“Centre Ground” cannot be built on inevitably sectarian preferences

On Thursday, the DUP outpolled the Ulster Unionists by 3.5:1, despite allowing them a free run in Fermanagh/South Tyrone which alone accounted for nearly 30% of their total. Meanwhile Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by almost 2.5:1, with half the SDLP’s vote coming in the three seats they held (but still lost).

The Ulster Unionists pledged to come back. The SDLP pledged to listen. They’ve been pledging that for 15 years. The decline has continued. The SDLP mustered just 400 votes in one constituency and 167 in another – we are reaching a position where in some parts the brand means nothing at all. The Ulster Unionists didn’t even risk their deposit in three cases.

The “centre ground” is crumbling apparently, but in fact the Alliance Party and Greens largely held their ground, seeing their vote share decrease narrowly but total vote in fact increase. So the real “centre ground” had an average night – no better, but no worse.

To many, the obvious thing is for the “Centre Ground” (implicitly including the SDLP and Ulster Unionists in most people’s minds) to cooperate more effectively. We should not underestimate this desire. But it does hide one obvious problem – the SDLP and Ulster Unionists are profoundly communal (or, if you like, sectarian) parties.

The crux of both parties’ problems is that they both deny the reality of Northern Ireland as it is. In Northern Ireland, 85%+ of people grow up with either a British or Irish national identity reinforced by attendance at either a state or maintained school and followed up by choices in leisure and often residence which continue to fall along those sectarian fault lines. That national identity is something into which we are born, and it is this which determines whether we are Unionist or Nationalist or, at very least, whether our broad constitutional preference is pro-UK or pro-United Ireland. The notion that we make this selection “rationally”, as implicitly claimed by one MLA at the weekend, is simply ignorant of reality.

Lest anyone doubt that our society being divided in this way is reality and not just stereotype, I tallied a box on Thursday night which was DUP 89%, Alliance 8%, UU 2%, Green 1%; and another which was SDLP 47%, SF 40%, Alliance 8%, DUP 2%, Green 1%. So one was 100% non-Nationalist; the other was 98% non-Unionist. Anyone who denies this profound division denies reality.

The nature of our society means that putting a constitutional preference front and centre of your programme is instantly sectarian – because it includes one side and excludes the other (the very definition of sectarianism). The notion that people born into a British national identity can be “talked round” to a United Ireland or that those born into an Irish national identity can be made suddenly to love Britishness is simply fantasy. This is why the very foundation of the Agreement is enabling both identities to be experienced as thoroughly as possible – which is why among other things it really shouldn’t be a problem for Unionists to play a role in the UK Government (playing a full role in British national life) or for Nationalists to have a vote for President of Ireland (playing a full role in Irish national life).

Therefore, the “Centre Ground” should be focused on those determined to enable citizens in Northern Ireland to play a full role in the life of the nation they choose (accepting the limitations of sovereignty one way or the other), but cannot pick a particular side – as soon as it does that, it is back in the sectarian trenches where it will inevitably be defeated by whichever of the two big parties is in the same trench. Ultimately the aim is to reframe the debate towards maximising opportunity for all, rather than in a particular constitutional end game for some.

Ultimately this gives “Liberal Unionists” and SDLP supporters a choice. Do they wish to continue being trounced electorally while pursuing an unreal pretence that constitutional aspirations and ultimately national identities are “rational”, or do they wish to build a Northern Ireland in which everyone gets to play a full role in the life of the nation into which they were born while also fulfilling the responsibilities and enjoying the rights that come with being a citizen of this particular jurisdiction? Those who choose the former will just continue to lose with decreasing purpose; but those who choose the latter will find renewed purpose in building a real “Centre Ground” and a proper Progressive Movement fit to fulfill the aspirations of all our citizens in the 21st century.

Beware pundits who talk without thinking, now more than ever

The outcome of the UK General Election has resulted in an “arrangement” involving the DUP, about which there is not yet any detail, to ensure that the Conservatives, who have a narrow overall majority in Great Britain but not the UK, can form a government.

