Category Archives: Politics

History of UK exit polls

Polls are about to open in the UK General Election. 15 hours from now they will close and, instantly, broadcast networks will reveal the result of the “Exit Poll”. This is widely quoted as the clearest indication yet of the likely result, as it is an indication of how people who actually voted say they have voted, rather than how they intend to vote.

For the record, the Exit Poll consists of asking people to re-fill in the ballot paper, with the results then compared to outcomes at the same or similar locations previously. That gives the likely swing in marginal seats, and thus a clear clue as to the overall outcome. So, how have they done?

The first attempt at a proper exit poll was in 1970. Polls had consistently pointed to a likely Labour victory under Harold Wilson, as it defended a majority of 97 from the election four years previously. The exit poll was attempted by the BBC in only one constituency, Gravesend, which was regarded as the closest to typical in England. It produced a surprise, with a swing in fact suggesting a narrow but workable Conservative majority for Ted Heath. This proved astonishingly accurate – the actual result was a Conservative majority of 30.

A similar attempt was made in February 1974, and suggested something close to a dead heat. So it more or less was – despite winning most votes, the Conservatives fell 21 seats short of a majority and four behind Labour, meaning Harold Wilson took over in Number 10 but knowing he would soon have to test the pollsters again.

In October, the replay occurred. This time, a Harris “on-the-day survey”, supposedly wider ranging than previously, suggested a whopping Labour majority of 130. This was at odds with ITN’s effort, which suggested a wafer-thin Labour win. Interestingly, the bookies took the BBC’s words for it and were soon all but rejecting bets on an outright Labour majority. Embarrassment awaited, however, as early results showed just a narrow swing to Labour, whose final majority of just three was far closer to ITN’s call and caused a major inquiry at the BBC.

In 1979, with Labour’s Jim Callaghan already having lost a Vote of Confidence and thus lacking a majority, the BBC did not risk being too specific about whether Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were likely to take over. However, the median projection just after 10pm was a Conservative majority of 12. This had once again underestimated the Conservative vote, but not as badly as five years previously as the UK’s first female Prime Minister in fact earned a majority of 44.

In 1983, there was still some wariness about overplaying the on-the-day survey (broadcasters waited a while after 10pm to promote the result), but in fact the BBC suggested a Conservative majority of 146 with their opponents (Labour under Michael Foot and the SDP-Liberal Alliance under David Owen and David Steel) split. That was almost exactly what happened – the final outcome was 144.

Spurred by the effective triumph of the survey four years previously, in 1987 the BBC gave much more detail about its on-the-day work. Those details, it said, suggested Neil Kinnock’s Labour had made significant gains leaving a sharply reduced Conservative majority of 26. There was some concern, however, that ITN had a rather different outcome of 68. As in the second election thirteen years previously, it soon became apparent that ITN was nearer the truth and the BBC swiftly increased its projection towards the actual majority of 102. Another inquiry followed.

1992 was the first year in which broadcasters did an actual exit poll as it is now understood. This was announced exactly as Big Ben chimed 10pm. Contrary to commonly stated myth, the exit poll in fact did suggest the Conservatives (now under John Major) were the largest party, but short of an overall majority. ITN and newcomers Sky did their own polls which more or less agreed. As so often in the past, they had in fact understated Conservative support, as Mr Major was given an overall majority of 21.

In 1997 at 10pm a bruised BBC said nothing other than it was a Labour landslide under Tony Blair. ITN was in fact more specific, suggesting a Labour majority of 159. The BBC exit poll was in fact quite a long way out, considerably overstating Labour support by four points; but since a landslide is a landslide, few noticed as Mr Blair romped home 179 ahead of all other parties combined.

The 2001 election was almost a repeat of 1997 but in this case the BBC did give a figure at 10pm of a majority of 161. William Hague’s Conservatives had probably in fact lost seats, it suggested. In fact, they hadn’t (overall), but the error referred to LibDem marginals not to Labour ones – Mr Blair did indeed have a majority of 163.

