Thursday, 26 February 2015

Different contexts

In a comment on a previous post, one of my anonymous friends took issue with my suggestion that the SNP/Plaid/Green Party bloc ruling out a deal with the Tories had more to do with electoral considerations than with putting the needs of Wales first.  His (or her, one can never be sure with an Anon) argument was that failing to rule out a deal with the Tories wasn’t just about electoral tactics, because failing to secure the maximum possible number of SNP MPs would itself weaken the bargaining power of the SNP/ Plaid/ Green bloc.
I can see the validity of that point, but it does also highlight a difficulty with the bloc itself, which is that it is being driven largely by what happens in Scotland, where the situation is very different to the position in Wales or England. 
Given the position in Scotland, ruling out a deal with the Tories may well be an electorally sound strategy.  The SNP is now in a commanding position, with the Labour Party’s support apparently in freefall, and the party’s leaders looking increasingly panicky.  Reassuring Labour voters that the journey from their past voting habits to voting SNP is a very short and easy one makes a great deal of sense in terms of delivering the coup de grace.  And there is no longer a single constituency in Scotland where it is credible to argue that the SNP can't win.
But the same is not true for the Greens in England or for Plaid in Wales.  Outside a handful of seats, it is not credible to argue that those parties are in with a serious chance of winning.  Can anyone seriously see those two parties having more than around 6 seats between them come May?  Whilst it makes sense to tie the post-election narrative for those two parties to the strength of the SNP, does it make sense to tie their electoral narrative into that of the SNP in the same way? 
The potential effect of knowing in advance that those parties favour a Labour government – and that’s what they’ve effectively said – could all too easily backfire.  For those of their supporters who would prefer to see a Conservative Government than a Labour one (and there are more of those than many would care to admit) it could encourage them to vote for one rather than against one.  And if people do prefer a Labour government, why not simply vote for one directly?
It’s too easy for people to convince themselves that the Wales of today is like the Wales of yesterday, with large swathes of the country inhabited by voters harbouring a fierce and instinctive hatred of all things Tory.  But that is a narrative whose primary effect is to help Labour maintain its hegemony.  And it’s becoming increasingly less true, however much some of us might wish that the old values still prevailed.  It’s a narrative from which Labour may continue to benefit in their heartlands in the short term, but it’s not an assumption on which it’s possible to build a longer term alternative.
Insofar as the SNP has managed to displace the Labour Party in Scotland, it’s been by taking that party on directly, not by treating it as a largely benign influence which has temporarily lost its way.  And in Wales this raises a question which goes to the heart of the debate which Plaid has managed to avoid for decades, despite Dr Phil having raised it many times – does Plaid see itself as a party which seeks to deliver directly, or does it see itself as a party which seeks to push another party – Labour – into doing the delivery?  Words usually state the former, but actions usually imply the latter.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Averaging the averages

The idea of ‘city regions’ as some sort of solution to Wales' economic woes has taken far too strong a hold amongst the political classes.  It’s not often that I hear doubts being expressed, so this article on the Bevan Foundation blog earlier this week was more than a little welcome.  Not least, it’s a counterpoint to the interview with the chair of the Cardiff City Region a few days ago, in which he said that Cardiff is the “priority for driving Wales forward”.
It’s hard for those of us who are sceptical about the city region concept, and the emphasis being placed on it, to argue the case without sounding like we’re opposed to economic success in Cardiff.  I’m certainly not opposed to that, but I do want to see economic success in the north, and down here in the west as well.  The question is how we achieve that without competing and arguing with each other.
I’ve never been convinced by the argument that creating wealth in one place means that it somehow ‘trickles down’ to other places; if that were true, we wouldn’t have seen such a huge concentration of wealth and income in one small corner of the UK.  It often seems that policy in Wales is trying to ape that of the UK as a whole, and merely exchanges the south east of Wales for the south east of England.
But I’ve also wondered whether it’s not at least in part a result of politicians failing to understand that increasing the average income per head in a country is not the same as increasing the income of the average person.  Maths is not often their strongest point.
I have no doubt that increased economic success in Cardiff could lead to an increase in average GDP per head when looking at the figures for Wales as a whole.  But the point is that it could all too easily do that without there being any change at all in the average GDP per head outside Cardiff.  Improving things for a few only looks like an improvement for the many when people fall back on the use of unqualified averages.
Yet it is often those overall averages – or rather the misuse of them – which fuels much of what passes for debate about economic ‘success’.  Just think of the headlines comparing Welsh averages with English averages, with no serious consideration of whether the comparison is a valid one.  And I fear that may be part of what is driving Welsh Government policy – a need to be seen to be improving the figure for average GDP per head, without worrying too much about how that is achieved or what it means for all the people of Wales. 
It’s the wrong starting point – and people who start out in the wrong place rarely end up in the right one.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Poor dabs

