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.

    • 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.

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  • Mark McGregor

    The whole thing will be ignored by the DUP and SF just like the original Robin Wilson, JRT funded, report, sponsored by the usual academic suspects was and as such will amount to precisely SFA.

  • The Word

    “The whole thing will be ignored by the DUP and SF”

    What you mean is that it will take them a little longer to digest. In the end they will come to terms with it. That has been the way of this political process.

  • Ruarai

    From their site:

    Their goal/purpose:

    “an assembly which gives the citizen a real voice”

    What is so unreal about the voices they hear in the current assembly?

    And how can a political system drowning in a mediocrity born of over-representation and absurdly small mandates be accused of exclusion?

    If the group has such a popular and fresh perspective why not prove it: Run for office.

    Time to get back to specifics on key political questions and less of this Peter Pan Never Land stuff. If you want a conversation on the economy, education and investment priorities then perhaps we should discuss specifics around these issues.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Its a load of nonsense.

  • Who funds them/who employs them? Lack;s focus. Mish mash. Practical? Usual suspects.

  • Brian Walker

    fItz, and others.. must try harder!

  • granni trixie

    Many chums and playmates have said to me “You must ‘join’ the Platform for Change”. But as I was/am busy with activity for a political party I hadnt the time.
    But they dont get the irony!.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    ok Mr Walker……
    “gambling on public support”……..they dont have it
    “are they right”……….no
    “how will parties respond”………they wont.
    Another idea dreamt up by the Overclass to undermine the institutions that ordinary people actually voted for.

    Indeed granni trixie……the Overclass in some ways the opposite of the teenage Underclass locked up in Hydebank for joyriding offences…..share much in common.
    The Underclass are hard to convince that they have a stake in the community.
    The Overclass believe they have no stake in the community and would like us to change to accomodate them.
    People like you in the Alliance Party and four other parties (not including the Greens….but I suppose I should) believe in actually working for the community.
    I salute you ma’am.

  • Cynic2

    I was with you on the shared futures but you lost me with the rest of the socialist statist twaddle

  • granni trixie

    FJH: you have made me blush.

  • Brian Walker

    Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw but I’m surprised at this reaction The cynicism and negativity is astounding even for Slugger comment..

    This is the best single critique of the Assembly so far – indeed the only one I think that adds policy prescriptions rather than whinges. Yes it’s glass a bit more than half empty rather than glass full and yes too, it’s left leaning in a middle of the road sense but has obvious integrity. While it castigates the system and the dominant strains of politics it is respectful to all traditions and communities.

    I’ve pointed to a few gaps myself. Maybe its the fault of how I’ve wriitten it up and when people can read the lot it will get a better response.

    Nobody has to swallow it whole but can it really be true that everybody is satisfied with voting in blocs with everybody winning a prize? Is the Platform wrong about Executive performance and suggestions for improvement?

    I worry about some of you guys, I really do.

  • granni trixie

    Brian – be assured – its not how you tell ’em.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    On the contrary Mr Walker.
    I am not at all cynical about Norn Iron and its future.
    You might know a very old saying about the difference between involvement and committment.
    The cook preparing Christmas dinner is…involved.
    The turkey is fully committed to the Christmas dinner.
    In this sense……and Im sure other senses…..I am indeed…a turkey.
    My past is in Norn Iron.
    My present is in Norn Iron.
    And my future is in Norn Iron. More importantly the future of my children and grandchildren is in Norn Iron.
    Therefore I cannot afford the luxury of Cynicism.
    Nor can I afford anyone screwing up my future or my familys future.
    To that end I voted for a proposal in 1998. And there was no cynicism involved then or now.
    Why on earth should it be undermined by any group of people not as “committed” as I am?

  • Ruarai

    B Walker – your worrying would be offensive if it wasn’t so tedious. Maybe if you engaged with the central critique and avoided being aghast that we don’t share this vacuous political perspective you’d be less worried and more interesting.

    For this group to arrogantly use language that indicates they reflect “the people” while attacking the very outcomes and indeed trajectories of the people is frankly daft.

    Second, for them to write up a series of platitudes and abstractions and present it as political analysis is insulting to the reader – and says much about why they wouldn’t have a hope of winning an election anywhere in the world beyond to a Neighbour Watch sub-committee in charge of wine and cheese.

    Third, the cynicism is all their’s and yours. Sure make arguments for reform and policy initiatives. But do it with the courage to face the electorate not speak for them while attacking their electoral choices.

