Opposition formation and Executive woes.

Well. Thursday proved to be quite the interesting day at Stormont, as Northern Ireland politics witnessed a dramatic declaration and the formation of a formal Opposition in the Assembly Chamber. This is, to me at least, an exciting development for Northern Irish politics, and I know I will be looking forward to the new mandate.

Now, I have written extensively about the aftermath of the recent Assembly election, but what I have yet to mention on my blog is the discussion about the formation of an Official Opposition in Stormont. Before I launch into Stormont Storytime with Leah regarding the events of Thursday, allow me to elaborate on the Opposition discussion to set the scene.

Now, back in 2014 former Ulster Unionist-turned NI21 deputy Leader-turned Independent Unionist John McCallister proposed a Private Members’ Bill: a bill which aimed to significantly reform Stormont by creating an Official Opposition. It also proposed re-naming the Executive leaders as the ‘joint first ministers’ in lieu of First Minister and deputy First Minister, and reform the selection of the Speaker, so that they would no longer represent constituents and would be replaced by their party. Mr McCallister also proposed introducing collective cabinet responsibility in statute, thereby meaning that ministers who vote against Executive policy would have to resign.

This was quite the proposal, as  it should be noted the power-sharing Executive was established as a mandatory coalition as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Consequentially, there had been few formal entitlements provided for, such as special speaking time at Stormont, which is present in Westminster. Some developments for empowering opposition had been proposed in recent times. Under the finalised all-party Stormont House Agreement deal from 2014, arrangements were to have been introduced for parties entitled to a ministerial position who did not take it up to be recognised as an official opposition. This did not come to pass however, as the SHA was not implemented.

Mr McCallister had said that there was a demand for Assembly reform:

“The mood out there in the country is telling us: this thing needs to change or else it doesn’t deserve to exist; the First Minister is telling us that this place isn’t fit for purpose; I as a member of it can tell you that it is not fit for purpose.

“Either we reform it or it fails and, as somebody who believes passionately in Northern Ireland, I don’t want to see this place fail.”

He added that if Stormont did not undergo a process reform, it was at risk of losing some of its devolved powers, or even face another potential existential crisis – not exactly favourable at a time when the UK’s other devolved legislatures were tipped to receive additional responsibilities ceded from Westminster.

The bill was proposed in September 2015, in the aftermath of the now-infamous summer of Stormont crisis. Remember, that summer saw Stormont at risk of collapse as the Ulster Unionists withdrew from the power-sharing Executive and the DUP underwent a war of words with Sinn Féin following the revelation that the provisional IRA was still in existence. After that summer, the calls for reform grew louder, with many MLAs now viewing the Opposition bill more favourably than before. It would eventually receive Royal Assent on the 23rd March 2016, making perfect time for the Assembly election in May and the subsequent negotiations for Executive formation.

However, there were notable amendments to the initial bill. The full list of key reforms Mr McCallister proposed may be viewed here, but the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 does not include provision for enshrining collective cabinet responsibility in statute, nor did it rename the positions of First Minster and deputy First Minister. (The Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister -OFMdFM- was renamed to The Executive Office, but that was part of the streamlining of government departments, not due to the 2016 Act.) However, the 2016 Act does provide for the formation of an Opposition, and in turn provides for additional accountability, scrutiny and essentially a government-in-waiting.

That little Constitutional law tutorial will come into play, as I recall the events of Thursday. Yesterday’s events were weeks in the making, and the outcomes were thus: 1) the potential to have a cross-community Opposition, and 2) the potential to have either an Executive comprised solely of the DUP and Sinn Féin, or 3) the North Irish electorate having to head to the ballot box should the Executive fail to form by next Wednesday 25th May.

I was getting ready to sit down to the six o’clock news in the evening, when the news broke that the SDLP, the second largest Nationalist party in the Assembly, had declared its intent to enter Opposition. Firstly, I was excited because it meant my predictions were correct. Secondly and mainly, I was excited because of the constitutional significance of these decision, and I suppose I felt the thrill of knowing the SDLP would be acting in conjunction with the Ulster Unionists as an alternative, viable government-in-waiting.

You see, they were not the first to announce entering Opposition: during the first Plenary session since the election, Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt announced the Ulster Unionists would be entering Opposition, “[the party] has decided unanimously to form the first Opposition” and boldly declared “let battle commence.” Cue a furore in the Chamber, and in the Press. I thought it was telling though that after Mr Nesbitt said this, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood stated that the SDLP “want[ed] to see a Programme for Government we can sign up to, and if we can’t we will go into Opposition.” Evidently, there was grounds for entering Opposition at that stage, during Executive formation negotiations.

Just a day later, Mr Nesbitt was on BBC Talkback, where shared that in his opinion “a cross-community opposition [would be] in a stronger position than going it alone”. He may or may not have been hinting to the SDLP that the party should join the Ulster Unionists to form an Official Opposition.

Mike Nesbitt Opposition Tweet
I simply couldn’t resist this paraphrasing.

Negotiations continued, and the beginning of this week (16th May) saw the Alliance Party -one of the ‘main five’ and the only party of the main five who designate as ‘Other’ -declare its intent to withdraw from the Executive. This news must surely have prompted a headache for the DUP and Sinn Féin, the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively, as it holds up the finalised formation of the Executive (of which they dominate).

Traditionally, Alliance holds the Justice portfolio since the Department’s creation following the successful devolution of justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010. The devolution of policing and justice was pledged in the St Andrews Agreement (of October 2006) and the Hillsborough Castle Agreement (of February 2010) and occurred in April 2010. Now, per the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended, the Minister of Justice is elected by a cross-community vote, unlike all other Northern Ireland Executive posts, which are either allocated by the d’Hondt method or appointed directly by the largest parties ie the First Minister and the deputy First Minister . This exception was made to resolve a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin; policing and justice matters are sensitive matters, given the history of conflict in Northern Ireland, and these parties did not want the post to become politicised at the hands of one another. Alliance stepped in, nominated Party Leader David Ford to post in April 2010 and successfully availed of the cross-community vote exception.

Mr Ford held the portfolio until the recent Assembly election, but it had been assumed by many – including the DUP and Sinn Féin, I would imagine – Alliance would again take the portfolio in the new mandate. Mr Ford may have declared his intention not to seek re-election to the post before the Assembly’s dissolution, but I suppose we assumed another Alliance MLA would take up the nomination instead. However, Mr Ford said he was not in a position to recommend to his party to take on the portfolio once more. n Alliance Party delegation left Stormont Castle after a meeting with Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness that only lasted 10 minutes yesterday. Then came the announcement that Alliance’s ruling council endorsed the party’s decision not to take up the Justice Ministry.  Mr Ford said the Alliance party’s recommendations, which “would have moved Northern Ireland forward and created a better society for all”, were “rejected by the DUP and Sinn Féin”and so the party felt it could not enter into the Executive. And this causes quite the problem.

As previously mentioned, the Justice Ministry was always held by Alliance because of the politically-sensitive issues which stem from policing and justice matters. It was considered politically astute to have an ‘Other’ party occupy the post, to prevent claims of discrimination, bias etc. should a Nationalist or Unionist party hold the position. Which begs the question: if Alliance remain steadfastly opposed to taking the post, what happens next?

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, has warned that if there is not a nomination for the post, fresh elections must be called. This is not the route anyone wants to take, surely. The recent election was gruelling enough for the parties, and canvassers and candidates have most likely not even recovered from campaigning. Moreover, I doubt the electorate will be impressed with the behaviour and actions witnesses at Stormont over the recent days, meaning there could be a poor turnout. Any Assembly elected from a low turnout vote cannot claim to be representative, or in possession of a mandate.

The logical option in my humble opinion is to turn to the de facto Constitution of Northern Ireland – the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The 1998 Act as amended provides an alternative means to ensure the filling of a department post. S21A of the 1998 Act concentrates specifically on a ‘department with policing and justice functions’ so naturally could be applied in this instance. S21A(3) states the elevation of an Assembly member to the post of Justice Minister can be achieved through the nomination of the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly, and passed by a majority cross-community vote. Seems rather standard – the Assembly in the Department of Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2010, opted to use the provisions from subsection 3 to have the Minister nominated by an MLA and approved by a cross community vote in the Assembly, cue the successful election of Mr Ford.

