Saturday, January 23, 2010

Business as usual

I can't be the only one sick to the back teeth of the national whinge-fest that has greeted the news that the American food firm Kraft are to take over Cadbury's, can I? It's not that I've got anything against people getting all slushy and sentimental, but at least save it for something worthwhile - for instance, the welfare of the poor sods who actually work there. That though hasn't been the reason for a lot of people getting themselves worked up over this issue.

It was incredibly irritating this week to listen to random folks being vox popped by reporters on the streets of Brum babble out predictable banalities about whether there was "anything British" left to speak of and how this was just one more sign of the country going to hell in a handcart. One young bloke who probably should've known better told a BBC reporter that he reckoned the sale of Cadbury "took the 'Great' out of Great Britain." Does he really believe that I wonder? Does the sale of a chocolate company really take the 'Great' out of Great Britain? Of course it doesn't. Just as those who think that their national culture died when the weather forecast began getting read out in Celsius are hysterical halfwits, of equal idiocy are those that this week have been getting teary eyed about the prospect of Curly Wurly bars and Wispas being owned by Irene Rosenfeld and her mates (or "the Yanks" as they have been referred to by people whose feelings on this subject have not in the slightest bit been influenced by either anti-Americanism or a post-imperial inferiority complex).

It seems that most of us just don't get the ways and workings of the market. For a start, a lot of people appear to think that Cadbury prior to this week was something akin to a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Well, it wasn't. In recent years workers at the company have been out on strike in protest at the proposed transfer of jobs from the organisation's plant at Keynsham in Somerset to a site in Poland, proposals made not by men in boardrooms in New York or LA but in places much closer to home. How loyal those Great British bosses are, eh? But then why let any of that get in the way of a good sob and a nostalgic anecdote about how you used to spend your pocket money on Creme Eggs.

What we had on our hands was a company that was clearly neither a Dahlesque idyllic dreamland nor a workers cooperative. Indeed, nor was it even owned by the Cadbury family any longer. It was a global confectionary company that was listed on the FTSE and the NYSE, not some quaint little home-grown enterprise. In other words, if its shareholders wanted to sell their shares and someone else wanted to purchase them then there was very little you or I could do about it. The nationality of the shareholder is utterly meaningless. Their loyalty is to their shares and their business, not Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II or her subjects. John Redwood, not someone I usually find myself nodding in agreement with, has correctly pointed out that as things stand at the present time only 10% of Cadbury employees actually work in the United Kingdom. As he also observes, British ownership does not in any way whatsoever mean British jobs ("Nissan, Toyota and Honda have done much more for UK motor industry jobs than British Leyland, Rover and the UK government did").

The task of socialists should not be to lament the fact that this company - or any other company for that matter - has fallen out of the hands of native capitalists. Rather, our concerns should be focussed on the future welfare of the employees. The fact of the matter here is that, regardless of who takes over at the helm, the workers at Cadbury's are going to have a fight on their hands if they are to avoid the threat of job cuts. When that particular battle begins to heat up I will not be counting on those that shed copious amounts of crocodile tears over their copy of the Daily Mail on Wednesday morning to provide much in the way of support for British workers.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ulster at the crossroads: UCUNF or 'unionist unity'?

Unionist pact - two words that always seem to pop up approaching an election. So, it should be no surprise at all that with a UK general election due to take place at some point in the next five months that we are hearing rumours of such a deal. Except it is a surprise. The various factions of unionism have never looked as distinct from each other and as irreconcilable as they do at this point in time. The main move within unionism in the course of the past year has been the formation of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force. One would have assumed that as a result of this deal any ideas of a unionist pact would have been thrown out the window. Apparently not.

You see, for a huge chunk of the population here tribal unity still wins out over real politics. Yes, I know you've heard caller after caller to Radio Ulster's Talkback whine on about how all we ever talk about in this country is parades and flags and how it is awful that we don't talk enough about hospitals and schools and roads and 'real' issues. Don't be fooled by them. These are the exact same people that will be voting along the usual lines for the usual people once they get into the comfort and safety of their polling booth. With old fashioned talk of unionist pacts being bandied about any notion of a realignment of politics seems like a million light years away.