By 2005, all networks used the same exit poll. This was now a hugely detailed effort at great expense, and that work appeared to have paid off – at 10pm it suggested Tony Blair had a third term with an overall majority of 66. In fact, this time it had overstated the fortunes of Michael Howard’s Conservatives against Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats, missing the scale of the latter’s jump to 62 seats and consequently overstating Conservative fortunes. Nevertheless, the majority was now bang on at 66.

In 2010, after Cleggmania, the BBC’s surprise was obvious as it suggested the Conservatives under David Cameron were the largest party but short by 19 while the LibDems under Nick Clegg himself had in fact lost ground despite the campaign struggles of Labour PM Gordon Brown. In fact, it had if anything slightly overstated the LibDem total, but the fundamental figure for the lead party was again exactly right.

2015 was widely seen as exit polls’ finest hour, yet in fact it was the worst exit poll since 1997. The BBC declared only “Conservatives Largest Party” without quite specifying a hung parliament, before suggesting that they were short by just ten, having gained ground. Ed Miliband’s Labour had been left behind after 41 losses to the SNP and scant consequent gains in England, it suggested. This was deemed a huge success as it was so much closer to the actual result (a Conservative overall majority of 12 including the Speaker) than any pre-election polls. Nevertheless, it bears repeating it was in fact much further out than any other this century.

Where will you be at 10pm this evening…?!


Sectarianism – we do these things because they are hard, not because they are easy…

Colum Eastwood, Leader of the SDLP, said at the start of his tenure that a “United Ireland” is “still the best idea we have“.

This was a peculiar comment. Northern Ireland is, as a matter of fact, divided along sectarian lines – choices in education, leisure and of course politics are defined by these. Yet those who believe that a “United Ireland” is “the best idea we have” are found almost exclusively on one side of that fault line, among those of broadly Catholic community (and religious and educational) background.

The fact remains, despite many efforts, that 85% of voters choose a party specifically associated with one or other side (by definition, “sectarian”); 90% are educated in schools whose pupils are 90%+ from one side or another (“sectarian”); entire communities in sport and music also grow up more often than not on one side (“sectarian”).

One area where there has been a major breakthrough since the start of the Troubles is the workplace. These too were often typically of one side or the other. It is within living memory that large company workplaces were bedecked in flags, stating clearly which “side” they belonged to. Into this century a specific Catholic unemployment rate was announced every month. Both would now be unthinkable.

The solution to the workplace issue was in effect to enforce pro-activity to tackle sectarian exclusion. Large employers who are found to be recruiting exclusively or almost exclusively from one side were and are asked to explain what they are doing to address this and to ensure that opportunities are open to as wide a range of people of all different backgrounds (from all sides) as possible. We have all seen the adverts – “X community is underrepresented so applications are particularly welcome” – although that is only one aspect. Sometimes much more specific action was seen to be required, most obviously with the police, whose 93% Protestant background workforce was evened up by 50/50 recruitment. This was of course strongly supported by Nationalists, which brings us back to the SDLP.

The SDLP was founded as an avowedly anti-sectarian party predominantly to unite workers and other promoters of civil rights. Yet its modern face is astonishingly one-sided. It is surely the case that the party’s elected representatives, officers and so on now come almost exclusively (more than 93%) from one side. Whatever their intentions, it is thus inevitable that the party will do things (canvass outside mass) or say things (“the north”) which also appeal exclusively to one side or alienate another side. They might even make a comment about “the best idea we have” without even the slightest notion that it is really only that to people who grow up with the national identity of one side, and absolutely not to the other.

This brings us to what really should be an unbelievably obvious point. People who grow up in Northern Ireland into a family with a broadly Irish identity (who will still, sadly, in 85%+ of cases attend a church, go to a school and vote for a party based on that) will tend towards the nationalist “best idea we have” side because that is what they grew up with. Those who grew up in a family with a broadly British identity, on the other hand, will attend a different church, go to a different school, and vote for a different party while tending towards strong support for maintaining the UK (thus for the unionist side) because that is what they grew up with. Selecting Nationalist or Unionist is the same as selecting Irish or British, or for that matter French, Australian or Thai – you are born into it and it is what you grow up with.