But the Act also provides the proverbial ‘get out of jail free card’ should the former process prove unavailable, such as in the case at hand. S21A(4) provides ‘for the department to be in the charge of two Northern Ireland Ministers acting jointly’, and (5)(a) elaborates on this, by providing for the department to be in the charge of a Northern Ireland Minister who is supported by a junior Minister. It could be reasonably deduced that the drafters of S21A were aware of the politically sensitive nature of the department, were aware of the context behind it, and foresaw there could be the occasion when the post could not be filled by one MLA. Subsection 4 provides for a balanced approach, ensuring power-sharing between Nationalists and Unionists to allay any concerns about one party dominating the position. This is evidenced further by the inclusion of (5)(b) which provides for those jointly holding the office ‘to rotate at intervals determined by or under the Act’ meaning the person who was the Minister in charge of the department becomes the junior Minister, and the person who was the junior Minister becomes the Minister.

So, could the DUP and Sinn Féin avail of this provision, thereby resulting in an Executive comprised solely of these parties? Maybe, maybe not. It seems theoretically unlikely that the DUP would accept a Republican Justice Minister; even if the Sinn Féin MLA occupied the junior Minister position initially, the role would rotate in time.

As Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness seemingly sought to solve this issue on their own, they held talks with the Green MLAs, and independent Unionist Claire Sugden. Whether these were legitimate talks with the aim of attempting to ascertain whether one of these MLAs could take the post of Justice Minister, or simply a way to call the bluff of Alliance remains to be seen. My own thought was that at this rate, the Executive may end up comprising of the DUP, Sinn Féin, a collection of tumbleweeds, and the kitchen sink.

With this in the background, SDLP Party Leader Mr Eastwood, who had said he was “very disappointed” over the negotiation talks, announced that the party will go into Opposition. Mr Eastwood said the SDLP would work with anyone who was happy to work with them, but “this will be a positive and constructive opposition, not opposition for opposition’s sake.”  It was a bold decision, he said, but it was a necessary one to make as it was now evident the “other parties are not prepared to work on a Programme for Government that can bring about that change.” Moreover, it was submitted that as the SDLP has its own mandate from the electorate to work towards, the party aims to work to that mandate and stand by its policies.

I thought it was interesting and rather significant to hear Mr Eastwood say one of the party’s given reasons for withdrawing from the Executive:

“We wanted to put together a Programme for Government with actions, implementations and things that we could all be held accountable for. The DUP and Sinn Fein did not want to do that, so we were not prepared to sign up.”

It suggests the SDLP are prepared to have a collective cabinet responsibility of sorts implemented, of the sort initially proposed by John McCallister in his original Opposition Bill. I feel it is illustrative of the progressive politics promised by the party in their manifesto, of parties being subjected to scrutiny and being accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

However, after meeting with the SDLP the First Minister and deputy First Minister were evidently unimpressed with the party’s decision to withdraw from the Executive. Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness issued a joint statement, accusing the SDLP of dishonesty and utilising media tactics and spin in a quest to stay relevant:

“For the SDLP to now claim they do not agree with the Programme for Government process is dishonest given that they were part of developing it.

“The new PfG has not been plucked out of thin air. It has involved extensive consultation with political parties in the Executive, including the SDLP, dating back to last December.

“The SDLP were involved in this process every step of the way. At no stage during it did they raise any objections, concerns or, more importantly, alternatives to this planned approach.

“The SDLP attended four workshops on the development of the new PfG from December to February.

“These workshops clearly set out the objectives for May, and a further later phase setting out specific actions to be taken.

“You would have to question why at this stage – and because of the SDLP involvement from the outset – they now say the framework they were fully involved in lacks ambition.”

“Either the SDLP had no intention of joining the new Executive and are playing to the gallery and the media.

“Or, they failed to grasp the new approach to government and are not up for the challenges ahead.

“Or, in an act of desperation inspired by their poor election result, they are now preparing to slavishly follow the Ulster Unionist Party out of government.

“We are committed to putting together the best possible PfG that will create more and better jobs and investment in our health service, our schools and support for the most vulnerable in society.”

I feel the tone and rhetoric here is rather uncalled for. I understand it is used for reasons of political PR, but words such as ‘act of desperation’ and ‘slavishly follow’ should not be used for political point-scoring by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I don’t know about you, but I do think that it is rather ironic that parties which signed up to the Fresh Start Agreement I mentioned previously, which provided for the establishment of an Official Opposition (see Section F) in particular, now complain when an Official Opposition looks set to be created.

This is not an instance of going ‘out of government’ per the joint statement from Thursday. This is an instance of two parties opting to form an Opposition which seeks to be constructive, effective and increase accountability in the Assembly. I see no fault here. Far from abandoning the power-sharing principles of the Good Friday Agreement, these parties are offering a power-sharing Opposition to mirror a power-sharing Executive. This appears to be the Good Friday Agreement for 2016, a sign of Northern Irish politics maturing and progressing. This should be welcomed and encouraged, not sneeringly dismissed.

A power-sharing Executive versus a power-sharing Opposition. Stormont looks set to be very interesting in this mandate.

Of Rebellion and Defeat.

Yesterday saw the Queen’s Speech delivered and the official State Opening of Parliament, with the Government announcing a range of new bills for the coming year. You can read my initial analysis of the Speech here, if you so desire.

It was a speech which many considered to be an attempt to secure a legacy of social reform for Prime Minister David Cameron following a period of threatened party rebellions. Instead, it could be simply an exercise in how best to deal with rebellion. Yes, the Conservative Government may be facing defeat on the Queen’s Speech due to a growing rebellion within the party. It has only been one day since it was delivered, and already the Speech is causing quite the headache for the Government.

The Government finds itself having to contend with open rebellion which could result in a government defeat on the Queen’s Speech. This comes as some 25 Eurosceptic Conservative MPs are openly backing an amendment to the Speech. This amendment is to express regret that the NHS is not specifically exempted from a trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP deal. Moreover, Mr Corbyn, the Labour Leader, has confirmed that Labour will be supporting this amendment. This means that if the Labour MPs join forces with rebel Tory backbenchers and other MPs join the fray – it had been rumoured that the SNP would support the amendment – the Government may see the first defeat of a Queen’s Speech in the Commons since 1924.

This planned rebellion marks the second time the Eurosceptics have worked in conjunction with Labour MPs in an attempt to force an historic defeat on a major Government event. The first instance was on the Tampon Tax after the March Budget, if you are interested.

Such rebellions, especially went undertaken along with Opposition MPs, are embarrassing and may prove damaging to the Government. It is bad enough when you face threats of blocking bills etc. from the Opposition, but some crumbs of comfort are taken in the fact that this is essentially the Opposition’s job: block and/or hold up anything which they disagree with, either on the basis of the public interest or general political ideology. When your own backbench MPs threaten rebellion, it is a tad too close to home and simply serves to weaken the Government’s position, as well as that of the party. This rings especially true if you are a Government possessing a slim majority in the Commons: every vote counts, and the loss of several backbench votes could prove costly.

What tends to happen is that in the event of a possible rebellion, the Government seeks to determine what the issue is which acted as the catalyst. In this case, it appears the Eurosceptism of the MPs in question is the source. Remember how I said yesterday that everything is now viewed through the lens of the upcoming EU referendum? I feel this applies here. These Conservative MPs had originally been hesitant to provoke a rebellion, but have changed their minds now due to what they perceive as the Government’s ‘project fear’ in the referendum campaign. Moreover, they were further influenced in their decision in light of allegations of a Number 10 briefing campaign against Justice Secretary Michael Gove in particular. (It should be noted that The Times’ article today seemingly suggests Mr Gove is not altogether innocent.)

What further adds weight to the rebellion, and potential damage to the Government, is that the Government will struggle to contain and overcome this particular amendment regarding the NHS and TTIP.

You see, the line has consistently been that the NHS is explicitly exempt from TTIP. Indeed, Government Ministers and their spokespeople have a tendency to reference a 2015 letter from EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström to Lord Livingston about TTIP in which she writes that ‘there is no reason to fear either for the NHS as it stands today or for changes to the NHS in future, as a result of TTIP or indeed EU trade policy more broadly’. The Eurosceptic MPs know of the traditional line, and know that for the Government to concede in some way on the issue will only serve to undermine this message. Evidently they will use this to pile pressure on the Government following a lack of mention of this oft-promised exemption yesterday.

The Prime Minister has now sought to seek détente. In an attempt to avoid a Commons defeat, Downing Street has agreed to sign up to a cross-party move to exclude the NHS from the terms of a controversial EU-US trade deal. Essentially, the Government will agree to the amendment should it be produced. As a Number 10 spokesman said:

“As we’ve said all along, there is no threat to the NHS from TTIP. So if this amendment is selected, we’ll accept it.”

