Election Breakdown Report

Jenny Muir reports on our Election Breakdown panel discussion event of 20 June. The panel featured (pictured left-right below) Geraint Ellis, Queen’s University Belfast; Ellen Murray, Gender Jam NI and Green Party NI; Stephen Baker (Chairing for the Combination); Liz Nelson, Belfast Feminist Network; Brian Campfield, NIPSA; and Robin Wilson, independent researcher and journalist.

The panel at our #GEBreakdown, 20 June 2017

We were pleased to see around 40 people at our public meeting “Election Breakdown: where now for progressive politics?” in the Crescent Arts Centre on a hot evening in June. We were even more pleased to see it wasn’t just the usual suspects – there were a number of people for whom this was their first ‘political meeting’, and others who have only recently become politically engaged. There was some political eclecticism: Greens, Labour, Socialist Party, PUP, SDLP, our fellow bloggers at The Last Round, and no doubt others we didn’t know.

Our panel was also eclectic: Brian Campfield (NIPSA), Geraint Ellis (QUB), Ellen Murray (GenderJam NI and Green Party NI), Liz Nelson (Belfast Feminist Network) and Robin Wilson (independent researcher and journalist). The meeting was chaired by the Combination’s own Stephen Baker and fellow Combiner Maurice Macartney interviewed most panellists beforehand and also recorded the event.

Here’s a short report on what we covered. We’ll be posting further reflections and extracts from the meeting in the coming weeks.

What is ‘progressive politics’? Geraint described it as working for ‘emancipation of humanity from social oppression’, which requires addressing inequalities of wealth and power, opposing injustice, and ensuring everyone has access to basic requirements such as food and shelter. This requires an active state which takes control of these matters in the interests of the people.  An audience member suggested that the basis of progressivism is about extending rights to those who don’t currently have them.

There were interesting exchanges about what topics should be included: for example, Liz and Ellen spoke about the importance of abortion, disabled and trans rights, as well as campaigning against climate change. We should all be intersectional in our activism (Liz again) – championing each other’s rights. The usefulness of the term ‘progressive’ was questioned by some given that so many parties use it, but as yet we have not been able to think of a better alternative.

The problem is capitalism….and patriarchy, and racism…. Neoliberal capitalism has become, as Brian put it, ‘commodification of daily life and culture’. Geraint said we have been living in a post politics world, which led to the belief that Corbyn was unelectable – but is this over? Are we back to politics as a testing and questioning of norms? Ellen said she felt progress was being made in Northern Ireland, especially through adopting a human rights approach to campaigning, but she was not as optimistic about the situation in the UK overall.

What does progressive politics mean in Northern Ireland? Robin commented that, in the past, republicanism has been portrayed as progressive and unionism as not. This is an inadequate analysis given the complexity of opinions in both communities, and indeed an audience member from a unionist area commented that many people would agree with socialist ideas but would not call themselves socialists and would be put off by the language of rights, which is seen to have been claimed by the ‘other side’. Robin argued for a civic cosmopolitanism to go beyond this division and to include other issues such as workers’ rights, women’s rights and environmental issues, all of which are common to both traditional communities. Brian pointed out that we have to talk about the history of Northern Ireland and its relationship to British imperialism, as part of forming a local progressive agenda.  Geraint felt that the polarisation of party politics into two main parties has reduced the space for progressives, however all opportunities must still be taken.

Liz reminded us that we need to look beyond our local politics to make global alliances, not least because many issues go beyond our boundaries. Although Northern Ireland is now more open to progressive views than in the past, there needs to be more attention paid to why many people continue to vote for parties linked to social conservatism, or not to vote at all.

And what about Brexit? Of course there were different opinions in the room, as it’s an issue that divides progressives. Brian – who had voted to leave – acknowledged the limitations of the EU as it currently operates, but argued that it still provides and protects rights despite giving primacy to the interests of capital. On the other hand, he noted there are opportunities to do better, as indeed is currently the case for maternity leave in the UK. Geraint also pointed out that rights will be damaged without EU protection.

What is a ‘community’ in the 21st century? How do we connect with people nowadays? Robin said we need to find a progressive politics that acknowledges geographical communities are not as important as they used to be. Brian talked about the need for a new ‘community of common values and ideas’ and acknowledged this was a challenge for trade unionism.

This exploration connected with a recurrent theme, the role of social media. Different views were expressed about the social media ‘bubble’, but it was strongly defended by several in the audience and also by Ellen, who celebrated its benefits for people with disabilities. Social media can connect otherwise isolated people and so can be positive. But everyone agreed it’s only part of the picture, and face to face campaigning remains essential.

How to move forward: Robin suggested that Northern Ireland needs a new progressive political entity but it was more likely to be a network than a political party: ‘the broadest secular church possible’. A coalition could form around the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If the Additional Member System were adopted for NI elections then a progressive list with candidates from more than one party could be agreed. An audience member thought a new party would split the progressive vote even further, and identified the challenge of bringing progressives from different parties together. There was also a call for the Labour Party to stand candidates in Northern Ireland.

Brian reminded us never to abandon radical ideas. Progressives need to get people elected but also not to abandon protests and lobbying, translating networks into activism. Liz recommended ‘the power of listening’ to people’s stories of their experiences and oppression. Ellen thought there were opportunities at the moment for changing the conversation, such as queer activism, but there is still a lack of disabled candidates standing in elections. Political education is needed.

Stephen, as Chair, commented on the optimism of most of the panel’s contributions. There was a sense that opportunities exist at the moment, and a feeling of having turned a corner, even though the Tories are still in power.

We hope to organise more events like this, funding permitting, and look forward to developing these ideas within a progressive network.

Jenny Muir

30 July 2017