Inevitably this outcome has caused significant bemusement and concern. Expert opinion is being sought, both inside Northern Ireland and without, about what this will mean.

One of the most expert electoral post-War commentators is Sir David Butler, who provided expert commentary on the 1959 General Election from a smoke-filled BBC studio and has done so again even in 2017 on Twitter. He cautioned, on Wednesday, that for all his expertise (he was too modest to reference that) he had no idea what the outcome would be. “All I know is that I don’t know”, he wrote, sagely.

I am no Sir David, but I have been involved in politics, both as an elected representative for six years and as a commentator and campaigner for rather longer, and again the truth is I do not know what a Conservative-DUP arrangement will mean. All I know is that I don’t know.

The problem in this social media age is that we are always desperate for quick knowledge and information. The quest for this results in a tendency to prioritise only people who are prepared to offer quick opinions, rather than taking time to ensure that those opinions have value as reasonable analysis. Indeed, those prepared to offer quick opinions are disproportionately those whose analysis is anything but reasonable or objective. In other words, the quest for quick information almost always results in misinformation.

Just have a look in Northern Ireland at the pundits’ election predictions even locally. Almost no one saw the DUP (and, to a lesser extent, Sinn Féin) surge coming to anything like the extent it did. Those parties took two thirds of the vote between them, yet very few pundits are associated with either of them.

What we do now is that both the UK and Northern Ireland are rudderless. Now, more than ever, is the time to think rather than talk before we work out how to put things back on track. As we do so, we should note that the wise people are those not currently offering advice or opinions – and we should in future probably be more careful whose advice we buy.

#GE17 – where are we now?

… I have no idea. And anyone who says they have is misleading you! But here are some useful parameters from Lord (John) Alderdice:

Despite almost no reporting from the BBC, the DUP will keep the Conservatives in Government (quite probably as a minority government, and not necessarily in the medium-term with TM as PM), but the DUP will never vote for a Corbyn-led Labour party and Sinn Fein are still highly unlikely to take their seats, so instead of needing the support of 326 MPs to hold on to power, the Conservatives need 322 MPs and with 10 MP’s the DUP can give them the numbers (albeit very tight [indeed it only requires the DUP not to vote against]). Corbyn is now in place for the foreseeable future, but does not have the numbers after this election, and there will be no Labour split – the Blairites have missed their chance. Sinn Fein will feel enormously encouraged by wiping out the SDLP at Westminster – thus strengthening the NI Peace Process while causing problems for the NI political process. The SNP/Scottish result will postpone for many years the prospect of another Scottish Referendum (the SNP have lost their chance (at this time) and their momentum, as did the Bloc Quebecois after their independence referendum during the Jean Chretien (Liberal) Government in Canada – close, but missed it, and then lost momentum. Meantime, Brexit will move ahead – the only party that stood firmly for Remain (the Lib Dems) made only marginal recovery from the 2015 catastrophe, and a new leader ought to be their next decision. More thoughts in a few days, but these are my ‘morning after’ musings.


#GE17 Northern Ireland predictions

To make an obvious point, snapshots of the likely election results basest on social media sentiment analysis were not supposed to appear here earlier, nor indeed in public at all. They were a private endeavour for close of poll and nothing to do with my personal account. For reference, they are snapshots based on social media sentiment analysis rather than scientific predictions. For what it is worth, these snapshots were closer to the overall result across the UK in 2015 than the opinion polls, but barely. We have the exit poll now anyway, but for the record the snapshots UK-wide suggested a Conservative majority of about 40.

Some people had a bit of fun with it and obviously I apologise to party colleagues who had to engage in some online clear-up at the end of a long and outstanding campaign. We may perhaps be thankful that there is no evidence social
media at this low level makes any difference to election results (and indeed the response served to emphasise who was running a progressive positive campaign and who was running a relentlessly negative one). Remember, social media also had one candidate “topping the poll” in South Belfast last time – and he ended up fourth.