Now, this is rather clever, as it shows the Government is aware it is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. It cannot avoid discussing the issue, and it was aware of its vulnerability to a potential attack on the traditional and oft-used line regarding the NHS and TTIP as previously outlined. Hence the ‘as we’ve said all along’ comment – Number 10 is trying to see off a rebellion about the omission of the exemption by reiterating its continued support for the exemption as a defence. By issuing this statement of support for the amendment, the Government reiterates its position, and may just avoid rebellion at the same time.

The plot lead by the 25 Conservative Eurosceptics may have resulted in only a symbolic vote, but symbolism is important (as a Northern Irish politico such as myself can confirm.) The Government would not want to enter the new Parliamentary session with a defeat, the first defeat on a Queen’s Speech since 1924. Perhaps more importantly in the current environment, it would not have wished to enter the final countdown towards the EU referendum off the back of such a historic and symbolic defeat, knowing that Eurosceptics from its own party were the instigators. It is telling that immediately after the statement was issued, the Vote Leave campaign branded the move as a humiliating climb down.

The civil war in the Conservative party over the European Union and the June referendum strikes again, and shows that normal politics is suspended until the referendum has concluded. It also raises again the question of how exactly the Conservatives plan to unify post-Referendum. Actions like this planned rebellion is evidence of the very obvious and quite bitter division within the party, and such division is not easily mended. The Queen’s Speech was supposed to burnish the ‘One Nation’ credentials of the Conservative Government, and secure the Prime Minister’s legacy. It might just have served instead to highlight the historic division within the party over Europe. The real battle ahead for Mr Cameron is not winning the EU referendum: it is winning back his party.

A Queen Speaks, and Parliament Opens.

I realise the title of this post sounds akin to a riddle, which is rather apt when you consider the interpretation one must do when listening to the subject of said blog post.

Yes, today marked the State Opening of Parliament, that traditional and grandiose event which sees the Queen setting out the legislative programme of the Government, just a year after the general election. She does this through delivering The Queen’s Speech, given in the presence of members of both the Commons and the Lords. It occurs at the start of each Parliamentary session, and forms the central part of the State Opening of Parliament. The purpose of the Speech, as previously mentioned, is to set out the Government’s policies and proposed legislative programme for the new Parliamentary session. How can the Queen propose legislation, if she is expected to be politically neutral within a constitutional monarchy, I hear you ask. Well, despite the fact that the Speech is delivered by the Queen, the actual content of the Speech is written entirely  by the Government (or aides and advisers, to be more precise) and approved by the Cabinet.

Following on from the State Opening, the Government’s proposed programme is then debated by both Houses. Did you know that in the Commons, the first motion is that the House send an address to the Queen thanking her for the Speech? Anyway, the subsequent Commons’ debate is a chance for MPs to speak on any matter of Government, and generally lasts several days.

Now, the State Opening of Parliament takes place when Parliament reassembles after a general election, and then subsequently at the commencement of each new Parliamentary session. Quirky UK constitutional fact: only the Monarch can call a Parliament together, and no business can take place until the Queen finishes reading.

Now, the proposed programme of Government contained within the Queen’s Speech today was, as ever, a means to signal the direction the Government wishes to head in for the for Parliamentary session. Moreover, it was also a coded message of sorts, covering both the issue of Prime Minister David Cameron’s legacy and the issue of unifying a split Conservative party currently at war over the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. So what exactly was contained within the Speech? Permit me to enlighten you.

All in all, the Queen’s Speech was of the ‘One Nation’ theme typical of Mr Cameron.  It was a blend of the economic and the social, and touched upon national security concerns and the growing threat of radicalisation within the UK whilst promoting community integration. A total of twenty-one bills were announced, which included:

  • a Prison and Courts Reform Bill to overhaul education in prisons and give more control to governors,
  • an Education for All Bill to force failing local authorities to convert their schools into academies and,
  • a Social Work Bill to help children in care by making the adoption process easier.

Prisoners may be allowed to live at home after spending weekends in jail under plans for a new generation of satellite tags. Satellite tagging will be rolled out for the first time across eight police forces from September, prior to being extended nationwide as part of the biggest redesign of the justice system since the Victorian era. Whilst the Prime Minister thinks the move will ‘revolutionise’ sentencing by enabling prisoners to keep full-time jobs during the week and spend their weekends in custody, it is also likely to lead to a backlash from his Conservative MPs over ‘soft justice’.

Other announcements from the Speech included:

  • Giving two million  British ex-pats the right to vote, although this will come into effect too late for them to take part EU referendum,
  • New measures to promote driverless cars and a British ‘space port’ to launch satellites and passenger ‘space planes’,
  • Enabling the best universities to have the power to charge students more by increasing tuition fees,
  • Non-EU citizens are to be charged for using NHS – which should save £500m a year,
  • Legal right to faster broadband (10mbps),
  • A consultation on bringing sentences for dangerous driving into line with murder, and
  • An extremism bill which will establish sweeping new laws to ban hate speakers from working with children and other vulnerable groups.

The Government’s plan to give ex-pats the right to vote will represent the biggest expansion of the franchise since 1918. Ex-pats are currently barred from voting in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Now, politics being as it is, the Speech did not solely occupy centre stage for that long. The ink on the Queen’s Speech was scarcely dry when there was talk of rebellion against Government proposals. The Home Secretary Theresa May could soon find herself locked in a battle with her fellow Tory MPs to pass a bill which would permit government bodies to monitor people’s internet use. Such measures feature in the Government’s Investigatory Powers Bill, which overhauls the rules on data collection and agencies’ capabilities, including a requirement for internet companies to hold connection records for a year. The Investigatory Powers Bill is undoubtedly controversial legislation, and quite unpopular, but the Government seems adamant in seeing its provisions implemented. Que sera, sera. (I have previously written about the so-called Snooper’s Charter, should you be so inclined to have a glance.)

Another headline from the day saw previous Cabinet minister, Iain Duncan Smith accusing the Prime Minister of watering-down important elements of the legislative programme in his ‘helter-skelter pursuit of the [EU] referendum’. Among his concerns was scantly detailed or missing proposed bills: missing from the Speech was the Sovereignty Bill, which had been promised after the EU renegotiation deal as a means of bringing power back to the UK (‘bringing power back’ from the ECJ, that is. I despair, truly.) The former Work and Pensions Secretary argued that the Sovereignty Bill was abandoned because it would only serve to draw attention to the failure of Mr Cameron’s secured EU renegotiation deal. Beware the Ides of March indeed.

Speaking of the Sovereignty Bill, there is an interesting theory circulating that the EU referendum may just be behind the mysterious case of the missing legislation. The theory submits that one Boris Johnson’s defection to Camp Leave may have resulted in the proposed legislation being quietly shelved. This actually makes some sense, if you consider the context and background of the proposed bill. After all, the Bill was designed to tackle the powers of the European Court of Justice, and would uphold the sovereignty of UK Parliament. (Every time I hear the words ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’ used in the EU debate, I am fighting the temptation to launch into a constitutional law rant, let me assure you.) The theory claims that the Bill was also meant to reassure Mr Johnson, considering his reservations about the influence of the ECJ. Arguably, Mr Cameron proposed the Bill in an effort to get Mr Johnson on the side. Since Boris opted to campaign for the UK to withdraw from the EU, there has not been any discussion of this bill. I’ll leave you to determine whether this is a coincidence or not, but what I will tell you is that the futility of the whole debacle and superficial nature of the sovereignty exercise was revealed today. If the Government was truly convinced of a need to assert UK Parliamentary sovereignty, the Bill would have been included in the Queen’s Speech.

Regarding scantily-addressed Bills – what else could it be than the widely-heralded and yet ridiculously-delayed UK Bill of Rights? Today only a consultation on proposals was mentioned, apparently to be published in due course. Meaning that we will probably see publication of same around about the time of the next Queen’s Speech. If you recall, the Conservative manifesto from the General Election in 2015 had promised to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights’ and to ensure the UK Supreme Court was the ‘ultimate arbiter of human rights matters’.In an effort to ensure this upholding at rights at domestic level, the party naturally pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. (Can you ascertain my disdain of this proposal, by any chance?)

