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?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

The IWA exists to provoke thought and debate, and generally, I think they do a pretty good job. But I was more than a little disappointed with their latest offering on the idea of an elected mayor for the Heads of the Valleys.

There is a very good argument to be made for a reduction in the number of local authorities in Wales. Politicians of all parties know it (although they're mostly afraid to admit it), and they know that some of the Valleys authorities in particular could do with some rationalisation. Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent in particular are very small authorities, with limited resources.

There is a good argument – but the IWA choose not to make it. Instead, they propose leaving the existing local authorities and their functions untouched, and creating another level of government. Well, that's what they say; but in fact, on some of the specific proposals they make, it is hard to see how the proposed mayor could function without taking some powers away from local government.

Even if they were right about the need for 'strong executive power', what they propose effectively fragments power across four levels (local authority, the mayor, the Assembly and Westminster), rather than three at present. If a strong executive authority really is the answer, then we should do the job properly, and face up to the inevitable local government reorganisation at the same time.

The comparison with the Mayor of London is a nonsense, in my view. Firstly, the powers proposed are so much more limited. Given the relative size (London's population is more that twice that of the whole of Wales, never mind that of the Valleys area), and the existence of a National Assembly, the scope for a powerful mayor who does not take power away from either the Assembly or the local authorities is inevitably limited. And secondly, there isn't the same geographical logic - on transport, for instance, I don't see how there can be a sensible strategic transport plan for the Valleys alone, when the main arteries run to Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea.

Leaving the detail aside, however, the aspect that I really quibble with is the idea that personalising politics somehow solves all problems. Just get someone with charisma, and give all power to him (all the names suggested are male, note), and all our problems will be solved. Really? Where's the evidence for that?

The whole thing looks as though they've decided that they like the idea of elected mayors (at a time when New Labour have gone distinctly cool on their own creation), and are trying to fit it to the problem; it doesn't seem to start from any rational analysis of what the Valleys actually need.

Oh, and am I the only one fed up with the names Hain, Davies, and Wigley being trotted out every time any role is suggested in Wales? Able politicians all, I'm sure, but are any of them really so wonderful that merely appointing them to a role will put the world to rights?

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Today's story is...

For more than ten years, New Labour somehow managed to keep the media on board with their own version of the political narrative. Critics called it ‘spin’ from the outset; but whatever you call it, it’s a pretty impressive achievement. Now they seem to have lost it, completely.

I heard a journalist on the radio the other day, talking about the way the story about someone nicking Cameron’s bike was reported. It was reported as a reasonably straight story, with Cameron being the victim of theft. The journalist went on to say that it would have been reported quite differently had it been Brown and his bike. The story then would have been about a hapless idiot leaving his bike unattended in a public place.

It’s true isn’t it? ‘The media’ have decided what the political narrative is, and every individual news item is presented in that light. So, even if Brown and Cameron do and say exactly the same thing, one will be made out to be fresh and exciting, and the other dull and tired.

Is it fair? Well, no, of course not. At one level, it shows the power which ‘the media’ now wield. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure to what extent the media are creating a particular narrative about Brown and Labour, and to what extent they are merely reflecting the views of the public at large. That’s impossible to assess, it seems to me. At the very least, the public mood had to be ready to accept and identify with the change of narrative before the media could influence it. But the narrative has changed, however one analyses cause and effect, and the downward spiral has become self-reinforcing.

Whether fair or not, it is remarkably similar to what happened to John Major and the Tories. I thought that Major was a sincere and honest sort of person (dare I say 'a regular sort of guy'?), however much I disagreed with him. And I really didn’t think his government was any more prone to ‘sleaze’ than its predecessor - or its successor. But sleaze became the narrative, and every story confirming that was seized on as evidence.

On that occasion, Labour benefited from the narrative; on this occasion they are the victims. There’s a certain poetic justice there, somehow. Those who live by the sword…

Monday, 28 July 2008


Fascinating to see the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales standing up for the Wales Office. She is suggesting that Wales needs a strong voice in the Cabinet. But not, presumably, the sort of voice which might come from appointing a Welsh MP to the job. I wonder how she keeps a straight face making statements like this.

I have to say that I'm not entirely convinced by Plaid's argument either. Elfyn Llwyd argues that abolition of the Wales Office "would slow down the democratic process and hinder the work being done on LCOs". I'm not sure that it could be any slower - and maybe abolishing the department which seems to be doing most to slow things down might actually help.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Cigars and Promises

At one level, the issue which led to the resignation of the Culture Minister looks pretty minor, and taken at face value, it does look like something of an over-reaction. Glyn Davies is not the only one who seems to think so, and indeed, it was noticeable that few, if any, political opponents were baying for blood.

Peter Black picks up on Matt Withers’ story, and suggests that this is a piece of spin by Plaid’s advisors to darken the character of Rhodri Glyn in order to bolster the credibility of the Deputy First Minister. Sounds a bit convoluted to me.

I actually think that one of the most interesting comments was that in the Western Mail on Saturday, when Martin Shipton stated that Rhodri Glyn had been heard telling people that he was ‘on a final warning’. If this is true, and I have no reason to doubt it (although I am always sceptical about ‘hearsay’) then I suspect that this hints at the real crime. Not smoking in a prohibited area, not even drinking more than is good for him, but flagrantly flouting the warnings he had been given.

If I was a leader who had given someone a final warning, and then discovered that the individual had not only not heeded the warning, but was almost bragging about it, I think I’d take that as a pretty direct challenge to my authority. Worse, if Shipton is to be believed, promises of good behaviour had also been given, and then broken.

Anyone can make a mistake, and mistakes can be forgiven. But someone who deliberately chooses to act in direct contravention of clear warnings and instructions is asking for trouble; and it should be no surprise to anyone that his leader’s patience wore thin to the point where any misdemeanour, however small, would lead to action – and where failing to act would serve only to make all previous warnings look meaningless and ineffective. The straw which breaks the camel’s back doesn’t have to be a large one; that’s the point of the proverb.

PS – I wish I had not got so fed up with my fictional minister, now; if I’d waited just a little longer, I could have appeared remarkably prescient. Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Back, after a fashion

Now returned after an extended break, only to find that some bloggers have departed the field. Normal Mouth, in particular, I shall miss. Didn't always agree with him, but his posts were often thought-provoking. The Labour Party will be much more poorly represented in the blogosphere as a result.

Both Normal Mouth and Southpaw Grammar refer to 'other projects' as being behind their departure. I also have 'other projects' to attend to, and have given serious thought to following their example. For the time being, however, Ceredig will continue, although blogging may become (even) less regular than it has been to date. A decision to be reviewed at a future date...

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Ceredig est en vacances

Heading across La Manche tomorrow to spend some time in la belle, belle France. Comment moderation enabled during les vacances.

It's been just over a year since I started this blog and I've managed barely 100 posts - an average of rather less than two per week. The next three weeks' absence will thus be something of an opportunity to reflect on the whats and whys.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The grey man

It’s interesting that Plaid seem to be facing one of their most significant internal debates for many a year by holding an election for the rather meaningless post of party president. The party isn’t even sure what the job is, if it exists at all (I think Bethan Jenkins is suggesting that it doesn’t). Penderyn sets out a number of possible options as to what the job actually comprises, which I suppose is as good a place as any to start. After all, if the members don’t know what the job is for, how are they to judge who’s the best person to fill it?

