Is it right they rule by rote?

I’m off on a wee rant below, apologies.

While Eamonn’s reproduction of a UUP communication to members has transitory interest, it could open up a broader discussion on the internal democracy of our political parties; how they manage policy setting, media protocols and transparency.

A party wracked with disagreement and conflicting messages for nearly two decades like the UUP is long overdue a leader to stamp internal discipline and defined direction for external eyes. The immediate threat of ‘you go through the press office or face a disciplinary’ could seem cack-handed but also reads as a leader willing to force a public consistency on a party torn to shreds by publicly presented dissent.

It takes a long memory to recall a united message coming from the UUP and Elliott’s early move attempting to force consistency via tight media discipline is understandable, though his methods indicate he could also do with examining internal communication protocols – no need to piss people off.

However, the UUP aren’t doing anything new. The two most successful parties in the north are known for their tight media control. Journalists know if you want a comment on a policy issue you don’t contact a DUP or SF representative direct – you contact the press office. You tell a Press Officer what you want to discuss, who you would like to discuss it with and they may provide a suitably briefed representative – just may.

That’s professional politics the world over. If party press officer positions didn’t exist you’d have a lot more people trying to work as sales reps for tobacco companies.

The concern not just for the UUP is professional politics the world over demonstrate many instances of press departments moving from the control of access to information; to thinking they create information and or policy, to actually creating policy and finally forcing the endorsed to regurgitate it. Giving over the message to groups focused on managing messages can lead to these groups thinking they have more ownership of politics than those chosen by the electorate and/or party members.

This also opens similar question on who sets party policy across our body politic.

Alan recently had a fantastic series of posts on what actually happens at party conferences (the other links are out there, google yourself). I came to the conclusion that they were mainly about geeing up the troops and getting coverage for key messages but there was very limited focus on actually discussing policy, debates and voting policy through.

Set pieces.

If party conferences aren’t focusing on policy, who decides it?

SF are notably different with days of discussion and votes on policy ranging from skate-parks to what paper to use in publications to energy and Europe – but they, this has been a criticism of some, essentially act as ‘democratic centralists’ with the members’ authority fully ceded to the Ard Comhairle between Ard Fheisenna.

At least their members get to have some input before the press office starts managing the message!

Where/when does that happen with other parties? If they aren’t discussing much real policy at conferences, then they surely cede all decision making to their party leader and his selected team between one leadership election and the next?

Is SF really the most democratic party in the north?

Has Tom Elliott just help demonstated once in leadership none of our party leaders will accept deviance from party line and rote is the order of the day?

As a final point why did Pat Ramsey’s statement on the recent conference on abortion disappear from view on the SDLP website almost immediately after release?

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  • joeCanuck

    Well, at least it’s just sending stuff through to the press office. Here in Canada, we have a conservative PM, a Mr. Harper, who insists on personally vetting his Minister’s speeches before they are delivered. Total control freakery.

  • slug

    Margaret Ritchie has also issued medicine to Dec O’Loan for being off-message.

  • He might be out of the wilderness. think you’ll find that this afternoon the Assembly were to pass a motion “That Mr Declan O’Loan replace Ms Margaret Ritchie as a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.”

  • Mark – my first thought was to phone Basil for his reaction … but thought twice!

  • Alias

    Political parties are cabals that have very little to do with the exercise of democracy. Control the cabal and you control the people. For example, the three main political parties in Ireland all implement a policy of only allowing europhiles to run for political office. If you are anti-EU or eurosceptic then you are not selected. That is why 160 out of 165 TDs voted to approve the Lisbon Treaty but more than half the voters rejected it. Is it democratic that elected officials are selected who do not represent the views of the people? No, but the cabal sees the EU as creating well-paid jobs (and pension funds) for cabal members so they all approve of it and contrive to ensure that only europhiles are elected to office by the simple expedient of refusing to put eurosceptics before the people. So all the EU had to do to steal sovereignty from the people was to ensure that the cabal implemented a pro-EU selection policy. So you just have to control a handful of key people in order to control an entire nation.

  • joeCanuck

    So you just have to control a handful of key people in order to control an entire nation.

    True, but you also need a complacent or compliant electorate.

  • Mark McGregor

    “So you just have to control a handful of key people in order to control an entire nation.”