The inclusion of proposed social reforms within the Speech is telling. As I previously referenced, Mr Cameron must have his legacy as Prime Minister on his mind, and must hope that social reform will be a central feature of his legacy. I also previously mentioned the upcoming EU referendum; alas even the Queen’s Speech had the shadow of the EU referendum hanging over it. (Note: everything and anything political has the spectre of the EU referendum accompanying it these days. We cannot escape it.)  It is notable, for example, that the flagship justice bill incorporating substantial prison reform comes from Michael Gove, with whom David Cameron’s previously-close relationship has been strained by their opposing views. Moreover, the EU referendum issue and the issue of Mr Cameron’s legacy neatly entwine here: he wishes to be remembered for his social reform, and he has opted to delegate substantial social reform within prisons to Mr Gove. Post-referendum unity within the Conservatives is clearly also on the Prime Minister’s mind. But whilst the prison reforms are designed to empower offenders and give prisoners a chance to get their lives back on track, it remains to be seen whether this, in conjunction with the other planned social reforms will be enough to bring the Conservative party together once more.

Mr Cameron says the Speech came from a ‘progressive, one nation government’. Whether you agree with this description or not, this is the chosen agenda which he will turn to post-referendum in an attempt to unite the Conservative party. Whether it will be sufficient enough, we shall have to wait and see.

Politico Thoughts: AE16 edition.

With over one week since voting closed, and exactly one week since the counting of votes commenced, I am utterly unashamed to admit there is rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart. I suppose this was to be expected, given my excitement at finally being able to participate in an Assembly election, from watching the campaigns unfold to dropping my vote into the ballot box for the first time. Although I had always followed Assembly elections in the past despite not being eligible to vote, it is a different feeling altogether to follow results, knowing that your vote is included in the tallies.

It also means that for the first time, I can offer my thoughts on the Assembly election, having actually been able to participate myself.

Once the counting of votes commenced, it soon became apparent that there would be upsets and surprises along the way towards filling the Assembly chamber. However, the overall feeling, soon to be realised, was that it would be a case of ‘same old, same old’ at Stormont, with the DUP returned as the largest Unionist party, and Sinn Féin returned as the largest Nationalist party. In terms of other parties: Alliance came through with eight seats, the same result from the previous mandate, whilst the SDLP and Ulster Unionists had, by their own standards, a poor showing at the polls.

Once votes were totalled, and the final tally called, it was noted that generally it was a loss of sorts for all of the ‘big five’ in terms of votes cast in their favour. All saw a decrease in accumulated votes, and not one party polled over 30% of the vote:

The DUP received 29.2% of the first-preference vote, the largest of any of the big five, but still recorded a 0.8% loss in votes.
Sinn Féin received 24.0% first-preference votes, but saw a 2.9% drop.
The UUP received 12.6% of the first-preference votes, but saw a 0.7% decline in their vote.
The SDLP received 12% of the first-preference votes, and recorded a 2.2% decrease in their vote.
Alliance
received 7.0% of first-preferences, and recorded a loss of 0.7% of their vote.

We saw also how the overall Nationalist vote declined, following the trends from previous elections, and a surge in votes for periphery parties outside of the ‘big five’. There was a strong, consistent voting turnout, dispelling prior fears of a substantial decline in electorate turnout. However, there was still a significant percentage of the electorate who did not vote, as turnout was recorded at 54.91%.

Essentially, the Assembly Election of 2016 can be summarised as follows:

DUP campaign was a master-class
I have to hold my hand up and admit I was wrong that the constant refrain of ‘Arlene Foster’s DUP candidates’ and ‘keep Arlene as First Minister’ would eventually distance voters. Judging by the votes acquired and seats collected by the party, their campaign was basically a master-class. The message was clear and consistent, and acted as a rallying cry for Unionist-inclined voters. When the theme of your campaign resonates and connects with voters, it will translate into votes. It is noticeable then that the DUP was returned as a the largest party, and whilst recorded votes for the dropped slightly, it did not lose seats, which had at one time been predicted.

On the same note, I had criticised the constant reference to the position of First Minister, and the symbolic importance attached to same. Now, whilst I still remain convinced that too much of the campaign was spent discussing this, and I am certain young people/first-time voters were turned off by the discussion, traditional Unionist voters must have been convinced by the arguments. Again, it was a clear and consistent refrain, with a target audience.

The SDLP and UUP suffered from their lack of vote management
I mentioned earlier that the SDLP and the UUP, who had been hoping to see a strong resurgence translating into an equally-strong election performance, did not have a good election by their standards. The UUP returned with 16 seats, with party leader Mike Nesbitt having predicted the party would take 18 or 19. The SDLP had been hoping to hold on to their previous 14 seats, but suffered two overall losses, as well as losing Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney in South Belfast, party Whip Karen McKevitt in Newry and Armagh, and party stalwart Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann.

Simply put, both parties may have suffered from a touch of over-confidence, but I feel their respective performances largely stem from poor selection and vote management. Note that I do not mean ‘poor selection’ in the form of chosen candidates to contest seats; I mean ‘poor selection’ in where to contest and in the number of standing candidates.

The UUP stood multiple candidates in areas where they should have stood one – East Antrim, East Belfast, and South Antrim spring to mind. In a STV election, it is crucial to manage your candidates’ votes, especially in terms of first and second preferences. Standing too many candidates risks splitting the vote, and can result in only one, or indeed none of your candidates being elected. In South Antrim, my neck of the woods, the UUP were buoyed by a surprise General Election victory last year. Perhaps thinking this would be replicated at Assembly level, it stood three candidates in a DUP stronghold. The result being the incumbent UUP MLA for the constituency, Adrian-Cochrane Watson, was eliminated at stage four of the count. There was only one UUP candidate elected – Steve Aiken – and he had to wait until the seventh and last count to be elected.

The SDLP struggled with vote management in areas where it stood several candidates. In tightly-contested South Belfast, the party really should have returned both MLAs. Instead, Claire Hanna was returned and Fearghal McKinney eliminated. My issue with McKinney is he was selected to contest the wrong constituency. As a former television presenter and journalist, his face was recognisable and popular with a certain generation. South Belfast however has a sizeable youth vote, and those voters would not have known him.
In a similar vein, Karen McKevitt was an incumbent MLA for South Down, but was chosen to contest Newry and Armagh instead- a choice which cost her a seat. The party also had to focus disproportionally on Foyle, as Sinn Féin opted to move Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to Foyle to put the SDLP under pressure. This focus ensured party leader Colum Eastwood and stalwart Mark H Durkan were returned, but it cost the party time and attention in other marginal constituencies.

45-46% of the electorate did not vote
It says a lot about our standards of election turnout that the final result of 54.91% was greeted with a sigh of relief. You may say, “but Leah, that’s over half of the registered electorate, surely that is good enough?” The fact of the matter is that it isn’t, not really.

45% is still a number of some significance. (Remember that 45% voted for Scottish Independence in the Scottish referendum in 2014.) It suggests there are voters who feel disenchanted, and/or disillusioned with the political system in Northern Ireland. It suggests a continuing disconnect between politics and people in this state. If citizens are choosing not to vote, parties need to find out why. Otherwise, no party can claim to represent all citizens.

Moreover, note how I previously outlined the voting breakdown among the five main parties. Not one polled 30% plus of the vote – and that is 30% of the vote from 54.91% who voted. You can see why there are some in Northern Ireland who feel there is a democratic deficit at Stormont.

Nationalism saw another decline in turnout and votes
Nationalism may be suffering a malaise: the pattern of declining Nationalist turnout was further underscored following the 2016 Assembly election. The combined Sinn Féin-SDLP share of the overall vote was merely 36%, marking the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election which saw the SDLP and Sinn Féin gather 23.5% and 10% of the overall vote respectively. The consistent decrease in Nationalist turnout has become a pattern that surely cannot ignored by either party; both parties must ask questions here. From comments issued by both the SDLP and Sinn Féin elected representatives following the election last week, it appears neither party actually knows what exactly is going on with Nationalist voters.

Now, declining turnout can be explained in one of two ways:
1) Discontent with the status quo, and/or increasing alienation from ‘your’ party based on its political performance, or
2) Apathy derived from complacency- sometimes voters who adhere to tribal politics do not vote, because they believe ‘their’ party is secure enough as it is, thank you very much.

I will probably address the decline of the Nationalist vote in another post (it deserves one in its own right), but I feel that what is essentially happening is that Nationalist voters are not rejecting Nationalism, but rather are sending a message to Nationalist parties. It is a case of ‘rebel’ votes to jolt the parties awake, to remind them of their pledges to deliver on change, and simply to keep them on their toes.

Rise of smaller parties
No summary of the Assembly elections in 2016 is complete without mentioning the surge in votes for the periphery parties, and the performances of Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit Alliance, and Claire Bailey of the Greens. Simply put, this was an amazing showing by all three candidates, who were duly elected MLAs.

