So we dislike our politicians-but what are we going to do about it?

In an earlier post I cited the latest Lucid Talk poll which showed Stormont’s approval rating at an abysmal 9%.

This low approval rating while perhaps overstated does mirror a sense of disillusionment among the wider general public about the direction that we are heading under this current assembly. We have falling turnout at elections, gridlock in Stormont and a stagnant economy. When you consider all this it is little wonder that we have an apathetic electorate. However, I would like to just pose the question; if we are so dissatisfied with our current crop of politicians, what are we actually doing about it?

We all know the current problems with the system in Stormont.  There exists a mandatory coalition that makes it nearly impossible to toss a party out of the executive. Everybody seems to agree that this is not an ideal situation, yet as a wider society, we don’t seem to be putting any real political pressure on our politicians to change the system. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the composition of our assembly is something that we can change. Yes it does require approval from the Secretary of State, but she has said repeatedly she will do it when a request is made.

As the general public, if we genuinely want to create a system that allows for an official opposition, then it will only come from pressure we put on politicians ourselves. Every time they go on a current affairs programme, people should be tweeting, emailing and calling in to make this an issue.

Then we have our general engagement with the political process. Our democracy in not perfect, nor was it something that came naturally to this province. It took many years of protest, negotiation and compromise to get the free and fair electoral system we all enjoy today. Yet when it comes to Election Day, a sizeable and ever growing minority (45.3% in 2011) sit on their hands and don’t bother voting.

We need to change the conversation about voter apathy. It should not be a badge of honour to say ‘I didn’t vote.’ Rather we should create an environment which declares that those who are not voting are just rewarding the very system that annoys them in the first place. The Electoral Commission should bolt the slogan ‘don’t give out about bad politicians, vote them out and keep them out’ across every advert they send out during election time.

It is important for all of us to remember that the men and women who serve up on the hill do so because enough of us voted for them. The only way anything can change is if we either put pressure on our MLA’s or we change the politicians who are making the decisions. It’s no use giving off about politicians for an entire assembly term and then marching down to the polling station and simply returning the status quo. If the current polls are to be believed that is exactly what we would do as the running order of the parties has remained largely unchanged.

At the end of the day this is our government. There is so much in this world that we cannot control. However, how we are governed, who governs us and for how long, are all decided by us.

Here is the attitude we need to take. If you don’t like the parties on offer, start a new one. If you don’t think an MLA is paying enough attention to an issue you care about, then ring up their office and if that doesn’t work, then use your most basic right and vote them out at the next election.

Stormont’s approval ratings are low but these polls will not count for much if the general public don’t start making a much more concerted effort to change the way politics is done in Northern Ireland.  We can do better than what we have at the moment but it is up to us to make it happen.

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  • But there is an opposition. All the parties not in the executive. People can vote Green or TUV.

  • Setting up your own party and getting one vote will hardly change the system.
    There comes a point when “active abstention” would bring about more change.
    I must emphasise that I am NOT advocating this but if at the moment (say) 50% of people vote and many are lukewarm about it…then co-ordinated public abstention would maybe lead to just 20 to 25% voting.
    There would always be a government but there would be a point at which there would be little “legitimacy”.

  • FuturePhysicist

    We all know the current problems with the system in Stormont. There exists a mandatory coalition that makes it nearly impossible to toss a party out of the executive. Everybody seems to agree that this is not an ideal situation, yet as a wider society, we don’t seem to be putting any real political pressure on our politicians to change the system. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the composition of our assembly is something that we can change. Yes it does require approval from the Secretary of State, but she has said repeatedly she will do it when a request is made.

