Friday, 26 August 2016

Those were the days...

The Labour Party’s annual conference is reported to be under threat as a result of a dispute over which company should provide the security.  They appear to have got themselves into a bit of a mess over the whole issue, but the thing that struck me was the claim that the conference cannot go ahead without security. 
I must have missed something somewhere, but who decided, and when, that a political party cannot hold an annual conference without employing a security company?  Is it some sort of job creation scheme for ex-policemen?
I can remember when ‘security’ wasn’t a consideration at all.  Indeed, I can remember a time when the security services were more interested in conducting surveillance on delegates of some parties than in protecting them.
How times change.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

How much risk should we take?

I can’t help feeling that the coverage of the decision by former minister Edwina Hart to provide support for Kancoat has focussed largely on the wrong issue.  It is, I suppose, typical of the current state of political debate that it concentrates on the personal rather than on the substance, but the complaints about a potential ‘conflict of interest’ seem to me to be petty at best.  There are many constituencies close together in the valleys of the south; if the fact that a factory in one is within the travel to work distance of residents in another is considered sufficient to generate a conflict of interest for the AM, then it will become difficult for ministers ever to take such decisions.
I thought that the real issue here was, or should have been, about the ability of ministers to pick winners when it comes to supporting businesses – or even whether that is what we really want them to do.  It seems that the minister was advised that the business plan was ‘weak’; well, yes, but is that a reason for not providing support?  In the first place, if the business plan had been strong, the company could probably have obtained the necessary finance commercially without government support; and in the second, the nature of new businesses is that some – actually, a large proportion – will inevitably fail.  And many business plans are closer to being works of fiction than most people might suppose; although maybe a poor ability to produce fiction might suggest that a particular scheme is doomed for other reasons.
If the people starting the businesses, and seeking the finance, don’t know in advance which will succeed and which will fail, then on what basis do we ever expect civil servants, let alone ministers, to be able to make a better judgement?  It’s completely outside the bounds of their experience or knowledge.  Even some of the ‘entrepreneurs’ who are generally praised so highly get it wrong much of the time; some of the most apparently successful entrepreneurs are actually serial failures if one looks at their overall history rather than picking out the occasional outstanding success.
Empirical evidence suggests that a lot of frogs need to be kissed before one of them turns into a prince, and the fact that the money comes from government (and thus from the taxpayer) doesn’t change that.  If we want governments to be involved in the business of supporting businesses, then we have to accept that some of their decisions will, with the benefit of hindsight, turn out to be mistakes; what matters is the overall value for money of the whole portfolio.  The real question should have been about how decisions are taken, and how many failures we should accept as part of the price of taking a risk. 
Politicians seeking to ‘hold the government to account’ should be looking more closely at that aspect than criticising ministers (or ex-ministers) for individual failures.  The problem is that it doesn’t generate the same easy headlines.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Different types of democracy

Years ago, the Labour Party’s version of internal democracy included taking policy decisions at conferences where all members had a direct vote in determining party policy.  In theory, anyway – the crucial decisions were usually taken by ‘card vote’ where each delegate cast the number of votes which the organisation (s)he represented was allowed.  So leaders of the big unions could and did cast a million or more votes each at a time.  And the number of votes available to them was the number which the union chose to register as ‘members’, without those ‘members’ ever needing to be named.  That number was usually based on a calculation of the balance between the cost of registering them and the influence thereby purchased, and bore little relationship to the actual political views of the ‘members’ concerned.
Still, it was democracy, of a sort, and it gave the members some sort of feeling of ownership of policy.  Mind you, if the leadership didn’t like the policy that the members voted for, they simply ignored it.  Sometimes people think that this is a peculiarly Blairite tendency, but I can remember Harold Wilson happily ignoring conference votes half a century ago.
Over the years, the right of the party’s membership to determine policy through an annual conference was slowly whittled away, and that process certainly came to a peak in the Blair years, leaving members with little real ownership of anything – and I’m sure that that has been a factor in the falling membership numbers of the party.
Yesterday, Owen Smith declared that he would, if elected leader, seek to restore the right of members to determine policy, and that he would then abide by decisions taken by the membership.  That’s certainly in line with what many of Corbyn’s supporters would like – but is he really serious?
What would happen, for instance, if a Labour Party conference voted for nuclear disarmament?  It’s happened before (and was duly ignored by the leadership), and with the influx of Corbyn-leaning members, it must be highly likely that it will happen again.  Is Smith really saying that he would suddenly drop his support for Trident renewal, and admit that he was wrong all along, because the members have now spoken and that must therefore be his new position?  And would all the other rebel MPs fall in line behind him, in a way that they have not done for Corbyn?
That seems an unlikely scenario to me, which leads me to a rather different conclusion.  It’s easy for someone to commit to something if he believes that he will never be called on to deliver on any promise.  The game is no longer about winning, but about trying to reduce the gap in order to provide a ‘justification’ for running the process again in the next year or so (and again thereafter if necessary) until the members finally take the ‘right’ decision.  It’s a form of democracy that he’s supporting, but it’s not democracy as we know it, to adapt a phrase.

