Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ideas about identity

To the Black Box last night for a Platform for Change debate, ‘From a politics of identity to a politics of ideas’. Attendance was good and a wide range of perspectives was promised from a panel of eight, chaired by Julia Paul from the BBC:

  • Steven Agnew MLA (Leader, NI Green Party)
  • Eamonn Deane (Holywell Trust)
  • Dolores Kelly MLA (SDLP Deputy Leader)
  • Anna Lo MLA (Alliance)
  • John McCallister MLA (UUP)
  • Tony McMullan (Co-operative Party)
  • Trevor Ringland (billed as ‘former rugby international’ rather than ‘former UCUNF candidate’)
  • Kellie Turtle (Belfast Feminist Network)
The debate took the format of a short address from each panel member, followed by questions from the floor. Presumably the title was intended to get both panel members and audience thinking about how politics here could focus more on the famous ‘bread and butter issues’, described by several panel members as ‘normal’ politics. And of course, as day follows night, it meant that most of the evening was spent talking about identity.

Several questions, including my own, were about whether the communal parties were capable of moving on from a focus on territory. On the evidence of this event, the answer is no. Both John McCallister and Dolores Kelly seemed to think that any comments about the continuing legitimacy of their parties was an attack on their personal right to be unionist or nationalist. They just didn’t seem to get that, whatever other policies of theirs you might support, you can’t join them if you don’t share their national position. As Stephen Agnew rightly said, if you want a politics of ideas, vote for parties which are based on ideas and not identity. Agnew came across as the most impressive panel member, being the only one to talk about poverty, and managing to take issue with the positions of other parties in a forensic but still courteous manner.

But did McCallister and Kelly have a point? Perhaps ‘normalisation’ of politics is thought by some to mean that territorial identity is ignored or sidestepped. The challenge for the next generation of party politics in Northern Ireland is to get unionists, nationalists and others to work together to counter the immense attacks on welfare and public services that are coming from Westminster, and to minimise the damage as best they can. This is already happening in the Alliance, Green, Labour and Workers’ Parties (neither Labour nor the Workers’ Party were invited to participate, although it was good to see the Co-operative Party represented). It involves finding a way to acknowledge and accept different national identities – and other aspects of identity – within party politics. It’s why I have written about how political parties may have to stand back from campaigning if we ever have a border poll.

And it's why I found a particular aspect of Dolores Kelly’s response to my question to be breathtakingly egregious. I wasn’t allowed to respond at the event and so am glad to be able to put the record straight here. Ms Kelly stated that Labour is a unionist party. Although I have the greatest respect for some individuals within the SDLP, comments like that try my patience. I can do no better than to quote from Labour in NI’s submission to last year’s Refounding Labour consultation process, as a result of which talks are currently talking place about the possibility of us standing for elections here:

Labour members in Northern Ireland want to see the development of anti-sectarian politics that can challenge nationalist and unionist polarities for the betterment of the whole of our society..... Some Labour members are unionists and some are nationalists, some have no strong views either way and others feel strongly that their identity and heritage is both British and Irish. The Labour Party’s policy UK-wide is to support the constitutional mechanism put in place for deciding this issue in the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and we do not differ from this.... Labour would designate as ‘Other’ in the Assembly and strengthen the growing third strand of political activity in the region. 

But Ms Kelly’s attempts to score points against every other political party on the panel left the audience increasingly frustrated and by the end of the evening groans and heckling accompanied most of her comments, so perhaps no potential Labour recruits were put off after all. John McCallister also demonstrated how close his party still is to the Tories by blaming Labour for the economic crisis and backing most of the budget (more heckling), except of course the granny tax as that might actually lose him some votes.

I’ve always had very mixed feelings about Platform for Change. I support what they want to do, however I think they have been wrong to work with the UUP and SDLP on the basis that these parties can be part of the solution. This debate proved my point.

However the main challenge for the next generation of political activists isn’t going to be about developing new ideas. It’s going to be about communicating these ideas to the electorate and getting the votes in.


Peter Johnson said...

Outstanding post, Jenny.

Jenny Muir said...

Thanks Peter! Several Labour people were there, you would have enjoyed it, although 'enjoy' is perhaps not quite the right word!

nick said...

I thought Kellie Turtle made an interesting point about why there are so few women in Stormont. She said that a lot of women prefer to work with local communities where they can see some immediate results, rather than in mainstream politics where changes on the ground can be a long time coming, if at all.

Jenny Muir said...

