Category Archives: Politics

One-off “Lords reform” is bad news

I never like to hear politicians talking about “Lords Reform”. This is not because it is a bad idea; it’s probably a very good idea. It’s because it is invariably done just before elections in a populist nod to potential coalition partners, with no real time taken to reflect on Tony Blair’s big mistake – namely not recognising that devolution, electoral system change and Lords reform are all part of the same thing.

By failing to recognise that devolution, the electoral system and the upper house are all the same basic constitutional issue, “New Labour” succeeded merely in nearly ending the Union itself, entrenching the current electoral system and making the Lords even less independent while no more democratic. All this happened while still more power was concentrated at the centre in each country of the UK, faith in politicians reached an all-time lows and electoral turnout decreased further. As disasters go, this has been a spectacular one.

Therefore I get nervous when I hear about “more powers to Scotland”, “English votes on English issues” or “reform of the Lords” – even though I agree with all of them! The problem is they are being handled for political convenience, not constitutional significance. They actually need to be handled together and with consensus, not separately for the sake of partisan side deals.

What is required is a detailed proposal which includes:

  • equal and significant financial and revenue raising powers to each of the four countries of the UK, to be voted on only by legislators from that country;
  • the separation of UK Departments of State from English Home Departments, and of UK-wide legislation from English-only for vote by appropriate legislation;
  • appointments to the upper house (the Lords) to ensure that its breakdown is directly proportional to votes cast in the most recent UK General Election and, additionally, to those cast in the most recent Devolved Legislature Elections; and
  • “English votes on English issues” but with potential for referral to the upper house for debate among all members where there are implications for the wider UK.

This is relatively tame compared to proposals which many (indeed I) would really wish to see implemented – but I suggest they offer the best chance of consensus.

But therein lies the problem. English politics doesn’t do consensus. That’s one big reason the electorate is so fed up!

Who needs to “wise up”, who needs to “lighten up”, and who are the “bastards”?

In France you may reasonably expect French culture, French symbols and the French language to predominate; this seems reasonable and no one seriously disputes it. In Estonia, some expect Estonian culture, Estonian symbols and the Estonian language to predominate; this is trickier, because in fact around a third of the population there comes within the last three generations from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and has an instinctive preference is many cases for Russian culture and the Russian language. Estonia is learning, with some challenges, that it is a requirement of any State and its laws to respect the nationalities of its citizens even if these differ, just as it is of those citizens to respect the State and its laws regardless of their own nationality.

In Ireland, you may reasonably expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate (at least officially); within the territory of the Republic, this is reasonable. In Britain (to use the shorthand for the UK), you may reasonably expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; this becomes interesting given the variations in different countries of Britain.

In Northern Ireland, this gives us a problem. In this part of the UK, British people living in the UK expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? In this part of the Island of Ireland, Irish people expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? (By the way, this preference for one particular set of symbols, culture and language is often referred to by politicians who happen to share them as “equality”.)

Neither is unreasonable; but both are impossible. We agreed, directly in 1998 and subsequently effectively in 2007, to endorse a deal in which we in Northern Ireland may opt to be British or Irish or both. We still struggle to recognise, though, that our fellow citizens’ right and genuinely held desire to be the one we are not actually limits us in the preference we may expect to be shown for our culture, our symbols and our language. Compromise is demanded by what is in effect not a choice of citizenship (British or Irish), but a collective joint citizenship (British and Irish).

Interestingly, it is the apparent desire to restrict other people’s culture, symbols and language rather than insist on our own which creates the biggest problems – an expansion perhaps of the “Endowment Principle”, usually reserved for economics, which essentially notes we place a far higher value on something if we already possess it than if we don’t. However, the fundamental difficulty concerns the notion of “entitlement”.

We are all theoretically entitled, as British or Irish citizens, to prioritise our own culture, symbols and language – so doing automatically means we give less priority to the other one.  We may even opt, as is our entitlement, to heap ridicule on the one we are not prioritising – for example, by referring to political opponents as “bastards” or by entering into a debate about “curry and yoghurt”. In fact, we may go further and directly attack the other citizenship if it seems directly to conflict with our own – by attacking imperial history or past military defeats (say, in 1690).

