Friday, May 6, 2011

Whoever you vote for, the government gets in

The big story so far from yesterday’s Northern Ireland elections is low turnout. Anecdotal evidence from the polling stations indicates around 50 per cent in some areas. So why might that be? I suggest from my own experience that it was because the campaign was overwhelmingly irrelevant, dull and dishonest.

It would have been easy to regard all three ballots as not worth a trip to the polling station. In the Assembly elections, we all knew our votes might change the balance within the enforced coalition, but the Executive structure remains and it’s very likely that the ‘big five’ parties will all be sitting round the table again next week, carving up the ministries between them as before. With the exception of the Green Party, none of the huge number of other parties were a serious challenge. And even if they had been, once they arrived in Stormont most would be consigned to the powerless ‘other’ designation. In Northern Ireland, it’s really true that whoever you vote for, the government gets in.

The local councils present a different dilemma. Again, councils using d’Hondt will be working together, but without a cabinet government structure that’s not such an issue. For councils; the problem is that many important public services such as housing, social services, education and libraries, are not within their control. Because the previous Executive wasn’t prepared to make decisions on the local government aspect of the Review of Public Administration, we are still stuck with far too many councils with far too little power.

And finally the voting reform ballot. We in Northern Ireland make up a small percentage of the overall UK vote and it certainly looks as if the status quo will prevail due to English votes.

Of course elections aren’t just about structures, even here where we are so over-governed. They should really be about policy debate, with real choices to make between the parties. And this is where the dullness and dishonesty comes in. The campaign was dull partly because we have very few charismatic politicians, and the parties seemed to delight in putting up the least appealing for TV appearances and public meetings.

But it was the policy element that was the particular disgrace. Over the past few years, much of the world has faced a financial crisis which has now worked its way through to cuts in public sector budgets. This you would not have guessed from reading election leaflets or watching the TV debates.

No party with any realistic chance of winning an Assembly seat stood on a ‘no cuts’ platform with a position of confronting the Westminster government by, for example, deliberately running a deficit at either regional or local levels. The Assembly’s 2011-15 budget was agreed in March, with the UUP voting against and the SDLP abstaining although neither party then resigned from the Executive. Take a look at all the minus figures. But none of the ‘big five’ made any realistic proposals for achieving a balanced budget by either making cuts or increasing income, for example through campaigning for taxation powers at Stormont. They all promised us goodies like it was still 2007. The approach can be summed up in a DUP East Belfast leaflet entitled ‘Alliance will cost you more’.

Alliance did come out in support of water charges, for which they were pilloried by others. But the debate was woeful. Funding for water services has been removed from the Barnett Formula and so we have to think of some local way of raising the cash, although a separate charge may not be the best option. Or there will be cuts elsewhere, some out of a much reduced capital budget. Why did no-one say this?

Another exasperating promise was not to increase university tuition fees above the rate of inflation. Is this really feasible? Again the amount of funding from Westminster for higher education will be reduced, so how are universities expected to make up the funding gap? I don’t want to see higher fees, but no party explained where the money was going to come from – although in this case I suspect from an area that isn’t of such importance to the middle class.

Indeed, it could be that policy doesn’t matter at all, if we are still locked into voting along sectarian lines, encouraged by the current structures. Even those of us who deliberately choose the ‘other’ parties are still having our choices shaped by the territorial divide. For example, I included Alliance in my votes despite being deeply unhappy with the removal of the PSNI 50/50 rule.

So what needs to be done in the next four years? Low turnout may indicate that it’s time for a change to the structure at Stormont and also for getting on with the restructuring of local councils. The next Executive will cause great public disillusion by breaking a lot of promises and this may engender a degree of political maturity in 2015, from both the candidates and the electorate. Alternatively, we could just go on as we are and accept apathy as the price of peace.


Timothy Belmont said...

What did you think of all those ridiculously long voting papers? By the time I'd marked 1,2,3,4,5, - I realized I'd forgotten a candidate and had to place them later; otherwise I'd have spoiled my vote!

Rab said...

You're right, Jenny, it was a dull election. It feels like much of the heat has been taken out of Northern Ireland's politics, which on the one hand is perhaps a welcome thing but on the other hand worries me, especially after the crash.

Almost everyone hates the dissidents. Most are happy to at least acquiesce to power sharing, and under these arrangements we all know what's expected off us - sustain the dreary steeples. And the cuts? They don't quite seem to have registered with many people as something that politics and our politicians might act upon. That would require the electorate here to think right-left after decades of training in the politics of orange-green.

Still, we might account for the low turn-out by assuming that people stayed home waiting for the chance to vote for Labour candidates.

I ended up spoiling my assembly ballot paper (the choice was just dire). Voted for a Green councillor (no further preferences) and said Yes to AV (which if I'm honest I couldn't care about one way or the other but there was no PR option on the paper).

The best thing about this election is seeing Nick Clegg walking about looking like a kicked dog.

DC said...

