Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Rioting is awful. Ignorant, superior condemnation almost as bad.

Or: 'if you trivialise issues that matter to people and ignore their continued disenfranchisement, you should maybe not be surprised when the inevitable happens and legitimate protests provide cover for extreme elements to manipulate the situation'.

Is there anyone who didn't expect violence to break out at Belfast City Hall last night? It was entirely predictable to all, with the apparent exception of the DUP who had no earthly idea that their rhetoric would have any effect on the mood of working class unionist communities. But I think it's safe to say that we all knew what was coming and no one was surprised. That would explain the lightening quick condemnation, from all political quarters, of those who were rioting as little more than violent scum, only interested in destruction and causing trouble. They were nothing but thugs, hoods, little shits and loyalist arseholes.

Hmm. I don't buy it. You see: to agree with that kind of thinking means I have to accept that a significant section of society just enjoys violence and doesn't really care about the issues at hand. No, you can't write the violence off to a few bad apples or isolated criminal elements. If that were true, we wouldn't be using the term riot. By it's nature, a riot needs a critical mass for it to exist and I don't really think you can use the words 'critical mass' and 'isolated elements' together without sounding like an idiot.

The extremists within the protest last night felt that they had the implicit support of the majority of the protest. Disagree if you like, but can you honestly say they would have been as violent if that weren't the case?

You can't just prattle off the insipid 'there's no justification for violence' line and expect people to suddenly agree. The reality is that people do justify violence (in fact, most people justify it to some degree) and if you want them to stop being violent you have to address the issues that they are using to justify it and not dismiss them as irrelevant and not linked.

This was never just about a flag and it was not even just about what the flag represented. It was about the abject failure of the ruling political parties to come up with a strategy to move on from the peace process. instead of working out how to integrate communities, both Sinn Fein and the DUP have focused on shoring up their core support and every time an election rolls around, they run to their base.

The disenfranchisement has been helped by the continued demonisation of the working classes so that these communities, already feeling left behind by a process that they were never really a part of, also have very little stake in society. It's no wonder that people cling to their national identity when there's little else to cling to. This wasn't Unionists rioting about a flag. This was the working classes rioting about being constantly ignored and patronised by politicians.

When the working classes rioted in England last year, we had the usual right wing reactionary types condemning them as scum but at least that was countered by many on the left who recognised that these things happen for a reason and if we didn't address the reasons it would happen again. We don't seem to get that balance in Northern Ireland. Apparently we only care about the reasons behind the violence if we happen to agree with you.

I may have missed it, but I've yet to see Owen Jones pay any attention to Northern Ireland's working class issues, and, whilst I didn't want to single him out (as I really like his work) that wilful blindness is symptomatic of the attitude that Northern Ireland's problems aren't about class issues but religious and cultural issues. In truth, it's a combination. But if we start addressing the class issue, dealing with the religious and cultural issues will be a damn sight easier.

There is a problem in Northern Ireland and it isn't going away. At least, it won't go away just by condemning it.

EDIT: I've been rather unfair on Owen Jones. I make it sound like he should have been paying as much attention to NI as the rest of the UK but my wider point is actually that we need people with his profile making his kind of arguments in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Flags? I don't care, but can see why others do.

Tonight, Belfast City Council will decide if the Union Flag, currently flying all year round, should come down except on designated days. A protest has been organised outside of Belfast City Hall by those opposed to the flag coming down at all. It should be a fairly large protest and all Unionist parties have rallied their members and supporters to the cause.

Now, as the title says, I don't care if the flag is up or down. I put any notion of loyalty to the country of my birth firmly behind my loyalty to people of the communities to which I belong, wherever they might be. However, it's not hard to understand why others feel so much for the flag. It's not so much the flag they like, but what it represents. In this instance it represents, clearly and without question, that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and governed as such.

No Loyalist or Unionist can agree with that definition of what it represents and then, in the same breath, wonder why Nationalists find the flying of the flag offensive. They're Irish Nationalists, for Pete's sake, how could they not find it offensive? The real question that should be asked (and the DUP would argue it has been) is just how offensive they find it and how much of an issue is it for them?

Dubious equality impact assessments aside, the truth is that it's not as much of an issue as Nationalist parties would like us to think. Sure, if you asked any Nationalist would he like the flag to be down, of course he'll say yes, but if you ask him if the issue of taking the flag down should be the dominant issue of the last few weeks and the next few weeks you're more than likely to get a completely different answer. It doesn't mean they don't care though.

But this issue has been bought to the forefront for political purposes, and political purposes only. There's nothing particularly wrong with that providing there's a certain amount of honesty about it. That honesty has been sadly lacking. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been less than honest about the level of feeling from their communities about the issue (and the SDLP, in particular, have tried to play both sides on this: "you can't eat a flag so lets debate about flags") and the DUP have seen this as a perfect opportunity to demonise the Alliance party amongst unionists.

Alliance, on this issue, were always going to be losers. Their policy position is perfectly valid, but they've been played with relative ease by both Sinn Fein and the DUP, no doubt the latter looking to regain a certain parliamentary seat they've never been too happy about losing.

So, as it's clear that despite their protestations to the contrary, the parties want the debate, let's have it: let's talk about whether bringing the flag down weakens NI's place in the union (it doesn't), whether Sinn Fein are against all symbols of Britishness (they are) and whether a new civic flag, with neutral symbols will solve the problem (it won't). But, for the love of all things, can we stop with the pretence?

Friday, 19 October 2012

On being pro life AND pro choice and what it means.

Dawn Purvis - Programme Director of Marie Stopes in Belfast
I wanted to write about abortion last week when the news about Marie Stopes opening in Belfast first came out. I'm quite comfortable with my views on abortion and so it should have been, in theory, an easy post to write. In the end, it wasn't at all easy.

This may not come as a surprise but when I write, I consider the reception to whatever I write. Many of my friends are avidly pro choice, many are just as avidly pro life (please can we ignore the idiocy of the terminology for now?) and I wanted to be careful. That's not usually a consideration for me so it's an indicator of just how polarised the debate is.

Over the last week or so though, considerations for the views and opinions of the other side of the argument clearly hasn't concerned a whole host of commentators or even news outlets so I may as well weigh in. As the title says, I consider myself to be pro life and pro choice and I don't think the two positions are mutually exclusive. Why? Because I agree with many of the arguments presented by both sides. I don't agree with abortion; I consider the termination of a pregnancy at even a few weeks to be the ending of a life whilst acknowledging that the life at that point is little more than a collective of cells and tissue.