Thus the very notion of what is the “best idea we have” depends not on objective analysis or rational thought, but on preferences we were born into and experienced during our cultural upbringing. We are almost all, therefore, born into a side – in other words, born sectarian.

Then get this: pointing out that we live in a sectarian society with sides is not in itself an act of sectarianism; indeed, it is in fact the first act in tackling sectarianism. Ignoring it and pretending it is not there is only likely to make matters worse, as it gives us no basis even for recognising our different upbringings and the likely misunderstandings they will cause. We have to recognise it, honestly and openly, before we can overcome it.

For what it is worth, that is the fundamental difference between the SDLP and Alliance in 2017. The SDLP wants to pretend we can get rid of sectarianism by ignoring it as if it does not exist, and thus continues to retreat on to one side of the fence. The Alliance Party tries instead to recognise the problem and be proactive in addressing it – necessarily through compromise.

Actually recognising the problem and calling it out is not, of course, the generally popular option – after all, who wants to admit they have a problem? It is much more tempting just to pretend it is not there. But if we are to take Northern Ireland and, for that matter, all of Ireland forward, we are going to have to do some of this tough stuff.

It can be done – after all, the guy who said “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard” was elected! Let us hope a few more prepared to go the hard route are elected on 8 June.

Legal aid should not delay democracy

From News Letter a week ago.

The ongoing appeals of a self-acclaimed ‘conservationist’ against the construction of the much needed A6 expressway make a mockery of democracy; and we need to be clear about who is paying for this farce.

Proposals to link the end of the M22 and Randalstown and Castledawson Roundabout with a high quality dual carriageway have existed for half a century. Detailed work progressed to the stage, already fully a decade ago, where the route for the link had been agreed and work was ready to proceed once funding was available. Both an Ulster Unionist and, subsequently, a Sinn Fein Minister gave the go ahead for the new road to proceed and allocated appropriate funding to enable this to happen with the full consent of a DUP Finance Minister and all other major parties commanding the support of over 90% of the electorate. Tens of thousands of people in Mid Ulster and the North West stood to benefit from the new road, making their journey to the Greater Belfast area more comfortable, faster, and most of all safer.

As is absolutely their right in a democracy, a small minority opted to oppose the road. They challenged it, albeit curiously late, by mounting a democratic campaign to try to get politicians to change their mind. When that failed, they moved to try to demonstrate that the route had not been correctly selected by officials. They failed even to crowd-source enough money to pay the legal fees, yet somehow the legal challenge went ahead – and it too failed. It is therefore essential, in any democracy with the Rule of Law with both political opinion and legal judgment in favour, that the road proceed without delay and the benefits of it be accrued quickly.

It is entirely unacceptable that a minority of one person should be able to continue to challenge the road legally at great expense just because he does not like it. Democracy fundamentally requires us as good citizens to accept political decisions and legal determinations even when we dislike them.

We need now to be told clearly who is paying for these endless and spurious legal challenges (if they were anything other than spurious there would by now have been a clear legal reason for the appeal); and to learn the lesson that such selfishness is intolerable in a democratic society.

Beware false news – and false analysis

BBC Talkback host William Crawley is very keen to make the distinction between ‘false news’ on one hand, and outright misinformation on the other. There should perhaps be a third category – ‘false analysis’.

This category would belong to the type of ‘analysis’ presented by politicians or pundits (sadly, quite often the latter in fact) which is in fact nothing of the sort. What it is, in fact, is a regurgitation of an already pre-determined viewpoint by trying to fit some selective ‘facts’ to a pre-existing opinion and then presenting it as ‘analysis’. The media (and indeed, the citizenry at large) need to be careful about this.

