What the NIO will do…

I wrote about what the NIO should do the other day.

Sadly, I suspect that is not what it will do, although I continue to recommend it in the light of feedback. Narrowing everything down to one issue creates gridlock in Northern Ireland; broadening the package (and thus enabling everyone to claim victory) is the way to go.

So, what will the NIO do and how will this ‘crisis’ be resolved. Well, nothing is reliably predictable about this – it is, genuinely, uncharted waters. However, there are a few options.

Legislative Consent

The fundamental stumbling block is that both Nationalist parties put their signatures on the Petition of Concern to cause the Welfare legislation to fall. If either one or the other had not done so, it would have passed (even if they had voted against) because the Petition would not have had enough signatures.

That means that it remains the case that either Nationalist party can still do a deal to see the legislation pass, and thus the Budget crisis resolved (insofar as the Stormont House Agreement is a resolution).

Theoretically, welfare reform legislation cannot return to the Assembly within the next six months, under Standing Orders; indeed, it is unconventional for any legislation to return within the same Assembly or Parliamentary term. That Standing Order could, of course, be removed, although even that requires agreement. (It is for this reason, for example, that same-sex marriage motions are brought to the Assembly every six months.)

However, there is also the much discussed option of the UK Government passing the legislation. However, it would be unconventional for it to legislate on a devolved matter without consulting the relevant devolved Assembly. This consultation takes the form of a Legislative Consent Motion, to which the Assembly must agree. These are frequently used to keep pensions arrangements or corporate governance regulations in line across the UK, for example.

Conventions absolutely matter in UK politics. Without a written constitution, conventions, from the requirement for the Prime Minister to sit in the Commons to the understanding that the Lords will not block legislation in the governing party’s manifesto, are essential. Even though they are not written down, they are the building blocks of the constitution – therefore “unconventional” above almost means “unconstitutional”.

Therefore, it is highly risky either to re-introduce Welfare Reform legislation before November (or really at all in this Assembly term), or to seek to impose Welfare legislation over the heads of MLAs. Both are much discussed, but neither is a serious constitutional option.

The likeliest outcome, therefore, is that the UK Parliament will legislate to extend the 2012 Welfare Reform Act to Northern Ireland, but then offer it to the Assembly under a Legislative Consent Motion. This still requires Assembly agreement. By that time, however, a deal could be done with either Nationalist party which would gain their agreement not to sign a Petition of Concern to block it. (Possible deals would include removal from the legislation of the Spare Room Subsidy or “Bedroom Tax” as mentioned by Sinn Fein, or agreement to allow one or more of the SDLP’s amendments to in effect be made in future Regulations – alongside a clearer outline in the meantime from the NI Executive of the proposed mitigation measures.)

Enhanced borrowing

The fundamental problem with not passing Welfare Reform is not just that it means the UK Government will gradually withdraw from paying for Northern Ireland’s welfare system (the total cost of this withdrawal to the NI Executive, erroneously referred to as ‘fines’ or ‘penalties’, is currently £114m/year but continues to rise), but that it collapses the Stormont House Agreement. The UK Government cannot realistically proceed with that Agreement if the NI Assembly has not done its part of the bargain.

However, there are parts of the Agreement which the Conservatives may be keen to allow anyway. It is quite possible that they will allow the transfer of funds from capital to current (in effect) to enable the Voluntary Exit Scheme, as they would in principle support this “rebalancing” anyway. They may, so as simply not to be churlish, allow the current £100m loan to be paid out of capital budgets too. However, other similar transfers may not be so appealing, and there will be no reason whatsoever for them to put investment at risk elsewhere in the UK by reducing Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland.

One thing the NIO could offer, however, would be to double the borrowing power of the Northern Ireland Executive and allow it for any budget stream, thus effectively enabling it to borrow the £600m it needs now (and the potential £2.8b it needs if no budget is moved next month) and pay it back over time with interest. In the long run, this would have no real impact on the UK Treasury’s finances (which are worked in terms of 10-year borrowing terms anyway), and it would in effect buy another year to resolve welfare (conveniently to the far side of the Irish General Election).

