Changing the debate

“Where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow”. Stephen Baker calls out the BBC for their failure to include smaller parties in their leaders’ election debates in the run up to the Assembly election.  

The exclusion of smaller parties like the Greens and People Before Profit from the BBC’s planned leader’s election debate is politically myopic and blinkered. Both parties made breakthroughs at the last Assembly election, with South Belfast returning Northern Ireland’s second Green MLA, Clare Bailey, and PBP’s Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann winning in West Belfast and Foyle, respectively. These results may be indicative of a genuine, growing appetite for change. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the collapsing of the executive may only have increased that appetite. The BBC should keep all this in mind as the plan and schedule their coverage of this election.

A cursory look at the recent history of Northern Ireland shows that where smaller parties tread, the larger ones often follow. It was often so-called fringe parties that helped to change the tone and content of political debate in Northern Ireland. It was also they who had the courage and imagination to push towards a political settlement when larger parties were obstinate and slothful. For instance, we should not underestimate the intellectual work done in the prisons at a time when republicans and loyalists were subject to a broadcasting ban. Figures such as David Ervine and his colleagues in the Progressive Unionist Party demonstrated a willingness to get into negotiations with opponents when mainstream unionists looked incapable of meeting that challenge. The DUP in particular walked out of negotiations and it was involved in a very public and angry exchange with working class loyalists who stayed in the process that lead to the Good Friday Agreement. In May 2007 the DUP entered into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin. Similarly, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition put the question of women’s political representation onto the agenda and for their pains were frequently mocked and brayed at by male counterparts. Today three main parties, the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, are led by women.

Even on the pages of a progressive journal like The Combination, we have to acknowledge that Jim Allister of the TUV has often provided an articulate and forensic voice of opposition in an Assembly full of apparent placemen. Allister is an incumbent of what the media patronisingly dubbed the ‘naughty corner’, an honour he shares with the Green Party’s Steven Agnew (and, since last year, fellow-Green Clare Bailey, as well as the two PBP MLAs). It was Agnew who first flagged up problems with the RHI scheme as long ago as July 2013, when others were cheerleading the project or simply not paying sufficient attention. It is often the voices in the margins that have the independence of mind and spirit to see what others are wilfully blind to. At this stage I’m reminded of something Tony Benn used to say: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

In excluding these voices the BBC might say its job is to reflect society, and that this is best achieved by focusing upon the larger parties, whose size in the Assembly might recommend them as more representative of public opinion. But neither the BBC nor the media more generally reflects society, and it certainly isn’t the BBC’s job to do anything so pusillanimous. Media representations are integral to the very constitution of society, because they offer frameworks through which people think about the world around them, act in the world and experience it. In other words, media coverage and news reporting do not stand apart from the political process, they are part and parcel of it. If the media’s frame is truncated and exclusive, then that in all likelihood that will encourage a truncated and exclusive politics. If you confine debate to shades of unionism and nationalism (and whatever lies between) you are not merely reflecting an existing reality, you are it reproducing it. Most alarmingly, you are reproducing it at the expensive of other politics such as those of class, gender, sexuality and the environment.

To be fair, journalists clearly don’t see it as their job to simply sustain the status quo. Certainly there are local journalists that have done us all a tremendous democratic service by rigorously investigating political scandals like the RHI scheme. But when it comes to elections, different rules and criteria seem to take over – caution, at the moment to be bold; overt pragmatism, that has no ears for idealism; a determination to identify a centre or consensus about what the key issues are, when many are rejecting the agenda set by mainstream politicians; and damn laziness, that just can’t be bothered to think of a broadcasting format that would accommodate the existing breadth of political opinion. These last two points are important because globally we are evidently living through a period when there is no political consensus – the centre has collapsed. The narrow ground upon which political debate was conducted for decades has exploded and we can barely discern the shape of things to come. And yet, Northern Ireland’s ‘dreary steeples’ have a reputation for remaining impervious to “the deluge of the world”. It is not the BBC’s responsibility to uphold them. It has a responsibility to question, to probe, expand, to experiment, to let the world in.