So that's my pro life position. My pro choice position is that it's not for me to make that determination for others and it's not for me to judge those who wish to have a termination. There are many valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy and I abhor the implication from some within the pro life camp that women use abortion as a method of contraception. One DUP Councillor referred to 'designer abortions' - about as awful language as you can get.

Abortion should be a last resort. It should be, as Bill Clinton once said, "safe, legal & rare". The part of me that is pro life says I should focus on how to make it rare, because making it illegal will undoubtedly make it unsafe.

So it is the pro life part of me that supports comprehensive sex education for all children in high schools; it's that part of me that supports free contraception for school children; it's the part of me that thinks girls shouldn't need their parents consent to get the pill - only their doctor's; it's the part of me that believes fully funded maternity and paternity leave for all employees should be available; it's the part of me that believes businesses and the state share a responsibility for providing affordable childcare to working parents; it's the part of me that thinks we should stop stigmatising single parents and it's the part of me that thinks adoption should be based on your ability and suitability to be a parent and not based on your sexuality.

You see: you can't be pro life unless you make preventing unwanted pregnancies from occurring in the first place your number one priority. You can't be pro life unless you have a plan to make continuing with a pregnancy the best option. It's not enough to just say 'oh, there's always other options and there'll be plenty of support' - you have to come up with the options, you have to provide the support.

Even after that, you have to cater for the exceptions - victims of rape & incest, genuine & serious health risks to the mother, the likelihood of stillbirth etc - but with the right approach to the issue, abortion will stay as an exception.

Anyone who thinks they'll ever be able to stop abortion from happening is deluded but if the majority of pro-life activists dedicated their time and energy into achieving the measures I outlined above, they'd soon see a huge drop in the demand for abortion and that's a more achievable goal.

Or they can continue to stand outside clinics intimidating women who desperately need help and advice. Yeah, i'm much happier with my definition of pro life.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Banter? No. Just plain old misogyny & sexism.

I am, on an almost daily basis, thankful for the stroke of luck that saw me conceived by western parents in a western country. Life, despite it's various challenges, is generally much better than the lives of the majority of the world. Of course, the added bonus of being born in this part of the world is that I was also born male, so my already OK life was going to be significantly more OK. However, even were I born female, this is still probably the better part of the world to be a woman, despite the continued existence of patriarchal superiority.

So, as I go about life, generally happy with my lot and pleased to be born and living where I am, I often allow myself to be unjustly pleased with how socially developed and progressive we are compared to other parts of the world - I mean, at least women can drive here, right? - but then I find out about a Facebook page such as the Holyland LAD Stories page. Then I want to fucking scream.

Like many, I suspect, I found out about the page from the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-19850826) and was, like many, I hope, mightily disappointed that this kind of nonsense, so prevalent in England right now, was now here in Northern Ireland. To clarify: the 'nonsense' I'm referring to is the LAD 'brand'.

The whole theme of LAD seems to be 'banter' about women and drink with a particular focus on the former. There seems to be a fondness for tales of conquests and sexual disasters where, with almost no exception, the women of the tales are referred to in exclusively derogatory terms: slag, slut, beast, ugly mare etc and their features critiqued in the bluntest and most offensive ways: lumpy tits, flabby arse, smelly fanny etc. All of this is passed off as banter.

Harmless fun, apparently. Anyone who doesn't see the comedy is a humourless, man hating feminist. Were I to go on the site and state my view, it wouldn't be long before one of the 'lads' helpfully informed me that my attitude of respecting women wouldn't make feminists have sex with me. That's how they see things; if you're not laughing with them, then there must be some hidden agenda because how could you not laugh at their incredible wit?

What I have never understood and, frankly, am never likely to, is the logic at play. It's evident that most of the contributors are fond of having sex and, from their contributions, it would appear the more sex they can have, with as many women as possible, the better. Now, I have no problem with that at all - people should have more sex, more often in my view. But these 'lads' seem to think that the best way to achieve their aim - getting laid - is to portray sex as somehow shameful, as though women who enjoy sex on the same terms as them are to be denigrated. They are sluts, slags, whores.

That's not banter. It's just downright nasty. It is sexism at best, misogyny at worst. And to top it off, it's self defeating too.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

If you won't put your empty house to use, the state should.

I am constantly frustrated when people talk about a 'housing shortage' in the UK. There is no shortage of housing: there is a shortage of housing available to those who need it. It may seem a matter of semantics but it's not. The language is key in driving housing policy. If you start from a position of shortage then the most obvious and only solution is to create more housing. From that point on, ideas about bringing properties that already exist back into the active housing stock are sidelined and deemed not as important.

Within Northern Ireland there is currently no legislation that allows local authorities to properly deal with vacant and abandoned properties. I say 'properly deal' because, whilst there is some legislation, it doesn't adequately address the issue and it's solutions are not framed to meet what should be the key objective - the reintroduction of housing stock to the market.

In England & Wales the Empty Dwellings Management Order within the Housing Act allows councils to enter and take possession of (but not ownership of) vacant properties or properties that have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. These orders go way beyond the legislation in Northern Ireland because they allow authorities to make the properties fit for purpose AND put them into the rental market.

The good thing about EDMO's is that the owner of the property still retains property rights but in a situation where the owner cannot or will not carry out the necessary repairs - often in the case of an inheritance - but the council takes on the responsibility for the property. Any repairs and maintenance carried out by councils to make the property right are recovered through subsequent rental income. Any deficit will be included as an attachment to the deeds of the property & recovered on sale.

It may just be the left wing, socialist in me, but I can't see a downside to this kind of action. The owner, who has shown no interest so far, gets to retain his ownership rights whilst at the same time, his property is maintained and possibly improved. The state, without having to build or buy houses gets to address the issue of the shortage of available housing. In addition, there is the added bonus of those properties not being a blight within communities.

I remember that only a few months ago, when the subject of vacant properties was raised in my own area, North Down, that one of the DUP's senior MLAs wrote that it was a shame to see so many vacant properties in the area and whilst he wished that something could be done, it was 'impossible' to take over the properties and fix them up. I was genuinely angry about this attitude coming from a legislator because the only thing that stops this being possible is legislation. So let's have it.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Why I'm happy for the BNP to have the oxygen of publicity.

Well, what a wonderful few days for the media in Northern Ireland. Seasoned hacks who have been struggling to get to grips on boring issues like housing (er, is it housing for catholics or protestants?), healthcare (er, are closures in catholic areas or protestant areas?), welfare reform (er, will this affect catholics or protestants more?), were given welcome relief in the form of Parades, Racists and Homosexuals. They know what they're doing with those issues, that's for sure.

