Guide to UK Election (Northern Ireland)

Northern Ireland beats a different drum when it comes to UK General Elections. The Conservatives run candidates, but most have never even visited Northern Ireland before and none will score four figures; Labour does not run at all, relying on the SDLP to take its whip; and the Liberal Democrats ask their supporters to vote Alliance (with whom some share a membership), even though Alliance does not take the Liberal Democrat whip. The Ulster Unionists were traditionally aligned with the Conservatives but went alone from 1974 to 2005 and will do so again now. The DUP has been talked of as a potential ally for UKIP, but there is no formal arrangement. The Greens run, but on a separate Irish manifesto.

Antrim, East – DUP to hold.

Held easily by Sammy Wilson since 2005, with nearly half the vote.

Antrim, North – DUP to hold.

Held easily by Ian Paisley jr, taking over from his father, in 2010, with nearly half the vote. Minor interest in battle for second Unionist party between Ulster Unionists and TUV.

Antrim, South – DUP defending against Ulster Unionist.

This seat has changed hands several times this century, and is held currently by Rev William McCrea for the DUP. It is an Ulster Unionist target, coming from less than 2000 down last time (though is gap trebled in subsequent elections).

Belfast East – Alliance defending against DUP

This seat was won in a three-way marginal by Peter Robinson of the DUP in 1979 from the Ulster Unionists and Alliance; subsequently a Unionist pact saw it safely in DUP hands. However, a three-way contest went the way of Alliance’s Naomi Long in 2010; the Unionists are attempting a pact to regain it through the DUP’s Gavin Robinson.

Belfast North – DUP to hold

A Unionist pact has secured this seat for the DUP Leader in the Commons, Nigel Dodds.

Belfast South – SDLP defending against all comers

This seat went DUP 24%, SDLP 24% and Alliance 20% in 2011 so is at least a three-way between Jonathan Bell, Alasdair McDonnell and Paula Bradshaw; Sinn Féin is running Mairtín Ó Muilleoir as a two-stop strategy to make it a four-way in future!

Belfast West – SF to hold

Paul Maskey won this with well over half the vote in a recent by-election, taking over from SF Party President Gerry Adams who held it from 1997.

Down, North – Independent to hold

Independent former Ulster Unionist Lady Hermon should have a comfortable enough gap with tactical votes to see off popular DUP challenger Alex Easton.

Down, South – SDLP to hold

Former SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie has nearly half the vote at Westminster level here.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone – SF defending against Ulster Unionist

Having won by 52 in 2001 and 4 in 2010, popular Sinn Féin incumbent faces another race to 47% against pact-backed Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott.

Foyle – SDLP to hold

Popular SDLP incumbent Mark Durkan has no trouble attracting “Unionist” votes to win this seat easily.

Lagan Valley – DUP to hold

DUP defector Jeffrey Donaldson held the seat comfortably in 2005 and has around half the vote.

Londonderry, East – DUP to hold

DUP Executive winner Gregory Campbell has never had any trouble here after gaining it in 2001.

Mid Ulster – SF to hold

Francie Molloy’s slipped below half the vote in a recent by-election, but held on easily.

Newry/Armagh – SF to hold

A bizarre joint Unionist challenge and an SDLP campaign which has made no serious cross-community effort will see the only non-incumbent defending at this election, Mickey Brady, home handily.

Strangford – DUP to hold

Popular local worker Jim Shannon will hold this East Down seat (why is it not called that?!) comfortably in an area of considerable DUP strength.

Tyrone, West – SF to hold

Scottish-born Pat Doherty is safe here with around half the vote.

Upper Bann – DUP defending against Sinn Féin/Ulster Unionist

The SDLP has fallen far enough to turn this into a genuine three-way – Sinn Féin was actually the leading party here for first preferences in 2011. The DUP incumbent David Simpson will make this fact widely known as he seeks to hold off popular Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson.

 

 

 

 

Could the Queen sack a PM?

The Fixed Term Act was a rushed and frankly poor piece of legislation. It is bad enough that it has given us this seemingly unending election campaign, but it also contains within it some incredibly shortsighted changes. The most obvious is the removal from the Queen’s Speech and Budget of the status of a “Confidence Vote”.

Convention previously dictated that a vote on the Government’s Programme or its Budget constituted a Confidence Vote, meaning that if it could not pass its Programme or Budget, it would fall (requiring an election).

This was removed in the frenzy of securing permanent five-year terms (I never understood why this was so important, by the way), so that the only way a Government can be brought down is specifically by a Motion of No Confidence (as happened in 1979; unlike in 1979, however, an election would not be required if an alternative government could be formed within 14 days).