Monday, 22 August 2016

What do we mean by success?

The newspapers are full of praise for the athletes from the UK who took part in the Rio Olympics, and rightly so.  The performance of many of them was outstanding and deserving of the praise being heaped on the individuals concerned.  However, whilst assessing the success of individual athletes is comparatively straightforward, assessing the overall performance of countries is rather less so.
The Western Mail highlighted one aspect of that in this article on Saturday, pointing out that, on the basis of the population of Wales, the nation performed very well indeed, coming in second overall on the basis of medals per head.  It would not give an independent Wales a very high ranking in the official medal table, of course, but that merely highlights that countries with larger populations are likely to do better, overall, than countries with smaller population.  Having a lower position in the medal table takes away nothing from the successes of any of the individuals concerned.
But it is clear that, for some, the overall ranking is the more important measure.  On that basis, I saw another alternative table last week.  This one shows how, if the EU had competed as a single team, it would have overwhelmed all the other competing terms, finishing miles ahead of anyone else.  Again, calculating the rankings in this way takes away nothing from the successes of any of the individuals.
Reactions to both of the alternative tables have varied, inevitably, but what they demonstrate is that most people start out with a view about what is the ‘right’ basis for competing, and it seems unlikely that that preference is based solely on a desire to be seen as one of the worlds’s sporting superpowers.  There are more political factors at work here.
And that brings me to another point.  One alternative table that I’ve not yet seen (and I don’t know how easy it would be to produce) is a ranking based on the amount spent to win each medal.  If one were to be produced, I suspect that the UK would be quite a long way down in terms of value for money, with the team having a very high cost per medal.  There is clear evidence that targeted spending can and does produce results in terms of medals, if that’s what’s important.
At one level, that may not matter.  Any state is perfectly free to decide how much to invest in its sportsmen and women, and to set a target for how many Olympic medals it wishes to win as a result.  That’s more or less what John Major’s government did some years ago, and over time that focus has produced more medals.  It’s rather less clear, though, that it’s increased participation in sport; indeed, there is plenty of evidence that participation may be falling as facilities are closed or reduced in the light of spending cuts elsewhere.  Increasingly we have a well-funded elite and a poorly funded remainder, as a result of a deliberate act of government policy (and by successive governments of both colours).
It leads me to wonder whether the objective is more to do with ‘bread and circuses’ than any real concern for sporting prowess and performance.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

I nearly agreed for a moment...

There is little that Owen Smith has said during the Labour leadership debate thus far that I find it easy to agree with.  Until yesterday, when I found myself agreeing with what I thought was a bold and realistic statement … and then he issued a qualification so sweeping as to come close to negating what he’d said in the first place.
He is surely only stating the obvious when he says that, eventually, there will need to be negotiations with ISIS, or whatever they want to call themselves at the time.  I might have been inclined to add “or its successors”, on the basis that even if there were to be a military ‘victory’ at some point, the ideas and ideology will not simply go away.  Accommodation and agreement will be necessary at some point, as they have been in other situations around the world in order to bring an end to conflict.
And I thought he was also spot-on in arguing that the leaders of ISIS are clearly not interested in negotiating at present; bringing them formally round the conference table today is clearly a non-starter.  But it’s usually a mistake to assume that all members of any organisation are entirely homogeneous in their beliefs and aims; whilst the idea that ISIS has some sort of ‘moderate’ wing may seem highly unlikely, it is not certain that, at all times and in all circumstances there is no possibility of dialogue with anyone.
I thought Smith was only stating the obvious up to this point.  And given the way in which all other politicians are keen to demonstrate only their absolute resolve in giving no quarter and accepting no compromises, it was also a very brave thing to say.  The condemnation by others which followed was as predictable as it was wrong-headed.
The sad part is that, having actually made a brave stand for the first time that I can remember, his reaction to the criticism and condemnation was to backtrack to such an extent that it made his initial statement almost meaningless.  Arguing that there can be no negotiation “… until they renounce violence, cease all acts of terror and commit themselves to a peaceful settlement” is imposing a level of pre-condition on negotiation which was not imposed, for instance, on the IRA or on numerous other violent groups around the world.  Those criticising Smith know all this as well as he does.
Sadly, the way in which he backtracked so rapidly and completely tells us more about him than his initial bold statement.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Alas Smith and Corbyn