I had expected Carroll to nab a seat, but the sheer size of his victory – polling first with 8,299 votes, over 3,000 more than the quota and his nearest rival – was something else. This was a shake-up in West Belfast, a traditional Sinn Féin stronghold, and caused the party to lose one of their five seats. This victory was long in coming: Carroll had contested the General Election in 2015, and came second to Paul Maskey. The incumbent MP did poll 19,163 votes to Carroll’s 6,798, but saw a loss of 16.8% of the vote, with Carroll polling at 19.2%. Carroll had also contested the 2011 Assembly election, and whilst finished outside the sixth place, still came eighth with 1,661 votes and 4.8% of the vote. Basically, People Before Profit had been gaining support and momentum in the background over five years, which saw that fantastic first place come to fruition.

Eamonn McCann, who has been contesting elections since 1969, was finally elected as a People Before Profit MLA for Foyle. He is a well-known political activist, especially in relation to civil rights, and has worked as journalist and commentator for a variety of newspapers and television stations over the years. He has a reputation as a powerful orator and debateur, so he will surely enlighten the Assembly chamber over the next five years. Mr McCann again gained on momentum over five years in Foyle: in 2011, he polled 3,120 votes and 8.0% of the vote (he actually polled more first preferences than Column Eastwood, who would eventually become the SDLP party leader). McCann may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage to be elected, but he had polled 4,176 first preferences and 10.5% of the vote. His election meant that incumbents Maeve McLaughlin (SF) and Gerard Diver (SDLP) were both outpolled, and were unelected. In sum: in both West Belfast and Foyle, Nationalist parties lost out to People Before Profit.

Claire Bailey of the Greens had been widely tipped to take a seat in South Belfast, where she was a popular candidate, especially among the youth and liberal voters. She polled an impressive 3,521 first preferences and some 9.6% of the vote, more than the unfortunate SDLP Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney. She had to wait until the 12th and final stage of counting to be a confirmed MLA, but I think it is telling she was confirmed with the two DUP candidates, Emma Little-Pengally and Christopher Stalford. The DUP was pleased to see both these candidates elected, but Bailey forced a tight contest, acting as a metaphor for the electorate change in South Belfast. Her election marked a historic moment for the NI Greens, as the party saw their second ever MLA elected.

Periphery party surge v master class campaign
I suppose what intrigued me most about the election campaign and the subsequent result was trying to determine what exactly was the reason behind the voting. I think it comes down to asking whether it a case of the DUP gaining votes because of their successful campaign, or did the other parties lose due to various reasons?

Arguably, Sinn Féin and the SDLP lost out in Foyle and West Belfast (Carroll’s strong polling in the latter constituency nearly cost SDLP’s Alex Attwood his seat) because of the emergence of an alternative left-wing party in People Before Profit. The two Nationalist parties traditionally occupy left-wing ground, so to be outflanked in their strongholds must have been something of a shock.

The UUP arguably lost due to over-confidence in polling predictions, and their poor vote management. But they probably also lost Unionist votes from those who could have been swayed from the DUP. The UUP could have capitalised on some DUP voters’ disillusionment after the party’s long stint in government. They failed to do so, perhaps because the campaign message was never really clear, for example on the issue of whether the party wanting to go into the Executive, or Opposition. By contrast, as I outlined previously, the DUP message was concise, clear and consistent: keep Arlene First Minister, and prevent Sinn Féin from becoming the largest party at Stormont. As the UUP did not prove themselves to be the viable, alternative Unionist party, I think some potential swing voters followed the tried and tested ‘stick with what you know’ method.

Another party which lost was Alliance. The rise of the Greens illustrated the growing role of social issues in Northern Ireland, be it on same-sex marriage or abortion. This is especially true among young voters and first-time voters. The Greens designate as Other, and argue for a shake-up of the traditional tribal politics. Sound familiar? It should. The Alliance party has been portraying itself as the alternative political party for those who are alienated by green versus orange politics since its founding in 1970. Yet, whilst the Greens gained two seats, Alliance could only retain its original eight. The party cannot argue it suffered from a lack of demand for new politics: the Green surge, especially in South Belfast, is evident that such a demand exists. All the main parties recorded a decrease in their vote share, and all main parties must now consider the importance of social issues and rights. But Alliance must also consider a rising challenge to their main ‘Other’ title.

I feel the aforementioned points are food for thought as it is, but I will leave you with some final contemplations.

I think the new focus and discussion of social issues made a visible impact in constituencies such as North Down and South Belfast. These constituencies saw strong inroads made by the Greens. I do however think the DUP rally cry boosted Unionist turnout across board, resulting in their impressive performance. Impressive, in that despite spending many years as the largest party at Stormont, they did not lose any seats in 2016.

My own constituency of South Antrim may have seen a shock upset in 2015 in the General Election, with Danny Kinahan of the UUP dethroning the Rev William McCrea of the DUP. Kinahan polled some 32.7% of the vote, a 2.3% increase for the UUP. McCrea polled 30.1%, recording a 3.8% decrease for the DUP vote.The statistics showed there could have (arguably should have) been a potential loss for the DUP here in 2016. The DUP however romped home, seeing all three incumbent MLAs returned. The UUP, who saw only one of three candidiates elected and the loss of their own incumbent, simply failed to capitalise on the gains made the previous year, and perhaps forgot that Assembly elections are more competitive and more complex in terms of voting method than Westminster elections – Kinahan was elected using First Past the Post, after all.

Given the rise of People Before Profit in both Foyle and West Belfast, arguably Sinn Féin and the SDLP not only have to contend and compete with each other, they now have defend themselves from the further left. All this, whilst still attempting to figure out the continuing decline in the Nationalist vote. Unionist parties may seemingly be unaffected by the surge; it is unlikely that a voter could swing from the DUP for example to People Before Profit – or indeed vice versa.

However, West Belfast saw what could have been the biggest opportunity for a historic DUP gain lost to the winds, as Frank McCoubrey lost to Alex Attwood of the SDLP by only 97 votes in the final stage. What may have harmed the DUP here was the complex workings of the STV method, preferences and transfer votes. Gerry Carroll polled so strongly that he had many surplus votes to disseminate. A quick glance at the stage-per-stage breakdown shows that Alex Attwood of the SDLP was one of the grateful recipients, not Frank McCoubrey. A strong Socialist showing meant McCoubrey would not stand to make gains as a DUP candidate. In addition, in such a Nationalist area, the SDLP stand to be the ‘transfer-friendly’ party, meaning the candidate, in this instance Alex Attwood, would receive more transfer votes from eliminated candidates. To put this in the most diplomatic terms, some of the electorate will opt to give the SDLP a preference vote not because they personally support the party, but because they are trying to eliminate a Sinn Féin candidate. (Welcome to the Northern Irish equivalent of tactical voting.) Moreover, whilst West Belfast is predominately a Republican stronghold, there are areas which identify as Unionist. These areas would have generally voted McCoubrey as their first preference, but there would have been some Unionist voters who gave Attwood their first or second preferences as a means of reducing the chances of Sinn Féin retaining their five seats. Some Unionist voters may have viewed McCoubrey as a long-shot in the overall context of West Belfast, and thus voted SDLP as the moderate alternative to Sinn Féin. (This is not that unusual. My granny, a Twaddell resident all of her life, used to tactically vote for the SDLP’s Gerry Fitt despite being staunchly Unionist.)

The 2016 Assembly election has concluded, but rest assured the analysing of the results will continue for many months to come.

 

Suspensions, controversy… and a coup in the Commons?

Well. Last week was certainly an interesting, and shall we say lively week. It will, however, be a week the Labour party would wish to consign to the history books, or preferably obliterate from memory. Unfortunately, time cannot be rewound, and so the Labour party is stuck facing down yet another round of the ongoing anti-Semitism row which has engulfed the party. But the recent debacle involving Labour party members becoming embroiled in anti-Semitism remarks may just yet serve to highlight the internal vulnerabilities of the Labour party, and de facto the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

This latest episode commenced at the beginning of last week, and it there I shall start my own post. It came to light that the Labour MP for Bradford West, Ms Naz Shah, had commented and shared Facebook posts about Israel. The Guido Fawkes website brought to our attention the particular Facebook post in question, and also highlighted a post in which Ms Shah seemingly likened Israeli policies to those of Hitler.

