Category Archives: Politics

UK media’s referendum coverage is a disgrace

There is a widespread view across the UK that the referendum campaign is boring (and even pathetic) because people have neither facts nor reliable information. That is where the (broadcast) media are supposed to come in.

With the odd exception, however, the media’s coverage has been a disgrace. Focused as it is on personalities rather than on issues, and on the narrow interest of the political bubble rather than the very real social and economic consequences of the forthcoming vote, the media have failed us utterly.

BBC Newsnight last night was just the latest pathetic example. Who the hell cares what Chris Patten has to say about Boris Johnson?!

What a washed up politician who lost his seat a quarter of a century ago has to say about a buffoon who can’t even do his own shopping is totally and utterly irrelevant. It is not going to help pay the grocery bill if prices go up, or help young people’s education if they cannot move freely across the continent, or keep us safe if we cannot share intelligence! Nor does it speak to the EU’s great accomplishments of spreading democracy southward and eastward, clearing roaming charges or growing per capita income faster than anywhere else in the Western world; nor indeed to its unquestionable failings around the refugee crisis or even the pure unnecessary nonsense of maintaining institutions in Strasbourg.

The obsession with Conservative politicians is disgraceful because fundamentally it speaks to laziness. It is much easier to do a cheap interview for a cheap quip than it is to do proper research into the issues which really matter to people. Politics in general is covered like a soap opera of traded insults and mini-scandals, rather than the exchange of ideas and assessment of governmental competence that it is supposed to be. Worst of all, the media clearly has not considered that our future inside or outside the EU is not fundamentally a political issue at all, but a socio-economic one.

It is this failure to research the issues at stake properly which leads to the other nonsense of the campaign – namely that claims from each side are automatically afforded equal legitimacy. Actually, they should be assessed against the facts and anyone stating a blatant mistruth should be derided for so doing. Not all opinions are equally legitimate – some are informed by reason and evidence; others, well, aren’t.

And that is all to leave aside the fact that all the main players in the media’s soap opera are men. Is that not shameful?

All over the world now, from Trump to Hofer, we are seeing the rise of people who can manipulate the media easily because it refuses to be informed and refuses to tackle nonsense. The crisis in democracy across the world, in other words, is partly the responsibility of the media. The results could be very frightening.

NI Tories/Labour need allies

I wrote on the morning of the count that the NI Conservatives and the Labour Representation Committee would receive only a handful of votes between them. So it proved.

There are no longer any excuses. The Conservatives had a funded office, the Prime Minister at their conference reception, the London Mayor visiting in the run-up to the election, a cabinet minister on the campaign trail with them, a proper canvassing operation and a complete set of posters and mobile billboards. The Labour Representation Committee also had a significant media profile and (apparently) a huge local membership from which to draw campaign support.

This is not to be disrespectful. On the contrary, it is hugely admirable that people would put such time and effort into a cause in which they clearly strongly believe. However, just look at the outcome. They are offering something no one in Northern Ireland wants.

It is time, once and for all, to accept Northern Ireland is not the English Midlands. People who would naturally be drawn to the Conservatives and Labour in England (a markedly declining number even there compared to a generation ago) already have a political home here.

For a long time, Conservative and Labour members have criticised the arrangement, insofar as one exists, between the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party. However, they should now consider seriously if this is not the precise model they should be following.

Because late on polling day, a Conservative was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. His name was Philip Smith and he was elected in Strangford. He was, of course, labelled “Ulster Unionist”. He had recognised, quite sensibly, that if you want actual influence over health, education and infrastructure policy in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives here simply do not offer a vehicle. He was, of course, far from the only one – most Ulster Unionists elected earlier this month would be Conservatives in England.

The Alliance/Liberal model is quite simple. Both parties are independent, but are members of the same European umbrella group and agree not to contest elections against each other. On that basis, it is permissible while being a member of one also to be a member of the other – but not compulsory. Thus Alliance Party members may, if they wish, seek to influence the direction of the Liberal Democrats at UK level by joining them; likewise, some Liberal Democrats with an interest in Northern Ireland join the Alliance Party’s external association. The parties are fully separate, but individuals may choose membership of both.

This is not a million miles from the SDLP/Labour arrangement. Again, they have a common European designation and indeed SDLP MPs take the Labour whip (a step beyond the Alliance/LibDem relationship). Presumably, again, individuals may be members of both as they do not contest elections against each other.

