Friday, 27 May 2011

Restructuring Left Politics in Northern Ireland

Having reviewed the Referendum campaign by the YES campaign, let me now progress to look at the other contests that took place on May 5th.

To me this was a real Jekyll and Hyde election. I was really overjoyed to see how real issues (like Health and Education) took centre stage in the campaigns. However I was also depressed at how, when it came to the end, these all got pushed aside and the old tribal politics of the past came out.

Standing outside a polling station, I heard one Council candidate admitting that if he had been standing for election in England he would have been a Labour candidate - so why wasn't he?

Unfortunately the obvious answer was not that Labour don't stand here - rather it was the section of the community that he belonged to- a victory for Sectarian Politics.

Turkeys do not vote for Christmas. Nearly all the current parties here are relics of the old order. And more importantly the same old test is applied to any party/independent that dares to stand - But are you Nationalist or Unionist? And the truth is that in the Assembly Election at least this matters in the outcome, because of the way the Assembly is constructed.

The Alliance and the Greens would seem to be the examples that disprove the rule - But despite their denials the Alliance is usually (if unfairly) regarded as "soft" Unionist, leaving just the Greens.

So how can we bring true Left wing politics to Northern Ireland?

The political experiment that Cameron's Tories undertook in 2010 shows how not to do it. The Northern Ireland parties will not be reformed from within. The old orders are too well entrenched. We have come a long way from when people like Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin could insist that "Labour" appear in the title of the SDLP. Plus by tying to one of the existing blocs, a large number of potential supporters will be alienated.

There are two choices that remain.

1) Leave it as it is and hope that eventually they will come to their senses and align themselves.

2) introduce candidates aligned on the Left-Right axis, but neutral on the issue of the Union.

Well 1) is obviously nonsense (turkeys ... Christmas remember?) so the answer is 2) ?

This is where the Greens have led the way. Admittedly their structure has probably made this easier, but the lesson for the rest of the Left is obvious.

The Labour Party has long held together many disparate elements, supporting all sides of the Northern Ireland issue. In order to do that they have consistently refused to stand in Northern Ireland - despite the long association between Labour and these parts. But in today's multi party politics under STV, and with the oft expressed demand of members here to be allowed to stand, it is clear, to me at least, that this must now be reconsidered and candidates put in place.

Success may not come fast, but remember that in the 1892 election in the UK when independent Labour first stood they only gained 1% of the vote and no seats, yet within 32 years they were the Government.

So for me a simple conclusion... Labour must stand candidates... not to destroy other parties, but to reform the politics to the real issues.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


Ok, AV is over.Reform is always a hard road to travel, and takes a long time to get there.

Having been on the ground in Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign, I feel somewhat qualified to add my pennyworth to the debate about what happened. The simple answer is that the YES campaign didn't do enough! That is not to say that we sat back and did nothing... of course not. But the energy and commitment of those on the campaign was largely misdirected.

The campaign from the start was reactive, not proactive. From the start, right through to (beyond!) polling day, I found that people really didn't know what AV was or what the referendum was about. And this was crucial. People do not vote to change unless they know what it is about... "Better the devil you know...."

Yes, people want their politicians to work harder for their vote, and all the other things we talked about. However we failed to convince them that change was necessary to make this happen. At the same time the No campaign had simple clear messages...albeit completely false.

We were trapped then into trying to neutralise these. This is a basic mistake we made. Or were forced to make. Clearly we could not just ignore them, but by allowing THEIR arguments to define the national debate we gave them even more home advantage.

Over on Slugger O'Toole
Alan in Belfast looked at the numbers involved in Northern Ireland. The NO campaign sent out 1 million leaflets by post... the yes campaign .... 0. That's right none, zilch, zero. So by and large the only leaflets anyone here got were the ones that volunteers could push through their doors. So rather than using the Royal Mail whose whole purpose is delivery to each household, we used small groups of people targeting areas... leaving far and away the majority untouched. And the volunteers could have been so better used. Far and away the best moments during the campaign were when I got to talk to voters and explain what it was about. And most of those I am convinced will have voted yes... because they UNDERSTOOD!

Alan does point out that the result here was better than the national one. This just makes the mistake worse! With proper contact the result could have been so different.

So where now? Two things here...

1) Don't stop believing! - Reform in this country is a slow process.And Parliamentary reform is very slow. While it is clear that no reform will take place before the next election (excluding potentially House of Lords reform - more next time)- now is the time to be making the case and laying the foundations for the next attempt.

2) Granted that referenda are now the accepted weapon of choice in these duels, it is crucial that action is taken to ensure that participants in a referendum are held to account for their statements. There are no candidates in a referendum... so at the moment the Electoral Commission is powerless to take action against those who blatently lie. If referenda are ever to be used in this country again, then this must be addressed.

This blog has been inactive for a while... but I intend to use it more often now... a little project I have set myself!