It would be catastrophic for future Northern Ireland budgets, but the current political stand-off considers only the present and not the future. Therefore, this is probably the second likeliest option.

Assumption of Welfare Powers

Another option talked about is the potential “taking back” of welfare powers by “Westminster”.

To be clear, this phrasing is inaccurate and misleading. “Westminster” usually means the Parliament but since we are talking about executive policy development we should probably include “Whitehall”; more to the point, the UK Government never legislated for welfare in Northern Ireland except under Direct Rule (and even then it was, nominally at least, done separately).

The temptation, however, is that welfare powers are currently not devolved anywhere else (though some, notably around disability, are in the process of being devolved to Scotland).

There would be a case, as part of this package, to “reserve” (i.e. “un-devolve”) equality law competences as well, as these are not currently devolved anywhere else either and are also currently gridlocked; this would be probably be wise for the sake of emphasising consistency and distinguishing between powers being taken by Westminster and those not being taken, such as Health and Education, which are devolved elsewhere. However, it is unlikely in practice.

Theoretically, the transfer of powers to the UK Parliament requires a Legislative Consent Motion (see the likeliest option above). The precedent here was the accidental devolution of powers over UK Antarctic Territories, which required such a motion to return them to Westminster from Stormont (and also Holyrood) a few years ago. However, such a Motion would have to be avoided in practice.

Leaving aside the fact it is unconventional (itself extremely dangerous, as noted above), in the court of public opinion this is a dangerous move for the future of the institutions. This is particularly so if it continues to be phrased as “taking back powers”. The public will say, after all, if MLAs cannot sort out welfare, why should they be trusted with justice, health or education? Why not just do away with them altogether? That underlying and peculiarly Irish (perhaps now specifically Northern Irish) notion that we would really be better governed by somebody else, part of our culture of underlying insecurity, will come to the fore. So this is a possibility, but a much, much riskier one than its proponents imply.

Institutional Reform

Another option for the NIO is institutional reform, particularly to stop abuse of the Petition of Concern.

The NIO could argue that, under the spirit of the Agreement, such Petitions were clearly only meant to protect one “designation” from being deliberately targeted by the other.

This is complex, however. My own proposal in the past has been that this would require the creation of a Tribunal, similar to the old IMC, which would determine whether or not a Petition was legitimate on community grounds. This would itself have to be established, wasting precious time. Furthermore, Unionists may not be so keen on it either – in the next Assembly, for example, the Petition of Concern is likely to be crucial on votes of interest to them such as same-sex marriage.

However, the implicit threat of changing the rules around Petitions of Concern may in itself be enough to push through a deal. This, therefore, is highly unlikely but is a possible ‘dummy’ option, floated to try to speed things up.


Another option, at least for the next two months, is for the NIO to do absolutely nothing.

It could simply wait for the budget cuts to start happening, causing public outrage. It would continue to point out that such cuts would not be necessary if only the Assembly had passed welfare reform and thus adhered to the Stormont House Agreement the parties signed up to working from. It would remain ready to implement the Agreement once the Assembly did its bit.

This does risk serious civil disorder, or at least civil disorder being blamed on the political situation. This would not be good for the devolved institutions. Nevertheless, ‘do nothing’ is a surprisingly tempting option politically – and the local parties would need to be aware of that.

Assembly Election

The NIO now has no power over calling an Assembly Election, but could nevertheless suggest one. (It may be forced to, of course, in the event of a resignation or two from Executive office.)

It is unlikely this will figure in the NIO’s thinking because it is not in its own gift. Nevertheless, it will know that, based on May’s results, an election may not be the greatest idea for either big party, nor for either Nationalist party.

