Normal politics?

I have been watching with bemusement the car crash that is the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force (which still doesn’t have it’s own web page, despite the election being days away). Leaving aside the unfortunate connotations of a political movement having “Force” in its title, and the almost irresistible urge to mistype the acronym, I remain unconvinced that anything will come of it.

Outside of Bangor, the Conservatives have a dismal record in Northern Ireland. It is clear what they are hoping to get out of a relationship with the UUP, but not what the UUP is hoping to get from them. “Vote for Change” is a good slogan in theory, but if the only real change on offer is a few photographs of David Cameron shaking hands with the same familiar electoral candidates, there’s really nothing much to sell. The UUP has been becalmed for some time, and this smells more like a last gasp than a new beginning.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a great admirer of Cameron. He’s done a fantastic job ridding his party of its uncaring image and making it electable again after the nadir that was Ian Duncan Smith. The Tories remain, however, a minority party beyond the borders of England; too many non-English voters still associate them with opposition to devolution and insensitivity to local issues. Cameron’s new localism has a long fight ahead.

The Tories’ choice of NI partner is not a match made in heaven, rather a least-worst option. The UUP is superficially a centre-right party, but underneath it is a broad church of both left- and right-wingers. The advent of “normal politics” as espoused by UCUNF is already tearing the UUP apart at the seams. Public shows of party disunity will only lead to voters fleeing elsewhere, and the main beneficiary of this will be the DUP. Of course, the DUP is in turn shedding voters to the TUV, in a repeat of the timeworn NI political dance of parties tacking towards the constitutional centre against an outflow of voters.

So if this isn’t change, what would real change be like?

Draw a Line

Firstly, any hypothetical Normal Political Party would have to put the politics of unionism and nationalism behind it. The Alliance Party has been gamely trying to do this for a couple of decades now, but with limited success. This is because politics in Northern Ireland is currently driven by a single factor – the maintenance of equilibrium. Voters see their political enemies moving towards the extreme, and instinctively move to the opposite extreme in order to maintain the balance of power. This is why the DUP makes such a big deal of “thwarting the Sinn Féin agenda” and why SF accuse the DUP of wanting to go back to majority rule. There is thus no incentive for a single party to abandon its position at the extreme, and leads naturally to institutional deadlock and the much-documented hollowing-out of the political centre. The Normal Party must be inventive if it is to avoid falling into this hole.

The UUP survived the Troubles by managing its left-right split to present a common, unionist face. In a future era of Normal Politics a successful Normal Party must invert this formula, managing its unionist-nationalist divisions internally and presenting a common centre-left or -right face. In order for today’s voters to transfer their allegiance to such a party, it must do its utmost to demonstrate that it poses no threat to the established equilibrium. Its principles must therefore include at least the following:

  1. No change to the current constitutional arrangements – ever The Normal Party will not campaign for constitutional change. The NP must be above suspicion in matters of constitutional change. No mealy-mouthed platitudes about “aspiration towards eventual unity” or dark mutterings about the iniquity of mandatory coalition. The current arrangements are balanced on the head of a pin and the NP must be prepared to fight passionately to maintain that balance.
  2. The party’s elected representatives will apportion themselves between unionist and nationalist designations in order to maintain a stable ratio in the Assembly, regardless of election results. The individual voter must be assured that transferring his vote from another party will not affect the balance of power in the Assembly. The NP cannot therefore designate itself as “other”, or it will weaken the position of whichever -ism it draws more support from.
  3. Open primaries. The NP must always fight for the political centre ground, therefore all temptation to swing to extremes must be removed, and must be seen to be removed. Open primaries will ensure that the NP’s candidates best represent the mainstream of popular opinion.

Meat on the Bones

Secondly, the Normal Party must have readily identifiable and principled Normal Policies which contrast those of the competition. As a party seeking to occupy the centre ground, the NP’s major political antitheses will be the DUP and Sinn Féin. Luckily these parties are both easy targets. The NP must be:

  1. Socially progressive, in contrast with the DUP’s neanderthal and patriarchal instincts.
  2. Economically liberal, in contrast with Sinn Féin’s near-Communist economic policies.
  3. Pro-European, in contrast with both of the above. Common EU policies have smoothed over many issues which might otherwise have divided the UK and RoI – a major factor in the Border’s recent loss of significance. If either or both of the UK or RoI were to leave the EU or become semi-detached, the Border would become a problem once more.
  4. A disbeliever of the zero-sum game. The Good Friday Agreement stated that everyone in NI had the right to consider themselves either British or Irish, and have that choice respected. The NP must encourage the idea, already held by the majority of NI residents, that there is no contradiction in an individual considering himself simultaneously British and Irish, and that perceived gains for one cultural tradition are therefore gains for all.
  5. A tireless defender of human rights.

