Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Maverick or Outrider?

David Cornock draws attention to what, at first sight, is just another gaffe by Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid’s leader in the House of Commons. Llwyd apparently briefed journalists to the effect that he isn't particularly bothered about holding a referendum on a parliament before 2011, even though his party made this a key element in the One Wales accord. Llwyd said that he believes it to be more important to get the current system working properly first.

Now, call me cynical, but I think that if a Labour MP had said that, there would have been indignant howls from Plaid quarters, and the words 'dinosaur' and 'Brit-nat' would be flying all over the place.

I find it difficult to believe that even Llwyd, who does seem to find it difficult to remain on-message at times, could have made a blunder on this scale. Although I generally err on the side of the cock-up theory of history in preference to conspiracy, in this case I start to wonder. Could he be acting as an out-rider for his leader in Cardiff?

Many inside and outside Plaid have long doubted whether Ieuan Wyn Jones is really that keen on another referendum, suspecting that slow creeping gradualism (aka the LCO procedure) is much more in his nature. Of course, he needed to get a commitment to a referendum before his party would sign up to One Wales, but the ‘commitment’ is, in reality, a lot less firm than some might think.

Many have commented previously that the purpose of the Commission, under Emyr Parry-Jones, is far from being clear, and there has always been a suspicion that it was intended, above all else, to simply buy some time. It took one of the most contentious issues in the agreement, kicked it safely into the future, and thus allowed the deal to be struck.

If this line of argument holds, then, having bedded the government down nicely, there comes a point where Plaid members’ expectations have to be ‘adjusted’ to match that which the party’s leaders expected all along, namely that there will be no referendum in the term of the current Assembly. Those who negotiated the deal can hardly simply stand up and say that they always knew it wasn't going to happen, and there has been a strong adverse reaction whenever anyone from Labour started stating the obvious. If someone had to fly this kite, then who better than Llwyd?

Vanishing Act?

Normal Mouth’s latest outing in Golwg has, as ever, provoked a good debate, by asking whether Plaid are in danger of disappearing now that they are in government. I think the points he makes are very sound ones and it is a pity that so much of the response has been partisan; there is a real challenge to Plaid in keeping a clear and distinctive position whilst accepting the responsibility of government in coalition.

Much of Plaid’s hopes seem to be placed on showing competence in government, but as I noted a while ago, I think this is unlikely to be particularly effective as an approach.

It is a matter of opinion as to whether Plaid’s ministers have shown themselves to be more competent than Labour’s ministers to date. There seems to be no evidence that they are any worse, and some good arguments have been made that they have performed well. The question is whether anyone, outside the world of political anoraks and journalists, will actually notice either way.

Certainly, all the reports on Elin Jones in Rural Affairs seem to be positive, and she appears to have been well accepted by the farming community. But will that turn into votes (and if a strategy based on competence in government has any purpose at all, that is surely the acid test)? My impression is that the farming vote in Wales is split (largely on linguistic grounds) between Plaid and the Tories (with the Lib Dems having some localised support, and Labour almost universally hated), and even a fairly large (and highly unlikely) shift from the Tories to Plaid within that group would not make much difference to the result of the next election - with the possible exception of one of the Pembrokeshire seats.

Ieuan Wyn Jones may well have become the face of WAG for Welsh business people and therefore well-known to them – but most of them are committed Tories anyway. Again, it’s hard to see that his role will produce a significant shift in voting intentions – or that it would make much difference even if it did happen.

And all of this has to be placed in the context of the fact that Welsh politicians in general do not enjoy a high level of recognition amongst the Welsh voting public – how much electoral leverage really comes from any slight perception of a higher than average performance?

The danger for Plaid's ministers is that they get sucked into the system. Surrounded by sycophantic civil servants who tell them what a wonderful job they are doing and protect them from the real world, looking at acres of coverage of their every statement in the Western Mail (which enjoys a tiny circulation), 'working hard' all day on the mountains of paperwork that the civil service supply to them, and making organised visit after organised visit, it's easy to see how they could end up believing that they have only to carry on as they are and all will be fine.

For most ordinary people in Wales, the face of WAG – health, education – is undoubtedly Labour. If the government does well, Labour may - although even that doesn't necessarily follow - be rewarded electorally; if it does badly, Plaid will certainly be punished along with Labour.

I think Plaid in the Assembly need to do a great deal more to distinguish themselves from Labour, especially on issues outside One Wales. That might be uncomfortable at times for the coalition partners; but do the One Wales government really need to have a collective line on all issues, even those which are nothing to do with the Assembly? In my view, it is that which creates the biggest danger of the party losing visibility.