According to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, MPs simply can’t live on an annual salary of £67,000, and need to top up their earnings with outside work.  On my calculations, a salary of £67,000 would put someone in the 95th percentile for salaries in the UK – meaning that 94% of us have to live on a salary which is apparently inadequate to keep an MP.  How on earth do the poor dabs in Parliament manage it?
The calls from some quarters for an increase in salary for MPs so that they don’t need to seek additional income are somehow not surprising.  The people making them live and move in the same rarefied circles where incomes at that level are the norm rather than the exception; but it’s not the world in which most of their constituents live and work.
It’s not as if MPs carry a great deal of responsibility as individuals.  All most of them are really required to do is walk through the right door when their masters tell them to, so that they can be counted, just like sheep.  Some of course perform useful services for their constituents, although more of that than most people realise is actually delegated to their staff.  The job requires no formal qualifications or experience, and the process of appointment has at least an element of randomness about it.
I’ve argued before that the salary should be linked to a multiple of average earnings.  After all, if they think they’re running the country, why shouldn’t their salaries be linked to what their constituents might see as success?  A multiple of between 1.5 and 2 should be quite adequate – it would mean a significant salary cut, rather than an increase, but might bring some of them back into contact with the real world.
Alternatively, what about the Cuban approach of paying them the same salary as they were earning before getting elected?  They’d all end up on different salaries, of course, but it would mean that higher earners needn’t be reluctant to take on the job; at least they wouldn’t lose.  And such a proposal would also save us a great deal of money; whilst a few MPs earn less than they did before they were elected which would cost us more, there are many more who’d be on a lower salary than they are now.
The one thing that neither of these suggestions would do is attract those who are primarily motivated by the financial rewards.  Those calling for a higher salary might see that as a disadvantage; but most of us would probably see it as a plus.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Individual advantage; collective cost

Last week, it was reported that those customers of the energy companies who switch suppliers regularly can end up paying around £200 a year less than those who remain loyal to one supplier.  The reaction was somewhat predictable, with calls for the non-switchers to joint the tide and switch.  Some of yesterday’s papers even included large adverts, paid for by the Government out of our money, telling us that they’d made it easier to switch and encouraging more of us to do so.
There are, of course, always likely to be some customers who don’t switch, no matter how easy the companies and government make it.  They will tend to be the elderly and the vulnerable.  They are the ones who are most likely to lose out in a market place which pays a premium to those who are willing and able to spend the time and effort shopping around.  The best that fanatical fans of ‘the market’ can hope for is that this number reduces; it is unlikely ever to reach zero.
But I’m not sure that it’s really as simple as encouraging people to switch anyway; it looks to me like one of those situations which appears to make sense individually but is crackers collectively.
In setting their tariffs, and particularly the difference between their tariffs for current customers and their tariffs for new customers, the energy companies are always trying to strike a balance which maintains what they consider to be a reasonable level of profit.  (Whether the profits are reasonable or not is another issue entirely, and not one for today.)  Does anyone really believe that they are going to allow their overall profit to go down if 100% of customers switch annually, so that they’re all on the ‘new’ customer tariff?  Of course not; the effect ultimately would simply be to erode the difference between ‘new’ and ‘existing’ customers’ tariffs, with the ‘average’ tariff close to where it is now in order to maintain current levels of overall profit.  Having a lower tariff to attract new customers only pays off as long as only some customers switch; the greater the proportion who do switch, the lower the premium for doing so would become.
So, if we suppose for a moment that the government were to succeed in its efforts to get everyone to switch regularly, what would the result be?  The answer is that we’d all be paying pretty similar tariffs (so the difference in price would be diminished, even if not entirely eliminated); the average tariffs would be similar to the current average, with smaller deviations from the norm; the energy companies would have a complete infrastructure dedicated to handling a 100% turnover of customers every year (something which is likely to increase their costs); and we as customers would have to spend time every year deciding to whom to switch next.
What exactly is the collective advantage of doing that compared to the simpler expedient of protecting those least able to shop around by outlawing the practice of giving a preferential deal to new customers?

