Local Elections 2019: A New Hope?

Last Round editor Conor McFall analyses the local election results and assesses the opportunities ahead with significant gains for People Before Profit and the Green Party.

The counts this weekend for the local elections delivered a turn up for the books, especially on Belfast City Council. Media coverage has focused primarily on the 4.3% increase in the Alliance vote which has cemented their position as the third largest party in the city. Nuala McAlister of Alliance topping the poll in the Castle ward and Aine Groogan of the Greens doing the same in Botanic have stood out as the headline results in the local news. However, the emergence of a larger left wing contingency with 4 Green Party councillors and 3 from People Before Profit could be the most significant development.

Going into the election, it’s fair to say there was a lack of enthusiasm. Two years without a devolved government in Stormont and the disempowering effect of distant Brexit machinations absorbing all of politics in recent months would lead one to anticipate a sense of dejection towards the democratic process from the general population. Indeed, canvassers I follow reported back from the doorstep sentiments of anger as well as simply being fed up. So a low turnout was to be expected. A dismal rerun of prior elections where dwindling amounts of party enthusiasts delivered more of the same, but with less.

Thankfully, this is not what materialised. There was to be no repeat of the dreadful turnouts seen in the local elections across England that were running concurrently. Instead, there was a move away from same old, same old. The wider story across NI was a dramatic increase of fortunes for the Alliance Party, which was well positioned to capitalise on the general sense of political frustration across the widest area of the province. They increased their councillor numbers by 21, bringing them to 53 overall. While Sinn Fein managed to hold on to their collective 105 from last time out, the other three major parties saw declines; 7 losses for the SDLP, 8 for the DUP and 13 for the UUP. People Before Profit and the Green Party both managed to add 4 councillors to their previous totals, although their support is in more localised areas. Significantly, both also managed to increase their presence into new wards where they hadn’t previously challenged. The election also saw the first seats for left-wing Labour Alternative in Fermanagh and Omagh and socially conservative republicans Aontú in Derry and Strabane.

“Belfast is already a transforming city – its about time that this transformation moves in a leftward direction. It is incumbent on all councillors who consider themselves on the left to continue to be in touch with activist groups but also to look across the UK and Ireland, Europe and indeed the world to see what programmes radicals are attempting to implement on a municipal level to discover what could be replicated here. Have a vision of what we want this city to look like in five, ten and twenty years from now and how we can get there. The results from this weekend are monumental for the broad left in Belfast and have rightly inspired a renewed hope in many people.”

So what does all this mean? For many, this has prompted a new sense of optimism about Northern Irish politics following the abjection that spread following the murder of journalist and friend of this outlet Lyra McKee by dissident republicans. It is natural that much of the media emphasis has been on the symbolic meanings of many of the results. From the focus on the election of a gay DUP candidate in Glengormley to the return of former DUP member Tom Smith in Bangor and the overall depiction of Alliance’s result as the big story of the election, the press has looked for moments which symbolise that Northern Irish society has changed. According to many commentators, this change is a move from voters towards the ‘centre ground’. Being Northern Ireland, centre ground necessarily means a different thing here than it does in most other places. This definition, of nationalist and unionist as the two polls of political orientation with anyone else in the middle, is somewhat problematic. Of course, the platform of the Alliance Party can fairly be categorised as centrist both in traditional political terms as well as in the weird, idiosyncratic lingo of NI. But that’s not to say that this election does not represent an opportunity for the left.

Something I’d like to see more focus on in the coming months is not what the local election results can mean symbolically but what the councillors can actually do in their new positions. I’ll discuss Belfast primarily because that’s where I’m most familiar with but PBP having two councillors and coming close to adding a third in Derry is also a significant result. It is notable both in the media coverage and in the party literature during the campaigns that little focus was given to actual local issues and matters of policy. Sinn Fein leaflets mentioned Irish unity a lot and likewise unionist parties emphasised ‘protecting the union’ while Alliance leaflets were very general in claiming that they would do everything ‘better’. However, there was an overall lack of engagement with the substantive issues that the city council will have to deal with. It’s to the credit of the newly elected PBP councillors that all of them talked about the devastating impact of welfare reform on working class communities. A material focus on how politics impacts people’s lives is key. But so is material action.

Consider some of the issues that lie ahead for the upcoming council. As I have written in the past, Belfast City Centre is undergoing gentrification. Development of expensive hotels, apartment blocks, office spaces and private student accommodation continues apace and threatens to squeeze working class people out of the city through increasing cost of living and occupying space where social housing could be built. Similarly, we see landlords and letting agents taking advantage of tenants – especially students and immigrant populations. Reform and expansion of public transport is required to deal with the twin issues of congestion through over reliance on cars and pollution. Serious consideration needs to be given to how the city centre will look after the Primark fire last summer. These are just a few of the serious issues at hand. We’ve seen activist groups such as Save CQ, ACORN and campaigning on these issues. Now there is an opportunity for more extensive support from elected officials. I know that Green and People Before Profit councillors and supporters will not agree on everything, Brexit positions being a prime example of this. I wouldn’t expect them to. However, as it becomes more and more clear that the crises of climate and capitalism are so intertwined that they are one and the same, there is also surely some common ground that these parties can share. And with 7 councillors between them (including some past contributors to our podcast series), they make up more than 10% of the representatives at City Hall. This represents a significant opportunity to drag the conversation on these major issues to the left. Belfast is already a transforming city – its about time that this transformation moves in a leftward direction. It is incumbent on all councillors who consider themselves on the left to continue to be in touch with activist groups but also to look across the UK and Ireland, Europe and indeed the world to see what programmes radicals are attempting to implement on a municipal level to discover what could be replicated here. Have a vision of what we want this city to look like in five, ten and twenty years from now and how we can get there. The results from this weekend are monumental for the broad left in Belfast and have rightly inspired a renewed hope in many people. They represent a significant opportunity. But this is only the beginning of a long journey.