Real change or mirage in NI political behaviour?

The Belfast Telegraph’s True Colours survey has attempted break out for local politics by leaving out  yourchoices of national identity and party to vote for. This either omits what’s most important in politics or shows the irrelevance of party campaigns, according to taste. The exercise is frustrating because try as I might I can’t find any published data. Quite probably the fault is mine and someone will dig it out. Although flying blind, the first thing to say is that the survey is self- selecting and therefore of limited value. Nevertheless the findings so far tend to endorse the same basic message of the correctly sampled Life and Times surveys year after year – that the public as a whole – if less clearly the actual voters – would welcome a break out of the tribal bonds and could survive in each other’s nirvana. ( See 2010 results in mid- June).  Politics has yet to catch up, although cracks can be spotted in the hard surfaces of party platforms. It’s good to see the chair of Platform for Change Robin Wilson breaking public surface to find some encouragement in the survey, albeit in improbable form.   

 Asked to consider their policy alignments, almost a third of supposedly ‘nationalist’ respondents found their natural home in a ‘unionist’ party, while more than a quarter of their purportedly ‘unionist’ counterparts engaged in the opposite form of political cross-dressing. And that is before we mention the ‘others’ – as numerous as the ‘nationalist’ definers.

And which party’s policies came out top? Well, well, well: the much-maligned Ulster Unionist Party.

Chris Donnelly, also of this parish is gloomier about whether real change is possible.

It is in the gift of parties to liberate the electorate if they so desire by finding a means of genuinely accommodating the expression of the others’ identity within their respective political visions.

Voter behaviour isn’t quite monolithic, as Peter Robinson’s fate in the Westminster election last year dramatically showed.  Gaps can be seen  between the behaviour of parties and voters alike during elections and what they do after the results are in. Let’s hope it widens, so that by the time of the next election voters may actually vote on the basis of parties’ performance in office. While deadlock seems solid duirng the campaign so far,  the cause of a smaller more efficient system of government could well revive once the party coloration is removed and they’ return to their Stormont offices. Radical reform  can be ruled out. Once again everyone will  win prizes, though the size of the prizes may alter.

 True Colours and Platform for Change are avoiding becoming political footballs by putting party affiliation to one side.  However it would be good to know what success they’re enjoying by publishing the results of their respective reforming projects.

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