Several of the above

Of course, not all of the above are mutually incompatible. The NIO could opt for ‘do nothing’ to start with, then float ‘institutional reform’, and then throw a ‘Legislative Consent Motion’ to pass the Welfare Reform Bill and even a second to reserve welfare powers to Westminster. It may know that an early Assembly Election would be a consequence of these all not working.

So, it’s anyone’s guess! My own instinct is that these options are all in order of likelihood – but who knows?

What the NIO should do now…

What should the Northern Ireland Office do to resolve the current impasse with the Northern Ireland institutions?

Easy, actually. Implement the Smith Commission proposals. Here! Now!

The link gives the details, but we can run down specifically what that would mean:

– Memorandum of Understanding for managing different tax/welfare structures (this enables differentiation if that is the route Northern Ireland chooses);

– devolution of Income Tax (on earned income), Aggregates Levy alongside Air Passenger Duty (if Northern Ireland doesn’t want “austerity”, it now has all the tools to raise taxes to make up the difference itself, and stand or die by these decisions at Assembly Elections);

– assignment of first ten points of VAT to the Northern Ireland budget (this has the effect of promoting policies favourable to value-added economic activity, as much of this will add to the NI budget);

– non-devolution of Corporation Tax (as Northern Ireland has not fulfilled the obligations of the Stormont House Agreement, some penalty should be paid);

– reservation (i.e. un-devolution) of pensions and benefits to do with parenting or low income alongside tax credits (it makes sense to do these across the UK anyway);

– reservation (i.e. un-devolution) of equality laws (it has taken too long for Northern Ireland to tidy up its equality legislation and so makes sense to share best practice across the UK);

– maintenance of devolution of disability benefits with removal of ‘parity’ requirements (this is Nationalists’ key concern apparently, and they now have the aforementioned tools to raise the money themselves from their own voters to pay for any differentiation, including the administration of a different system, without having to pay for the entire system);

– representation of Northern Ireland interests by Northern Ireland ministers directly to European Union (this is particularly important in Northern Ireland given our land border); and

– replacement of cross-community Assembly votes with two thirds super majorities (also now used in Westminster for certain specific votes under the Fixed Terms Act).

The Barnett formula and ‘consequentials’ would of course be maintained, and logically the baseline for welfare payments would be set within it (this would most sensibly be done at the New Year 2012 level, before the Welfare Reform Act, effectively adding £300 million to the NI Executive’s annual budget – a politically feasible amount for the Treasury). This means that Northern Ireland starts from a baseline position of public spending at around £2,000 more per head than the UK average plus an extra welfare subsidy – but if it chooses to move any of that up or down, that is its choice, and it pays for or gains from that as appropriate. The welfare ‘crisis’ would be resolved – some powers would be withdrawn, but others would be maintained and ‘parity’ in effect ended.

So, problem solved – because as a package, I suspect this would find support among the Northern Ireland parties:

– Nationalists can claim victory by securing abolition of parity (with a £300 million welfare subsidy), ‘devolution of economic control’ and ‘more power in Irish hands’ (they could hardly turn down the chance to deliver on ‘no one loses out’ by maintaining DLA as is, having now been handed the fiscal tools to raise taxes to pay for it…);

– Unionists can claim victory also for the welfare subsidy and for ‘protecting the Union’ by securing directly equivalent devolution models (and the DUP would no doubt relish the opportunity directly to pursue its low tax model, albeit with the obvious consequent reductions in public spending…); and

– Progressives would also welcome the effective removal of ‘designations’ (they may remain but would be irrelevant, with protections now offered by super-majority votes) and may then pursue the logical progression of a government/opposition model using that super-majority protection.

Most importantly than any of that, the public would now see the Assembly as much more transparent. It would have to raise money from the public directly if it wished to raise public spending or welfare protections; but it would also have the opportunity to offer reduced taxes if it wished to encourage public sector efficiency, private consumption and tackling of individual/corporate debt. The public would be better informed, civic society would be challenged, and political debate would become meaningful (Scotland would even act as a direct comparison).

