Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Middle ground politics

I contributed a guest column to the Belfast Telegraph today on the topic of "middle ground politics". In it I argue that a greater policy focus will develop as a consequence of devolution and as a means to tackle voter turnout issues. As regards tackling traditional voting patterns, I contend it can assist such a process but people need to be realistic about the level of return it will yield. As to the role of Unionist Unity I argue it is how that idea is shaped that will determine whether it is a help or hindrance.

There are two alternative viewpoints with Owen Polley argues that Unionist Unity will prevent any such development while Dr Peter Shirlow thinks the two present Unionist parties incapable of attracting the groups of Unionists that have stopped voting.

Polley's rejection is no surprise. He has been a persistent critic of various forms of co-operation and collaboration in Unionism. On his blog he highlights my use of 'dead-head'. I had toyed with whether to include the term or not but in the end kept it in because I consider the much of the commentary to be just that. The idea was never explored for any potential benefit it was simply rejected upon mere mention. Simply an unthinking approach was adopted to it and I dislike that whether from a liberal or anyone else. It is like rejecting the idea of a new house before a design has been even produced let alone built. Any idea deserves some basic consideration before rejection. I have made this criticism before of an Alex Kane piece where I argued:

"Both unity and a stronger policy agenda are perfectly possible, they are not mutually exclusive. Unionism overall might also be better off if its commentators didn't try to kill a potentially useful debate because of a burden of history and perception or simply list problems but rather engage in creative thinking about possible solutions."

Shirlow's contribution does recognise the working class element of non-voting Unionists that the media regularly overlooks but in his conclusion he seems to lump in the reasons for their disenchantment in with a 'liberal' section of the middle class which I think is unwise. Also as someone who worked in the community sector for over 15 years I can see the bog-standard sector whinge a mile off and Shirlow appears to have bought into hook line and sinker. Blaming politicians is the common conclusion to many a debate in Northern Ireland but it doesn't mean it is always legitimate.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Ruane is a small word but it is one that has increasingly guaranteed to result in a highly negative reaction.

In a past life I was part of a team negotiating with Ruane on a topic of particular contention. From that process I drew three lessons about her. First that she had authority within republican circles (at the time I did not know from where but it would appear from the patronage of Gerry Adams). Second that faced with a choice between a compromise that would achieve something useful and the opportunity to appear a martyr she'd choose martyrdom. Third, that she has great difficulty comprehending something beyond her own mindset. So how she has behaved as a minister has come as little surprise.

As a believer in the need to move towards voluntary coalition it is useful to have a minister that is a walking talking advertisement of the necessity to reform our system of government. However, when the inability impacts upon so many this has to be a secondary concern.

Her performance this morning in the Assembly was another 'virtuoso' performance of inability. An announcement about the school capital programme was reduced to a farce as she basically refused to provide any information. This makes her explanation of her non-appearance last week as an accident very dubious. It looks more like she wanted the delay because with the Assembly due to rise tomorrow the chance of further scrutiny is significantly reduced. While the special sitting over Gaza was a particularly dumb idea perhaps one on the future of our schools would be more worthwhile. At least it will show that her petty games can be countered.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Pain, Pain and More Pain

The emergency budget is in. In terms of Northern Ireland there is very limited additional detail other than the Con Dem Budget is proposing to go signifcantly further than Labour proposals did. The Labour proposals were unprecedented in post-war British politics and the emergency budget proposals increase the pain further, for example DEL budgets will be cut 25% than Labour proposed.

The Comprehensive Spending Review to be revealed in late October and it will provide the real detail. This detail will be very gruesome. Under Labour's proposals NI would have most likely received no increase in cash terms with wage and inflationary pressures meaning cuts in real terms. However, it is hard to see how the Con Dem proposals will not result in actual cash cuts to the local budget (plus the AME consequentials of the welfare changes).

