Category Archives: Uncategorized

Modern SDLP unwilling to govern

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

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

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

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

“Brexit” looms large after UK election

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welfare Reform more popular that many will admit

From the News Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK Election confirms Northern Ireland trends

The story of the Northern Ireland election, in terms of overall trend, was the remarkable decline of the overall Nationalist vote to just 38.7%. It has risen by 2010 to 42% but had fallen markedly at last year’s European Election and this trend was confirmed on Thursday. It cost one seat and made another clearly vulnerable.

It also confirmed the general regional trends within Northern Ireland, even though this confirmation comes with a health warning because pacts and withdrawals skew outcomes.

Belfast City

In the four Belfast constituencies, the general decline of both Nationalist parties as well as the slight overall SDLP-to-Sinn Fein swing is masked by the Sinn Fein withdrawal from Belfast South in 2010; the Ulster Unionist decline is more dramatic than it is in reality due to its withdrawal in both North and East in 2015, but the general decline is still marked. The Alliance Party has gained from this decline on both sides (reflected also in its rise to third place on the City Council).

Belfast Outer

In what I have termed the “Belfast Loop” – the five constituencies around the four inner Belfast ones (namely Lagan Valley, North Down, Strangford, East Antrim and South Antrim), there is a similar trend in all senses, but it is less marked (again, the Ulster Unionist withdrawal from North Down means the decline is more marked than it actually is, but it is still apparent and consistent).

Belfast Coast

Away from Belfast heading north, relative stability is the norm. In the five North Coast and North West constituencies (namely North Antrim, East Londonderry, Foyle, West Tyrone and Mid Ulster), the only significant change in the past decade has been a marginal loss of votes by Mainstream Unionist parties to smaller rivals such as TUV.

Time will tell whether this becomes more typical of outer Belfast constituencies (with perhaps the Alliance Party emerging to challenge at least at Assembly level too), or whether it becomes more in line with other rural constituencies to the south of Lough Neagh.

Belfast Rural

However, the four Border and rural constituencies (Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Newry/Armagh, Upper Bann and South Down) are markedly different. It shows a clear swing within Nationalist to Sinn Fein (as well as an overall loss of Nationalist votes), and an even clearer swing from the DUP to the Ulster Unionists. This was inflated in 2015 by the pact but was already apparent by 2010 (despite both parties’ withdrawal from one constituency). Since 2011, Upper Bann is the only one of these constituencies where the DUP has any claim to be ahead of the Ulster Unionists, and even there the overall trend is against it.

As I established on this blog some time ago, the Ulster Unionists are stronger and growing in areas of traditionally English settlement (their gain in South Antrim bucks the trend somewhat, but there were local and personal issues in play there). Were constituency boundaries to remain roughly similar, we may expect a further gain in Upper Bann from the DUP (even though Fermanagh/South Tyrone is bound to be lost in due course to demographics, despite ongoing lower Nationalist turnout). While growing, there is no hint of a serious Alliance challenge here.

However, in Belfast, the story is not quite so good for the smaller mainstream party on each “side”, with some last-gasp Council seats in 2014 perhaps marking merely a stay of execution for the Ulster Unionists and perhaps even in due course the SDLP, whose vote declined sharply in the three constituencies it does not hold. Here, the Alliance Party has come from almost nowhere a decade ago (one Assembly seat in all four constituencies, and even that on the last count, in 2003) to challenging for multiple seats in several constituencies next year.

In between, in the constituencies on the edge of Belfast and along the coast, the trends fall in between the above. In rural Antrim in particular, TUV and/or UKIP are perhaps the real story.

It will be interesting to continue to watch these trends develop.

UK Election proves England is a centre-right country

“UK Election: What the hell?” was Jason O’Mahony’s blog title on Friday and I can well understand why. Absolutely no one, except my mother, saw that result coming. How did it come about?

In fact, it was all to do with the remarkable decline of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative/Liberal coalition had a majority of 78, and it stood to reason that if the Liberal Democrats began to lose serious numbers of seats to the Conservatives (i.e. seats which already contributed to the parliamentary majority), the Conservatives would themselves then stand a chance of forming that majority alone. Most polls suggested, however, they would lose only a handful of their 57 pre-existing seats to their coalition partners (and a by-election told the same story), making this largely irrelevant.

Only they did not lose a handful. They lost 27. That alone gave the Conservatives a working majority, and from there it was only a matter of trying to hold on to the ground they had.

That was not supposed to be easy, however – Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls suggested they would lose a net 41 seats directly to Labour.

In the event, they lost just two (net) plus one more to UKIP.

It is, therefore, a relatively simple story of how the Conservatives turned a similar vote share (up just under a percentage point) into an overall majority, regardless of Scotland. This was mostly to do with Conservatives voting the same way they did last time, plus a breakdown in the Liberal Democrat vote causing a split which enabled Liberal seats to be gained easily where the Conservatives were the main challengers.

