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

The necessity of trust

To navigate the many complex, multi-faceted problems we face in this so-called ‘post-truth’ world, a shrug of distrust is not enough. We are going to need to rely on all our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, argues Tanya Jones, in the third of our Assembly election posts.

Tanya’s feet do the talking at the Climate Justice event in Paris, December 2015

There are two kinds of stories for progressives about this year’s Assembly election. Maurice and Stephen have told two of the hopeful ones. As a candidate in the demographically knife-edge constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I’m perhaps more pessimistic. Those small green shoots pushing through the snow are undoubtedly there, but nurturing them will be a hard task.

I begin in the same place as Stephen, with Mike Nesbitt’s comments about vote transfers, which, whatever their effect upon the vote itself, apparently constituted his own political death warrant.

But what was so egregiously outrageous about what he actually said? Contrary to the impression widely given, Nesbitt did not recommend that Ulster Unionist voters give their immediate post-UUP preferences to the SDLP. He said that he intended to do so himself, but advised others only to transfer to any candidate they trusted to deliver for their “community, constituency and country”.

On the face of it, this sounds so anodyne as to be the political equivalent of a Hallmark greetings card. What other criterion could possibly have a higher priority than trust? And the ambiguous placing of ‘community’ at the head of the alliterative list even looks like a nod towards keeping those transfers largely unionist. In a Northern Ireland context, my ‘community’ might mean the village, town or suburb where I live, but it’s more likely, as Maurice discussed last week, to mean the group of people who share my religious, cultural and political preconceptions.

But, far from the yawn appropriate to Sunday afternoon platitudes, Nesbitt’s comment was greeted, even from within his own party, with howls of outrage. Here in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP was quick to distance itself, advising its voters via Twitter to transfer to other ‘pro-union’ candidates. The content of the advice is explicable, of course, in view of the unionist pact for the 2015 Westminster election which enabled Tom Elliott to overturn Michelle Gildernew’s four vote majority.   The fact that it jarred so glaringly with the rest of the overwhelmingly anti-DUP Twitter feed didn’t seem to surprise anyone.

The odd thing is that, logically, this election ought to have been about precisely the issue of trust. At the heart of the RHI scandal were a lack of transparency and a failure of good governance. It was that betrayal of citizens’ trust, along with the breakdown of trust between the two Executive parties, which caused the election in the first place. But that very soon wasn’t the issue. Neither coalition partner wanted too strong a light to be shone on any aspect of the scandal, from the secrecy of political donations to the dysfunctional relationships between departments and ministers. Instead of ‘trust’ or any of its synonyms, the buzzword chosen by Sinn Fein was ‘respect’, and that played perfectly into the DUP’s hands.

‘I don’t trust you’, is a banal statement of fact, but ‘You’re disrespecting me,’ has an edge of combined victimhood and aggression that worked both to prod nationalists towards the polling station and to goad disaffected DUP supporters back into the fold. And it worked for any issue they chose, most effectively that of the Irish language.

‘Same old, same old,’ say the weary. But there is now a new dimension to the traditional tribalism of Northern Ireland. Only ten months separated the 2016 and 2017 Assembly elections, but those ten months included both the UK’s EU referendum and the election of President Donald Trump. I’m wary of sentences that begin ‘This vote meant…’, for people voted for both Brexit and Trump in smaller numbers, and for more varied reasons than any tidy explanation allows. I think it’s safe to say, though, that a mistrust of perceived establishments, elites and experts played a large part in the rhetoric underpinning both campaigns. The fact that Trump and the triumphal triumvirate of Farage Johnson and Gove are members of all the elite and establishment groups that matter only seemed to bolster their credibility.

It’s a credibility, though, that doesn’t necessarily imply trust. A traditional political polarity will say ‘My opponent is devious, flaky and possibly corrupt, but you can rely on me.’ But these new populists present themselves as mavericks, and their indiscretions, insensitivities and worse are all presented as refreshing evidence of their salt-of-the-earthiness. ‘Follow me,’ they say. ‘I don’t know any better than you where we’re going, but we’ll find someone to kick along the way.’ It’s a style that’s easy and infectious, requiring nothing so tedious as policy, and was used in the Assembly election campaign by both right and left, with ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Punish Stormont’ and ‘Elect A Fighter’ prominent on our lampposts.

A post-truth world, as we are reported to be living in, is perhaps necessarily also a post-trust world.