The big question, as Dafydd Iwan himself is asking (according to the Western Mail) is why has Elfyn Llwyd decided to stand and force an election? Llwyd himself is being less than clear in spelling out his reasons, leaving anonymous ‘sources’ to mutter darkly in reporters’ ears.

The first reason suggested is that this has something to do with the Gwynedd schools issue. Not very credible to me – Iwan wasn’t the author of the policy, he’s already lost his council seat, and the policy has to all intents and purposes been scrapped. What is the value in removing him from a non-job as well?

Secondly, there are some carefully worded suggestions that Iwan says things that others don’t like. Referring to Independence seems to be one of his sins – it is a word that has rarely, if ever, passed the lips of party leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Again, not really credible when one of Llwyd’s prominent backers, Adam Price, has himself been using the I-word extensively this week.

Suggestions that Iwan has a different view from the party’s elected members on issues such as St Athan might be closer to the truth, although I don’t recall Iwan actually saying anything on that (and on my reading of Plaid’s traditional response to military installations in Wales, even if he had, he would have been closer to the party’s core values on this issue. If anyone is out of line, it’s the party’s elected members, many of whom gave strong support to the scheme).

I think Betsan Powys was closest to the real issue in her post, with her implicit suggestion that Plaid’s leader wants to be allowed to ‘get on with the job’ with no danger of being criticised when he makes ‘difficult’ (i.e. contrary to the party’s policy/ values) decisions.

The key to decoding the statements being made revolves around the talk of ‘professionalising’ Plaid, in my view. The party’s unpaid officers are not subject to the control of the party leader. That makes them dangerous; far better for all the main posts to be in the hands of elected members who will do as the leader says. Iwan is the first one to be targeted and the most prominent; but other national officers who are not currently elected public representatives might want to watch their backs.

So, for what it’s worth, my take on this is that this is really a battle to determine whether the future strategy, direction and policies of Plaid Cymru are determined by the membership as a whole, or only by the leader and elected politicians who will follow his line. It mirrors the changes which the Labour Party has been through, which ended up with a nominally democratic party being run autocratically by the leader alone. Are Plaid about to follow the same path?

Belated Birthday Greetings

I appear to have inadvertently missed a very important anniversary. Last Friday, 20th June, marked exactly one year since the Assembly Government announced that it was to set up a commission to examine the funding formula which determines the resources available to Wales.

The decision, of course, predated One Wales; there was a minority Labour government at the time whilst negotiations continued. The motion came from the opposition, and the government, staring defeat in the face, took the sensible precaution of agreeing with the motion instead.

Now a cynic might feel that they did so confident in the knowledge that once they had finalised a coalition deal, they would be able to kick this one into the long grass. However, I'm sure that isn't true, and that somewhere deep in Tŷ Hywel, or maybe in Cathays Park, there is an entire team of civil servants busily working away at preparing detailed terms of reference. And they've hit all sorts of problems of detail which prevent them from making any progress. Or else it's a one man team and (s)he's on long term sick leave.

Or maybe there are just 'other priorities'; there must be lots of things more important than how much money they have to spend.

I'll try harder to remember next year's anniversary.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Great Escape?

I haven’t responded to the David Davis resignation to date, because it seemed to me that it was premature to judge. Indeed, it may still be premature, given that he hasn’t even resigned yet, as I understand it, merely announced an intention to do so.

He has tried to present it, of course, as demonstrating that he is a man of principle. It looks to me as though it only proves that he doesn’t think very far ahead. His decision makes sense only if it was to be a proper election, with the other parties putting up candidates, and being prepared to debate the issue. Since they have decided not to play, it has descended into pure farce.

And it was surely obvious to him that ‘not playing’ was a pretty likely reaction by Labour? After all, this was a seat in which Labour had only 6,000 votes in 2005; a poor third place behind the Lib Dems and 17,600 behind the winning Tory. Why on earth should they ever have chosen to play his game? There’s nothing in it for them at all – a hiding to nothing from the outset.

As it is, he looks badly unprepared for this outcome, and hopelessly outmanoeuvred; facing an election against a beauty queen, a raving loony, and a newspaper editor. (The three terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, by the way). Worse still, he’s managed to open a split in the Tory party, most of whom would have been quite happy to vote for 42 days, or any higher figure that you care to mention, but only voted against because they saw an opportunity to embarrass the Labour Party. He also succeeded in wrong-footing his own leader.

But could we all have got it wrong? Can our brave SAS hero escape from this trap of his own making? Clearly, he has a reason of some sort for the delay between the announcement and the fact of his resignation – could he be playing a more complex game?

Well, here’s a draft statement he could still make:

“When I announced that I would resign and fight a by-election, I suspected that the Labour Party might refuse to contest it, because they’re running scared on the issue. That’s why I delayed between announcing my resignation, and actually resigning. Given the Labour Party’s display of cowardice on the matter, I will not put the loyal electors of my constituency and the taxpayers of Britain to the inconvenience and expense of an election which the Labour Party would deliberately reduce to a farce. The Labour Party have made my point more forcibly than a by-election would. I intend to stay in parliament and continue to contest this issue”.

Alternatively, he could go ahead and make himself look even more ridiculous as he debates terrorism with a beauty queen. And in the fevered atmosphere of a farcical by-election, he might even succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

...and a bit under the weather, too

The second great religion of the doomsayers who may not be challenged is the concept of man-made climate change. I'm not a climate change denier, but I think that many of those who are rightly concerned about climate change do themselves no favours by overstating the case. In that sense, the climate change doomsayers are remarkably similar to the peak oil doomsayers.

We know that the earth’s climate is changing. Of course it is – as far as we can tell, there has never been a period when it hasn’t been. There have been lengthy periods of comparative climate stability, but climate has never been unchanging. So, whatever we do as humanity, we’ll have to deal with climate change at some level.

We also know that, since adopting an economy based largely on hydrocarbons, human activity has been pumping more carbon dioxide (as well as other gases) into the atmosphere, at a much greater rate than would happen without human activity. And that rate is increasing as more and more countries build up their industrial base.

We have very good reason to believe that changing the levels of carbon dioxide etc. in the atmosphere will impact on the global climate. Indeed, it would be very surprising if changing the composition of the atmosphere, even marginally, did not have an impact on climate, given the huge complexity of climate.

What we don’t actually ‘know’, however, is how much of a man-made impact on climate change there will be, nor what that impact will be. All of the predictions are based on complex mathematical models, and all of those models are based on assumptions (guesses to you and me) about some of the key variables. There's a good consensus around many of those guesses, and the people making them are seriously clever people; but a consensus of very clever people does not turn a guess into a fact. And there are some serious anomalies which some climate change alarmists are far too quick to dismiss.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t take climate change seriously. Significant climate change, whether man-made or natural, will have a massive impact on human society. And I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t take urgent corrective action to reduce our impact on the atmosphere. Given how little we really know for certain about the impact of what we’re doing, it is madness to not only maintain our level of emissions but to be actually increasing them.

But it is equally a mistake to believe that reducing the impact of human activity to zero will avoid climate change - it won't. Earth's wobbles on its orbit, cyclic changes in the Sun and other factors will continue to have an impact on climate, whatever we do. We need to be preparing for climate change as well as trying to reduce or eliminate the man-made element – these are not either/or alternatives.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Feeling a little Peaky...