This raises, immediately, the potential for a government to be in office but not in power. Most obviously, a minority Labour administration after this election could be left in power by the SNP, but be unable to pass a Programme without scrapping Trident or pass a Budget without mass borrowing. Its only option would be to do as the SNP bid or, somewhat bizarrely, to call a vote of No Confidence against itself and abstain (causing it to pass and, after 14 days, force another election) – an odd move, but one used twice in Germany (by Helmut Kohl upon a change in coalition preferences resulting in his coming to office in 1982, and Gerhard Schröder to force an early election in 2005).

The fundamental problem of a Government being unable to pass a Budget had previously been avoided by the convention that Budget Bills need pass only the Commons. Notably, this is not typically the case elsewhere and has led to constitutional trouble.

Another option which remains, astonishingly, is that the Queen could sack (ahem, “dismiss”) her Prime Minister due to his inability to pass a Budget. This would cause an unbelievable constitutional crisis, surely? Well, it has actually happened. In 1975, the Queen (through Governor-General Sir John Kerr) dismissed the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, who was unable to get his Budget past the Upper House. It caused a lot of anger, but in fact very few constitutional changes came of it – not least because the “Whitlam Dismissal” was judged to be correct by the people, who returned previously Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser to power by a landslide at the subsequent election.

One careless piece of legislation could end up in Nationalists managing the Budget of the whole UK, a Government in office but not in power, and the Queen having sack the Prime Minister… sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone!

For all that, clearly it is time for a comprehensive, federal constitutional settlement.

It’s an irrational world – and better for it

My wife had a problem with her car over Christmas, which took fully six weeks, a lot of annoyance, and a lot of stress to get fixed properly. The following week, I decided that I had better have mine (a different brand) checked for potentially the same problems, left it at the garage for an hour, and returned to be informed that it had indeed had a problem but it was fixed now and there would, quite naturally, be no charge. This is not a one-off – both UK and global surveys indicate clearly that dealer service at my brand is significantly superior than at my wife’s (which consistently ranks well below average).

Here’s the thing: my wife’s brand sells twelve times more cars in the UK every year than mine does – even though they are not demonstrably better cars and the performance of their sales and services teams is significantly inferior.

In a world where we were all rational, of course, this simply would not happen. But newsflash – we are not.

It pays to reflect on this as we approach an election too. Some people in politics, particularly young people, make two understandable but significant errors: they assume that voters will behave rationally; and they also think it is more important who wins than it actually is. The two errors are linked.

Let us veer away again… In November 1963, while his motorcade passed through Dallas, the President of the United States was shot and killed by a madman. This event has spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories, but in fact that is all that happened – he was shot and killed by a madman. The reason for all the (entirely irrational) conspiracy theories is that we are averse to chaos and we simply cannot live with the idea that the President of the world’s foremost political power can simply be shot and killed by a madman. It is comforting to believe that there was some greater power at work; perhaps an evil genius of some sort; or perhaps operatives from another similar power. It is unpalatable to believe in an ordered secure world that a random citizen can simply lift a gun and murder the President. Yet, as I have written before, just because something is unpalatable does not make it untrue. That is, after all, precisely what happened.

It is worth tying these together. Politicians have significantly less power than we suggest they have; one reason for this is that we like the idea we are in an ordered secure world with someone (and, better still, someone accountable) in charge. It is also a significant fact of human psychology that we like someone to blame when things go wrong – fans of a losing football team blame the manager (rarely the players) and citizens of declining society blame the Prime Minister or President. There is something comforting in the notion that even when things go horribly wrong, we can fix them again simply by changing Leader, as if there are no deeper problems within the team (football) or within society (politics) that we need to fix too!

A large part of this is our own irrationality. We know in our heads that politicians are pretty powerless (arguably increasingly so in a world of fast travel, global trade and instant communication). There is something inside that tells us that we all contribute to society’s ills, foibles and unfairnesses (and that indeed the politicians we elect merely reflect these). Most of all, we all have pre-ordained belief systems tied to our emotions (the very things which make us human, not robots) and we will apply the facts and cases we hear to those – our beliefs create our evidence, not the other way around.

By and large, it is a good thing we are irrational. Our national identity usually gives us a sense of collectivity and common good. We know that announcement on planes about turning all electronic equipment off “in case it tampers with the controls” is garbage, but we buy into it anyway (for the sake, in fact, of communications equipment on the ground). Indeed, how on earth would we reason our way to admiring a night sky, remarking on a beautiful landscape, or most obviously of all falling in love?

After the terribly inaccurate polls of 1992 one columnist noted that the polls would have been right if voters behaved predictably “like electrons” – “But we need to remember that elections are decided not by electrons, but by electors”. A successful campaign, therefore, will appeal to emotion more than reason, because that is how we humans operate. The good news for failed campaigns is it doesn’t matter that much – society runs itself, politicians are only there for us to blame when we mess it up…

Populists thrive when the Technocrats fail

All cats have four legs; my dog has four legs; therefore my dog is a cat.