However, just because we are entitled to do something does not mean we should do it. Theoretically I am entitled to park all day on the Jordanstown Road near the station, but it would cause delays and inconvenience literally to thousands if I did so. I have a responsibility not to abuse that entitlement.

We are too focused on our individual entitlements and not focused enough on our citizenship responsibilities. In the same way we don’t block roads for the hell of it, we shouldn’t mock others’ citizenship for the hell of it either. For all our entitlement to enjoy our own culture and language, we have a fundamental responsibility in our agreed multinational society not to mock others’, least of all either of those specifically named in the 1998 Agreement as re-endorsed by elected representatives from all our main parties in 2006.

I am always one for “lightening up”. It is true that there are too many people looking to be offended and not enough willing to engage in self-deprecation. I will certainly lighten up at things which are: a) harmless, and b) funny.

In fact, in a fragile society where the penalty for ignorance and disrespect can be appalling conflict, mocking national identity and its associated culture, symbols and language is neither harmless nor funny.

Instead of focusing on how the Agreement gives us an entitlement differing citizenships as individuals, we should focus instead on how the Agreement gives us a responsibility to respect what is in effect a joint British-Irish citizenship as a society. This is a bigger ask than in France, or elsewhere in the UK, or elsewhere in Ireland, or probably even than in Estonia – but fundamentally it’s what we agreed was the only way forward in 1998 and endorsed again in 2007. (Our agreement on joint citizenship is distinct from our agreement to remain within the UK in a country called Norrhern Ireland – and by the way, no one who claims to be pro-Agreement yet refuses to refer to the country we agreed to live in by its proper and agreed name gets to give lectures on either “equality” or “bigotry”.)

It is time we replaced our demands and entitlements from each other as individuals with responsibilities and duties to each other as citizens. It is time we stopped to mocking and abuse and replaced it with courtesy and respect. Most of all, it is time our leaders were punished for behaving nastily and rewarded for common decency. In short, it is time we wised up.

People should be castigated for being a-political, not praised

As part of the ongoing and growing disillusion with “politics”, I saw someone note the other day that people should “leave religion and politics at the door” when entering their home; in the context, clearly, that this statement was to be seen as enlightened.

It’s scandalous.

Each and every one of us lives in a complex society made up of people with diverse and often competing interests, priorities and objectives.

There are two ways you can deal with this inevitable complexity. You can do it with violence, or you can do it with politics. After what we went through from 1969 to 1998, it should be obvious to each and every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland which is preferable.

And here’s the thing: you don’t get to opt out!

When you wake up in your home (owned, mortgaged or rented), politics has determined that it is your home and how. When you walk out of the door, politics has decided what infrastructure you can use and how, and what the terms are for any form of transport you choose (or, in practice, can’t choose because politics has so decided). When you enter any workplace – not just your own, but any office, shop, school, office, even roadwork zone – politics has decided the terms upon which you may enter, the rights of those working there, the duties of those providing or taking the service, and so on. There’s no “opt out” – as soon as you interact (and often even when you don’t), politics dictates the terms (and rightly so, given the alternative).

It may be that you can influence some of this politics directly; sometimes informally, say through discussions with other parents about the local school and the school gate; sometimes more formally by getting yourself on to the local Parent and Teachers Association or Police and Community Safety Partnership or Road Safety Committee; perhaps even by volunteering on to the Board of the Local Enterprise Agency. Again, it is not reasonable to opt out here – really everyone should endeavour to fulfil one of these “direct” roles at least.

Some of it, inevitably, you are going to need to influence indirectly by choosing those who manage your local Council, determine regional policy, and make the laws of your jurisdiction (who will in turn select those who ensure it is enforced). You do this by voting at elections – and campaigning, or even standing yourself. Again, there’s no opt out – if you don’t choose, you allow other people to choose for you (an act not of generosity but, frankly, of laziness – voting is not complex!)

Those who claim to opt out of politics are actually suggesting they are entitled to opt out of society. That is the scandal here. People live in homes whose ownership is determined and protected through politics, travel on roads built or railways commissioned through politics, work or use services with rights supported and responsibilities placed through politics, and then claim that people should “leave their politics at the door”?!