Yes, I've done many of the panellists an injustice by focusing on one particular issue and the discussion about women in politics was interesting. But we can't ignore the fact that political decision-making is how change happens, in the end - we need women in community groups, in campaigns for change and also in legislatures. Party politics is frustrating, sexist (of course - because society is sexist) and confrontational, but it's important not to give up.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Jenny, why were Labour and the Workers' Party not invited to attend, do you know?

I'm not familiar with the Platform For Change but I would have expected that the Workers' Party would be supportive of an initiative which attempts to put class politics in centre stage and aims to move beyond the politics of sectarian division of society.

On the scrambling for relevance of the SDLP, clearly they are fighting for political survival and are very defensive of what they see as their foundations of legitimacy in the tribal politics of NI. Society would be better served if they moved on and dissolved into their constituent components, a Labour element (whether UK or Irish Labour) and a nationalist element (Fianna Fail perhaps).

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - I can only speculate about why Labour and the Workers' Party were left to make their contributions from the floor. Perhaps it was to make sure we attended? Seriously, I assume the organisations that were invited had some previous connection with PfC and I always assume it's too wussy for the Workers' Party, who I find a bit scary. The Labour thing is more likely to be that PfC is well in with the SDLP. However they (PfC) did come to the Labour AGM as well so perhaps I am doing them an injustice.

Re the SDLP, it's been looking for years as if they are on the verge of shutting up shop but they stagger on. If they manage to persuade Labour over the water that we can't stand for election because they are still the true socialist voice over here, then I'll give up on Labour politics and that's a promise.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Jenny, if there have been any socialists in the SDLP in the past couple of decades or more I'd be more than a little surprised!

Out of interest, why do you find the WP a bit scary?

I'm not sure anyone in the WP would dismiss any attempts to overcome sectarian division as being "wussy". Perhaps the WP would be more oriented towards class-based unity along a progressive socialist trajectory, rather than some airy accommodation of competing bourgeois Irish/British nationalisms, but nonetheless all efforts to push society in the direction of class-based politics and a focus on the economic issues which unite communities must be seen as a positive development.

Jenny Muir said...

Oh there are a few left, I think, rather like there are still some in the Labour Party :) But they are not in the ascendent at the moment.

I find the WP a bit scary due to the predominance of rather tough looking middle aged men, there don't seem to be many women involved - but that was on the basis of a conference I went to a few years ago and I had to leave for another reason, as a prominent member of their had been my husband's boss at one point and had behaved very badly to him and finally sacked him. I couldn't stomach someone like that being in an allegedly socialist party.

I think your final paragraph hits the nail on the head, PfC is about moving away from sectarian politics but there is something very exclusive and cliquey about it. Also they have now been around for several years and don't seem to be making much of an impact. The problem is that they are trying to achieve a political aim without being a political party. Still, I would see them as part of a 'third strand' movement and I was very pleased when they came to the Labour AGM.

Anonymous said...

It is refreshing to read that events like this take place – just wish other people across Northern Ireland would make the time that Jenny does to report from their areas.
The positions of individual political representatives reported at the meeting were predictable. Both SDLP and UUP are fighting hard to maintain any territory they have. Recent performances of Dolores Kelly on TV have shown her transformation from comfortable to tetchy and frustrated. Whereas John McCallister appears to be influenced by his forthcoming UUP leadership election. McCallister I believe has in the past made statements about his party being more welcoming of Catholics and (pre FM and DPM visits to sporting events) has no problem to attend all sports events.
At this type of meeting the obvious and only line for the small guy, (Stephen Agnew), without a massive support base to please or history to reconcile is to appeal to the audience’s common sense of policies before territory.
As a temporary visitor to this region I often hear “that’s not how we do things around here”. It seems “around here” is not too different to elsewhere. Political Parties rely on their hard core support, then attract voters at the fringes.
Traditional voting is not restricted to Northern Ireland – 65 to 80% of established party support is traditional. The difference here appears that the traditional vote is fractured from one Unionist/Republican to two each, with the other parties harvesting any seeds left in fallow fields.
It was surprising that neither SWP nor Labour had a place on the platform – when the event was promoted as “…from a politics of identity to a politics of ideas…” I understand both SWP and Labour have greater support for their ideas in NI than say the Co-op. But more puzzling is how does the Belfast Feminist Network and Hollywell Trust fit into this type of debate and Labour not?
From a Labour perspective it must have been amusing to sit in the audience and witness its sister party in NI (SDLP), and sister party from GB (Co-Operative) speak to the debate. Don’t worry “Cinders” – you will go the ball.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Anonymous, Workers' Party (WP) rather than Socialist Worker's Party (SWP). I appreciate there's legitimate reason to be confused over the party names but they're very different political parties, different histories, different approaches to the conflict in NI.