Real politics, I believe it is called… that is why I strongly believe the NIO should do this, and do it now!

Follow the lights to economic success…

Just take a quick glance at the below.


The big bulks of red are all you need to know.

In Europe, in particular, there is a dense red line from London through the Dutch rand (Rotterdam and Amsterdam), the German Ruhrgebiet (Dortmund, Essen, Gelsenkirchen etc), Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich and over the Alps to Milan.

That is a map of connected devices in the world, but it also shows where economic power is thus concentrated. All Europe’s economic focus is on that corridor – innovation hubs target it, government transport policies prioritise it, people seeking a better life are sucked towards it. These just happens to be the cities and regions where GDP/capita is 50% or more above the EU average. They are the ones to which we need to be connected.

Continue it north west from London and you do indeed get Birmingham, Manchester, and yes the east coast of Ireland. We could join the connection! Arguably, Dublin is already there but Belfast lags.

Yet look at the departures board at either Belfast Airport! You may see Amsterdam but you will see none of the others.

It is time we got to know Frankfurt and Milan as well as we know Fuengirola and Marbella…

Modern SDLP unwilling to govern

If Sinn Féin put down a Petition of Concern then the welfare reform stuff goes straight back to London and they will implement cuts of a severe nature and there will be no mitigation”. 

So said SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney on the BBC Nolan Show on Friday morning.

So why did the SDLP itself put down a Petition of Concern on Friday afternoon?

There we have it: yet another party willing to be in office but unwilling to govern.

Fine day for Ireland; embarrassment for Northern Ireland

“The economy is our Number One priority” said the DUP on coming to power in 2007.

Let’s see what makes an economy flourish. We need spaces where people feel free, where creative people can express themselves, and where people can bring their families (any kind of family). That’s where people invest and create jobs.

Now, just ask yourself, in the light of the referendum in the Republic and the failure to govern in Northern Ireland, where would you invest and create jobs?

Enough said.

UK Election – Why did the polls get it so wrong?

For Labour it was a disappointment, for the Liberal Democrats a disaster – and for the pre-election pollsters a debacle. The UK Election campaign was awful but the results were spectacular, delivering a verdict as markedly different from expectations as 1992.

I would suggest the polls got it wrong for a completely different reason from all those I have hitherto seen suggested.

First, the back story…

The pollsters’ failure was surely even more stunning in 2015 than in 1992, as we had been led to believe (and I was as naive as any in this regard) that the pollsters had sorted it it out since then, and that their projections – the basis also for “forecasts” from the academically minded such as the famous US analyst Nate Silver – were now highly reliable. This point was not seriously questioned – indeed, the BBC even did a Panorama programme based on the assumption of reliability!

It turns out they were no more reliable than they were in 1992.

Indeed, albeit in retrospection, a detailed check through the records shows that pre-election polls have consistently overstated the Labour vote at every single election even since 1992 (and indeed back at least to the 1974) – regardless of incumbency. The same polls generally understate the Conservative vote, but not always. Not so much “Shy Tory” as “Excitable Labour”, then…

To some degree, we have simply missed this. Labour’s 43% in 1997 delivered the expected landslide – but actually the polls, even the exit poll, suggested it would be significantly higher. Polls in 2001 suggested an increased majority even on that landslide, but the result was a slight decrease. Even in 2010, hardly a single poll put Labour below 30% – where they actually were. In other words, the polls have been in error for some time but, due to a combination of one-sidedness and luck, 2015 happened to be the first time since 1992 that this materially affected the implicit prediction about who could command a parliamentary majority.

That said, 2015’s polls (taking the poll-of-polls immediately before the election as the guide) were also the most wrong since 1992, suggesting an absolutely even outcome between the Conservatives and Labour when the former were actually six points ahead. The usual discrepancy is about half of that.

So, why were they so wrong a generation on from the 1992 debacle?