In the latest debate between the two contenders within the Labour Party, Corbyn made his view clear that the Brexit referendum is final and there can be no second thoughts, whilst Smith made it clear that he wants the vote taken again, either as a new referendum or else as a manifesto pledge.  I see problems with both of those viewpoints.
The problem with Corbyn’s stance is that it does not allow people to change their minds, under any circumstances.  That’s inflexible and unrealistic; people do change their minds about all sorts of things in the light of events.  And the consequences of Brexit were so poorly – or even misleadingly – set out that it is likely that people may reach a different conclusion as the consequences become clearer.  Corbyn’s stance denies people the opportunity to reconsider.
The problem with Smith’s stance is that it sounds like he wants to over-ride the democratic will of the electorate.  The issue was put to the electorate, and the voters gave what is to him the ‘wrong’ answer.  I can’t think of a better way of hardening opinion than telling people they must vote again until they get it ‘right’.  It’s the wrong answer from my perspective as well, but I can’t honestly argue that people must vote on the issue again just because I don’t like the answer.  On that basis, I’d be calling for almost every election to be re-run as well.
There is, though, a middle way between the two positions which both respects the decision taken and respects the right of people to reconsider in the light of additional detail.  That middle way is to argue that the negotiations should commence and the detail start to be filled in, and then, if over a sustained period it becomes clear through opinion polling that opinion has significantly changed and that a different result would ensue, then, and only then, could a second referendum be held.
What’s so difficult or challenging about that?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Don't do as I do...

It was always clear that those arguing for the UK to leave the EU were right, in simply factual terms, in saying that if the UK was currently paying in £18 billion and only getting £9-10 billion back, the UK would be able to replicate all current EU spending in Wales and the UK more generally, and there would also be a ‘surplus’ of some £8-9 billion available for spending on other things.  Or, at least, it was factually accurate with one condition - the only impact on finances is the change in the way that £18 billion is spent.
It was always equally clear, however, that that change would not and could not happen in isolation.  Some of the functions carried out by the EU and paid for by the UK subscription would need in future to be carried out by the UK so part of the ‘surplus’ was already accounted for.  And it was always highly unlikely that a UK Government, with a different set of priorities and an ingrained resistance to the whole concept of regional aid, would ever agree to spend the money in the same way.
But, even more significantly than either of those factors, there is the impact on other government revenues and expenditure of the decision to leave the EU.  Now I’ve long believed that the UK economy can and will adapt to being outside the EU, which is why I never saw the argument as being predominantly an economic one.  But that’s not to say that it will adapt immediately; there was always going to be a short-term shock before the adaptation happened. 
The result of that short-term shock will probably be a reduction in growth and a corresponding reduction in taxation revenues received by the Exchequer.  (Insofar as there is an economic argument for Brexit, it is the belief that short-term pain will lead to long term gain, and it surprised me throughout the campaign that the Brexiters didn’t use that honest argument instead of trying to suggest, flying in the face of the obvious, that there would simply be no problems.) 
That in turn means that the £18 billion reduction in contributions to the EU is far from being the only change in the overall fiscal position of the UK Government.  I don’t know what the overall impact will be, nor over what timescales – but then neither does anyone else.
That’s all by way of context to considering the statement yesterday by Andrew RT Davies for the Conservatives in Wales.  His comments (and specifically the line that “the Treasury will have more money”) seem to be predicated on an assumption that there are no other changes to the Treasury’s revenue and expenditure following Brexit.  Whilst he doesn’t come across as a man with a strong grasp of economics, I still find it hard to believe that even he really believes that.  In effect he’s trying to spend money which may or may not exist (neither he nor I can know that at this stage). 
It’s truly astounding that, without a hint of irony, he then goes on to accuse Labour of doing precisely that – spending money which doesn’t exist.  Pots and kettles come to mind.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Meaningless words