In a Facebook post from 2014, Ms Shah had shared a post containing an image of Israel’s outline superimposed on a map of the US, under the headline ‘Solution for Israel-Palestine conflict – relocate Israel into United States’. She also commented on the post, saying”problem solved”. The post suggested the US has “plenty of land” to accommodate Israel as a “51st state”, thereby enabling Palestinians to “get their life and their land back”. The Facebook post also said Israeli people would be welcome in the US, while the “transportation cost” would be less than three years’ worth of Washington’s support for Israeli defence spending. Here, Ms Shah added a comment suggesting this might “save them some pocket money”. You can imagine that once the existence of these posts, and Ms Shah’s comments became known, the Labour Press team must have wept.

After a day of Press scrutiny, and Conservative Government questioning regarding Ms Shah’s political future, the Labour party eventually realised action must be taken. And once the course was drawn, its delivery was swift. Ms Shah firstly stepped down from her position as an unpaid aide to the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and was duly summoned to a meeting with her party leader. (We have since been informed that she was left sitting for forty minutes outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office as apparently he and his team forgot she was there).

Evidently, a statement of apology was eventually drafted, for on Wednesday Ms Shah called a Point of Order in the Commons, and issued her apology. Ms Shah apologised thrice, saying: “Anti-Semitism is racism, full stop. As an MP I will do everything in my power to build relationships between Muslims, Jews and people of different faiths and none.” It was clear her apology was sincere, and recognised as such in the House.

But apologising three times (did a cock crow in the distance, I wonder) did not spare Ms Shah from being suspended. Yet this was perhaps unsurprising, given the pressure facing the Labour party and the context of the row. It had, after all, only been a mere ten days since Labour’s General Secretary had reassured Labour MPs that those accused of anti-Semitism would be expelled or suspended from the party. To ignore or dismiss this pledge would have only served to heighten the row, and emphasis the apparent branding of the party as being the allegedly ‘anti-Semitic’ party. Moreover, Prime Minister’s Questions had provided the Government with the opportunity to pile on the pressure. Mr Corbyn had issued a statement prior to Prime Minister’s Questions, highlighting that the posts were made before Ms Shah entered Parliament, stressing her apology and concluding that “The Labour Party is implacably opposed to anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.” Yet the Prime Minister proceeded to comment how it was “quite extraordinary” that Labour had not withdrawn the whip from Ms Shah over what he suggested were “racist” comments.

Ms Shah was thus suspended, and Labour was caught in a new row, becoming divided over whether or not Ms Shah should have been suspended. Now, that surely would have been enough intensive news-coverage and controversy for the week. But then along came one Ken Livingstone.

On Thursday morning, Mr Livingstone took to the airwaves to defend Ms Shah, arguing she should not have been suspended. He submitted that anti-Zionism was not the same as anti-Semitism, but instead of simply leaving his point there, proceeded to dig quite the proverbial hole for himself on BBC London:

“When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

(Remember the Labour Press team? They must have wept buckets by this stage.)

Thereafter followed a surreal, almost The Thick Of It moment when Mr Livingstone was later confronted outside the BBC’s studios by Labour MP John Mann, who angrily accused him of being a “Nazi apologist”. And he did this in front of television cameras. Mr Livingstone and Mr Mann had a verbal tussle, which ended up with Mr Livingstone locking himself into a toilet. (Proving that irony is a key feature in British politics, an online petition has since been launched, calling for the discipling of… Mr Mann.)

Now, this is would have been the point when the SAS-equivalent of the PR crisis management team would have been called in, and they probably called for ‘no statements, no public comments, no more interviews’. Mr Livingstone however had other ideas, despite being suspended himself from the party on the very same day. He promptly appeared on another radio programme to defend himself alongside Ms Shah.

By the weekend, Mr Livingstone was on LBC radio, saying that he stood by his commets and he was ‘not sorry for telling the truth’. He seemingly claimed the media storm being generated by his comments was being blown out of proportion, and deliberately being stirred up by Blairite MPs in an effort to undermine Mr Corbyn as leader:

“I never regret saying something that is true…

“If you look at what this is all about, it’s not about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party… What this is all about is actually the struggle of the embittered old Blairite MPs to try to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn…”

Referencing the council and London Mayoral elections taking place in England on the 5th May, Mr Livingstone again argued this was a political stab in the back from by a movement of MPs seeking to replace the party leader:

“The really appalling thing here is dishonest MPs who know that what I said is true have stirred up all this nonsense because they want to damage our chances at the local election so they then have a chance of undermining Jeremy.”

Irony, thy name is Livingstone – it could be argued that by making these comments in the first place (and whilst we are all entitled to our opinions, we must take care with verbalising them, and be aware of the potential of any offence caused) Mr Livingstone may yet be the man to blame for any dip in Labour votes this Thursday. His comments placed the party in the headlines for the wrong reasons, painfully dragging up the ongoing issue of alleged anti-Semitism within Labour. At a time when it was been predicted that Labour could be on course for their worst council defeat in 34 years, the party could really do without negative media coverage of internal division, tension, and a party vulnerable to claims of anti-Semitism.

The party could also do without new revelations being brought to light by Guido Fawkes -a website doing a better job of scrutinising the Labour party than the senior Labour leadership- on Wednesday that two more councillors have been suspended, pending an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism. On the day of Prime Minister’s Questions -which incidentally saw the Prime Minister and Mr Corbyn go to war over the alleged anti-Semitic streak within Labour – a Labour spokesman confirmed Miqdad Al-Nuaimi, a councillor in Newport, South Wales, and Terry Kelly, who sits on Renfrewshire Council, have been suspended “pending an investigation”. This news came after suggestions that the Labour party reportedly suspended around 50 party members over anti-Semitism and racism since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader last year. (When it rains, it pours…)

Members of the PLP began to complain about the behaviour of some within the party, and called on Mr Corbyn to step in. The party leader obliged in due course announcing that there would be an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party, and it would be led by former Liberty director Shami  Chakrabarti. He also announced his proposal for a new ‘code of conduct’ on racism at Labour’s national Executive Committee. But Mr Corbyn could not escape criticism for his slow response in the cases of  Ms Shah and Mr Livingstone. Which begs the question: shall we see a Labour leadership coup in the next few months?

The recent anti-Semitism row acted akin to a political barometer for the Labour party, seemingly highlighting Mr Corbyn’s weakness when it comes to decisive action. It also served to highlight the misdirection and miscommunication issues among his aides and their disregard for the norms of political communications. With ongoing rows at the top of the party, the murmurings of critics for a change of leader, the party appears trapped between two camps: those supporting Corbyn as leader, and those seeking change. The result is political deadlock, a weakness seized upon by the Conservative government.

Arguably, the recent council elections in England and the London Mayoral election served to act as another ratings measure for Labour, but also Corbyn’s leadership to date. As I mentioned previously, dire predictions had be cast, saying the party would suffered significant losses across England. Had this come to pass, no doubt those Labour MPs considering a coup would have commenced plotting. But, fortunately for Labour – and Mr Corbyn too, perhaps – such negative predictions proved premature.

The party managed to defy expectations to secure a number of councils in southern England, amid signs of declines in Conservative support in the region which served to contribute to Labour’s stronger than expected performance.  In addition, key battleground councils including Southampton, Crawley, and Hastings were all held by Labour, despite concerns Corbyn’s leadership may have disillusioned swing voters outside of the party’s traditional heartlands in the North of England and Wales.

However, it was not all good news for Labour: the party did see a net loss of around 30 council seats in England. Meanwhile in Scotland, Scottish Labour lost 13 seats in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, becoming the third party at Holyrood, behind the SNP and Scottish Conservatives. On the other hand, whilst the Conservatives suffered a decline in votes in the South of England, and a loss of Council seats, they did manage to gain 16 seats in the Scottish Parliament. In the Welsh Assembly, Welsh Labour won 29 seats, just two seats shy of a majority. Yet Labour critics of Mr Corbyn still criticised the party’s overall performance, arguing Labour should be making strong gains against the Conservatives if it has any hope of winning the next General Election in 2020.

Labour did however win the London Mayoral election through candidate Sadiq Khan, who polled 56.9% of the vote compared to Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith’s 43.1%. It is noticeable that Mr Khan made several pointed remarks in his first interview as London Mayor against Corbyn. Mr Khan stated his belief that with Mr Corbyn as leader, Labour was failing to address the concern of ordinary voters. Moreover, he warned that unless the party engaged with the whole electorate, then the party’s central mission to improve the lives of ordinary people would be at risk. It is telling that Mr Khan commented in an article for the Observer:

“Squabbles over internal structures might be important for some in the party, but it is clear they mean little or nothing to the huge majority of voters…

“It should never be about ‘picking sides’, a ‘them or us’ attitude, or a having a political strategy to target just enough of the population to get over the line. Our aim should be to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule.”