The sectarian mindset in Northern Ireland is far from broken and, sadly, the anti-sectarian forces remain small and ineffectual. Much as I hate to admit it, it seems that most people in this province would prefer an electoral pact between the parties of their own community rather than a move towards practicing politics along the lines that it is practiced in the rest of the western world. I sometimes get the feeling many here would be happy to have one party for the Taigs and one for the Prods. Let's face it, do we really need any more? That was the way politics used to be pre-1972: the Unionist Party vs the Nationalist Party. Easy to follow. Uncomplicated. Every election a mini-referendum on the border. A sectarian headcount. For unionists, a chance to reassert their position as the majority community. For nationalists, an opportunity to observe how their numbers were growing. Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Hopes have been raised within the unionist community of some form of pact for this year's general election and beyond. The exact nature of the talks between the two main unionist parties and the Conservatives in the south of England at the weekend is as yet unclear but all sorts of chit-chat has been circulating on the grapevine; there's even a wild rumour going around about a merger between the DUP and the UUP. Yet is this brand of unity really desirable - and by that I mean for unionists? The truth is that a unionist pact does not make the union with Britain any more secure than it already is. While it would help to unite the disparate factions of unionism it would not win over new converts to the union itself. So, while it may win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone, get an extra council seat here and there and lead to some jubilant cries of 'yeroo' at a few count centres, in the long term a unionist pact could potentially be damaging to their cause. The reason I say this is because a unionist pact, when all the spin is stripped away, is essentially a Protestant pact and in the Northern Ireland of the future Protestant pacts my not be enough.

Some of you may take issue with me calling a unionist pact a Protestant pact but as things stand presently in Northern Ireland, apart from the odd free thinking exception here and there, your religious background more or less determines your view on the constitutional position of these six counties. If I were a unionist, rather than revert to schemes aimed at securing an old style united front, I would be more inclined to pursue the new path proposed by the UCUNFers. In the long term this vehicle has much more potential than some accord leading to the winning of a couple of Westminster seats. First of all, because it forges ties between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists, UCUNF will help move NI politics that wee bit closer to the politics of GB; what sort of unionist could find fault in that? Secondly, the UCUNF project, if handled properly, has the potential to win support for unionism outside of its traditional community. With the Protestant population of the north no longer being in the overwhelming majority it was back at the time of the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, unionism may not always be able to rely on a simple religious majority keeping their beloved province inside the boundaries of the UK. What harm could be done in making a more concerted effort to win support from the Catholic community here, particular young Catholics that have grown up in a violence-free Northern Ireland and whose view on the national question may not be as hardened as their elders? Such support will not, however, be gained by a regression back to the outdated strategies that were supposedly debated at the weekend talks in England.

If unionism opts for a pact this year then it will confirm what I have always suspected: that both it and its nationalist counterpart are irreformably sectarian and that 'normal' politics will only be realised here when our present party system is replaced by one with organisations that are identified along left-right lines rather than green-orange ones. The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force could still play a part in that. My view of UCUNF when I first saw it was that it represented a UUP in transition; a party changing from a unionist party to a centre right party. It may well be that it eventually becomes a non-sectarian, pro-union party of the right like its friends across the water in the Scottish and Welsh Tories. All will depend on how it chooses to proceed in the coming days.

Unionism has two distinct options facing it: it can either play it safe and hatch a short term sectarian alliance aimed at getting one over on the Shinners in a handful of parliamentary constituencies or it can adopt a long term strategy of maximising support for the union in Northern Ireland in preparation for that all important future border poll. Like smoking, sectarian instincts may be hard to kick. If the former option turns out to be just too mouth-watering a prospect for the majority of unionists to resist then they can forget about ever winning over the degree of Catholic support that many involved in the UCUNF project clearly desired. The long term danger for unionism is that in a generation or two the battle to represent the voters of Fermanagh and South Tyrone may be a battle to represent them in the chamber of Dail Eireann rather than in the Palace of Westminster.

The forward march of Labour continued

It's far too early to be getting our hopes built up just yet but the latest Ipsos MRBI poll being carried in this morning's Irish Times has some good news for the Labour Party in the Republic. Despite Fianna Fail support rising slightly to 22%, the party remains in second place on 24% with Fine Gael still way out front on 32%. Even more encouraging is the news that Eamon Gilmore presently has the highest approval rating of all the party leaders - a full 15 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Enda Kenny. In short, things are looking good.

Since the southern state was founded almost ninety years ago the two largest political formations have been Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and their pro and anti-treaty Sinn Fein predecessors. Labour, on the other hand, has consistently been a distant a third. If the polls in recent times are to be believed the next election could potentially witness a momentous shift in the nature of Irish politics. However, when that election will take place could well dictate just how momentous a shift that will be. If it were held now the coalition would almost certainly face a mauling at the hands of the electorate. Yet the government could theoretically hold onto power for another two years and by the time 2012 comes around everything could of course be completely different.

The important point to take out of today's poll results is that Labour support has remained relatively steady over the course of the past twelve months. This time last year a tnsMRBI for the same paper reported Labour support to be running at 24%. A few months later and the party won a quarter of the Republic's twelve seats in the European elections. Today, support is reported to be sitting again at 24%. Only time will tell if these polls herald a genuine breakthrough for the left in disturbing the traditional big two in Dail Eireann or whether its just another false dawn.