Sunday, October 28, 2012

Time for Opsahl 2?


Labour in Northern Ireland has responded to the consultation document on improving the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which closed this week. The consultation document was an exercise in buck-passing on some admittedly difficult issues. I’d like to highlight a couple here (the full response is available on the LPNI web page).

First, I’d not considered the equalities implications of double jobbing (official term: ‘multiple mandates’) before. I've been against it because it blocks a career path from local council to Assembly/ Westminster/ Europe – i.e. from part-time to full-time politician, and thus prevents younger people from getting political experience. And I do think it’s important for full-time politicians to have had some experience at council level. However, when working on this response I realised it’s about more than that. If a political party has more seats at its disposal, including on appointed bodies if they also are not occupied by elected politicians, then our political representatives might start to look more like society as a whole. Or at least there would be less of an excuse if they didn't. As the paper says:

Removing ‘double jobbing’ from our political culture will open up elected positions to a wider range of people including those who are currently under-represented in political structures, such as women, disabled people, younger people, minority ethnic groups and the LGBT community.

Second, of course, is the difficult issue of an opposition. The paper states that the UK Government would like ‘at some stage to see a move to a more normal system that allows for inclusive government but also opposition...’ (para. 4.2). However no way of doing this is proposed and it is stated that any changes must be agreed by the parties currently in power, who of course have no interest in it. But the question of how an opposition should be structured is difficult, which is why Labour has proposed to the NIO that a review of decision-making structures should be carried out which, in essence, should ask how Northern Ireland should be governed in future. We said:

The creation of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a tremendous achievement which has shown that the two main communities can govern together. It was a necessary and important step at the time and transformed Northern Ireland. Some would argue it is too soon to consider alternatives. But it is also the case that the current system not only creates disincentives for the formation of an opposition (the giving up of Ministerial positions; no additional funding to carry out the role) but also institutionalises the ‘two communities’ model of government through community designation, thus diminishing the power of any party choosing to designate as ‘Other’. Change to this system – whether now or in the future – is essential if we are to move away from tribal politics and make political decisions based on meeting the economic and social needs of the whole population. Labour, as a cross-community party, wants this change to happen and in theory supports the development of an opposition at the Assembly.

However, the heart of the problem is as follows. If a structure for government and opposition remains based on power-sharing between the two main communities, then the non-aligned parties continue to be relatively powerless and the incentive for them to grow is removed. Northern Ireland then remains stuck in territorial politics. On the other hand, if all restrictions on the formation of government and opposition are removed, and coalitions are formed entirely at the behest of the political parties, there is a possibility of single community government. This would seriously endanger community legitimation of the Executive and Assembly and hence their ability to govern. 

            We believe these issues need far more consideration, requiring the commissioning of research and expert advice in order to develop realistic options. The Northern Ireland Office cannot expect an issue of this magnitude to be solved through an open question on a consultation paper. We propose a fundamental review of decision-making structures following the model of the Opsahl Commission, which in 1993 produced influential and far-reaching proposals in response to a wide range of evidence. 

Any proposal for changes to the way we are governed requires public support. Surely an open and democratic process, conducted independently from the current self-interested political parties, is the way to achieve this. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On message


'What's the name of that little place over there, where 
we don't want to get our hands dirty with electoral politics?'
There’s a pretty consistent message coming out of the Shadow Cabinet on standing for elections in Northern Ireland. I find that disturbing given that there’s still a process going on: a process that is moving more slowly than Northern Ireland members expected, possibly because all the other participants (NEC, led by Vernon Coaker; Irish Labour Party; and SDLP) have no real interest in concluding it. 

To use Ed Miliband’s words from last week, I am beginning to doubt that leading Party members and their advisers are the ‘honest brokers’ we had anticipated and that, as Party members, we have the right to expect.

In addition to Miliband’s comments last week, on 5th October Vernon Coaker, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, tweeted:

On contesting elections in NI: it's sensitive. Ed right to say he's wary. Labour's National Executive continuing discussions on issue

And then, this week, Ed Balls visited Northern Ireland to discuss economic policy with the CBI. The BBC reported:

           Mr Balls, who was accompanying Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman Vernon  
          Coaker on his visit to Stormont, said the party was still considering the matter through
          an internal process.