This looks like an obvious logical fallacy, yet increasingly across Europe (not least in the UK on 7 May) people are expected to fall for it.

Let us try it another way.

The economic orthodoxy caused a crash; I don’t support the economic orthodoxy; therefore anyone who opposes me supports the economic orthodoxy.

Increasingly proponents of “progressive change” – something I absolutely and unreservedly support, by the way – have become more shrill in their “Our progressive change or no progressive” demands. Be it building houses for £60,000 each, leaving the UK with no border control (or a mega-border control, depending on which populist you listen to), or even simply printing money and handing it to the poor, any hint of opposition to this specific “progressive change” is cast aside as “supporting the economic orthodoxy”.

It should be no surprise that supporters of “this progressive change” choose the articulate, savvy and stylish Nicola Sturgeon as their role model. Scotland has always produced far beyond its fair share of top-notch politicians and she is no exception (although, by the way, the SNP really only has one other in her league).

The problem is, of course, it is quite easy to talk about “scrapping Trident” (something with which I am sympathetic, by the way) or “opposing austerity” (here I am less sympathetic for the simple reason the term is nonsensical) when you do not have to do it. It is easier still when your opponents have not read up on your record. And it is easier still when they have no concrete vision of their own.

Therein lies the problem. Populists are able to get away with making their demands – some actually very sensible, others totally nonsensical – because the mainstream parties have no vision whatsoever. We are now through the first political generation of technocrat professional politicians with no real-world ideas whatsoever. Now that they have overseen a bust, we are into a second such generation, except the next one adds populism into the mix to the extent that some of the ideas it proposes (and gets support for) are self-contradictory or even outright dangerous.

What is striking is how little relation any of these politicians – populist or otherwise – have with real world. Even on hustings, we are predominantly watching a performance, with few politicians able to relate to the real world in any way whatsoever. Oh yes, we have to do lots more good things and far fewer bad things, they say, but when challenged on exactly how they have no concrete ideas which would work in the real world whatsoever.

When populism triumphs, democracy fails – because in the end it becomes all broken promises (think the LibDems’ populist position on tuition fees in England pre-2010). When democracy fails, all hell breaks loose. It is about time the mainstream parties found some real vision and maybe even some real people – and soon.

Guide to UK Election (History)

The Representation of the People Act (Great Reform Act) of 1832 and women’s suffrage after World War I are two great lines in the history of UK electoral democracy – all UK election results since the former appear here.

However, most coverage now starts from World War II, as Labour established itself as the main party of the centre left in opposition to the Conservative Party and its various allies. By this time, universal suffrage existed from age 21 and, from 1950, all constituencies were single-seat.

From 1945 the competition was recognised as primarily between the Labour Party (openly at the time referred to as “Socialists”) and the others, led by the Conservative Party but also consisting of National LIberals and various Unionists (typically in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but on occasions even elsewhere). The Conservatives also had pact arrangements in some two-constituency cities with the Liberal Party, where one party contested one division and the other the other. This arrangement remained effective, at least to some extent, until the breakdown in the link with the Ulster Unionists and the growth of the LIberal Party during the economic crisis of the early ’70s.

A noteworthy aspect of UK elections is that, unlike Presidential elections, the scale of the victory is also relevant. Each large party aims to secure an absolute majority of seats in the Commons in order to ensure its Leader will be appointed Prime Minister (and thus able to command a majority for that party’s policies in government). Over time, the size of that majority has begun to matter – the rise of smaller parties in by-elections from the ’60s, taking from the governing party’s majority, has seen the notion of a “workable majority” introduced, generally accepted to be about 20 – any less than that and, although the winning party may form a government, it will do so knowing it is unlikely to last a full five-year term. Majorities of over 100 are referred to as “landslides” – this is relevant because a Prime Minister commanding such a majority can even cope with rebellions in his or her own party and still put through policies easily. (Precise majority figures vary by source, depending on status of Speaker and some aligned independents.)

1945 – Labour landslide majority 146

In 1945 wartime Leader Winston Churchill led the centre-right into what he felt would be a comfortable victory, even before victory in Japan had been secured. He was to be shocked, as the country turned to the Socialists, with their vision of a welfare state including legal aid and a free health service (in fact based on a Liberal’s proposals during the War). Clement Attlee became Labour Prime Minister with its first ever majority, a landslide at that.

1950 – Labour narrow majority 4

Labour’s radical reforms changed the face of the country but, with rationing ongoing and some concerns at the pace of change, Mr Attlee’s majority was cut dramatically, meaning he had only a wafer thin majority upon which to rely. He knew he would need a rematch soon.