The fundamental point to all of this is that, in times of possible difficulty and even fear, voters’ emotional response is always to shift to the right for protection. As this is predominantly an emotional response, many sympathetic to the left simply discount it as possible – leaving them exasperated when the results come in. That is to leave quite aside the discussion that Labour “can only win from the centre ground” – which is another way of saying that Labour, and left-leaning people in general, need to come to terms with the fact England as a whole is positioned further to the right than they care to admit.

I am still astonished, though, at how the pollsters got it so remarkably wrong and thus led us all down a different narrative. We’ll come back to that!

Polls open – please vote!

Polls have opened in the United Kingdom General Election.

Elections, for all their faults, must serve as a reminder of the things which, as civilised people, we should never forget to cherish:

– we are innocent until proven guilty in an independent court of law;

– we have rights and freedoms established in law; and

– we elect our legislators and they are accountable to us.

These seem remarkably simple things, yet they are unavailable to the vast majority across the world and it is remarkable how we forget about them when they do not suit.

We must never yield to a society where vigilante “justice” rules supreme; we must never restrict rights to the extent that even minor offence is not tolerated; and we must never stop voting to the extent that our legislators can ignore us.

A society without Rule of Law (even when it doesn’t suit), without Freedom of Expression (even when it offends), and without Elected Representatives (even when they cause us to despair) is at once less fair, less free, and less effective. Here in Northern Ireland, of all places, we know that the alternative to democracy is bloody chaos.

So, whatever you do, remember these are hard-won things available only to a minority world-wide – so please vote! Have your say.

In Northern Ireland, remember your passport, driving licence or smart card (or electoral ID card) as you head to the polling station.

Why NI MPs need to turn up!

Imagine paying someone three times the average salary and then finding that he works only five days a month. Yet, for some reason, we in Northern Ireland tolerate that kind of performance from some of our MPs.

It’s all about “constituency service”, apparently. Yet we have Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, independent Advice Centres, lots of MLA offices, and local councillors for that. No, actually, it isn’t about “constituency service” – we do not pay each of our MPs £200k in salary and costs for that (by the way, give me that and I’ll soon provide a “good service”!)

We pay them to legislate; not just to vote on issues, but to shape debate, to make deals, to prioritise matters and hold people to account in committees, and so on. There can be crucial votes of global importance – like the Syrian intervention; there can be debates shaped – like including Kincora in Child Abuse inquiries; there can be matters prioritised – like regional airports, of interest to Nottingham, and Carlisle, and Belfast; and there are finance officers, security personnel, NIO officials and all kinds of others who need questions asked about performance on our behalf. That takes more than a day a week or so!

MPs are also getting away with the claim that their votes don’t matter because most legislation affects only England. Wrong. This is in fact almost never then case. Firstly, some legislation applies in its entirety to Northern Ireland – sometimes directly (broadcasting, defence, aviation), sometimes indirectly (pensions, business registration – these are always adopted by the NI Assembly). Secondly, most legislation has at least some effect in Northern Ireland – the Child Poverty Act imposes targets on the NI Executive, for example, and even the Single Equality Act has an impact on some off-shore and security operations. Thirdly, almost all legislation has a financial effect – the raising of Tuition Fees reduced the NI Budget (as consequentials assume a similar hike here, which never happened, so we had to find the money from other budgets to cover the gap), but an extra £8b for Health in England would add around £275m to the NI Budget (consequentials mean it comes at around £3.45 for every £100 added in England). That is before we even get to Votes of Confidence, Budget votes, Queen’s Speech votes, military intervention votes where, in a hung parliament, all votes can count.

The very notion we would elect MPs not to turn up at all, or who turn up so rarely that they are not even fully informed when they do, or who pay such scant attention that they miss the opportunity to shape debate and do deals (on, say, international aid, regional airports or pension provision), is utterly ludicrous.

But, of course, democracy is the worst possible form of government apart from all the others we’ve tried…

 

Populists thrive when the Technocrats fail

All cats have four legs; my dog has four legs; therefore my dog is a cat.

This looks like an obvious logical fallacy, yet increasingly across Europe (not least in the UK on 7 May) people are expected to fall for it.

Let us try it another way.

The economic orthodoxy caused a crash; I don’t support the economic orthodoxy; therefore anyone who opposes me supports the economic orthodoxy.

Increasingly proponents of “progressive change” – something I absolutely and unreservedly support, by the way – have become more shrill in their “Our progressive change or no progressive” demands. Be it building houses for £60,000 each, leaving the UK with no border control (or a mega-border control, depending on which populist you listen to), or even simply printing money and handing it to the poor, any hint of opposition to this specific “progressive change” is cast aside as “supporting the economic orthodoxy”.