Having taken some time to check these things, I would suggest it is fundamentally to do with methodology.

In the UK, pollsters still get straight to the point. Generally what happens is someone visits your home, or phones, or even contacts you over the Internet (Internet polls were particularly wrong, by the way) and more or less immediately asks you for your voting intention. It does not materially matter how they phrased this question (in fact, interestingly, the “Ashcroft Polls” asking merely for preferred party were more accurate than those which asked the identity of the likely candidates to be borne in mind); what matters is they get straight to it.

I work essentially in market research (I call it “PR”, but increasingly it is more like market research), assessing how campaign messages or new services would be received. In that case, however, the last thing I ask is “What do you think of this?” (or, politically, “How are you going to vote?”).

Let us consider the development of Apple’s iPad. I did not do the market research for this, but I do happen to know those who did. Cast your mind back about ten years, pre-iPad. If someone had immediately shown you an iPad and said “Could you find a use for this?” you would almost certainly have laughed – we already had laptops for desk work and mobiles in our pocket, so what on earth would we need that awkward looking thing for? If they had suggested that you may want to part with a small fortune in order to own one, you may have started to get quite worried about them…

So the researchers for Apple’s iPad did not ask the straight question. Instead, they spent time getting to know people – their lifestyle, their daily routine, how they relaxed, how they worked, how they interacted, and so on. Never once during this work would they ask anything even remotely related to technological equipment, report writing, online reading or whatever. They would spend entire focus groups, entire research days, entire mini-projects without going anywhere near any product (or service) that Apple offered.

Having done that “lifestyle research”, they then designed a device which they felt would fit into people’s daily lives, and that people would pay significant amounts of money for. They developed a marketing plan accordingly, and hey presto – we have an iPad.

I know rather less about polling specifically (I specialise only in exit polling – which came out rather well on 7/8 May, as it happens!), but I am led to understand that polling in North America follows a similar procedure to Apple’s research, albeit of course in a much shorter time frame. Rather than going straight out and demanding to know how someone is going to vote, the pollster asks some general lifestyle questions – designed, essentially, to get the respondent to be in the same frame of mind they will be in when they enter the polling booth.

For example – and, beware, one man’s educated guesswork is another’s ill-informed conjecture – they may find out that the respondent set up a mobile nail bar a few years ago but has just invested in an office to run it from; or that a builder is back to having to turn down work having struggled to find any five years ago; or that a taxi driver is getting significantly more fares of an average Saturday night.

Let us then compare two pollsters. The typical UK pollster does not bother finding out all of that, and instead asks the nail bar owner/builder/taxi driver straight out who they are going to vote for – “Well, I don’t know, I mean, obviously, I’m not exactly one of those bankers, so, you know, I may give Labour a try.” However, a typical US pollster finds out all of that and then asks who they are going to vote for – “Well, you know, as I said things are getting better now so I thought, probably, I’ll just give the Conservatives another try.”

You can instantly see the difference. In the second case, the respondent is much nearer in attitude to where they will be in the privacy of the polling booth, and also feels more willing to declare for the Conservatives given that the reason is self-evident from the discussion they have just had.

If you ask the wrong question or, at least, you omit to ask the right question, then the respondent will probably omit to give you the right answer. I am not a pollster, I emphasise, but I cannot help but think the answer lies in there somewhere.

“Brexit” looms large after UK election

One of the consequences of the outright Conservative majority at this month’s General Election is that it makes an in/out referendum on the European Union almost inevitable, most likely in May 2017.

Proposing a referendum was a political tactic. It is not, in fact, something many Conservatives particularly wanted. Many are keenly aware of the damage it would cause the businesses, particularly in London, which create the wealth in the UK on which the Government’s tax revenue (and, thus, public services and welfare payments) depend; others also recognise fully that an exit from the European Union would almost certainly be followed by a second Scottish independence referendum; a few no doubt will have noted that absolutely no one else in the world, least of all the United States, wants the UK to marginalise itself in such a way.