Shock and Awe

Finally, the Normal Party must be capable of making significant electoral gains in a short period of time. To do so, it must be both genuinely novel and professionally organised. This means:

  1. A newcomer to Northern Ireland politics. No makeovers of tired, existing political parties – the NP must be untainted by the politics of the Troubles if it is to make headway into both of the existing political camps.
  2. …but an experienced player. The NP must immediately inspire confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises – if voters get the impression that a vote for the NP is a wasted vote, the project will be stillborn.

The Conservatives like to think they could be the Normal Party, but they forfeited their chance by aligning themselves with one side of the old political debate. They will inevitably become just another player in Politics as Usual.

So, who will step up to the plate? Who out there has the best prospects of being Northern Ireland’s political White Knight? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’ve drawn mine.

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17 thoughts on “Normal politics?

  1. UCUNF? What a terrible acronym. Did they actually pay someone to think of that?!

    Outside of Bangor, the Conservatives have a dismal record in Northern Ireland

    Bangor isn’t really in Northern Ireland. It is an English town that was misplaced. They probably have it on missing ads on milk cartons in Hampshire.

    He’s done a fantastic job ridding his party of its uncaring image and making it electable again after the nadir that was Ian Duncan Smith.

    Cameron is certainly a much better politician than IDS. Not sure that is a complement. IDS more recent work on social policy, looking at sink estates, welfare etc, was widely praised. Decent bloke, terrible at PR. Cameron seems decent enough as well, but I worry he is too much like Blair, all style and presentation, not enough substance. Plus I don’t think he has ever had a real job outside of politics, which should be a prerequisite for all MPs.

    The Tories remain, however, a minority party beyond the borders of England

    You have to admire them for sticking to their principles on this – if any Westminster party would benefit from the breakup of the Union it is the Tories (at least anytime in the last 40 years).

    the DUP is in turn shedding voters to the TUV

    TUV? The German safety monitoring agency?! Oh, Jim Allister et al. Been gone too long, didn’t know about them.

    The party’s elected representatives will apportion themselves between unionist and nationalist designations in order to maintain a stable ratio in the Assembly

    Interesting. The assembly is flawed – “other” should have been given equal standing to the unionist and nationalist sides. But given it is what we’ve got…

    Economically liberal,

    Ideally yes, but a hard sell in a place where ~2/3 of the economy is public sector spending?

    Pro-European

    You know I’m going to disagree here :-)

    The border need not be an issue. In many ways it wasn’t before, though it is strange that free movement of people was allowed while customs duties etc discouraged the movement of goods, i.e. the opposite of what many countries want these days (e.g. US and Mexico). Plus, I don’t think the traders in Newry will want the border closed – Dundalk perhaps, if there are any shops left there!

    However, my main disagreement here is more philosophical. I don’t like the idea that the people of Ireland, north and south, and the UK are too stupid to make sensible choices for themselves, and that we all need a body of wise politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels to nanny us and make us do the right thing.

    The NP must encourage the idea, already held by the majority of NI residents, that there is no contradiction in an individual considering himself simultaneously British and Irish, and that perceived gains for one cultural tradition are therefore gains for all.

    Absolutely.

    Idea: Anyone who publicly declares they are British gets a vote. Anyone who publicly declares they are Irish gets a vote. Thus if you declare both, you get two votes! This would be traditional, in accordance with “Vote early, vote often” :-)

    So, who will step up to the plate? Who out there has the best prospects of being Northern Ireland’s political White Knight? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’ve drawn mine.

    Thinking of the Liberal Democrats? They fit most if not all of your criteria (though they have a split personality on economic liberalism).

    • The assembly is flawed – “other” should have been given equal standing to the unionist and nationalist sides. But given it is what we’ve got…

      Making “other” into a third -ism doesn’t solve the fundamental problem – if moderate voters abandon one of the sides for the centre, that side is left with a higher proportion of extremists, who gain in power as a result. One can only hold real power in NI through control of both -isms.

      Thinking of the Liberal Democrats? They fit most if not all of your criteria (though they have a split personality on economic liberalism).

      If the Lib Dems were minded to do what was necessary, they would have a good chance. But to meet the requirement of “novelty” they would have to stand against their nominal allies in the Alliance Party. I suspect they would rather merge, as the Tories are doing with the UUP, or leave the Alliance to it.

      But they could prove me wrong.