Suddenly that enlightened view looks entirely selfish, as if somehow opting out of politics allows us to opt out of our responsibilities as a citizen to participate in society because there are some aspects of it that don’t suit us. But in society you can’t just take your ball and go home. On the contrary, it is your responsibility to seek to shape it, to  influence it, to assist it – and you do this, directly or indirectly, through politics.

Are you fed up with politics? Or is it really that you fed up with compromise in an ever more complex society which increasingly demands it? As for politicians, they are a direct reflection of those who elect them – if you don’t like them, change them!

But be sure of one thing – you don’t get to opt out!

UK needs to understand you can support government without coalition

The UK is a peculiar place. On one hand, as the centre of the World’s largest empire and still a global influencer and trade centre (41% of foreign currency trading globally takes place in the UK, versus 19% in the US), it is a hugely international and global hub; on the other hand, it can be quite unbelievably insular. Discussion of a potential Coalition Government after May’s General Election falls firmly into the latter category – the UK seems to have no idea what happens when no single party has an overall majority in Parliament, even though this is almost universally the case elsewhere in Europe (and in devolved legislatures within the UK itself).

Let us firstly be clear about what happens. The UK’s system is that the Prime Minister is appointed until he resigns (although he is compelled to do so if he cannot pass a Budget or loses a Vote of No Confidence in the House of Commons). Thus, after a General Election, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first attempt at forming a Government which can command a majority in the House of Commons – in other words, one which will not lose a Vote of No Confidence.

There are all kinds of ways he could achieve this. He can of course, as in 2010, offer a full coalition with another party. However, remember he only has to ensure he can pass a Budget; he does not have to form a Government representing a majority of MPs – so he can negotiate deals on specific policies, budget allocations or even appointments with other parties in return for their support (or even an abstention providing him with a majority) on Confidence Votes and the Budget (this is known as “an arrangement on Confidence and Supply”). In the recent Swedish election a four-party “left” coalition won more seats than a three-party “right” coalition even though both were short of a majority of seats (a populist party held the balance); via a series of deals and understanding a new government was formed consisting not only of Ministers only from the minority “left” coalition, but actually from only two of the four parties in that coalition.

For example, let us say the next UK General Election ends up with the Conservatives and Labour on around 275 seats each – 50 or so short of a majority. In such an event, we may have a Nationalist/Green bloc (led by the SNP) on conceivably 40-45 seats, the Liberal Democrats on around 30-35 seats, and a Populist bloc (UKIP/DUP) on around 20. No single bloc gets either side to a majority of seats, so a deal has to be done.

To be clear, the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go. Yet there is no way, realistically, a Conservative Leader could build a Coalition representing the majority of MPs in this circumstance. However, he could offer wide-ranging powers and extra allocations to Scotland and Wales in return for “support on Confidence and Supply”, and perhaps simply threaten UKIP there’ll be no EU referendum or “English Votes on English Issues”  unless its MPs abstain in such circumstances.

This does not stop the Opposition negotiating, of course. It could offer no “English votes for English issues” to the SNP in return for an abstention on “Confidence and Supply” and then offer to form a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which would lack an overall majority but would have one to pass a Budget with SNP abstentions. Alternatively, it could offer a highly favourable Budget to the SNP (and Scotland and Wales in general) in return for Nationalist support on “Confidence and Supply”, and then an EU Referendum to UKIP in return for its abstentions.

Of course, the smaller parties or blocs could make their demands. These may be obvious (referendums or budgets) or less obvious (a deal conditional on a bigger party nominating a different Prime Minister, for example).

All of this means that some of the daft talk we see – for example of the SNP in a Coalition Government at UK level – shows no awareness of politics at its most basic and, arguably, most exciting.

The case for revenue raising

When they are discussing curry and yoghurt, they are best ignored. However, when they are discussing finance and the economy, they are worth listening to. The position of the DUP is consistent and fairly standard “centre right”.

The key, therefore, is that any response to the DUP’s position has to be consistent and fairly standard. The only party which mustered that last week was the Alliance Party.

It is not difficult to see where the Finance Minister is coming from when he suggests that, as the effects of the Great Recession begin to bite through the long-delayed public spending reductions we should long since have experienced and planned for, the last thing you want to do is increase pressure on households by (in effect) raising taxes. That is a legitimate viewpoint. However, the one thing I take issue with is that by not raising taxes somehow the pain is removed. There is pain either way, and we need to be very clear about that.

