Thursday 20 October 2011

In or Out? Is that the question?

Some questions seem to never go away.

 The Commons will debate on Monday about whether to provide for a referendum on UK membership of the EU. The motion looks set to fail. but that this matter is up for debate at all is a concern.
 Earlier this year we had a referendum on changing the voting system of this country's sovereign Parliament. This was an important change to our (mostly) unwritten constitution. And as such it was wholly right and proper that a referendum should be held. But the European question is of a different ilk entirely.

 I was too young to vote in the last European referendum, but all my political life has been plagued by demands for this to be tested again and again and again. As such my gut reaction is "that old chestnut again". But after a little thought, my mind turns to the reasons for it's return. Firstly the referendum in 1976 has never been fully accepted by the Eurosceptics among us. Secondly the idea of challenging our political leaders by referring to the people over their heads has gained increased currency in recent years.

 In response to the first point the denial of political reality is disturbing but acceptable. We live in a democracy and although I believe them misguided it is their right to question the result. And campaign against it. And it has to be said they remain a minority even in the Sovereign Parliament. Successive elections have failed to increase their numbers to the point where they have ever had a chance of winning the day.

 However the latter issue is more worrying. It insidiously chips at the roots of our representational democracy. In an age of falling polls it is more important to make political institutions more relevant, not less. Besides which the referendum is a very blunt instrument, and less likely to promote involvement. A report by the Electoral Commission for Northern Ireland today suggested that turnout in the referendum was boosted here by the combination with the NI Assembly elections:

 " It is likely that turnout at the local elections and the referendum was boosted by holding both on the same day as the Assembly election. Twentythree per cent of voters surveyed in our public opinion research indicated they would not have voted in the referendum if there had not been an election on the same day."

Referenda have their place, and constitutional issues such as voting systems and even yes ceding permanent power to others are valid issues for them. but they must not be overused to used because we are unhappy with the direction of political travel.

Questions must be posed - what is the proposed change? How does it affect our current constitutional position? - In the case of this referendum, the answer is unclear, and hence the call for a referendum should fail. This does not rule out forever a referendum. Just makes it a question to be decided when we know what is actually happening- when there are concrete proposals on the table that materially change our national status.

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have been criticised  for imposing whips on the issue. No- they are both right in this case. The case for a referendum has not been made. and claiming that they are setting themselves against untested public opinion is damaging not to them personally but to all that the Eurosceptics claim to defend.

It is undeniable that much has changed since the '76 referendum. but all of these changes have been considered by successive Parliaments, and decisions taken. These are battles already lost or won, depending on your point of view- not sufficient reason for a referendum now.

I haven't touched on the economic considerations since I haven't needed to - the case against a referendum is won even before the question of cost comes into it. But I will close with one last point. For all the bureaucratic bungles and idiocies that have come from Europe, the UK has profited from it's membership and in regions such as Northern Ireland from the monies that would otherwise be unavailable.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Looking "South"

Turning away from UK Politics for a moment, it is interesting to take a look at a very lively contest taking place in the Republic of Ireland. With 7 candidates, this is the biggest field in a Presidential election in the history of the current republic.

For UK readers and others not familiar with the election here is the wikipedia page about this election.

There are 3 issues that have made me decide to post on this.

1) Sinn Fein have for the first time decided to run their own candidate - in the person of Martin McGuinness. They have this right under the constitution and their selection of a Northerner is not in question - indeed former SDLP man Austin Currie(1990 Fine Gael candidate) and current President Mary McAleese both come from this part of the island. However I am concerned when he and his party try to rule out legitimate lines of debate about his past and his role within the IRA and the wider movement.Especially when they are at the same time making such a big thing about his part in the Peace process. As the Americans would say this is politics 101. Mcguinness has to answer these questions, and if he doesn't then the people of Ireland are right to ask if he has something to hide. If you don't answer when asked nicely, don't be surpised or offended if the questions and encounters get tougher. They should and will.

2) Dana made a statement at the end of the third TV debate on RTE's Primetime programme last Wednesday, about allegations that had not yet been made public. The allegations duly surfaced on Friday morning which involved a close family member, who is also a lead member of her election team. He was accused in an Iowa court, during an unrelated legal dispute, of having abused her niece over a period of 10 years. She threatened legal proceedings over the story. Thanks to her comments the niece in question has now set in process her own legal remedies . It has to be said that this is a real family mess, which ill betides a candidate who has placed such a heavy emphasis on family values. However the niece is the real victim here. And Dana has indeed just made the story bigger and longer lasting.She is not the victim whom the knife has been plunged in but rather the person who has twisted the knife in herself... and in her niece.

3) The Labour Party Candidate is Michael D Higgins. At 70 he is the oldest in the race, but not by much( David Norris an independent outsider is only 3 years behind him). However this has not stopped the age card being played against him. It is bad enough that the constitution bars people younger than 35 from seeking nomination, but now we have an invisible glass ceiling in some people's minds. Eamonn De Valera was 75 when first elected to the Office of President and 90 when he finally left office. The office of President is one essentially of "Parent of the Nation". They do not usually intervene but are there to do so when needed. In this case age should not be an objection, but lack of wisdom should be.

