Friday, 27 May 2011

Big challenge for Stephen Farry as Agnew's Greens look over his shoulder.

The new Minister for Employment & Learning will no doubt be pouring over his budget right now to examine what movement he has, if any, in the way of student fees. Apart from the rather obvious financial implications on students and their families, any rise in fees will have serious political implications for Alliance and the Green Party in particular can apply significant pressure.

Alliance have, up to now, enjoyed the benefits of being the smaller party, fighting the noble fight against the might of the bigger parties (the Ulster Unionist party in particular). Alliance were well positioned to receive dissatisfied voters safe in the knowledge that their own voters were unlikely to go anywhere. Alliance voters tend to be some of the most loyal and for many, the idea of leaving for a party rooted in Unionism or Nationalism is unthinkable.

However, Steven Agnew has given The Green Party new life. Where Alliance's ideology is often perceived to be mostly about being non sectarian and non tribal with The Green Party their left wing, green, social justice ideology is clear for all to see. That they are also non sectarian and non tribal is accepted without question but there's no danger of anyone thinking that is what they are all about. For the first time, an important section of Alliance's voters have a feasible and attractive alternative. 

The importance of students to Alliance should not be underestimated. They are crucial to the continued survival of the party.  The students going through our universities over the next few years will be the last ones to have any first hand knowledge at all of the conflict that shaped much of our politics. The arguments of old are, for the most part irrelevant for them. It is natural that young, educated people, empowered to make their own Political choices will turn to a party that offers progressive, non tribal politics. The party that recruits them can reasonably expect that in 20 & 30 years time, they will still count them as members and supporters. That is surely the long term strategy for Alliance. It most certainly is for The Green Party. The battle for student votes will be fought between those two parties and Alliance may well be about to burden that population with even more debt.

If that is the case, expect to see even more support for The Green Party at the next election. Agnew is incredibly popular amongst young people and as the profile of both he and his party grows, their policy will be examined in more detail and it may well be that people realise it is not simply a party of 'tree huggers' as it has been unfairly labelled in the past.

I trust that whatever decision Stephen Farry makes, it will be what he believes is necessary but i'm sure it will be hard for him to set aside political concerns when he is making it.

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