1951 – Conservative narrow majority 17

Mr Attlee was not the last Labour leader to be stunned by a defeat in an early election. It was particularly unexpected because Labour actually secured most votes (with both big parties receiving over 97% between them), but piled them up in the wrong areas. Thus Mr Churchill returned to the Premiership in his late seventies.

1955 – Conservative working majority 59

Anthony Eden took over as Prime Minister in May 1955, and immediately called an election to confirm him in office. Victory was duly secured, with the country in high spirits after becoming the third nuclear power, conquering Everest and coronating a new monarch. This was the first fully televised election results service, on the basis of a model first trialled in 1950.

1959 – Conservative landslide majority 100

Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell was stunned by this result, having fully expected to win. Mr Eden had been left broken by the embarrassment of the Suez Crisis and had made way for Harold McMillan, a patrician who saw himself more as a Chair than Leader. His case that the country had “never had it so good” chimed with an electorate post-rationing (except in Scotland and Lancashire, which ran against the national trend and saw Labour gains). Television coverage of results night is identifiably the same basic service as still exists in 2015, with analysis and interviews accompanying “gains” and “losses” – alongside the concept of “swing”. This was the first election covered by ITN (now ITV News).

1964 – Labour narrow majority 4

Labour returned to power in the “White Heat” election of 1964, becoming the only party ever to overturn a landslide majority directly, but was frustrated by not winning by a wider margin. Another Scottish patrician, Alex Douglas-Hume, had taken over as Prime Minister the previous year but was seen as someone sent in to keep the score down. He nearly pulled off a sensational victory, and new Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the first educated at a Grammar School, would soon need to return to the country for a bigger mandate.

1966 – Labour working majority 96

The election of 1966, as the decade began to swing, saw Mr Wilson get what he had asked for and become the first Labour Leader to secure a second term with a workable majority. He took advantage of a change in Opposition Leader, putting Edward Heath into the heat of an election only seven months after taking over. Mr Health ended the “Conservative and allies” arrangement, and from this election all centre-right candidates in Great Britain were referred to specifically as “Conservative”.

1970 – Conservative working majority 30

1970, which saw a reduction in voting age to 18, remains a much studied and mysterious election result. Labour, who had deliberately called it early in the summer, seemed set for a comfortable victory and a historic third term, with even television results coverage starting out with discussion as to who may be in Mr Wilson’s next government. Bafflingly, the Conservatives won comfortably, securing well over the necessary 4% swing. Various suggestions for why range from poor employment and trade figures to apparently racist speeches and even England’s World Cup exit a few days earlier; the likelihood, in fact, was that the 1967 devaluation of the pound had shaken the public’s belief in Labour’s economic competence.

1974 (Feb) – Labour short by 17

1974 was a year of dramatic electoral change, confirming the political changes which had occurred during industrial disputes and the oil crisis as the UK’s economy crumbled. The Conservatives’ traditional coalition with the Ulster Unionists crumbled too as the result of an attempt to pursue power-sharing with a Council of Ireland in 1973; economic chaos led to many more people flirting with outright Nationalism in Scotland and Wales; and the Liberal vote trebled in the atmosphere of protest.

After just three and a half years of industrial tension and the imposition of the “three-day week”, Mr Health asked the voters “Who governs?”

It was a gamble and it failed. “We’re not really sure but probably not you” was the response from the voters, as they delivered the first post-war hung parliament. It was very hung – the Conservatives had most votes, but Labour had most seats and neither could reach an outright majority even with the Liberals or the Unionists. Sound familiar?

1974 (Oct) – Labour narrow majority 4

No one had expected the hung parliament but Mr Wilson returned to the premiership in March, calmed industrial tensions, and tried a replay in October. Expecting a significant majority, his victory was pyrrhic, securing a razor-thin overall advantage which soon disappeared requiring a “Lib-Lab” pact for the final part of the term. So did Mr Wilson, resigning less than halfway through the parliament for reasons still to this day not fully explained.

1979 – Conservative working majority 43

James Callaghan took over, and was tempted to call an early election before industrial relations worsened again. He dithered fatally and, despite his personal popularity, was comfortably defeated in May 1979 after the “Winter of Discontent”. The UK’s first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would lead the country into the ’80s… and right through them.

The Liberals suffered too. Their Leader Jeremy Thorpe lost his seat after becoming involved in a bizarre legal case involving the shooting of a dog belonging to a man who claimed to have been his lover nearly two decades beforehand. This was terminal – the Liberal Party would soon realise it could no longer go on alone.

1983 – Conservative landslide majority 144 

1983 was a curious election, coming just after the Falklands War, in which Mrs Thatcher more than trebled her majority but did so with a decreased share of the vote. A breakaway faction of the Labour Party formed the SDP, which contested the election in a formal Alliance with the Liberals and came within a whisker of outpolling Labour. Labour, led by Michael Foot, had fought on an outright Socialist manifesto, including withdrawal from the EEC and Nuclear disarmament – self-dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. It still got ten times as many seats as the Alliance due to the vagaries of the electoral system – it was the split in many constituencies that saw the Alliance come second in huge numbers but win so few; and which enabled the Conservatives to sneak through the middle in many cases to rack up surprise gains across the country.