But let's focus on racists for now. In particular, the racist, sexist, homophobic leader of the racist, sexist, homophobic British National Party. Nick Griffin turned up at Stormont on Saturday during the celebrations to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. As is to be expected, he then set about trying to offend as many people as he possibly could in the shortest space of time that he could making full use of Twitter's ability to reach an audience of thousands.

I'll not go into details of his particularly offensive tweets - if you want, you can get detail here - because pretty much everything he spouts is offensive in some way but I do want to talk about the reaction. It was, as ever, pleasing to see widespread condemnation for Griffin and the BNP, particularly from many members of the Orange Orders and our Unionist politicians who made it clear he was not a welcome presence (though I think referring to the covenant celebrations as being inclusive was taking it a step too far).

Following this reaction though, Stephen Nolan sought the public's views on whether he should interview Griffin on his TV show or not. This itself was a surprising development as I never imagined Stephen Nolan considered anything other than ratings when choosing his guests. I may still be right because Griffin is going to be on his show despite what was, in my own view, an emphatic NO response to Nolan's suggestion.

But I am pleased Griffin will be on. No matter how offensive you may find him, Griffin does represent a legitimate (in the most literal sense of the word) political party and it is essential that we don't make exceptions to our desire for freedom of expression for those who we disagree with, no matter how awful we perceive them to be. What is particularly important is that small political parties are given a platform to discuss their policies and inform the electorate of their agenda and ideology.

This platform doesn't need to be equal to that given to bigger parties, for obvious reasons, but there is a need for it to exist. It seems pretty obvious but I'll point it out regardless: if we don't give small parties the chance to showcase themselves then the big parties are left with a virtual monopoly within the media and that is good for no one. Of course it is the job of political parties to win the votes that warrant more and more airtime but there has to be a starting point and those that say the BNP shouldn't be given any airtime seem content to throw the baby (all small parties) out with the bathwater (the BNP).

We've had - and continue to have - this discussion in Northern Ireland about the TUV. So called progressives cry foul every time Jim Allister is on TV and the radio but those same progressives never seem to mind if Steven Agnew is on air (unless it as the expense of one of their representatives) and the desire for that kind of selective censorship makes me very uncomfortable.

It's understandable, though. The idea of Nick Griffin spouting his vile views on TV is distressing. The way we combat that, though, is by not letting him talk about the things he wants to talk about. If he wants to parade as a full service political party, then he should be taken to task on that. Ask him about Healthcare, Education and the economy and don't let him pivot to his go-to excuses such as immigration, foreign aid or human rights. I wrote some time ago that it was important that we don't just attack the BNP for being racist but that we interrogate and critique all aspects of their agenda. It's still true. They're still incoherent.

Bring them on, and let's embarrass them in front of a big an audience as we can muster. Nick Griffin, after all, likes an audience.

On Equal Marriage and the Political Process.

So, as anyone with even a passing interest in Politics (or has caught any of The Stephen Nolan show recently) knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly has now debated Equal Marriage and rejected it, albeit by only a small majority. Much may well be written about the debate, about certain contributors, about certain non-contributors and about homosexuality and homophobia in general. I, however, want to write about the process first because, for me at least, yesterday was a small victory for the democratic process.

That may seem an odd claim to make, considering the way that the DUP perverted (I can use that word, too, Jim Allister) democracy with their use of the petition of concern which ensured the motion could only pass if a majority of both nationalists and unionists supported it. I still stand by it though, and here is why: The motion was brought to the house by the Green Party. The smallest party in Stormont.

Yes, it wouldn't have gotten to the chamber without Sinn Fein adding their support and selecting it for debate, but I am convinced that Sinn Fein wouldn't have done so (or at least not at this point in time) where it not for directed lobbying by Steven Agnew MLA, Green Party activists, LGBT activists & voters. Remember - the Green Party tabled this motion last February and it sat there, waiting for others to support it until the Assembly term ended. When Sinn Fein started their campaign of getting councils to vote on motions in support of Equal Marriage, it gave us an opportunity to say to Sinn Fein "well, if you'll debate it at council, why not at the Assembly". To their credit, they clearly listened and did just that.

The motion from Steven Agnew came about after the 2011 Green Party conference. As is the norm, motions were proposed by members and one of those motions was that the Green Party 'vigorously campaign and, where possible, vote in support of Equal Marriage'. The motion was overwhelmingly carried and, as such, became policy. Policy that became a motion tabled in the Assembly. Policy which saw us put the question to Sinn Fein. Policy which eventually secured the debate and vote in the legislature responsible.

So consider that. One member, from the smallest party in the Assembly, brings a motion to their party conference and what follows is a process that ends up with that motion debated (and nearly passed) at the highest level. Now consider what would have happened had the motion been something not as controversial, nor as divisive. That motion may well have been passed by the Assembly. The Executive would then have to consider how to respond to will of the Assembly, and that may result in the eventual change that was sought.

All from one member, of one party, with one motion.

No, it's not always easy, but if you have the will and you believe in your cause, it is still possible to effect change, even in our form of democracy.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Sinn Fein are their own worst enemy on Unification.

Something that has bugged me for a long time is the odd way in which Sinn Fein are regarded as a successful political party in Northern Ireland (or the North, for any readers of that persuasion). Like many things in life, it just seems to be an accepted and unquestioned fact that Sinn Fein are a brilliant political machine and other parties have much to learn from them. Well, I don't accept it and I am going to question it.

It could be argued that the objective of any political party is to be electorally successful and to set the agenda/implement policy according to their proscribed ideology, with most people agreeing that the two things go hand in hand - you can't very well set the agenda and implement policy if you are not electorally successful - and as such it is one combined objective.

What often happens though is that parties, politicians and voters alike believe that by achieving the former, the latter will follow. Thus, the combined objective of winning and then implementing policy becomes two very separate objectives and winning becomes primary above all else. What this means is that where there is a conflict of policy, parties - often unconsciously - shape their decisions based on what is best for the primary objective and so ideology is compromised.

There is no doubt that in terms of organisation and activism, Sinn Fein lead the way in Northern Ireland. They are professional, slick and entirely focused on the result which is more often than not a favourable one. Their structure and the way they operate is definitely something other parties can learn from. But that doesn't mean they are successful as a political party, it just means they know how to organise and know how to secure their vote.

Sinn Fein have to be measured - like any other party - against how successful they are in convincing the public (or more specifically: the electorate) that their vision is the right vision. On that measurement, it is clear that Sinn Fein have failed. They have only themselves to blame.