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Friends Falling Out

This week’s little spat between the Wales Green Party and Plaid Cymru looks, from the outside at least, to have been based on a not insignificant misunderstanding of the difference between an agreement to work together after the election and an electoral pact.  And reading between the lines, it looks as though some in Plaid had assumed, with no obvious foundation in evidence, that Plaid’s unilateral decision to urge people in England to vote Green would be followed by some sort of quid pro quo in Wales.
The desire in some quarters to see an electoral pact where there is none is driven by an over-simplistic analysis of the polling data.  The fact that adding the numbers of votes for two parties together leads to a higher total is an undeniable arithmetical fact.  Turning that arithmetical fact into an electoral result however is another matter entirely.
In the first place, it’s a fallacy to assume that supporters of one party will vote for another party if their leaders tell them to do so.  Electors’ votes are not the plaything of parties to be traded or swapped.  The extent to which the electors might feel inclined to follow the advice of their leaders will inevitably depend at least in part on the extent to which they feel that there is a real policy crossover between the two.  And in this case, at this time, I’m really not sure that there is.
There is, it is true, agreement on opposition to austerity and opposition to Trident, but these are essentially negatives, not positives.  Being united in opposition to something isn’t the same as having an agreed policy to do something different, let alone an agreed programme for possible future coalition.  This is not a UK version of Syriza or Podemos - it's much less ambitious than that.  And there are some fairly fundamental differences as well.
Any nationalist is likely to be wary about giving his or her support to a party which seems to have as little regard for Welsh national aspirations, to say nothing of the Welsh language, as some in the Green Party.  It’s as though Green Party members and candidates are free to take whatever line they want on an issue which is core to many nationalists.  And in the same way, any green voter is likely to be wary of voting for a party which has no coherent policy on one of the key environmental issues, namely energy policy.  On an issue which is core to many green supporters, Plaid’s members have shown that they are, in practice, free to busk; to say whatever they think will win them votes in a particular constituency.  Given just those points, the probability is that vote transference between the parties would be a very long way short of the 100% being assumed by people with calculators.
Looking at harsh electoral reality, the number of seats in Wales where one or other of the two parties standing down might (and I stress might) make it easier for the other to win, even if all the other party's supporters dutifully did as told, is a sum total of one.  Only one of the parties stands to gain; the apparent expectation that the other would tamely acquiesce looks wholly unrealistic.  Under the current voting system, what’s in it for the Wales Green Party? 
I can remember a time when Plaid was in a not too dissimilar position to the Green Party today; fighting a whole host of hopeless seats with no chance of winning.  And I’m sure that I can remember voices from the general direction of the Labour Party (albeit far from unanimous voices) questioning why the two parties were fighting each other.  Plaid developed a national presence at least partly as a result of insisting on putting its own unique view before all the electors of Wales.  Supporters of a pact between Plaid and the Greens are suggesting that both parties should, in effect, stop doing that.  It only works if that which they are proposing is sufficiently similar.
All that said, I’m attracted by the idea that, if we want to break the mould of politics (whether in Wales or the UK), more co-operation between parties would be helpful.  But to be meaningful it needs to start from a unity of purpose around an agreed policy platform which is positive rather then merely negative, not merely around a shared dislike of some elements of current government policy, let alone around grubby electoral calculations - which is where things are at present.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Not talking to the baby eaters