One example occurred last week when it was suggested that the Northern Ireland Health Service would be as bad as the Republic of Ireland’s within ten years because of ‘Tory austerity’. There is so much wrong with that ‘analysis’ that it is hard to know where to begin – some of it is highly questionable and some of it is simple error (all of it designed to fit pre-existing bias).

Let us start with the simple errors, of which incredibly there are three categories in that simple statement alone. Firstly, since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, we have not experienced ‘austerity’ with regard to Health spending (‘austerity’ is defined as a closing of the gap between revenue raised and public spending, and that has not happened with regards to spending on Health or, in most cases, at all). Secondly, again since 2010, Health spending in Northern Ireland has risen significantly more slowly than in England despite every rise in England being passed on to the Northern Ireland Executive in equivalent per-head terms – this is because the Northern Ireland Executive has elected not to spend all of the additional spending meant for Health on Health (indeed on some occasions it has allocated none of the uplift at all to Health); so any comparative decline in Health spending is entirely the fault of the Northern Ireland Executive led by the DUP and Sinn Fein throughout that period. Thirdly, the Northern Ireland Health Service’s problems do not derive fundamentally from a lack of spending – it has been noted constantly that just leaving things as they are would see Northern Ireland’s entire devolved budget spent on Health within a couple of decades; in other words, the issue is not the failure to allocate money to keep the current system running, but rather the failure to reform the current system in line with multiple expert reviews. So three errors – there has not been ‘austerity’ as defined (particularly not with regard to Health); the comparative reduction in spending versus the rest of the UK is the fault of the DUP and Sinn Fein not the ‘Tories’; and in any case the fundamental issue is the need for reform, not spending.

On top of that is the assumption made that Northern Ireland’s Health Service is superior to the Republic’s. This is, at least, arguable, but it is by no means certain. Life expectancy in the Republic has drawn level with Northern Ireland in recent years, which would at least suggest that its service is not notably poorer. The Republic’s system of having the better off pay for Health services while covering the poorest is arguably considerably more progressive than Northern Ireland’s; indeed, it could be argued that Northern Ireland is heading this way in any case because, as waiting lists become so long, the better off are choosing to pay to go private anyway. The notion that the Northern Ireland service is superior is perhaps defensible on the evidence, but that evidence should at least be tested and it must be recognised that there is also a counter-argument.

There is just one of many cases where what is passed off as ‘analysis’ is in fact not just ‘opinion’, but opinion based on fiction. As the old maxim goes, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts; free speech is one thing, but if the media are presenting something as ‘analysis’ they must ensure it is soundly reasoned for fair and rational debate to take place. Otherwise they are just building on the ‘fake news’ problem.

#GE17: Why the Conservatives may not win such a landslide

Note that like any sensible person I have given up making political predictions and, to be clear, what appears below is not one. However, as we pass the twentieth anniversary of Tony Blair’s Labour Party enjoying the biggest post-War landslide election win ever (an absolute majority of 179), it is worth presenting the case for why the Conservatives will not enjoy anything like that kind of margin on 8 June.

Let us start with the dangerous assumption that the polls are roughly correct. Work has been done since they underestimated the Conservative vote share by roughly four points in 2015 to correct certain assumptions made, and it should be noted that even in a bad year they are never so well out as to suggest anything other than a comfortable Conservative lead on polling day. There has also been considerable work on polling for people switching vote (to which we will return) noting that 2016 Leave voters and particularly among those 2015 UKIP voters are indeed intending to switch to the Conservatives. Therefore, the current poll of polls suggesting that the Conservatives are currently on around 46% in Great Britain and Labour on 29% is a reasonable, if probably not absolutely accurate, starting point.

(It should be noted that the figure of Conservative around 46% and Labour around 29% is universal across all class backgrounds. The notion that the Conservative vote is predominantly middle class has long been flawed, and is particularly so post-referendum. It is in fact the Liberal vote which is clearly predominantly middle class, and has been for some time; and the UKIP vote which is predominantly working class.)