          However, Mr Balls pointed out that the party has no tradition of candidates standing in 
          Northern Ireland and said things had not worked out very well for David Cameron when 
          he had interfered in local party politics. 

This ignored the fact that the Tories had an electoral pact with the UUP (although they now stand as a separate party). And if Labour were planning an electoral pact with the SDLP (which we are not) then it would be equally disastrous, perpetuating the same old divisive approach to politics.

Ed Balls was also reported in the Newsletter today as having sidestepped the issue, rather unhelpfully describing himself as a unionist in the process – when Labour in Northern Ireland has to struggle to get it into people’s heads that we are a cross community party and not the Unionist alternative to the SDLP. Balls was quoted as saying:

            We are strongly committed to working closely with the region and with the [Stormont] 
            executive, and I think a Labour government is strongly committed to the Union but I 
            am not sure that necessarily translates into party political organisation here for us.... I 
            think you have to be quite careful about stepping into decades of political history and 
            suddenly deciding to do things a different way.

So the message is: we’re happy to come over here, tell people what we think is good for Northern Ireland and work with parties who have nothing to do with the Labour movement, but in order to be seen as even-handed we don’t want to allow our local members to get involved in politics and put our views to the electorate. 

Anyone who thinks it’s colonialist for Labour to stand for election in Northern Ireland needs to think very seriously about what it is they are doing now. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Nation?

Unlike some, I wasn't that taken with Ed Miliband’s One Nation speech yesterday. Northing I could put my finger on, just a vague suspicion that it wasn't very... um.... Labour-ish. A sense that, for democratic socialists, there should be some who are forever outside the tent. Such as corrupt bankers, unprincipled newspaper proprietors and editors, and unscrupulous employers.

But today we found out who is really excluded: the people of Northern Ireland.

In Miliband’s Question and Answer session this afternoon, a very brave member of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, Rebecca Hall, asked whether he supported Labour standing candidates in Northern Ireland. The Guardian summarised the reply as:

Miliband says he applauds Labour members in Northern Ireland. But he is wary of standing candidates there. The British government needs to be an honest broker in Northern Ireland. It is hard to be an honest broker if you are fighting elections.

What does that even mean? Let’s take a look.

Miliband ‘applauds’ Labour members in Northern Ireland. Why? For taking legal action against the Party in order to be admitted to membership? For pestering NEC members with reasoned arguments for the Labour franchise to be extended to the Northern Ireland electorate? Or perhaps for paying a full subscription every year without having the full rights of members elsewhere in the UK?

But he is wary of standing candidates. So Labour members in Northern Ireland are welcome (following the court case) as long as they don’t want to do what politics is actually about.

The British government needs to be an honest broker in Northern Ireland’. Leaving aside the fact that Labour is not currently in government, this opinion is outdated and neocolonialist. Outdated because Miliband fails to recognise that Northern Ireland politics has moved on since 1998 and there is growing disenchantment with an enforced coalition based on sectarian division; and neocolonialist because he views Northern Ireland as a place which has to be controlled from the outside. Whereas Labour in Northern Ireland has stated recently:

While Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, the Labour Party is an active and major participant in the politics and governance of Northern Ireland. That participation must be normalised and democratised by developing Labour Party organisation and representation on the ground.

You cannot be an ‘honest broker’ and fight elections. Again this shows a poor understanding of the situation, assuming that Labour would take either the unionist or nationalist side in Northern Ireland politics. However, the case made to the NEC and others over many years has emphasised consistently that Labour would be a cross-community party and, while designation continues in the Assembly, would designate as ‘Other’.

Labour in Northern Ireland issued a statement earlier today from CLP Secretary Boyd Black, indicating that a positive meeting had been held with the NEC and he is confident that 'progress is being made on all levels for us to move forward'. 
Last year I asked the question: have we been conned? I am coming closer to believing the answer is ‘yes’. It's hard to believe we'll be able to make further progress if the Party Leader truly believes what he said today. 
And I'm losing patience. Especially when some real politics might be the alternative.

Related posts: Rab and Kris