It should be noted Mr Khan had voiced his concerns that the anti-Semitism row would hurt Labour in the elections and thereafter.

Intriguingly, there are those around the Labour leader who are concerned that Mr Khan intends to use his new office, and the accompanying national platform, to establish a rival power base to Mr Corbyn. Mr Khan’s apparent distancing of himself from the Labour leader will only increase these fears.

Is this a case of uneasy lies the head that wears a crown? Perhaps. Mr Corbyn won a landslide victory in the Labour leadership last year, but whilst he is popular with the Labour membership, there may be those within the PLP who would seek his replacement.

Mr Corbyn may be safe for now, but first he must weather the continuing storm over anti-Semitism within the party. And we cannot forget that his next challenge is merely a month away – the EU referendum on the 24th June. The Prime Minister is not the only party leader whose political career may rest on the referendum outcome. Both Mr Corbyn and Mr Cameron are campaigning to remain within the EU. In Mr Corbyn’s case, he may just also be campaigning to remain within the party leadership.

 

 

Of Legislation, Governance and Society.

Well, there we have it. The 1st May has come and gone, and frankly I am struggling to come to terms with the rapid progression into this year. I surely cannot be the only one pondering where on earth April went. Yet now I must consign myself to the upcoming coursework deadlines and examinations. A few weeks, and my final semester of final year law will come to a close. Utterly surreal, but I digress.

As the month of May dawns, I found myself thinking about April, and the legal happenings in this month. There were interesting legal developments in not just the UK, but also the USA. These developments I feel highlight the role law plays in daily life, how governance affects our lives, and how the political system can impact directly upon the lives of certain individuals, or groups of people. New laws came into effect in the UK in April, and controversial bills were passed in the US. I will look at both in this post, starting closer to home first.

In the UK, there were several new laws which came into force in April 2016. Now that April has left us, it would be interesting to reflect on these new laws, and the policies which inspired them. I will list and explain them accordingly:

You may have to pay more council tax -if you live in England.
In England, if you live in a Band D property – that is, in the middle of the price range for your area – the council tax bill for the upcoming year increased by an average of £58. This was the biggest council tax increase for eight years.

This came to be because more than a hundred councils in England were increasing council tax rates by up to 4%. The plan is to use these rises to fund social care. Bear in mind t hat local authorities are struggling to make ends meet: grant cuts to local government in the past six years have been severe, and the amount they receive will decrease further by 2020.

Water bills will also increase by £2 a year in England and Wales, and this also started in April.

Low-paid workers aged 25+ will now receive the new National Living Wage.
On the 1st April, the new National Living Wage of £7.20 an hour was introduced, giving workers aged 25 and over on the lower end of the pay scale a pay rise of 50p an hour. This had been lauded by the Government when it had been announced by the Chancellor in his 2015 Budget. (There had been comments this was not truly a ‘living wage’, it fell short of this and was rather a higher minimum wage.)  However, the Office for Budget Responsibility had warned that up to 60,000 jobs could be lost as a result as employers try to make savings in an effort to afford paying the new wage.

The new policy has been criticised as unfair for younger workers, as those under the age of 25 will not be paid this new wage. Moreover, the National Living Wage should not be confused with the recommendations of the Living Wage Foundation, which states that hourly wages should be at least £9.40 in London and £8.25 elsewhere.

You must microchip your dog (Great Britain only).
From the 6th April, all dog owners in England, Scotland and Wales will be required by law to microchip their pet, and keep their details up-to-date on an authorised database.

It is hoped such measures will make it easier to find lost and stray dogs- which currently cost taxpayers and charities £33 million a year. However, a senior vet actually advised dog owners to ignore the new law, as apparently the chips can lead to health problems among puppies and smaller breeds.

Non-EU workers who earn less than £35,000 face deportation.
Yes, you did read that correctly. Changes to UK visa rules which came into force on the 6th April mean that overseas workers will not be permitted to remain in the UK for more than five years unless they can prove they earn more than £35,000. Now, should that applies to you, and your five-year visa is due to expire, there is now a real risk you could face imminent deportation.

The new law will not apply to nurses, PhD-level jobs and those on the official ‘Shortage Occupation List’.

Prescriptions are more expensive – if you are in England.
On the 1st April, the NHS prescription charge in England increased by 20p to £8.40 per item. Prescriptions  continue to remain free in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The cost of an NHS dental check-up has also risen by 5 per cent to £19.70.

Other changes to the NHS in April include: the launch of a £150m incentive programme for hospitals to prevent overuse of antibiotics, and a 1% increase in the value of NHS optical vouchers. (These vouchers are specifically for children, people on low incomes and those with complex sight problems.)

Additional property equals more stamp duty.
Second home buyers and buy-to-let landlords now have to pay 3% more stamp duty on purchases over £40,000 from the 1st April. The additional stamp duty means they will now pay £10,000 – a substantial increase of £7,500.

Mobile homes and houseboats are exempt from the charge.

State pensions will be paid differently.
For those who planned to retire on or after the 6th April, the manner in which you receive your pension has changed. Instead of a basic state pension plus an additional pension, there will be a flat-rate payment of £155.65 a week. This is an increase from the previous minimum of £120.

This was supposed to make Government pensions easier to manage and understand, but a survey by consumer group Which? found that actually, 44% of 50 to 64-year-olds do not know what the new rate will be.  Moreover, to receive the full rate National Insurance must have been paid for 35 years, meaning younger retirees could lose out.

The lifetime allowance for pensions was also reduced on the 6th April, changing from £1.25 million to £1 million.

Pay may rise for those working in the public sector.
It was estimated that more than one million public sector workers would see their pay rise by an average of 1% this month. The Government claimed this will protect 200,000 jobs in public services such as the NHS and the armed forces, but this proposed increase was described as ‘miserly’ by union leaders.

Social housing tenants’ rents will drop, but housing benefit is changing.
If you rent your home from a housing association or the council,your rent started to decrease by 1% each year for the next four years at the end of April.

The Government hopes this will reduce the amount of housing benefit it pays out, and is planning to reduce the household benefit cap this Autumn 2016 from £26,000 to £20,000 – or £23,000 in London.

A new personal allowance should boost savings.
Another policy announced in the 2015 Budget which was implemented on the 6th April is the introduction of the ‘Personal Savings Allowance’, which will enable people to earn up to £1,000 in interest tax-free.

Previously, earnings on savings were automatically taxed at 20%, so this change should benefit almost anyone with a savings account. Yet if you pay the higher 40% rate of tax, your allowance will be £500. Moreover, the richest earners on the top tax rate of 45% will not have an allowance at all.

A new 10 per cent tax on share dividends with a £5,000 tax-free allowance was also introduced on the 6th April.

The above should emphasise how the law can shape our lives and lifestyles, from how we work to our recreational habits. I think that sometimes we can forget how present and relevant the law truly is. I also think that we sometimes may also forget how many laws and regulations are passed each year, and how frequently our behaviour is governed. But I digress. On to the next part of the post!

It was legislation and policy-making as normal in the UK in April. But in the US, policy-making and legislating took a controversial turn in the same month. The states of Mississippi and North Carolina saw the drafting and voting on bills perceived as anti-LGBT*, and sparked a furious backlash from a consortium of rights activists, community groups and businesses in both states.

Balancing religious interests and the rights of the LGBT* community across America has proved to be problematic, to say the least. States, including Mississippi and North Carolina have started drawing up religious freedom laws largely under pressure from religious groups, due to the US Supreme Court ruling last summer which legalised same-sex marriage nation-wide. It also comes as the trans* community in particular campaign for recognition and protection under the law, for example in being afforded the opportunity to use public toilets which align with their preferred gender identity.

In North Carolina, the state essentially revoked LGBT* legal protections through passing a bill that bars the state’s cities and counties from having their own anti-discrimination rules. Republican legislators in the Republican-controlled General Assembly argued for the enactment of the bill after the state’s largest city, Charlotte, passed an ordinance allowing trans* persons to use the public toilets which aligned to their preferred gender identity.

The General Assembly voted in late March to invalidate the ordinance, which would have come into effect on the 1st April. The new law now requires public schools, government agencies and college campuses to ensure bathrooms, toilets and locker rooms are clearly marked by gender. Consequently, Trans* persons in North Carolina can only use toilets which match the gender listed on their birth certificate .