The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have a historically complex relationship of course, culminating in many people’s minds in the “UCUNF debacle” (a debacle which, by the way, yielded 12,000 more votes than the combined Conservative-UUP vote this month). Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at their voting record would tell you that Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan are, to almost every intent and purpose, Conservative MPs. There is simply no point in another Conservative (for “another Conservative” is what it would be) standing against them, potentially nicking a couple of hundred votes and handing the seat to someone else. Jim Nicholson, of course, remains a part of the Conservative group in the European Parliament. For a Conservative in Northern Ireland, the route to elected office – at any level – is already via the Ulster Unionist Party.

Disallowing NI Conservatives from running for election in Northern Ireland would appear harsh, but actually it would be advantageous to them because the likes of Philip Smith would not have to give up their membership in order to run for office electably as an Ulster Unionist. Allowing Ulster Unionist members, if they so chose, also to be members of the Conservative Party would allow them to participate in UK-wide policy making, strategy and vote in leadership elections. Indeed, there would be no need for Conservative Associations in Northern Ireland to disband – they would continue to play a role within the UK-wide party. Objectively, the advantages of such an arrangement clearly outweigh the disadvantages – indeed, it is almost certain that the outcome would be members of the Conservative Party becoming MLAs in Northern Ireland, something which is currently an impossibility.

Nor is such an arrangement even particular to Northern Ireland. Across Great Britain, the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party have a not dissimilar arrangement, enabling the latter representation it otherwise would lack, while saving the former campaign expenses it would otherwise incur.

I do not expect either the local Conservatives or Labour representatives will listen to a word of this. They would do well to note, however, that the national party in each case is probably having thoughts not dissimilar to those outlined above. Politics is the art of the possible. Those striving for the impossible generally get ignored. It’s a brutal game.

Time running out for reform of Irish Presidential elections

I am not sure it is my place to suggest why the Nationalist vote has now fallen from 41-42% to 36-38% for an entire electoral cycle now, so I am wary of committing an entire blog to the subject. The total of 36.5% of first preference votes and just 40 seats was by far the lowest post-Agreement Nationalist total, despite apparently favourable demographics.

One suggestion I would make is that Nationalist politicians simply are not very good at delivery. An obvious example of this is on votes for President of Ireland.

I note with interest a Bill submitted by Sinn Féin to Seanad Éireann on this subject. However, mere “extension of voting rights” will probably not prove a practical solution given the President’s role within the State.

The Irish Presidential Election is in fact now barely two years away. What will happen is predictable – about two months in advance Northern Nationalists will suddenly notice it is nigh and start moping about how ridiculous it is that they can stand for President but not vote. But what practically will they have done about it since the last time? It requires a little imagination.

My own proposal, which I have shared here and directly with Nationalist representatives (including in Sinn Féin), is for an electoral college system to be introduced. For example, an Electoral College of 17 (elected by STV from European parliamentary constituencies across the island of Ireland plus another three for Irish citizens elsewhere) could itself elect the President by STV. Voting outside the Republic itself would be entirely by post, with ballot papers provided upon production of a valid current Irish passport. There would perhaps even be a Vice President, elected solely by the 11 Electoral College members elected from within the Republic, to carry out specific State functions.

This system would allow all Irish citizens to participate in the Presidential Election if they wished (as is normal in other republics); it would allow interested Northerners to participate directly, but would also incur no cost or obligation to disinterested Northerners; and it would ensure that voters within the Republic itself still had the major say (with the potential introduction of a Vice President ensuring no interference  on State functions from citizens not residing within the State). Costs of the election outside the Republic would be met from passport fees. What’s not to like?!

I do not expect anyone to pick up this ball and run with it. One frustrating feature of Northern politicians is they prefer to complain than deliver. However, I do wonder if voters are beginning to tire of this trait…

Boris blows it

Fresh from his blundering on the BBC’s Marr show, Boris Johnson has now invoked Godwin’s Law to compare Hitler’s proposed “superstate” to the EU.

The EU is a beacon of hope and prosperity, which is why so many people are clamouring to get into it. It has expanded into formerly fascist Southern Europe and formerly communist Eastern Europe bringing the highest global standards in democracy with it as it has done so. Despite its broadly Christian ethos, its largest city has just elected a Muslim Mayor; its urban areas remain the global leaders in culture, tourism and leisure; it is the world’s largest single market. Its own institutions consist of representatives of democratically elected national governments, appointees of democratically elected national governments, and a directly democratically elected parliament. The frustrations with the EU arise from its determination to seek consensus rather than allow for strong leaders to dictate, precisely because Europe’s history shows that consensus is preferable to dictatorship.

Boris the Trump apprentice will be talking about building walls in the Channel next. It is alarming how many would vote for that, too.

