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The delicate art of coalition-building – an insider’s view from Canada

I imagine that many readers of this blog will, like myself, have spent much of the past few days gripped by coverage of the election results, and the ongoing coalition negotiations.

This is just a brief post to point blog readers in the direction of an absolutely fascinating Canadian article on the whole topic of coalition-building, which was written a few months ago by blogger and NDP strategist Brian Topp for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

Brian Topp was a senior negotiator for the New Democratic Party (NDP) (Canada’s left-of-centre party) during their late-2008 coalition talks with the Liberal Party (Canada’s large, centrist ‘natural governing party’).

The article, entitled “Coalition Redux”, weighs in at a hefty 10,000 words or so – it’s absolutely gripping stuff and once I started reading it I found I couldn’t stop until I had finished the whole thing. It’s very well-written and offers a fascinating insider account of the kind of challenges and intricacies involved in coalition-building, and of the potential pitfalls along the way (for example, the Lib-NDP coalition failed in large part because negotiators didn’t adequately consider the impact of the role of the Bloc Quebecois).

The article was posted on Brian Topp’s Globe & Mail blog as a series of six chapters – here are all the links:

  • Part 1 – Coalition Redux: The Prime Minister makes a big mistake
  • Part 2 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the deal
  • Part 3 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the new government
  • Part 4 – Coalition Redux: Things come together
  • Part 5 – Coalition Redux: Things fall apart
  • Part 6 – Coalition Redux: Lessons Learned
  • Enjoy!

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    Filed under: general election, power sharing, Voluntary Coalition

    No room for complacency, as Salmond outlines blueprint for breaking up the Union

    On Monday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond launched his long-awaited white paper on Scottish independence. Salmond, if he gets his way, wants to propose four options to the Scottish people:

    i) Continued Scottish devolution with the same powers as at present
    ii) Improved powers for Holyrood on the lines of the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution
    iii) “Independence light” / “Devolution max” – almost total separation with Scotland basically retaining only the Queen, the Pound and the Army in common with the rest of the Union.
    iv) Full separation with Scotland becoming a separate, independent state

    Recent polls indicate that support for the Union remains strong in Scotland – Ipsos-MORI in last weekend’s Sunday Times pegged support for full separation at just 20%, it’s lowest figure in quite some time. A recent Daily Telegraph poll said Scots would vote 57-29 against breaking up the Union – a ratio of almost two to one.

    Nevertheless, for anyone who believes in the value of the Union, there is no room for complacency looking forward. Salmond is clearly banking on a Tory victory in the general election to boost support north of the border for his separatist plans. Polling figures indicate a potentially massive swing in Scotland towards separation should the Tories regain power at Westminster. One poll a year ago showed over a 20 point swing towards independence should the Tories take power in London.

    This is not surprising when you look at Scottish voting preferences – even today, when there has been a significant swing to the Tories across much of England and Wales, Scots still retain strong support for Labour. A poll for the Daily Record a few weeks ago had Labour 21 points ahead of the Tories – basically showing no decline at all since 2005. Last week’s Telegraph poll confirmed that Labour are experiencing a “sharp revival in its fortunes north of the border” with their support on 39%. The Tories, according to the Telegraph, are flatlining on 18%. As Conservative Home’s Tim Montgomerie puts it, the ‘Cameron effect’ simply doesn’t exist north of the border.

    UK-wide, the polls have been narrowing in recent weeks. Two recent polls, in the Observer ten days ago and in yesterday’s Independent, are now pointing squarely towards a hung parliament. A Tory majority – especially a large one – no longer seems the slam-dunk certainty it did a few months back. Nevertheless, it still seems likely that Cameron will be residing in Number Ten this time next year.

    Any incoming Tory government will be faced with a difficult challenge to see off the separatist threat. For if they act according to instinct they may well play straight into the hands of the separatists. Salmond’s game plan goes something like this: launch independence white paper and use it as the SNP platform for the general election, wait for the Tories to get into power in Westminster (probably with less than one in five of Scottish votes and at best a small handful of Scottish MPs), pick a fight with them over something serious – say the financial proposals set out in the Calman Report, or George Osborne’s harsh public sector austerity measures – and use this fight to tell Scots that only through full separation and independence can they have the power to decide their own future (and be rid of the unpopular Tories to boot).