    Fourth, it’s not remotely original and is, as some have said, half-baked old-school social democratic tosh.

  • granni trixie has hit the nail on the head.

    However, the two PfC papers are extremely interesting and do not deserve the unreflective dismissal to which they have been subjected. IMO the policy paper is excellent. But as others have said, the problem is with the political strategy. I can’t see any of the ‘big four’ parties signing up to the PfC priorities despite the fact that individual members of the parties may want them to do so. The very excellence of that paper means there’s something in it that every major party would oppose.

    But the real flaw is expecting the existing sectarian (‘big four’) parties to endorse transfers across the sectarian divide. Why exactly would they do this? We all know individuals may choose to transfer in this way, but for any party to make an issue of it will turn the election into an even bigger sectarian bunfight than usual. The way to get a voluntary coalition (which I believe is necessary) is through changing the constitution first, therefore creating the space for new allliances to evolve.

    PfC’s big error IMO is to expect the existing sectarian parties to change of their own accord.

  • Reader

    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.
    Brilliant. If I get the contract to merge everyone’s income details, residency details, and water service details into a single database, and keep it updated annually, I might just be able to pay the rates on a house that I bought 22 years ago and which is worth 15 times my current salary.
    (The current value of the house is otherwise irrelevant to me, as I am not planning to sell it – Instead, I intend to die here, possibly in a firefight with PfC as they come to collect the rates.)
    Wouldn’t a local income tax be fairer and more honest than pretending that rates reflect the local services that I use?

  • DC

    The way to get a voluntary coalition (which I believe is necessary) is through changing the constitution first, therefore creating the space for new allliances to evolve.

    Unfortunately Jenny that’s just not going to happen.

    The only way to bring that sort of change about is by cross-designating – Unionist&Nationalist – and proving to the public that there is a party that can manage to do politics on behalf of both communities and getting democratic support for it.

    Over the assembly term a party could have voted ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ on several occasions, sometimes more for one particular block than the other, but the public could judge in time whether it was in the interests of stability and wider NI interests.

    Besides, there is no way nationalists are going to give up this veto whenever much of it was “will to power” stuff using violence and bitterly fought electoral campaigns. Look at the way SF ‘control’ and manage its politics, there is no hope they themselves will melt away designations as a result of a political theory document done by others, despite both in principle and in practice it delivering better government!

    To expect this veto to be given up after 35 years of headbanging both unionists and British governments is hopelessly optimistic. However, if there were a democratically elected party with an ever growing bunch of politicians working across the house in such a style – designating unionist and nationalist – the other parties would have to move with the grain of change and realise the electorate is not just two fixed monolithic blocks, but is flexible and looking for a change away from such designation.

    I’m afraid for this sort of change in the short to medium term parties will need to get their hands dirty, give a lead by designating in both camps and vote alternatively across the house on certain issues that matter on substance alone. Perhaps it might be more private sector involvement which the unionist block wants and worth a vote based on the merits, or protecting education funding that nationalists might want and worth a vote on its merits. And to have an authoriative vote – a party needs to designate. The key will be good judgement and responsible leadership.

    Failing that, such change as proposed in that document above may come about, but it will likely take decades and decades for it to happen. But if the unionist vote diminishes over time based on relevance and migration to Britain, such a mechanism will more than likely be safeguarded by that political cohort!

    Maybe a massive growth rate in the parties designating ‘other’ might do the trick rather than cross designation; but in my view the ‘other’ identity is not clear and is confusing and hard for voters to understand just what it is all about on issues, plus it cannot make an authoriative vote and therefore cannot take a stand on issues of political importance. Because of that it loses out in the media spotlight.


    re – The new system would be underpinned by the long delayed Bill of Rights.

    No need for a bill of rights, in the NI Act 1998 it sets out that:

    24 Community law, Convention rights etc. E+W+S+N.I..

    (1)A Minister or Northern Ireland department has no power to make, confirm or approve any subordinate legislation, or to do any act, so far as the legislation or act—.
    (a)is incompatible with any of the Convention rights;.
    (b)is incompatible with Community law;.
    (c)discriminates against a person or class of person on the ground of religious belief or political opinion;.
    (d)in the case of an act, aids or incites another person to discriminate against a person or class of person on that ground;
    (e)in the case of legislation, modifies an enactment in breach of section 7.’