The case for revenue raising is essentially that, without it, all the pain of balancing the budget is transferred to public spending reductions. This has just as direct a knock-on to household income, potentially, as raising taxes. This is not just in service reductions or cuts; there are consultants who operate with the public sector; members of public bodies; and of course those in the public sector who have to contemplate redundancy (after all, if “voluntary redundancy” doesn’t get you all the way to where you need to be, “compulsory” will have to follow).

The case for raising revenue (taxes) is threefold. Firstly, it enables a more graduated reduction in public spending, and thus more thought into how it should be reduced rather than just crude budget cuts. Secondly, it enables a fairer system of payment – for example, the regional rate (effectively a property tax) may be seen as a perfectly reasonable wealth tax. Thirdly, it will in fact make the public more aware of what money they are handing over – and thus more demanding of the very efficiency the public sector needs to deliver as budgets are reduced.

To be clear, Departmental Expenditure Limits for non-capital spending are now at roughly £10b per annum – this had reached £10.8b but for a variety of reasons (including breaching parity and hitting capital borrowing limits necessitating transfers of funds elsewhere) the £800m hit now has to be taken all at once:

  • raising the Regional Rate by 19% (as once done under Direct Rule) would raise about £115m, and removing Rates Cap another £10 million;
  • introducing water charges with few exemptions would raise about £250m;
  • re-introducing Prescription Charges as were would raise about £10m, or without exemptions about £30m;
  • introducing motorway tolls at Fortwilliam, Dunsilly and Blaris as in the Republic would raise about £50m (with the additional benefit that it would be easier to make the case to the European Investment Bank for new roads spending); and
  • raising the age of free travel from 60-65 would raise about £10m;
  • introducing nominal charges for currently free summer schemes and similar programmes, and perhaps even bin charges and Fire callout fees as in the Republic could raise another few tens of million.

It won’t get us even half way to covering the shortfall, realistically, because we won’t do all of it and, even if we did, we would phase some of it in. However, there is a debate to be had in the coming weeks. Let us have it reasonably, based on the realities of the situation we face.

Premier League, Government Finance and the Motivation to Innovate

This excellent article over on ESPN offers an explanation of the decline in performance of Premier League teams and a comparison to the downfall of Serie A 15 years ago.

Put simply, the story goes like this. Italy’s senior football league, ‘Serie A’, emerged as the strongest in Europe in the late 1980s and remained so through to the late 1990s. Because it was the strongest league, it attracted the strongest players, and was thus home to the richest owners, and also the richest TV deals, and so became without question the richest league. How on earth, therefore, could this ongoing spiral of signing ever better players with ever more money be brought to an end? When the clubs forgot to innovate, and other clubs in other countries did. Spurred on by better nutrition and better tactics, England’s ‘Premier League’ overhauled ‘Serie A’ as the richest and best league by the mid-2000s. The cycle has repeated itself, and the Premier League is now on the downward curve familiar to most Italian football fans.

Spain’s ‘La Liga’, with slightly less money, has already taken over from the Premier League as the leading league in terms of continental performance; Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ will almost certainly also do so and move into second place this season, despite vastly fewer resources at its clubs’ disposal. How can this happen? Again, it is to do with innovation, and specifically the motivation to innovate.

When Italy’s clubs were the richest in Europe and attracted the world’s best players, they saw no further need to innovate. Nutritionally and tactically they fell behind teams from comparably sized countries. Initially, they were able to stay ahead through pure spending, but soon that did not work either. The key point is this: not only did teams from England, Spain and Germany have reason to innovate, teams from Italy didn’t – they (the players, the agents, the owners etc) were guaranteed big bucks anyway. Guaranteed, that is, in the short term – but in the longer term, hamstrung by spending too much money on ageing players or ‘big names’ long past their sell-by date, Italy’s clubs began to collapse in on themselves amid scandal and corruption, and soon fell behind the other three big leagues. Now we find the precise same thing with the Premier League, whose clubs spent more than any other league’s this summer (excluding the madly exceptional ‘Clasico’ clubs in Spain), yet have mustered only five wins out of 16 in Europe’s senior competition. They are spending, but they have lost the motivation to innovate which is leaving them clearly behind their Continental rivals.

