- Nobody there from the North’s 18 MPs makes a telling point how London views the 6-Counties
As Britain’s political parties began their general election campaigns with a series of televised debates, two interesting messages emerged from one of the widely watched, albeit less than inspiring, media events. ITV’s 7-person debate demonstrated that for the first time since the 1920s, British politics are no longer bipolar.
Secondly, it is now very evident that not only is Northern Ireland not as British as Finchley but it is not considered integral to the UK’s political discourse at all.
Conservative Party delivered neo-liberalism is wrecking havoc on the North’s economy and those living there know it. People already experiencing hardship are to be further disadvantaged as public sector employment is to be cut back and central government funding reduced in favour of subsidies for corporations . Thousands took to the streets in March to protest the damage about to be inflicted by the London government imposed Stormont House Agreement, and still their representatives could not find a place in the important debate watched by millions of voters.
The governing Conservatives entered the TV debate insisting that the economy is not only in recovery mode but is actually enjoying robust good health. Prime Minister Cameron told his British viewers that unemployment is falling, growth has been revised upward and he also claimed that living standards are rising along with improved consumer confidence. Outside the broadcast studios, Cameron’s spin-doctors were reminding the public that British business is firmly behind the Conservative Party. So wonderful has been the Tory management of the economy in the opinion of more than 100 of the UK’s most senior business figures, that they wrote to the Daily Telegraph complementing the Posh Boys on their handling of the country and thereafter warning god fearing Britons about the dangers of a Labour Party victory in May.
There was, undoubtedly, a large measure of pre-election grandstanding in all of this. Political parties rarely provide a balanced or accurate account of their performance in office or the broken undertakings made before hand. As the former Irish Labour Party minister Pat Rabbitt once said when asked about his own party’s unfulfilled promises; ‘isn't that what you tend to do during an election?’ It was, nevertheless, important that differing views were heard on ITV if only to ensure that the governing party’s assertions did not go entirely unchallenged. However flawed the television debate was, important issues were highlighted, argued about and options of a sort placed before the public.
As is the case in the Republic of Ireland, austerity and the fall-out from it is of major concern to those governed from Westminster. Assessing whether the economy is performing as well as the Conservatives claim is important, especially to working people. Carefully selected statistics may appear to indicate a healthy state of affairs in Britain but all is not well and not everybody is as pleased with the situation as are the above mentioned letter writers to the Daily Telegraph.
Productivity, one of the key indicators in any economy, is dismally low in Britain. The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) said this measure decreased by 0.2% in the third quarter of the last financial year, leaving output per hour worked little changed on the previous year and slightly lower than in 2007. In other words, Cameron and Osborne have presided over an economy with the weakest productivity record of any British government since the Second World War. TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady said recently that the UK is fast becoming a low-wage, low-productivity economy. Endorsing this view, oddly enough, was the right-wing ‘Economist’ magazine as it carried a similar warning in an article last month that stated; ‘Britain’s workers are a bargain, because their pay is so pitiful. Of the 15 initial members of the EU, only Greece and Portugal now have lower hourly wages.’
Efficiency in a modern economy is not simply the result of sweat or diligence but is due to investment in training and state-of-the-art machinery. With labour so cheap, employers like those who use the Daily Telegraph to laud David Cameron, simply don’t see any reason to reinvest a greater portion of their profits in technology or enhancing skills.
A consequence of this is that, while Tory fiscal policy allows business enjoy a comfortable income, overall output is not increasing sufficiently rapidly to meet the needs of the wider population and simultaneously reward the wealthy. The end result of this neo-liberal inspired austerity programme is that inadequate resources are being made available to maintain public services and guarantee the social wage.
The ramifications of austerity, its impact and the Tory led coalition’s dealing with the issue was central, therefore, to the TV debate. Predictably, David Cameron stuck to his position that all is well and getting better, Labour’s Ed Miliband proposed a package that the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett described as a choice between ‘austerity and austerity light’, while the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon suggested a Keynesian alternative. Interestingly, the leaders of the Scots and Welsh nationalists and the Green Party (all women incidentally) offered Labour the option of support in return for softening the austerity programme.
Socialists might well have their doubts about the efficacy of any of these proffered remedies but at least all political parties with representatives elected to the House of Commons got an opportunity to contribute to an important debate. All parties that is, with the exception of those from Northern Ireland. Because, in spite of having more MPs than 4 of the 7 parties represented on the panel, in spite of demanding an opportunity to walk the British stage and in spite of offering to support either Labour or Conservative in the event of a hung parliament, the DUP found itself, like Cinderella, with no invitation to the ball.
The three largest Westminster parties and Britain’s television stations have offered various convoluted excuses for making an exception of the North’s MPs but the hard reality is that they are not seen as intrinsically part of the political dialogue in Britain.
Significantly, no voice was raised among the seven participating party leaders to say they would not take part in this event should it proceed without the Irish. With this happening only 6 months after the three big English parties made such an enormous effort to prevent Scotland leaving the UK, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Northern Ireland is effectively being ‘parked in a siding’ as far as Britain’s political elite is concerned. Under such a scenario, Northern Irish politicians might do well to consider their options while they still have the opportunity.
(This article first appeared in Socialist Voice April 2015)
 Northern Ireland CIT Bill Passes UK Parliament (http://bit.ly/1Ivvkef)
 Bargain basement. If Britain cannot get more from its legion of cheap workers, the recovery will stall. The Economist, Mar 14th 2015