And the implications of that are terrifying. There are times and places when it wouldn’t matter very much, where societies are chugging along much as they always have, and a bit of iconoclasm is positively healthy. Even now, there are plenty of power systems, notably the financial and military, about which we aren’t sufficiently sceptical. But to trust virtually no scientists, no politicians, no lawyers, no economists and no historians, except those who peddle our own pet conspiracy theories, is to take from ourselves every tool with which we might build a better future. And in our global village, with even the liberal media fascinated and obsessed by emergent fascism, there seems little hope of containing the infection.

We face two* huge existential threats: domestic, in the massive shadow of the looming Brexit, and global, from the increasing certainty of catastrophic climate change. (*The uncontrolled belligerence of a nuclear-armed Trump is a potential third that even I, in this gloom-ridden mood, can’t quite bring myself to mention outside parentheses.)

The almost universal response to both has been to stick our heads firmly into the sand, occasionally surfacing to shout ‘Project Fear!’ before burrowing down again. But these are not remote eventualities that might possibly occur, or benign changes that can be dealt with by business as usual, calm-down-dearie and not frightening the horses. These are complex, multi-faceted, many-tentacled problems. In order to navigate them with any kind of success at all, we will need everything we as human beings have ever learned, about science, about ethics and about our own history. To dismiss all that accumulated knowledge and wisdom in favour of a shrug of the shoulders and a gut instinct would be the final confirmation of the Age of Stupid. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a snarky tweet.

But there are signs of hope, some of which have already been identified and explored on this site. A blind fatalism is as unhelpful as any other kind of darkness. In between writing the first and second drafts of this piece, the exit polls came in from the Dutch elections, showing a decline in support for the much-vaunted Geert Wilders and a surge for GroenLinks.   I was joyfully reminded that right-wing populism isn’t globally inevitable, that people aren’t necessarily insular and despairing and that a small patch of hope can spread a long way. And I started reading the paperback edition of Yanis Varoufakis’s And The Weak Suffer What They Must? in the foreword of which he writes of the ‘precious common ground’ shared by all those, whatever their political labels, who are ready to confront the ‘monsters … crawling out of the fault lines’.

And there are answers, at least partial ones, and dedicated, creative and informed people working hard to reach them. But it does need trust; not unthinking allegiance to any individual or institution, but a lively, questioning, thoughtful understanding of what history, science and experience can teach us, allied with a basic belief in human goodwill. It won’t be easy, but we’ve already begun, thousands of us, across the world and across the years.

Tanya Jones, 17 March 2017

A progressive agenda

Homage to the ‘Fearless Girl’ of Wall Street.

In the second of our series on the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2017 Stephen Baker asks if it is possible to combine progressive forces across party and denominational lines.

Mike Nesbitt’s ill-fated attempt to inspire cross-party, cross community cooperation was laudable, but it broke on the back of the conservativism of many in his party. It begs the question: would the efforts of progressives to find forms of cross-party cooperation fare any better? Maybe.

One of the great hopes of the peace process and political agreement was that it would create the space for what are euphemistically known as ‘bread and butter’ politics. But more than this, many yearned for a settlement that would open the door to the sort of progressive politics that could speak to questions of gender, sexuality, race, class and the environment – the issues that get side-lined and ignored when the public debate is dominated by communal and constitutional issues.

Almost 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, progressives can say that they have brought something fresh to the political conversation in Northern Ireland but they can’t claim to have changed it. And now there is a grave danger that unionism, wounded by the loss of its majority, and a simultaneously emboldened nationalism, will subordinate all other political issues to their respective constitutional causes.

Nevertheless, there are plenty in the North of Ireland who, whatever their constitutional preferences, consider themselves progressives. They may for historical (and often biographical reasons) find themselves spread across a variety of political parties – parties that are not all uniformly progressive, or progressive at all. Yet if those individuals are committed to human rights, social justice, equality and environmental sustainability, then maybe the Assembly provides a space where on occasions national and party allegiance can take second place to advancing progressive causes.

A progressive agenda could include the determination to see marriage equality, the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, repeal of anti-trade union legislation, updating the laws protecting racial and ethnic minorities and legislation around environmental protection – to build, as Maurice indicated in the previous post, the sort of place both they and others are happy to live in.

Is it conceivable that enlightened MLAs, in all parties, nationalist, unionist and other, could commit themselves to support and fight for these causes within their own constituencies, the Assembly and wider civic society?

The passage of Steven Agnew’s Children’s Services Co-operation Bill into legislation in 2015 perhaps offers a model of how a private members bill can progress through the Assembly and into law. Legislation around gender, sexuality, trade unions and the environment is going to be more controversial. But the principle of slowly building support, researching and refining the legislation is the same.