Giving a platform to the same-old-same-old at this election feels like an abnegation of the BBC’s civic responsibility. To be sure, the BBC has a history of supineness but it also has a stated commitment to a public service ethos that desperately needs refreshed. Because if public service broadcasting is the very lifeblood of democracy, then recent events suggest that Northern Ireland’s politics is badly in need of a transfusion… and maybe an organ transplant or two.

Stephen Baker

21 February 2017


And how!

In the second of two Assembly Election posts, we set out how to go about maximising the impact of your STV choices.

On 2 March 2017 voters in Northern Ireland will get the chance to cast votes for their local Assembly members (MLAs). But like a lot of things in Northern Irish politics, it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds.

In this election, run according to the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system you don’t put an X beside your preferred candidate. Instead, you number your candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3 and so on. Many people only number their top two or three and leave the rest blank.

But is this such a good idea? No. You should list candidates in the order you prefer – and carry on all the way down!

A good tip is to number your top preferences first, put your least favourite at the bottom, and then work towards the middle. It’s best to count the number of candidates first, just so that you get your numbers correct. Better still, find out from your local paper or the BBC NI website who is standing in your constituency and have a practice run beforehand.

Why go to all this trouble?

Because STV is a preferential system. You are indicating a higher preference for certain candidates in relation to others – and in relation to the preferences of other voters.

With STV, those tallying the votes have to go through several rounds of counting until all the seats are filled in each constituency. So if you don’t set out your complete set of preferences, then someone else’s preferences will prevail over yours at the later counts.

This can make quite a difference, as the number of votes needed to get a seat in the later counting rounds will be lowered, making it easier for a candidate to get the fifth place – by this time they don’t have to meet the quota.

And you should put the smaller parties higher up your list. If the smaller party doesn’t get enough high preferences to avoid elimination in the early rounds of vote counting, then they won’t be able to pick up their lower preferences and claim the fourth or fifth seat.  If they do get knocked out in round one, on the other hand, your vote transfers in full to your second choice.

Finally, of course, we would say vote for the most progressive candidates in your area. Let’s remind our representatives that we want equality, sustainability, transparency, strong public services, and a politics geared towards the common good.

So vote progressive, vote small parties first, and vote all the way down!


Jenny Muir and Maurice Macartney

14 February 2017

Why vote?

In the first of two posts on why we should vote, and how to go about it, Jenny Muir argues that one person alone may not be able to make history, but a community can. So read this, then make sure you REGISTER by 14 February!

Be sure you are registered by Tuesday 14 February!

In this unexpected Assembly election it’s proving harder than ever to persuade voters to go to the polls. Voter apathy is not new, but, as noted previously,  it’s worrying to see a constant decline over the years: from 70 per cent turnout in 1998, the first Assembly elections, to 54 per cent in May 2016. Even in the EU Referendum, with a turnout of 72 per cent across the UK, in Northern Ireland only 63 per cent of us bothered to vote. All a far cry from the 81 per cent who turned out for the referendum on the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.

Those of us who have canvassed know the voters are fed up. They feel powerless and lack trust in politicians. People ask: how can one vote make a difference?

And the truth is, one vote almost always doesn’t. But the aggregate of votes does, and that’s what those of us who work in elections see and most people don’t – and find hard to believe. The wonderful Love NI Vote NI helps us by providing the figures from the last Assembly election in May 2016: 540,018 people gave a first preference vote to the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP or the SDLP. But 577,851 did not come out to vote – more than the number who voted for the ‘big four’ parties!

It’s also untrue that change never happens. The DUP and Sinn Féin have not always been our largest two parties. Alliance have substantially consolidated their vote in East Belfast since 2007. South Belfast’s Green vote has risen steadily over the same period, resulting in the election of Clare Bailey last year.  People Before Profit probably surprised themselves at topping the West Belfast poll at the same election with around 40 per cent more votes than their nearest rival. A vote for a smaller party is by no means a wasted vote.

Voting is the perfect example of how one person can’t make history but a community can.

Finally, it’s important to understand the voting system to make the best use of your vote – so we’ll set that out in our next post!

