstrated that it is time for Northern Irish politicians to move on, but it set me thinking about the potential for a transformed and actively unionist Labour relationship to Northern Ireland. Please note, to spare myself the effort of endless equivocation later in the post I will state here that there is of course the option that Labour will simply be ignored or rejected by the NI electorate and get nowhere. I'm not unaware of this when pondering their potential.
The most obvious plus is it would serve as an extension of the Conservative & Unionist attempt to normalise politics in the province by having mainland parties compete there. In the wake of its lack of success elements of the UUP are thoroughly disenfranchised with the project, but for those of us who remain 'integrationist' the aspiration to see the principle parties of the United Kingdom gradually break through in NI remains dear to our hearts, and I for one would be happy to see this come from the left as well as the right.
What would Labour's chances be like? I confess to not being entirely sure. The most obvious potential gain for an electorally active Labour Party in Northern Ireland would be the formal annexation of Lady Sylvia Hermon. Her voting record (back when she attended Parliament, of course) is apparently that of a loyal Labour MP in any case, and holding an MP could give NI Labour a real electoral and profile boost.
Correction: Thankyou to Ian Parsley for pointing out that - whilst Labour sympathetic and voting for them in a confidence motion - Hermon does not have a pro-government voting record from the Labour years.
Beyond that, I can only hazard guesses at how Labour might do. Their relationship with the SDLP will be quite important. Polls suggest that there is a significantly larger proportion of the Catholic electorate that support the union (roughly 25-33% depending on the poll) than actually vote for unionist parties (7%). Two possible factors that could explain this are the overwhelmingly right-of-centre positions of the official unionist parties, and the anti-Catholic (perceived or otherwise) baggage they all carry from earlier times. The Labour Party should suffer from neither of these problems, and could potentially expand the unionist electorate by attracting SDLP-voting Catholic unionists. This in turn could have an important effect in SDLP-contested marginals like South Belfast. On the other side of the coin, that very likelihood could serve to dissuade potential left-of-centre supporters voting Labour if it could lead to a right-of-centre Unionist candidate gaining a seat.
The other potential area of growth for Labour NI is working-class unionists. In the debates in unionist circles over an apparently shrinking electorate, there is a challenge to the 'Garden-Centre Prod' (middle class apathy) theory by those who believe that it is in fact working-class disillusion that is weakening the unionist electoral base. Left-of-centre unionist parties are pretty thin on the ground, with the unattractive Progressive Unionist Party being the only apparent option. Labour could also benefit from the legacy of the peace process, which was delivered during Tony Blair's reign.
But nice as these theoretical advances are, are they or even an actively unionist Labour Party likely? In terms of advances, it would really constitute a test of how far Northern Ireland had moved past sectarianism onto 'bread and butter' issues. On the mainland, the alliance of the working classes and the left-of-centre middle classes is the basis of Labour support, but for such a coalition to work in NI Labour would have to appeal both to working class unionist communities and SDLP-voting Catholics, which might be a tough balance to strike.
Beyond that, taking the Labour Party all the way from Reunification by Consent to outright unionism (by consent, of course) would be a major shift, which may be difficult to implement. Old-school Labour attitudes are still well represented in the party, and not just amongst the old. At my university, the Labour Students and 'Sinners' were practically coterminous. So whilst the likes of John Reid might describe themselves as 'unionist', I doubt it will become an easy label for the wider party to bear any time soon.
Nonetheless, Burnham and Miliband are demonstrating a new attitude to Northern Ireland by at least part of the Labour Party. This blog wishes them the best of luck.