There are three prime reasons Labour may not come out quite so poorly (and the Conservatives may not come out quite so well).

The first is in the figures themselves. Unmentioned in the top-line figures is that polling is picking up an unsurprisingly but notably high number of ‘undecideds’. Of further note is that these ‘undecideds’ are particularly weighted towards people who declare that they voted Labour in 2015. This suggests that a very high number of Labour voters last time are unsure they wish to do so again in 2017 (in terms of polling, we should make no assumptions about why that is). However, there are very few direct Labour to Conservative switchers even among those declaring a preference (the Conservative uplift is primarily from UKIP and non-voting); therefore while we should not assume that these Labour-leaning undecideds will necessarily break Labour, we can be fairly sure they will not break Conservative. In other words, the Conservative figure of 46% is the highest they could possibly score (as the best case scenario for them is that current ‘undecideds’ break evenly or do not vote at all).

The second is that in every case where a ‘snap election’ has been called in post-War Britain (and generally in other comparable Western democracies), the governing party has lost a disproportionately high vote share in polling during the campaign itself. Typically the vote share at the start of the campaign is fairly accurate (at least insofar as the polls themselves are) as most people make up their mind between elections, but a ‘snap election’ gives them less time (hence it is unsurprising to find a higher than usual number of ‘undecideds’). What appears to happen is that supporters of the party calling the snap election declare their support quite contentedly from the start (perhaps on the assumption that they would not have called it if they were not reasonably sure of winning); however, people not pre-disposed to voting for the governing party take longer to make up their minds (since they have, by definition, not had a full electoral cycle to settle on a particular party preference).

The third (and all of these reasons are linked) is simply that the Conservatives, having absorbed much of the UKIP vote, cannot possibly benefit from tactical voting (except, perhaps, in Scotland). On the other hand, all the broadly ‘open/left’ parties can expect to do so – people who definitely do not like the Conservatives may not be sure whether they really prefer Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, but they may well be willing to vote for whichever one has the best chance of defeating the Conservative. In other words, even if the polling numbers to end up something like Conservative 46% Labour 29% (a considerably larger margin than Labour 43% Conservative 30% as was the case in 1997), the Conservatives would come nowhere close to the sort of landslide Tony Blair enjoyed.

In other words, the chances are that the Conservative figure of around 46% is already a little inflated; it is likely that during the campaign it will slip (whereas the campaign rarely makes much difference); and in any case tactical voting may see them win fewer seats than they may typically expect for whatever vote share they achieve.

To be clear, I predict nothing but even the above suggests nothing other than that the Conservatives will be comfortably the largest party on 8 June. However, the current betting suggests that the even chance is a Conservative landslide majority of around 124. I am not only predicting nothing but I was never a betting man – if I were, however, I’d be inclined (just inclined, mind) to go a little lower than that.

Civic Forum should be re-established as Citizens’ Assembly

I saw a prominent journalist in conversation a few weeks ago who made many interesting points, one of which was that in the era of Nolan and social media clickbait, there is now nowhere really for proper civic debate and dialogue.

The consequence is that everything is presented in absolute black or white terms, with no means of introducing moderation, objectivity or frankly even proper expertise into the discussion. This, in turn, is seriously harming our politics.

It strikes me that Ireland has hit upon a solution, at least to some extent, in its ‘Citizens’ Assembly‘ concept. Of course there are modifications in every sense, but a Citizens’ Assembly or Citizens’ Convention is a concept whose relevance is surely greater now than ever. The fundamental principle is that people are selected at random (a little like jury service; in Ireland’s case, 100 people are so selected), and they are introduced to factual papers and presentations on a particular subject from impartial experts and asked to come to as consensual a conclusion as they can (through what is known as ‘deliberative democracy’). On these pages, I have long advocated a UK Constitutional Convention along these lines, to address issues around Brexit, devolution, identity and political reform.