Jenny Muir

13 February 2017

Staying connected in uncertain times

Jenny Muir suggests a number of positive, progressive ways to respond to the current political climate

Demonstrators brave the elements for a vigil at Belfast’s US Consulate, 2 February 2017

January 20 seems a long time ago. President Trump got down to work quickly, signing executive orders to cut business regulation, build the wall with Mexico, reinstate pipelines, weaken Obamacare, ban international abortion counselling by organisations receiving US funding (the ‘global gag’), freezing government recruitment and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But it is his travel ban that has galvanised protests worldwide. Although many of the other issues are very serious indeed, there is something about the profound injustice and illogicality of the travel ban that has proved to be a tipping point. It feels like the 1980s all over again – or perhaps even worse. Add Brexit to the mix for those of us in the UK and the future starts to feel very uncertain.

It’s all very overwhelming and sudden, and it’s hard to know how to cope. Here are seven suggestions that might help.

1. Face up to the situation: Trump, Brexit, Putin and the like are not going to go away any time soon. Accept things are not going well and acknowledge your feelings about this, such as anger, fear, uncertainty, sadness, a lack of control. Do not retreat into your private life and pretend it’s not happening. People in power are relying on that – and on you not caring about people elsewhere in the world.

2. Be the person you want to see: remember, when they go low, we go high. Behave decently and treat others with respect, even – or perhaps especially – if they disagree with you. But also challenge prejudice whenever you feel you can: work on this in advance so you have some responses ready. Be nonviolent: dignified and peaceful protests have a greater impact and will attract a much wider group of participants.

3. Join and use social media: it’s a great way to find out what’s going on in your neighbourhood, connect to global protest movements and to publicise your own events. Use it to keep informed, and ignore the trolls.

4. History is made by those who do something: no matter how busy you are, you can commit to doing one thing – protest, organise, join an organisation, volunteer, donate, sign online petitions. But make it something you are comfortable with because it’s in line with your values, ideally something you enjoy at least some of the time, and something you can commit to in the medium or long term. Things are not going to get better any time soon, after all. Your choice might be overtly political, but anything that makes a positive contribution to your community will do just as well.

5. There is one exception to no. 4: even if you are not comfortable with street protests, try to join them if you possibly can. The visibility and originality of anti-Trump demonstrations has been an important aspect of keeping the message on the front page and has been an inspiration to others. Go with friends and family, wrap up warm, and try to enjoy it.

6. Look after yourself: as they say on the plane, fit your own mask before helping others. These are trying times and we need to take both physical and psychological health seriously. Eat well, don’t work too hard, get enough sleep, make time to do something you enjoy, spend time with people you care about. Be aware of the importance of your belief system, whether it’s an organised religion or a set of secular values. A very small minority will be affected more seriously by current events. If it’s you, get help; don’t ignore it.

7. Support others: Some people you know are angry, some are scared. Some may be activists in danger of burning out. Do what you can to support your friends, family and comrades. Sometimes the most important thing is to listen. On other occasions a cake would be nice. You know the person and you know what they need. As in your own case, if they are in the rare position of being more seriously impacted then they may need professional help.

These are tough times, but recent events have shown how many people are prepared to stand up and be counted. Remain concerned, remain connected, and remain human.

Jenny Muir
3 February 2017

The logic of the crank

Maurice Macartney sets out his take on the logic driving much of the politics we are seeing unfold today.

Can there be anyone left who would argue there was little to choose between a Clinton and a Trump presidency? That Mr Trump campaigned to the right but will govern to the centre?

Leaving aside his declaration of ‘absolute’ belief in the efficacy of torture, the loosening of environmental standards, the restarted construction of controversial oil pipelines, the dismantling of Obamacare the signalling of an intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, that wall, and a score of other matters, Mr Trump’s sacking of the acting attorney general for opposing his travel ban  surely removes all doubt.

This presidency, I think we can conclude, represents a disastrous lurch far to the right, and away from democracy. The sheer speed is worrying: it’s as if he is trying to ram things through faster than democratic processes can scrutinise, let alone put up any opposition to them.