While on the topic of social media, however, I will add this point: this General Election campaign on social media has been a thoroughly unpleasant experience, exhibiting the very worst of human nature from people who should know far better. In particular some people, and by no means in the usual “nasty” parties, have engaged in direct personal attacks on candidates which are shameful and have no place in a functioning democracy. This, accompanied by broad and relentless negativity even from some parties laughably referring to themselves as “progressive”, has been utterly depressing for all of us who try to be positive about this place.

By definition, you will not agree with every candidate and only a small minority will be elected anyway under FPTP. But anyone, absolutely anyone, who puts themselves before the electorate is worthy of respect for so doing. When they do so with a track record of delivery for people, not least when those people are disabled, or refugees, or oppressed minorities, they are worthy of considerably more respect. By all means challenge them on the issues or even on competence to deliver, but to engage in personal attacks is utterly unacceptable and an affront to democracy.

The fact is “social media rage” is like “road rage” – we behave behind a keyboard just as we do behind a steering wheel, so we think we can behave in a manner in which we would never behave in an average social setting. The outcome of this “rage” instinct, in far too many instances, is utterly frightening.

People who have engaged in such activity will no doubt expect to be dealt with civilly by their victims when they next encounter them offline in “real life”. If the victim is someone like Naomi Long or Paula Bradshaw, that expectation will be met – Naomi and Paula are, after all, civilised human beings both online and offline. However, there is no particular reason that expectation should be met. If you abuse or disrespect someone online, why should it not be assumed you will do so again “offline”?

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is, sadly, becoming ever more polarised to the extent that it would not surprise me at all (social media sentiment analysis or not) if the DUP and Sinn Féin delivered a clean sweep between them in NI except for North Down and probably Foyle. Elections here rarely deliver justice. However, it would be the sweetest outcome if for once some justice were forthcoming, and if Naomi and Paula were elected to send the shockwaves to those charged with governing but who refuse to do so.

Put briefly and bluntly: those who have engaged in such relentless negativity and (frankly) nastiness now need to have a long look at themselves, regardless of outcome, and recognise the harm they are causing to public debate and democracy itself. I would say to them simply: remember everything you say to or about someone online is in their presence (they can see it if they choose to), so if what you are about to say to (or about) someone online would be unacceptable offline then it is unacceptable full stop. Have a think about that.

More generally, we all need to find a much more effective and civil means of engaging in political and general public debate in the social media age. Frankly, if we don’t learn this after this utterly ludicrous election campaign across the UK, we never will. It is one of the main reasons democracy itself is in peril.

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…?!


In the end, it’ll probably be a comfortable Conservative win

I emphasise again that I am not predicting anything, even now and even here. If elections were decided by electrons we could predict them with certainty – electors are a different matter, however.

We should not rule anything out from a Conservative landslide to a hung parliament. The probability is that the Conservatives will do much worse than originally anticipated but gains in Scotland should hand them a workable majority come Friday morning.

Back in 2010 the Liberal Democrats led in the polls during the campaign, and seemed set to hit close to 30%, after Nick Clegg’s superb performance in the televised leadership debates. However, in the event, they scored 23% – almost exactly what the polls had said at the outset.

What happened was that Clegg became cool (hence “Cleggmania”) and therefore his supporters became more likely to answer polls or to declare themselves as such. Yet on polling day they decided to do what they had always intended to do – many who gave up answering polls because their leadership candidate was less cool nevertheless voted Conservative or Labour as they had always intended, and the number declaring for the Liberal Democrats during the campaign was skewed and unrepresentative of the actual electorate.

