Over the last few days, the British politics-watching public has been entranced by the ongoing ‘civil war’ inside the Labour Party over anti-Semitism.
The fact that even the likes of Ken Livingstone have faced only ‘suspension’, and the delay in demoting Naz Shah, seemed to have revealed a disciplinary regime in woeful disrepair.
But it does seem that there are circumstances where Labour HQ is quite capable of acting with decision and celerity: when it’s long-suffering Ulster wing decides, unofficially, to contest next week’s Northern Irish elections.
Iain McNicol, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, has told them that they “shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a member of the party” if they proceed to stand under the title of the ‘Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee’.
A brief background for those unfamiliar: Labour has a thriving Northern Irish branch and it wishes it didn’t.
Ulster supporters actually had to threaten the party with legal action to even so much as be allowed to join, since when Labour have steadfastly refused to permit them to stand as candidates.
This is because of its long-standing relationship with the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the smaller and more moderate of the province’s two main nationalist outfits. The SDLP is nominally left-wing and returns three MPs to Parliament who can usually be depended on to vote with Labour.
Labour also has a long history of sympathy with Irish nationalism – which only gets stronger the farther left you get, as Jeremy Corbyn’s courting of the IRA during the 1980s attests.
With Andy Burnham having once again lost his bid to be Labour leader and no immediate prospect of the ban being lifted, Labour’s local branch have taken matters into their own hands.
Conservatives ought to applaud them. Since the 1990s it has been a foundation of our approach to the province that, with its constitutional status guaranteed by referendum, Northern Ireland would benefit greatly from non-partisan, ‘normal’ politics.
But since running a close second in North Down in 1992, the local Tories have got nowhere. Even with CCHQ’s support they’ve not managed to take a seat in the Assembly or win a significant council presence. Too often the NI Conservatives have seemed to be sitting around, waiting for defections.
The contrast is an unhappy one: the local Labour branch straining at the leash but hobbled by London, whilst the Tories have London’s backing but have fallen short.
Hopefully that will change next week. Neil Wilson, the Conservative candidate for Belfast East, is driving hard with a very professional campaign. He’s also receiving much more help than usual from the mainland: I’ve been over, and other groups such as Conservative Way Forward and Conservatives for Liberty have sent troops over more than once.
Ulster’s system of PR could also help: he won 1,121 votes in the first-past-the-post general election in 2015, and the sixth-placed MLA in 2011 was elected with only 2,194 first preference votes. Wilson only need woo an extra thousand voters, under a much more favourable system, to be in with a shot.
Whether he pulls it off or not his candidacy, and the support he’s receiving from the wider party, stands in honourable contrast to Labour HQ’s shabby treatment of its local supporters. It should be seen as a moral duty for the main parties of Government to present themselves in every part of the country they plan to govern.