Mr Trump is one of a range of right-to-far-right populists in the ascendancy. Aside from our own Nigel Farage in the UK, in Europe there a number of right-populists within varying distances of making electoral gains. If we’re lucky – if we work hard – the US example will make Europe step back from the brink.

But how did we get to the brink in the first place? Doubtless there are complexities, and any simple explanation opens itself to the charge of oversimplification. To do the thing justice we would have to dig way back into the history of globalisation, armed trade, slavery, conquest and so on (something I hope to do through our Connections and Combinations series).

Nevertheless, I’m going to set out, as succinctly as possible, what I take to be the basic logic driving much of the politics of the last few decades, the consequences of which we are witnessing today.

Wish me luck.

The logic

The current wave of right-wing populism is not just about economics in the era of globalisation, but it can’t be understood outside that context. It arose, at least in part, as a reaction to the still-unfolding consequences of the Reagan-Thatcher ‘free-market’ revolution, which promoted what we could call ‘crank economics’.

This model sets out the imperative of turning an economic crank, as it were, that boosts profits by cutting costs.  Or rather, by displacing the costs: it cranks profits and rewards up to the wealthy while pushing the cuts and the costs down onto those with the least wealth and power, or out in the form of what economists call ‘negative externalities’ – that is, forms of pollution, literally and metaphorically. Here’s the logic of the crank, a step at a time:

1. Reduce the power of the workforce – make it harder to join unions, and harder for them to take action; fragment or ‘fissure’ the workplace;

2. Empower managers to maximise profits for owners by;

3. Driving down the costs of wages, the cost of maintaining decent terms and conditions for your staff, of materials and goods.

And over the last few decades proponents of the crank have worked out you can turn it faster by:

4. Opening up to the global market, thus buying in cheaper goods, materials and labour.

Do this and you can have a bigger cut of the profits to share between the owners and the managers who have run the operation successfully. Yes, it should be acknowledged that this was a success in important respects.

For one thing, GDP grows. Some do very well (managers and owners here at home), some reap the benefits of access to northern markets (Developing Country business classes), some do moderately well (some Developing Country workers) or lose out altogether (some in the traditional northern Working Classes, other Developing Country workers). At this stage the results are complex, so it is relatively easy to persuade enough people that, sure, some lose out, but on the whole it works out for the best. On aggregate.

This is where the political argument gets interesting.

The politics

For Europe and the US, the key political issue is the shift from being production based economies to consumption based economies. Lots of producers (people who built things in factories) lose their jobs. Financiers (people who oil the crank) get rich. Politicians turn their attention away from the former and towards the latter, because that’s where the power now accumulates.

The Tories did this overtly. They were the party of the market (that is, the crank version of the market).

New Labour were concerned to win new support by adopting crank economics, but they tried at least to soften the blow on enough of their supporters to win elections. They were the party of the market plus mitigations. The crank plus welfare.

Roughly the same story unfolded in the US with Reaganite Republicans and Clinton Democrats.

The problem for New Labour and the (neo-liberal) Democratic Party is that crank economics ensures the inequality keeps growing. So there comes a point where, try as you might, you just can’t keep enough of your old supporters on board – they’ve lost too much, relative to the newly empowered; they have been side-lined too long.

And no amount of ‘welfare’ helps, because all it does is emphasise the ‘dependency’ of those who once took pride in their work. Everybody comes to resent each other.

If I’m wealthy I start to resent having to give ‘my’ money to someone who doesn’t even work for a living. If I’m on benefits, I start to resent those who have grown rich on a system that won’t even give me a job or an affordable house. I start to resent having no choice but to sit idle, dependent on the ‘generosity’ of the wealthy financiers who shut my factory – and who now, resenting my worklessness, call for cuts to my benefits.

The crank turns, the rewards go up, the pressures press down, and everybody gets that little bit angrier.  So where does populism come in?

Well, into that anger steps a self-appointed champion who says ‘you are right to be angry’ (here’s where he or she wins over the first tranche. What a great relief, what a sense of release, to be told at long last that you are right to be angry).

Then he or she says: ‘You are right to be angry with the political elite because they have failed in their duty to protect you…’ (and here’s where they win their next tranche): ‘…from foreigners’.

