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.