State Governor Patrick McCrory, who signed the bill into law, said in a press release that “the basic expectation of privacy in the most personal of settings” was violated by “government overreach and intrusion” by Charlotte’s city council.

Republicans in the General Assembly argued it was necessary to intervene to protect women and children, as men could abuse this ordinance to enter women’s restrooms by identifying as trans*. LGBT* advocates however argued this new law places a stigma on the trans* community by perpetrating dubious claims about increased risk of sexual assault. Myself? I feel the law denies the LGBT community legal protections, and denies trans* persons the opportunity to live freely according to their preferred gender.

In Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant signed a controversial bill into law which allows businesses to refuse service to gay couples based on religious beliefs at the beginning of April.

The intention of the bill, the ‘Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act’, is to legally protect those who believe marriage to be solely between one man and one woman, that sexual relations should only happen in marriages and that gender is not changeable. The new law basically permits churches, religious charities and privately held businesses to decline services to people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs on marriage and gender. Government institutions must still provide public services, but individual government employees may avail of the law to opt out. The Governor said the bill “protects sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions”.

Naturally, equal rights advocates argued the new law actively permits discrimination of the LGBT* community – and now on a legal basis. This is also the case with another provision within the bill: anyone who wishes to establish ‘sex-specific standards’ for toilets, dressing rooms etc. may do so.

The Governor of Mississippi took to defending his signing of the bill on Twitter, where he argued the new law does not restrict rights of citizens under the US Constitution. Instead, he argued, the law was designed to ‘prevent government interference in the lives of the people’. (So, a law to restrict the rights and freedoms of a community of citizens is actually preventing government interference in the lives of the aforementioned. Sure.)

Both these cases are examples of the ever-widening divide between social conservatives and diversity-minded corporations, as businesses took to protesting the new laws. PayPal for example announced it had withdrawn from plans to establish a global operations centre in Charlotte, North Carolina because of the state’s recent passage of a law banning anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation. PayPal had pledged to bring 400 jobs and invest $3.6 million in the area by the end of 2017; so such a withdrawal from the city will have a harsh impact. PayPal objected to what it perceived as inequality:

“…becoming an employer in North Carolina, where members of our teams will not have equal rights under the law, is simply untenable.”

Outside of businesses, other lawmakers in the US have raised objections to the new law. Mayors and governors of states including New York, Vermont and Washington, announced a ban on most state-sponsored travel to North Carolina.

Meanwhile in Mississippi, objections have been raised by numerous companies such as Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts International, Nissan and Toyota. They are all major employers in the state.

Whilst I was typing up the above, I kept thinking about the role of law in our lives. As I mentioned previously in this post, law does shape our lives, in more ways than we perhaps realise. Evidently, in the case of the laws passed in Mississippi and  North Carolina, the role of the state in regulating people’s lives cannot be understated. It is also interesting to note the backlash of state citizens to state law; an example in protesting against the governing state and the status quo. Counter-conduct is essentially evident in the boycotting of North Carolina, with what are really ad hoc economic sanctions against the state by national companies.

Regular readers may recall that I studied Jurisprudence and Legal Theory last semester. A consequence of this has been that I now see the law in a different light than before, and understand how it can be viewed from various perspectives. I often find myself questioning the law and our legal system these days, too. I will find myself querying whether the law is merely politics in another form, for example, or I wonder whether there is/there should be a separability of morality from law. Above all else, I will ask myself what exactly is law – and goodness knows, this is a question I will continue to ask for years to come.

It is a fascinating, complex area of legal philosophy, and I feel that it can be seen through news stories such as the implementation of new legislation. For example, we can ask ourselves why we choose to obey the law, or why we have accepted the validity and legitimacy of the law. Is it due in part to a social contract, which we impliedly agree upon so that we accept the law to prevent uncertainty, instability and potential anarchy? Is it because we have agreed to cede power and authority to our elected Parliament and Executive, trusting that they will govern and represent us effectively and efficiency? And are judges truly impartial and neutral? Are they simply to read and give effect to the laws they interpret and adhere to precedence, not to consider the social impact of their decisions?

There many questions to be asked, and many debates to participate in regarding the law. But one thing is for certain: governments have the power and authority to govern our lives, regulate our conduct and even restrict our freedoms.

Of Training Contracts and Optimism.

Law students and aspiring solicitors of the (UK) world, unite in optimism and rejoice. For this week, there was surprisingly good news in the form of training contracts.

Yes, that’s right: new figures were released this week showing that the previously decreasing number of offered training contracts may perhaps be turning around, providing a much-needed boost for law students. I am sure that I am not the only law student who has watched friends sent out numerous applications, and conduct numerous interviews, only to end up without a much-coveted training contract. The competition is fierce, and the graduate market is saturated. So this is indeed welcome news.

The Law Society’s latest statistics report found that training contract numbers increased from some 5,001 to 5,457 in 2014-15, providing a marked surge of 456, or 9.1%. Now, whilst these figures are not at all near the peak figures recorded pre-2008, they are certainly promising, and perhaps a sign that the legal market is slowly but surely recovering from the financial crisis. Moreover, it is suggestive of a turn in student fortunes – competition is still tense, but more recorded training contracts suggests more openings and opportunities are available than before.

Of course, these figures can only provide a temporary optimistic boost, for it should be noted that these statistics, whilst promising, will not sate demand. After all, the number of legal graduates is soaring, but training contracts for these graduates are not. Figures provided by UCAS just this year illustrate this quandary: the number of people taking up places to study law at higher education institutions has increased sharply over the last few years. The amount of successful applicants to undergraduate law courses has risen by a staggering 5,215 (28%) since 2007, and 600 (3%) since last year alone. All in all,this means that there are over 5,000 more students enrolling on undergraduate law courses in 2015 than did so in 2007.

Now, increased student enrolment on law courses between 2007-2008 did not matter quite so much at the time. Life pre-financial crisis promised stability and opportunities in equal measure of law firms and law students alike. Between 2007-08 alone, some 6,303 training contracts were registered. This was essentially due to the culmination of an eight-year run of legal market expansion, creating an increased demand for legal services and lawyers. But the glory days never do last: 2008  and its global financial meltdown came to pass. Unfortunately, the legal market expansion declined, law firms struggled to adapt, and consequently trainee solicitor places sharply decreased.By 2011-2012, only 4,869 training contracts were registered. (I commenced my Law degree in 2012, and I remember being warned that the graduate market was already saturated, and would not improve until after I had graduated.)

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Time to start those TC applications…
Recent legal market trends had shown registered training contract numbers have failed to recover from their pre-2008 peak, and were illustrative of the struggling recovery in the legal market. The Law Society figures released this week thus contradict these recorded trends, meaning they shall be welcomed by aspiring solicitors.

Or, perhaps only welcomed by those aspiring solicitors seeking their fortune in London. The Law Society’s report noting the increase in registered training contracts found that these registrations were most prevalent in London. According to the report, just over half of the training contracts – 51.5% – are based in London. Around a third -33.8% – of all training contracts are offered by City firms: Linklaters and Allen & Overy in particular are offering 110 and 90 training contracts a year respectively.

But the bigger picture makes for interesting consideration. The recorded increase in registered training contracts occurred to a greater extent in smaller firms, not the City giants. Whilst the share of training contracts offered by firms with 26 or more partners dropped from 54.9% to 49.4%, the proportion of places at small firms with two to four partners increased by 20%. In addition, it was found that firms with five to 10 partners saw an even bigger 45% growth.

But Leah, I hear you ask. Why wax lyrical about this report from the Law Society about training contracts? It is really that necessary for law students to be aware of? Well, yes. This is because the training contract ‘route’ is still the most common route for aspiring solicitors to undertake; some 91.7% of the 2014-2015 trainees completed their legal training in a law firm. Yet whilst this route is still the norm, alternative routes are on the rise, too. The number of training contracts offered in commerce and industry has experienced a notable increase of 19.4%, from 185 to 221 in the same year stated previously.

And finally, this positive trend of notable increases in the legal sphere does not just end with law students and training contracts. This continues into the more senior ranks of the profession too, as the number of practising solicitors has also increased by 2.3% to 133,367.

So, dear fellow law students, we may just have a chance to rejoice: it appears that for the first time since the infamous year of 2008, graduate entry into the legal profession may just be happening more readily. It should be noted that this is just one report, and the legal recovery is tentative. But if ever there was a time to tap into a reservoir of optimism, this is it.

If you want to read my advice post on training contract applications, have a glance here.