In comments on previous posts, Draig chides me a little for my scepticism over the connection between the current high price of oil and the concept of Peak Oil. Peak Oil (like Climate Change) is certainly on my list of things to worry about. Both issues are challenging for all of us – although they may not be the two most pressing.

Peak oil, again like climate change, has become one of those things which have an almost religious status for some, and any challenge to it is met with outrage. But shouting ‘peak oil’ whenever the oil price goes up is as meaningful as shouting ‘climate change’ whenever we have a freak storm; neither follow necessarily from the science or mathematics.

In essence, the concept is incredibly simple. As oil is a finite natural resource, there will come a time when oil production reaches its peak, and production will decline thereafter. Unless the global economy has planned for this, and we have put alternative energy sources in place, the inevitable result will be price rises and energy shortages.

So far, so good. I have no quibble with that at all – my disagreement is about whether the current high prices are in any way related to the peak oil theory. Peak oil theory certainly predicts high prices; but it is a complete non-sequitur to argue that high prices at a particular time therefore prove the theory. I think that there is another, darker reason for the current high prices.

There will, of course, come a time when oil production does reach its geological peak, although estimates of when that will be vary. There are two main complicating factors in knowing when it will happen.

The first is that the current level of supply is artificially capped by the producing countries. I don't blame them or criticise them for doing that; but there is a great deal of difference between a cap on production based on geology and a cap based on politics, even if the effects (rising oil prices) might look similar.

The second is that, as the price increases, oil reserves previously considered unrecoverable on economic grounds become economic after all, so that the geological cap may continue to move a little further away in the short term.

At this stage, I remain unconvinced that the current price hikes are actually based on a real shortage of oil, or even on a genuine fear that there will be a shortage in the near future. Prices have been forced up largely by speculators who are betting on there being a fear of a shortage, and then trying to make vast sums of money by creating the fear that will enable them to win their bets. Those bets are thus in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, but gambling on this scale doesn’t prove the peak oil theory – and this sort of gambling is hardly a rational basis for running the world economy either.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Lost in Translation

Translation of latest post on Nick Bourne’s blog:

"Understandable angst and concern about the massive hikes in fuel prices shouldn’t obscure the need to continue to take green measures."

I’ve spotted a massive political opportunity for the Conservatives, but it isn’t very green.

"It is quite compatible to ensure that the tax on fuel is postponed for example, and some of the VAT is abated, whilst still concentrating on green efforts, for example, encourage homes to insulate and to adopt small scale devices like small turbines on houses or indeed solar panels (an area that has been much neglected in this country as compared to say Germany)."

We can be populist, cut taxes, encourage people to continue making profligate use of oil, and claim that we are still being green by transferring all the responsibility for taking action on climate change from the government to the electors (the German Conservatives have already spotted this one, and appear to be getting away with it).

"I think there is a great danger in people seeing there being one or other camp and I don’t think that is the case at all."

There is a serious danger that people might spot that what we are proposing is incompatible with what we’ve said previously, so we’re going to have to find a form of words which bridges the gap.

"I think it is quite feasible, indeed desirable, to do something on the price of fuel but at the same time press ahead with a green agenda."

We can win a lot of votes by cutting taxes and giving in to the roads lobby, but we need to sound as though we’re still serious about the environment.

"The Chancellor will have a £600m fuel windfall from extra VAT from domestic fuel alone, quite apart from the VAT windfall on petrol and deisel"

The windfall income which the government is getting from unexpectedly high fuel taxes might enable them to plug the gaps in their budget, and that would destroy a major part of our election strategy.

"It is quite possible to abate some of this tax but at the same time to press ahead with green energy measures."

We can promise tax cuts and win votes now, and people with more money in their pockets will forget about the environment.

"Indeed there are huge economic, social and environmental gains to be achieved by doing just this."

It can help us win the General Election.

“The government response of simply seeking to produce more North Sea oil is really a woefully inadequate response.”

Producing more North Sea oil will make very little difference, but I still wish we’d thought of it first.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

From the Heritage Bunker (Last in series)

Minister: Sir Humphrey. Where have you been for the last few weeks?

Sir Humphrey: I’ve been negotiating with Whitehall on your behalf, Minister.

Minister: Excellent, Sir Humphrey. So we’re ready to announce the details of the Elco?

Sir Humphrey: Not exactly, Minister, no. There are a few small problems remaining.

Minister: Look, Sir Humphrey, I’ve promised this to people. I promised it to the electors, and I promised it to my party. I promised to announce it in the spring, and it’s now summer. I’m coming under increasing pressure for an early announcement. Your last little suggestion of announcing the extension of existing powers to 57 more bodies backfired rather badly. People noticed that it was the same announcement made by my predecessor – and that we hadn’t actually done anything in the last twelve months.

Bernard: But Minister, it’s only the second time that we’d announced that change. We normally announce things at least three times before actually doing anything.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you Bernard. Minister, we just cannot get my colleagues, I mean the other Ministers, to agree to your proposals.

Minister: Why not? What’s the problem?

Sir Humphrey: Well, it’s the question of extending the law into the private sector, Minister. If you could just remove that little requirement, we’d be able to move ahead with an announcement almost immediately. Otherwise it is likely to take many more months of discussion.

Minister: But then it would be meaningless!

Sir Humphrey: Of course not, Minister. The Assembly would then have the right to make laws on the matter any time it wished - it would just be a matter of staying within current constraints, for the time being.

Minister: So we could pass any laws we liked, as long as they didn’t go further than the current one?

Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Minister. But it would enable you to act now, given the impending changes.

Minister: Impending changes? What impending changes?

Sir Humphrey: There is talk, Minister, of some changes in ministerial responsibilities.

Minister: You mean a re-shuffle? I hadn’t heard that.

Sir Humphrey: Not necessarily a re-shuffle, Minister. Just a few minor changes. But an early announcement would be advisable.

Minister: What’s behind this talk?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, I don’t know exactly; there has been some mention of an event at the Qumrani embassy, that's all that I've heard. But an early announcement, with a more restricted scope, would also allow me to devote my time to other pressing matters.

Minister: What other ‘pressing matters’?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, I hadn’t mentioned this before, but I’ve been thinking that it would be a good idea to organise a fact-finding mission for you. To let you see the way in which other countries promote their lesser-used languages.

Minister: What would that entail, exactly?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, I thought perhaps Canada to study the experience of using French; Catalonia, the Basque country, maybe Sardinia, and Switzerland to look at the use of Romansch. But I really couldn’t organise such a trip and continue negotiating the Elco at the same time.

Minister: And Brussels, maybe? I like Brussels. And they have some language issues.

Sir Humphrey: I’m sure that we could fit that in, Minister.

Minister: I see. And if I agreed to a more restricted scope for the Elco at this stage, we could always come back to it in the future?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly, Minister.

Bernard: Well, your successor, in any event.

Minister: And use the experience of the fact-finding trip as additional evidence?

Bernard and Sir Humphrey: Yes, Minister.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Fuelling Protest

Yesterday’s fuel protests by truckers brought to the forefront some key dichotomies in public attitudes, and drew out some interesting political responses as well. The situation raises a number of different issues at the same time.