Sinn Fein are supposedly a party of Irish Nationalism. A party whose main and primary objective is the unification of the island of Ireland as a nation of equals. If this is indeed what Sinn Fein want above all else then they seriously need to re-think their strategy and start asking themselves some very difficult questions:

  • What's more important: Irish Unity or remembering the IRA?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or opposition to The Queen & the UK?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or holding West Belfast?
  • What's more important: Irish Unity or republican prisoners being part of the process?

From everything they do, Sinn Fein make it clear that Irish Unity is only appealing with certain caveats: Unionists not only have to stop being unionists, they have to accept Sinn Fein's vision of how things should be. They have to accept former terrorists as their leaders; they have to reject their culture & their history; they have to reject their ideology (no room for right wing minded people in Sinn Fein's Ireland).

If I was a Sinn Fein strategist, my starting point would be "what do we do to convince Unionists to abandon their unionism". It's the only way that the goal of unification can be achieved and as such, all other considerations - prisoners, the IRA, anti-monarchism - are where you make the compromises. Sinn Fein don't do that. They put people like Mary McCardle into senior positions and they promote ex terrorists through their political ranks so the Assembly is led by one of the most notorious ex terrorists.

Sinn Fein can justify these kinds of decisions - and, if I'm honest, I tend to agree with much of their justification - but what they don't do is consider the damage it does to their supposedly primary objective. Why, when appointing McCardle did no one in their strategy team say "hold on, how does this make us look to Unionists?" and put a stop on the appointment?

I am all too aware of the importance of remembering history and considering what happened in context but that is a luxury Sinn Fein can not afford. If Irish unity is ever going to happen, Sinn Fein need to accept that sacrifices will have to be made - people's noses will have to be put out of joint and it's likely that people who do the right thing will suffer personally (just ask David Trimble & the UUP). The problem is that Sinn Fein want those sacrifices to be made by Unionists, not them.

I've little doubt that members and activists within Sinn Fein will disagree with the entirety of this post but before they do they should ask themselves these questions:

  1. Do you need Unionists to achieve your goal of Irish Unity?
  2. Do Unionists endorse Sinn Fein?

That's the simplest measure I can think of to gauge Sinn Fein's success as a political party and on that measure, they have failed quite spectacularly.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Belfast's Bus Balls Up.

Being a member of the Green Party you may have just assumed that I'd love to carpet every city with bus lanes and, to an extent, you'd be right. However, bus lanes aren't a congestion solution, they aren't a solution to climate change and they aren't a solution to public transport under funding. What they are is a small part of a whole solution and unless you employ all parts of that whole solution in tandem or in sequence, then you will fail to achieve the objective, whatever it may be.

From what I understand, the objective behind the introduction of the new bus lanes in Belfast was to reduce city centre congestion and encourage public transport use. It was bound to fail from the start because the logic was so incredibly flawed. If it's to reduce congestion, then DRD must recognise that congestion existed. If it existed then it stands to reason that people still preferred congested traffic to using public transportation. The next logical question for most people would be - 'how can I improve public transport to make it more attractive?'

Not the logical question for DRD though. Instead, they settled on 'How can we force people to use the public transport system they have so emphatically rejected?' Surprise, surprise, they preferred the stick to the carrot. And surprise, surprise, the people did not like the stick one little bit.

I've bleated on and on (to anyone that will listen) about public transport before, but the issue is still there so I'll bleat on and on some more: we need ridiculously unprecedented levels of investment in public transport before it's a viable alternative to driving. The fact remains that, even with the bus lanes making congestion worse in Belfast, it's still more attractive to drive and in some cases, still remains the only option.

It's impossible to measure the value of being able to have your own, secure, private method of transport available whenever you like. To compete against that you have to make all of the objective variables so, so much more attractive. Only when you get the combination of fare price, accessibility, frequency of service etc right can you mitigate that immeasurable appeal of driving.

Still, it's only been a couple of weeks so maybe things will settle down and maybe people will come to like the DRD's big stick and will indeed start using the bus & train to get to Belfast (which would be great) and I'll be proved monumentally wrong. I hope so. I really do.

What are the real issues in Northern Ireland politics?

This post is a response to a post from another blogger, Matt Johnston, that he posted on his blog - cimota.com - on Sept 11. (apologies for the delay in getting to this). The post suggests that, when examining a party's manifesto, those looking for a progressive party to align with or vote for, should apply a "political purity test" and gives a few examples of what these tests should entail. Some of the suggestions are Matt's own, some he has crowd sourced.

I'm going to answer these in terms of my party - The Green Party in Northern Ireland - but please bear in mind, I am not speaking on behalf of my party, these are just my own personal responses that reflect my choice of party.

(my answers in blue)