  • Mark, some years back I rang UUP HQ – it was during the Trimble era – and pointed out that those at the centre of the wrangling all appeared to be Presbyterian!! [not to be confused with the old red socks, the Free Presbyterians!!] Presbyterianism is democracy run riot – one man’s or one women’s view is as good as any other’s.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I think its more to do with professionalism than secrecy itself.
    Joining a political party means that you sign up to the basics of a kinda “collective responsibility”……not to wash dirty laundry in public.
    Yes tightly managed parties CAN prevent leaks but essentially the big difference is that leaks come from DIVIDED parties.
    Sinn Féin have an understandable “whatever you say …say nuttin” approach. It works for them.
    DUP……not too sure on this one..they were certainly leaking in January/February.
    But I think that journalists are essentially……how can I put this….”clubbable” (sociable types) and the best leaks seem to come from clubbable/social politicians.
    The SDLP has……a reputation for being…..sociable. The DUP and tend to socialise with themselves. As does SF.

    By an odd coincidence, I spent a lot time looking thru Facebook for “connexions” between our great and good……in the world of politics, public administration, academia, media and business.
    Certainly as interesting as any Freedom of Information request…..and one of the odd (?) things is that its unusual for a SF or DUP politician to have “Facebook friendships” outside their fairly closed circle.
    Likewise SDLP, AP and UUP people seem to have friends outside their party.
    A large section of the “Belfast media” seem only to have friendships within the media and the three moderate parties. It follows I think that a lot of these leaks are leaks to friends in the media.
    And the DUP and SF are more cagey about journalists.

    Of course this is hardly conclusive…..and Facebook friendships are largely meaningless. But feel free to look thru FB connexions.

  • Mark McGregor


    ‘By an odd coincidence, I spent a lot time looking thru Facebook for “connexions” between our great and good……in the world of politics, public administration, academia, media and business.’

    That’d make better blog material than some useless filed away QUB shite!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Already done MMG.

  • Some of it makes interesting reading, FJH. I liked the one where a very senior civil servant was ‘in a complicated relationship’ – and then it got more complicated 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    Members usually trust leaders to come up with ideas and identify policies relevant to current issues.

    As well as that, the process of policy making in ‘my’ political party is a reflection of its Constitution rules, structures and values: eg
    Volunteer convenors call meetings of other interested members to discuss a policy topic.They work it up with HQ/public represetative help and it is usually presented at Council for discussion and further input. Council meetings for representatives of branches, staff and public reps meet 6 times per year in venues around NI.
    I believe this is beneficial in forming robust policies and making all aware of nuances not thought of. A hidden benefit is that it helps with social cohesion.
    Chat over lunch can be the most informative bit though.

    FJH: Great stuff (as Wendy says …often).
    We’re getting into anthropological waters here. Research into gossip reveals it as an important channel of communication which I’m sure can be applied to social networks such as Facebook. Informal chat (gossip) however is likely to be more widespread than the kinds of groups who subscribe to Facebook etc.

    To ad to your Facebook obs, I noted myself that in eating contexts such as Stormont or at the Chris Sadotti chaired BOR consultations, SF and the DUP sat with their own group ie kept apart.

  • Granni Trixie

    I see I prolly need to clarify that by “Council” I am referring to a key decision making body of the Alliance Party.

  • Thought you might like this one, GT. A young friend in South Africa has it on her FB profile:

    “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber”

  • Brian Walker

    It’s true that parties the world over try to control the information flow but they only partly succeed, as a casual reading of the history of New Labour for instance will tell you. Control doesn’t extend much beyond TV interviews.The lobby is only one route for regular contact, informal and formal.

    I wouldn’t overrrate the influence of spinners in policy making either although it’s true policy making and presentation are often hard to disentangle.

    The role of party members in setting policy has declined with the collapse of membership – which is chicken, which is egg? Should part time party volunteers have control over elected member anyway? That’s the conundrum.

    Party discipline is at its highest when members share a common purpose. There might be a lesson in that for the UUP.

  • HeinzGuderian

    It is indeed,heartening to know,that so many,are so concerned,about the fortunes of the UUP !! 🙂

  • IJP

    I don’t know if he’ll be more alarmed by this than me, but not for the first time recently Brian has hit the nail on the head!

    The common purpose must come first. Then you’ll find discipline easier to come by.

    The irony is, this should be easier in opposition. It seems to me the UUP first needs to work out that opposition is its current role – just because it’s the oldest party doesn’t mean it’s the most influential or relevant!

  • “Party discipline is at its highest when members share a common purpose.”

    … or when they behave like sheep or clones 🙂

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Thank you Granni Trixie.
    There is much more “connexion” on Facebook than Freedom of Information campaigns. I am actually extending my research. Nice to see that some of our younger “solicitors” are now networking like theres no tomorrow. They learn quickly dont they?
    Of course Facebook is about “networking” as much as it is about Friendship. So its at least curious to see who is regarded as a usual “contact” by a politician, journalist, media person, academic, business person etc.
    In part…its evidence of the “smallness” of Norn Iron. The great and the good….and the simply rich…….are a small pool. We have few celebrities but its curious how they all seem to live in a small bubble.
    As we both observe…DUP and SF are notoriously “anti social”. Both from their different cultures of “exclusivity”. To “people persons” like us ..this seems odd……..but in terms of “leaks” from indiscipline it has served them well.