One of the habits of spin merchants and PR teams is to come up with fine-sounding phrases which have an immediate appeal but don’t actually say very much.  This was always central to New Labour, and given his background as a lobbyist, we should not be surprised if Owen Smith follows a similar pattern.
Even so, his call for a new industrial revolution was something of a classic.  It sounds very dramatic, but what on earth does it actually mean?  The Industrial Revolution was a transition from small-scale craft production methods to large scale manufacturing; it brought about huge changes in life style and conditions.  Yet Smith’s new ‘revolution’ seems, when looked at in detail, to be about the government giving out a few subsidies to selected industries.
And that brings us to a second point - is it even within the power of politicians and governments to bring about significant change anyway?  It wasn’t governments which brought about the first industrial revolution; indeed, it wasn’t planned or co-ordinated by anyone.  Governments, unless they want to take control of the “commanding heights of the economy” as the Labour Party used to argue, can do little more than create the conditions under which others control and take advantage of events.  But the consensus position of Labour and Tory alike has been for decades that globalisation is inevitable and we have to adapt to it.  It is, of course, that very globalisation that they so love which has destroyed so much of the manufacturing industry in the UK.
Whilst I agree with Smith’s claim that previous governments (including the Blair and Brown governments of which this claim is an implicit criticism) have been too reliant on financial services and insecure, low-skilled and low-paid jobs, I’m not at all convinced that it is in the power of governments to rebalance the economy back to manufacturing.  At least, I don’t see it as being possible without the government taking a much more interventionist role in the economy than is represented by throwing a few subsidies around.  Perhaps I misjudge him; perhaps he really is planning to try and control the economy in the way the Labour Party used to believe was possible.  Or then again, perhaps it really is no more than a sound-bite after all.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The benefit of hindsight

According to Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Assembly group of the Conservatives in Wales, the Labour First Minister, Carwyn Jones, failed to do any planning at all in anticipation of a vote to leave the EU.  On that point of fact, he’s absolutely right.  I’m rather less certain about the veracity of his assertion that “… the UK Government undertook detailed planning”; the evidence in support of that is not exactly obvious.  They still don’t really seem to know what to do next.
But the more important question is perhaps this: how much time and effort do we want governments to spend on detailed planning for an eventuality which they consider unlikely?  The answer to that surely depends more on an assessment of the probability of the outcome rather than on the desirability of it in the eyes of an opposing politician.
After all, I don’t recall Mr Davies demanding that the government – either in Cardiff under Labour or in London under his own party – should prepare detailed plans for the future of Wales and the UK after a Scottish ‘yes’ to independence in 2014.  Neither government prepared for that eventuality – and I rather suspect that he would have criticised any such planning as a waste of public resources.
Of course, given the result of the 2014 referendum, that lack of planning didn’t really matter.  That simply proves that hindsight is a wonderful thing; but it’s not much use as a planning tool.  In the run-up to the EU referendum, most observers believed (albeit wrongly, as it turned out) that ‘remain’ would gain a narrow victory.  At that point, the most obvious priority for the Welsh Government was dealing with the steel crisis.  Would anyone (other than, perhaps, the leader of the Tory Assembly group) really have preferred ministers to take their eye off that ball to prepare a detailed plan for something that they thought was not going to happen?

Friday, 5 August 2016

Buying and selling nonsense

One of the key policy differences between the leader of the Labour Party and the man seeking to depose him is the issue of nuclear weapons, and specifically the replacement of Trident.  Whilst there seem to be some in the Labour Party for whom the main justification for keeping Trident is that it provides jobs (making it the most expensive job creation scheme ever), the position of Owen Smith seems to be that he actually wants to get rid of nuclear weapons completely, but believes that the only way to do that is through bargaining with other nuclear weapons states, and to get a seat at the table, the UK needs to spend a vast sum of money renewing its current systems.
Whet they have not explained to date, as far as I can see, is why the UK so desperately needs to have a seat at that particular table in the first place.  If we didn’t currently possess such weapons, would anyone – in the Labour Party or elsewhere – seriously suggest that we needed to develop them simply in order to take part in the negotiations to get rid of them?  Of course not – the idea is a silly one.
But if that looks like nonsense, stop and consider another aspect of the question for a moment.  Does possession of such weapons actually guarantee a seat at the table, even if we were to agree that it was desirable to have one?  The evidence suggests otherwise.
The closest the world has actually come to an agreement to rid the planet of such weapons was in 1986, when Gorbachev proposed to Reagan that nuclear weapons should all be scrapped within ten years.  Sadly, the proposal came to nothing, largely because Reagan was not prepared to abandon the Strategic Defence Initiative.  But where was the UK in this?  Er – nowhere.  No seat at the table, no invite to the talks.  Although, formally, it was agreed that the nuclear capabilities of the UK and France should be excluded from the US-Soviet talks, it was implicitly assumed that if the ‘big boys’ did come to an agreement, then the ‘minor players’ would fall into line.  It’s unthinkable that they would not.
It remains true that any serious progress on nuclear disarmament depends on the US and Russia, and that the UK’s input to that will be close to zero, with or without weapons.  And that must be as obvious to the pro-nuclear lobby in the Labour Party as it is to me.  So why are so many people buying a line which is such patent nonsense?