So it is with Government. In a recent interview with the Welsh Health Minister, a BBC correspondent spent the entire duration of the discussion talking solely in terms of the amount of money being spent on the Welsh NHS. There was absolutely no discussion about how that money was being spent, or if it could be spent better (or worse, for that matter). The way we talk about politics and government finance, it is as if ‘more spending’ automatically means ‘better service’. In fact, it can mean the precise opposite – if the ‘big spending’ removes the motivation to innovate.

Northern Ireland, unfortunately, is a classic example. Faced with rises in Health spending which are below the requirement to keep up in percentage terms with increasing demand, the Service’s first act was to close an Multiple Sclerosis respite unit. This was a callous and outrageous act, from a Service which has, per capita, 42% more administrators than is the case in England. The first act should have been to cut the administrators, not the vital services.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s public service has, by and large, lost the motivation to innovate, guaranteed (as it has been since 1998) ever increasing resources simply to keep doing the same thing. As a result, with some exceptions (e.g. in primary education), management techniques, government structures, bureaucratic systems and everything else are now decades out of date. Other countries are able to achieve the same or more with far fewer resources, because they have improved management, streamlined structures and reformed systems.

That we have a bloated political culture with no motivation to innovate either doesn’t help, of course. The latest farce was the failure to agree to put through the Housing & Regeneration Bill in time to transfer functions to local Councils when the new Councils come into being – a political mess which came about despite civil servants working hard to ensure the timescale was met. We also have the nonsense of moving a Department to Ballykelly for no particular reason; the failure to deliver a proper Education & Skills Authority; the outrageous waste of millions on a road (the A5) which was never, ever going to be built; as well as the planning nonsense at the Maze and Sprucefield. A proper, evidence-based set of priorities both at political and governance level with learning and information shared properly across all departments – which would have required innovative methods of collecting, assessing and distributing that evidence – would have seen none of these shambles taking place.

We are not alone. France and Italy offer two further examples of the classic ‘bloated bureaucracy’ unwilling to contemplate change because, for too long, money has been guaranteed regardless of the fact is has removed the vital motivation to innovate.

Public spending in Northern Ireland will now be reduced, fairly sharply. Again, a truly innovative public sector would already have prepared for this (and would already have innovated in anticipation of having to do more with less). In the short term, there will be outright cuts in services (which, note well, there absolutely wouldn’t need to be if there had been proper preparation for them) and these will have ghastly knock-on effects – not just on service users but on small businesses and even individual households.

We can only hope that, in the long term, cutbacks and reductions in the public sector will see some motivation to innovate appear within government, just as it did in those leagues with had to catch up with the Italians despite far more limited resources. Football fans, like the electorate, always just demand ‘more spending’ – and, like the electorate, they’re ignoring the fact that ‘more spending’ is no substitute for proper innovation and simply doing things better than the opposition within the resources you already have!

Why young people don’t vote

Am I for Votes at 16? I suppose I am, in the sense that we had that in the Scottish Referendum so I think the precedent is now established (indeed it was established in Austria some time ago). But I have to caution that the notion this will suddenly double or treble the turnout among young voters is laughable.

He is my theory – though ’tis only that – on why young people tend not to vote: they are not used to compromise – whereas politics requires it.

Society and technology have changed significantly since the mass turnout elections of the 1950s. When my parents wanted to listen to music, they had to put up with a jukebox or a single family communal radio – in all likelihood they didn’t like most of the music they heard. By the time I was first taking an interest in politics and such like, we had moved on to walkmans – at least I could select my own albums and perhaps even make my own compilations and listen to them alone, but even then I would inevitably have to listen to a number of songs I was not keen on to get to the ones I really liked (and even then, replaying the ones I really liked meant the hassle of mastering the rewind, forward wind buttons). However, in the era of MP3 players young people can not only listen to their own music in private, but even download only the music they like – they never have to listen to a song they don’t like.

So it goes on. The notion of the communal family meal where everyone eats the same thing, even when that is something they don’t particularly like, is fading fast – it certainly doesn’t happen in my family. Young people can listen only to the music they like; and eat only the food they like. Whether this is socially desirable or even economically viable or environmentally sustainable is another matter – it is what happens.

