Where we’re going, we don’t need policies…

NI21’s quest for policies this summer seems to have gone the same way as Arsenal’s quest for signings. Likewise, if Arsenal hadn’t made such a big thing of having money to spend, there would be no issue; and if NI21 hadn’t made such a big thing of “not sitting on the fence”, the fact it has even removed the policy section from its web site wouldn’t be so laughable.

Failing to come up with proper policy is not unique to NI21 by any means. The DUP just changes policy when the Leader demands it, even when he’s in Florida. Sinn Fein has been back and forth on abortion like a tennis ball at Wimbledon, and no one is quite sure how. However, even that isn’t the real problem.

The real problem is there is no point in coming up with policies for their own sake – after all, plenty of people get elected without them! The real problem is failing to define what society’s problems are before you attempt to solve them; in other words, we don’t need any new policies, we need policies (actually, proposals) with a clearly defined purpose.

That is NI21’s biggest problem, just as it is everyone else’s. Like many parties before it, NI21 is making three cardinal errors: first, it is on a course of developing policies at random by committee; second, there is no real way of ensuring the policies are linked to each other, even in terms of basic core themes; third, it assumes policies matter in the current Northern Ireland set-up.

I can probably admit now that about ten years ago, the Alliance Party went into an election pledging to reduce income tax to help business, and at the same time to raise it to pay for health! That is what happens when you devise policy by committee – it all depends on who happens to be on the committee, and not on a clear analysis of the underlying problem. (It is perhaps even more noteworthy that no one seemed to notice – after all, people don’t read manifestos!)

Asked what Northern Ireland’s underlying problem is, and you will encounter another problem with NI21 (again, not unique to it by any means) – namely that any attempt at answering the question will be political (i.e. about political institutions). There is no polite way of saying this – that is garbage, coming from right in the heart of the “political bubble” that NI21 should be stepping away from. Northern Ireland’s problems are socio-economic. They will not be solved by tampering with Assembly speaking rights or whatever, they will be solved by a clear analysis of what the problems are (around social decay, worklessness, low educational attainment, indebtedness and so on), and then the development of evidence-based proposals.

The third point above is perhaps the most important, however, and ties to the last word of the previous paragraph. I referred to “proposals”, not “policies”. Here is where NI21 and perhaps others could do something significant (it would still have been helpful for it not to have mentioned “fence-sitting”, because what I am about to suggest will look awfully like it): it could bring forward evidence-based proposals.

Why “proposals”? In most electoral systems, one party or coalition is in government and another is in opposition: the opposition develops policies distinct from the government, and will then be judged on its implementation of them once it is in government. This is not so in Northern Ireland. NI21 (or the Alliance Party or whoever) is not magically going to “come to power” tomorrow, with a sweeping mandate to pass all its policies unhindered. So, for example, a hugely detailed transport policy is probably a waste of time – even if it got the Regional Development ministry, it would have to negotiate everything with other parties, and inevitably would have to compromise. What makes far more sense is a set of proposals outlining what the problems are (and stating the case for this outline), and then what action can practically be taken at Assembly level to resolve those problems. This has the specific aim of getting other parties to respond – where a detailed “policy document” developed by a committee seemingly at random could simply be rejected, broad proposals based on sound analysis could force a response (and a negotiation).

For all that, what is really needed is a sound analysis of what Northern Ireland is, why it is that way, what change is desirable and feasible, and what practical action can be taken to achieve that change. I don’t see the slightest hint of that emanating from NI21, or really from anyone else. There will be a reward for the first party which grabs that challenge and runs with it constructively.

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10 thoughts on “Where we’re going, we don’t need policies…

  1. factual says:

    The advantage of NI21 (as with TUV, UKIP and Greens) in terms of policies is that they can oppose the Executive’s policies. I expect them to do so from the left on social issues and from the centre on economic issues (which is to the left of the two unionist parties and possibly somewhat to the right of the two nationalist parties). It’s relatively easy to have policy proposals (just learn from best practice elsewhere on these islands) but what makes their position stronger is being able to attack the policies and performance of the Executive parties.

