Why both picking popular political battles AND policy matters

This is a very short snippet from BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme which involves a discussion of a proposal from Labour’s Ed Miliband to use consumer power to ‘put manners on’ big business when it comes to anti competitive practices (see this excellent Coffee House post by Stewart Wood).

By the end it segues into a question of practicability. Steve Richards – one time editor of the New Statesman now a columnist with the Independent – makes a convincing case as to why it’s a good idea politically, then John Kay pours a judicious amount of cold water on that (though not the general thrust of the thinking) pointing out the critical value of policy.

Steve Richards: Opposition politics is partly an artform and policies are symbolic. Saying that you are going to get Which – identified by consumers as allies – on board is quite an effective message to send out.

John Kay: I really don’t think policies are symbolic. I really think they are about what you are going to do. And we need some practical [observations] about what you are actually going to do.

In Northern Ireland policy is almost always a matter for eternal inter party negotiations and interminable, secret debate around the Executive table rather than for political parties. One of the key reasons for that lie in the mandatory coalition arrangement which values stability over political agency.

The problem with it is that those negotiations tend to be about recycling of old grievances in a way which gives little space to new issues and new arguments if you like. The naissant debate over organ donation is merely the exception which proves the rule.

For me Richards and Kay etch out an important two part process: deciding on a signal political issue capable of striking a chord with the broader population; and then figuring out what you’re going to do in order to deliver that promise.

I suspect the current self destructive cycle will only be broken when someone (other than just Jim Allister) commits to taking matters of ‘policy’ seriously as part of creating an opportunity both for themselves as a political party and wider society.

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  • FuturePhysicist

    By popular political battles … don’t you mean “elections”?

    Fairly much the cut and thrust of politics, I would say.

  • Michael Gillespie

    Mike Fealty
    In his piece about politics at Stormont like all other establishment status quo figures in N. Ireland Mike is dreaming of the day when Stormont will be a mirror image of normal Westminster. Sad to say that will never happen. For the politics of a state to be normal the state must have an agreed constitution. That condition doesn’t hold in N. Ireland so normal politics here is a non starter. All that can be hoped for is bum politicians and politics because the constitution of the state is bum.
    If there are any political realists to be found in the six counties they must realise the constitution needs reform of a federal nature. I have spelt in depth the reforms needed in my book – The Theoretical Solution to the British/Irish Problem using the General Theory of a Federal Kingdom— available from Amazon. A few points from the book to illustrate: –
    (1) N Ireland needs a new friendly conversation about the Crown the Kingdom and Ireland to override the hostile arguments of the thread bare shibboleths of Union Jack Unionism and Tricolour Republicanism.
    (2) The new conversation will require a new party of the center at Stormont called Federal Unionism –Early Sinn Fein.
    (3) Its platform should be the federal reform of British Constitution and its flag should be the redesign of the Irish Tricolour. A number of possible designs are given in my book.
    For those who are realists and not establishment dreamers reform brought about as indicated is possible feasible and doable if realists can be found in N.Ireland to do it.
    Michael Gillespie

  • Mick Fealty

    To clarify, I’m not suggesting that Stormont work like Westminster.

    Certainly what we thought was an agreement to ‘park’ the constitutional issue now appears to be the only game in town. But perhaps we’re slowly realising that this was an inevitable corollary of putting old wartime tribunes in charge of the farm.

    For me a key insight from the exchange above is the powerlessness of the current elected political class, whether here or in Westminster (or to a degree Dublin for that matter). The politics of outrage is merely a useful cover for a general lack of agency.

    More generally the business of politics has become rooted in the symbolic because politicians are actually afraid of committing to actions that might get them into trouble. Ideas come almost entirely detached from practical actions.

    In part I think this is a comms problem (the ’24 nano second” news cycle as Julia Hobsbawm has called it), but it is also a detachment of the executive arms of government from the competence levels required to carry out even the smallest necessary changes.

    Thus the rise of the consultants and the resultant democratic accountability headaches.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I don’t think the Assembly is powerless at all, indeed if it were powerless it wouldn’t receive criticism. I think the powerless are those waiting for a new zeitgeist, hoping others will slave to their agenda.