That is not to say that a progressive agenda wouldn’t face challenges. For instance, at election time cross-party cooperation will be strain by electoral competition. Also, internal party discipline may prohibit the wholehearted participation of individuals in such an agenda. And we should never underestimate the determination of conservative colleagues to scupper the best efforts, and indeed careers, of others not attuned to their own reactionary beliefs.

Some representatives may be more progressive on some issues than others – happy to promote marriage equality but drawing a line at reform of abortion legislation, for instance.

Relations between the workers’ movement and those with environmental concerns is not straightforward or without tensions. But it is worth bearing in mind that progressive politics is dependent upon solidarity – all for one and one for all!

Our capacity to advance our own concerns may be dependent upon our willingness to find common ground with others and move beyond our own ‘single issue’. And in the end, compromise may mean that we don’t all get what we want, but progressive solidarity may mean we get just enough of what we need to take the Northern Ireland forward and make it a better place to live in.


Stephen Baker

12 March 2017

The three communities

The most significant result of the NI Assembly Election 2017, argues Maurice Macartney, is that it marks the beginning of the end of the dominance of the ‘two communities’ model of Northern Ireland. From here on, we will have to take the ‘community of others’ into account.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election (AE17) has turned out to be a very significant event.

It was always going to be interesting, given that the number of seats in the Assembly had been reduced from 108 to 90. In a context of widespread anger over the botched RHI scheme and other scandals, the outcome was always going to be hard to call.

In the event, the DUP, whose campaign repeatedly (almost catechistically) warned of the danger of a “Gerry-Adams-Sinn-Féin-radical-agenda”, lost most, ending up with 28 seats.  That’s fully ten down on last year’s total, more than the six they would have lost had the reduction in seats been distributed evenly. Moreover, they are now only one seat ahead of Sinn Féin, who enjoyed the biggest surge in first-preference votes, numerically speaking, of any of the parties. Doubtless the DUP communications team will spin this as a ‘we told you so’ story.

However they spin it, though, having won under 30 seats, the DUP have lost their ability to veto anything they don’t like (and there’s a lot they don’t like) by means of the ‘Petition of Concern’ mechanism. They will have to rely on others if they are to block legislation that way.

And speaking of ‘others’, in my view this may prove, in the long term, the most significant development of the lot: neither unionists nor nationalists command a majority of seats in the Assembly. In other words, we no longer have a ‘majority’ and a ‘minority’ community (oh, and a few oddballs grouped under the relatively insignificant heading ‘Other’).

Politically speaking, Northern Ireland can no longer be reduced to ‘the two communities’ (and how often that misleading phrase has been repeated like a catechism). You could say Northern Ireland is now made up of three minority communities (though we’ll come back to that).

Breaking down the first preference votes won’t give the unionists their psychologically significant majority status either. By my calculation (and you can find the data here), they took about 45 per cent of first preference votes among them, if you include a few thousand for independents. SF and the SDLP took about 40 per cent – 41 per cent if you include the Workers Party and again a few thousand for independents.

But look at the parties who are avowedly neither nationalist nor unionist: for the first time, their combined support shot past the 100,000 mark – between 13 and 14 per cent of the total, even without adding any independents.

The Alliance Party must be incredibly happy to see their first preference votes surge from 48,447 last year to 72,717 (actually proportionally, though not numerically, a bigger rise than SF’s). The Green Party can be happy that, though their total first preference votes went down a bit elsewhere, they rose significantly in their two key constituencies, resulting in both their MLAs being returned, and netting a province-wide total of over 18,500 first preference votes.

AE17 in numbers

Even People Before Profit, though they lost one of their pair of MLAs, can comfort themselves that their first preference votes went up by a few hundred.

Of course all this is in the context of a bigger turnout as compared to 2016. Nonetheless, in the long term, a haul of votes of more than 108,000 for parties designating as ‘Other’ – that is, explicitly non-unionist, non-nationalist parties – is something of a milestone.

From here on, these three communities – unionists, nationalists, and the community of others – are going to have to figure out how to live as minorities together. In particular, unionists are going to have to recognise that, having lost majority status, if they are to succeed in their own aim of defending the union, they will have to pay heed to the aims of those for whom the question of the border is not the overriding priority.  They will have to learn to make Northern Ireland the sort of place the community of others are happy to live in, and that nationalists do not feel alienated by. And of course something similar can be said for nationalists.

The community of others, having been marginalised for decades simply for trying to hold open a space beyond the ‘two communities’ conflict, at last has a little leverage.