Friday, 25 January 2008

To clear his name

Our now ex-Secretary of State declared that he is standing down from office 'to clear his name'. Well, he's always been something of an optimist, I suppose, but it seems to me that that's a pretty unlikely outcome.

The first thing that any police investigation has to establish is whether a crime has been committed. This looks like an easy hurdle; no-one is in any doubt that there was a legal requirement to declare donations within a specified time, and no-one denies that that was not done.

The second hurdle is to identify the miscreant. In the court of public opinion, this is open to some doubt. I, like many others, am quite prepared to believe that he left this responsibility to others, and they have badly let him down. But the court of public opinion isn’t the final arbiter here – the Act of Parliament passed by a government of which Hain was a prominent member makes it clear that the responsibility lies very firmly on the politician receiving the cash. Blaming the hired help is about mitigation, not innocence. I doubt Mr Plod will have too much trouble with this one either.

The third hurdle is whether there is enough evidence to give a reasonable prospect of conviction in a court of law. This doesn’t look like a particularly challenging obstacle either, given the public statements already made.

The final question is whether a prosecution serves the public interest. Whilst there will be some who continue to bay for blood, I, for one, am far from convinced that any great public interest is served by proceeding to prosecution in this case. Although in theory (if convicted) he could be jailed and / or fined, the most probable outcome of a guilty verdict is a small fine and a slap on the wrist. The costs of a prosecution will be high in relation to that outcome, and the real punishment - the destruction of his career - has already been meted out.

So my prediction at this stage is that the investigation will conclude, after several months, with a recommendation that no action be taken, as happened with the ‘cash for peerages’ row. Such a conclusion is probably the best he can hope for – and probably the ‘right’ outcome as well. It will be spun as some sort of exoneration, of course – but it hardly amounts to ‘clearing his name’. And, criminal issues aside, it still leaves a whole host of political questions around the amount spent on an internal election, the provenance of some of the donations, and the rather bizarre use of a 'think tank' to channel some of the funds.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Fading memories

It was, as so many others have already pointed out, entirely predictable that Dafydd Wigley would agree to become a candidate to represent his party in the House of Lords, and no-one has been surprised that he has declared that all the conditions that he set have been met.

It’s interesting though, that the conditions which have been met don’t seem to be quite the same ones that he set out so publicly back in October. I wondered at the time whether he wasn't setting conditions which would be impossible to meet. But it seems that one of them has been at best fudged, and the other has been completely forgotten.

Back in October, he seemed to be asking for the right to become, in effect, an ex-officio member of his party's group in the National Assembly. The condition which has been met talks merely of creating a linkage with the group.

And whatever happened to the condition about being part of a phalanx of new peers representing both the parties in the One Wales coalition? Didn’t he even tell us who the Labour Party should send to accompany him?

With the passing of time, two apparently difficult conditions seem to have become three easy conditions.

I think that he will be an asset to his party in the Lords; but did we really need this sort of pantomime to get to the right answer?

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Crimes and Misdemeanours

The other day, I witnessed what I can only describe as an ‘altercation’ between a motorcyclist and a traffic warden. The latter had just issued a ticket to the former for illegally parking in a bay marked 'Loading only'. The motorcyclist's response was to complain bitterly about the fact that there had been no warden around earlier when he had seen some cars double-parked in the same street. The traffic warden was less than entirely impressed with this as a defence, and made it clear that he thought that he had the motorcyclist 'bang to rights’. Hard to argue with him really.

In a roundabout way, this brings me back to our beloved Secretary of State. The case for the Defence seems to rest in part on the fact that other people have also been naughty girls and boys, and in fact (in the judgement of Paul Flynn, inter alia) have committed far worse offences than Mr Hain. His only sin, it is claimed, is a degree of incompetence in the way he managed his campaign staff. I'm really not sure that this line should be of much more help to him than it was to the motorcyclist.

Sure, all three of the Plaid MPs were caught out breaking the rules of the House of Commons on the way in which their Communications Allowance was spent. Completely unjustifiable, and the line that they sought advice first was another pretty feeble piece of defence work. They were hauled up before the Standards Committee, and found wanting. In the view of many they were lucky to get off as lightly as they did.

Sure, the Conservatives seem to be involved in a degree of chicanery over donations which looks to be every bit as bad as some of Labour’s recent sins. There is no excuse for not holding a full and proper investigation into the situation.