  • Mick Fealty

    You’re riding for a Yellow card youngster…

  • FuturePhysicist

    Well forgive me for stating the obvious but if politicians displayed no agency at all they wouldn’t be elected. You have spoken about political inertia, but every election voters actively vote in significant numbers. Inert non-voters didn’t get any politicians in.

    How can there be voter agency disproportionate to politician agency, the parties’ agencies and their campaigners’ and activists’ agencies?

    How can you have political agency detached from voter agency?

    There are many people in society who have the single ideas, the signal ideas, even strategy for change documents of piecemeal matters of how change can happen … but it’s not enough, and often doesn’t work. What you are talking about is a manifesto, and without politics that manifesto has neither mandate or agreed consent.

    And forgive me but all the parties have manifestos, alternative groups have different manifestos, but perhaps are afraid to face the public, at least the real public, in election.

    The public is aware that manifestos are subject to fiscal and social pressures, and indeed in this part of the world the constraints of coalition partnership. It’s also constrained by what is actually physically possible rather than what is mentally possible (i.e. You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t quit the game.) so the magic of single ideas, signal ideas, multiple ideas, non-signaling ideas etc. are killed in the mechanical theater of reality.

    In other words manifestos are scrutinized pragmatically, by voter agency. Ultimately voters will be the ones charged with the bulk of implementation, so their agency on political change is critical in that respect as well.

    Deals are what makes what Martin McGuinness described politics to be “The Art of the Possible”, not just in terms of Good Friday Agreement, but policies such as New Deal on Welfare for example. It’s not about philosophical documents, but contract arrangements, and voters vote on the basis of that deal. And ultimately mechanics.

    Does this mean that the “Deal” offered to the voter by the DUP and Sinn Féin collectively, and indeed by the wider parties represent the best agency available. It does only until another collective group can collectively offer a better one to a greater mass than they do.

  • Michael Gillespie

    Hi Mick
    You write—“I’m not suggesting that Stormont works like Westminster”—but you don’t suggest how Stormont should work. In the decline of votes for Stormont there is a widespread feeling among the people that Stormont doesn’t work and is irrelevant. I have put forward the explanation that this is due to the absence of an agreed constitution for the state. An agreed constitution is a sine qua non of a politically normal working state.
    I have also reported elsewhere in Slugger that research which I carried out in schools in Derry makes clear that 12 year old Catholic and Protestant children are hopelessly polarised in their feelings about the Constitution and their feelings gap is so wide as to be unbridgeable. A State thus constituted will be prone to violence and be unstable. To set up a bogus constitution by joining the loyalist Peter Robinson and the Republican Martin Magennis at the hip is a laughable nonsense. If there existed any where in the democratic world a state where children were known to be polarised about the State’s constitution responsible politicians would do something and change the constitution
    In my book which I have already noted in Slugger I have detailed radical constitutional reform necessary to resolve the age old British/Irish Problem and clear up the feelings mess that children are now in here in Derry. These radical federal reforms may be too much for the establishment to stomach but even so you should read it. A “normal” N. Ireland within the United Kingdom is the pipe-dream of the establishment but there are some realists around who smoke a different pipe with the weed of a federal kingdom.
    Michael Gillespie

  • Mick Fealty

    Can I suggest you listen to the Audioboo again guys if you haven’t already?

  • FuturePhysicist

    If there existed any where in the democratic world a state where children were known to be polarised about the State’s constitution responsible politicians would do something and change the constitution

    But the State did intervene, those who agreed with the state were rewarded those who didn’t were hit with penal laws. In fact Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia sorted the problem of dissent during their tenure. Love florished I guess.

  • FuturePhysicist


    In Ukraine you seem to have constitutional conflict despite the absence of any religious or even economic divide, yet in Scotland you have constitutional debate without violence and it still has patches of sectarianism. You can’t impose unity, you need to find it where it can be found.

    Talk of an “agreed constitution” is ignorant of the flux both the UK and the Republic govern by, constitutional matters in the Republic can change by referendum, and in the UK it can change fundamentally with mere legislation. How can Northern Ireland be the only part of these isles, or indeed the whole of democratic Europe, to have a completely agreed and permanent constitution?

    Northern Ireland’s agreed constitution was the Good Friday Agreement, the Principle of Consent for Unionists with the Freedom of Dissent for Nationalists and other non-Unionists. If we have Unionists dissenting and Nationalists consenting, well then isn’t it all part of the flux?