Firstly, we all know that, whilst the world is not about to run out of oil (despite some of the more alarmist projections) neither is the supply unlimited. Demand is increasing as countries like China and India industrialise, and the cost of extraction is increasing as the most easily accessible supplies dry up. The result is economically inevitable – over a period, prices will rise. Current price levels may well be higher than they need to be, due to a combination of speculative markets, political instability in supplier countries, and supplier cartels; but the underlying trend is upwards.

Secondly, the more globalised and centralised the economy becomes, the more goods will be transported. (Supermarkets have fewer and larger distribution centres, for example, so the same goods are often transported from their source to the centre, and then out to the shops – often passing each other in opposite directions on the same stretch of motorway in the process.)

Thirdly, because road transport (measured by the direct cost to users, rather than the total cost to the community/ environment) is felt to be cheaper or more convenient than sea or rail, the road haulage industry has boomed. Businesses were established or expanded on the basis of entrepreneurial decisions by individuals, given their assessment of the costs and risks at the time.

Fourthly, because the industry has boomed so much, it now has more suppliers competing with each other than is economically viable. It’s a buyers’ market – if one haulier increases his prices to pass on increased costs, another will undercut him. This is economically suicidal for the businesses concerned in the medium to long term, but it keeps their trucks on the road in the short term. It is not, however, the government's problem in the first instance.

Fifthly, we all tell politicians that we care about the environment, and want to do more to protect it – until it starts to hurt. Then, we want someone else to pay the ‘green taxes’. Politicians know this, so while they say the right words about protecting the environment, they’re terrified to take serious action, since it would lose them elections.

Now, it’s not that I have no sympathy at all for the hauliers. Many of them are facing difficult decisions and potentially real hardship. But subsidising them, in the way they are demanding, to continue to operate in a way which is sustainable neither economically nor environmentally is surely not the right way forward. Businesses have, or should have, no automatic right to government assistance to enable them to continue to operate if their continued operation is wrong both economically and environmentally. (Am I alone in finding the Conservatives' support for the protests a little strange in this context?)

Rail transport already looks uneconomic as compared to road, despite its environmental benefits. If increasing oil prices force a re-evaluation of this, surely that’s a good thing rather then something to be avoided by subsidising hauliers? We also make far too little use of shipping as a means of bulk transportation around our coastline.

Their point about unfair foreign competition is the one strong point in their favour; but subsidising native businesses to bring their costs down is not the only way of addressing that issue. Playing fields can be levelled by adding to one side, not just by taking away from the other.
If public money is to be used to help them (and whatever anyone says, targeting tax cuts to help specific businesses is a way of funnelling public money into them), it is surely better that that money should be used to help move the transport industry as a whole onto a more sustainable basis instead.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Overheard in a London club

Sir Frank: So, Humphrey, how can I help you?

Sir Humphrey: Good of you to see me Frank, I know how busy it gets in the Cabinet Office. To put it in a nutshell, my Minister is determined to press ahead with an Elco on the Welsh language which goes much further than any of the Permanent Secretaries can agree.

Sir Frank: This sole is excellent. Elco? Oh, yes, I remember. One of our better ideas, eh? It's been pretty effective in stopping the Assembly getting above itself, hasn't it?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly it has – it’s worked almost exactly as we intended. Taken them almost twelve months to get the first one agreed.

Sir Frank: Excellent. So what does he want this, er, ‘Elco’ thing to do?

Sir Humphrey: More wine, Frank? He has this view that some of the larger companies in the private sector should be compelled to allow their customers to use Welsh if they wish.

Sir Frank: Well we clearly can’t have that, can we? Top management wouldn’t know what was going on in their own companies if staff started using Welsh. I mean, how many of the people at Eton with us spoke Welsh? Not one as far as I can remember. Not that admitted it anyway.

Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Frank. It’s bad enough that the Civil Service is expected to employ a few senior Welsh speakers to deal with queries. I can tell you, it makes life extremely difficult for us – they all seem to have attended comprehensive schools, and then they join the civil service and expect to reach the same levels as our other recruits. We can’t impose that sort of constraint on businesses as well. Think what it would do to the boardrooms.

Sir Frank: And our prospects for a few directorships after retirement as well. Why haven’t you got him to back down?

Sir Humphrey: I’ve tried, believe me. But on this one, he actually seems to be behaving as though he has a mind of his own. He says that that he’s promised to act on the matter, and, for some reason, he believes that what he said during the election in some way binds him!

Sir Frank: He obviously didn’t go to a proper school then?

Sir Humphrey: Of course not, that’s part of my problem. Almost none of the members seem to have had a decent education. They just don’t understand the way things work. The question is, what can I do?

Sir Frank: Glass of port? They have an excellent selection of vintages here. How about some diversionary tactics? Get him to re-hash a few old announcements. Find something he desperately wants, and give him the choice. Usually works.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Frank, that’s most helpful. I’ll see what we can come up with.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Cherchez L'agenda

A somewhat plaintive complaint from an unnamed Labour source formed the basis of a story in today’s Western Mail. It seems that there may be some people in the Labour Party – who, if they really exist, prefer to remain anonymous – who think that it’s out of order for Plaid to form any sort of arrangement with any party other than Labour to run our councils.

At one level, this merely underlines the fact that there are people in the Labour party who still can’t get their heads around a more pluralist form of democracy; they believe that they have the right to dictate to their partner what they can or can’t do. (But it is apparently OK for the Labour Party to form alliances with Tories as Guerrilla Welsh-Fare points out. Or is that only OK because the Tories in some areas don't call themselves Tories, but pretend to be independent councillors?)

At another level, however, I start to look for the agenda and who’s pushing it. It’s easy to understand why a Labour source would see only one side of the story; but I’d expect more from an objective journalist (I’m afraid that I’ve been unable to resist oxymorons since I first found out what they were during my English ‘O’ level lessons).

The Western Mail’s Chief Reporter is, of course, a man with an agenda. During the coalition talks almost a year ago, he did his very best to push one particular outcome to the talks – and it wasn’t the one we got. Plaid personalities supportive of the rainbow were quoted extensively; opponents were largely ignored. And if there is one person in the whole of Wales who is still determinedly pushing the rainbow, it is none other than the same Chief Reporter. From that perspective, this story should come as no surprise.

There are two things wrong, quite apart from asking whether it is really the role of a journalist, with the continued references to a resurrected rainbow.

The first is that it was, as I have argued previously, an idea which had only limited potential from the outset. In the particular circumstances of a single election, within an Assembly which had only limited powers, it was perhaps possible to put together a programme on which Plaid and the Tories could have agreed. (And as a parallel, the very fact that county councils have even more limited powers is part of what makes possible the assortment of arrangements which we are seeing). But as the Assembly grows in powers, that gap between those two parties becomes ever more difficult to bridge.

The second is that circumstances have changed in another way. Even twelve months ago, it was difficult to see how any party could challenge the Labour party for dominance; and cracking that dominance was one of the arguments for a once-off non-Labour alliance. That has all changed – the Labour party seems to be moving into self-destruct mode, with a real danger of implosion in its heartlands. The idea of another party having more seats than Labour in the Assembly starts to look like a credible possibility for 2011.