    The ‘independence-light’/’devolution max’ option which Salmond proposes is almost as dangerous as full separation. It seems designed as a fallback for Scots not ready to move to full separation, but which, if passed, would ultimately achieve the same end result. Retaining just the Monarchy, the Pound and the Army in common with the rest of the Union is scarcely devolution at all – it almost has more in common with a kind of 21st century ‘dominion status’ a la the Irish Free State in 1923. No other federal Commonwealth country – even Canada with Quebec – would countenance anything like this level of separation while remaining a titular part of a federal system.

    Clearly Cameron and his brains trust will need to play a very clever game indeed if they are to stymie Salmond’s plan, and retain Scottish grassroots support for the Union. The Calman Report probably represents the best hope for solidifying support for the Union in Scotland. At present the Tories seem to be blowing hot and cold on the findings of the Calman Commission. Anything less than full implementation of the proposals for added Holyrood powers in the Calman report would be playing into Salmond’s hands. They should be careful not to pick any fights which are not absolutely necessary to save the Union itself. They must also do their best to work closely in the national interest with the other Scottish Unionist parties – Labour and the Lib Dems – to avoid allowing Salmond to paint Westminster’s Scottish policy as a Tory plot to do down Scotland.

    In some ways it may be a good thing that the Union will be put to the test like this. If the Union can survive a few years of a Tory government sure to be deeply unpopular north of the border, then it can probably survive most things. After all, at present, support for the Union still remains solid – so pro-Union forces have everything to play for. But all the pro-Union political forces will need to work together if Alex Salmond’s plan to destroy the Union is to be thwarted.

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    A Union For All – it’s time to repeal the Act of Settlement and separate Church and State

    [picapp src=”0/8/2/c/Church_And_State_269c.jpg?adImageId=7006860&imageId=3414693″ width=”380″ height=”284″ /]

    The US Supreme Court began its new term recently with consideration of an interesting case – Salazar v. Buono – that goes to the heart of separation of church and state in the United States of America.

    In 1934, the US Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a Christian cross on public land in the Mojave National Preserve near San Bernadino, California. The cross became a gathering place for local Christians who have celebrated Easter services there since the mid-thirties. Now this was on publicly-owned land – and the US Constitution stipulates strict separation of church and state. A decade ago, a request to build a Buddhist shrine near the location of the cross was denied by the National Parks Service.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    Ireland, Europe and the Lisbon Treaty…

    This Friday 2nd October, Irish voters go to the polls for a re-run referendum on the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty. It’s been just over a year since voters last went to the polls on this question. In June 2008 the voters said no to the Lisbon Treaty by a 53%-47% margin.

    Last time round I’d have probably voted no if I’d been living back home, but there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then and with the Irish economy in such a calamitous state this time I’m leaning to the ‘yes’ side. If principles have a price, then a 12.4% drop in GNP and an 8.4% drop in GDP this year alone is good for starters…

    I’m not terribly enthusiastic either way however, which is a strange place to find myself just days before polling day. As a bona fide political obsessive, on most issues I tend to hold fairly clear views. This referendum campaign seems different – with arguments that appeal, often strongly, to me on both sides. So in this post I’m not really going to be arguing one way or the other – I’ll just set out the most appealing arguments as I see them on both sides of the debate…

    For me, the best reasons for voting yes are:

    – I am fundamentally pro-European, although not pro- the current shape of EU institutions. As a southern unionist, I see myself as Irish and British and European – and I’m pro-European for many of the same reasons I’m pro-Union. I particularly liked what Alex Benjamin had to say here about the experience of working in the EU Parliament – “walking around the corridors in the Parliament hearing Finnish, French, Latvian, Dutch or Italian being spoken and having friends from all over Europe. This is, in essence, what Europe should be about: talking to each other, working together and sharing experience and experiences together…”

    – Ireland is really in very deep economic trouble at the moment and we need all the friends we can get. There’s not a country on the globe unaffected by this Great Recession but Ireland’s been clobbered worse than almost everybody but Iceland. The ‘no’ campaign point out that Lisbon isn’t about the economy, but were we to reject it a second time it would certainly create continent-wide uncertainty and destabilise the wider European economy. It would also alienate a hell of a lot of folks whom we need as friends if our economy is ever to recover.

