Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Clear Muddy Water

It’s not only tabloid journalists who work on the basis that they should never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story; politicians are quite adept at it as well. The only difference is that journalists define ‘good’ as being something that people will want to read, whereas politicians define ‘good’ as being helpful to their party or, more often, their own position. Either way, it’s the readers/ electors who have to try and work out where the truth actually lies – if there is any at all.

So, is the latest budget settlement for the National Assembly a good one or a bad one? Labour’s London end, in the person of the Chancellor, of course, says it’s a good one, and draws attention particularly to the fact that it includes a 2.4% year-on-year rise over and above the increase that would be down to inflation alone. Inevitably and completely unsurprisingly, Peter Hain agrees with him. But then, for the Government making the decisions, every year is a good one. That fits their agenda.

Plaid’s London end, in the person of Adam Price, claims that it’s the “worst financial settlement for Wales since devolution”. I can’t quite remember the words used in previous years to describe the settlements, but I’m reasonably sure that Plaid have never ever described the settlement as anything other than a bad one, whatever the actual numbers. That has, to date, fitted Plaid’s agenda. (It is interesting however that Plaid’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd seems to be rather less exercised about the numbers this year.)

Both parties’ Cardiff ends, of course, find themselves in a more difficult situation, so it comes as no surprise to find that the official WAG response – presumably on behalf of both parties – is a little more restrained. They are both, after all, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. Labour were never going to be too harsh on their own government, and Plaid, as their coalition partners, can hardly disagree with the official government line, so we have words like 'tough' and ‘challenging', rather than outright criticism.

Back to the issue of truth. Whilst there is some disagreement as to whether the increase over and above inflation is 2.4%, as indicated by the Chancellor, or 1.8% as calculated by Adam Price, there is no disagreement that the budget is increasing at an above-inflation rate, which clearly allows for some spending growth over and above the ongoing government programme.

The nub of the problem, of course, is whether that will be enough to fund the entire One Wales programme. We don't have the detailed comments of the civil servants on the costings of the programme (although the Western Mail is still working on that), but we do know that the programme does not come cheap. The Assembly government may struggle to deliver on all its commitments, and we can be absolutely certain that the Tory opposition will be watching for any hint of a fudge here or a watering down there.

It is Plaid who have most to fear in this situation. Core spending is hardest to cut, and the extra commitments introduced by the One Wales agreement will be the easiest - a lot of the Plaid contribution to the programme is in those extras rather than in the core. Ending up in coalition supporting a Labour programme would be a somewhat ignominious end to the story.

However, the fact that the spending round would be tighter this time round than in previous years was known by all in advance, and if the coalition partners have been sensible in their discussions, they will have factored this in, won’t they? It would be nice to feel confident on that point; but we were reminded in the Western Mail story yesterday of Adam Price’s comment that the All-Wales Accord was never properly costed, and we have only the word of the politicians involved that One Wales has been. (As a complete aside, I do find myself wondering whether, had its supporters been successful in peddling the rainbow, we would ever have been told that it was based on a back-of-the-envelope costing? Maybe I’m just a tad too cynical sometimes, but I strongly suspect that the members – outside the Assembly – of the parties involved weren’t made aware of this at the time.)

Time alone will reveal what is true and what is not, but already we are seeing a difference. What Plaid would have unreservedly condemned as a betrayal of Wales just a few short months ago in Opposition becomes nothing more than a tough challenge to be faced up to in Government. Is this change in language what politicians mean by ‘making a difference’?

6 comments:

hafod said...

I share your concerns. It seems that many Plaid politicians are reluctant to be the first to take a pot shot at Labour, for fear of rocking the coalition boat.
That's a daft state of affairs because backbenchers should have the freedom to voice criticisms - as things stand, Labour backbenchers are more likely to voice opposition to Labour's policies.
Unless there is more critical engagement on Plaid's side of the coalition, then we're in danger of re-running the 1999-2003 Assembly... and we know what happened in 2003.

alanindyfed said...

No, making a difference is not about language. It is fundamentally changing people's lives for the better. Working with the opposition is not always easy but it is working, in a spirit of consensus, and this constitutes a difference in the nature of Welsh politics, which is quite different from the Westminster version. In government there is a clear division between Labour's proposals and Plaid's and credit will be given where credit is due.

Ceredig said...

Hafod,

I'd go further. The only real opposition to the One Wales Government is likely to become the Labour backbenchers. The Conservatives will huff and puff, but they have never been - and are never likely to become - a serious challenger in Wales (unless another party gives them a hand). The Lib Dems have made themselves irrelevant, and Plaid seem to be more loyal to the One Wales government than the Labour Party.

We've seen a number of U-turns from Plaid already; the extremely muted criticism of the spending review is but one aspect. In Opposition, the government statistics were rubbish, and described a poor performance; in Government, the same numbers are good and descibe a stunning performance. In Opposition, they opposed the M4 Gwent levels road, arguing for investment in rail instead; now they seem to be keen advocates of the road. I could go on.

The coalition was presented as a victory for Plaid; but it could well be that Labour have actually succeeded in stifling the only credible alternative to themselves.

Alan,

More propaganda. You obviously know the party line on this one at least.

Anonymous said...

I heard that those who would rock the boat in Plaid Cymru have been sidelined in the Assembly.

Plaid Cymru need to show that they are still an independent force otherwise they are in danger of being swallowed up and turned into Labour light, and then where is the choice for us voters.

alanindyfed said...

Plaid is in no danger of being swallowed up.
It will always remain true to its principles.

Ceredig said...

Anon,

"I heard that those who would rock the boat in Plaid Cymru have been sidelined in the Assembly."

That's also my information. As far as I can work out, there has only been one vote to date where the Government line was at odds with Plaid policy, so, on an issue which was not covered in One Wales, and isn't even an Assembly matter, Plaid's members were whipped into voting against their onw party's policy. It doesn't augur well for any attempt at keeping a separate identity.

Alan,

Presumably you mean in the Marxist sense? Groucho, not Karl, who once said "those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I've got some other ones"?