Do they support raising the bar for education in schools (especially with regards to computing education)? I know this is a personal desire but I believe it is an important one. And, Estonia is leading the way here – programming will be applied to everyone in school from age 6.
Good luck finding a party that says they don’t support raising the bar for education in schools! We all say it, what you have to consider is which party agrees with your own ideas on how to raise the bar. At our AGM next month, we’re focusing on Education but you can find what we promised in our last manifesto here. Our focus is on increasing standards in early years provision – in particular, 100% preschool provision, but we also think it’s time we addressed the lack of programming skills that children leave school with.
What is their stance on equal marriage? It doesn’t really affect me (being a white male heterosexual brimming with privilege) but I would have to question the motives of any political party who refuse marriage equality for all. Why do you want to stop people from getting married except under your definitions?
During the last Assembly term, GPNI leader & North Down MLA, Steven Agnew submitted a motion to the business committee that called on the Executive to introduce equality legislation that would allow same sex couples to marry. Agnew could not get support from any other party and the motion was not selected for debate. The motion has now been resubmitted and Sinn Fein have added their support. The motion will be debated October 1st.
Do they understand the economic priorities for Northern Ireland? Because we have a hundred lobby groups who all want their little slice of the pie to be the economic priority. And, as anyone with half a brain knows, you can only have a short list of priorities before all you are offering is lip service to any of them.
Again, like any other party, we believe we do. We want an economy focused not just on growth for the sake of it, but on providing quality of life for all its citizens in a genuinely sustainable fashion. Our policies look to reduce consumption and promote major shift changes in attitudes. We consider governments have a responsibility to consider the long term effects of policy and not just focus on delivering an instant hit. Crucially, our economic policy is completely linked with our policies on social justice – we don’t think you can ever achieve economic stability without achieving social justice.
Do they support total transparency on finances? This means the supplier relationships local authorities and also donations to political parties. Because if they want to hide this information then they have to be suspect for their motives. Are their supporters some kind of nutter? Are they buying policy?
The Green Party publishes it’s donations on line and was the first party in Northern Ireland to do so. We believe political funding should be completely transparent and do not accept the excuse that NI is a special case because of security issues.
What is their policy on parades and illegal organisations? If you support flying flags of illegal organisations (involved in murder) then you’re part of the problem. If you support parades going through anywhere but city centres, then you’re part of the problem. Keep parades the hell away from where people live.
Our policy is that we support the provisions laid out in the Good Friday Agreement for dealing with these issues. Where there is strong opposition to parades, we encourage dialogue first and foremost but, if that fails, then it is ultimately down to the parades commission to make a determination and that should be respected by all.
What’s your policy on integration in schools? If it’s any less than 100%, then you’re just propagating the issues we’ve been suffering with for my entire lifetime. Religious instruction in state-funded schools is not appropriate. Religion is a personal experience. Keep it in your family and your congregation.
This is something we will be formally deciding on next month but I fully expect a reinforcement of our secular position.
Are they prepared to fight for local services that are necessary? And not just those that win votes.
This is open to interpretation but I will say this: we definitely don’t do things to win votes! Where we have been against the populist grain is in two areas – water charges and the reform of public administration (RPA). We think it necessary to start charging for domestic water use, but only after a daily allowance limit has been reached. As for RPA, we don’t agree that it’s right to scrap the 26 councils and replace them with 11 super councils. We believe democracy works best when decisions are taken at the lowest effective levels. There are ways to reduce admin costs without scrapping local democracy.
Are they at all realistic and prepared for the removal of the block grant in 2016? Is their response just “Fight the Cuts” or are they preparing their plan for how to keep the country ticking (rather than just turning it into a ticking time-bomb?
Not sure how best to answer this question. There’s no simple right or wrong answer, everyone has a theory or an ideology they subscribe to. Ours – that of sustainability – is just one approach. The over reliance on the block grant is a problem for sure, but the bigger problem is how the block grant is distributed. Our focus should be on that. We’re not going to be financially cut adrift in 2016.
Are they prepared to apply the law to all without regard for historical or cultural sensitivity? This means no by-ball for their mates in the lodge (Orange or Hibernian). This means no unofficial vigilantes. This means more than simple “condemnation” of the violence.
Not entirely, No: You can apply the law to all AND have regard for historical or cultural sensitivity. What is important is that you consider the historical and cultural context before passing any laws that are likely to unfairly or unnecessarily damage that sensitivity.
Are they prepared to help make Northern Ireland a great place to live? This means not pandering to one side or another and it probably means doing things that might be unpopular.
We are committed to raising the living standard across Northern Ireland and we feel that this is not best achieved by just continuing down the same path that’s been trodden before. We shouldn’t be looking at the country 2 or 3 places above us in the league of great places to live – we should be looking at the top and saying “what do we need to do top beat them”? Concurrent to that is a need to define what makes anywhere a great place to live. It’s not simply about having a high average income or having world class connectivity (though we certainly should) but about achieving contentment for the majority.
Do they support the ridiculous opening hours restrictions placed on shops on Sundays? Not to mention the restrictions on pubs and nightclubs. We’re not a “party region” - we’re barely a tourist friendly region. Give tourists something to do on a Sunday morning other than listen to dreary bells.
I’ll be honest and say that this isn’t something I’ve heard discussed formally within the party – at least not in any conversations I’ve been privy too, but it’s definitely something I see the party supporting. Personally, I think it would be a positive thing, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s the silver bullet that many make it out to be.
Do they support the teaching of Creationism in schools? This is a hot topic considering that government is trying to increase interest in STEM subjects and including a mythology alongside science is counterproductive. Creationism is a great story for goatherds two millennia ago. Let’s keep it for Sundays and get it out of our schools.
Schools should teach children about religion, including religious theories on creation, but this should not be instruction. It should be presented as it is – a theory and children should be taught to measure that theory in the same way that they measure any theory. If we do that, they’ll come to their own conclusions and that, after all, is what we want from education.
As they all represent minorities, what about referendums? Can the people actually have a say in things that matter? Items such as the sovereignty of Ulster, unification with Ireland, abortion.
It’s not a simple yes or no answer. Of course referendums are great in theory – direct democracy in action – but in practice they are very costly and can completely dominate legislative timetables. That’s the whole point of representative democracy. However, there are some issues that clearly should be put to a simple public vote and the unification of Ireland is one of them – indeed it can only happen through a referendum. As for other issues, the public have to demonstrate that there is significant depth of feeling on a specific issue – abortion, unfortunately, lacks this. It just isn’t a big issue for voters.
Public transport has to be the future, so where is the investment? I’ve waxed about Free Public Transport as a social and economic leveller before. Climate change isn’t going away. (Thanks to Darryl in comments)
Matt and I are more or less in sync on this and I’ll be working within the party to promote free public transport, but the party is already out ahead of other parties when it comes to public transport – we proposed a moratorium on road construction - preferring that money to be invested instead in public transport – we proposed investment in smaller vehicles in rural areas to increase frequency of services, we have a policy of providing safe cycle routes to all schools. We don’t need change in public transport: we need revolution.
What about a strong stance on improving the lots of sex workers? These people exist and they’ll never go away. So think hard about making their voices heard and working for their safety rather than criminalising the activity and forcing the issue underground. That just makes a bad situation worse. (Thanks to Nine in comments)
There’s a very simplistic attitude that’s prevalent in politics on this issue which tends to lump all sex workers into one category and see them all as victims in a dirty trade. Whilst it is imperative that the state does all it can to help those who want no part of that particular life, it also has a responsibility to ensure those that do are safe, recognised and have choices available to them. But the state also needs to be very tough on those who force others into prostitution (or any other sexual employment) and those who create the demand. The issue is best looked at in conjunction with societies attitude to sex in general.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Political controversies and Freedom of Speech

Politicians have been saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time and to the wrong people for as long as there have been politicians. Recent controversies such as those surrounding Todd Akin, George Galloway, and Ken Maginnis have once again provided the public with great topics for debate and, it’s easily argued, that’s actually been of benefit to society. It is, after all, important to air issues and to know what our representatives really think about certain things.

Inevitably though, following some off-policy rant, a politician is usually criticised or disciplined by their party and that, also inevitably, is met with the ever so pitiful cry of ‘what about freedom of thought and freedom of speech’.  I’ll skip over the ‘freedom of thought’ part because I assume people really mean ‘freedom of speech’ but just haven’t grasped the difference.

