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.