    – Europe’s been great for Ireland – growing up in the 80s and 90s I well remember all the wee blue EU flag signs beside all the new roundabouts and dual-carriageways and what-not that were modernising our infrastructure. Europe gave us the fuel we needed to ignite the Celtic Tiger in the first place. It seems churlish to derail a continent-wide process given all that the EU has done for us.

    – There are some real loons out there advocating a no vote – a deeply unappealing hodgepodge of economic right-wingers like Declan Ganley’s Vanitas Libertas, ultra-traditionalist ‘back to the 50s, dancing at the crossroads’ types like the Coir campaign, and ultra-nationalist types like Eirigi.

    On the other hand, the best reasons which would tempt me to vote no are:

    – It’s completely undemocratic to ask voters to vote again on pretty much the same deal barely a year after they’ve already said no. The requirement to hold a referendum on significant constitutional changes is one of the best features of the Irish constitution, and this idea that we’ve got to vote over and over until we give the ‘correct’ result really cheapens that. The ‘yes’ campaign posters tell us ‘its your choice’ – but is it really?

    – There really is a huge democratic deficit in the EU institutions and Lisbon fails to address this. Worse, senior EU figures seem quite blind to the need to address the deficit. For instance former Irish EU Commissioner David Byrne had an article in the Irish Times the other day in which he claimed to be “mystified by those who maintain that the EU is undemocratic”, before going on to describe how Commissioners get appointed by member state governments, rather than by the voters. He does point out that the EU Parliament can censure the Commission (thereby requiring it’s resignation) – however it is only the Commission as a whole that can be censured – the EU Parliament doesn’t have a right to force any individual Commissioner to resign.

    – I especially disagree with the idea of having an EU president not directly elected by EU citizens. If Blair or anyone else wants the job they should be prepared to put in the hard yards campaigning for votes down the boreens of Galway and among Polish farmers, Spanish fishermen, Swedish intellectuals etc etc.

    – Some political figures whom I greatly respect – such as the indefatigable Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins – are strongly against it, on the grounds of protecting workers rights and public services and avoiding EU militarisation. Balancing this there are also many on the Left in favour of the Treaty and it’s comprehensive Charter of Fundamental Rights – and the European Trade Union Congress, ICTU and SIPTU all urge a yes vote.

    – The pro-Treaty argument too often seems to boil down to a simplistic ‘Vote Yes to Europe’ exhortation – a not-too-distant cousin of the tired old NI syndrome of pinning a red-white-blue or green-white-orange rosette on a donkey and asking people to vote for it.

    So there you have it. On the whole I’m leaning towards the ‘yes’ side, but without much great enthusiasm. The state of the economy will, I suspect, be the decisive factor for many voters on referendum day.

    Last time round the opinion polls at this stage of the campaign had just begun to swing round to the ‘no’ side. This time the ‘yes’ seems to be holding onto a clear lead – although the ‘no’ is gaining ground and the gap does appear to be narrowing.

    For Northern Ireland, even if the yes side wins in the Republic and the Treaty gets ratified across the EU, that may not be the end of the matter. David Cameron is coming under immense pressure from his euro-sceptic wing to hold a retrospective UK referendum on the Treaty, even if it has already been ratified by the time he comes to power. If such a referendum were to be lost (as I think quite likely) it would mark a real break between the UK and EU.