They say that, in any war, most generals are still fighting the last one. The same seems to be true for supporters of this particular agenda.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

An expensive gimmick

One of Gordon Brown’s earliest acts as Chancellor was the introduction of the 10p tax rate. I thought that it was a bit of a gimmick at the time, but it wasn’t one that was easy to disagree with, since it unquestionably benefited the lowest earners. His supporters, of course, thought that it was a master stroke, and I can see why.

I’m sure that I remember talk of eventually widening the band over time so that it would benefit more people, although my memory may be failing me on that score. The one thing that I’m certain was not said is that it was intended to be only a temporary measure.

And that is part of the problem inherent in New Labour, it seems to me. The target group to which they want to appeal changes over time, so their policies have to change with it. In some aspects of policy, that may be inevitable, but is it really a good idea to be playing with the tax system on such a political basis?

They introduced the 10p band because they wanted to appeal to the lower paid and demonstrate their commitment to fairness; they abolished it in order to be able to appeal to a different group by re-jigging the tax system to give more assistance to the ‘people in the middle’. Re-focussing the appeal is one thing; the real problem was that the change was to be paid for by taking money away from the previous target group. Yesterday’s beneficiary - today’s loser; a neat summary of the results of government by focus group.

The outcry which resulted was surprising only in that it took so long for people to realise the impact of the decision; a climb down of some sort was then inevitable. The problem was in deciding what to do next. Simply taking the cash away from the new beneficiaries to give it back to the old ones would only create more problems for them politically, so they've come up with a very costly fudge.

What is now proposed returns some of the money to some of the losers – and in the process gives even more to most of those who were winners anyway. It looks like a panic measure – and it will cost about four times as much as simply directly compensating the real losers. It leaves a £2.7 billion hole in the budget and the government’s reputation for financial management in tatters. And whilst it may have quietened the revolt on Labour’s back benchers, there’s no real sign that it has undone the wider negative political impact.

Politically, it gave the Tories an open goal, which they cynically (and completely dishonestly, given their refusal to commit to re-introducing the 10p rate) exploited for all it was worth by presenting themselves – incredibly, given their history – as the party of the low paid! How on earth can what the Labour party used to be have got itself into a situation where they make the Tories look like the champions of the poor?

All in all, the 10p tax rate looks like one of the most expensive political gimmicks in history – and the political cost could turn out to be even higher than the financial cost.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Convention Clues

With the recruitment process for the Executive of the Convention now in progress (soporific, claims Ordovicius), we will presumably soon know who the four parties are to appoint as their nominees. For all the talk about involvement and participation, the final decision will be a political one, and these four appointments are critical in determining whether the parties do, or do not, sign up to the inevitable decision to postpone the referendum.

With the obvious splits in their ranks, Labour will do whatever they can to avoid having a referendum in the agreed timescale, so will be looking for a nominee who can make the right noises about wanting to move ahead, but mutter darkly about the timing.

One might naturally expect Plaid to appoint the most bullish member of the Convention, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them appointing someone who will be willing to back-pedal and agree with Labour, for the sake of avoiding any tension in the coalition. Indeed, that’s precisely what I expect to happen.

The Lib Dems’ appointment will be, like his or her party, largely irrelevant to the process.

The Tory appointment will be perhaps the most interesting of all. Freed of any need for democratic input into the appointment, this appointment will be made by Bourne, and Bourne alone. Despite the opposition to devolution from most of his party and all of his MPs, it is not inconceivable that Bourne will sense that Labour and Plaid are ready to renege on their promise and that could allow him to seize the opportunity to appoint the most enthusiastic devolutionist that he can find.

After all, the Tories won’t have to deliver on any commitment to a referendum – the coalition leaders have already decided that it won’t happen. But it would enable Bourne to outflank Plaid on a key issue. And in terms of positioning for the future, disillusioned Plaid voters are exactly what Bourne is looking for.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Death by Autobiography

It has long been a tradition that yesterday's politicians eke out their meagre living in retirement by penning their memoirs. In days gone by these were seldom-read tomes (I’m sad enough to possess a copy of Volume 1 of Richard Crossman’s), of interest only to the academic and the odd political anorak for the occasional insight into life behind the closed doors.

They didn’t make a fortune from them, but it gave them something to do in their dotage, and by the time they appeared, they did little harm to anyone. Harold Wilson famously managed to write his, and still die in what was described at the time as ‘genteel poverty’.

Generally, the authors had the decency to wait until those for whom they reserved their most toxic venom were safely dead and buried. Only then would they reveal their true feelings about their ‘friends’. Delay also gave a certain perspective to events, of course. And even self-justification can look more reasonable with a little bit of perspective.

That has all changed. Politicians have learned that they can get bigger advances by writing their memoirs early. And if they can make some sensational revelations to boot…. Truth is not a casualty of war alone.

But even against that backdrop, there’s something very new Labour about the way in which so many of them are lining up to line their pockets by revealing what they really think about each other. Levy, Cherie, Prescott… With friends like these, Labour don’t really need enemies any more. And poor old Brown looks like becoming the first serving Prime Minister to suffer a most ignominious fate – death by autobiography.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Can Labour recover in time?

Shortly after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, I thought that he would win the next election whenever it was called. Almost a year on, and I’m now convinced that he will lose it whenever it is called.

Last week’s local election results were truly appalling for Labour. In council after council – sometimes even ward by ward – it looks as though voters have carefully thought about who was the strongest challenger to Labour, and then voted for them. The kicking could have happened in last year's Assembly elections, but somehow it didn't. There’s something pretty ironic and inherently unfair about Brown getting the kicking for failing to return to Labour’s roots while the man who turned his back on those roots in the first place somehow got away with it, but such is politics.

There is a crumb of comfort for Labour in that this looks more like an anti-Labour vote than a pro-Tory or pro-Plaid vote. Outside Labour-held wards, there wasn’t that much change, and much of what did occur is down to local circumstances (and there will always be some particular issues in particular areas when it comes to council elections). But it's a pretty small crumb. It really doesn't matter whether people vote for an alternative because they're for that alternative or because they’re just against Labour – the alternative still wins.

The pundits talk about how this would look if translated into the next General Election. I suppose that’s what pundits do – and they even get paid for it – but it's often a dangerous extrapolation. In that the punishment meted out to Labour this time appears to have been for 'national' rather than 'local' sins, perhaps there is some validity, but for me the real significance is less in the numbers than in that it adds to a general mood which makes a Labour recovery harder to see.

So, can they recover? It’s not impossible even now, but there are some real problems.

Firstly, in many areas, the party’s councillors and their families and close friends have effectively been the sum total of the party’s organisation on the ground. It is these people who have delivered the leaflets and knocked the doors. Many of them are no longer young, if I may express it in those terms, and there will be a real question over the extent of their motivation if they no longer have the personal incentive - or, indeed, if they even feel that the party nationally has let them and their communities down.

Secondly, the senior spokespersons seem to be in some sort of state of denial. After ten years or more of spin, where what they say is not what they do, they still expect people to believe what they say. There has been a succession of people saying effectively that "the people are telling us to listen to them". Indeed so - but how about actually listening rather than just telling us you’re going to listen? Without being seen to do anything different, this just looks like more spin – and insincere and superficial to boot.