I probably don’t need to say this, but there isn’t a great deal of love lost between myself and the Conservative Party.  I’m not, never have been, and am confident that I never will be, a Conservative (although one member of that party did once, many years ago, make a vain attempt to recruit me).  There is little with which I agree with that party.
On the other hand, I feel much the same about the Labour Party.  The chief difference between them is not what they will do once in government, it is what they will say in order to achieve that.  Labour in opposition almost always (the Blair era being an honest if unattractive exception) sound more radical – until they get their hands on power.
I can understand why Plaid, the SNP, and the Green Party would want to work together in parliament wherever their policies overlap.  A lot could change between now and May, but on the basis of current predictions, it makes a great deal of sense for Plaid and the Greens to try and take advantage of the probable success of the SNP to increase their leverage in the Commons.
Opposition to austerity is the obvious place to start, of course, even if, when set against the formal aims of the nationalist parties, it can end up looking like something of a lowest common denominator.  Furthermore, given the commitment of Labour and Tory alike to essentially similar spending plans, any concessions are likely to be small in the grand scheme of things.
Whilst opposition to Trident is a core issue for all three parties, given the overwhelming pro-Trident majority which exists in the Commons now and which will continue to exist after May, I’m not at all convinced that making it a red line issue does more than encourage the largest party – whichever that turns out to be – to avoid coming to any arrangement of any sort.
I’m even less convinced about the commitment in advance to talk to only one party about any sort of deal, and to exclude axiomatically the Tory party from any consideration.  Whilst I can understand the electoral driver for that position – the idea that the Tories are still toxic in some places – it seems to me to weaken the bargaining position post-election.  After all, if they all know that there’s only one game in town, they hardly have an incentive to put their best offers on the table.
(And, as an aside, I’m not convinced that the Tories are as toxic in Wales as is claimed, let alone as many of us would like to believe.  That is, though, another subject entirely.
There also seems to be some confusion coming from Plaid as to what the narrative is in relation to Labour and the Tories.  One day, the Tories are so evil that they can’t even be talked to but it's possible to build a 'progressive alliance' with Labour, and the next day, Labour and the Tories are like peas in a pod, they’re so similar.  In the rational world, both positions can’t be true at the same time.)
However, I digress.  If the main aim of a party is to protect the position of Wales, and to advance the constitutional position in Wales, what would happen if the Tories were to offer more than Labour?  It’s hypothetical, of course, but given the splits within Labour over devolution to Wales, it’s far from inconceivable that the Tories could offer a more coherent and far-reaching next-step settlement than would be forthcoming from Labour.  But if they know in advance that whatever they say will be rejected, they’re unlikely to bother.  One doesn’t need to be a Tory sympathiser to wonder whether it’s just possible that Wales will be the loser as a result.

