Friday, 5 September 2008

The referendum that never was

Still on the subject of the highly unlikely referendum on further powers, I find myself – somewhat unusually – in agreement to some extent with both Peter Black and Glyn Davies. (Well, there’s a first time for everything - but it is only a partial agreement!)

Glyn Davies says that “…I believe there to be no longer any intention to hold such a referendum before 2011”. If he hadn’t included the words "no longer", I’d be able to agree with this statement 100%; but I simply don’t believe that Labour ever had any intention of holding a referendum before 2011, so there is no change in the position, in my view.

Peter Black suggests “if Labour and Plaid are determined to lock themselves in a dark room and pretend that it will all come good on the night, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, then I fear that a referendum cannot be won in the short-term”. I cannot but agree with these sentiments as well. There will be no ‘yes’ vote without a campaign to persuade people of its merits, and it really does appear as if both the One Wales partners are studiously avoiding the issue completely.

Welsh Ramblings seems to suggest that this is not complacency, it is a deliberate ploy by Labour and Plaid to wait until the Tories declare their hand more openly. He also suggests that secret talks are already under way. I suspect that this is no more than wishful thinking on his part, I’m afraid.

This is where I think the four parties actually are on the issue:

The Tories will only decide what position to adopt when Cameron has decided what will play best for them in order to win the General Election. He will leave it as late as he can, as he has done with all policy issues, because he's trying not to say anything firm on any topic. Their position then will depend on what Cameron sees as most likely to maximise the Tory vote in England, knowing that he can’t win in Wales whatever he says. It is almost certain that, whatever a small number of them might be saying now, the party will end up opposing further powers in the immediate future. Bourne and Co. at the Assembly will make their excuses, but they’ll end up following Cameron’s line.

Labour will do everything that they can to avoid holding a referendum at all, since it will inevitably cause them major problems with their own unity. They invented the Convention, and they invented it to give them a reason to postpone a referendum indefinitely, not as a means to holding it. They want – and I think can now reasonably expect – the Convention to say that there is no overwhelming appetite for further progress. And for them, the best way of achieving that result is to let the nay-sayers campaign openly whilst remaining silent themselves, and allowing - nay encouraging, as Glyn and Edna Mopbucket suggest - the Convention to take as long as possible, whilst doing as little as possible.

Plaid’s members believe that there is a commitment to holding a referendum before 2011, but the leadership know it isn’t going to happen; the Convention was just a convenient cover to enable them to get their hands on some of the levers of power. The leaders therefore need the same result from the Convention as Labour, but can’t and won’t admit it. Don’t expect them to initiate a yes campaign any time soon.

The Lib Dems are largely irrelevant, on this as on everything else. They would join a cross-party yes campaign if there was one, but are not about to go out on a limb and start a campaign all by themselves.

The outcome of all the posturing and manoeuvring will be that there will be no referendum for several years to come, but there will be no announcement of that fact until Labour and Plaid are happy that they’ve done enough (or rather deliberately done nothing for long enough) to ensure that the vote cannot be won, making it a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Where do the interests of Wales come in all this? Don’t ask irrelevant questions.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Blue on blue

It has hardly come as a surprise to anyone that David Davies MP has decided to set up a ‘cross-party’ campaign against further devolution to Wales. Nor should it come as any surprise to anyone that he is planning to base his campaign on dishonestly equating devolution and independence and on the equally dishonest notion that Wales is inevitably and permanently stuck in a state of poverty which only handouts from our rich English neighbours can alleviate.

Dishonest it may be – and we should not expect less of him, given his previous form – but there is plenty of historical evidence that simple dishonest messages can work. It’s a trick which should not be underestimated.

The leader of the Tories in the Assembly – a man who has the same exalted status in the party apparently as their leader on Cardiff City Council – has issued a pretty mild public rebuke. Reading between the lines, however, he is considerably less exercised about whether what Davies says is right or wrong for Wales than about whether Davies might actually try and co-operate with the devil incarnate, aka members of the Labour Party. He manages to avoid expressing his view on the substance at all, dismissing it as a topic for another day.

Some, such as Guerrilla Welsh Fare, seem to be assuming that, when it comes to the referendum, the Tory group in the Assembly at least will join the ‘yes’ campaign, and that Davies is out of step. I’m far from convinced. It’s no accident that the Tories have yet to respond to the Lord Roberts review of their policy. It could mean one of two things in my view. Either Cameron really thinks that the issue is so unimportant that he doesn’t need to take a position of any sort; or else he wants to keep his options open.