Does Labour’s collapse matter? I think it does. Even if the most extreme projections are true, and the Tories do better than ever before in Wales at the General Election, they will still not win a majority of Welsh seats or votes; and most of us here in Wales would prefer to have a non-Tory government. A Tory government based on an English majority is something which should concern us greatly here in Wales. I for one am far from convinced that they have really changed, whatever their spokespeople may say.

There are two bold steps which Labour could take now to protect us, or at least mitigate the effects of such a result.

The first is to make sure that we hold and win a referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly. I believe that this could be won, if there was a serious campaign in favour, even in the current anti-Labour climate.

The second is that Brown could, whilst he still has a large majority in the Commons, introduce STV for parliamentary elections. If people could rank the parties in order of preference, it would reduce the temptation for tactical anti-Labour voting. It would thus mean that the change in the number of seats between the parties would be smaller than the latest opinion polls suggest, if second and third preference votes were taken into effect.

Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that Brown simply doesn’t do bold.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

A little ado about what, exactly?

Yesterday’s Western Mail had a story about Chris Bryant drawing attention to an apparent inconsistency between two senior Plaid Figures. According to the story, Ieuan Wyn Jones welcomed this year's air show at Sophia Gardens, whilst two years ago, Plaid’s Chief Executive, Gwenllian Lansdown condemned a similar event at the same location as being a showcase for arms dealers.

Bryant claimed that this showed a major inconsistency. Ordovicius explained this apparent inconsistency in terms of the elapsed time between the two statements – two years ago, Lansdown was not the party’s Chief Executive, and Jones was not in government.

I think this misses the point. The two people seem to have been speaking about two very different events. Jones was welcoming an exhibition promoting the aerospace industry because of the jobs in that industry in Wales. Lansdown, on the other hand, was condemning arms sales. Both positions are entirely consistent with long standing Plaid policies.

The problem is that neither the story nor any of the reaction tell us what sort of event it really is, and without that information, it is impossible to judge which reaction is correct. But if a Plaid leader were truly to be welcoming arms dealers to the Welsh capital, it would be an astonishing betrayal of previous Plaid policy. So - which of the two descriptions of the event is correct?

Monday, 28 April 2008

Let's go fly a kite

One of the joys of childhood is discovering a long forgotten favourite toy at the back of a cupboard. Last week, it was Adam Price who was rummaging in his cupboards, and having come across one of the many kites in his collection, he simply couldn’t resist flying it again.

But in floating, once again, the idea of a deal between Plaid and the Tories, is he speaking for his party or only for himself? My sources tell me that Price is not in the habit of showing his kites to anyone before flying them, so I doubt that this was officially sanctioned, although, not for the first time, it left other Plaid politicians trying to explain and defend what he was saying.

At one level, of course, Plaid would be foolish to rule anything out in advance of any election. Keeping options open is a vital part of any bargaining process. Not unlike the Cold War standoff, the ‘other side’ (in this case, Labour) has to believe that Plaid really would ‘press the button’ in order to maximise the pressure on them to keep their troops in order. And at the same time, the Tories have to believe that there is at least a chance of a deal in order to bolster Bourne’s devolutionist position – if all hope was taken off the table, there would be no conceivable reason for the Tories in the Assembly not to follow their MPs, and revert to their natural hostility to devolution.

But what does Price really want? Is this just a bit of bluster to keep up the pressure on Labour, or is he really trying to prepare his party for a deal with the Tories? Even if his real objective is only to put pressure on Labour, he’ll never own up to that. The parallel with the Cold War applies - even if Plaid would never do such a deal, they could never actually say that.

I suspect that he really does want such a deal. I don’t understand why, and it’s at odds with his apparent left-wing rhetoric, but we should remember that he worked hard to sell the All Wales Accord to his party, describing it at the time as a radical programme. I suspect that the left wing rhetoric is just that – rhetoric. It’s in a similar style to that used many years ago by another apparent firebrand in Plaid - the only member to actually reach the House of Lords, who turned out to be more establishment than the establishment. Is Price destined to follow the same route?

It's not only the fact of his previous form that leads me to this conclusion - it's also his choice of words. Describing Plaid as a 'centre-left' party will come as a surprise to many members, I suspect. They'd be happy to describe the One Wales agreement as a centre left government; but Plaid as a centre left party? This looks like part of the insidious re-positioning of Plaid on the political spectrum which has seemed to have followed their entry into government. I’m far from convinced that Price is as far apart from Ieuan Wyn Jones as they sometimes appear to be.

If one of the joys of childhood is discovering an old toy, one of the problems is a lack of patience; an inability to wait before playing with it. But my guess is that there are many Plaid activists and council candidates the length and breadth of Wales who’ll be wishing that Price had left this particular kite in its cupboard for a week or two longer – until after May 1st in any event.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Detached from Reality

There can, of course, be no excuse for faking e/mails in order to attempt to incriminate an innocent person. Indeed, there's no valid excuse for faking e/mails in order to incriminate a guilty person either.

So I had more than a little sympathy for Peter Hain after the revelations yesterday about some faked emails which attempted to suggest that he had misused facilities at a charity.

He goes too far, however, in claiming that these dirty tricks have cost him his job and his career. These particular 'dirty tricks' have only come to light after he had already been forced to resign for other reasons. His attempt to suggest that these latest e/mails are of a piece with the revelations which led to his downfall is, at best, disingenuous.

There is a world of difference between fake documents attempting to smear someone with false accusations, and genuine leaks which expose wrongdoing. Hain seems not to be able to grasp this vital difference.

Above all, his latest protestations indicate that he still does not accept that failing to disclose £100,000 in donations, in direct contravention of laws which his own government enacted, is in any way ‘wrong-doing’.

He keeps claiming that his experience is surreal. What I find not just surreal, but really rather sad, is his own inability to recognise firstly that he has committed an offence under electoral law, and secondly that there is widespread incredulity at the extent of his spending on an internal party election.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Sustainable spin

In my previous post, I referred to the statement by Ieuan Wyn Jones on the transport grant settlement. Normal Mouth picks up on the same issue, although dealing more with the substance of the issue than the spin.

The idea put forward by Normal Mouth that the burden of reducing CO2 emissions should fall more heavily on the richest parts of the UK – even to the extent of off-setting any increases which are necessary to secure the development of the less well-off areas is an interesting one. It is, ultimately, a form of redistribution of wealth within the UK. It's an honest position to take, and a valid one, as long as the offsets actually occur.

And there’s the rub; with the UK and Welsh governments clearly well adrift from their targets for CO2 reductions, I simply don’t believe that the political will is likely to be forthcoming for the South East of England (which is the area that would ultimately have to pay the price) to take on the additional CO2 reductions which would be needed, or that they would hapen in the same timescales, such that there would be no overall net increase at any point in time. I find myself, therefore, closer to the position of FoE, which is that we have to seize every opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, and not shy away from the consequences of those decisions.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that rail can displace road, in a Welsh context, to the extent that FoE might wish – Normal Mouth makes some telling points on that issue. But fundamentally, the stance taken by FoE seems to me also to be an honest and valid one.

What is neither honest nor valid is to place the economic development needs higher than the environmental ones, with no attempt to negotiate corresponding additional CO2 cuts elsewhere, and then spin that as being something which it is not, i.e. an environmentally sound decision. Yet that is precisely what the Assembly government, and the deputy first minister in particular, have tried to do.