    I’m bringing out the Switzerland argument again, mandatory coalition works fine there, because people understand the dynamics of coalition politics. Systems don’t fail, politicians fail, systems can work if there’s the willingness to work them. Is it ideal? Since when is politics ever ideal for one person outside of a despot … There’s always mandatory coalitions, even when there appears not to be. Parties are effectively mandatory coalitions, politicians have to represent a mandatory coalition of a quota of the electorate or they won’t get elected. The alternative adjectives are voluntary and selective, can you select who votes for you, with you or against you outside of an authoritarian regime … No. Can you rely on people to do so from their own free will … No.

    The fact is the driving force behind reform is selfishness in a world where you need to be selfless to get things done.

  • Zig70

    Politics is not necessarily stagnant, we’ve changed from UUP to UUP/SDLP to SF/DUP and there really is nothing to say it won’t change again. The SDLP or UUP or alliance are not getting the votes because of either political ineptitude or lack of brand appeal. What else is stopping them? Seems very short sighted or lazy to say things can’t change.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I agree in some part, we’ve seen voters change. You don’t get what you want you get what you deserve. It’s not unfeasible that Sinn Féin or DUP voters can change their mind.

  • Zig70

    The other thing is we don’t talk about politics in polite conversation here. Nobody admits to voting SF or even Alliance in any mixed/unknown circles that I encounter. The poll probably reflects that. The same would count for FF.

  • The alternative might be compulsory voting as in Australia.
    Would that produce a different result?
    Another might be if votes actually had the same weight and Alliance votes did not effectively count double and UUP and SDLP are victims of a gerrymander.
    Should UUP SDLP organise a boycott and with already 40% not voting…the likelihood would be an Assembly with minimal support.
    There is an “Underclass” which does not vote. Nobody cares.
    So should we care about an”Overclass” which does not vote?

  • FuturePhysicist

    Do you even need to be a politician to change society? Seems like a handicap.

  • Charles_Gould

    David McCann

    Once again, a very good blog, David. This is an important issue that isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

    I am interested in your comment that ” If you don’t like the parties on offer, start a new one.”

    Don’t you think that’s simply not realistic?

    Surely another option is to join the one you think is best, and try to get it to grow?

  • Coll Ciotach

    I am very happy not to vote – no one represents the values I wish to see promulgated. Until there emerges a party which does then I vote by not voting.

  • Coll Ciotach

    As for starting a new party David’s party has foundered on trying to get off the ground here. Nada achieved since Bertie announced his plans to move north in 2007.

    Perhaps David is looking for others to fail also – there is safety and comfort in nubers?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Another might be if votes actually had the same weight and Alliance votes did not effectively count double and UUP and SDLP are victims of a gerrymander.

    One Alliance minister is elected using the SDLP’s preferred d’Hondt system (which certainly is a gerrymander in favour of the larger parties – but the SDLP rejected any suggestion that it be replaced).

    The other is elected using the SDLP’s preferred mechanism for electing the First and deputy First Ministers in the original GFA, namely John Hume’s preferred mechanism of a sectarian headcount.

    Hoisted, petard etc.

  • David McCann

    Charles,

    Many Thanks. If we followed that logic then Gerry Fitt/Hume et al would never have formed the SDLP-There was already a nationalist party there-so why bother creating another one? Same thing with Paisley and the DUP-The face is things will never change if people don’t atleast try.

    Coll,

    I’m not looking for anybody to fail-sure a lot will but the key thing in life is at least getting out there and making an attempt.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, David……

    “Yet when it comes to Election Day, a sizeable and ever growing minority (45.3% in 2011) sit on their hands and don’t bother voting.”

    As one of the smart 45.3% I’d just like to know how doing any of the things you recommend will actually change anything. I’ve been in that room with an MLA being told that “I’m your representative and helping you is just what I do.” And then the party the MLA belongs to lines up behind a rotten policy on planning to suck in a few votes, and I can just forget getting any help.

    “At the end of the day this is our government. There is so much in this world that we cannot control. However, how we are governed, who governs us and for how long, are all decided by us.”