A snap election is a slightly different thing, but it is improbable (though possible, note) even in these circumstances that polls would close in actuality as much as they have. Either they were very wrong at the outset (something I suggested at the time) or they are very wrong now – or, most likely, both! A Conservative majority of 40 would have been seen as something of a disappointment for the PM four or five weeks ago, yet it would now be seen as something of a relief. In fact, it was always the likeliest outcome.

But I myself have learned. I am predicting nothing…

Vote Paula – Positive and Progressive

What has been striking about this campaign in Northern Ireland is how little parties have to say in favour of their own candidates, particularly incumbents who should have a record to defend. We are supposed to vote Kinahan to keep out the DUP, vote Elliott to keep out Sinn Féin, vote Simpson to keep out Nationalists, and so on – it’s all about who you don’t want rather than who you do.

It has been strikingly similar in South Belfast. I have a lot of respect for incumbent Alasdair McDonnell, as it happens, but his campaign has mustered only one reason to vote for him – to keep someone else out. That’s it. After 12 years, there is apparently nothing he has done to provide a reason for voting for him – just a reason to vote against someone else.

Such relentless negativity, regardless of its source, deserves to be punished by the electorate.

Put simply, we should vote for someone and something, not against.

The Alliance candidate for South Belfast, whom I happen to know quite well, has instead put forward a positive case for electing a progressive MP more representative of this diverse, mixed and broadly socially liberal constituency.

Paula Bradshaw has pointed to her work with traders going back a generation on improving main arteries such as the Lisburn Road and reinvigorating them as economic locations; to her work on what was at the time Europe’s biggest regeneration project in the community sector in the Greater Village area; and to her knowledge of the day-to-day challenges of life in the inner city from two decades of working in it – all relevant to an MP’s work on welfare, health drugs and treatment availability, and best practice in tackling marginalisation and disadvantage.

She has referred to her work as an MLA – most notably securing commitments to make available key drugs and treatments for certain types of cancer and HIV, but also ensuring a greater role for Allied Health Professionals in the reform programme and greater emphasis on conditions such as ME. At constituency level, she can point to her collection efforts for refugees, and a record of delivery for families in areas such as school places and housing allocations. I remember the last house of one canvass happened to contain a remarkable family caring, against all the odds, for a toddler with a life-limiting condition – they would be the first to agree Paula’s intervention on issues such as transport and care availability has transformed their lives. That is just one example – and all of this has occurred remarkable in just one year! The fact it seems longer is tribute to how much she has accomplished.

She has also taken courageous positions, notably against Loyalist paramilitarism even while working in the communities in which they operate. She has taken a clear pro-choice stance (McDonnell and Pengelly are pro-life in all circumstances even FFA); she has taken a clear and proactive stance declaring political donations voluntarily (the SDLP and DUP hide theirs); and she is in favour of liberalising Sunday shopping hours (which SDLP and DUP Councillors all opposed) and more progressive rates system (unlike McDonnell and Pengelly). In fact, on a raft of issues, it is a matter only of whether you want a Nationalist social conservative or a Unionist social conservative… or Paula, providing a clear progressive cross-community alternative.

Let us also be clear: electing an incumbent or the largest current party will make very little difference. No one will find it remarkable. Electing the clear alternative, however, will send shock waves across Northern Ireland (just as it will in neighbouring East Belfast).

That clear progressive alternative was just two and a half percentage points behind the DUP in March, a gap much less than the sixteen points versus the equivalent election overturned by Naomi Long in East Belfast when she came from third to win in 2010.


So be in no doubt, Paula can win!

So if you believe is positive rather than negative, progressive rather than regressive, and a record of real delivery and full-time representation over scarcely turning up or not turning up at all, then Paula should win.

It’s time for some shock waves…



NI needs civic leadership on #Brexit

The EU referendum in Northern Ireland thankfully did not fall completely along sectarian lines as most things do, but unfortunately the reaction to it is beginning to. Particularly, the Ulster Unionists have chosen a Leader and set of candidates who for the most part voted “Leave”; and the SDLP is now trying to use Brexit as an excuse for a Border Poll in a way which makes cross-community campaigning on the issue nigh impossible. Only the Alliance Party, suggesting avoiding further division and working together to negotiate a specific deal reflective of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances (those being default EU citizenship, larger trade with EU, land border, etc), makes any practical sense on the issue now.