People have been making references to the early 1980's as the comparison. However, what is being proposed goes further and longer than the contraction that occurred then. Furthermore, while it was tough, Northern Ireland was actually spared the full dose of Thatcherism.

On building the private sector, there will be a paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy although if it is based on previous Tory proposals it could be a wasted process. Finding the funds locally to pay for cuts in corporation tax while trying to manage an unprecedented budget consolidation borders becomes fanatsy politics. The differential reliance on public sector spending means differential results could be the outcome of the budget. Namely, a recovery of the national economy but regional stagnation - this is were it could be a repeat of the 1980's.

In terms of social justice the Institue for Fiscal Studies (pdf file) has given its verdict and it has placed significant question marks on the government claims that the budget is not regressive i.e. the burden falling disproportionately on the poorer. However, the desire for greater transparency and accountability on budgets seemed not to stretch to the IFS for Douglas Carswell at least.

The Economist stresses the importance of the actual numbers involved:

"Daunting as they sound, it is easy to miss the meaning in these “large numbers”... But its import is seismic."

Large numbers can become difficult for the man or woman in the street to comprehend when announced so it has still not sunk into people the scale of what is coming down the pipe - pain today, pain tomorrow and pain the day after.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The other emergency

While attention was focused on the emergency budget, the name today was released of the 300th British soldier to die as a result of the Afghanistan campaign. He was Marine Richard Hollington, 23, of Petersfield, Hampshire. A further two Royal Marines have been killed in action since he died on Sunday.

The situation could not be more grave with a UN report highlighting a deteriorating situation in the country and crucially a revealing profile of the American General in charge of the campaign, McChrystal, in
Rolling Stone magazine lays bare the tensions within the American administration over strategy and the glaring holes in that strategy. This may yet cost him his job that with another change in leadership doing little to improve the situation.

As the
preparations for Armed Foces Day begin in earnest it is clear our troops in Afghanistan need not only our appreciation but a strategy to ensure the sacrifices achieve something meaningful.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Remember AME

Tomorrow will not be a happy day for anyone as the Con Dem Coalition presents its emergency budget. Judging by the 'authorising environment' leaks VAT will be the headline story - something that Taxpayers Alliance has pointed out neither party has a mandate for:

The justification that they didn't know how big the hole was especially on debt repayment levels doesn't hold water. The Institute for Fiscal Studies was well aware of it (pdf file) but somehow we are expected to believe it escaped the notice of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Also the fact that the budget deficit of the year has decreased undermines this as well but only slightly as a deficit of over £150 billion as opposed to over £170bn is not a case for reaching for the champagne bottle.

However, the doom and gloom now has an economic and a political purpose. Economically, the aim is to create a virtuous cycle - paint it as bleak, act as if it is bleak and then take the confidence boost when things (hopefully) don't turn out as bleak. Politically the logic is that a bit more pain now will actually create more breathing room later. Essentially, when will an extra billion here or there get you a political reward - in the next couple of years by dissipating a little the depth of cut or a tax cut/boost to health in the year or so before an election?

In terms of Northern Ireland, the public discussion has been upon the Departmental Expenditure Limits, commonly referred to as the block grant. The broad shape should become clear in tomorrow's budget but the full detail will be from the Comprehensive Spending Review later in the year. However, in terms of the economic impact we need to remember the Annually Managed Expenditure (AME), essentially welfare/transfer payments. From the leaks it is clear those on benefits will be taking a hit as well.

So it is likely the Northern Ireland economy will receive a double gut punch not one in the short-medium term due to its reliance on the public purse. This makes the Coalition talk of bolstering the private sector in the regions and particular areas like manufacturing even more important but to date they seem to be something jotted down on the back of an envelope rather than serious proposals.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Quote of the day

"Remember the future has no lobbyists."