Friday, 13 February 2015

It's all our fault

This report from the ERS makes for interesting reading.  In essence, it argues that the FPTP (First Past The Post) is no longer fit for purpose, and that the result of the forthcoming election is likely to be something of a lottery, with just a few percentage points change in the difference between parties making a relatively large difference to the outcome.
I can’t disagree with the conclusion that FPTP is a sub-optimal way of choosing a government; after all, I’ve supported STV as an alternative for decades.  The growth of a multi-party system makes the deficiencies more obvious, but the system was deficient a long time before that.  It worked, up to a point, when most of the population voted for one or other of two main parties; and I suspect that the desire of so many people in those two parties to cling on to the system reflects a lack of engagement with political reality, to say nothing of a deep-seated desire to go back to the ‘good old days’ when they didn’t have to deal with all those ‘others’. 
That belief is part of what drives both of them to say that voting for anyone else is a vote for what they still see as their only ‘real’ opponent.  But when that’s the best argument that either of them can come up with to vote for them, they’re both in a very sorry state.  It’s a strategy which assumes, at root, that the voters are basically stupid, and the fact that it has worked for so long is no reason to assume that it will go on working indefinitely.
It’s something of a misconception, though, that the current system was ‘designed’ to choose a government in an era of two party politics, and that it is the change in nature of the political contest which has shown up the failings of the system.  The electoral system we are using wasn’t really designed to elect a government at all; insofar as any thought was given to it, it was a means by which a constituency elected one or more MPs.  It even pre-dates the modern concept of parties as organisations which exist outside of parliament, and goes back to the days of a very limited franchise, sometimes with only a handful of voters in the ‘rotten boroughs’.
At the time it was adopted, I doubt that anyone gave the idea of alternative methods a moment’s thought; and they would probably have considered the very notion that people could be voting for a government rather than just an individual member to be a very strange one.  And in that context, as a means solely of choosing a representative for a particular geographical area, FPTP is a system which works, in that it identifies the most popular individual of those standing.
It’s only in the more ‘modern’ era that we, rightly, expect the election of a government to be an expression of the overall opinion of the nation, rather than the aggregation of opinion of MPs from individual constituencies.  It should be obvious to anyone that FPTP fails hopelessly to achieve that.  The main reason that we’re stuck with an outdated system is that MPs from the two main parties haven’t yet reached the ‘modern’ era.  They’re still living in an age when people simply elected an MP, and it was for the MP to deal with the important stuff, such as choosing a government.  From that perspective, the problem isn’t with the system; it’s with the voters who are failing to understand that their role is simply to choose between two options.
So – it’s all our fault really.  And actually, it really is – for tolerating this travesty and allowing them to get away with it for so long.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Compulsion isn't the answer

Last week the subject of making voting compulsory raised its ugly head again.  This time it was mooted by Labour MP Chris Ruane.  I’m no fan of the idea, to put it mildly – and I’m not sure that the motivations of politicians who propose the idea are entirely honourable either.
The usual rationale is that voting is a duty which citizens should take seriously and that governments elected on a low turnout don’t have the same legitimacy as those elected on a high turnout.  But the reality of politics in the UK these days is that, when it comes to the election of a government, there is no real choice at all.  For sure, we can choose who implements policies, but the policies will be broadly the same whoever forms the government. 
For those who are broadly happy with Labour-Tory policies, why on earth should it become compulsory to choose who implements them - or even care?  And for those who are not happy with any of the options on the table, why compel them to choose the least unpalatable in order to add legitimacy to a system they reject?  It is – and this is as it should be – up to the politicians to give us something worth voting for.
But I don’t think that the real motivation for compulsory voting has much to do with civic duty or legitimacy; it’s much more about seeking a party advantage.  For any party, ensuring that all those who might vote for it are identified and persuaded to go out and cast their votes is a major task – I’ve been involved in doing it often enough to understand that.  The best organised parties, with the most highly motivated voters and activists have a competitive edge over the others.  Compelling people to vote takes away that advantage, so it should come as no surprise that those parties with the least motivated supporters are most likely to find the idea attractive.  (Did I mention that it was a Labour MP raising the matter?)
Those not involved directly often fondly assume that all that canvassing at election time is about persuading people to vote for A or B.  It really isn’t.  Very little happens by way of persuasion; few people are swayed.  It is, rather, about identifying those who have already decided to vote for party A, increasing their motivation to go out and do the deed, and drawing up a list of people who can be cajoled on election day.  If voting were to be compulsory, there would probably be a lot less direct doorstep contact between politicians and electors.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on one's perspective, of course.
But it isn’t really the job of the criminal law to make it easier for parties to get their supporters out to vote; it’s the job of the parties to make it feel worthwhile.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