The trouble with people who claim that X or Y should be entitled to freedom of speech is that in nearly every case, no one has restricted anyone’s freedom of speech – they have just restricted their ability to speak for others; namely, the political party they represent. That’s a crucial difference and one that is often overlooked in the argument.

Take Ken Maginnis. His views on Homosexuality – that it is a rung on the same ladder as Bestiality and that homosexual sex is a deviant act – are offensive to a great many people, but, as it stands, his words don’t technically constitute speech that incites hatred or violence and so remains legal speech.  He can say what he likes and when he likes so no one is has restricted his freedom of speech.

What his party leader has done (at least initially) was to tell Ken Maginnis that he couldn’t say those things while standing on a UUP platform. In essence – you have the right to say what you like (within the law) but you have no right to say it on behalf of the UUP and the UUP have no obligation to continue to provide a platform on which you can say what you like.

This isn’t unique to politics – it’s the same for any professional organisation, whether it be a major multi-national or a small local run shop – if you are making statements that are contrary to policy or can do damage to that organisation, it is only right that they can take action to stop that.

What’s really behind the freedom of speech argument is not ‘people should be free to say what they want’ it is ‘people should be free to say things I agree with’. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

We need to turn the focus onto Housing.

I was at an event last week organised by the University of Ulster - it was a small conference on housing in Northern Ireland. I was there to do a very quick Q&A panel session but got there nice and early and managed to catch a presentation on the effects on housing the financial collapse has had. The chap presenting was Richard Ramsey, the Chief Economist for NI at Ulster Bank. It was, shall we say, alarming though not entirely surprising to find that in most of the slides of statistics Richard presented, NI was pretty much at the extreme end of every graph, table or line chart.

What was evidently clear from the presentation was that everyone over the age of 10 should have seen this collapse coming. There's no point going into the whole hindsight debate now, but what we should be doing - and it's my belief that we're not - is making sure we don't play the game the same way again.

For all the differences in political ideology, nearly all sides agree that underpinning (or rather central to) the whole collapse was housing. This wasn't caused by people taking out credit cards and buying too many luxuries, it wasn't caused by people buying cars that were too expensive for them, it was caused by people buying houses. Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with buying a house but when an economy rests on house buying, then it is only house buying that can destroy it so totally.

So, when we look back at the crisis, we talk about tighter banking regulation, we ponder whether retail and investment banking should be separated, we talk about stricter lending criteria across the board and we (well, not me) bemoan public spending levels. But, have we changed our view on housing? No. Undoubtedly people are not trying to obtain high risk mortgages any more (not that banks are offering), and the numbers of what you could classify as normal applications for mortgages are down. But that's not a change in attitudes to housing, it's just a delay while people respond to the immediate financial constraints.

When the economy eventually recovers, there's no evidence to suggest we will do things any differently. People still want to buy a house (they just can't at the moment) and society is still reinforcing that this is the best form of securing your future. I don't have a problem with people having big houses that they have worked hard to afford. I have a problem with people who don't own a home being considered somewhat inferior to those who do.

Since Thatcher's grand sell off of public housing, there has been an almost accepted truth in this country that owning a house is the most important measure of worth in society. Our culture almost revolves around it. If we haven't done something to significantly change that culture then come the economic turnaround, that desire of ownership combined with a market that likes to respond to demand (whether rational or not) will set us straight back on the course to economic disaster again.

Human Rights issues discussed with Chinese official?

Before, during and after the recent visit to Northern Ireland by Madame Liu Yandong of the Communist Party of the China, many people and special interest groups raised the issue of China's terrible record of human rights abuses. In doing so, they were trying to get the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to raise the issue with Madame Liu Yandong directly. 

Most of these calls were dismissed with the excuse that Yandong was here to discuss matters of trade and commerce and strengthen links with the University of Ulster. The implication being that human rights weren't an appropriate subject of discussion when much more important issues had to be discussed first. In a reply to an assembly question from TUV leader, Jim Allister, OFMDFM stated that there had been private discussions with Yandong where human rights issues were discussed. 

What's interesting to note is the language that OFMDFM used in their reply to Mr Allister; the initial question specifically asked what discussions were had with Yandong on the subject of human rights abuses. The reply said private discussions included the subject of human rights issues. Ignore for a minute the fact that Mr Allister's question was insufficiently answered and what you realise is that OFMDFM could have discussed our own human rights issues without ever mentioning China's human rights abuses. 

Of course, this 'elephant in the room' approach to dealing with China is hardly unique to Northern Ireland and in fairness to our own political leaders, there's really no upside to annoying China other than a tiny fraction of moral capital. What is needed is for the US, Russia, Europe to get together and discuss China's human rights abuses. 

I'm not an idiot; I know the obstacles standing in the way for such an approach. I just think the logic behind current thinking is flawed. It's based on the idea that trade with China steadily helps to improve things like some kind of very slow, very ineffective conversion therapy. All it does really though is allow China to make the least amount of effective change for the maximum amount of reward.

I don't think there is an easy solution to the problem, but I think it's easier to fix if the terms are along the lines of 'if you play by these rules, you can come into the club' instead of allowing them into the club and then asking them ever so nicely to abide by the rules which didn't prevent us from letting them in the club in the first place.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Remarks to SDLP Youth Conference.

On Saturday, the SDLP Youth organisation held their annual conference and kindly invited me to take part in a panel Q&A session alongside Mark Durkan MP, John McCallister MLA and Katherine McCloskey. I have posted below my remarks to the conference prior to the Q&A. I really enjoyed the event and the SDLP should be proud to have such an active and passionate young membership. Though I really feel they should be directing that passion toward Green politics!

I shaped my remarks around the themes of the conference which were:

1. Challenges facing Unionism and Nationalism in creating a shared future
2. The role young people will play in remembering the past and creating a shared future
3. The contribution both traditions can make to a new Ireland

"Thank you very much for the kind invitation to this panel; it’s certainly an honour for me to share it with Mark, John & Katherine.

I have been described, for the purposes of this panel, as ‘former Independent Unionist, now Green Party’ (after initially being tagged incorrectly as an Ulster Unionist!). However; I never ran as an Independent Unionist, just as an Independent. It may seem a small clarification, but I actually think, that in the context of this debate, it’s an important one.

I don’t deny that I am in favour of maintaining the link with the Union and I am happy to argue my reasons for it. However, I am also in favour of Equal Marriage. I’m Pro Choice. I advocate free public transport. Yet, oddly, no one seeks to attach these as labels to me, as they do to attach ‘Unionist’ as some kind of definition of my politics.

This, for me, is an indication of the challenge facing both traditions in creating a shared future – the desire to label people so definitively – but it is also to define what a shared future looks like.