Saville and Ulster Unionism

We are mere hours away from the official release of the Saville Report and I had intended to write a lengthy blog on the topic. However, I remembered from my time on slugger I had produced a lengthy article on the McCord/O'Loan report which included an examination of Unionism and its approach to state actions. A number of the general arguments are worth reconsidering as the conclusions of the Saville report are examined.
A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan Report – Part 1 - This examined unionism relationship with the RUC and the O'Loan report itself
A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan Report – Part 2 - This outlined Unionist responses to the report
A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan Report – Part 3 - This examined the motivations for adopting the approaches it did in part 2.
A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan Report – Part 4 - This examined the nationalist reposne and the issue of selectivity.
A Unionist’s response to the McCord/O’Loan Report – Part 5 - This outlined a possible alternative Unionist response.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Humour v All out Assault

A while back I mentioned about about humour in election planning and how the Best Party has actually run such a campaign. The alternative to humour in the planning room is when you spend 5 minutes thinking about the full blown ideological campaign that you wish you could run with no floating voters to worry about. Dale Peterson tried this approach in Alabama to get the republican nomination for Agricultural Commissioner. His internet ad became something of a sensation even described as the best political ad ever.

He lost coming last in a
three way contest.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Localised difficulty

The idea of a fixed parliament is a reasonable one (although the 55% rule takes away from the proposal unnecessarily). However, the implementation of the policy and if successful, the other Con Dem proposals could create some localised difficulty.

The next Westminster election would fall on the day of the English local government elections in 2015. In Northern Ireland it would also coincide with an Assembly election and local government elections (to the 11 council model if present proposals are implemented). Then you have to remember that the Coalition proposes a significant reduction in the number of MPs. If implemented this would mean the loss of 2-3 constituencies, it is hard to see how any constituency wouldn't end up with significant boundary changes. If the AV referendum passes then a new voting system will have to be implemented.

So it is possible we will have three elections on one day with potentially two of them on new boundaries and one implementing a new voting system. The debacle in Scottish elections provide something of a warning of how big a mess could arise. If this scenario does occur or something comparable then delaying the local government elections to 2016 may be necessary.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Pointless code - Note to Editors

Despite the resignation of Dawn Purvis as head of the PUP, the 'Loyalist working class communities' have not been left bereft of political representation. Their political representation usually takes the form of the DUP and UUP politicians that these communities actually elect. A cursory check of election results should provide ample demonstration of this basic fact. Also the PUP received less that 5,000 votes in the last two elections and the 'Loyalist working class' is much larger that 5,000. So please do the decent thing either drop this false line of questioning or desist in the fallacy of using the entire 'Loyalist working class' as pointless code for paramlitaries.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

I don't know the answer to that one

The Devil has picked up John Clarke's skit about the crisis in the Eurozone:

Which is a nice excuse to revisit the classic skit following an 1991 oil spill.

If they need a few extra quid... seal the deal to get rid of this useless fecker I'll happily chip in a £100.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

"Whatever Works"

When people sit in a backroom to plan a political campaign I've tended to find that there is a significant amount of humour. It is needed to calm tempers as a particular word in a slogan is argued over again and again. It is needed to raise spirits as voting data or polling is analysed for meaning. It's needed to deal with frustration with voters as focus group reports are trawled through to identify what their core concerns are among the laundry list of contradictory messages you get in such reports. Part of the humour is invariably about mad slogans or insane policies with some fantasising about the fun it would be too run such a campaign. A glimpse of freedom from planning, message management and handholding candidates.

Of course it never happens but the wonder is always there what would happen if it ever was tried - Iceland has given us the answer.

The Best Party, a collection of comedians and arty types, was launched last year on the promise that:

" will not honour any of the promises given prior to elections. It claims all other parties are secretly corrupt, so it promises to be openly corrupt."

It's policy portfolio included (non-)promises of:

"free towels in all city swimming pools, a polar bear for the city zoo, a Disneyland at the city airport and a drug-free parliament by 2020."

Riding the wave of public anger about the Icelandic economic crisis and using the slogan "Whatever works", the party performed very well in the Rejavik local government elections polling the highest among all the parties. Below is their 'PEB'.