As a resident in Northern Ireland I do not have a vote for the next president, but if I did I know where it would go... to a man who has shown a wealth of wisdom in the political world and elewhere.... Michael D Higgins.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Oh, What a Week!

Well, well, well.

What a week it has been and not over yet!

Let's start with the cat. big faux pas all round! May for using a story that wasn't accurate and Clarke for picking a fight about it. But my main concern is about our Home Secretary. Ok, her aide assured her it was true and would stand up to fact checks (it didn't). Now would most people leave it at that? I think if I was in her shoes (which wouldn't fit me BTW), I would have wanted a copy of the judgement shown to me so I could be sure of what I was going to say to the Party Conference and live on TV. The story was just too good to be true.

However the more important aspect of the story is this. The Human Rights Act. Does it need reviewed? Probably yes, in the sense that we should keep all legislation under review and make sure it is working in a fair and just way. Should we change it just because a few cases resulting out of it don't go the way we want? no.

Human Rights are something we tinker with at a huge cost. In the debate on Question Time one of the audience mentioned capital punishment. Her argument was that the few cases of innocent people being found guilty outweighs the benefit to society by removing permanently the guilty. Tell that to the family of Tim Evans. Tell that to .... I could go on, but it would just be a list of names. And in the week when Amanda Knox had her conviction overturned in Italy, it seems poor taste.

I've heard it said that individual cases make poor law. Most of the time this is true, and Human Rights is definitely one. So I'll put this very simply. Our laws exist to protect the innocent - some laws define crimes, and some laws govern what we can do about them. The Human Rights Act is there for a reason. Remember Pastor Martin Niemoller.

Then we had a new piece of Quantatitive Easing. In 2009 this was the "last resort of desperate governments", but in 2011, is a "positive move for the economy". Ok we can all bandy quotes, but the crucial question is this. In 2009 Alistair Darling started this ball rolling in conjunction with measures design to encourage growth. What has Goerge got up his sleeve for us? I don't think I hold my breath. I might just pass out.

One last question for Lib-Dems and Tories. We've heard a lot about the "mess" left by Labour. It's been a year and a half.and the mess is just getting deeper. Don't you think it is time to stop just rubbishing us? How long do you plan on using the "it wasn't me guv" card?

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Political activism - is it worth it?

I just watched a programme on the BBC iplayer (This is available until Saturday 23rd July)

I was struck by the difference being made betwen the Suffragettes and the Suffragistes. In summary the Suffragettes were the ones who took militant action while the suffragistes chose to work inside the system to reform it. The point being made in the programme is that both were necessary to achieve the victory of votes for women...

I feel that this is a lesson we have failed to appreciate today. To many at the start of the 20th century, the issue of women's suffrage was not the basic right it is to us today, but a radical and dangerous change to the system. Today we are faced by different issues... how will History judge these?

I am too young for the seventies to have made a real personal impact on my thinking. My first real political memories are from just post the '79 election. I don't subscribe to the "I'm all right Jack" school of trade unionism or activism, but I do think it has its place.

There is a place for direct action, and a place for constructive building. The post election phase of 2010 saw direct action and internal dialogue. These 5 days in May brought this factor in our political system to a renewed prominence.

And since then we have had a number of mass protests that have tested the system to its limits.My question is which of these protests will History judge to be right and which misguided (please note not WRONG).

We are a democracy.... there must always be a place for peaceful (if not always lawful) demonstration free from provocation to violence from both sides. Only then can we show that we have truly learnt what History has to teach us.

Friday 3 June 2011

The Big Society- Cameron's new clothes

Having made myself a personal commitment to keep up the blog on a more regular basis, I was looking around for something to write on this week, with a focus on Labour and Northern Ireland. Then David Milliband popped up in Hay-on-Wye.

And this got me thinking about the Big Society. Embarrassingly for me, as someone politically alert, one year on from the election I am still unsure exactly what Cameron means by the Big Society.

I have to admit that when I first heard about it, my first thought was ... "but we do that anyway". So what was the "New" idea? and in a sense I still think that.

Northern Ireland has always been a neighbourhood place, even through the dark years of the troubles. The old joke used to be that when you popped in uninvited to a house, the host would apologise for only being able to offer two sorts of cakes or biscuits.For the past 12 years I have been a member of St John Ambulance and the support from the people here is astounding. As a charity that everyone knows benefits society, St John Ambulance is well respected and liked. And charities like this, long before Labour was even a thought, have been trying to make society better, and to look after those unable to look after themselves. Our Education system, our Health service, even our trade unions have come about through "Big Society".

So is David Miliband right?

Well yes and no. Yes we should not oppose it- we should celebrate these aspects of our society. They are what makes us truely great and what has kept us together through thick and thin, through peace and war. But no- we should not allow this to turn the clock back. and this is the real danger.

John Major rightly labelled the Citizen's Charter as a new advance. never before had we had such a way of measuring and ensuring accountability and service. But the Big Society is not the Citizens Charter. It instead opens the door to turning the clock back to undo the advances made since the Second World War.

I may be wrong on that one, and hope I am. but like the boy in the Andersen tale we need to call Cameron on this one... This ain't a new idea!

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!