So it is at the polling station. Young people want to vote only for candidates and/or parties with whom they agree entirely. If there is a single issue on which they disagree, they see no reason to vote for that candidate or party. The fact that withholding their vote effectively punishes the party with whom they agree on 90% of issues and rewards the one with which they agree on only 10% is neither here nor there.

It is absolutely not that young people aren’t politically minded – I suspect they are more so than any previous generation. It is not that they can’t be bothered (or that somehow making the act of voting easier would see them all turn out in their droves) – voting isn’t difficult and when it came to a really big but straightforward issue in Scotland last month they turned out in almost as big a proportion as any other age group. It is that they see no need to compromise.

Whether they are right or wrong in that is not for me to say. However, I do know that they are being punished for it. Older people – who do vote – get their pensions protected, their public transport free, their interests prioritised. Younger people – who don’t vote – see their benefits removed, pay full whack for a public transport they absolutely rely on because running a car is expensive, and their interests generally ignored. Because their interests are ignored, young people see nothing in it for them to vote – but actually not voting is the problem!

It is time for re-balance this vicious cycle and this democratic deficit. It is time for young people to participate not just in campaigns but in actual voting and partisan democracy, imperfect as it is. In short, maybe it is time to compromise?

Change to electoral system would help women in politics

Last month Mairtín Ó Muilleoir replaced Sue Ramsay in the Assembly for Sinn Féin, which selected Catherine Seeley to run for Westminster in Upper Bann but omitted Caitriona Ruane in South Down. The percentage of female Alliance Councillors elected this year fell from 40% to 25%. Not only is the gender balance in Northern Ireland politics abysmal, but it is getting worse – even parties which have traditionally been among the best in terms of female participation are evidently not able to do enough through their selection systems to maintain progress. The BBC The View programme discussing the talks – i.e. the political future of NI – had an entirely male panel of five. This was not the BBC’s fault, but obvious evidence of the difficulty of giving a fair say to women in a political system which is overwhelmingly (80%+) male.

All parties should give more consideration to the need for gender balance in their selection processes, but there is no getting away from the fact that the entire political scene is set up by men for men, even if inadvertently. It is somewhat macho, almost thuggish at times (literally during a recent Social Development Committee meeting). It is the nature of things that if a bias is inherent to the system, those within the system continue to maintain and even assume that bias, deliberately or otherwise. Candidates should indeed be selected on the basis of merit – but “merit” currently assumes male domination. This is seen in the culture of debate, positions on policy, and prioritisation of issues. It is a serious problem.

Despite some successes at civic level, it is now beyond dispute that the “gradual” approach to more women in politics, or simply relying on parties to ensure more women are selected, is not working quickly enough. This leads us to the notion of “quotas”, but I would suggest another change before taking that ultimate step – I would change the electoral system.

Among Northern Ireland’s neighbouring legislatures, only one has an even worse gender balance – the Republic’s 13% is shocking in AD 2014. Scotland’s is considerably better; Wales is best of all at 40%. It so happens that both jurisdictions in Ireland elect their legislatures by “Single Transferable Vote”, whereas Scotland and Wales both elect theirs by the “mixed member proportional” (MMP) system. It also so happens that those countries which have moved close to 50/50 – primarily the Nordic countries but also New Zealand – also use MMP or very close variants. The evidence is clear.

MMP works via a party list system, which is used to top up the results from individual constituencies to ensure the outcome is roughly proportional to the number of votes cast for each party. Instantly, this means parties are inclined to submit lists which have a reasonable gender balance – to attract votes, it is in their interests to do so. Even if that doesn’t work, it would be relatively easy to make it a requirement, or even have a system to select top-up members so as to ensure not just correct party balance but also correct gender balance.

There is an additional benefit that MMP is a far better way to elect a legislature anyway as it is simpler for the electorate to understand and legislators are inclined to consider the whole area when passing laws rather than just their own locality – which probably explains why only Northern Ireland, Ireland and Malta use Single Transferable Vote, whereas almost the whole of Continental Europe and many other places use MMP or a close variant. However, the main gain would inevitably be a better gender balance within our legislature – a first step in making politics more relevant to the voters.

