Northern Ireland at Westminster: confidence, supply and the principle of consent

Northern Ireland’s MPs rarely play a big role in Commons arithmetic. With only 18 out of 650 seats, they’re rarely decisive in the United Kingdom’s elections. Furthermore, none of the UK-wide parties win seats there.

So we’re not very used to Northern Ireland’s politicians having much say in the government of the UK. The current maths shocked us all. And as a Labour member, I clearly hold no brief for a Conservative confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. But the way the legitimacy, as opposed to the wisdom and policy content, of such a deal has been attacked has often been problematic at best. And at worst it’s ignored Northern Ireland’s right to a say in the UK altogether.

Who are the DUP anyway?

Much commentary on the DUP has been rooted in an ignorance of their nature. DUP politicians are indeed socially conservative in a way those in Great Britain rarely are these days. Greater scrutiny of that conservatism would be thoroughly justified. They show no sign of trying to export those norms to Great Britain — they will probably mainly want more money for Northern Ireland. But it would be a thoroughly good thing if we heard more about the impact of DUP attitudes on women and LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It is striking that Westminster never tried to equalise its abortion laws with Great Britain’s through all the years of direct rule. (We should also note this isn’t just the DUP’s prerogative in Northern Ireland. Our own sister party, the SDLP, is just as opposed.)

There are valid points to make about the history of several DUP politicians. The rhetoric and behaviour of the late Ian Paisley deserved excoriation — though in the end he formed a joint Executive, which we should remember too. It’s fair to say that it did at times display a worrying level of equivocation over loyalist terrorism. Recently, the RHI scandal and Arlene Foster’s stubbornness speak ill of DUP attitudes to good governance.

But conflating the DUP’s periodic failure to keep its nose clean with the role of the IRA mistakes the case. Conflating deeply conservative religiosity with having been inextricably bound up with terrorism won’t get you very far in understanding Northern Ireland. And DUP flirtations with Ulster Resistance were very different from the IRA’s responsibility for nearly half of deaths during the Troubles and its inherent connection with Sinn Féin. I’m not saying there aren’t a great many charges to lay at the DUP’s door over many years. But I am saying it’s a different set of arguments. The DUP is not the PUP.

Confidence, supply and the peace process

It is wholly fair to worry about the impact on the impartiality of the UK Government, perceived or actual, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The key part of the Good Friday Agreement cited here reads as follows:

The two Governments:

… affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions …

It doesn’t constrain government formation in either the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. (Imagine the reaction were a united Ireland banned from giving Sinn Féin a role in government in Dublin and you’ll see why not.)

But it would be wholly unacceptable for the UK Government to be parti pris on either side in the peace process. A full coalition, with collective responsibility across government policy including the Northern Ireland Office, currently would make the UK Government’s position impossible in practice. But that’s not on the cards. A full coalition would serve neither the DUP’s interest nor the Conservatives’. The DUP wouldn’t want that level of responsibility; the Conservatives will have to reach beyond the DUP to make this House of Commons function anyway.

The main issue, from a Tory point of view, is guaranteed support for its Budgets — supply. And with a confidence and supply deal, there is no need for matters relating to the NIO to be included. It is completely fair to be worried about the quality of those assurances and to scrutinise the substance of a confidence and supply deal. Obviously, there would need to be assurances about impartiality, which the Irish Government states it has been given. And as the SDLP’s leader has very sensibly said, “We have to judge it on its merits and see what the deal looks like.”

A confidence and supply deal may well be a bad idea. It may very well be politically unwise. But it’s not constitutionally or politically illegitimate in and of itself, any more than it was when Labour toyed with similar deals in 2010.

The principle of consent

Above all, too many in Great Britain have seemed hostile to the very notion that Northern Ireland’s MPs might affect the balance of power at Westminster. It feels a bit like the concerns in the 1950s that integrating Malta into the UK might allow its MPs to do the same in close elections. But unlike Malta, Northern Ireland already forms part of the UK. Its MPs have every right to a say in its governance, as do MPs from England, Scotland and Wales.

This is a basic principle of fair treatment of the UK’s constituent countries. It also goes to the heart of the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK is based on the will of its people and can only be changed by that same will. Membership of the UK confers certain rights, including a voice in the House of Commons. If you don’t grant the region the right to its say in excepted and reserved matters and its voice in Parliament — and if your view is essentially that it can only have that voice so long as it never decides anything, you’re only granting that right in the narrowest possible way, if at all — you’ve got a pretty shallow understanding of the principle of consent.

It’s natural that, say, Sinn Féin’s leadership would argue Northern Ireland politicians should have no role in helping form a UK Government. They’re an abstentionist party and they seek a united Ireland. And of course they have every right to that position. If Northern Ireland and the Republic ever wish to form a united Ireland, the UK should give effect to it without demur.

