This week a messianic nationalist party of still dubious respectability came within 600 by-election votes of cementing beyond doubt its credentials as the main electoral threat to the senior coalition partner.
Irish by-elections, by and large, are a bit of harmless fun. The outcome rarely influences the balance of forces in parliament, but it gives the voters a chance to give the incumbent party – whatever incumbent party – a good shoeing. Everyone feels better about themselves except whatever hapless candidate has been persuaded to stand by the ruling party. Famously, no government party had won a by-election for 30 years until Patrick Nulty stood under the Labour banner in 2011 – and he was an opposition politician in all but name, remedying even that within a couple of months.
Peter Kellner, the pollster, knows something about political junkies. A journalist himself, he’s married to Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs (stop sniggering at the back – it’s probably a very important job). As a reader of a political blog, you almost certainly fall into that category as well. It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that people heavily engaged with politics may approach it rather differently to those who don’t go out of their way to keep abreast of current affairs, but do still vote.
Kellner, in this piece for the New Statesman last year, sets out one way in which this can be manifested.
Suppose you feel that strongly about the role of the private sector in the NHS, either for or against. That is a positional view. But suppose you don’t mind that much either way, and all you want is prompt, high-quality care when you need it. In that case, yours is a valence view.
Most politicians, activists and commentators are full of positional views. But millions of swing voters aren’t: they take a valence view of politics. They judge parties and politicians not on their manifestos but on their character. Are they competent? Honest? Strong in a crisis? Likely to keep their promises?
Some utterly heretical voters simply don’t give a stuff about the ideological source, or unintended consequences, of a policy; all that matters is that it meets their needs. So the NHS can be private or public, so long as it sends the ambulance; tax can be high or low, so long as enough is raised and it is spent efficiently.
As a Blairite, Kellner makes the argument in service of his view that Labour ought to steer clear of left-wing shibboleths and stick to the centre ground in Westminster. In Northern Ireland, though, the most obvious argument for the relevance of a “valence” vote is the emergence of what Mick has described elsewhere on Slugger as the “Ambivalenters” – people who don’t have a ready answer to the question of national identity, and harbour a distinct suspicion that it doesn’t matter all that much. They are the people you’ll see in vox pops at present telling interviewers that “it’s just a flag”.
On this approach, the Northern Catholic who declines to support a united Ireland is taking a valence view of the constitutional question: the devolved/British administrations deliver for her on the (non-sectarian, possibly economic) criteria by which she makes political judgements.
In principle, such voters ought to be susceptible to policy that makes a virtue of valence: candidates running on personal competence and a set of ideas that would be relevant whether Belfast were twinned with Finchley, Skibbereen or Timbuktu.
This is hardly revolutionary – it’s essentially Alliance, minus all the chat about a shared society. All non-sectarian politics comes up against the same basic conundrum: you cannot avoid taking a position on the union, tacit or otherwise. Union is binary: it ultimately demands an In/Out answer. Ignoring the question confirms the status quo, which is In. (And when passions on nationality are inflamed, you can still take flak.) What’s interesting to consider in light of the advance of the Ambivalenter non-tribe is whether we might see any shift toward wooing voters on different grounds than their answer to the constitutional question.
This shift might come about in either of two ways: first, and one suspects the most likely, is that the main existing parties seek to draw in supporters from across the sectarian divide, while retaining core support for their sectarian stance. Peter Robinson has been making the appropriate noises here:
“Unionism is… capable of attracting a working class Protestant, a Catholic businessman and an immigrant seeking to build a new life in our country.”
What Robinson sees is that in representative democracy, voters can only give one mandate on all positions. So a nationalist voter won’t plump for the DUP despite adoring their policy on criminal justice. But an Ambivalenter voter will, because the knowledge that the DUP have taken her mandate to rough up criminals and used it to support union with the United Kingdom won’t bother her.
The alternative is that Alliance and other avowedly non-sectarian political forces (such as they are) increase their showing. A great spur for that to come about would be a political system containing an official opposition, which would be incentivised to censure administrative incompetence and policy failure. The semi-permanent unity government that current presides has no external critics, and electoral success is hardly tied to the ability to deliver on a particular promise or handle a particular brief – except in the constitutional context.
But even within the existing framework, it is certainly possible that, in the First Minister’s language, enough “new political space” has opened up between the tribes that a grab for the centre ground is electorally worthwhile. Assuming this to be the case, the old formula of providing a third, neutral option in Northern Irish politics may be behind the times. A non-sectarian voter during the Troubles effectively had only that option; an Ambivalenter voter open to voting for a nationalist, unionist or anyone else needs persuading that yours is the best party to support on the merits.
Alliance has always traded not so much as the non-sectarian party, but as the anti-sectarian party. A vote for them meant that you were enlightened, pragmatic, non-tribal and probably from North Down. It has never really mattered what their policies were, exactly, as they were never going to be implemented anyway.
But if there really is a growing cohort of people who don’t take a strong position on the union, they may not feel the same need to vote symbolically. They may care deeply about water rates or early years education instead; equally they may not.
This means that parties of the centre need to (a) make sure these voters come out and vote anyway and (b) make sure they are not won over by any of the Big Four, who after all have a strong platform from which to push any policy ideas they might happen upon that are of more substance than playground names.
Going forward, then, it may not be enough for Alliance to pose as mature, neutral and civilised; the “coping mechanism” enabling the peace process; the repository for the votes of those both sensible and marginalised. Their policies need to have specific appeal if they are to prevent the bigger parties retaining their sectarian support while simultaneously contesting for a non-sectarian centre, issue by issue.
Post scriptum: Kellner’s polling in support of his valence thesis shows that in economic and social contexts, a generic “valence” option – by hypothesis, one fair and competently implemented – will be chosen by most British voters in preference to the policy of the left, right or status quo. But for “nationalist” themes such as immigration, most support an ideological stance (the conservative one, as it happens) over a value-neutral but effective generic policy. Identity politics, it seems, are everywhere irrational. And for so long as national and cultural values are prioritised by Northern Irish voters over social and economic goals, political parties will deploy accordingly.