Nevertheless, the huge UKIP vote (even if it delivered just a single seat) cannot reasonably be ignored. It is not, primarily, to do with the European Union; it is more a reflection of disenchantment with politics. In England and Wales, the evidence is that UKIP picked up the Liberal Democrats’ mantle as the party of the protest vote, while Conservative and Labour vote shares remained largely stable (in fact, they marginally increased). There is a genuine fear of rapid social change, re-emphasised by a terrible economic crash at the end of the last decade, which needs to be addressed in some way.

The likelihood is that the UK will vote to remain in the EU when it comes to it. The risk, however, is that the campaign for remaining in will be run by Europhiles with Europhiles for Europhiles. In fact, most of the population are neither Europhile nor Europhobe – they may in fact be put off by alarmist campaigns, in the same way that many moderate voters were put off by the Labour Party’s tribalism.

It is simply not the case that the Conservatives will “dismantle the welfare system” or “destroy the NHS” – Labour has campaigned on this many times since the War, but it has never happened. Nor is it the case that, in the words of the Swedish Prime Minister, leaving the EU would be a “catastrophe”.

It would, however, damage the UK economy in the long run because, outside the world’s largest free trading bloc, it would discourage investment; it would harm UK public services by limited educational and information exchanges with an inward-looking country; and it would reduce the UK’s global influence, not least by restricting sharing of intelligence to tackle international crime and global security threats. These types of argument, calmly made and properly targeted, will secure our future within the EU and improve prospects for our jobs, our services and our general security.

Welfare Reform more popular that many will admit

From the News Letter

The future of the Northern Ireland Assembly now seems to hinge on Welfare Reform. The DUP had hoped to influence this in a hung parliament; Sinn Fein had hoped to be able to deliver some sort of deal under Labour. Neither is now an option.

Both parties, and others, may want to consider why it is not an option. The Conservatives won the UK General Election outright, increasing both its overall vote and vote share, This happened predominantly because economic circumstances in most of the UK have improved; in particular, 2 million more people are in work than was the case in 2010.

This means the proportion of the electorate who are in work had increased. It is perhaps unsurprising, in that context, that an outright majority voted for broadly centre-right or right-wing candidates.

Low productivity and low pay (which are directly linked to each other) are now a genuine issue and a huge challenge. However, the fact remains that being in work is a vast improvement on not being. This is about more than mere income, although that is important. It is about the social networks, the self-esteem and the broadened opportunities that come about through entering the workplace – be this in the public sector, in business, or in self-employment.

There are further, broader social benefits of work too. Work at any level gives people the chance to work their way up to higher income for themselves, and to make a greater contribution to their workplace and to the economy (and indeed society) as a whole. Most importantly of all, we have to ask who creates jobs? Jobs are created almost always by people who already have them. We must never forget that the more people we have in work, the more people we can get into work.

The current welfare system actively blocks people from entering the workplace. On that basis alone, it is to be opposed, not supported; and reform of it is to be promoted, not rejected.

The current system is, however, even worse than that. It is also far too complex. I meet people weekly who are not only confused by the array of benefits they could potentially apply for, but who are fed up banging into brick walls as they seek to access them. This is grossly unfair – not only are people not getting benefits to which they are entitled, but they suffer acute additional stress from applying for them and being rejected. The whole system is set up to catch fraudsters out, not to help people in genuine need – to the extent that those in genuine need are often locked out of it.

Therefore again, a simplified system, complete with a new straightforward Universal Credit, is again to be supported, not rejected.

A simplified welfare system which rewards people who can work and cares for those who cannot is a popular welfare system. It is peculiar, therefore, that the Northern Ireland parties are so unwilling to recognise this obvious point.

Reforming welfare in Northern Ireland should not be about saving £3.1 billion for public services (although that, too, is of course important, particularly for those who depend on them most); it should be about recognising that a system which impedes people from entering employment and blocks people from accessing benefits to which they are entitled is both economically and morally wrong. Parties may be assured that the voters see it that way – and so should they.