It should be no surprise that supporters of “this progressive change” choose the articulate, savvy and stylish Nicola Sturgeon as their role model. Scotland has always produced far beyond its fair share of top-notch politicians and she is no exception (although, by the way, the SNP really only has one other in her league).

The problem is, of course, it is quite easy to talk about “scrapping Trident” (something with which I am sympathetic, by the way) or “opposing austerity” (here I am less sympathetic for the simple reason the term is nonsensical) when you do not have to do it. It is easier still when your opponents have not read up on your record. And it is easier still when they have no concrete vision of their own.

Therein lies the problem. Populists are able to get away with making their demands – some actually very sensible, others totally nonsensical – because the mainstream parties have no vision whatsoever. We are now through the first political generation of technocrat professional politicians with no real-world ideas whatsoever. Now that they have overseen a bust, we are into a second such generation, except the next one adds populism into the mix to the extent that some of the ideas it proposes (and gets support for) are self-contradictory or even outright dangerous.

What is striking is how little relation any of these politicians – populist or otherwise – have with real world. Even on hustings, we are predominantly watching a performance, with few politicians able to relate to the real world in any way whatsoever. Oh yes, we have to do lots more good things and far fewer bad things, they say, but when challenged on exactly how they have no concrete ideas which would work in the real world whatsoever.

When populism triumphs, democracy fails – because in the end it becomes all broken promises (think the LibDems’ populist position on tuition fees in England pre-2010). When democracy fails, all hell breaks loose. It is about time the mainstream parties found some real vision and maybe even some real people – and soon.

Bullying of candidates unacceptable

Two weeks ago a young man named John Coyle entered a TV studio to put his case, as part of a panel, to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

This is not a target seat for his party, the SDLP, and it was evident he was not prepped as he is not a key candidate this time around; this was unfortunate, because in a fit of selfish lunacy one of his senior colleagues, Alex Attwood, had contrived to forget Mr Coyle’s name when quizzed about the constituency.

Given all of this, Mr Coyle managed admirably. He came across as a genuine young man doing his civic duty. In a democracy, why not?

He was then subjected to a barrage of abuse from Twitter trolls purporting to be supporters of Sinn Féin, the current incumbent’s party. In fairness, it has to be said, that party’s local representatives acted swiftly to quash the activity, to the extent much of it was deleted. Nevertheless, evident and totally unnecessary harm was done to a young man whose only offence was participating in democracy.

This is far from the only example of what is, in fact, a totally unacceptable level of bile and abuse levelled at people who are merely *candidates*, nothing else!

Like her colleague Naomi Long next door, my wife Paula Bradshaw is a big girl. She has worked in the inner city for over a decade. However, it bears mentioning that she is a full-time working mother who, like Mr Coyle, now has additional Council commitments as well as hobbies and so on. On top of all this family, professional and civic activity (unlike all her main rivals who are full-time politicians), she is a candidate for election.

I do not know how many communications she receives daily purely in the candidate capacity, but I am sure it is over 100. Most are respectful, some are exceedingly kind – yet some exude vitriolic bile.

This bile is not personal; usually it is directed equally at all the candidates. Yet it is time we recognised it to be totally unacceptable in a civilised democracy. Candidates – particularly those not holding office in the area from which the bile originates – are frankly entitled not to be subject to straightforward nasty communication.

Underlying all of this is the notion that someone putting their experience and ideas forward for office suddenly becomes – even while still a full-time working mother – public property… and not just public property, but public property to be freely abused and ranted at by complete strangers.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of course – but with that right comes responsibility. It is not quite good enough to say “ah well, you just have to have a thick skin”. Actually, why? Why must someone voluntarily putting themselves forward for election to office in a peaceful liberal democracy be subject to any form of wanton abuse? We would not accept physical abuse against them, so why is verbal abuse acceptable?

Fundamentally, Mr Coyle was the victim of bullying. He’ll get over it, but we have to recognise it is unacceptable, even (indeed particularly) in the democratic arena which is supposed to be an arena for exchange of ideas, not vitriol.

All the candidates putting themselves forward for election deserve respect for doing so – particularly those having to fit responses to hundreds of items of communication in between full-time work and family commitments plus canvassing. Let us show that respect – and call those out who do not.

Guide to the UK Election (Overview)

The United Kingdom General Election takes place on Thursday, 7 May to elect 650 members of the House of Commons, the primary legislative chamber in Parliament.

Government

Unlike in other countries with Presidential systems (such as the United States and France), the outcome also determines the Executive – in effect, the House of Commons is also the “Electoral College” which will endorse or reject a prospective Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet of Ministers.

Typically, since the War, a single party has held the majority of seats in the House of Commons and has therefore been able to form a single-party government with its Leader as Prime Minister. Where no single party has a majority (as was the case at the last election and in February 1974), it is said to be a “hung parliament“.

