Category Archives: Politics

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 this 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…

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”.

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.

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.

SNP overplaying hand at Westminster

The SNP is on the rise, easily the UK’s third largest party by membership and holding the momentum of what, by any standards, was a successful referendum campaign even in defeat.

Its morale and confidence are so high, that it has scared the main GB parties into playing games around potential deals with the SNP. Perhaps they (particularly the Conservatives) feel this suits them particularly, but the practical fact is the SNP has an extraordinarily weak hand in any post-election negotiations.

Firstly, and understandably for electoral reasons (but probably foolishly in practice), the SNP has ruled out any deal whatsoever with the Conservatives. Practically, this leaves it with no choice but to back Labour – already a weak hand.

Secondly, this actually leaves the practical choice for the SNP of backing a stable Labour government (depending on the numbers), or creating instability. The latter may be tempting for a party which may feel it would gain from this, but in fact the inevitable result would be an early UK election.

Such an early UK election would not suit the SNP at all. It would in fact fully endorse Scottish Labour’s contention that the only way to ensure (as much as possible) the Conservatives stay out is to vote Labour, almost certainly costing the SNP seats; and, of course, if the Conservatives won an election forced by unreasonable SNP demands, they would be blamed for it, potentially wrecking their entire strategy for decades.

In other words, the SNP, even with all 59 Scottish seats, cannot afford to endorse a Conservative-led government and cannot afford to force an early election. It has no cards to play at all.

No role for NI parties in government formation

There has been some discussion about which main GB party Northern Ireland parties may back in the event of a hung parliament (i.e. a parliament with no overall majority for a single party). The discussion is welcome in that it hints at a focus on issues, but it is entirely misplaced.

It was none other than Ian Paisley (senior) himself who said, in 1992 when a hung parliament looked likely, that a government to be stable requires a “majority of 20″. If anything this proved to be an underestimate – the Conservatives secured a majority of 21 but had in fact lost it (through defections and by-elections) in four years. Still, a typical parliament would indeed see a majority of 20 suffice – but not much less (the current Conservative/LibDem coalition was elected with a majority of 76 but as dissolution had a majority of 62).

So, although in theory 326 seats is the target (323 if Sinn Féin holds at least four seats and the Speaker is re-elected), just scrambling to such a figure would not be sufficient for a stable government. The target is in fact to get to the mid-330s, and even then it is highly risky if a coalition or confidence/supply arrangement requires more than two parties (any of which could walk away at any moment). A parliament where no two parties can get to at least 330 will mean the parliament does not go full term, and may indeed require another swift election (as in 1974).

This means, in practice, Northern Ireland parties cannot possibly win enough seats to be relevant to the outcome, as they simply will not make the difference between scrambling to a majority on one hand, and a majority sufficient to go anything like full term on the other. Realistically, the very best they could do would be to give backing to one “Emergency Budget” followed by a second election – a fairly thankless task for parties used to playing a permanent Opposition role (even when they old 3 or 4 Executive seats in a devolved legislature!)

That does not mean Northern Ireland parties will not have a role. In a parliament operating by confidence/supply, they could be the difference between a referendum on the EU and no referendum, for example (issues where even the big parties may see some splits), or military intervention or no military intervention (as the tight vote against it in Syria showed).

In practice, the people of Northern Ireland need to elect MPs who will make a difference lobbying or arguing a case at Westminster on its merits. The fact, when discussing possible post-election deals, no one there appears even to have heard of Nigel Dodds is perhaps cautionary…

Who is ‘indigenous’?

In response to a recent piece, two correspondents came back asking some very interesting questions about what is “indigenous”.

I do not like the word “indigenous” at all. It does very little justice to our history, particularly in Europe. We are also inclined to tie together Ethnic and Linguistic terms (as one correspondent noted), which is unhelpful.

Let us take the north of Ireland in the 15th century. The Normans had come and integrated, so we are really at a stage when the “indigenous Irish” are all at peace living happily together all speaking Irish Gaelic.

Except, well, that was not remotely the case. It was in fact far more interesting than that. To the far north east, the McDonnells had become the dominant clan in the Glens – they were Gaelic speaking, but had in fact come over from Scotland within the last couple of centuries (where some of them remain – the McDonalds). To the west was “The Route”, dominated by the McQuillans, of Cambro-Norman origin (literally “west Brits” by origin within the previous few centuries). Well over to the west were the Sweeneys and other groups in Donegal who had also settled from Scotland, and would also have had little trouble doing so as Catholic Gaelic speakers, other than in that they were blatantly taking someone else’s land. Even to the south east, we find the barony of “Mourne”, inhabited by “indigenous Irish” who had been on the island probably for millennia. Except they had in fact taken over that territory only in the previous few centuries, hence giving it the name also given to “Monaghan” in preference to the name of the tribe previously “indigenous” at that location, the Boirche. This is all leaving aside the ongoing Anglo-Norman settlements scattered along the east coast – in Carrickfergus, Ards and Lecale – which were in fact of longer standing than some of the Gaelic settlements.

The problem is that throughout Irish history people have moved to and from the island – after all, St Patrick himself had been brought over from western Britain a millennium beforehand. They have also moved within the island – the largest death toll in any conflict in the island’s history was in fact in a battle about territory and overlordship near Moira in AD 637, before even the Viking invasions, never mind the Norman.

Then of course, there is the linguistic issue. Here, in fact, there is a better case for applying the words “Gaelic” and “indigenous”, although even there they are far from perfect. “Gaelic” initially refers to “raiders”, a name applied to a group who brought a Celtic language (specifically Q-Celtic, unlike Welsh which is P-Celtic) to the island of Ireland. There is no reason to believe that they took over or even dramatically altered the ethnic mix (a recent survey showed that neither the Vikings nor the Normans significantly altered British genes), but they did change the language spoken and the most unifying feature of pre-Viking, pre-Norman or pre-plantation Ireland was that its inhabitants spoke that language (albeit, of course, in hugely varying dialects and in common with many people in northern and western Scotland). This linguistic and ethnic separation, of course, applied with the subsequent dominance of the (Germanic) English language; it has not changed the ethnic mix particularly either.

The divisions/diverse identities this has brought about are even political, and not just in the obvious way. Even to this day, the broad (cultural, not ethnic) split brought about by the Norman invasion (never mind the Scottish settlements and the plantation nearly half a millennium later) still applies – people with Norman surnames are more likely to vote Fine Gael and less likely to vote Fianna Fail than people with Gaelic surnames, for example.

There is therefore something fundamentally wrong with people who seek to suggest that Ireland is somehow purely Gaelic, either ethnically or culturally. That is not to say that “Gaelicism” is not a significant, even the most significant, identity on the island. But to focus on it alone is to miss the diversity that makes Ireland what it is – complete not just with the influence of Vikings (who founded Larne and Dublin), Normans (who account for nearly a quarter of all surnames), or Ulster Scots and planters (who industrialised the north east); but also with smaller stories of movements from one part to the other, or interconnections with Scotland, Wales or the west of England (and further afield) which are all a vital part of the story. Throw all that into the mix, and not only is no one truly “indigenous”, but no one wanting to reflect the entirety of Ireland’s story would want to be, as it would be left incomplete.

I guess one man’s division is another man’s diversity. We probably need to stop creating the former, and start celebrating the latter.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,488 other followers