Mistake to make abortion a “wedge” issue

One of the prime issues of the recent Assembly election – although I am not sure it really affected the result – was abortion. The Greens and assorted leftist candidates took an absolute “pro-choice” stance (and specifically pro-extension of the law as applies in the UK); the DUP and SDLP took a resolute “pro-life” stance opposed to any change in the law (although the latter did suggest decriminalisation – an odd position for a “pro-life” party, as abortion is not decriminalised anywhere else).

Yet it was in fact an SDLP candidate, Claire Hanna, who perhaps gave the most honest response to the question, on BBC Talkback, by noting she was in a pro-life party but was “conflicted”.

It is an odd thing that when a politician openly admits to doubt, as any thinking person should, they immediately get savaged by absolutists on either side of the debate. This is known as making something a “wedge issue” – you have to be for or against; with us or against us (and woe betide you if you are against).

It is unhealthy.

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Life does not consist of “wedge issues”. As I noted in a letter to the Irish News in March, the fact I have arrived at essentially “pro-choice” position (taking the definition from the audience at the same debate in which Claire Hanna declared herself “conflicted”) does not somehow make me “anti-life”. The very terminology is ludicrous.

The abortion debate is taking place primarily between religious zealots who delight in the ridiculous pretence that the issue is simple (“You are killing babies”) on one hand, and social liberal hardliners who demand specifically a piece of legislation very few of them have ever read on the other. Anyone falling in between – suggesting that perhaps a 14-year-old victim of incest and rape should not have to have the resulting child, or that perhaps a poorly drafted piece of legislation which ended up reliant on interpretation in the courts with unintended consequences is not the best thing to copy on such an emotive and complex issue – is instantly dismissed by both sides as a weasel belonging to the other.

The electoral penalty is borne by those who, perfectly reasonably, fall between two positions and allow for a degree of doubt. But it is worth noting that the political penalty is actually borne by advocates of change. By insisting that any change must be specifically the change they want and only the change they want, they actually cause a divide among those wanting some form of reform, making life a lot easier for those who do not (who by definition are already united by their commitment to opposing any change). In politics, united beats divided every time.

The practical penalty is borne, appallingly, by the women of Northern Ireland. The promotion specifically of the “’67 Act” as the only acceptable change renders any change impossible – because that change is not available based on the votes of the people last week, and is in any case opposed on perfectly rational grounds by most reformists who have actually read it.

There is no harm in being a passionate advocate of a cause – but the key is to be so in a way which delivers results for the victims of the status quo, not just in a way which makes you feel good (and maybe nicks a few votes on the margins) but achieves nothing practically. Thus far campaigners for reform of Northern Ireland’s disgracefully archaic abortion law have merely delivered confusion and if anything a worse position than existed when regulations were clearly in place. The definition of madness is to repeat the same thing and accept different results. It is time for a different approach.

Creating “wedge issues” never does justice to the complexity of any social issue and rarely helps advocates of change. The identifiable need is to bring people on the journey. That means that all of those who advocate reform must unite around moderate and achievable goals – otherwise we will enter the 2020s having still achieved nothing for the real victims of the status quo.

Austria real cause for alarm

Bist du schwarz oder rot?” (“Are you black or red”) was the first question I was asked upon arrival to stay with a family in the Vienna suburbs in 1993. I have never forgotten it. Now, it really matters. 

For all our parochial concerns about devolved elections and even “Brexit”, perhaps the most significant political event in our lives occurred yesterday, in the form of the resignation of the Chancellor (head of government) of Austria.

Post-War Austria developed a system of “pillarisation” known as “Proporz”, whereby almost everyone was identified politically as “black” (centre-right, a supporter of the People’s Party) or “red” (centre-left, a supporter of the Social Democrats). Those two parties dominated elections, after which they almost invariably formed a Grand Coalition and dished out initiatives, ministries and even appointments in everything from the civil service to banks in proportion to size. (Indeed it was believed that even foreigners fell into one or the other, hence the question above.)

As the generations passed and memories of post-War occupation receded, younger people began to turn away from the two great monoliths and the allocations of appointments associated with them (one man’s “fair apportionment of appointments” is another man’s “corruption”), and parties such as the Liberals and Greens saw their chance. Unfortunately, the party which best grasped the opportunity was the Freedom Party, nominally liberal but really populist-conservative, led by the late Jörg Haider. He developed his own political base in the south of the country and rose from there to come second in the 2000 elections, thus securing a place in government. As Austria is associated in most outsiders’ minds with another right-wing leader of a not dissimilar name, foreign governments were appalled but there was little they could do.