System

The electoral system is simple yet controversial. 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected individually from 650 “constituencies” of roughly equal size (533 in England, including 73 in London; 59 in Scotland; 40 in Wales; and 18 in Northern Ireland – London is under-represented and Wales over-represented currently). The candidate achieving the highest number of votes is elected directly – there are no “run-offs” or preferential voting, nor is voting compulsory.

In practice, this system favours larger and regional parties (Conservative, Labour, SNP, DUP) and frustrates smaller parties with evenly spread support (Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP).

Results in each seat are often shortened to give the name and party of the winning candidate plus the number of votes they won by – so, if he/she wins by a gap of 1,000 votes, this is referred to as a “majority of 1,000” (a specifically electoral term – no doubt it jars with mathematicians!)

Phraseology

The constituencies are identical in 2015 to those in 2010. This means that, during Election Night, it will be possible to predict the overall outcome even from early results, depending on whether each party’s vote share is generally up or down – this includes a concept, for comparing Conservative versus Labour performance, known as “swing” which shows how many seats each party would take from the other if each of the two parties’ vote shares changed similarly across Great Britain.

Results are generally declared compared to the previous election. Where the same party wins the seat, it is declared a “hold“. Where a different party wins the seat, it is deemed a “gain” (this equates to the American “pick-up“). Where specifically an incumbent MP loses a seat, he/she is said to be “unseated“. (Occasionally, where a seat has been lost during the term, for example through a defection or by-election, other terms are used – “win” for if the seat is retained by the party holding it at dissolution of the last parliament if that is different from the one which won it at the last General Election; “regain” if it is regained by the party which won it at the last election but lost it during the term. Nevertheless, the overall scores are now typically tallied solely by “holds” and “gains” versus the previous General Election, regardless of what happened in between.)

A constituency which is close is said to be a “marginal” (equivalent of an American “swing state“). A constituency which is predominantly urban (known as a “borough constituency“) has different spending limits from one which is predominantly rural (a “county constituency“) – as well as being smaller, urban areas typically see lower turnout and thus declare their results much earlier.

Parties or candidates which form a common “faction” in the House of Commons are said to “take the whip“, meaning that they agree to vote the same way on every issue where there is an agreed party line. This is most notable with regard to Northern Ireland: the Ulster Unionists traditionally “took the Conservative whip” until 1973 (and expressly would have done so again in 2010 had they won any seats); the SDLP does “take the Labour whip” (although has not absolutely committed to it from 2015); the Alliance Party, although aligned in Europe, currently does not “take the Liberal Democrat whip”.

The final UK General Election outcome is declared usually in terms of the largest party and how many seats it is above or below an absolute majority (for which 326 of 650 seats are required). The 2005 result, therefore, is stated as “Labour victory with a majority of 66 – meaning that Labour had 66 more seats than all the other parties put together; the 2010 result is stated as a “Hung Parliament with the Conservatives short by 19″ – meaning that the Conservatives were the largest party, but needed another 19 seats to have a majority over all the other parties.

Typically, a majority of over triple figures (as in 1945, 1959, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001) is referred to as a “landslide“, giving the winning Prime Minister huge freedom and leeway in Parliament; a majority of between 20 and 100 (1955, 1966, 1970, 1979, 1992 and 2005) is referred to as “working“, giving the winning party enough room to lose a few seats during the term and still serve for the full five years; any majority of less than 20 is referred to as “narrow” and is seen as unstable and usually precipitates an early election (which is possible even under fixed parliaments by losing a Vote of No Confidence, as last happened in 1979).

Position

In 2010, the outcome was:

  • Conservatives 307 (including one delayed by-election) – Conservative whip 307;
  • Labour 258 in Great Britain only, plus SDLP 3 in Northern Ireland – Labour whip 261;
  • Liberal Democrats 57 in Great Britain only – Liberal Democrat whip 57;
  • SNP 6 in Scotland and Plaid 3 in Wales – Nationalist whip 9;
  • DUP 8 in Northern Ireland – DUP whip 8; and
  • Greens 1 in England, Alliance Party 1 in Northern Ireland, an Independent in Northern Ireland, and the Speaker (from England) – non-aligned 4.

This adds up to 645 – Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland won five seats in 2010 but does not sit in the House of Commons.

This outcome gave the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition subsequently formed a “majority of 76″.

Versus 2010, therefore, this means the Conservatives need 19 net “gains” for an absolute majority and Labour needs 68 (perhaps a couple fewer if the SDLP in Northern Ireland continues to take its whip, as it has since foundation in 1970). With Sinn Fein likely to retain four of five seats (not actually taken) and the Speaker retaining one (bound by convention to vote with the government, with minor exceptions), in practice 322-323 seats would theoretically suffice for a majority.

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