But in the meantime, there’s no need for the rest of us to take a very specific view of legitimacy at face value. Northern Ireland’s rights within the UK extend further than simply not expelling it from the body politic. Whatever you think of the DUP, we should all remember that.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 20 June 2017.

Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics

Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.

As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.

Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)

The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.

Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.

Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.

And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.

Why it matters

This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.

How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.

If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?

This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.

It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.

Free votes: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Whip

Free votes are funny things, and much overrated. We always have them for changing parliamentary procedure. We normally have them on things like abortion, equal marriage and euthanasia: essentially, ‘God issues’. Sometimes, we have them for no very obvious reason: fox-hunting was a case in point. And occasionally, we have them to make a point: Ted Heath held one on the ‘in principle’ vote for entering the EEC in 1972, largely to encourage Labour to split as badly as possible on the same issue.

It’s easy to see why they appeal. We complain about spineless lobby fodder, MPs with no independence of thought, rigid party dogma and so on. Allowing a freewheeling debate, with MPs able to vote their conscience, sounds great (though actually, plenty of MPs rebel). You even hear people saying we shouldn’t have whips at all.

But there’s a reason why in practice, MPs usually get free votes when either the party doesn’t care too much, the outcome isn’t in doubt, religion comes into play or party management means leaders think they have no choice. Equal marriage is important to me personally, for instance, but the whole of government policy on tax, benefits and inheritance wouldn’t have fallen apart if it hadn’t gone through. Not everything can be separated out so neatly.

Take the free vote principle too far, and eventually governments can’t govern coherently at all. If the Budget is completely rewritten by a series of splits, you’re not going to get a massively improved document with better policy for all: you’ll probably get a complete mishmash with everyone running round to try and square all the contradictions after Parliament has voted.

If you run a foreign policy on a ‘voting at will’ basis, you’ll also get an incoherent mess. The Government’s decision to allow Cabinet ministers to campaign against each other in the EU referendum and Labour’s free vote on Syria both illustrate the point. EU membership and decisions on military action are fundamental to UK policy. You can’t just say ‘Well, we’re neutral on leaving the EU, but basically our foreign, security and economic policies are the same either way’ or ‘Well, we don’t have a line on military action in Syria, but basically our policy on the Middle East is the same either way’. These decisions are game-changers: if you don’t have a position on them, you don’t have much of a position full stop.

Too many free votes don’t just make governing harder: they blur government accountability. Most people don’t think they vote for their individual MP: they think they vote for their preferred government, or their preferred party, or to send a message of some kind. The link between how we vote in an election and what policies we get depends, ultimately, on ensuring that MPs from a given party usually vote the same way. I don’t want a completely unwhipped Parliament for the same reason I don’t want a House of Commons filled with independents: parties may be unpopular, but they’re also necessary.

This isn’t to say MPs should be partisan lobby-fodder: dissent is important. But you can’t dissent when there’s nothing to dissent from. Most of the time, governments have to set out their stall and make sure their MPs are happy enough with the collective line that they can get it through Parliament. Rebellions serve a purpose, but so do concerns expressed on the floor of the House or in Committee: they allow for an interplay between a government and its MPs.

And if enough of your MPs won’t toe your preferred line, then you usually need to change it. When Labour MPs made it clear to Jeremy Corbyn that they wouldn’t be led down anything other than a pro-European path, that was the principle of parliamentary democracy at work. To his credit, he gave way, and Labour will now campaign to stay in the EU. No leader can survive without the acquiescence of the MPs they’re meant to lead. Tony Blair shouldn’t have had a free vote on Iraq: he should have had a policy with which MPs were more comfortable.

So yes, we need MPs who don’t always toe the party line. Sometimes MPs have to rebel. But let’s not confuse valuing dissent with not taking a position at all.

Lords in limbo: apply the Salisbury Convention in spirit as well as letter, please

Lords reform has been fairly heavily trailed for some time now, and we’ve had a bit more confirmation that the White Paper is on the way in the past couple of days.  I’ll be glad to see the Government make headway on this: despite the outcome of the AV referendum, Lords reform has been a longstanding commitment from politicians of all parties and the evidence has always been pretty clear that a majority of the public believe our second chamber should be (at least predominantly) elected.

Personally, I think this really should be a fairly cut-and-dried issue.  Members of the House of Lords are not primarily independent experts, sources of warnings or nods to tradition.  These are all understandable things to want, and we ought to think much harder about how we integrate expertise into our legislative process, but they are not the primary role of the people who vote in the second chamber.  They are, first and foremost, legislators – and legislators whose record of changing Bills and therefore policy is significant and growing.  If we want expertise, we should make sure we have it in the right committees and the right debates for the right issues.  (Could some experts even sit on Select Committees, in the Commons and in a new second chamber, as non-voting, co-opted members?)