When we talk about a shared future aren’t we just solidifying the differences between the communities? In other societies, do they talk of shared areas, shared schools, shared housing? Or do they just have areas, schools & housing? Shouldn’t we just be talking about full integration? Or do we accept that the best we can achieve is just a lasting truce? Why aren’t we aiming for more?

The new generation are the ones who need to drive any step change in political attitudes and, naturally, this will – and should – mean a collision with the senior generations in their own parties. If your youth groups are completely in step with party elders, you have to ask yourself if that’s healthy? By nature, the interests and agendas of both will be different (though both can be equally valid).

Of course, there are areas of high level agreement – we all want to be healthy, secure, and generally be free to enjoy family and life – but when we get down to the nitty gritty of how we achieve that, attitudes will be markedly different. It is the duty of the new generation to take the challenge up and make their parties listen and respond to their agenda.

Whilst being sure to remember the past and learning from it, young people must not make the mistake of reliving the past. This unfortunately is common amongst both traditions, and it’s no surprise: The old political battles of the past are far more interesting and sexy than arguing about corporation tax, waste treatment and regulation of caravans!

I hope that today, we can have a good discussion on how we really can move the agenda on and there’s no doubt you have the right panellists for such a task."

Monday, 13 February 2012

Defence of The Sun is not defence of Press Freedom

Since the arrest of 5 journalists working for The Sun newspaper on Saturday, it’s been interesting to note the response. As with most things there are three general schools of opinion on the issue:  good, bad, and indifferent. I declare now; I’m firmly in the good camp. I think it’s wonderful that The Sun is under such scrutiny and can only hope that other tabloid newspapers find themselves facing the same level of exposure to investigations.

This puts me and those in league with me, firmly in the sights of those who think this affair is a bad thing. Their line of attack is that this is an attack on the freedom of the press, that this is a witch-hunt against The Sun, that this is about political lines. It’s not unsurprising of course, but it is nonsense. Well, apart from the witch-hunt thing. This is in some respects a kind of with-hunt but on this occasion the witch is all too real, all too nasty and decidedly destructive so a hunt of some kind is needed to bring her to book.  You could, if you wanted, replace the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ with ‘investigation into criminal activities and standards of journalism’ which, helpfully, the police and The Leveson Inquiry have taken to doing.

What this isn’t though is an attack on press freedom. The press are free to operate within the law and that hasn’t changed and nor is it likely to. Talk of press regulation has been rather limited (considering the level of the scandal) and the aspects of regulation (i.e. what any regulation will require of the press) even more so.  So what freedoms are at risk? The freedom to intrude, unnecessarily, on people’s private lives? The freedom to blackmail people into giving exclusive interviews with the threat of exposure of secrets? The freedom to make wild speculations and accusations with no equal quarter given to admissions of error? How about the freedom to massively & deliberately misinterpret stories to suit a political agenda? As far as I can tell, it is only the above methodology being called into question and surely it is right that it is.

The Sun have responded to the arrests with an incredible line that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions just because 5 of their journalists were arrested  and they also used the obligatory witch hunt term. They’ve gone further; complaining about the treatment of their journalists at the hands of the police (i.e. they were arrested in dawn raids) and criticises the draconian nature of their bail conditions. Anyone with any knowledge of The Sun’s type of journalism couldn’t fail to be knocked over by the staggering lack of self-awareness on display.  This type of treatment is fine for political protestors but not for employees of News International it would appear. Unless of course, you can find me a story from The Sun’s archives where they were similarly outraged at the treatment of those who protested in Fortnum & Mason.

Chris Jeffries will I’m sure be sitting at home making sure he doesn’t jump to conclusions about those who have been arrested and questioned being inevitably guilty of the crimes being investigated. I mean, he would have some experience of that wouldn’t he? Do I really need to dig up the descriptions The Sun used when Jeffries was arrested? The people of Liverpool have never forgiven The Sun for their disgraceful treatment of the Hillsborough tragedy and rightly so. Advocates for the newspaper have long argued that issue has been dealt with and the mistakes learned from but it’s clear that is a downright lie.

The Sun isn’t a shining example of good journalism. It isn’t even an example of journalism at all. It’s an example of poor, badly researched, vindictive opinion writing sandwiched with overly intrusive, highly judgmental and vicious celebrity gossip. There are undoubtedly good people employed by The Sun, as there was with the News of the World. On an individual basis it is a shame that they now must be uncertain about their futures, but on a collective basis they are responsible for the production of a truly vile newspaper. For that, there is no defence.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Unionist Unity: What is the point?

I imagine it won’t be long before David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP Assembly Group is followed by David McNarry’s resignation from the UUP itself and his subsequent joining of the DUP.  It’s not exactly a bold prediction though, given that McNarry has long argued the case for Unionist Unity and closer working relationships with the DUP. His recent disclosure of the details of meetings on the issue have led to him being disciplined by his party leader, Tom Elliot, which in turn prompted McNarry’s resignation.

Some commentators have argued that it was wrong for Elliot to discipline McNarry for being honest and transparent about things but they completely miss the point – some things are, quite rightly, discussed behind closed doors else media perceptions cloud decisions. These are most likely the same commentators that have criticised Elliot and the UUP for being unwilling to discipline in the past.

Anyway, I could care little about either McNarry or the UUP’s internal disciplinary process. What does concern me is that no one seems to be asking what on earth the point of unity is? I’m not just talking about Unionist Unity but unity on the whole, in political terms. In politics, you exist as a party to offer an alternative, to offer choice to the electorate. If you’re prepared to declare yourself close enough to another party so that voters need not worry about which party represents them, as long as it’s you or your partners, then there’s no point to your existence. At this juncture you should forget about pacts and deals and just combine wholesale.

Ultimately, this is what the talk of Unionist Unity is about. For the most part, the DUP and the UUP are not all that different. If you listen to those within the UUP who object to any proposed pacts the complaints are nearly always to do with personalities, or the bad blood between the parties, or the performance of the parties. Often those opposed point to polling to show that the electorate won’t endorse a big Unionist party whilst their opponents produce their own polling to show that the electorate actually want closer cooperation. At no point do you hear the representatives on either side argue for or against based on policy.

Ask the average voter to outline the major differences between UUP & DUP policy on Education, Health, DETI etc and they’ll struggle. Not sometimes – every time. What they will happily tell you is that the DUP is the more hard-line of the two main unionist parties while the UUP is more of a broad church (I think they can safely trademark that term by now) and takes an ever so slightly softer, considered approach to most issues. It’s nonsense of course, because there are no shortage of hard-liners in the UUP and mostly the two parties vote along strikingly similar lines in the Assembly. If you’re not even getting any purchase on the perceived differences then why bother voting one way or the other at all?