  2. I like your normal party. It’s a shame that it probably won’t happen for a long time. As you say, any new player has to be both new and look convincing. That’s hard to do in any political environment, but in ours, practically impossible.
    But it’s nice to see it set out nicely as a game plan. Something to hope for…

      • My instinct says no, because it’s politics, and politics is to be avoided at all costs.
        But then that’s precisely the problem you’re trying to solve.
        So I think I’d try to move past that, and seriously consider it. I wouldn’t be interested in getting elected for something, but I could at least join.

  3. Andrew, I would suggest that

    No change to the current constitutional arrangements – ever

    Makes your Normal Party explicitly a Unionist party. A better policy might be support for the institutions of the two Agreements (regardless of what happens) and individual choice in the event of a referendum on Irish unity (sovereignty transfer).

    Either that or some sort of agreed permanent compromise from the start. E.g. Isle of Man like status with joint sovereignty.

    • Mack,

      You have a point, but on that measure the GFA/SAA are explicitly Unionist in that they maintain NI as part of the UK – strange then that support for the GFA was proportionately higher among Nationalists. My reasoning was that non-SF-voting Nationalists are in no real hurry to have a United Ireland, so there was no harm in the Normal Party being against change, remembering that majority public opinion and thus party policy can always shift at some point in the future. Perhaps I should have said:

      The Normal Party will never propose changes to the current constitutional arrangements.

      Which is not the same thing as saying it will never support changes if they are agreeable to everyone else. Finding the line to walk on will be tricky, but this is why I explicitly included the open primaries condition…

  4. Andrew, a mechanism for bringing about a transfer of sovereignty was included in The Agreement (original version) – it still stands after St. Andrews. Most nationalists, particularly the ones likely to vote for a Normal Party support the principle of consent. To my mind it is untenable that Northern Ireland would be expelled from the United Kingdom and incorporated into a United Ireland against the wishes of a majority there. However a mechanism to transfer sovereignty should a majority wish it is part of the current arrangements and enthusiastically supported by the nationalist parties. A quick perusal of the SDLP website might be illuminating on this.

    http://sdlp.ie/policy_details.php?id=78

    Your new statement is an improvement, and less explicitly Unionist in character. While you suggest that may not be enough to convince Unionists to support it, I also suspect that those who favour Irish unity would abandon it if the constitutional issue ever came to a head (if indeed they did flock to it in the first place).

    It’s still not a policy statement suitable for a broad church to mind (but getting there).

    • Wow. I’ve never seen the words “United Ireland” used so many times on a single web page.

      I refer you to the oft-quoted Life and Times survey, particularly http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2007/Political_Attitudes/UNINATID.html and http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2007/Political_Attitudes/NIRELND2.html – there is an obvious constituency among moderate Nationalists which is not actually that bothered about a United Ireland. The SDLP policy page you refer to would not appear to reflect the views of this constituency.

      My point is that being a Nationalist and being in favour of a United Ireland are not the same thing.

      those who favour Irish unity would abandon it if the constitutional issue ever came to a head

      Well, that’s the difference between border polls and political parties – you can take your vote back from a political party. And if the constitutional issue ever did come to a head, the Normal Party would already have failed.

      • I disagree with your last comment, but we were heading in the right direction for a while.

        There’s nothing wrong with a United Ireland (it’s just most people don’t support it). It wouldn’t be a failure of a Normal Party if one came about, any more than the continuation of the Union forever wouldn’t be a failure. The Sinn Fein vision will never come to pass (in my opinion anyway), they seem to have a hit an upper bound of about 9% (in mostly the most disaffected areas) in the south, with very few transfers. A Normal Party could help manage any constitutional change, should it occur, and help ensure that both cultures and identities are respected. Managing such a change successfully would be great achievement for normal politics.

        With respect to the Life And Times Survey, I’m sceptical of it. First of all it’s a survey, so I think it is undemocratic to afford it higher status than actual election results. Second of all it shows that 40% of the population regard themselves as ‘other’, in the last election ‘other’ candidates achieved 8% of the vote. Admittedly on a low turn out so it is, at least possible, that the great middle ground simply don’t vote. Delving deeper however the proportion that described themselves as Unionist were about 30% larger than those who described themselves as nationalist. In the last election Unionist parties recieved 15% more 1st preference votes (with nationalists benefiting disproportionality from the centre ground on 2nd preferences). On this basis alone, I strongly suspect that the survey is inaccurate.

        With respect to the survey and attitudes towards a United Ireland, most people who aspire to a United Ireland someday support the principle of consent.

        Do you think the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be for it ?

        To remain part of the United Kingdom with devolved government.

        Yes absolutely, until such a time that a majority wish for a different constitutional arrangement. Only those answering that question emotionally, rather than rationally, would advocated that the government pursue an undemocratic policy and change the constitutional status against the wishes of the majority.