    Democracy is now a given “end of history” system. There is nothing else on offer. As long as people give money to others to look after, we will have wildly inflated banking bonuses, and as long as we ask “representatives” to run our lives for us by making major decisions on our behalf, they will sell (overtly or covertly) to the highest bidder, and not necessarily the one offering them money. As long as someone else is brokering power you have put into their hands, they have the power, not you. They make the decisions, not you. That is the crux of why people are dissatisfied with the MLAs. The system does not even begin to work.

    “If you don’t like the parties on offer, start a new one.”

    Thank you for believing I’m capable of this, but I just do not have access to the money I’d need unless I’m funded by a vested interest and thus end up like the boys on the hill, in hoc to the other boys who put them there by paying to make them visible enough to the poor mugs who vote.

    “If you don’t think an MLA is paying enough attention to an issue you care about, then ring up their office and if that doesn’t work, then use your most basic right and vote them out at the next election.”

    Covered the first half above, and it was on a number of occasions I tried, over decades. Tried the other to, and IT DOES NOT WORK. Unless I can convince enough people that “them other uns” will not be coming to cut their throats without the sterling protection of “them uns” on “their” side (DUP/SF or other, with Alliance for the nice people). With the rapid move in recent months to “rule by decree” by the OFMdFM I’d have to be a bit simple to believe that an MLA is actually going to achieve anything in the face of an executive decision agreed by the OFMdFM.

    So I do as Willie Yeats told us to do: “So stay at home and drink your beer and let your neighbour vote.”

  • FuturePhysicist

    Charles,

    Many Thanks. If we followed that logic then Gerry Fitt/Hume et al would never have formed the SDLP-There was already a nationalist party there-so why bother creating another one? Same thing with Paisley and the DUP-The face is things will never change if people don’t atleast try.

    Coll,

    I’m not looking for anybody to fail-sure a lot will but the key thing in life is at least getting out there and making an attempt.

    The three Era of the late 60’s parties were effectively a realignment of sorts for the elected groups, The SDLP were a merger party of Socialist, Republican and Nationalist politicians, Alliance in many similarities with NI21 were a UUP splinter group in all but name, the DUP decend from the UPA a sectarian wing of the UUP.

    Anything new comes from the Old, such is the way in most politics whether it’s the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Civil War Split or the Tory-Whig Civil War split.

  • Seamuscamp

    David MacC

    Typical unreal finger-pointing. Why don’t YOU start a new party? I surmise because you know it wouldn’t work. The current system in NI reflects the values of the NI electorate. Instead of a system where a sizeable minority had no say in how they were governed, you now have a system where a sizeable minority choose to have no say in how they are governed. And earnest people with an A level in sociology look down and say “you could be other”.

    One of the reasons why people don’t vote is that they think they already know who is going to win in their area. Another is that they know who they would never vote for (let’s say Jehovah Poots); but his/her opposition in an incompetent grinding away at unwinnable issues (let’s say Godawful Farry). So they turn their backs.

    For me your solution – set up a new party – has several barriers:
    a I have the personal charisma of a goat
    b I have no money
    c I don’t know anybody who I agree with
    d I don’t know anyone who would follow me
    e I am very old and wouldn’t survive the stress
    f I don’t have an A level in sociology

    What’s your excuse?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    For anyone interested my old Friend the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping will be conducting a most timely “New Orleans style Funeral for Democracy in Northern Ireland” (sponsered by FOE) tonight (Friday 20th September) in Cathedral Quarter between 6-10pm.

    http://www.revbilly.com/events/jazz-funeral-for-democracy-n-ireland

    Hope to see you there, David McCann! Just a parting shot! “We need to change the conversation about voter apathy.” is just not the point. Voter apathy would change in a flash if the existing culture of abuse of the electorate through lies and cynical manipulation among political representitives the world over was changed. (But how?) Unfortunately the only change is more of the same, so this corrupt culture is almost universal. And it is what we are oh so idealistically exporting to emerging democracies everywhere, to make them “Global business friendly”.