To be clear, raising the constitutional issue outwith the term of the 1998 Agreement gets us nowhere. Nearly 20% of Northern Ireland’s exports are cross-border, but on the other hand it does over twice as much trade with England alone than with the entire rest of the EU combined. Regardless of constitutional aspiration, the simple fact is Northern Ireland cannot afford hard borders in either direction.

That, unfortunately, brings us to the reality that it won’t be political leadership but civic leadership which brings the best outcome the people of Northern Ireland. In practical, the Health Sector, business and higher educational institutions will need to work out a common and deliverable platform.

There should be no doubt that such a platform will be heard – Northern Ireland may be small, but it is in everyone’s interests to hear it and it has a voice in effect on both sides of the table. One benefit of its relative size is that it will in many ways be easier for the UK Government and European Council to go along with sensible proposals than not.

Sadly, a political system typified by prioritising a sectarian carve-up cannot deliver on Brexit, in much the same way as it cannot deliver on much else. However, Northern Ireland has never had so much civic interaction – that will be the key to making the best of Brexit.

UK election gets genuinely close

I am rather glad I wrote this piece at the start of the campaign explaining why I thought, even on polls showing the Conservatives set for a whopping majority, the outcome would be somewhat closer.

A big health warning is necessary here. The polls are also, of course, hopeless. UK polling is very poor compared to that of the United States or France where more advanced techniques are used. In the UK they are on average of five points out, i.e. beyond the margin of error merely on average, which is extremely rare in other countries. Since this margin is typically against both the Conservatives and the incumbent, the chances are in actuality that the Conservatives retain what will turn out to be a healthy lead on polling day.

However… even my own initial piece had not taken account of just how appalling the Prime Minister’s own performance would be. Polls do not give you accurate numbers in the UK, but they do give you a sense of the trend. Theresa May has come across as unlikeable, clueless, and frankly chicken. Whatever you say about Jeremy Corbyn, he is not all of those, and therefore the popular view of the choice for Prime Minister has closed dramatically (and understandably). This matters, as it is this plus the view on the economy which usually determines elections.

The whole Conservative campaign has thus become unhinged. The plan to replace the very word “Conservatives” with “Theresa’s team” now backfires; the assumption that Labour’s figures would not add up is easily countered by the fact the Conservatives have no figures; and even Brexit itself is featuring peculiarly rarely in a Brexit election (something which the Conservatives had assumed would turn things their way with even half of those who voted Remain apparently content to leave the EU now).

Campaigns rarely swing more than 1000-2000 votes per seat but, as noted above, snap elections can swing more because more people are genuinely undecided at the outset. Surely no one who was not already planning to vote Conservative – absolutely no one – could have decided to vote Conservative based on this ridiculous excuse for a campaign?!

To be clear, it is still best to assume a Conservative majority. However, there is some reason for optimism among their opponents that it may not be much greater than the one they have now. Which would make life very interesting…

Paris withdrawal continues collapse of West

The United States’ decision to ally with Syria and Nicaragua in opposition to the Paris climate accord is extremely bad news for the global fight against climate change. It is also the latest chapter in the inward collapse of the West.

With the UK removing itself from the EU and the US removing itself from global environmental accords, the Western world is collapsing inward in a way not seen since just before World War One. Global climate change is exactly that – global. The notion that the only things which affect us are those which occur within the borders of the sovereign state in which we happen to live is the height of dangerous, populist, ignorance. Yet rapidly it is becoming a mainstream and majority political view, at least in the English-speaking world.

It is hard to see what the way back is. But Open, Internationalist, Populist Liberals are going to have to stop arguing with each other and find a way to win – fast.