Herr Haider was killed in a single-car crash, and so it was thought his movement would decline. This was another lesson of history not learned. Renewed and reunited, it won the first round of the presidential election last month ahead of an Independent Green, with the two great monoliths placed fourth and fifth behind another centrist independent.

Inevitably, below all this, there is a strong cultural and historical imperative. Austrians celebrate the fact, for example, that Ottoman Muslims made it as far as Vienna in the mid 17th century but no further; thus, the underlying notion that it is a Christian country is strong. There is also, among large sections of the population, an acute sense of loss; Vienna is the capital of a country of only 9 million, but any visitor can see it is obviously designed and built to be an imperial capital (as it was for centuries). Austria also never underwent the process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” taken on in neighbouring (West) Germany after the War.

Why does this matter to us? By some measures, Austria is the most prosperous country in the EU except tiny Luxembourg. If its democracy is collapsing into crazed anti-immigration populism, no democracy is secure from it. It is also a significant warning to those who believe that collapse of the established political order is necessarily a good thing – in fact, if it is not properly managed and planned (as inevitably it isn’t), it is invariably a recipe for chaos.

For us in Northern Ireland, the post-Agreement generation is finding not that our politics is becoming more like everyone else’s, but that everyone else’s is becoming more like ours. In response to ever more complex issues (such as the refugee crisis), the population is turning for comfort to people offering ever more simplistic answers.

This is a bad time to be a liberal democrat.

DUP “plan” is simply garbage

Arlene Foster was mocked for talking of a five-point plan during the UTV Leaders’ Debate, which was in fact this:

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So, a ten-point “plan”. Except it isn’t a plan.

And that is what really annoys people.

Who opposes “more jobs, rising incomes”? No one. But where is the plan to achieve it?

Who opposes a “world class health service”? Many would say we already have one. But her party has had five years to reform it and has comprehensively failed.

Who opposes giving “every child the opportunity to succeed”? But where is the analysis of why is not the case?

What exactly is “rebuilding Northern Ireland”? The SDLP also have a peculiar obsession with building.

Where is the plan to “reward hard work”, and how is it judged and defined?

What precisely is “smarter justice” and has she noted we have “safer streets”?

Are “stronger communities” to be “created” or are we just using random words now?

What does a “friend of the farmer” mean and how is that a plan?

Her party has had a decade as largest party to “change politics in Northern Ireland”, so why has it not?

And detail how someone plans to “take pride in Northern Ireland”?

There is not a plan there to be seen. It’s just vacuous nonsense. The DUP clearly has no plan – it just wants power for the sake of it. No wonder its representatives keep failing to turn up for panel events.

Plainly the DUP thinks we will fall for this bunkum; in other words, DUP candidates think we are all fools.

It would be a good idea to prove them wrong.

Populist candidates getting it wrong on infrastructure

No sooner had the CEO of Belfast International Airport tweeted that a crash on the main A57 road from the M2 to the airport demonstrated his case for a dual carriageway, Assembly candidates were lining up to agree – indeed, one first-time candidate for the local constituency instantly called for a motorway.

They thus demonstrated the whole problem with Northern Ireland politics. As soon as someone calls for something, politicians and would-be politicians are climbing over each other to agree. Yet, once they have attained office, they find it isn’t quite so easy… no wonder so many people thing politicians are dishonest!

To be clear, such an upgrade is not a bad idea. But it is not programmed; it is very complex; and in any case it shows a false priority between road construction and road maintenance.

It is a duty of candidates, before making pledges, to do some research into how viable they are. Even a cursory piece of research would have demonstrated that there is zero chance of a significant upgrade to the road from the motorway to the airport this decade, and almost zero even in the next decade. In fact, on this very blog, I provided the current list of programmed primary road projects in Northern Ireland just three months ago – these take us essentially to the end of the 2020s, and the A57 airport road does not appear.

Of course, a future Infrastructure Minister could decide to re-prioritise, and take a project off the list, replacing it with the A57. Yet a cursory look at Assembly debates and party statements notes that absolutely no one has seriously suggested this – there is the odd reference to an upgrade but no reference whatsoever to which project would be removed from the programme to enable it.