I tend to the latter view. I think that, if Cameron believes that taking an anti-further powers (or even anti-Assembly) stance will boost his chances of getting to Downing Street, then he will not hesitate for a moment. This is no great issue of principle to him (what is?), it’s just part of a game where there is only one prize of any importance. And, if he does decide to follow that track, the rest of his party in Wales will be expected to follow his lead. Oh, I’m sure they’ll find some sort of fudge (“the time isn’t right”, “we need a wider review”), but I am convinced that we will find the Conservative Party in Wales throwing its weight behind the ‘no’ campaign sooner or later.

The whole basis of Davies’ proposed campaign may be utterly dishonest; but at least he’s honest in stating where he really stands on the issue, unlike most of his party who are still waiting to be told what they think.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Talent spotting

It was in the 1992 election that Neil Kinnock issued his famous warning to us all. "Don't fall ill in Britain", is what he said. I thought that he was referring to the dangers of electing a Tory government and what it might do to our NHS, but it seems from today's story that the Labour Party might equally have used it as a warning to their own candidates.

So desperate are they to improve the pool of 'talent' which they have inflicted on our National Assembly that they have started eyeing up the seat of a sick member in the hope of a by-election. And if they can't find one ill enough, then they'll 'honour' another Assembly member who they feel isn't really up to scratch by offering him or her a seat in the Lords.

It's an astounding admission from the unnamed "senior Labour figures" that with their party holding almost half the seats in the National Assembly, they consider that none of their AMs is up to the job of succeeding Rhodri Morgan. It suggests that the Labour Party has not really taken the Assembly seriously from the outset – 'serious' politicians go to Westminster or Brussels, apparently; those not good enough for that can be given nice little sinecures in the Assembly.

It probably helps to explain Don Touhig's little outburst a few months ago that Plaid have been running rings around Labour. What does he expect if his party has only fielded its 'B' team?

No doubt opponents of devolution will use Labour's admission to promote their agenda, and to argue against further powers. I think it actually suggests the opposite; only with adequate powers will the Assembly start to become the real focus of Welsh politics which it should be; only then will the Labour Party start to treat it seriously.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Llwyd's Last Stand?

Today’s Western Mail article made me realise just how little public attention has been paid to Plaid’s internal election for a President. I suspect that most observers feel that it will make very little difference to Welsh politics; and reading today’s article certainly left me wondering why on earth the election is taking place. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any hint of a real political or philosophical debate going on.

Belying the title given to the Western Mail article, the substance of the debate, such as it is, seems to be that Llwyd will demand a trebling of the membership (typical of an MP to believe that decreeing something to be so makes it happen!), whilst Iwan will embrace new technology methods of campaigning.

If there’s no real debate about direction, I’m not sure that there’s any real contest taking place in electoral terms either. A quick look at both contenders’ websites suggests that Iwan has the endorsement of just about every significant figure in the party, whereas Llwyd has the other two MPs (well, they could hardly refuse to support their leader without fatally damaging his campaign, could they?), and Cynog Dafis. He also claims the leader of another party (Alex Salmond), and an ex-member of Plaid (Robyn Lewis) as supporters, although since neither of them has a vote, it doesn’t actually mean a lot.

A quick sample of Plaid acquaintances suggests that the result will be a walk-over for Iwan, and that, for me, is where an otherwise boring election starts to get interesting. Just what are the implications if Plaid’s parliamentary leader is heavily defeated in an election which he himself forced upon his party for reasons which remain entirely unclear to most? How wide does the margin of defeat need to be before his position becomes untenable?

There is an obvious successor in the shape of Adam Price. It strikes me that Llwyd’s last stand could actually bring about a bigger change in Welsh politics than might at first sight appear – albeit not the one he intended - as an entirely accidental by-product. I really love the law of unintended consequences.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Extracting the Urine

That’s what I thought some of our beloved AMs must be doing when I first saw the lists of who had claimed what. If it had only been the Tories making the outrageous claims, I might even have believed that it was a deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility of both the institution and its membership, but given that some members of all parties are at it, I had to dismiss that thought.

They say that what they have done is all within the rules, and I don’t doubt that. It means, of course there is a problem with the rules. It is clearly crazy that some of what they’ve been up to is allowable. But whilst “I was only claiming within the rules” isn’t anywhere near as bad as the infamous Nuremburg excuse “I was only following orders”, it does show a degree of the same willingness to collectively suspend the responsibility to make a personal judgement by hiding behind “the system”.