There's more to fracking than safety

I feel a certain amount of ambivalence about the opposition to fracking being expressed by some politicians in Wales.  Personally, I’m opposed to fracking.  We really shouldn’t be seeking new sources of fossil fuels at all; we should instead be seeking a renewables-based future.  But in the absence of a clear plan to achieve that, our economy has become increasingly dependent on gas.  Both the availability and the price of that gas have been impacted by fracking in America, and even if the gas we use isn’t directly produced by fracking, it would not be so readily available on world markets were it not for fracking.  It seems to me that a willingness to go on using gas whilst refusing to exploit domestic resources is a less than honest position to take.  It’s like saying that we’re OK with the environmental damage as long as it’s happening somewhere else.
The decision of the Assembly last week to call for a moratorium until the safety of the technique is proved has been hailed as some sort of success.  I fear that they are celebrating too soon.  Calling a temporary halt to something for a reason which can be overcome is not the same as stopping it completely.
I would have thought that AMs would have learnt something from the debacle of the M4 relief road.  During the One Wales period, there were plenty of people calling for the plan to be scrapped entirely on environmental grounds.  But caution prevailed, and it was, instead, shelved on narrow cost grounds.  It was obvious – or should have been – at the time that the cost objection could be overcome, and that the scheme could and would then be resurrected.  And it duly came to pass.
Back to fracking, and the comparison is simply this: if it can be shown that fracking can be undertaken at an acceptably low level of risk (and nothing is ever entirely risk-free), then the objection is removed and fracking is back on the agenda.  Those opposing fracking may believe that the safety arguments are strong enough, but I’m not convinced.  Certainly there have been problems in the US, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss them out of hand, but as the technology matures and more experience is gained, I’m sure that those who stand to make their fortunes from fracking will be able to produce adequate evidence that it can, in most circumstances and locations, be undertaken safely.
So if we really want to stop fracking, we have to reject in principle the exploitation of further fossil fuel resources, rather than reject one technique on narrow grounds at a point in time.  And we can only do that if we have a plan to stop using fossil fuels and move to a renewables-based future.
And that highlights another problem.  Some of the politicians opposing fracking also oppose every plan which comes forward for renewable energy; others support new nuclear build.  Their position seems to have nothing to do with putting forward a coherent renewable energy policy, and little really to do with the safety of a particular technique – it’s all about jumping on populist bandwagons in their own electoral interests.  We need rather more long term thinking than that.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Taxpayer funded bribery

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced that he was extending the availability of pensioner bonds until a date which is conveniently just after the UK General Election.  I posted on this some weeks ago, drawing attention to the fact that this was, in effect, getting us as taxpayers to pay more to borrow money than was necessary, in order to give a pre-election bribe to the wealthiest pensioners.
It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with a right wing think tank such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, but there’s a first time for everything.  Their comment that “Borrowing more expensively than the government needs to is effectively a direct subsidy to wealthy pensioners from the working-age population” sums up precisely the point which I made previously.
They go on to say "Pensioner bonds have never been anything other than a gimmick that will benefit pensioners at the expense of the taxpayer, and it beggars belief that the government is prolonging such a foolish policy."  Whilst I agree with the first part of that as well, it only beggars belief if considered solely as an economic policy.  It may be rubbish economics, but it’s good politics from a Tory point of view.  Offering a bribe to a particular section of the population to stay loyal to them – and getting the rest of us to pay for it – is clever to say the least.
Cleverer yet, they’ve managed to get the entire compliant UK media to follow their line that they’re ‘selling a good investment’ rather than making a very poor borrowing decision, and put the other parties on the wrong foot – they’re afraid to criticise it for fear of being seen to be attacking those pensioners likely to benefit from it.  What is a bad news story for those of us paying for it is being presented as a good news story for the minority who benefit from it.
There’s plenty of reason for the taxpayer to offer more help to struggling pensioners, but no reason at all to single out the most well-off for the receipt of our largesse.  The Tories are committing blatant taxpayer-funded bribery, and it’s going largely unchallenged.