The sort of elbows-out politics, the obstinate insistence that ‘majority community’ status confers the right to dominance, aside from being a basic misunderstanding of democracy from the outset, simply will not work where you are not in a clear majority. And as the community of others continues to grow it is bound to inject a new dynamic into our politics. Doubtless some will react with hostility to that new dynamic – so it will be important for the ‘others’ to be open and respectful, ready to listen to, and work with unionists (or indeed nationalists) to address real problems. But then, openness and respect for difference is what the community of others is all about, or ought to be. Diversity, otherness, is at the heart of such a community. Indeed, it is what all community as such is, or ought to be, about.

Truth to tell, there has always been a community of others in Northern Ireland, or indeed many such communities – LGBTQ, feminist, disabled, environmentalist, minority ethnic groups, other religious groups, and many more; people whose key priorities are not defined by national ‘allegiance’, but by a desire to live in a society of equals, where health care, education, decent, sustainable jobs are the main issues.

There never were two and only two communities, no matter what endless news reports, academic studies and official forms told us. There were and are many communities coming into existence, evolving, dissolving, merging, emerging.

Because a community is not a group of people who are all the same. Community is what happens when different people get together.

Maybe, just maybe, the results of this election will provide an opportunity for us to learn, for all our differences, to live as a whole collage of minorities together.

Maurice Macartney

6 March 2017

(Updated 7 March 2017)

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

Trusting the process

Tanya Jones sets out her vision of, and process for building, a sustainable, democratic society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, across the generations – but reminds us that “shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere”

A Tanya Jones election poster goes up by the steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone

I was at the Glastonbury festival for the 2016 European Union referendum result.  I woke early and lay in my sleeping bag, huddled in foreboding. It took half an hour before I could bring myself to switch on my phone and confirm what the lump in my gut had already told me. But if there was such a thing as a good place to get the news, that was it.  The Left Field tent was crammed as Billy Bragg recalled his own political epiphany; the morning when, as a teenager, he had woken to the chilling double knowledge that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and that he hadn’t voted.  This result, he prophesied, would be the spark that lit a new generation of passionate political creators.  It wasn’t a great consolation, but it was heartfelt and it was something. Visually, too, we were heartened.  One painted sign in particular caught my notice.  “Hold the vision; trust the process,” it read.  I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it coalesced some of the swirling emotion inside me, firmed it into a determination to keep on my small path, to face the worst, clear-eyed but without succumbing to despair. The phrase came back to me during the long night of November 8th, as the Radio 4 voices grew more sombre as the cold dawn approached, and the fears of the world were realised in President Trump. And again this month, as the Christmas reprieve was packed away with the tinsel, and the Stormont Executive, after a few short months, and the irony of the Fresh Start, collapsed in bitterness and recrimination.  The difference this time was that there was something I could do.

Standing for the Green Party in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Arlene Foster’s home constituency, is, I don’t mind confessing, something a little less than a cert.  But it will be the third time that my posters have had an airing, and I’m growing used to the oddness of it all.  Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a fascinating constituency; by a demographic quirk almost precisely divided between unionist and nationalist, the seat of Bobby Sands’ dying victory and the birth of Sinn Fein’s ballot box success. In 2010 Michelle Gildernew’s majority was four votes, with an inevitable court case following the multiple recounts.  By 2015, when I stood as the first ever Green Party candidate for the seat, the unionists were determined to defeat her, with not only the DUP, but also the TUV, UKIP, the Conservatives and any other vaguely red white and blue grouping declining to stand in favour of the Ulster Unionists’ Tom Elliott.  It worked – just, and I hope that they conclude it was worth it. The Assembly election of 2016 was only a little less exciting, with the count functioning as an imperial coronation for Mrs Foster and the playground for a squabble between Sinn Fein, who had accidentally selected too many candidates, and the SDLP, who managed to slip through and get a seat back. With all eyes upon Foster, and a reduction from six seats to five, this year’s contest will be no less fraught.  The main difference is that nobody wants it.

I’m standing for the eight hundred odd (some, no doubt, very odd) people who voted for me in 2015, and the 897 who gave me their first preference vote in 2016, for all the others who were grateful for an alternative option, and for the Green Party itself, which for the first time last year stood a candidate in every seat.  I’m standing in the hope that, even if I’m not here to see it, one day progressive politics will transform our sad and sectarian landscape.  And I’m standing because that phrase still resonates with all that I am and I do.  But what does it mean to stand in an election that the voters don’t want?  And what does the slogan mean anyway?

I searched the Internet for it, in the confident expectation that the phrase was the pithy encapsulation of a political philosophy I hadn’t previously encountered.  Whoever had said it, I thought, would have reams of further writing elucidating those two imperatives.  To my dismay, the only results I found were blogs about vaguely New Agey, gap year style individual self-discovery, all well-meaning and harmonious enough, but about as useful to political analysis as a set of Himalayan goatbells.  So, if I wanted to use it as a guide, I’d have to make up the meaning for myself.