NI’s Stark Choices – response

The Belfast Telegraph ran a long article entitled “Stark Choices” last week which is worth analysing.

Governance

The priorities of the article are a little strange, objectively. The immediate focus is on the direct cost of governance, i.e. the operation of the Assembly. Yet in fact Assembly running costs account for only 0.4% of Current Departmental Expenditure – and Current Departmental Expenditure accounts for less than half all public spending in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps MLAs should take a “normative” approach and show some willingness to share the pain, but the fact is moving from 108 to 90 MLAs or reducing their Office Costs Allowance further would make next to zero difference in the general scheme of things.

Economy

The article refers to the “highs of 2007” and even hints at wanting to get “recapture” those highs, but this is a false analysis.

2007 saw an apparent (but at best unsustainable and at worst plain illusionary) “boom” based on huge rises in public spending and a property binge. The Northern Irish were at one stage spending more money per week than any other UK region, despite earning around 10% below average (and producing 20% less per head). Therefore, the economy was in a shocking state in 2007 based on mass borrowing which inevitably led to mass indebtedness (including negative equity) and a tougher recession than anywhere else in the UK. We most certainly do not want to “recapture” that!

In fact, wealth is created by innovation and export, not bureaucracy and asset bubbles. This means that we need more businesses focused on innovation and export to create jobs to cover those which will inevitably now be lost from our bloated bureaucracy. It is certainly true that a big issue for investors and entrepreneurs when choosing location is political stability – but so is global connectivity and workforce skills. Our record on those is at best mixed.

Health

The section on “Health” was excellent – there is too little journalism like it these days!

It should be noted, however, that the “£75 per head” extra spending in Northern Ireland still sees us spending less on Health as a share of overall public spending than England does, and the gap is increasing (now around 19% in Northern Ireland and Scotland versus 22% in England).

What we do spend on Health is indeed spent far too disproportionately on bureaucracy. As noted, there are 42% more bureaucrats in NI’s Health System than in England, but fewer clinicians and nurses.

There are problems with pay too. GP pay has soared in the past decade even though GPs now work fewer hours (the days of the midnight call-out) are passed. However, nurses are indisputably comparatively underpaid (not least because there are too few of them) – the gap in Northern Ireland between doctor and nurse pay is one of the highest in the world.

Another issue, common across the public service but most common in Health, is the poor standard of management. Management techniques are among the least advanced in the Western World in NI – the boom in agency staff is just one example of where it has all gone wrong; another example is the failure to evaluate transparently the development of many of the Transforming Your Care reform plans.

Education

The situation in Education is not as bad as is being suggested, but the article is fundamentally right about the shocking political mismanagement of the education system. An attempt to stop transfer tests merely made them more pressurised; an attempt to merge Education & Library Boards into a single Authority took eight years; and progress on integration is snail-like. Worst of all is the underlying idea that schools with different academic intakes should just teach the same curriculum, with no thought for vocational linkages.

The Past / Policing

It is a cruel truth that the vast majority would prefer police resources spent on the present, to the absolute exclusion of the past if needs be.

One area omitted from discussion in the article is prisons. A successful reform has largely been carried out, but costs per prisoner remain high. “Patten-style” reform would be a good idea in practice, but seems politically impossible.

Local Government

It is hard to see where the projected savings of £12-£21 million per year in the new Councils come from. Fundamentally, the same number of bins need collected, and the original ideal of “co-terminosity” (shared boundaries with the likes of Health Trusts or police districts) has been abandoned for the sake of a grubby political deal. There are also issues around staff in mergers which are likely to cost ratepayers more, not less; and this is before we get to the £30 million set aside to subsidise rates in areas where they are going up rapidly as a result of merger.

Infrastructure

What isn’t made clear in the article is that the Budget cuts are coming off Current, not Capital, spending. As noted, this means that reductions in the Regional Development budget affect maintenance, not new building. The Maze has only been stopped because of politicking, and proposals Desertcreat need revised.

Arts

Spending on the Arts was already comparatively low. They are seen as an easy cut.

They are in fact nothing of the sort. A vibrant arts scene is central to the quality of life of any city or region, and actually a big reason people choose to invest or not invest in any given location.