I said in my previous post that ‘green’ is a word with more than one meaning – so is ‘sustainable’. At its basest, politicians seem to interpret it as meaning nothing more than ‘whatever we can get away with’. As long as they believe that spin meets that definition, they will continue to use it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

'Green' has more than one meaning

Friends of the Earth Cymru have today attacked Plaid’s Deputy First Minister over his announcements on transport spending, accusing him of “greenwash”, and acting contrary to Plaid policies. Nice word, but I think FoE are rather missing the point. The Western Mail’s editorial comes closer to the real point in my view, with its suggestion that the Minister is re-announcing money which has already been announced at least once in the past.

The latter practice is one to which we have become accustomed under Labour since 1997; it has become standard practice for government ministers - and mostly, they seem to get away with it. In answer to the opening sentence of the Western Mail’s editorial (“Perhaps it was naïve to assume the One Wales administration in Cardiff Bay would be above the kind of statistical sleight-of-hand that have (sic) characterised spending announcements over recent years”), I can only say, “Yes, it was. Very”.

And that’s why FoE have somewhat missed the point (although I don’t disagree with the substance of the concerns that FoE have about the announcements from an environmental perspective) in the way that they have attacked the Deputy First Minister and his party over the announcement. It betrays the same sort of naivety; the same underlying belief that with Plaid ministers something would somehow be different. Why on earth would anyone expect that?

The government is still led by the same people who led it prior to last May; government policy has, in practice, changed little. The same civil servants are still providing the same advice; and ministers rarely go against the advice that their ‘experts’ give them. The ministers claim that it is they who make the decisions; and most of their announcements are peppered with the ‘I’ word. But few, if any, decisions are in any way at variance with the advice that the ministers are given; ‘decision-making’ can often be a rather illusory concept. It takes a very brave minister to take a decision at odds with ‘expert’ advice, and the words 'brave' and 'minister' are not words which I would often use in the same sentence.

So the government carries on doing what it was doing before, and producing the same old justifications; the opposition carries on disagreeing. One party has switched from opposition to government, that's all. Had the rainbow ever come to pass, all four parties would have ‘swapped sides'; but the government would still have continued to make largely the same decisions - and the opposition would have largely continued to argue against them.

(This isn’t just a Welsh phenomenon – look at the way the Tories in London are today displaying their outrage at post office closures - just like Labour did when the Tories were closing thousands of post offices, and using many of the same arguments).

Cynical? Yes, of course. But it's what people in general see when they look at politics, and is one of the reasons for believing that 'they're all the same'. Does it have to be this way? No, it doesn't. But change, real change, depends on having a government which has a real vision, and the determination to make things happen rather than simply a lust for power. For that, we are still waiting.

Management speak has it that ‘the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’, and that's true as far as it goes. But the ‘bad’ doesn’t become the ‘good’ just because a different bunch of people are in charge. One would have to be pretty green to swallow that one.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

What percentage is the brain?

With the decision on the pay rise for our AMs now apparently done and dusted, I’m not sure that I'd award any of the parties any prizes for their behaviour; the best that I can come up with is an honourable mention for (most of) Plaid.

Firstly, the Tories. There was something distinctly unedifying about the man who is probably the wealthiest member of the Assembly (and despite almost nine years as a member, one of the least well-known) leading the charge. Speaking on behalf of a party which has opposed and obstructed the transfer of powers to Wales at every stage, here he was demanding that the 'extra powers' which most of his party have fought so hard to prevent should now be reflected in extra pay for himself and his colleagues.

Secondly the Lib Dems. If they had anything meaningful or original to say, other than ‘give us the money’, then I’m afraid that I must have blinked at the time. They have been no more relevant or visible on this issue than on any other.

Labour have mostly managed to avoid saying anything very much, which was probably a wise move. Letting Alun Davies loose on the matter was a good deal less wise. Rather than attempting any serious attempt at justification of the decision, he resorted to attacking Plaid members for being unable to face up to the ‘difficult decisions’ of being in government. Really? Serious business, this governing, obviously. Having to take major decisions like increasing your own pay – it’s really tough on them isn’t it? How to lose an argument in one easy lesson.

Lastly Plaid. An honourable mention for a degree of consistency. In a previous post, I referred to refusing the rise as ‘gesture politics’, but they seem to have ultimately had little real choice. I haven’t really changed my mind, but from their perspective, having presented evidence to the review body arguing that no rise was necessary, and then having voted against the rise, quietly accepting it would have looked like sheer hypocrisy. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. So why only an honourable mention?

Three main reasons.

Firstly, because it ended up looking as though some of them were at best reluctant participants in declining the rise, and two seem still to have opted out. In addition, taking the money and giving it to charity sounds well-meaning, but in practice, unless done carefully, it means that 50% of the money gets paid straight back to Mr Darling in tax and NI. It also leaves an easy option for quietly taking the money in a year or two's time.

Secondly, because their opposition seems to have been as much about timing as about the principle. One is left believing that many of them would be quite happy to take the money if only the timing had only been a little better.

All of the parties seem to be obsessed with the idea that their pay should in some way be related to that of MPs, and this whole debacle has been about whether an AM is worth 76.5% of an MP, or 82%. Bandying numbers like that around makes it sound as though there is some clever science and arithmetic behind the equation; but it’s ultimately an entirely subjective judgement.

Yes, but that 5.5% is very important, they seem to be saying. They’re doing more, and MPs are doing less, so the differential should be less. (The obvious question is the one which so many have asked, which is why, if MPs are doing less, the rise for AMs is not compensated by a cut for MPs – I haven’t heard a sensible answer to that question yet.)

But there are also 1.5 AM’s for every MP – 60 compared to 40; and if Richard’s recommendations had been taken up and implemented (which I think they should have been, by the way), the ratio would have been 2:1. Where does that factor into the 82% equation? If there were more AMs to do all this extra work, would that mean a salary cut?

We need to get away from an essentially irrelevant comparison with members of another legislature; stop looking over our shoulders at what’s happening elsewhere, and decide what’s right in a Welsh context for Welsh legislators. Their status and esteem depends not on being a few percent closer to being a ‘proper legislator’ in London, but on what they do and are seen to do here in Wales.

And that brings me to the third reason why I give Plaid no more than an honourable mention. If there is one party which should be prepared to forget comparisons with London, and have the confidence to look only at what is right for Wales, it should be Plaid.

And another thing…

I understand how the Western Mail can refer to the need to attract people of higher calibre to become AMs, but when AMs themselves start to use the argument...

If an AM says “We need to attract people of a higher calibre” isn’t (s)he effectively saying, “I know we’re not up to the job, but we’re the best you can get for this sort of money”? And if that is so, then there is a fairly obvious corollary - if an increase is needed at all, it can safely be deferred until the next Assembly elections, because that’s when better people need to be attracted to stand, not before.

The converse is that we would be paying more to the members who make such statements - and paying more to people who have admitted that they are not up to the job doesn't seem to me to be sending them quite the right message.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Setting the rate for the job

To misquote someone very wise, if the answer is to pay politicians more, it must be a very strange question.

The furore over the inflation-busting increase for AMs was inevitable, and completely predictable; but that is true whenever politicians vote themselves a pay rise, and however large the rise. They knew what the response would be, and decided to go ahead anyway. Blowing the political froth away for a moment, is there a justification?