    So whichever way things go on Friday it’s clear that Lisbon, as a political issue, has plenty of life left in it yet…

    Filed under: Uncategorized

    In Defence of Power Sharing

    Well as a very wet-behind-the-ears new blogger here at OpenUnionism, I was given advance notice a few weeks ago that our opening topic on this here blog was going to be ‘aspirations for the new Assembly’. So I’d been trying to collect my thoughts on what I thought was ‘Assembly aspirations’ stuff – things like devolution of policing & justice, finding an alternative to the cruel and ruthless ‘academic selection’ education system which consigns so many children to less than the best from the age of 11 through no fault of their own, and how the Executive can best protect Northern Ireland’s working families from harsh UK-wide public spending cuts …

    Loads of big issues for the NI Executive to tackle – but also little to nothing by way of consensus between the major parties on such ‘big’ issues. Perhaps this is why First Minister Peter Robinson felt it advantageous to distract everybody’s attention by proposing nothing less than the abolition of the cross-community power-sharing mechanisms agreed upon in the 1998 Agreement. Nothing like starting a good aul’ traditional bunfight when the emperor needs new clothes.

    Robinson proposes to rewrite the Agreement by replacing cross-community power-sharing with a new mechanism whereby the support of 65% of MLAs would be enough to form a government or pass legislation. This would put an end to the principle of power-sharing set out in the 1998 Agreement, which says that the NI Executive must have the support of a majority of both Nationalist and Unionist MLAs to function.

    65% seems like a rather arbitrary figure, so let’s have a look at what such a threshold might mean if it were applied to the current Assembly:

    With a 65% threshold 71 MLAs would be needed to form an Executive or pass legislation. Unionists currently hold 55 of 108 Assembly seats (about 51%) whereas Nationalists hold 44 seats (about 41%). There are 9 MLAs designated as neither nationalist nor unionist.

    So with a 65% threshold, if all the ‘other’ MLAs sided with the nationalist parties, an Executive could conceivably be formed with the support of as few as 18 of 55 unionist MLAs (roughly 33%). Under the 65% formula you could have an Executive which 2 out of every 3 unionists in Northern Ireland were opposed to. (I can’t remember the DUPs calling for this back in 2003…)

    Even worse, with a 65% threshold, an Executive could be formed with the support of just 7 of the 44 nationalist MLAs (15.9%) – fewer than one in six!

    Does anyone out there seriously think that an Executive opposed by 84% of Nationalists, or by 67% of Unionists, could maintain the kind of cross-community legitimacy any Northern Ireland government needs?

    As a unionist, I disagree with SF on loads of issues, but I don’t think they’re being unreasonable in seeing Robinson’s proposal as being basically aimed at excluding them from the Executive. In 2007, 63.3% of nationalist voters supported Sinn Fein over the SDLP – how can it possibly be in the long-term interest of Northern Ireland or Unionism to exclude the representatives of 63.3% of nationalist voters from the devolved government?

    For the NI Executive to maintain cross-community legitimacy, the principle of 50% MLA support from each community must be maintained. This is certainly not to say that the current system of power-sharing is perfect. The “everybody in government, nobody in opposition” model is totally crap deeply flawed. Room must be opened up for a proper Assembly opposition. You can’t expect good governance in politics without competition.

    So lets have reform. Lets get rid of ‘everybody in government’. Lets create space for a constitutional opposition in the Assembly. Lets ensure that the opposition parties are appropriately resourced, as they are in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and Westminster. Lets stipulate that the Executive gets formed by the largest party from each community – at present this would be DUP & SF – in the future it could be DUP & SDLP, or UCUNF & SF,  or UCUNF & SDLP, or indeed new parties yet to come….

    But Unionists would be wise to strongly defend and maintain power-sharing – which protects Unionists as much as it does Nationalists. The NI Executive and Assembly are the cornerstones of Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom. And it’s the power-sharing principle which underpins the legitimacy of the Executive and Assembly among both sides of Northern Ireland’s community.

    Power-sharing underpins the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union. Unionists who attack power-sharing are undermining the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union – same aul’ unionism shooting itself in the same aul’ foot…

    Filed under: power sharing

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