Could “useful idiots” think twice before standing?

Posted By: May 31, 2017

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast.  Wednesday, May 31, 2017 

A fortnight ago Simon Jenkins offered some unpleasant home truths for small parties in British general elections – observations that apply here as much as in Britain since the same voting system operates.

The only achievement of small parties is to give one of the big parties a leg up he says.

The antiquated British system means, as it always has, that all elections are essentially a fight between the two big parties, Conservative and Labour, to form a government. Votes are for seats in the same Westminster parliament, therefore, a vote for the SNP in Scotland or Plaid Cymru in Wales is ‘savagely anti-Labour’. The same goes in England for votes for the Lib Dems or Greens. They all reduce Labour’s chances of forming a government.

UKip used to play the same role by taking votes from the Conservatives. No longer now that the Conservatives have adopted UKip’s policies, folding them into the big party.

The growth of tactical voting in England shows the small parties realize the truth of what Jenkins is saying.

Tactical voting began in a big way in 1997 with people desperate to get rid of the Conservatives after 18 years. In many constituencies where Labour had no chance their supporters switched to Lib Dem to get the Conservative out. In other places the Lib Dems pulled out so as not to split the anti-Conservative vote.

The same tactic is happening now. For example, the Greens have pulled out in Twickenham to give Vince Cable a clear run. He lost in 2015 by 2007 votes: the Greens polled 2,463. The Greens have also pulled out of Derby North where Labour lost by 41 votes in 2015. The Greens polled 1,615 votes there in 2015 and handed the seat to the Conservatives.

Here the election, as always, boils down to a contest between Unionists and Nationalists each side dominated by one big party.

Small parties perform the same function as they do in Britain giving voters the choice of which big party’s vote to split and therefore a leg up to the one they don’t split.

There is some tactical voting: in Foyle and South Down where unionists vote SDLP keep Sinn Féin out and in South Belfast and East Belfast where voters will switch to keep the DUP out.

Elsewhere, it’s not called tactical voting. It’s elevated into ‘a pact’ which for Nationalists, certainly for the SDLP, seems is a mortal sin.

Unionists make no bones about it, never have, and one party pulls out to give the other a clear run.

The consequence is that say, in Fermanagh/South Tyrone or North Belfast, a vote for a small party such as the SDLP or Alliance, both of whom are spoilers, is a vote for the UUP and DUP respectively. Similarly, in South Belfast, a vote for Alliance or the Greens, neither of whom has a pup’s chance, is a vote for the DUP.

So, as Jenkins points out, the self-righteous position of small parties who insist on running candidates despite no prospect of winning, produces the paradoxical outcome that they elect the party they say they are most opposed to. As Jenkins says, in most cases it affects Labour so that the small, self-important parties are actually the Conservatives’ ‘useful idiots’ in Lenin’s phrase.

It’s a doubly stupid attitude here because the only opportunity for power lies in Assembly elections where proportional representation allows small parties to benefit from transfers. For them to meddle in Westminster seats, where they have no chance, is to be Unionism’s useful idiots.

For example in 2015 in Fermanagh/South Tyrone Alliance polled 1.3 per cent and the Greens 1.5 per cent and handed the seat to the UUP. So voting for them was tantamount to voting UUP. Did they want that?

On the nationalist side gone are the arguments about standing against support for the armed struggle. High-flown rhetoric about a representation of the people is meaningless when the consequence of standing in places such as North Belfast or Fermanagh/South Tyrone, even with token candidates, is to elect a Unionist MP who will support the British government in the rush to a hard border and exit from the single market.

Is that what people here want?