1987 – Conservative landslide majority 102

Mrs Thatcher secured a historic third successive term and second landslide majority as the opposition remained divided – although new Labour Leader Neil Kinnock did succeed in handily defeating the Alliance to ensure his party’s survival as the main political force of the centre left, making some gains as he did so. Yet again, at around 42%, the Conservative vote share remained stable and the number of seats won depended largely on how split the Opposition was. The third parties realised that an outright merger was now necessary if they were to have any chance in future – thus were born the “Social and Liberal Democrats”, subsequently the LibDems.

1992 – Conservative working majority 21

Staggeringly, after a bitter change of leadership, huge row over Europe, the introduction of the poll tax and a deep recession, the Conservatives mustered 42% again in 1992, confounding the polls and even basic common sense to secure over 14 million votes under John Major’s consensus-based leadership – the only time any party has managed this. No one has quite explained how this happened, but it left Labour shell-shocked, gaining seats only due to a decline in the votes cast for the new Liberal Democrats.

It is remembered as an epic night in television. David Dimbleby was set, until literally seconds before polls closed, to announce an exit poll showing a narrow Labour majority; it was switched, after Big Ben had started chiming, to declare a hung parliament with the Conservatives ahead (contrary to popular memory, which still “recalls” a prediction of a Labour win). The projections favoured the Conservatives increasingly through the night from there. This was also the first election covered by Sky.

Mr Major’s completely different style of leadership was sufficient differentiation from what had gone before for him to secure a full fourth term for his party (although it would take a deal with Ulster Unionists to secure the majority towards the end). Some Conservatives subsequently wished he hadn’t…

1997 – Labour landslide majority 179

Tony Blair’s Labour Party amassed over 400 seats and a mammoth majority in the Commons as the Conservatives were reduced to demoralised rump in 1997. The giant swing saw candidates who had made no plans for a change of career suddenly thrust on to the Green Benches. The Liberal Democrats also secured more than double representation. It was not until the wee hours that the Conservatives even won a second seat – “At least we’ll now be able to have a leadership election” quipped former Party Chair Cecil Parkinson – and they mustered none at all outside England.

2001 – Labour landslide majority 163

The 2001 election was almost a re-run of 1997 – remarkably, almost half the seats changing hands were in Northern Ireland alone. The results in Great Britain were notable only for LibDem gains taking them above 50 seats; the campaign was notable only for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott becoming embroiled, literally, in a punch-up. In retrospect, notable also was the decline in turnout to just 59%.

2005 – Labour working majority 66

2005 saw a fall in Labour’s majority and a record LibDem seat total in the wake of the Iraq war, but was notable mainly for Labour’s attainment of a clear win with less than 36% of the vote. The Conservatives had removed Iain Duncan Smith as Leader without even allowing him to contest an election; Michael Howard became the third centre-right Leader in a row not to be Prime Minister as his bizarre “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” campaign left his party still short of 200 seats.

This election was notable also for confirming DUP and Sinn Féin ascendancy in Northern Ireland.

2010 – Conservatives short by 19

After a brutal economic crisis, the worst since 1929, the Conservatives gained more seats than they had since 1970. However, despite a similar vote share to Labour five years previously, these gains did not suffice to provide an overall majority. Incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown clung on for four days after the poll. In the end, he had no realistic way of turning his 258 seats into a majority.

Star of the campaign was Nick Clegg, who had dominated the debates and whose Liberal Democrats topped the opinion polls within sight of the finishing line. In the end, however, they only nudged up one percentage point and actually lost seats overall – a disappointment, even if it was enough for a return to Whitehall for the first time since the 1920s. Thus was formed a Conservative/LibDem Government under the premiership of David Cameron with a majority of 76.

2015…? Whatever happens, it will be some story!

BBC once again must reflect on public service role

I am a longstanding defender of the BBC and indeed the concept of a BBC. You only need to look at the crazed nonsense that passes for television news in the United States to see why – indeed, a recent poll showed that the most trusted news broadcaster in the United States was… the BBC!

However, I remain concerned about the BBC’s quest for commercial ratings, which are not fundamentally why it exists. Its role is in fact to provide an impartial public service. It is beginning on occasions to mistake having one informed view and one uninformed view for impartiality – in fact, impartiality requires two informed views; they have to be informed because the public service role demands it.

