Local and Assembly elections build-up: Cost-of-living crisis and NI Protocol weigh heavily on the agenda

Published by Scott Challinor on May 4th 2022, 10:10am

Ahead of Thursday’s local council elections across Great Britain and the assembly elections in Northern Ireland, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has proven a prominent topic, while the Northern Ireland Protocol is also overshadowing the discussion across the Irish Sea.

Wednesday is the final day of campaigning before the UK goes to the polls on Thursday [May 5], to elect local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland’s government.

For the Conservative party, the local elections will come as a major litmus test given that it is the first election of any kind that the Tories have faced since the pandemic and Partygate, the start of the war in Ukraine, and the onset of spiralling inflation.

Inflation currently stands at seven per cent, the highest levels seen in 30 years, and it is expected to increase further before the end of the year. Rising energy bills, food and fuel prices are the main drivers behind this.

In an appeal to voters in the Express newspaper, prime minister Boris Johnson has sought to reassure the public that the Conservatives recognise that people are “feeling the pinch” of rising costs, and that the government is “focused on growing the economy to address the cost of living”.

In the build-up to the local elections, Johnson and his fellow ministers have repeatedly pointed out the package of help measures it has already introduced, including making adjustments to the National Insurance payments threshold to alleviate tax burdens for many, alongside a council tax rebate and energy bills relief.

Environment secretary George Eustice told the BBC: “We do recognise that [people are struggling with rising costs] and that’s why we've put in place the package of measures that we have.

“We've got to take a proportionate approach to try to help people through that difficult time. We can't go too far; we can't mitigate all the impacts.”

However, the government’s mitigation measures have repeatedly come under attack by opposition MPs, who say that ministers have not done enough to ease the burden on families.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has labelled the government’s decision to press on with the 1.25 per cent rise in National Insurance as “the wrong tax at the wrong time”, and criticised government for not introducing a windfall tax on the increasing profits of oil and gas firms to help subsidise higher energy bills.

Sir Keir said: “The Conservatives...have made it [the cost-of-living crisis] worse by imposing 15 Tory tax rises - including this month's national insurance rise on business and working people.

“Labour's plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis puts money back in your pocket. Our call for an emergency budget would mean action now.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has talked-up the prospect of the local elections being an opportunity to “send a shockwave from communities around the country to the heart of the Conservative party.”

He has also attacked the government over the Partygate controversy ahead of the local elections, saying that the prime minister is “not fit to lead the country” and that the UK “can’t afford to have a law-breaking prime minister and a tax-hiking chancellor” during “a time of national crisis.”

In Scotland, the country’s first minister and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, has also taken aim at the Conservatives, calling the cost-of-living crisis “self-made” by the Tories and urging Scots to back her party to “put Boris Johnson under real pressure to act now and help families out”.

Sturgeon said: “The only thing that will make the Tories sit up and take notice is when they think their own jobs are on the line - and that's why this election is so important.”

Over in Northern Ireland, 90 members of the legislative assembly [MLAs] will be elected out of 239 candidates as its citizens go to the polls on Thursday.

While the cost-of-living crisis has featured prominently in pre-election discussions, the Northern Ireland Protocol has threatened to overshadow this and took the spotlight in the final TV debate before the vote, in which the five main party leaders in Northern Ireland featured.

Tuesday night’s debate on BBC Northern Ireland saw DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill, Alliance leader Naomi Long, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and UUP leader Doug Beattie locked in heated discussions for an hour before a live audience in Belfast.

During the discussion, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey made clear that if elected, he would not be prepared to form an executive until the Northern Ireland Protocol had been resolved, a move which drew criticism from Sinn Féin.

The DUP chief did not say whether he would be prepared to nominate a deputy first minister to serve alongside a first minister from Sinn Féin should Sinn Féin be the largest party following the election.

Sir Jeffrey said: “Of course I am committed to leading the DUP into executive, but we must deal with the Protocol.”

The prospect of Northern Ireland not having an assembly formed following the election was described as “unfathomable” by O’Neill, who accused the DUP of “telling people their identity is under threat” and “holding us all to ransom” over the Protocol “while the rest of us want to put money in the people's pockets and deal with the cost-of-living crisis.”

The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the UK's Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union and prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south.

After entering force at the start of 2021, the Protocol has seen new checks come into force for certain goods which enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which unionists argue has created an Irish Sea trade border, increased costs for businesses and continually undermines Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

Despite the severity of the Protocol, Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, stressed that governance in Northern Ireland mustn’t be halted simply because of the Irish Sea trade border, suggesting that finding resolutions to the cost-of-living crisis was more important to the public.

Eastwood said: “We can talk about the cost of living, and we can talk about health...nothing will be done about any of these issues if we don't have a government.”

Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance party, told viewers that she would be prepared to form an executive if put in the position to do so, suggesting that it would be “obscene” if a government were not to be formed.

She said: “I think it would be obscene at a time when the real issues that are facing people are the cost-of-living crisis, pressures in health service; the challenges that we have with climate change...if we were to continue to take salaries during that period when we weren't doing our jobs.

“We should not be locked out [of the assembly] for long periods... we want reform of institutions and to have sustainable government”.

While she did not participate in the debate, the leader of Green Party Northern Ireland, Claire Bailey, also told the programme that “what people want [in Northern Ireland] is that all parties get behind the needs and tackle the cost-of-living crisis,” but the debate had shown that Northern Irish people were “just being held to ransom by the traditional politics of division and delay”.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
May 4th 2022, 10:10am

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