Reductive politics is on collision course with reality

18 Dec 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 18 Dec 2019

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

It wasn’t just election week, it was Brexit election week. Or was it? And what about the Stormont talks? Voters are more subtle than politicians and we stand at a policy crossroads. Without fixes there could be enormous public anger.


The health system is collapsing.

This collapse has long been forewarned but now it is here. Nurses are striking over pay and staffing, they are not the only clinicians warning of threats to services (meaning patients, meaning the public).

Waiting times are ballooning and far worse than other parts of the UK. Studies ranging from 2011’s Transforming Your Care to the Bengoa report in 2016 have stated both the need for urgent reform and outlined the nature of structural overhauls needed to save the system.

Despite this, a consultant in Altnagelvin emergency department warned two weeks ago that Health and Social Care needs “a direction of travel”. The number of admissions to A&E in the L’Derry hospital is set to exceed 73,000 this year, up from 55,000 just four years ago.

Sinn Fein’s senior politician in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said earlier this month that the then-imminent, now-completed Westminster election was about Brexit.

This was in response to criticism that her party’s manifesto had only one mention of the local health system that is in so much trouble.

Such criticism is emblematic of how, so often, the policy issues that affect lives here in NI on a daily basis are sidelined when it comes to election time, as if they are of secondary importance.

Of course, this is not always the case. Health has become a live issue in politics, albeit only in a time of existential crisis for the health service. A few years ago welfare reform was also a platform matter for local parties (again, at a time of full-blown crisis as opposed to mere struggle).

There is much truth in the observation that policy often comes second to pure politics, especially at election time.

But how much? Are elections ever that simple? Or is that just political parties understandably trying to create an electoral calculus and strategy that is workable, striking the right tone with broad strokes and slogans, rather than presenting a genuine portfolio of solutions to complicated problems?

Regardless of the reasons, could there be a price to pay?

Local stories

All parties devise electoral strategies and messaging.

Health is a devolved matter and last Thursday was a Westminster election (albeit Stormont is itself collapsed and London does, ultimately, have the power to make changes here).

Moreover, manifestos are not the only way to present policies to the public: Ms O’Neill wrote a piece for the Belfast Telegraph literally one day before facing the criticism, outlined above, talking about the value of a fully-functioning and sustainable, national health system.

Sinn Fein is hardly the only party to have reduced elections to a single issue, communicable in short phrases. This time they had a pact with the SDLP, ostensibly about Brexit, even if some (mainly unionist) critics called it a nationalist pact.

Meanwhile, the DUP and UUP were engaged in a unionist pact. And, thus, the constitutional question was, apparently, a central concern for the public as we go into 2020.

There was no mention of a health-reform pact. And no mention of an economy pact. Or an education reform pact, a poverty pact, or a climate change pact.

That is despite the fact that these issues matter and, more to a point, are in need of fixing (in Northern Ireland, certainly, but to a large degree across the whole UK).

The local education and health systems both stand on a precipice. The economy is spluttering, we have almost no clear plans for climate change, and poverty is commonplace.

If these matters are not addressed, politicians will take the blame, and those electoral calculations about pro-remain pacts or pro-union pacts could look very hollow in hindsight.

Our local representatives would do well to bear this in mind as the Stormont talks get into motion this week.

Low-income voters

This year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation carried out research that found that low-income voters are energised in a way they have not been in many years. In particular, across the UK:

  • Low-income voters are a large segment of the electorate, around 9.5 million people; 2.7 million of them can be characterised as swing voters.
  • Brexit is not the most important issue to most of them: they want action to revitalise the places they live in, opportunities for themselves and their children to thrive, and for their living standards to improve.

Researchers Harriet Anderson and Calum Masters wrote: “Not only are low-income voters now more likely to vote (up by 7% between 2015 and 2017), they have become more willing to switch between parties and between voting and not voting. For example, 59% of low-income voters who did not vote at the 2017 General Election said they now planned to vote at the next one when asked in July 2019.”

Now, these observations are based on the UK in general and, while in many ways NI can draw direct conclusions from such studies, one area where there is a clear difference is our politics. We have a sectarian divide not replicated in GB, as well as a different suite of parties.

However, we also have a lot of low-income voters. Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of low-paying jobs of all UK regions and is one of only three regions that has fewer high-paying jobs than low-paying ones.

If low-income voters are a force in general, this could be especially true in Northern Ireland. Even Brexit, seen as a vast political divide, can be characterised, at heart, as a vote for change (and many low-income voters supported leaving the EU).

This is a time of political upheaval, yes, but it is also a time of policy crisis. Tentpoles of our entire society are creaking. These represent the day-to-day issues that surely matter most to the electorate.

Last week’s election might have been the Brexit election, but the next one is unlikely to be the same. Talks have resumed over the reignition of Stormont. Reaching a deal would be a good thing, in the broadest sense, but really local politicians need to place governance, and developing solutions to our policy issues, at the heart of what they do.

If Stormont is resurrected but that does not happen, any deal will be a weak victory, at best.

Several policy sectors face a reckoning. If solutions are not found, politicians could face their own.

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