The usually excellent (and recently much improved) Talkback programme on Radio Ulster hosted a discussion last week on Transgender issues. My wife and I happen to be working with some people experiencing them and are on our own learning curve about them, so we looked forward to an informative show on a sensitive subject – bearing in mind the high rate of mental ill-health and even suicide experienced by people affected (not least because of the lack of awareness and even sympathy), which we feel could be reduced by awareness-raising in an informed and sensitive manner. It was to be the BBC at its best, in other words.

What you absolutely do not want to do in such circumstances is invite an extremist on to the programme recently paid out of our licence fee to say on BBC TV that people with mental health issues were work-shy welfare fraudsters. Such extremists are, of course, commonly used by shock jocks to attract ratings and, arguably, have their place in such a role. They are not, however, remotely appropriate for a debate which must be informed and sensitive about a much maligned and misunderstood minority.

As such, the programme failed utterly to add awareness and understanding on a topic which badly needs it. Informed contributors of differing views were available. Next time, let us hear those informed contributors given their “right to free speech”.

Bullying of candidates unacceptable

Two weeks ago a young man named John Coyle entered a TV studio to put his case, as part of a panel, to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

This is not a target seat for his party, the SDLP, and it was evident he was not prepped as he is not a key candidate this time around; this was unfortunate, because in a fit of selfish lunacy one of his senior colleagues, Alex Attwood, had contrived to forget Mr Coyle’s name when quizzed about the constituency.

Given all of this, Mr Coyle managed admirably. He came across as a genuine young man doing his civic duty. In a democracy, why not?

He was then subjected to a barrage of abuse from Twitter trolls purporting to be supporters of Sinn Féin, the current incumbent’s party. In fairness, it has to be said, that party’s local representatives acted swiftly to quash the activity, to the extent much of it was deleted. Nevertheless, evident and totally unnecessary harm was done to a young man whose only offence was participating in democracy.

This is far from the only example of what is, in fact, a totally unacceptable level of bile and abuse levelled at people who are merely *candidates*, nothing else!

Like her colleague Naomi Long next door, my wife Paula Bradshaw is a big girl. She has worked in the inner city for over a decade. However, it bears mentioning that she is a full-time working mother who, like Mr Coyle, now has additional Council commitments as well as hobbies and so on. On top of all this family, professional and civic activity (unlike all her main rivals who are full-time politicians), she is a candidate for election.

I do not know how many communications she receives daily purely in the candidate capacity, but I am sure it is over 100. Most are respectful, some are exceedingly kind – yet some exude vitriolic bile.

This bile is not personal; usually it is directed equally at all the candidates. Yet it is time we recognised it to be totally unacceptable in a civilised democracy. Candidates – particularly those not holding office in the area from which the bile originates – are frankly entitled not to be subject to straightforward nasty communication.

Underlying all of this is the notion that someone putting their experience and ideas forward for office suddenly becomes – even while still a full-time working mother – public property… and not just public property, but public property to be freely abused and ranted at by complete strangers.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of course – but with that right comes responsibility. It is not quite good enough to say “ah well, you just have to have a thick skin”. Actually, why? Why must someone voluntarily putting themselves forward for election to office in a peaceful liberal democracy be subject to any form of wanton abuse? We would not accept physical abuse against them, so why is verbal abuse acceptable?

Fundamentally, Mr Coyle was the victim of bullying. He’ll get over it, but we have to recognise it is unacceptable, even (indeed particularly) in the democratic arena which is supposed to be an arena for exchange of ideas, not vitriol.

All the candidates putting themselves forward for election deserve respect for doing so – particularly those having to fit responses to hundreds of items of communication in between full-time work and family commitments plus canvassing. Let us show that respect – and call those out who do not.

Labour victory may be better for Northern Ireland

I was among many who firmly endorsed a change of government in 2010, taking in my case ludicrous risks to do so. Having told us there would be “no more boom and bust”, the Labour Government failed appallingly to prepare for the mother of all busts. It was rightly removed from office for its foolishness.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly evident that a Labour win would be a better bet for Northern Ireland. There are three main reasons for this.

Firstly, a Labour win of some sort would avoid almost certainly a referendum on the EU. It is possible that pressure would still be applied on Mr Miliband to hold one, but the party does seem determined to avoid this, on the basis that it has many other things it wishes to deal with. The most likely parties to supply a coalition or at least a “confidence and supply” arrangement also have no interest in one currently. This is good for Northern Ireland as it does not risk the open border for trade, the next tranche of PEACE IV funding or the CAP arrangements.

Secondly, the Labour Party has now announced the inclusion of Kincora in the Child Sex Abuse Inquiry. It is baffling that the Conservative-led Government had not done this.