So surely this argues the case for unity? Well, yes, provided by unity we mean the UUP being absorbed completely into the DUP. Anything else is just a plain electoral carve up with one objective – keeping the other side out of office. I’m personally against that because I think the Unionist community needs two parties right now – 1 to provide governance and one to provide opposition. Of course, I’d like to see a move to a time when voters see themselves not as Unionists (or Nationalists) first but we have to deal with the realities of the day. 

We live in a divided society and whilst there is plenty of hard work going into changing that, it’s not going to happen in the very near future so until that time, the UUP has a duty to provide an alternative to the DUP. They need to forget talk of where they can cooperate with the DUP and focus on how they can highlight the differences between the parties. The UUP need to focus on beating the DUP and not on making life easier for them because making life easier for the DUP is ultimately what Unionist Unity is all about.

We need to talk about The Falkland Islands.

Actually, we don’t need to talk about The Falkland Islands at all, but seeing as other commentators insist on it and 1980’s politics is on trend, I may as well throw my (admittedly amateur) hat in the ring too.

General Sir Michael Jackson, the retired Chief of the General Staff, in an interview for The Sunday Telegraph has warned us all that should the Falklands suffer a successful invasion by Argentina it would be near impossible for us to reclaim them by force. He lays the blame for this squarely (and correctly) at the door of those who allowed the Harrier Fleet & our Aircraft Carriers to be sold/scrapped without replacements.

Ignoring the fact that General Sir Michael Jackson was the Chief of the General Staff for some time and thus had considerable influence over the decisions he now derides, is he factually correct? Yes, undoubtedly. The man in charge of the task force that won the Falklands War in 1982, Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, was typically blunt in his assessment of how that particular adventure was successful – air superiority. It would have been impossible to land enough men and equipment on the islands without controlling the skies above them. Little has changed since then in terms of geography – the islands haven’t floated any closer to us or further away from Argentina – so it still stands that without any friendly, local airfields we would need carriers form which to base air operations from.

So is it time to worry about this apparent inability to reclaim the islands should the worst happen? I’d argue no. Worrying about this is like worrying about your apparent inability to reclaim the moon from invading aliens – it’s so unlikely to be an issue that there’s little point in spending much time on it.

General Jackson has learned plenty form the politicians he spent years criticising and looking down upon. He has an agenda and knows the best way to achieve it is through good old scaremongering and dismissal of any rationale with a sound bite. In this case, he outlines the factors that make invasion unlikely – massively increased defence force, ability to resupply quickly- and then follows with “But I suppose I have learned in life, never say never." Oh well, clearly the invasion is a certainty then. In addition he also talks about the ‘small’ amount of intelligence coming from Buenos Aires whilst failing to note that ever since 1982, intelligence operations in Argentina have somewhat improved and despatches are treated a little more seriously.

The Argentine force in 1982 was already largely outdated (though still effective to a degree) and there has been no significant investment in their military capability since then. Their aged aircraft against the Typhoons stationed in the Falklands? I wouldn’t fancy their chances. Their landing craft sneaking ashore after evading the highly sophisticated sonar of the nuclear submarine patrolling those waters? Good luck to them.

It’s interesting that, whilst clearly learning some tricks from politics, Gen Jackson seemed to ignore the politics at play on the issue. There is oil in The Falklands. There is potentially more oil there than in the fields we have in the North Sea. The US, naturally, is lined up to invest and if that happens, any chance of Argentina invading is gone. They simply wouldn’t risk it.

The decision that led to the Harriers and the Aircraft Carriers being taken out of service before their replacements entered service wasn’t taken by the Secretary of State for Defence on a whim. It was the result of years of consultations and review with all of the UK’s senior defence staff and intelligence staff. Included in that review was an analysis of the ability to defend the UK’s interests worldwide and it concluded that the likelihood of an invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina was remote enough that the ability to reclaim them did not warrant the spend.

Generals, Admirals & Air Marshalls will always advocate increased spending on defence and it’s understandable – their role is to defend the UK and the more we spend on it the easier it is. However, Gen. Jackson knew, when in service, that the spending wasn’t right in this instance and advocated – quite correctly – more troops on the ground and the armour to support them. It’s a shame that he know feels he needs to bring up what is effectively a non issue when he has so much more to offer. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Left Wing opposition to Benefit Cap is flawed. This is why.

The coalition government have played a very good game on the proposed benefit cap. Labour activists have been throwing their arms up in complete indignation at the latest ‘attack on the poor’ from the nasty Tories.  They bang the drum for the working-class, the underclass and the downright poverty stricken in society who will most likely suffer from these proposals.  They are right, of course, to highlight the problems with the proposals, but my goodness, they’re naïve. They’re preaching only to the converted. No one else will listen to them.

This is why things have gone well for the Tories. Forget about the result of any votes on this issue, the only thing that concerns those running the party is the votes at the next election and, in the public’s mind, the Tories are absolutely on the money when it comes to this.  Now, I know all too well just how badly flawed this plan is but that’s because I’m involved in politics and take an active interest in legislation and I couple that with my ideological position. The public, as a whole, do not. It’s not that the public are ignorant, or stupid, but they’re just occupied with other issues far more pressing to them to investigate the detail.

So, when the people on the centre ground are looking at the arguments for and against this is what they’re presented with by the media: Tories want to cap benefits at £26K a year but Labour thinks that’s too low.  That’s not the conservative media pushing that line, it is all media. Look in the Guardian and you’ll see there’s no shortage of Labour/Left wing commentators highlighting the examples of generally agreeable people likely to be hit by the cuts.  That entirely misses the point – the public are all too aware of many on benefits who play the game and they want something done about it.

This is an issue that time and again, the Left fail to address. Let’s stop pretending, stop making excuses and stop ignoring the genuine complaints about benefit culture. The statistics, unfortunately, are rather irrelevant. There is a public perception of a benefit culture and so it exists and must be addressed, whether evidence backs it up or not. Failure to acknowledge this will lead to a whole generation spent in opposition for Labour and the Lib Dems (note that the Tories aren’t at all bothered that the Lib Dems aren’t with them on this).

The opposition to the proposals is correct technically but utterly flawed, politically. The proposals are a sop to a problem that exists in the public mind and any opposition needs to be formed around a different way to solve the problem.  Instead of saying ‘these proposals won’t work and could make things worse’ Labour should be saying ‘Our proposal to fix the problem is this and these are the reasons it’s better than their proposals’.