It’s actually a double whammy: the right-populist gets to point the anger of ‘the people’ (we’ll come to this in a second) at both the home grown elite and the external enemy, the foreigner, whether those faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, those foreign immigrants coming to take ‘our’ jobs and houses, or Mexicans and Muslims in the US case. But while tapping into xenophobia and ethnocentric anger may feel satisfying for some, it doesn’t hit the mark.  ‘Foreigners’ may form an easily visible target, but it’s the wrong one.

Remember step four of the logic set out above. Once the crank gets going, it becomes profitable for a small, rich portion of the population to off-shore and outsource and tax dodge their way to still greater wealth. The crank operates beyond borders – indeed the crank uses borders for leverage, playing one nation-state off against another to gain tax and trading advantages. We won’t solve that by going down the route of ethno-nationalism.

Proponents of crank economics, though, like right-populists, make something of a speciality of misdirection. Remember the crash of 2007-8? How did that unfold? Some of the above-mentioned small, rich subset of the population engaged in reckless speculation and made a killing selling debt to those who could not afford it, but who couldn’t afford not to get into debt, if they wanted to keep a roof over their heads.

When it all inevitably went wrong, when the financiers crashed the economy, the government bailed them out (because they couldn’t afford not to), and proceeded to roll out austerity for the citizens with the least power to resist it. The argument for prioritising deficit reduction is: ‘we’ve got to turn the crank faster’.

Despite the claim in the UK that we were all in it together, we plainly weren’t: the least well off ended up shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden, and the wealthy soon got back to getting richer. Those in the middle began to resent those on either side – the elite above and the ‘spongers’ below.

Many also began to resent another target: foreigners.

Yet surely the government’s job, in a democracy, is to give we the people what we want? So what’s the problem? Well, everything depends on how you think of ‘we the people’, how you populate that ‘we’.

Populists think – or pretend to – that there is a (singular) people, with all the purity and single-mindedness of a monolith. The populist speaks in the name of ‘the people’. Or rather, some of the people as though they were all of the people. The part stands for the whole: some of the people come to be represented as the real people. Disagreement with what ‘the people’ want, therefore, comes to be seen not as part of a democratic conversation, but as an attack on ‘the people’.

Populists appeal to what Paul Taggart calls the ‘heartland’. If you don’t support what the people of this self-defined, but nebulous heartland want, you must, by definition, be an ‘enemy of the people’. Hence the prevalence of talk of ‘betrayal’ and ‘treason’, such that when Mr Trump fired acting US attorney general Sally Yates the White House statement – the White House statementaccused her of having ‘betrayed’ the department.

It’s worth noting that this accusation of betrayal is directed at a legal figure – just as in the jibe against the UK’s Supreme Court judges (‘enemies of the people’) when they upheld the right of Parliament to have a say in the Brexit negotiations.

Democracy is about the rule of law, settled by agreement among a polity of equals – all of whom have equal say in shaping the law, and none of whom has power over the law.

Populist demagogues, on the other hand, prefer the law of the ruler to the rule of law.

But if populism believes in one monolithic people (ein Volk), and prefers one strong leader (you can fill in this bit), democracy, in contrast, is about learning to live with our differences, nonviolently. It is inherently, essentially pluralist. It is about all of the people, for all their differences, having equal standing, before the democratically achieved law, as citizens. It isn’t something we have already, like some sort of democratic Utopia, but something we (you and I) are either moving towards or away from.

And it’s not just about the importance of standing up for the rights of others, in terms of ethnicity, gender equality and so on, though this cannot be overstated.  It is also that democracy provides a better answer to our politico-economic problems than populism. Because the problem is not just about money or jobs: it is about the distribution of power.

Crank economics, remember, begins by shifting the relative balance of power in favour of business owners and the managers who serve their interests. It isn’t just money that is cranked to the top: it is also power. Which means that a politics based on crank economics is a politics that, as more power is accumulated by the wealthy over time, tends gradually to move away from democracy.

The only answer to which is more democracy.

What would that look like? That’s for another post.


Maurice Macartney

1 February 2017