Sure, some of these things are misdemeanours rather than crimes, in the sense that they break the rules of the House of Commons rather than the criminal law. However, the distinction, from the point of view of public perception, is a fine one; and it ill behoves those guilty of one type of offence to be baying so loudly for the blood of others.

What none of these diversions can in any way alter is the fact that there was a legal requirement on Mr Hain personally to provide a full and accurate declaration of costs and donations within a specified time period. Events have shown that he not only failed to comply with this requirement, but that he failed in a fairly spectacular fashion. He may be lucky, and get off lightly with a slap on the wrist. If he does, he may well salvage his career, if not his reputation. There is a danger, though, that the Electoral Commission starts to look like a paper tiger – a bit like a traffic warden who only points out people’s sins, but never issues any tickets.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Perhaps he's just having a laugh

Like many others, including some of his political opponents, I was initially prepared to give Peter Hain the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was a busy man, with two ministries to run as well as his campaign for the deupty leadership. Overlooking a single donation shouldn't have happened, but everyone can make a simple mistake - although £5,000 looks like a lot of mistake to most of us.

Overlooking 17 separate donations requires the benefit of a great deal more doubt, however. And when the total of those donations added together comes to a whopping £103,000 - more than doubling the expenditure previously declared – the amount of 'benefit of doubt' required is stretched even further.

As if that were not enough, it seems that part of the reason for the non-declaration of these amounts was that these were late donations, only solicited after unpaid bills for the campaign started to arrive. It seems that they not only didn't know how much they had received - they didn't know how much they had spent either.

Five of the previously unrecorded donations were made through a think tank, which, as Betsan Powys reports, seems to have done very little thinking to date. By complete coincidence, it seems to have been set up just weeks after the commencement of Hain’s campaign, and to have been established by a leading figure (whose precise role seems still to be under debate) in Hain’s campaign. By further amazing coincidence, one of the donors to this think tank was another of those involved in managing Hain’s campaign.

Hain’s defence is that he was not involved in the day to day running of the campaign, that he trusted others to do it, and was pre-occupied with his important ministerial jobs. That's a credible defence, but only up to a point. If it’s true, then we have to accept that when he, in all sincerity, signed off a return of donations declaring a total of £82,000, he didn’t realise that his campaign had spent more than twice that, didn’t know what they’d spent the money on during his campaign, and didn’t know that there were a number of unpaid bills which had yet to arrive.

If we believe what he says, then his lack of involvement/ interest in what was being done in his name and on his behalf is truly staggering. It is easy to see why so many believe that his position has become untenable.

Monday, 7 January 2008

End of the Honeymoon?

Interesting debate over at Normal Mouth’s following a rather tongue-in-cheek post about a possible split in Plaid. NM is right, of course, to say that when people use the term ‘progressive’ they are always referring to their own views, and talk of a ‘progressive alliance’ always means ‘come and join us’. After all, has any politician, anywhere, at any time, ever described himself or herself as ‘regressive’? I doubt it - although I’m always open to correction.

In the tongue in cheek form posited by Normal Mouth, I don't think that there is any danger of a Plaid split in 2008. But that is not the same as saying that there is not more tension below the surface than might be apparent, as Valleys Mam has also suggested in her comment.

I have argued before that when nationalists refer to the 'unionist/ nationalist' split within Labour, the analysis owes more to wishful thinking than to reality. The original post from Bethan Jenkins seems, on the surface, to be based on exactly that analysis, effectively labelling the ‘nationalist’ wing of Labour as progressive, and the ‘unionist’ wing as ‘regressive’. Of course there are tensions within Labour, over a whole series of issues, including the constitutional issue, but this analysis is simply far too simplistic.

Plaid also have their internal tensions, but these are not as straightforward as might appear either. Plaid’s membership has a long tradition of extreme loyalty to its leadership, even when members are unhappy about the overall direction, and my prediction for 2008 at least is that that loyalty has some considerable way to run before being seriously challenged.

There are certainly some local difficulties over education in the party’s Gwynedd heartlands, but the party’s leadership is unlikely to be blamed for this situation. The real problems for Plaid will start when the honeymoon period for 'One Wales' finally comes to an end.

There are several issues over which that could happen in due course, but it is likely to require a combination of a number of these before the party really hits trouble. The underlying theme will be a divergence between passionately held views on what policy should be, and the realities of Government actions which run contra to the party’s policies.

If that is so, then the threat to Plaid is not from losing its most ‘regressive’ elements, but that it will lose the enthusiasm and support of its more ‘progressive’ elements. In that sense, the prediction made by Bethan Jenkins may well be more prescient than it appears to be at first sight – or possibly even than was intended.