This is to leave quite aside that orchestras, musical societies and drama groups are almost universally effortlessly cross-community, and provide in particular genuine skills – from teamwork to presenting to project managing – for young people.

On the contrary, if we wish NI to thrive as an integrated society which wants to keep hold of its young people, arts spending should be dramatically increased.

Political Alienation

There is a tendency to see political alienation as unique to Northern Ireland. However, elections in recent weeks from Latvia to Romania to America have all seen turnout fall.

Frankly, we have all come to expect politicians to perform miracles. We elect people often with no experience of anything outside the entirely theoretical world of political research or similar, and demand that they deliver complex public services of ever higher quality despite increasing strains on resources but we will not pay a penny more for those services. It’s ludicrous – but the electorate gets the politicians it chooses (or allows others to choose), and thus has only itself to blame.

Equality

This is described in the article as a “hefty price tag”, but it really isn’t, at 0.1% of public spending for an area which was the crux of the civil rights disputes in the first place.

The real issue is not the cost but the quality of Equality advice and services. It is concerning that Equality and Community Relations are to merge when logic (and experience from other jurisdictions) would suggest it should be Equality and Human Rights. Community Relations are an entirely separate matter from Equality, and the conflation of the two damages each.

MPs – it’s not all about you!

The recent private member’s attempt to introduce the power to “recall MPs” was alarming. Not only was it a ridiculous and inappropriate attempt at Americanization but, far worse, it completely missed the point of the public’s disenchantment with politics.

It is of course perfectly reasonable to expect (perhaps even compel) MPs to resign their seats if they have committed a criminal act. It is something quite different to enable an MP elected by the people of a constituency to be recalled forcing another by-election just because the voters suffer a bit of buyers’ remorse or because a special interests group gets a bit aggravated. They will get their chance again at a General Election soon enough – that’s how it works!

People are fed up with politicians – that’s to say, the whole shebang. They are fed up because politicians spend so much time talking irrelevantly about irrelevance. Take Ed Miliband’s recent claim that he would work “with every fibre of his being” to “improve working people’s lives” in Scotland… what does that even mean? What it means is Ed Miliband hasn’t a clue how to improve people’s lives – and people know it.

In fact, when asked about their own MP, most people are relatively content. However, the notion that, even when they’re not, people are going to take the time and effort to gather the signatures for a recall, only to replace that MP with another politician, is ludicrous. That there are some MPs who don’t see this obvious point rather demonstrates the very problem they alleged they were seeking to solve!

The first thing politicians need to grasp is they cannot actually solve all our problems. Very few of the problems I encountered when taking over attorney for my father as his dementia developed, for example, had anything to do with politicians. Even the over-officious bank officials or ignorant mobile phone company managers cannot be legislated or even regulated out of existence. At no stage, in fact, did it occur to me that a politician could “make my life better”. The same applies with other family issues I am current confronting; and with some of my business challenges; and with the various illnesses of those close to me. In fact, I have found public-funded voluntary organisations and the Health Service absolutely superb. I appreciate this does not apply to everybody, but I am also sure I am not alone in saying that the public-funded services I’m using are great – there’s nothing useful a politician can do for me. So let’s not pretend there is!

The second thing politicians need to be open about is that if they do intervene in one person’s favour, this may well disadvantage somebody else. If my client gets their message heard better than a rival, that’s good for me; but in government your role is to represent everyone without favour. So yes, you can avoid bringing it water charges to save me a few quid a month, but you may need to sack a few public-funded workers to afford to do so; you may decide to protect the type of investment that has secured a good friend a good job, but remove a few college lecturers to achieve it; you may decide to protect my friend’s daughter’s job, but stop another hard-working civil servant’s chance of promotion to do so. All of these may be good for me, but bad for someone else – or, of course, vice-versa.

The third thing politicians need to be frank about is that they are often reacting to global phenomena. The rise of China, the threat of Ebola, or even the collapse of Tesco have nothing to do with politicians (even the latter, occurring within their jurisdiction). Nevertheless they could have significant effects (or not). None of these effects was planned or even foreseeable when politicians sought election.

In other words, even relatively senior politicians are relatively powerless. The start to restoring faith in them is to admit it!

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