The people who actually do make our laws should be democratically accountable.  In an ideal world, therefore, we should finish up with nothing less than a 100% elected second chamber.  I’m relatively relaxed about the finer points of STV versus open lists (lists where you can choose a candidate within a party list rather than just opting for a party): so long as it’s a proportional system where voters don’t just have to tick a party box, I’ll settle for it.

With regard to the likely plans to come from the Government: I’m not ecstatic about the idea of 15-year terms and I have fairly serious reservations about single terms – I think it’s an important principle that legislators should have to at least consider the possibility that they might want to face the electorate again, and if we’re serious about democracy then we have to accept that that requires accountability.  Electing by thirds (or halves, or quarters) is sensible, though: our new Senate should be a more continuous body than the House of Commons, and a combination of PR and staggered elections would help to make sure it fits the bill.  In terms of dealing with the current members of the Lords, I think an arrangement along the lines of the Cranborne deal might make sense – which would mean that we’d have 200 left in 2015, 100 left in 2020 and none by 2025 (when the full complement of Senators would have been elected).

But I’m enough of a pragmatist to understand that, if you want Lords reform at all, you can’t let the best be the enemy of the good.  The fact that people haven’t recognised that is exactly why Lords reform hasn’t happened, even with a Labour government who said they wanted it in charge for 13 years.  So if Nick Clegg can even secure an 80% elected second chamber, even with twelve voting bishops (though the latter will cause me real pain …) and even with all the other peers staying until 2025, then I’ll see that as a major step forwards and a real achievement.  Of course, that depends on his Coalition partners voting it through.  Whether the Conservatives will choose to live up to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Coalition Agreement remains to be seen: if they choose not to, no doubt Liberal Democrats will feel even more betrayed than many of them do already.

The other question is how fiercely the House of Lords will resist being reformed.  Everyone seems to agree that they will fight tooth and nail against reform.  I do appreciate that, when people find themselves on the red benches, they have an uncanny knack of seeing the wisdom of allowing the nation to carry on benefiting from their wisdom.  The Cross Benches’ reluctance is understandable, given that there would undoubtedly be pretty few (if any) of them in a 100% elected second chamber and that their role would inevitably be questioned in an 80% elected one.  In any case, the difficulties the Lords could cause for reform, and for large areas of Government business, are very substantial indeed.

It’ll eventually be a question of whether the Coalition has the political will to push change through, whether peers like it or not.  But one thing I really don’t understand is: on what basis do the Lords think they have any right to derail this legislation at all?  All three main party manifestos called for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber.  All parties have been reasonably clear, with some wobbling from the Conservatives in the past, that the second chamber would need to be elected by some sort of proportional system.  In 2005, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also called for a wholly or majority elected second chamber too.

It seems to me that, if a pledge won the support of both parties in the Coalition when they went to the country (as well as the Opposition and a number of the smaller parties), we have a pretty clear case of the Salisbury Convention in action.  I can see why the Lords might query some Coalition compromises in that regard: no one got to vote for the Coalition Agreement.  But on this one, I just can’t see where the ambiguity lies.  It was proposed: it was in the manifestos: it’s now in the process of being turned into a White Paper, and hopefully a Bill.  If there’s any defence, it’s surely of the most technical kind.  Where exactly did the Salisbury Convention include a bit saying the Lords didn’t have to apply it to their own seats?

Why I’m voting ‘Yes’ to AV

The AV referendum is probably going to be our last chance to express a view on how to choose our MPs for quite some time.  I can’t see the issue coming back for about 20 years.  So if you’re concerned about our democracy (or, indeed, if you’re delighted with it the way it is), the vote on 5 May is a crucial one.

Whichever side wins, one MP will still continue to represent each local area; whichever side wins, the voting system will be almost equally likely to deliver majority governments.  We’re being asked, instead, which of two options is the fairer way of choosing our (single) local MP.

On that basis, in the full knowledge that the question here is AV versus FPTP and independently of the chances of any further reform, I’m hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote – and for what they’re worth, here are my main reasons:

1. With AV, a local MP will better reflect local people’s views

AV will make sure your MP’s views are nearer the real centre of gravity in your local area – and prevent a cohesive minority, who don’t really reflect most people’s views, from taking over instead.

