Platform for Change launches major Assembly reform, gambling on underlying public support. Are they right and how will the parties respond?

After lying low for months, the campaigning group Platform for Change has now come out with a Big Bang approach to reform for the next phase of the Assembly, hoping to make a major impact on the forthcoming election campaign. The Programme will be debated at a meeting at Queen’s on Saturday. At the time of writing it has not yet been posted on Platform for Change’s website.

Sweeping changes to the present system of powersharing (often misleadingly called “mandatory coalition”) would involve replacing the bloc designations with weighted majority voting on measures brought forward by a voluntary cross community administration. The new system would be underpinned by the long delayed Bill of Rights. To kick the reforms off, the Platform calls on the political parties to indicate in their manifestos on which policy areas they would be willing to collaborate, before going on to recommending transfer voting across the community in virtually a new departure for politics in NI. A new centre ground could thereby emerge to replace what the Platform calls ” the political entrepreneurs” who benefit from the present flawed system. The whole process could begin, the Platform hopefully suggests, by political parties interested calling a news conference to support the Platform’s programme.

The Platform identifies three policy goals,

– the three ‘Ss’ of a shared future, social inclusion and sustainable development. These should structure an ambitious Programme for Government.

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    • Such a programme should, specifically, end the deadlock on academic selection, stem rising unemployment, offer opportunities for youth, dismantle the ‘peace walls’ and deal with the region’s still unaccounted for past.
    • This will require facing hard choices on resources, including ensuring the rates cover the full cost of water, limiting spending on ‘law and order’ and cutting wasteful public expenditure arising from the acceptance of sectarian division.

The Platform’s policy prescriptions based on the gradual integration of society still seem at the formative stage. It is aware of a certain lack of manoeuvre over financial cuts but nevertheless urges an ambitious job creation strategy, including building more social housing and the enlistment of a “Green Army” to “retro-fit” the province’s housing stock in conformity with the highest environmental standards.

“Wasteful” duplication of services estimated by PWC to cost £1.5 billion should begin by cancelling the £100m upgrades of Casement and Windsor Parks and Ravenhill and the restoration of the National Stadium.

A lower corporation tax is played down as no quick fix. Water charges should be imposed on higher earners and the rates cap on houses worth over £500k should be lifted, bringing in an extra £200m revenue, it’s claimed.

Spending on policing and prisons should be reduced and diverted to underlying social problems.

On dealing with the past, it’s perhaps surprising that the Platform rejects an amnesty or indemnity, on the grounds of “moral hazard”. It appears to pin touching faith on a “commission of historical clarification” to arrive at a single objective account of the Troubles which would be seen to be authoritative.

Disappointingly the Platform offers no guidance on how to end unregulated 11 plus selection, when grammar schools across the community remain in favour.

The left leaning agenda also fails to offer economic analysis and is silent on how to switch emphasis from the public sector over time. More work is clearly needed on economic policy.

The absence also of a real political strategy to achieve its aims may be accounted for by the Platform’s apparent belief in the existence of a pro-reform majority across the community, if only the political parties would allow it to emerge into the open and give it voice. This might begin to happen if the parties collaborate with each other from the start of the election campaign as the Platform urges them to. But a lot of faith and hope is involved. Are they pinnng their hopes on effective cooperation among the UUs, the SDLP and Alliance and are they writing off the DUP and SF?    

In the coming weeks it will be intriguing to see whether the parties will take up the Platform’s ideas. Although its sponsors might have done more to lift its appeal with the political parties and indeed th egenerral public,  this is the most comprehensive and confident-sounding political reform programme produced so far and as such deserves a fair wind and a determined follow-up.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London