No taxation without representation: Labour should stand
Several years ago I was involved in an interesting political experiment.
What would happen if voters in Northern Ireland were invited to choose their preference for party policies without knowing what the party proposing them was?
The idea was to strip out the national question from politics and to see how people would actually vote if they were doing so on the basis of what the parties were proposing to deliver, as opposed to which nation they wanted us to belong to.
The results were fascinating. On purely policy grounds the party that proved most popular was the one which at the time was struggling so much in the polling booths that many pundits were predicting its demise: the Ulster Unionist Party.
Sandy Row Shinners
Many voters expressed preferences for parties they would never actually vote for: so a lot of the “boost” to the UUP came from conservative-minded nationalists who actually voted for the SDLP.
At the time our poll was conducted I was chairing a hustings debate in Sandy Row and many of those present were astonished when they were told that the party most actively pursuing the policies they supported was Sinn Fein.
It’s not really surprising when you think about it. When you attach the party names back to the policies you find that people with nationalist views have a choice of two left wing parties whilst those of a unionist persuasion have a choice of two parties of the right.
So when we come to future elections if you are of the left but don’t happen to be a nationalist, or if you are of the left and think that social progress is more important than the constitutional issue, who is there to vote for?
Nobody has a mandate
Which makes you wonder why the Labour Party does not stand here. It stands everywhere else in the UK but states that it doesn’t stand here, despite having a party structure with 300 members, because it has a sister party, the SDLP.
To stand, according to its leader Ed Miliband and his Secretary of State Ivan Lewis would jeopardise the party’s status as an “honest broker” making future relationships with the “indigenous” parties more difficult.
You can see the point, but only up to a point.
There are many counter-arguments, I’m just going to look at two.
The first, as the Stormont House Agreement so comprehensively demonstrates, is that a devolved administration has pretty limited powers because it has no control over taxation. It is really a regional assembly and not a government. So the policies which impact us most are the cuts driven by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government neither of which has any mandate here.
English politicians know this to their core: after all the Westminster parliament took on and ultimately went to war with the Crown on the principle of no taxation without representation.
Voting for parties we don't agree with
So it seems profoundly undemocratic for any party to seek to run a government when it won’t even stand in regions which will be affected by its policies if elected to power. Whether it wins a single seat is not the issue, what is important is the principle of accountability.
The second is that everyone talks about the “normalisation” of politics, moving to a situation where politics becomes more about policy, and the issues that affect us day to day: health care, education, housing for example. Without prejudice to anyone’s views as to which State we belong to, these are matters of the most profound importance.
Today elections are still won and lost on a sectarian headcount and so our voices on these critical issues are not heard or properly measured. The Tories may not have a mandate to cut our public sector to pieces, but then again, to be absolutely honest about it, neither do our parties have one to oppose them. Instead we have a mandatory coalition between sectarian parties whose policies are often at odds with the voters who put them in power as our opinion poll clearly showed.
There are alternatives of course, parties that do not define themselves according to the national question: the Greens and Alliance, and the Conservatives also have forays from time to time. And it should hardly be a source of pride to the Labour Party that UKIP has a stronger electoral mandate here …
Love me, love my sister
You would have thought that the more of these parties there are the better: it can only lead to more discussion and debate about “normal” non –constitutional issues and the more there is of that the more the larger parties will respond to the betterment of all. Normalisation does not mean the eclipse of existing parties, rather their gradual transformation and in a shift in political discourse.
The Labour Party is in a strong position to contribute to that process by standing in elections. Over time it might get a handful of councillors, maybe even the odd MLA, and it will be providing an alternative for those who currently vote for a party they don’t really like, or just as often don’t vote at all. This is one example where the taking part is more important than winning and its refusal to do so is a refusal to contribute to “normalisation” if only in a small and symbolic way.
The notion that the SDLP is a sister party in the sense that Labour seriously believe that non nationalists of the left should vote for it is so much of a nonsense as to be unworthy of comment.
In the meantime we’ll doubtless carry on voting for parties whose policies (save on the one issue they can’t immediately do anything about) we don’t agree with, whilst one party which plenty want to vote for refuses to stand because it would rather be an “honest broker” like a teacher presiding over a playground squabble.
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