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly showed its worth a fortnight ago when it produced an outcome on abortion. This was, of course, highly contested, and that fact alone is useful to know. The outcome would inevitably have satisfied absolutists in neither the ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’ camp, but it did give as fair an assessment as you will get on the general Irish view on where abortion law should be.

One of the issues holding up the Northern Ireland institutions in the area of ‘implementation of past agreements’ is the Civic Forum, which was essentially abandoned after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement having by common consent achieved very little. Nevertheless, there is now some agitation for its return, if only because it is still in fact part of the original 1998 Agreement and was never formally abolished.

There is, therefore, an obvious solution. Why do we not just, by ‘Civic Forum’, bring together 60 people on the Northern Ireland electoral roll selected at random to find (as best they can) consensus on issues such as abortion and voting rights just as the Irish Citizens’ Assembly has done? The template already exists; the outcome would be a much more precise assessment of Northern Ireland public opinion (rather than the absolutist positions which pass for “debate” anywhere from the radio to the Assembly floor); and it would be difficult for MLAs to ignore. It would cost next to nothing and would surely provide much better value than the original version.

Just a thought. By the way, is anyone out there actually thinking?!

Constitutional question irrelevant to EU debate

The totally obvious point that, if Northern Ireland chose to “leave the United Kingdom and join with the Republic of Ireland in a United Ireland” it would then become part of the EU even after the rest of the UK had left, is not news. Nor is it really very helpful.

The significant political issue around Brexit is the status of the border. If this can be managed in such a way that the border remains a practical irrelevance with free movement of goods, services and people across it, Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU will be an irritation but potentially little more than that. If, on the other hand, the border becomes so relevant that vehicles are regularly stopped at it for customs checks and application of tariffs, then it is a whole different issue. This issue, Nationalists and some others suggest, could simply be solved by having a United Ireland.

Well, no. Placing Northern Ireland in a United Ireland in such circumstances would then place it on the wrong side of a “hard border” from what is by far its main trading partner – Great Britain. In fact, at a purely economic level (noting that if things were decided at a purely economic level the UK would not have voted to leave the EU in the first place), it would be the height of madness to swap the UK for the EU, given that the UK is many times more important to Northern Ireland’s economic and financial well-being than the EU is.

Therefore, that whole debate, not for the first time, completely misses the point. Irrelevant of constitutional desires, what Northern Ireland should be looking for out of the UK-EU negotiations is a gateway arrangement whereby it can trade as freely as possible both with the rest of the UK and with the rest of the EU.

It should be noted that Northern Ireland’s position in this regard is far from hopeless. The European Council (in effect now representing the European Union’s remaining member states post-Brexit) has already said that Agreements must be protected and the border must remain open. The UK Government seems rather more indifferent to the whole matter, but it too has no interest in anything other than a prosperous Northern Ireland with an open border.

Noting, additionally, that the race to the bottom on corporation tax now makes the case for lower corporation tax in Northern Ireland all but redundant, we now have to face the fact that the Northern Ireland economy has no “silver bullet” (if it ever had) to get it back on track. Why not replace a now redundant cause for lower tax with a “Gateway Arrangement” enhancing not just Northern Ireland’s economy but also its social well being?

Not for the first time, constitutional debates will get us nowhere; but a bit of creative thinking just may…

How to form an Executive at Stormont…

I had a bit of fun with some correspondents last week on the idea of the “Commission Executive” I floated three weeks ago. Some of the questions posed in fact affect the formation of any Executive, and they probably need to be looked at (at least eventually, given yesterday’s events).

It is worth emphasising – and the media should do more to stress this point – that the fundamental issue currently at Stormont is our inability to form an Executive.

In other words, we have a legislature (the Assembly), but no government (the Executive).

The reason for this is that our system for forming an Executive is extraordinarily restrictive. Firstly, it assigns only three weeks to the task; and secondly, it absolutely requires two particular parties (the largest party and the largest party in the largest different designation)  to enter the Executive even if they agree on nothing otherwise.

Although the origin is understandable, this is a frankly bizarre and unwieldy system and, one day, it will have to change. There is at least a case that that day has now arrived.