Were an upgraded road to the airport to be prioritised, it would become quite complex. It is far from clear that such a road should run along the current alignment of the A6/A57 from M2 J5 (at Templepatrick/Ballymartin) to the airport. In fact, there is perhaps a better case for a route from somewhere near J4 Sandyknowes (this would require the construction of an additional junction roughly where the new Templepatrick Services are, and in fact such a junction is proposed in the longer term for all kinds of reasons); or perhaps even from between J5 and J6 (near Parkgate). Either of these options would make it considerably easier to bypass Templepatrick with a high-speed road without causing significant public protest (and thus delaying the whole thing until well into the 2030s). In other words, it is not at all straightforward, which is one reason it is not programmed!

There is another problem here, which is that for all the understandable excitement about grand projects like the A12 York Street interchange or the A6 Moneynick upgrade, funding is being cut back from basic maintenance. Many readers in Northern Ireland will already have noticed street lights going unrepaired; resurfacing projects being delayed; even still road side verges going untreated.

While we protect funding for an unreformed education and health system and push for more and more grand infrastructure projects (hands up on the latter!), we are omitting many of the basics.

It is the basics the politicians (and those who would be politicians) need to get right. Meanwhile, beware anyone promoting a motorway to the airport. There hasn’t been a motorway constructed in Northern Ireland for over 20 years – and the maintenance of the ones we have is going under-resourced. Let’s fix what we have first…

 

Scotland not so left-wing after all…

Last weekend saw another march in London against “austerity”.

This really is an appalling abuse of the word. Food rationing post-War was austerity. Perhaps the three-day week with limited electricity in the 1970s was austerity. An ever increasing gap between rising public spending and falling income tax at a time when public sector wage growth vastly outstrips inflation is, quite obviously, not austerity.

Facts, eh?

Marchers claimed they had public support for their cause. Yet in last year’s General Election right-of-centre parties or those in coalition with them received almost two thirds of the vote in England.

There are those facts again…

At least it was different in social democratic, left-leaning Scotland.

Or was it?

Scottish Labour recently adopted a courageous policy of adding 1p to Scottish income tax. If Scots are opposed to “Tory austerity”, they reason, they will not mind paying a small bit extra to avoid it. In any case, have Scots just not had a huge debate about taking on more powers and thus obviously, by logical extension, using them? And of course, 21p income tax with the much higher personal allowance still means less to pay than when Labour left office.

Such a courageous, honest and rational stance would no doubt see a swing towards Labour in a social democratic country keen to model itself on Scandinavia, of course.

Well, no.

All the evidence suggests that Labour’s new policy is courageous only in the “Yes, Minister” sense – unpopular, in other words.

A survey by the very man whose exit poll pointed towards the real result of last year’s UK General Election shows that the comfortable majority of Scots oppose putting taxes higher than in the rest of the UK. In line with this, the SNP (which proposes no income tax rises, although it would change the bands to see 40% payers paying slightly more) remains well out in front. In fact, far from gaining it ground, Scottish Labour’s new policy sees it in serious danger of being overtaken as the main opposition at Holyrood by the Scottish Conservatives (who oppose any income tax rises or band changes at all).

Scotland is perfectly normal in this regard. As ever, people want more money spent on the services which affect them, but are notably unwilling to put their hand up to contribute any more towards them.

“Get those tax evaders and welfare fraudsters instead!”

Funny, you never hear that line in Scandinavia. But then, whisper it quietly, Scotland isn’t like Scandinavia…

Sectarianism and the delusion of objectivity

The Undercover Economist author Tim Harford has a very important article here on the “Delusion of Objectivity“.

It applies to many things, but one is the oft stated contention that “It is not sectarian to take a position on the constitution” in Northern Ireland.

Actually, in practice, it usually is.

The position taken on the constitution by parties made up almost entirely of British Protestants educated in state schools on one hand or by Irish Catholics educated in maintained schools on the other is not objective. It is pre-determined. It just so happens that all of the former, who grew up in a broadly British culture, prefer the British state; and all of the latter, who grew up in a broadly Irish culture, prefer the Irish state. Funny, that.

Such constituonal positions, therefore, are a product of cultural upbringing and not of objective and rational thought.

Now read the article again…

We see the tendency of each side to forgive the other side their constitutional position given that people on the other side grew up in a different culture. At heart, though, we still believe the other side to be misguided; we just don’t blame them personally, but rather their upbringing, for this delusion.

Anyone who cannot give a clear, rational view as to why someone of a different background should switch to their constituonal position has arrived at it based solely on cultural upbringing. That cultural upbringing was in a society (and, notably, education system) segregated along sectarian lines.

So yes, if you cannot defend your constitutional position genuinely objectively, the practical reality is that your position is sectarian – because it is arrived at solely based on which side of the sectarian divide you are on. Indeed, you may even be deluded…

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