For example, I included Alliance in my votes despite being deeply unhappy with the removal of the PSNI 50/50 rule

There are better ways to increase the community background of the PSNI, 50/50 was one way, but what do you think about having a community police force beneath the PSNI, open to local people using looser recruitment criteria, less formal qualifications and training etc. Might help empower communities to tackle ASB with the necessary authority in tow, a form of PSNI-lite, but still trained up in human rights etc?

Re the cuts, running a deficit is fine but the fact remains that the economy is no longer there to support previous levels of public spending. Running a deficit is fine for a year or two, but just like missing your mortgage payments once or twice, any more and you - in all probabilities -lose the house!


I spoilt my council and assembly ballot, voted Yes to AV too.

Jenny Muir said...

Timothy - I voted first thing and there was no-one else around, so I felt able to take my time. But I did end up looking down the papers for the party logos. The real problem si that we have far too many political parties in NI and need some consiolidation! Although from the sound of the news coming in we might have one less by next week (UUP)

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - 'we might account for the low turn-out by assuming that people stayed home waiting for the chance to vote for Labour candidates' - ha ha, I wish you were right. I am beginning to doubt it.

Problem with the left - right aspect of the cuts debate is not what we might think, it's that all the main parties oppose cuts. We don't have a really right-wing party to spice up the debate and provide more incentive more people to get out and vote. And yes, I would welcome one because then we could have a proper debate.

Agree about Clegg though, and at this rate he'll lose his seat in Sheffield at the next general elction and be consigned to the very large dustbin of political history.

Jenny Muir said...

DC - I'm not keen on increasing the law enforcement powers of the state any further, whatever it's called, see my post on anti-social behaviour in my area. People should be able to confront troublemakers as citizens within a social consensus about the way to behave in public. I'm uneasy about a person in a uniform having to do it for us.

Agree with you about deficits, but the problem with the election campaign was that no party was prepared to accept that their sums don't add up.

BTW to all, I voted for Greens, Alliance and far left parties plus Dawn Purvis no. 1 for the Assembly. And yes to AV.

slug said...

When are NI Labour members going to set up their own party, with a relationship to other Labour parties elsewhere (London and Dublin)? The Greens have shown what can be done. Devolved politics needs devolved parties and the Scottish Labour party suffer from a lack of local control.

Jenny Muir said...

Slug - The discussions will start after UK Labour's policy review this summer, if they decide not to allow Labour to stand for elections here in NI.

I think many LP members in both the UK and Irish parties in NI are aware of the history of the LPNI and don't want a party that is only located here. Also I doubt that we would be able to have the links that you talk about, and which would make sense. Irish Labour is still wedded to the SDLP, and if UK Labour decides not to let us stand then I can't see that they will then go for any kind of formal link. We could certainly try for connections with the Scottish and Welsh parties though, however Scotland doesn't look like mich of a model at the moment.

I think it's more likely that a NI LP (which is what it would be) would have a strong presence within the PES, the unions and perhaps the Co-operative Party, and would have to make connections here with other left and centre left parties in order to form some kind of electoral coalition in order to start getting council and Assembly seats. We might end up with help from individuals in other Labour Parties but as I saud I don't see much chance of formal links.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on that one Slug.

A devolved arrangement would be good - strong on local control and less in tow with Labour central office in Britain etc.

Whereas come Westminster, perhaps there could be a trade off and Labour would fall into line more with it?

Dual control almost. More freedom for Stormont elections, tighter control by the central party machine for Westminster elections.

The scottish electorate are savvy enough, they know to vote Labour nationally but aren't afraid to vote SNP and Lib Dem regionally for Holyrood.

slug said...


The LPNI example was in a different era. We now are in an era that believes in devoluation and localism more. Things are different now constitutionally (the GFA referencum) and there are examples of other locally based parties (Alliance, but also in practice Greens now, too, which is linked to Irish Greens but in practive seems locally based) that have given their activists a very good mechanism. Still, I take your point about history.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - if Labour is allowed to stand, you are right we should have the same structure as Scotland and Wales. They have their own officials and most importantly issue their own manifestos. And we may well find a difference in appeal for different elections, which I hadn't thought of. People may be keener to vote for us for Westminster although I hope not as much of the real change is possible at Assembly level IMO.

Slug - I hope you are right about the way the electorate and the chatterati would see Labour, but I'm more concerned that Labour in other jurisdictions wouldn't want to be seen to be supporting us - it takes two to have a partnership. Some of us have canvassed in both the RoI and Scotland so you might think this effort would be reciprocated on an individual level if not officially and perhaps that's where the most helpful connections will be made

CW said...

I'm currently working on a research paper on the phenomenon of political blogging in Northern Ireland to be presented at a conference in September.
As part of my research I’m conducting interviews with bloggers across the political spectrum. If you would like to participate in the survey I can send you a brief questionnaire for you to fill in.

Further details are available at this link:

If you'd like to take part in the survey please e-mail me at

Many thanks for your co-operation.

Jenny Muir said...

Dear Ciaran,

Thanks for getting in touch and I'll e-mail you. The conference looks really interesting too, shame it's not my field.