Lessons from the UK election are far-reaching

I addressed the CIPFA luncheon on the outcome of the General Election and raised three far-reaching consequences of it.

Firstly, the result of the election (and indeed the exit poll) was a shock because the pollsters and pundits got it wrong.

This raises serious issues about polling and punditry generally, particularly the former. What, precisely, is the point of an opinion poll if even a series of them turns out utterly wrong? If this can apply to an election (where the error is demonstrable), how do we know it does not apply to everything else? For government departments carrying out consultations or businesses carrying out market research, how do we know this is in any way meaningful? In fairness to forecasters and pundits, they can only work from the information they have, but if basic indicators such as economic competence or preferred Prime Minister so heavily favoured one side, should someone not have picked it up?

It seems to me that this era of mass information is becoming an era of erroneous information. Pollsters and others crowd around a particular forecast, afraid of being attacked as an outlier, and no one is rewarded for standing clear from this crowd. The crowd, however, sometimes (often, even) gets it wrong.

Punditry also suffers from a lack of judgement in selecting the “expert”. Immediately upon presentation of the exit poll, one pundit on BBC NI said “exit polls in 1992 and 1970″ were “wrong”. In fact, the exit poll in 1992 was not much further out than this year’s; and the exit poll in 1970, taken in a single constituency, was absolutely spot on and the first indication anyone had of the correct result. In fact, exit polls have rarely been far out; yet pre-election polls have quite frequently been. There is a clear distinction, and no “pundit” should miss this. Again, pundits go with the crowd and are too impressed by fables about the past which are in fact untrue (such as that 1992 exit poll) or by social media propaganda – look how many, for example, predicted a Sinn Féin win in Belfast South, where in fact they came a distant fourth (as anyone actually knocking doors there or even with a basic knowledge of electoral trends locally would have known).

We have now to be much more careful, fundamentally, about what information we buy, and choose our suppliers much more carefully.

Secondly, Northern Ireland is now into a period of time where it is vulnerable to external shocks which are predictable, but which it is choosing to ignore.

There will be obvious financial shocks. Already, a ludicrous public discussion has broken out about how to “stop austerity” rather than how to deal with it. Northern Ireland has seen about 14% knocked off its spending in real terms – we complain about this, but it is less than half the equivalent reduction across the border in the Republic and it is not as bad as experienced elsewhere in the UK. The failure of Northern Ireland parties to budget properly (while pretending they do not have to) is already causing considerable grief – the voluntary sector in particular is taking a hit, but so are universities, road construction projects and school buildings, among others. Unless there is a dramatic change at the 2016 Assembly Election to parties prepared to tell it as it is and prepare accordingly, this will only get worse.

Less obviously, there is the issue that “the Union”, the defining issue of Northern Ireland elections supposedly, is no longer actually remotely in our hand. Already, effectively, there is no longer a UK Government, but in effect an English Government which takes additional responsibility over Defence and Foreign Affairs for the wider Union. With Scotland yellow, England blue and London red, the Union is changing dramatically and will surely become federal, including with significant financial powers. Northern Ireland, reliant on tens of billions every year from South East England, has taken no serious steps to reform its public services. remove inefficient segregation and promote export markets – on the contrary, reform processes are blocked, segregation is protected deliberately at great cost, and we do not even have a direct air route to Europe’s largest market. Those demanding “devolution of economic control” will get a hell of a shock when that actually happens and they have to introduce tax hikes which make prescription charges look like pocket change.