    The downside of the sociability……welcome as it is across tribal divides of ….SDLP, AP and UUP……has been the leak culture.
    Of course theres two sides to a leak..the politician and the journalist.
    I find the relationship between journalists and the three moderate parties slightly uneasy.
    If its “networking”, then Im sure that journos would happily like “FB friends” in SF or DUP……although maybe they are still seen as off limits for the respectable journalist.
    But if “friendship” is involved……..thats slightly more uncomfortable. Are journos closer to the moderate parties? As professionals (as distinct from being voters) is that entirely desirable?
    Is it clever or stupid for the politicians to have journos so close? Presumably the politicians think its a good idea.
    But surely in the context of leaking ………like a tango… takes two. The politician and the eager journalist.
    Sometimes politicians are notoriously indiscrete……..journos love them. I am reliably informed that in the early 1970s “Captain” John Brooke (the son of Basil) was the unwitting source of many scoops.
    But Facebook seems a lazy way to get a scoop. Next time I see a journalist reporting a scoop……check his Facebook page or his Twitter account. Its hardly real journalism.

    But in Norn Iron we have the peculiar situation that politicians and journalists are actually……celebrities. The recent footy matc at Stormont between Journalists and MLAs (what larks ……and lashings of ginger beer) was actually attended by show biz people like Stephen Nolan, Mae McFetridge and Jackie Fullerton.
    And of course the politicians, journos and our set of unfunny professional comedians are regulars on the art gallery/charidee fashion show/day at the races and much photographed in The Ulster Tattler……its almost worth a visit to the dentists just to see who is snuggling up to whom.

    So the “iron discipline” of parties like the DUP and SF to prevent leaks or division has to be contrasted with the soft centre cliques which show people living in a bubble. The “Beltway” is alive and well and living in Stormont.

    Of course MMG does not point up that the nature of “membership” of the SDLP and SF are totally different. To be a member of SDLP (and possibly AP) all is required is a membership fee (waged or unwaged). Nobody is actually expected to DO anything after that.
    To be a member…….actually an “activist” of Sinn Féin requires a certain expected commitment ……..indeed getting into SF requires jumping thru several hoops first. It is hardly surprising therefore that internal discipline is more serious.Presumably members/activists know this.
    Im surprised MMG did not know this.

  • socaire

    Is this childish mis-spelling of ‘probably’ a party thing or a girly thing?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Nope. I think mis-spelling is generally regarded as an error. As Granni Trixie actually intended to type “prolly” rathe than “probably” you are I would suggest in error when you regard it as an error.
    Its a word I often myself use……mainly because Im far too lazy to actually use the longer version.
    The alternative explanation that I am merely trying to attach myself to yoof culture in a futile attempt to appear kewl.

    Alas the Internet has affected adversely the way we spell things….as indeed did the printing press. We used to see words in printed form….which of course was always correct……and seeing words in text or message boards undermines our confidence in spelling.
    Far more serious than Internet spelling…….is Internet “thinking”.

  • Alias

    Policy is easy to determine, and well within the scope of the general public to determine such policy in their common interest. Implementing the policy, however, isn’t. Therefore there is going to be elitism between the determination of the policy and the implementation of it.

    Technology now allows the general public to determine policy and a day-to-day basis as it arises, so there is no reason why policies should be determined by political parties and put before the public for ratification once every five years or not put before them at all if the polich wasn’t specified. For example, the government has no democratic authority to give taxpayers’ money away to eurosystem banks since it never put this policy before the people. It is imperative that policies that profoundly affect the people should be duly determined by the people in the common interest, and not determined by a cabal in the interest of that cabal to the direct detriment of the people.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely you have not forgotten FJH that in categorising your ‘prollying’ as the new small talk I said it would catch on?

  • Alias

    ‘Prolly’ is so year 2000. *rolls eyes”

  • socaire

    Sloppy spelling leads to sloppy thinking and this is indeed an easily verifiable truism. And good secretaries are soooo hard to get.

  • Granni Trixie

    Please let me clarify: ‘prolly’ is NOT a case of “bad spelling”. It was intended as a wee inhouse joke (that’ill teach me).

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    “that’ll” is of course a contraction…….and might offend the Grammar Police…….innit.