Thirdly, Labour’s financial plans make more sense (although there is a significant health warning here that they need to be competent enough to deliver them). In particular, Labour does not appear to plan to close the deficit on the Capital side, meaning that it will continue to borrow to fund infrastructure (with a direct read-across for infrastructure spending in Northern Ireland). This currently makes sense, as the UK Government can borrow money at a much lower interest rate than usual (in fact at close to zero currently, although this is bound to rise a little) – infrastructure is a clear asset, and if it can be built through borrowing at almost zero interest, it makes sense to do it with that rate than wait and do it at, say, a more typical 4%. There will certainly be gains on the welfare side too – Labour’s abolition of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ would save the £20 million put aside for ‘mitigation’ after Stormont House, for example.

Against all this, there is very little to be said for a Conservative win. Most areas of clear difference, such as zero-hours contracts or non-dom taxation, apply only to England or carry no real financial consequence either way.

Which is better for the UK as a whole is, of course, as unclear still as the outcome! However, there is a case that Northern Ireland may want a change.

Guide to the UK Election (Overview)

The United Kingdom General Election takes place on Thursday, 7 May to elect 650 members of the House of Commons, the primary legislative chamber in Parliament.

Government

Unlike in other countries with Presidential systems (such as the United States and France), the outcome also determines the Executive – in effect, the House of Commons is also the “Electoral College” which will endorse or reject a prospective Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet of Ministers.

Typically, since the War, a single party has held the majority of seats in the House of Commons and has therefore been able to form a single-party government with its Leader as Prime Minister. Where no single party has a majority (as was the case at the last election and in February 1974), it is said to be a “hung parliament“.

System

The electoral system is simple yet controversial. 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected individually from 650 “constituencies” of roughly equal size (533 in England, including 73 in London; 59 in Scotland; 40 in Wales; and 18 in Northern Ireland – London is under-represented and Wales over-represented currently). The candidate achieving the highest number of votes is elected directly – there are no “run-offs” or preferential voting, nor is voting compulsory.

In practice, this system favours larger and regional parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP, DUP) and frustrates smaller parties with evenly spread support (Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP).

Results in each seat are often shortened to give the name and party of the winning candidate plus the number of votes they won by – so, if he/she wins by a gap of 1,000 votes, this is referred to as a “majority of 1,000” (a specifically electoral term – no doubt it jars with mathematicians!)

Phraseology

The constituencies are identical in 2015 to those in 2010. This means that, during Election Night, it will be possible to predict the overall outcome even from early results, depending on whether each party’s vote share is generally up or down – this includes a concept, for comparing Conservative versus Labour performance, known as “swing” which shows how many seats each party would take from the other if each of the two parties’ vote shares changed similarly across Great Britain.

Results are generally declared compared to the previous election. Where the same party wins the seat, it is declared a “hold“. Where a different party wins the seat, it is deemed a “gain” (this equates to the American “pick-up“). Where specifically an incumbent MP loses a seat, he/she is said to be “unseated“. (Occasionally, where a seat has been lost during the term, for example through a defection or by-election, other terms are used – “win” for if the seat is retained by the party holding it at dissolution of the last parliament if that is different from the one which won it at the last General Election; “regain” if it is regained by the party which won it at the last election but lost it during the term. Nevertheless, the overall scores are now typically tallied solely by “holds” and “gains” versus the previous General Election, regardless of what happened in between.)

A constituency which is close is said to be a “marginal” (equivalent of an American “swing state“). A constituency which is predominantly urban (known as a “borough constituency“) has different spending limits from one which is predominantly rural (a “county constituency“) – as well as being smaller, urban areas typically see lower turnout and thus declare their results much earlier.

Parties or candidates which form a common “faction” in the House of Commons are said to “take the whip“, meaning that they agree to vote the same way on every issue where there is an agreed party line. This is most notable with regard to Northern Ireland: the Ulster Unionists traditionally “took the Conservative whip” until 1973 (and expressly would have done so again in 2010 had they won any seats); the SDLP does “take the Labour whip” (although has not absolutely committed to it from 2015); the Alliance Party, although aligned in Europe, currently does not “take the Liberal Democrat whip”.

The final UK General Election outcome is declared usually in terms of the largest party and how many seats it is above or below an absolute majority (for which 326 of 650 seats are required). The 2005 result, therefore, is stated as “Labour victory with a majority of 66 – meaning that Labour had 66 more seats than all the other parties put together; the 2010 result is stated as a “Hung Parliament with the Conservatives short by 19″ – meaning that the Conservatives were the largest party, but needed another 19 seats to have a majority over all the other parties.

Typically, a majority of over triple figures (as in 1945, 1959, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001) is referred to as a “landslide“, giving the winning Prime Minister huge freedom and leeway in Parliament; a majority of between 20 and 100 (1955, 1966, 1970, 1979, 1992 and 2005) is referred to as “working“, giving the winning party enough room to lose a few seats during the term and still serve for the full five years; any majority of less than 20 is referred to as “narrow” and is seen as unstable and usually precipitates an early election (which is possible even under fixed parliaments by losing a Vote of No Confidence, as last happened in 1979).