        If a Normal Party starts of with a partisan view on constituitional change, rather than one that can accomodate both nationalists and unionists – reassuring both that no matter what happens the party will work to ensure stability, prosperity and mutual respect then I think it would be doomed to be limited in scope to those who share the constituitional position it takes (i.e. limited to ‘nice’ unionists or nationalists, separately).

      • Andrew – the only other point I’d make on the Life Times survey is that the percentage who identify themselves as nationalist (24%) is very similar to the percentage who advocate that British government policy should be to reunite Ireland (23%). I wouldn’t put too much weight on it though.

  5. Apologies, the proportion who described themselves as Unionist is actually 50% larger than those who describe themselves as Nationalist (the Nationalist proportion is 30% smaller, 24 compared with 36 – a difference of 12, 50% of 24). This is a truly massive discrepancy when compared with a 15% difference in the actual elections (just over 16% larger than the nationalist vote, or approx 14% smaller than the unionist vote).

  6. Hm, seem to have hit my maximum reply depth.

    When I say that matters “coming to a head” would be a failure, I do not mean that a UI would be a failure – far from it if that was the settled will of the people. I mean that a contentious, partisan border poll would be indicative of deeper political failure. A United Ireland resulting from a 51% vote would be perfectly legal and proper, and I would of course accept it, but I doubt you would find anyone outside the loony fringes of Republicanism who would be thrilled at the prospect of constitutional change on that basis.

    Re the survey, I don’t think it is undemocratic to use it to gain insight into the views of the electorate. Elections are a crude measure of political opinion – there are many factors behind an individual’s choices in the voting booth. As for its accuracy, I find it quite easy to believe that many people who consider themselves as “neither Unionist nor Nationalist” may vote for a Unionist or Nationalist candidate come polling day – I have done so myself on a number of occasions (usually in Euro elections where the “other” candidates are no-hopers). And again, I also find it easy to believe that a greater proportion of the self-describing “neither” category are which-primary-school “Nationalists” as opposed to which-primary-school “Unionists”.

    Regarding long-term NI policy, I am personally against a border poll, which I think would be needlessly divisive. I believe it would be much less contentious (and more transparent) to enumerate the benefits that Nationalists expect from a United Ireland and implement the necessary policies via strengthened cross-Border co-operation. That way change would come gradually and as necessary, and the emotional issue of sovereignty need not enter into it.

    (These are not necessarily the policies of the Normal Party!)

    • I agree 50%+1 is a recipe for instability (or repartition). If it ever gets to a point where 50%+1 support the idea of a United Ireland, chances are that the trends that brought that situation about would carry things further along given time – thus it needn’t be destabilising in itself. If support for constitutional change stalled, permanently, at an unstable level I’m sure normal politics could help find some permanent, agreed, solution that didn’t rely on turnout differentials at referenda changing the constituitional status of NI every couple of years!

      I also agree that some people who regard themselves predominantly as neither or other do vote for nationalist or Unionist candidates. However, the last election was via Single Transferable Vote, none of the Other candidates had much of a chance of winning, so there was no need to put a 1 or 2 beside an identity candidate if you really didn’t aspire to that type of politics – you could vote 1 for your other safe in the knowledge your vote would be transfered to your least worst identity candidate/s. The discrepancy between the ballot box and the survey is far to large to be explained away, in my opinion.

      So who is NI’s White Knight? Fine Gael? The CUs are slightly less ‘tribal’ but I don’t see much in the way of the type of party we are discussing (with the possible exceptions of the Alliance and Green, who are resolutely other, rather than both / broad church).

      • If support for constitutional change stalled, permanently, at an unstable level I’m sure normal politics could help find some permanent, agreed, solution

        Well, exactly. I don’t think it is useful or desirable to cast constitutional politics as a zero-sum debate – we need creative, novel solutions that don’t instantly send the electorate diving for their trenches.

        So who is NI’s White Knight? Fine Gael?

        Could be. Of all the Southern parties, they would have the least policy distance to cover to be acceptable to Unionists. I’m also taken with Ed’s suggestion above of the Lib Dems. In a fantasy world, FG could be the centre-right Normal Party and LD the centre-left Normal Party, but I doubt there’s room for both. Even the British Labour Party would be an improvement (although I personally wouldn’t vote for them). I just can’t see Nationalists ever voting for the Tories. I can see the CUs eating into the DUP vote though. We must be grateful for small mercies. ;-)

  7. The Tories remain, however, a minority party beyond the borders of England

    It seems I’ll have to eat my words here, after seeing the Welsh results. Whether this is a real recovery or just an anybody-but-the-government backlash remains to be seen…

  8. Pingback: Would the real United Ireland please stand up? « The random ramblings of andrewg

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