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?