Position

In 2010, the outcome was:

  • Conservatives 307 (including one delayed by-election) – Conservative whip 307;
  • Labour 258 in Great Britain only, plus SDLP 3 in Northern Ireland – Labour whip 261;
  • Liberal Democrats 57 in Great Britain only – Liberal Democrat whip 57;
  • SNP 6 in Scotland and Plaid 3 in Wales – Nationalist whip 9;
  • DUP 8 in Northern Ireland – DUP whip 8; and
  • Greens 1 in England, Alliance Party 1 in Northern Ireland, an Independent in Northern Ireland, and the Speaker (from England) – non-aligned 4.

This adds up to 645 – Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland won five seats in 2010 but does not sit in the House of Commons.

This outcome gave the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition subsequently formed a “majority of 76″.

Versus 2010, therefore, this means the Conservatives need 19 net “gains” for an absolute majority and Labour needs 68 (perhaps a couple fewer if the SDLP in Northern Ireland continues to take its whip, as it has since foundation in 1970). With Sinn Fein likely to retain four of five seats (not actually taken) and the Speaker retaining one (bound by convention to vote with the government, with minor exceptions), in practice 322-323 seats would theoretically suffice for a majority.

What happens in event of Hung Parliament

It was on this day 23 years ago that the exit polls suggested a Hung Parliament but, in fact, the Conservatives won with a narrow but sufficient majority of 21. It was an astonishing election, mid-recession, in which the Conservatives scored 42% of the vote and, for the only time ever (for any party), over 14 million votes.

Some things have changed dramatically. It is possible no party will even hit an eight-figure total this time. Seats in Brighton and Norwich, where the Greens now challenge, saw Green candidates scoring in the hundreds. An Independent named Alan Sked scored 117 – but subsequently became Leader of a growing party which is now the UK’s largest party in the European Parliament. The Conservatives gained seats in Scotland, securing second place comfortably behind Labour, and challenged seriously in Northern Ireland. Most constituencies had only four or five candidates – that is now typically double. The Liberal Democrats may not be so keen on proportional representation after this election. The SDLP’s win in Belfast West meant there were no absentee MPs.

Some things never a change of course. Scotland’s focus was on the constitution (albeit more on devolution than independence). Conservatives were split on Europe. Labour had an uninspiring leader. The SNP threatened to dominate a Hung Parliament with Scottish demands. Northern Ireland saw a Unionist pact (in fact in all but three constituencies), an Independent elected in North Down, and a strong Alliance showing in Belfast East. The night began with all sides playing up their prospects and then suggesting they knew what was going to happen all along.

There was also a debate, as there is now, of what would happen in the event of a Hung Parliament and, specifically, in the event of one which would require more than two parties to get to a comfortable majority (as had happened in February 1974). Labour figures argued consistently during the night, at least until their defeat was apparent, that the Conservatives had “lost their mandate to govern” and, implicitly, that then Prime Minister John Major would have to resign even if the Conservatives had most seats. Funnily, they argued no such thing as Gordon Brown grimly held on for four days in 2010! The tune has switched again this time to “largest party” gets first go (to try to persuade Labour waiverers, notably in Scotland). These cannot all be true – so which is?

In fact, Labour was right in 2010 and wrong in 1992. In the event of a hung parliament, the Prime Minister remains Prime Minister until he loses a vote of no confidence (i.e. has a majority against him), although by convention he resigns as soon as it becomes apparent to him that this is definitely the case (the last to test it before resigning was Labour’s Callaghan towards the end of a term in 1979 – and understandably, as he lost by just one vote).

This means that the incumbent Prime Minister gets first go at forming a government even if he no longer leads the largest party in the Commons. This practical reality of this was reaffirmed as a convention in February 1974 when Ted Heath got first go despite being four seats behind Labour (although his party had won the popular vote), and effectively again in 2010.

For all that, Labour is also right, in practice, in 2015. Only a totally freak outcome would see the current incumbent have any chance of forming a government without also being the largest party – and it is 90 years since the Prime Minister came from any party other than the largest one in the Commons. Mr Cameron would, therefore, get first go, but if he is not the largest party he almost need not bother trying.

Likewise, it is highly unlikely – theoretically or practically – that Ed Miliband could form anything other than a caretaker government to be dissolved in a matter of months if he were not at the head of the largest party. Inevitably, people would query his democratic legitimacy (particularly if he had lost the popular vote).

In theory, therefore, in the event of a Hung Parliament the largest party is an irrelevance – the incumbent gets first go and, if he cannot form a government which would win a Vote of No Confidence in the Commons, he leaves it to the Leader of the Opposition to try. However, the maths do mean that, in reality, the largest party will almost certainly lead the government.

The real question is how long that government lasts – currently, five months is as good a bet as five years.

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