Question Time's studio audience. Photo: Getty Images
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The Left must speak to us all, not just our own aspiration

I was an "ordinary voter" during the election campaign. It gave me a terrifying window into the state of British politics.

In Labour’s post-defeat analysis, the most striking thing I’ve heard is Jon Cruddas on the simple, but fundamental point that the series of micro-policies the party strung together did not form a coherent whole. What was missing, he said, was an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are.’ In old fashioned times this was called an ideology, but one assumes that nowadays such terminology would frighten the horses. Bizarrely in fact, virtually anything overtly political seems to be perceived extremely scary, as I discovered during my pre-election stint as an ‘ordinary voter’ on various broadcast panels and programmes.

In their quest for ‘ordinary voters’ the broadcast media needs to demonstrate both ordinariness and balance, and the way they go about this also serves as a handy (if depressingly sheep-like) barometer of the national mood, or more precisely, of their perception of the national mood. And so, pre-show priming invariably involved an assessment of the percentage probability of which way we panelists were likely to vote and what issues were important to us.  So far so good. However it soon emerged that we had been selected for our personal circumstances and predicted responses, rather than for our political thinking. As someone running a social enterprise I was there to talk about VAT and business rates rather than the need to get rid of Trident, and whilst I wasn’t exactly gagged for sounding off about that, along with the shame of food banks and the dismantling of the welfare state, I did get several nervous ‘heads up’ that this type of talk was too ‘left wing’ and was therefore disrupting the carefully constructed balance. In order to keep to the ordinary agenda it would be better if I focused on issues that affected me.

This is extremely telling. In their role as barometers of the national mood, the message from the broadcasters is that the ordinary concerns of ordinary voters are largely personal, that people vote about things that directly affect them.

This is why food banks are deemed to be such a marginal issue – the percentage of people who actually use them is tiny, so what is everyone else bothered about?  Once you start talking about the social, economic, and political effects on the rest of society, not to mention a concern for the people who have use them, you’ve gone into ‘politics’ and spoilt the pre-constructed balance as well as over stepping the mark for an ordinary person.

When the broadcast media follows this path it ends up with ordinary people doing exactly what Jon Cruddas said of the Labour Party – they focus on a series of disconnected micro policies, largely domestically based, rather than an overarching direction and vision built on an analysis of how we got where we are. As it is ordinary people who vote, and who are the subject of the much vaunted focus groups and polls, which are apparently the main feeding ground for policy makers, you can see how reductive the whole process is.  Add to this is the frenzy over key marginals and the debate becomes ever narrower, especially when the broadcasters complete this unhealthy cycle by reading it off as ‘the national mood’ and reflecting it all back again.

This affects the left far more than the right, largely because the right has positioned itself as the status quo, and apart from a few platitudes about Queen, country and hard working families, it doesn’t need a thorough going narrative about who and what they are  - because they already are, they are the ‘establishment’ and it’s up to the challengers to come up with a compelling reason to get them out. Which clearly didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that politics itself has become depoliticized, reduced to a shopping list of promises, with the main parties parading as the personal shopper best-suited to meet your needs. This is the gated-community version of reality, where the ultimate goal is for individuals to cut themselves off from the rest of society, rather than having us see ourselves as inter-connected citizens with a stake in what goes on around us.

The post-election talk of aspiration is a manifestation of this atomisation, because it’s about personal aspiration, not aspiration for the common good. Unfortunately the lie, initiated by one M Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society, appears to have slipped in round the back when no one was looking and etched itself into some universal law. In the words of Bill Hicks - I wasn’t at that meeting. This means that progressive and left -leaning parties and organisations need to start from scratch and make the case that there is such a thing, as this is surely the basis of an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are’ that Cruddas is talking about. It would also help if politicians – and broadcasters – didn’t underestimate we ordinary voters so much. The idea that we can’t understand/stomach/care about/respond to a bigger vision is rubbish. It’s what we’re crying out for.

Julia Brosnan is Co-Director of Dovetail: the change-making agency, and a member of The Equality Trust. 

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.