Jenny, you had mentioned that issue with the WP person and your husband before in fact. On the issue of middle aged men, well depending on the definition of middle age I'd be one of those myself. You're correct about the gender balance, it is a real issue in all political parties to varying extents of course and one within the WP also. On the tough-looking aspect, well it's true that the WP is largely based in the working class and maybe that class composition comes across in the physical appearance of the membership? There probably are a few hard men around the place of course, given the history of the party, but in my involvement in teh WP over the past couple of years I've found it a very open and democratic organisation, progressive, energetic, stimulating. It has its flaws like any organisation of course. Do you get LookLeft magazine at all? It's available in all Easons shops. It gives a good flavour of where the WP is these days.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - very interesting observations and a reminder that even those of us who haven't always lived in NI can get rather parachial. You are right about the SDLP and UUP struggling, and I don't see the UUP's new leader as providing the political depth required to take them anyway new. My problem with the SDLP is much more about the influence they still appear to have with Labour both over the water and in the south. I hope we do end up at the ball but I won't be surprised if the invitation gets lost in the post.

In terms of who was invited, as I said in response to other comments I think some of it was about who is seen as a 'friend of PfC' and who isn't, and we in the LP have to do some work there and get more involved, I think.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - I know I'm being unfair about the WP as a whole and I've actually written for LookLeft (once, would do so again *if asked*) and am very impressed with it. Took a current issue when it was offered last week without paying, felt guilty and so will pay double next time! (but not to Easons). I'm sure I'll get over the tough guys but I do feel more strongly about the personal issue, because although we all have to make compromises I would expect personal behaviour to at least vaguely line up with political principles.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny,

Good report, just to draw your attention to an article from p.14 Belfast Telegraph on Saturday, "SDLP Leader happy for Labour to stand in council and Assembly elections"


Joe Corina

Jenny Muir said...

Thanks Joe, Martin sent it round. Had it occurred to you that it might be an April Fool? I only ask because I can't find the original Tele URL anywhere.

Also, if not, there seems to have been a decision made somewhere I was not, that we're only going to stand for council elections?

DC said...

I think standing only for council is a great idea, it allows for ideas to be formed at local level and certainly stakes out the ground that Labour is not sectarian as it limits itself to local advocacy, etc.

Perhaps 10 years or so down the line it would be possible to run for Stormont but only with a very clear programme based on stitching together those ideas that have come to the attention of Labour members over that time, if you like, say, have two or three reasons for seeking regional election - perhaps public sector reform of schools or who knows certain tax issues, if more power is devolved.

Are you against the council idea, Jenny?

I think it's great.

I reckon, forget about Stormont, it is rigged up to run along sectarian lines, maybe standing only for council is the best rebuttal to claims of Labour having unionism/nationalism.

Jenny Muir said...

DC - my problem with the council idea is first that I think it should be up to Labour in NI to decide where and at what level we stand candidates, rather than for London to do it for us. Without wanting us to end up standing only in one community or another, we might be strong in a particular area and it might make sense for us to concentrate our resources on council and ASsembly seats there, for example. Second, I think it saps our credibility if we don't have a full range of policies covering all levels of government here, and the logical step after that is to seek to put them into practice. If we only stand at local level, we have no say on social housing, education or health, for example. I think it's a hostage to fortune and other parties would have a go at us over it. Third, if Labour in England do go down that route, it's because they don't want us to be defeated in Assembly election and think we have more chance in councils. It doens't follow - look at the Greens and Alliance. More likely is that if we impress people, we'll get their votes for both levels. Fourth, I worry that the SDLP's statement that they don't mind us standing at local level is the sign of a deal to keep the SDLP going in the ASsembly by keeping us out.

Well you did ask.

DC said...

I think first of all council level is *the* place to be and stay for a while as in relation to health and schools and ideas, you need to have experience on the ground in order to know what people need, or want, not what Labour members think that they need or want.

Otherwise you simply end up with policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.

Stage one is council, and I reckon it will be hard enough battling it out there.

Jenny Muir said...

Hmmm, I think you are expected to get experience 'on the ground' as an MLA too, if by this you mean surgeries, visiting groups and individuals in your constituency, and generally taking up people's problems. I think where detachment might set in is at MP level, not least because you'd have to be away so much.

Also how would that work? 'oh yes, I can take up your refuse disposal query but for your housing issues you'll have to go to...' who? Another party. I can see why the SDLP might agree to that.

Another reason for contesting all levels is that that party gets to participate in all the electoral debates - look at the Greens, not a chance at European level but they raised their profile by being included in everything and then got an Assembly seat the following year.