Looming large also will be Europe – and, generally, the UK’s place in the world and its global and economic structures. Already, the attempt to remove the Human Rights Act is tampering with the 1998 Agreement. Any hint of exit from the EU will make investors less certain, and thus hinder the prospects of adding jobs immediately to make up for those lost in the voluntary sector. Actual withdrawal from the EU would make all-Ireland networks we take for granted harder; will remove funding upon which farmers and community groups are reliant; and will cause further constitutional upheaval within the UK including a second “Indyref”. As the UK’s role in global influence diminishes, it will lose control of its own security, dependent as this is practically on shared intelligence and military cooperation – something difficult for the whole UK but a particular risk in Northern Ireland. None of this is being seriously debated in Northern Ireland because it has no real leaders prepared to tackle the issues as they are – either political or civic.

Thirdly, there is the challenge of dealing with what the election result shows us – that people across the UK (at least, outside Scotland) view the world fundamentally differently from the way in which it is seen in the media (particularly the social media). That is, perhaps, the biggest shock of all. While discussion on the campaign trail and in the TV studios was of “Tory cuts”, the people actually voted for them – including here in Northern Ireland, where the largest party’s financial policy is defined by low tax (and thus low public spending, even if they omit that bit in public debate). There is a serious breakdown there as, again, a world of manic and constant communication means a lot more is said and written, but a lot less is truly understood.

Which takes us back to the pollsters and pundits, perhaps…

UK Parliamentary electoral system unlikely to change

I did not expect, as I approached 40, to be spending nearly an hour on lunchtime radio discussing electoral systems, but all credit to BBC Talkback presenter William Crawley for keeping a debate (an interesting debate at that) going on the subject on Monday.

Like so many things in England, the electoral system to Parliament is in fact a matter of tradition rather than reason. Not content merely with advice from his closest Barons (the Privy Counsel) or even a wider number of them (the House of Lords), Medieval monarchs also sought advice from people elected from various communes across England and Wales (thus the House of Communes, now Commons). These communes were based on traditional subdivisions – counties and city boroughs as we now know them – and initially could be wildly varying in size and entitlement.

Post-War, each “commune” (officially now a “division” but generally known as a “constituency”) elects one member, and, since 1974, boundaries have been redrawn periodically to make them of roughly the same size population-wise. In each case, formally, what we are doing is electing a Member from our commune (community) to represent us when discussing (Norman French parler, hence parliament).

The big advantage of this is simplicity. We cast one vote for our preferred candidate, and the one with the most votes wins. Easy.

The big disadvantage is that this can appear grossly unfair – in 2010, the Liberal Democrats were the largest party in Oxford but won neither of its parliamentary seats, edged out by the Conservatives in one and Labour in the other. Most obviously, the system is designed to suit two parties who, with a wide breadth of support everywhere, can win every seat between them assuming that other parties’ (smaller) votes are evenly spread (hence in 1983 Labour’s 28% was converted into over 200 seats, but the Liberal/SDP Alliance share of 25% was worth just 23). It also suits regional parties who score highly in a particular area of the country – hence the SNP won 56 seats with less than half UKIP’s vote, while UKIP mustered just one.

Nevertheless, every single election since the War has delivered peculiarities and no one has managed to change it. In 1951, quite simply, the wrong party won – Labour actually received its highest ever vote, more than the Conservatives and their allies, yet lost to a working majority. In 1959, the Unionists (Conservatives) outpolled Labour in Scotland for the last time – yet won fewer seats there. In February 1974 a Liberal surge to nearly 20% of the vote delivered only 14 seats (only eight more than previously). In October 1974 the Nationalists received 30.4% of the vote in Scotland but won only 11 of 71 seats there. Then there was the aforementioned farce of 1983 when the third party was left well back despite pulling almost level with Labour in vote share, and the fact the Conservatives in 2010 received more votes, had a higher vote share, and were further clear of their opposition than Labour in 2005 – yet Labour had a comfortable majority in 2005 and the Conservatives were forced into coalition in 2010. This is to leave aside the SNP now has 95% of the seats in Scotland when half the voters actually chose someone else.

No one has ever come out of a UK election thinking the system worked well! Yet the combination of tradition and the simple fact that a winning party will rarely change the system that elected it means the old system may hang around a while yet.


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