    NI21 are distinct from Alliance, in terms of philosophy, because they don’t have a policy of “equidistance” between nationalism and unionism.

    • That last paragraph is a very strong challenge to the Alliance Party. I remain hopeful that it will help shape the Alliance Party itself.

      However, the point remains that NI21 hasn’t been formed in response to anything. What is the problem it is trying to solve?

      I’ll return to that.

      • factual says:

        I am not a NI21 person by the way so I am just discussing out of interest , putting the arguments out.

        But you say: “NI21 hasn’t been formed in response to anything. What is the problem it is trying to solve?”

        I would conjecture that It (in its name, approach, etc) a response to the experience of the last 5 years and specifically:

        *Frustration at us-them politics (and presumably “equidistance” politics) which so characterized the 20th century
        *Frustration with sterility in practice of the political process as it has been experienced, with its all-inclusive Executive government (….as you hint in your blog post above, this maximal coalitional system reduces power of voters to select between alternative policy agendas in elections and puts everything down to deals behind the scenes)
        *Evidence in the census that “NI” is a popular broadly-held identity
        *Evidence from polls that suggest a pro-UK preference wider than old unionism
        *Frustration at the apparent victory of “tribal” rather than “civic” ideas within the UUP

        Ironically, when the UUP modernized its method of selecting leaders, from UUC to one-member-one-vote, it did not seem to help those with a civic vision for a pro-UK party.

        I am not saying it is going to work for NI21, the history of NI is not encouraging, but I can see that a case can be made for it.

      • Understood!

        One of all the parties’ consistent failings is the ability to see themselves as others see them!

        But again, what you write doesn’t describe a problem which:
        A) really resonates (beyond dinner parties);
        B) is actually of practical use (it’s all abstract political theory); or
        C) is likely to be solved by a party whose entire electoral representation is *2*.

        Actually, the big problem out there is jobs – unemployment and underemployment. There are also big concerns around childcare costs, the efficiency of the health service, and (perceived) declining standards in schools. Finally, obviously, people didn’t much enjoy the riots.

        People want practical solutions to those delivered *now*, not in two elections’ time. As mentioned, NI21 isn’t coming up with any and would have no capacity to deliver them anyway.

        I’ll come to this.

        By the way, it’s just possible the above problems aren’t really for politicians to solve at all…

  2. You know IJP, I’d have to agree with this slight counter factual (no joke intended); policy is too hard and fast especially in today’s environment, proposals are the way forward. Was it Keynes who said something to the effect that when the facts change his opinion changes or something to that effect? I’d have to agree to that assertion, it’s based in reality and is pragmatic rather than dogmatic, the latter being a massive turn off to me and frankly a waste of time and money in the main.

    Oh, btw, moved to Deutschland, any advice on learning German? I’m embarrassed whenever someone says they ‘know a little English’ when it means they’re close on fluent. I promise I’ll be conversant by Christmas of course (I have self-respect after all and don’t want to be THAT foreigner).

  3. factual says:

    On policy, big parties such as Labour don’t have policies in between elections. You develop them before an election. What is the difference between a policy and a proposal in practice? Just the level of detail I guess.

    • Well, Labour does have some policies!

      But you’re right of course. The problem is, Labour is clearly “sitting on the fence” by any definition.

      Had NI21 started out saying “We’re going to be broadly socially liberal and economically conservative but frankly we’re not going to propose concrete policies which may be impractical when the moment comes”, I would’ve had a lot of sympathy. That’s what I would have done.

      But actually NI21 said “We’re not going to sit on the fence” and implicitly that they would distance themselves from the other parties by having real policies. Anybody seen ’em?!

      The difference between a policy and a proposal is that a policy is something you would commit to doing yourself given the chance, whereas a proposal is something you would aim to persuade others to implement now. NI21’s real problem, after all, is that it can say what it likes but is in no position to *do* anything!

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