The ultimate objective, whenever this change is made, would be quite simple. Any Executive which can be formed and pass a Programme for Government and Budget should be allowed to do so.

Such a system already requires that such an Executive would include power-sharing. To pass a Programme for Government and Budget under the current Petition of Concern system, it would either have to carry a two-thirds majority in a 90-member Assembly or it would have to carry a straight majority in the Assembly as a whole and in both largest designations. I wonder if anyone has even realised this?

The easiest way to legislate for this would probably be to say that if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be nominated under the current system, instead of going to an election, the largest party would be given a certain period of time (probably more than three weeks in practice) to see if it could come to a “Coalition Agreement”. If it could not do so, the next largest party would be entitled to try, and so on, until it was “clear to the Secretary of State that no such Agreement was viable” (or some other similar form of words).

That Agreement would include:

  • the number of Executive Departments and their functions (perhaps the legislation permitting this arrangement should clarify no fewer than six and no more than 10);
  • the names of the Departmental Ministers appointed to head each Department (no more than 10; this would in theory allow for Junior Ministers to be assigned to larger departments);
  • the number and names of no fewer than two and no more than four “Executive Officers” (these would cover the functions of First and deputy First Minister on a rotating basis – there is no reason they should not also be Departmental Ministers);
  • a Programme for Government; and
  • an outline Legislative Programme.

That Coalition Agreement would then be put to the Assembly and, if it passed (noting that to pass it would either require two-thirds assent or majority support from both designations otherwise it could be blocked by a Petition of Concern), the Departmental Ministers and Executive Officers would thus be deemed appointed to form the Executive and carry out the Programmes outlined.

Note also that such an Agreement makes no restrictions on the number or order of Ministers (other than they must stick within the confines noted) – so, for example, a small party from one designation agreeing to form an Executive with a large party from the other could still insist during the negotiations on the same number of seats in the Executive or even on attaining particular Ministries.

I think there would be three more apparently minor amendments needed:

  • Petitions of Concern could not be used to block Executive business (policy motions or legislation) arising from the Programmes outlined in the Coalition Agreement;
  • Ministers so appointed would remain in office until they were replaced (even beyond elections on a caretaker basis, as is perfectly normal elsewhere); and
  • there would be a requirement to pass an annual Budget.

This latter is particularly important, as failure to pass a Budget (also subject to Petition of Concern) would be constitute a vote of no confidence in the Executive – and indeed would be how no confidence would be expressed by the Assembly (noting that the opportunity would thus arise annually). A vote of no confidence in the Budget would then return the process to the beginning (an attempt at nominating a First and deputy First Minister and then Ministers by d’Hondt; attempts at a Coalition Agreement; then an election).

In other words, it would all be quite normal – but would still have the relevant checks and balances in place to ensure cross-community consent.

Just a thought!

#GE17 need not be a complete disaster for NI

In the short term, the UK General Election due to be confirmed in Parliament today is surely not good news for Northern Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, immediately understood that having at least one election in the offing is unlikely to create the necessary space for the type of compromise required to get an Executive back up and running at Stormont before 8 June. While some will now seek to gain electoral capital by denying it, there were signs that the parties were laying the ground for a re-start of some sort, but that re-start will at best now be somewhat delayed.

In the long term all may not be lost, however. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a strong case that an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister leading a party with a manifesto commitment to remain in the European Single Market (something which jars with her own commitment to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which oversees the rules of that Single Market) should seek a democratic mandate for what she proposes to do. This may not appear at first sight to matter to people on waiting lists, or concerned about jobs, or wondering when their local school will be rebuilt, but in the current global climate democracy (or at least some semblance of it) matters.

Secondly, with regard to “Brexit”, the prospect of an increased Conservative majority may work out to be no bad thing. Arguably at least, it will enable the Prime Minister to take a more moderate negotiating position without being wholly reliant on hard-line back benchers. That, if it came to pass, would be no bad thing for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, that likely increased Conservative majority would leave it less reliant (even potentially) on DUP MPs. This may make life easier for the next UK Government trying to find some sort of deal in Northern Ireland, as it will be seen as a (slightly) more honest broker.

