Progressive pragmatism as a response to uncertain times

In the last of our series on the Assembly Election of 2017 Jenny Muir sets out the case for a progressive pragmatism built around broad and shifting partnerships, and aimed at achieving specific goals.

As hope fades of a new Executive being formed next week, and another election may be called, where does the (previous) election leave progressive politics?

The increased turnout, from 55 per cent to 65 per cent, should be welcomed. Yes, some may have voted in response to scaremongering from the DUP or a revitalised Sinn Féin election machine hoping to take the party over the line to the First Minister job. But getting people to the ballot box is the first step towards electoral change. We cannot get people to vote differently if they are not prepared to vote at all.

So how did people vote? Pretty much the same as before, according to vote share: unionists lost only 0.7 per cent; ‘others’ (Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit) gained 1.5 per cent and nationalists gained 3.8 per cent. The seat share tells a slightly a different story, and it’s the seats that matter. The reduction from 180 to 90 hit unionists hardest, with a 7.4 per cent decrease; ‘others’ increased their share by 1.2 per cent. The big winners were nationalists, with a 6.3 per cent increase. The breakdown of 40 unionists (including the TUV and Claire Sugden), 39 nationalists and 11 ‘others’ does indeed remove the unionist majority for the first time. But the election statistics also show that the ‘other’ parties are still failing to make the kind of gains that might seriously challenge the communal blocs.

It’s particularly interesting that this continues to be the case when  40 per cent of us identify as neither unionist or nationalist, compared to 33 per cent unionist and 25 per cent nationalist. Of course there are many reasons why people vote the way they do, and also reasons why people with progressive views might join a communal party. All parties are coalitions to some extent, and if your party’s ideological basis is British or Irish nationalism, then there will be room for a wide range of other beliefs within the membership. Individuals from different parties can and do work together in the Assembly to advance particular causes. It is also important to ask how this work can be done elsewhere, for example in local councils and in single issue campaigns.

So… what should we be working on, whom should we be working with, and how should we be working together?

What?  At The Combination have defined progressive values as including social justice, equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability.  Stephen has listed marriage equality, abortion rights, trade union rights, equalities issues and environmental protection as topics around which progressives can make alliances. Other possibilities include education, health and housing. Basically there is no shortage of issues where common ground may be found across parties and between political activists and civil society campaigners.

Who?  Many of us have mixed experiences of interaction with other parties, but will recall working together in trade unions and single issue campaigns as a matter of course, in order to maximise the chance of achieving change. The difficult and unwelcome truth about progressives working together is that we are going to agree on some issues and not on others. For example, it’s proving easier to build a coalition on equal marriage than on abortion. There is a sticking point on ‘integrated’ versus ‘shared’ education. Health campaigning is very fragmented. So our partners in particular single issue campaigns and initiatives will differ. To me there is no question that these partners will include members of the communal parties in some instances.

How?  In Northern Ireland we are disadvantaged by the lack of a non-party structure for progressive politics, such as a think tank or a broad-based civil society campaigning organisation. There are very few non-partisan forums for political debate, especially to promote the kind of constructive discussions that explore and understand different views on controversial topics – essential to develop the trust Tanya talks about, and the finding of common ground and willingness to compromise noted by Stephen. New spaces for progressive debate and collaboration must be developed as a matter of urgency.

And the game changes completely once an election is called. Formal pacts are superficially attractive, however they present two major difficulties: each party to the agreement must benefit; and the identity or independence of the parties involved must not be eroded. This is almost impossible to achieve. Far better for local campaigners to indicate informally how they would like preference votes to be cast, and to leave the electorate to make up their own minds.

A politics of progressive pragmatism can be developed around broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box. It sounds like an extremely modest aspiration. But it’s better than what we have now – and will be needed more than ever in the next few years.

 

Jenny Muir

22 March 2017

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