The first part was easy enough.  I’ve been involved, on and off, in Green politics for a long time, certainly long enough to establish what I understand by it.  The vision, of facilitating a society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, where they can participate fully in decision making, where the natural world is respected and cared for and where resources can be accessed fairly both among the present generations and those of the future, is something that I have little difficulty in holding on to, however distant it sometimes seems.  I may, I hope I do, change my mind on particular issues and policies, when pertinent facts are pointed out, but the fundamental principles are just that, embedded in my spiritual as well as social beliefs.

But “trusting the process”; how does that work?  Electoral processes that have given us a looming Brexit that only 27 per cent of those eligible to vote asked for, the inauguration of a US President who lost the popular vote, and the bizarre failures of representation brought about by first-past-the vote races are scarcely confidence-builders.  And that’s even before we look at the power-sharing system of Stormont which ironically rewards exactly the binary sectarianism which prevents it from working effectively.   We have to operate within the electoral processes which we have, but need constantly also to be analysing how they might become fairer, more representational and accessible.  To assume that they will necessarily, unreformed, produce a beneficial outcome is positively Pollyannaish in its complacency.

The mindful bloggers seem to use the phrase to mean “trusting God”, which begs far more questions than it answers, or “trusting the universe”, an entity which, though reassuringly vast, has no particular discernible interest in the progress of Northern Ireland’s politics.  So what was I left with?  Over a series of bus and train journeys and a sleepless night I realised that what I was really thinking about were our own processes, as progressive activists, candidates, parties and movements, the ways in which we act in pursuance of our goals.

Trusting the process, in this sense, means acting consistently with our vision, so that each action is not only a step towards, but also a minor enactment of it. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is an exhortation usually addressed to individuals, but it is equally true of groups.

The Christian tradition, to which I, with many caveats, broadly belong, has been obsessed for centuries with orthodoxy, or right belief.  Its effects have been toxic, sometimes horrifically so.  Now some of the most interesting contemporary Christian thinkers, such as Brian McClaren, have sought to undermine its poisonous legacy by talking instead about ‘orthopraxis’, or right action: the Gospel imperatives to feed the hungry, heal the sick and liberate the oppressed.  It is not only a perspective which echoes Jesus’s impatience with Pharisaic quibbling, but one which makes practical sense.

By contrast, an end which justifies inconsistent means is itself distorted and ultimately destroyed by those means. The greatest horrors of history have not always been violence, exploitation and corruption in themselves but their use as intended shortcuts to objectives which were originally benign. But the shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere.

The scandal, fiasco, call it what you will, which has led us to this election is itself a parochial example of the phenomenon.  The big vision behind renewable heat incentive schemes, which are not, of course, particular to Northern Ireland, is to avert catastrophic climate change.  The specific, closer objective is to help those who burn large quantities of hydrocarbons for heating to cease doing so, specifically by enabling them to switch to a more sustainable fuel source.  If the big vision had consistently informed the process here, then the mess would never have arisen.  If combating climate change had been the prize upon which the relevant eyes were fixed, it would have been clear that the flagrant waste of energy, even energy with the lower carbon footprint of wood pellet burners, was entirely incompatible with the purpose.  However, to put it at its most charitable, the desire to make the scheme itself the focus, and to ensure maximum participation and reward, defeated the original object, or at least tarnished it to such an extent that it was no longer discernible.

What does all this mean for a candidate in an unwanted election?  How should she proceed, other than, as the punchline says, with caution?  I’m still, with my local colleagues, working that out.  What I am sure of is that the key elements of the Green political vision: respect, non-violence, participation and justice have to be equally key to our practice. The reason that Green parties refuse donations from those whose tax affairs are not transparently unblemished isn’t puritanism but an understanding that you can’t work towards fair access to resources by using those unfairly obtained or retained along the way.  Similarly, as Maurice Macartney has pointed out on this site, violence is no path by which to achieve non-violence, and humiliation no effective remedy to a lack of respect.

“At this rate,” a few, mostly older, people have said to me, “we won’t see you Greens getting very far in our lifetimes.”  It’s meant as a counsel of despair.  But I’m increasingly aware that each of our lifetimes is not very long.  I’m, not content, but prepared to accept that change in Northern Ireland does take time.  Much has already been achieved, but every stride forwards is followed by a little shuffle back.  I’m unlikely to see all that I hope for, but that doesn’t invalidate either the hope or the journey towards realising it.  When every staging-post is itself a shelter, it’s all right to be taking the long way home.

Tanya Jones

26 January 2017