Fourthly, there is the simple issue that it was never necessarily the case that a (relatively) quick deal in Northern Ireland would be a good thing. Perhaps (prospectively) taking the summer to re-build relations between the parties, assess reasonably the flaws in the institutions as they are, and work out the detail of what changes are necessary to place a future Executive on a firmer footing than the last one was.

Of course, for this optimistic assessment to come to pass, the Northern Ireland issue will need more careful management than it has had hitherto. Northern Ireland will need a voice in the Brexit debate and the DUP’s acceptance of ‘particular arrangements’ will need to be fully considered; the next UK Government itself will need to understand better its role with regard to implementing past and current agreements; and after 8 June all sides will need to be determined to put popular need ahead of electoral benefit for the good of the overall process. The outcome of the election is no sure thing either – while not calling an early election in 2007 worked against Gordon Brown, actually calling one in early 1974 worked against Ted Heath as well.

From 9 June, let us hope for determined and cool heads.

“Remain” side need to change tactics

I have written many times here of the risk of the echo chamber (particularly in this social media era) and of how left-liberals are in fact the most inclined towards inhabiting one.

Various organisations have sprung up across the UK to contest Brexit, in one way or other. They cover the whole spectrum from challenging the way the UK Government is going about leaving the EU to challenging the whole notion that the UK should leave.

Logically, they have an excellent case. There will be no £350 million a week for the NHS (particularly after a whole raft of new administrators have been appointed merely to administer Brexit); actually the EU does not have to give us a good deal (even Brexiteers now admit they may not even get a deal at all); and prices are beginning to shoot up (affecting primarily those on low and fixed incomes in places like Sunderland and Sheffield which voted to leave). Throw in lots of legal wrangling, uncertainty over how the UK will trade at all post-2019 and the fact that immigration from the EU will be untouched for several years even after Brexit, and in fact the case for simply remaining becomes rationally almost unanswerable.

Yet none of that actually matters. And, by the way, there is very little evidence that vast swathes of “Leave” voters have changed their mind; indeed, many of the 48% are now resigned to leaving the EU (quite possibly because they only voted “Remain” to avoid the currency crash which as already happened).

There is a real risk that the “New Remain” campaigners are about to make all the same mistakes as the old ones – not least because many of them are in fact the same people. They continue to focus on numbers (i.e. on “economic arguments”), when what won the referendum was a more emotional argument. Indeed, the only time “Remain” had a real lead in the polls was when its campaign was focusing not on figures but on global influence (i.e. on the contention that the UK is in fact more globally influential as a key member of the world’s largest trading bloc than it would/will be once it is isolated from it).

If people are serious about avoiding “Hard” Brexit, or even about avoiding Brexit at all, they have to convinced a considerable number of people who voted “Leave”. Let us ask a simple question: how many of those people are going to be persuaded by campaign messages which essentially say “Brexiteers are stupid”?

What is required instead (and I have no idea how possible or probable this is) is a campaign which appeals to the heart. For me (though I would love to research this in detail), it needs to start with a sense of loss from the potential lack of free movement, particularly for our young people seeking out new challenges and careers, which would surely arise from “Hard” Brexit. Then there needs to be some discussion of exactly how secure we are if we are essentially annoying our neighbours; and then exactly what our place is in the world (assuming we do not want to be Trump’s poodle, which is surely a safe enough assumption); and then perhaps about what a success multicultural Britain actually is. (That last is definitely a hard sell, but ask most foreigners what they most admire about Britain and its easy-going diversity may well be up there.)

In other words, what is required is a hearts-and-minds campaign which probably ends up asking “Is this who we are?”

That will be something quite different from George Osborne sitting in a hotel saying every household will lose £4300 due to Brexit. Which was a mistruth lie, by the way…