As if the individual claims weren’t bad enough, the element which most stood out for me was the decision to deliberately change the rules to allow Alun Cairns to continue to claim for a second home – a decision taken, apparently, unanimously by representatives of all four parties. Cairns, in turn, “followed the rules” and continued claiming. If his remarks about Italians didn’t finish his political career, this particular misjudgement surely will.

What I really find most remarkable is that, as with their pay rise, the AMs concerned seem to be completely devoid of any understanding of the likely public reaction to their behaviour. For instance, is there anybody, in any other walk of life, who really believes that it is necessary for someone who lives in Glamorgan or Gwent (for starters) to have a second home at their employers’ expense because they have to be in Cardiff from 9:00am to 6:00pm three days per week, for around 40 weeks of the year?

They seem to be living in a little bubble of unreality down in the Bay, where what would appear sensible and reasonable to ordinary folk somehow never intrudes. Perhaps we should ask their neighbours at Torchwood to investigate this strange phenomenon.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Unity of Purpose

Sometimes, it's not easy to tell how united any party is. There is, however, one obvious giveaway. When prominent figures in a party start to call for unity, you know that there is a problem.

In the case of the Labour Party recently, the number of calls for unity only serves to highlight the extent of the problem that they face. Splits within Plaid haven't been that obvious to me; but might there be some that are not so obvious? According to Richard Wyn Jones (translated here and here by Ordovicius), two very prominent members of the party (Adam Price and Alun Ffred Jones) have recently been warning against division.

Jones suggests that the danger of splits is always going to be there when a party which has been in opposition for a long time finds itself in government. For the first time ever, it has to take some difficult decisions and weigh up priorities rather than just blaming the government. I'd be inclined to accept Jones' argument on that point.

Jones also suggests that the oft-repeated claims of a huge gulf in the party between 'cultural' and 'political' nationalists are nowhere near as great as some would claim. I'd agree with that as well; attempts to define Plaid as two wings in that fashion are about as meaningful as claiming that Labour has a 'unionist' and a 'nationalist' wing. Both analyses are attempts to define the respective parties from an outsider's perspective, and both fail to understand the underlying agreements, which far outweigh the disagreements.

Having said that, it seems to me that there are some potential tensions building up within Plaid. Hence, from the point of view of the 'leadership', it might look as though there is a need to make members more aware of the problems of government; more aware of the need to accept some limitations. As Jones points out, 83 years is a long time for a party to dream of change with no power to bring it about, and the intrusion of harsh reality can be unsettling.

At the same time, however, the 'leadership' need to remember that it was those dreams which kept members and activists motivated and involved for 83 years; through the bad times and the worse times. The real danger comes if those activists think that they are being asked to show blind loyalty when the dreams are being betrayed. That's how I interpret the nub of Jones' article – as a very clear warning to Plaid's leaders.

I think he takes too narrow a view, however, in restricting his analysis to those issues in One Wales which concern the future of the language. There are some real pitfalls ahead over the language LCO; and I think Jones' assessment of the probable outcome is a reasonable one. The elephant in the room, however, is the question of a referendum on further powers. If, as seems to be increasingly likely, the Convention has been skilfully used by Labour to pin Plaid's leader into a corner where a referendum in the agreed timescale becomes impossible, then I suspect that loyalty will break down.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Blair's Big Boot

I am quite willing to accept that the 'leaked memo' setting out what Blair apparently really thinks about Brown was not penned by Blair himself. But it was certainly penned by someone close to the man, and there seems little reason to doubt that it accurately reflects his feelings towards his successor.

Whether Blair authorised the 'leak' is at best uncertain; but there seems little room to doubt that it was 'leaked' by someone close to the man himself.

Those questions, however, are pretty irrelevant. The point is that it has been deliberately placed into the public arena, and Brown and the Labour Party are left to deal with the consequences.

The first consequence is that it utterly destroyed any attempt to present the party, or even the cabinet, as being united behind Brown. They clearly are not; and even the attempt by No 10 to insist that they all said that they were backfired as some cabinet members very pointedly managed not to do so.

The second consequence is that it effectively confirms that many in the Labour Party have given up all hope of winning the next election. If they believed that the situation was recoverable, they'd be holding this discussion internally, not publicly. They have reached the point where some of them are convinced that the best that they can achieve is damage limitation. In essence - will the Tories' majority be less if we drop Brown now than it will if he hangs on to the end? Or put another way; can we still win the next-but-one election?

Of course, Blair and his allies blame Brown. But if Blair had kept his Granita promise rather then duplicitously leaving Brown to brood for so long, might it all have turned out very differently?