The two arguments put forward are firstly that AMs are now working harder because the Assembly has more powers, and secondly that there is a need to attract a better quality of AM; both arguments which the Western Mail editorial rehearses eloquently this morning. Do they stand up to scrutiny?

Certainly, the Assembly has more powers now, and is likely to be gaining more as more LCOs are passed, and that in turn means that the Assembly as a whole has more responsibility. But the changed situation under the latest Act also sees a clearer split between the Executive and the Legislature under which it is at least possible to argue that back-bench AMs actually have less influence now than they did previously.

Are they working ‘harder’? I don’t know how those of us outside the institution can ever properly judge that. Much of the work they do, in representing their constituents, is largely unseen by most of us (and likely to be extremely variable between the best and the worst as well). It is probably unfair (although entirely natural) for us to judge their performance solely on the basis of what we see them do in plenary sessions. But it would help their case not insignificantly if people could see that they were actually debating sensibly instead of playing silly games.

I am convinced that increasing the number of AM’s to 80 to deal with the changed situation, as recommended by Richard, is a sensible way forward. Presumably those who argue that they need an increase for working harder now would then accept a decrease as the workload was shared amongst a higher number?

Will paying them more attract a better standard of AM? I see little basis for supporting this argument. The brightest and best in Welsh society can still earn far more in other occupations, and are unlikely to be attracted to become politicians solely on the basis of the money. Although there is a potential argument that some may be deterred by low pay, I just don’t see the argument that high pay will attract them. In any event, do we really want people who are there because they can earn more by being an AM than they could in any other walk of life? (Although those even more cynical than I might argue that we already have a number of those - and still would have even if the pay was halved).

More importantly, how exactly does the electoral process ensure that able people win anyway? Some constituencies are so safe for one or other party that the proverbial donkey would still win, no matter how many able people the other parties in the same seat may put up. ‘Ability’ is only a criterion (and not necessarily the one which determines the outcome at that) in internal party selections; the elections themselves are more to do with tribalism.

We do need a way of fixing the pay of our politicians which doesn’t involve them in having to vote on their own pay. But having fixed it once, why not then link all increases to the average increase in public sector pay, so that they gain from – or lose by – the increases which other public sector workers receive?

PS – some are suggesting that, if Plaid AM's are opposed to the rise, they should refuse to accept it. I have my doubts about this. In the first place, it seems to turn a general issue about politicians' pay into a more personalised one, and in the second place, it looks like gesture politics. Some MPs have in the past refused to accept increases, but I wonder how long that refusal lasts in practice before they quietly accept the rise. Gesture politics is no substitute for a proper resolution to the issue.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Does size matter

If I understand the Welsh Tories correctly, they're against devolving power over some aspects of housing to Wales because they think that the Assembly might use the powers in ways which the Tories would not support. In this particular case, the bone of contention appears to be the badly misnamed 'Right to Buy', which they are afraid Wales might abolish given her own way.

I wonder if they would be consistent, however. If the so-called Right to Buy had already been abolished in England, and there was a chance of re-introducing it in Wales, would they still oppose the devolution of the relevant powers? Somehow, I doubt it.

Opposing the transfer of powers because they might not like the outcome appears at first to be just another confirmation that they simply don't 'get' devolution, but there is a serious point here, which they might be in danger of stumbling on, even if only by accident. How do we decide which issues should or should not be devolved?

The responses of the two extremes on the national question are obvious. For those who oppose devolution, the answer is nothing; for the nationalists, it’s everything. It’s so easy for them to answer, because they both start with a fixed idea about the ‘right’ unit for government. But I find neither response to be particularly enlightening - and I have a question for each.

To those who believe that it is vital that certain areas of policy should remain with the larger unit, for the sake of strength and consistency, I would ask, ‘So why aren’t you proposing transferring those powers to Brussels?” Surely, if consistency and scale are so important, differences between the UK and France are as intolerable and unnecessary as differences between England and Wales?

And to those who believe that everything should be devolved to the smaller unit, I would ask, “So would you be happy to devolve the decision to Ynys Môn?” If local decision making and democracy is so important, why should things have to be the same across Wales?

I tend to start from a ‘localist’ viewpoint, and my personal disappointment with devolution to date is that there seems to be a centralising tendency within Wales, rather than any real effort to empower local communities and counties. My presumption would always be for taking decisions at as local a level as possible, and involving people in them as far as possible; but how to decide which cannot or should not be taken locally?

On pragmatic grounds, I don’t think it would be helpful to go back to the pre-railway times when Cardiff and Newport could set their own clocks for instance. Neither does it seem to me to make a lot of sense to allow different counties in Wales to decide on which side of the road people should drive – although the UK opt-out from most of the rest of the world on this one doesn’t seem terribly logical either. Those are obvious examples where consistency is important for purely practical reasons, but not all issues are as black and white as this.

The second problem with devolving as much as possible to the lowest levels is how you achieve a fair distribution of resources. There can surely be no real question that, the bigger the unit, the more resources it potentially has at its disposal, and the more it can do to switch resources from the wealthiest to the poorest. I’ve always felt this (the idea of a fairer distribution of wealth) to be one of the strongest potential arguments against devolving power downwards. (It does not, of course, follow that having the ‘power’ to do something means that it always gets done effectively, or even at all, and that is one reason why the argument does not stand up as strongly as it could).

The other problem with local decision-taking is that it might lead to decisions with which I don't agree - and this is where the Tories have stumbled on a point which worries me. One of the greatest and most courageous decisions taken by the UK Parliament was the abolition of the death penalty. Yet, I am fairly confident that, if this decision was given to the people to take, we would not only still have the death penalty, we would probably reinstitute flogging as well. So what if, in devolving maximum power to the lowest possible level, some areas/nations/ countries (delete according to prejudice) end up taking decisions which I would find completely unacceptable? That is, surely, precisely the point which the Tories are raising.

I don’t know what the answer to my question is – but I am absolutely convinced that it’s not the one that the Tories seem to be pursuing, which is that you should not trust people to take their own decisions unless you are certain that they will take the ‘right’ ones. Devolving decision-making closer to the people can sometimes be a difficult road to follow, but that doesn’t make it the wrong road.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Missing words round

According to David Cornock:

A Church of England Bishop told the MPs that it's "entirely unreasonable"
that some patients on either side of the Wales/England border face longer
waiting times for treatment.

Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford, said people should be treated
equally wherever they live. "I think from where we are, it is entirely
unreasonable that there should be that difference of treatment according to
where people live and waiting lists, and we would want to see a much greater
equality for people whichever side of the border they live.”

Sounds obvious at first, but suppose it had been the Bishop of Cracow comparing services along the border between Germany and Poland. Or the Bishop of Dover, comparing services at each end of the Channel Tunnel. Would it still sound so reasonable and obvious?

I do not argue for, or attempt to justify, lengthy waiting times, of course. Long waiting times are always unacceptable, whether in Radnor, Cracow or Dover. And all those charged with reducing them can study and learn from the success of others, even if there may be reasons, sometimes even good ones, why some of the approaches used in one place do not necessarily transfer to another. But to argue that there should never be differences seems a little absurd to me.

I suspect that, in reality, the good bishop simply missed out two words from what he said, namely “in Britain”. It's part of a mindset, shared by many, which hasn't really got to grips with the idea of devolved administrations setting their own, and sometimes different, priorities.