For instance, imagine a seat where the Conservatives win 35% of the vote, Labour win 30%, the Greens win 25% and the Liberal Democrats and Socialists both win 5%.  Leave aside the fact that the Tories only got 35% of the vote: as a matter of pure common sense, looking at the political consensus in this area, would a Tory victory really be a fair reflection of how most people voted?  It would be the same if Labour won 35%, the Tories won 30%, UKIP won 25% and the Lib Dems and English Democrats both won 5%.  In both cases, FPTP delivers the seat to a party who is strongly opposed by most voters: AV would fix that.

2. With AV, no citizen will have to fear voting for their real first choice and getting their last instead

A general election should be your chance to weigh up what different parties offer, look at local candidates and make an honest statement of preference.  It’s the only chance you get to express your opinion on what kind of Britain you want and who you want in charge and, hopefully, have some bearing on the outcome.

But for too many people, elections have stopped being an expression of belief and become a glorified game of chess.  Keeping the enemy out becomes the only aim: voting ceases to function as an expressive act, a positive endorsement, and starts to be a defensive (often grudging) manoeuvre.  And people who might have voted Green, Liberal Democrat or UKIP (or Labour or Conservative, for that matter) end up hiding their true colours and walking away from the polling booth feeling cheated.  This is no way to run a democracy.

3. AV will make our political system a little more open

For better or worse, British voters have been gradually drifting away from the two largest parties.  Labour and the Conservatives barely won 65% of the total vote in 2010; in 1951, they won nearly 97%.  This has happened under a system which actively discourages voting for new parties.  At the last European election, Tory and Labour support fell as low as 43.4%.  Although I doubt we’d see figures quite that low in a general election, I do believe the current voting system is suppressing the real range of British public opinion.

There is an argument that the voting system should guard against a mass of tiny parties making the Commons unworkable: there’s not much of a democratic argument that it should try and stop any new political force from being given expression by the people.  But FPTP preserves our party system in aspic: and if we ever saw a real surge in popular opinion, the voting system would crush it.

We’ve got the proof from the 1980s.  The Liberal-SDP Alliance failed, but not because it couldn’t command mass support (25.4% of voters endorsed them even under FPTP) or because it had no credibility (the Gang of Four had all been Cabinet ministers).  Ultimately, people didn’t believe they could win and didn’t take the risk.  They might or might not have actually done so under AV: but if they had, an Alliance government’s economic policy would almost certainly have been a much better reflection of public opinion than Thatcher’s.  It is very hard to believe that democracy was well served by the actual outcome, whatever your politics.

4. AV will produce governments with a stronger democratic mandate

Even if you want majority governments, their declining electoral mandate ought to worry you – and AV can help there.  AV would, for instance, still have given Labour a majority in 2005.  But Liberal Democrat voters were pretty repelled by Michael Howard’s campaign: most of them would have ranked Labour above the Conservatives.  SNP and Plaid Cymru voters aren’t known for preferring Tory governments.  65% of people voted against Labour in 2005, but it’s almost certain that a majority of people preferred a Labour government to a Tory one: with AV, we’d have known that they did, and that broader (though, yes, less committed) support would have been expressed at the ballot box.

When we do get hung parliaments, we’ll also have a much better idea of what voters want their preferred party to do.  If Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 preferred a Labour-Lib Dem deal, we’d have known about it from their second (third, etc.) preferences: equally, we’d have a better idea of whether the country preferred a Cameron-led government from preference data.  With FPTP, we have no real way of knowing what voters want when no one wins outright: with AV, we do – and so politicians have fewer places to hide.

Finally …

Unless trends change radically, we can expect a number of things to happen under FPTP in the coming years.  MPs will be elected with ever lower levels of public support.  Governments will win majorities with smaller and smaller mandates from the voters – Labour’s 35.2% of the vote in 2005 could just be the start of things to come.  Whether we get a government in line, even roughly, with the people’s wishes will become more and more a matter of luck, electoral geography and how many parties split the vote on which part of the political spectrum.  And by the way, we’ll probably get a few more hung parliaments, whatever the voting system.

AV isn’t perfect and it won’t fix every problem.  But it’s a better and a fairer way of choosing our representatives than the one we’ve got.  MPs will have stronger mandates from their constituents – not a perfect mandate, not the whole-hearted support of everyone in their area, but a reasonably broad base of support in a multi-party system where voters can cast an honest preference.  Governments will rely on broader support than they do now – and because they’ll need to maintain (qualified) support from other parties’ voters, they’ll be wise to govern in a way which reflects that broader support.  And our political system will be better able to give big shifts in public opinion some form of expression, rather than just bottling them up.

If you want to be able to vote with your heart and your head at the same time; if you want governments to listen to a broad swathe of the people; if you want a politics which lets new people and new ideas into the debate: vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday.