Friday, 22 June 2018

Never mind the answer - what's the question?


When Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, announced last week that she would stand down as leader if she did not become First Minister after the next Assembly election, two obvious interpretations struck me.  The first, and presumably the intended one, was that it was a bold and confident statement of intent that she intends to ensure that Plaid win sufficient votes and support to turn the idea of a Plaid government, or a Plaid-led government, into reality.
There are only two ways in which it could become reality, however.  The most obvious is for Plaid to win sufficient seats to become – at the very least – the largest party in the Assembly and then claim the ‘right’ to be given a shot at forming a government.  It’s not entirely impossible, of course; we’ve seen dramatic swings in electoral support elsewhere, not least in Scotland.  But any hard-headed analysis of the polling data would have to conclude that it looks more than a little unlikely as things stand.  The Tories have a long-standing and apparently unshakeable core level of support amongst the electorate of around 20%, and this seems unlikely to change.  UKIP will almost certainly disappear at the next Assembly election, and the Lib Dems seem certain to remain marginalised.  That means that any increase in votes and seats for Plaid can only come at the expense of Labour.  There are no obvious indications that such a shift is on the horizon.
The other way of realising the aim is for a minority Plaid government to enjoy at least the tacit support of another party – and in this case, the only realistic option is the Tories.  It nearly happened after the last Assembly election – a united non-Labour opposition could have replaced Labour but for the solitary Lib Dem choosing the other option.  What sort of government that would have been remains a mystery to me, but Plaid depending on votes of Tory and UKIP AMs for its survival on a daily basis suggests that any programme for government would have had to be very bland and play always to the lowest common denominator.  Such a government does not need to be a formal coalition, of course, but there is no escaping the fact that any alternative government whose daily survival depends entirely on being ‘not-Labour’ looks more likely to turn out as a sleepy camel than a thoroughbred stallion.
And if the prospect of Plaid’s leader becoming First Minister looks diminishingly small as things stand, then we are faced with the other interpretation of Leanne’s statement, which is that she has effectively given three years’ notice of her intention to quit, and potentially become, as some would argue, a lame-duck leader as a result.  Clearly there are and have been for some time internal rumblings, and it seems probable that there are members preparing for a leadership challenge.  Politics is full of egos and ambition, and there are always those who think that they can do better than the incumbent – a point which is true for any post in any party.
The question, though, is what changes as a result of a change of leader?  Clearly some leaders are better than others at motivating members; clearly some have a better media persona than others, but how much difference does the leader really make?  Looking specifically at Plaid, the party’s electoral performance under the current leader has not been notably different from its performance under the previous leader despite the obvious huge difference between the two individuals; the party’s proportion of votes and seats in the Assembly has lain within a narrow range at every election barring the very first.  Where is the evidence that a change of leader would be transformational?
I can’t help wondering whether those who believe that the answer is a change of leader are actually very clear about what the question is.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Taking responsibility


In a recent post, I suggested that, far from being the ‘mother of all parliaments’ any objective examination of the Westminster system suggests that the UK is a recent and reluctant convert to the idea of democracy, with an establishment which continues to resist the full implementation of the concept.  Over the past week or so, there have been at least three instances underlining the limited nature of what passes for ‘democracy’ in the UK.
The first was the infamous action of a sole Tory MP in blocking the ‘upskirting’ bill in the House of Commons despite the bill enjoying widespread support.  The MP concerned has rightly come in for a great deal of criticism, and I have little sympathy with his claim that he has been scapegoated for his action.  The doesn’t stop me asking, though, whether he is entirely the right target here.  What sort of a democratic parliament allows a situation where, even if 649 of the 650 members support a measure, the one solitary exception can block the passage of the measure simply by shouting ‘object’ at the right time, rather than taking a vote of those present?  The real problem here isn’t the man himself, it’s a procedural system which gives each and every one of the MPs an effective veto on certain types of legislation.
The second is the way in which parliament is only allowed to vote for or against some motions, and no amendments are allowed.  This is a key element to the debate about the ‘meaningful’ vote at the end of the Brexit process.  MPs are effectively being told that they can only vote for or against the government’s report on the outcome of negotiations and that the motion will be ‘unamendable’, which means that MPs only have two choices – accept what’s been negotiated or leave the EU with no deal.  Again, I ask: what sort of democratic debating chamber only allows its members to vote for or against what the government proposes, and does not allow legislators to debate other options in order to arrive at the one enjoying the greatest consensus?
And the third is the statement by Theresa May that Parliament "cannot tie the hands of government in negotiations".   It’s a statement made as though it were unchallengeable and unalterable truth, but I ask: “why ever not?”.  What exactly is wrong with the idea that the parliament directly elected by the people should lay down parameters within which the government must act?  Isn’t that what the legislature is there to do?
The discussion concentrates on the outcomes and the personalities causing them, but there is an underlying problem here with the limited nature of parliamentary democracy in the UK and the excessive power of the Executive over what the Legislature can do.  MPs claim that they are there ‘to hold the government to account’, but the arcane rules and processes of the institution to which they belong effectively constrain their ability to do that.  Instead of turning their minds to a few simple procedural changes which would enhance democracy, their obsession with the perfection of the Westminster model leads them to play a blame game rather than take responsibility.

Monday, 18 June 2018

It's about politics, not finance


The news of a huge boost to NHS spending is something to be welcomed for two reasons.  The first is that it is clearly badly-needed.  The NHS has been struggling for years, and at least part of the problem has been caused by government spending restrictions.  It’s not just a question of money, though, and simply diverting an arbitrarily-agreed extra lump of cash won’t necessarily be any sort of panacea, given that the sum has been arrived at more through political calculation than from any assessment of actual need.
But in some ways, the second reason for welcoming the extra cash is the more important, because it is the implicit recognition that so-called ‘austerity’ is – and always was – a political choice, not a financial necessity.  Nothing fundamental has changed in the UK economy – indeed, if anything, the economy has weakened since ‘austerity’ was introduced; yet suddenly the government declares that it can somehow find an extra £20bn a year for England with corresponding increases for the devolved administrations.  The simple truth is that if they can do this now they could have done it last year, or the year before – or indeed at any time since being elected.
The Prime Minister claims, of course, that this is the redirection of what she calls the ‘Brexit dividend’.  The idea that any such dividend exists has been well and truly debunked many times, including by an MP from her own party who described the claim, quite rightly, as ‘tosh’; and even if there were any such dividend, it would not become available until after the period in which the spending is to be increased.  She was, unsurprisingly, vague about where the money will actually come from, not because she doesn’t know, but because she doesn’t want to admit it.  It will inevitably come from a combination which involves taxation, borrowing and, of course, the ‘magic money tree’ which she knows exists but whose existence she continues to deny.  The same methods used for all government spending, in fact.
It’s not yet an explicit admission, but it’s certainly an implicit one – the government are publicly recognising that we can have the health service that we need; it’s solely a matter of political will.  Or, perhaps, in the Tory case, of political fear of the consequences of not doing something.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Of promises and slaps


The Brexit rebels within the Tory Party are more than a little upset that the wording of an agreement that they thought that they had reached with the Prime Minister was subsequently changed to make it meaningless and worthless.  At first sight, their anger seems entirely reasonable – what’s the point of negotiating with someone who later denies having ever agreed anything and arbitrarily demands agreement to something totally different?
But, hold on a minute – isn’t that exactly what the whole government has been doing with Michel Barnier and the EU27?  Every time they think they’ve got something agreed with the UK Government, that government denies everything and claims that they could never and would never have agreed to any such thing.  A few rebel MPs are being wholly unrealistic in expecting more honesty and integrity than anyone else gets – especially when it appears that the government can rely on most of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to help them achieve their aim anyway.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

"We can't vote them out"


One of the core beliefs of Anglo-British nationalists is that the UK is somehow the font of democracy.  If there’s a phrase that they love, it’s the idea that England (and the term really was coined in relation to England not the UK) possesses the ‘mother of parliaments’.  It’s one example of the way in which the Anglo-British nationalist perspective differs significantly from both a more European perspective and the facts of the matter.
The English parliament is far from being the oldest in the world – that honour belongs elsewhere – but more importantly there is often a conflation of two very different concepts; having a parliament is not at all the same thing as being a democracy.  The fact that a monarch at some point convened a council of barons to advise him does not amount to the establishment of democracy.
Democracy is not a UK invention; it is very much a foreign one, later imported to the UK.  Indeed, from an objective rather than jingoistic perspective the UK looks to be a recent and reluctant convert to the principle of democracy, only introducing universal suffrage theoretically in 1928 whilst not doing so in practice until the right of some people to vote twice or even three times in the same election was abolished in 1948; and still refusing to abolish the role of hereditary peers, appointees and bishops of the official state religion.  ‘Democracy’ in the UK is a work in progress rather than a fully implemented concept, and that progress remains painfully slow leaving a version of ‘democracy’ which looks antiquated and arcane from the perspective of astonished Europeans.
It’s true, of course, that the Westminster system has been the model for many other countries, but these are countries which used to be part of the British Empire and for which their system was designed, unsurprisingly, by the colonial power in Westminster.  Those who think their own system perfect are hardly likely to suggest a better one for anyone else, and the copying process invariably included the retention of the hereditary head of state and a role for the completely unelected Privy Council until such time as the countries ‘granted’ their independence got around to changing it.
Yet despite the obvious and plentiful evidence of the UK’s own incomplete transition to democracy, the Anglo-British nationalists lecture the rest of Europe and the world about democracy and complain that the European Union is somehow ‘undemocratic’, just because the people of one member state, the UK, can’t unilaterally vote out the president, commissioners and civil servants appointed by the governments of 28 member states, completely overlooking the fact that the people of the UK can’t even vote out their own head of state, or even the members of one of the two houses of parliament.  The astounding part is that so many people fall for this false commitment to ‘democracy’.

Monday, 11 June 2018

More than simple short term interest


It has been suggested that many of those supporting Leave did so for reasons which were more to do with their own personal enrichment than with the interests of the country as a whole.  It certainly seems to be the case that rich Brexiteers will, by and large, either make money out of the decision taken, or at least be no worse off.  But so what?  There’s no rule preventing people from supporting decisions from which they will benefit – and the fact that they will benefit from a particular decision does not preclude the possibility that they also happen to believe that decision to be the best for the country as a whole as well.
Clearly there was a degree of mendacity about many of their statements; there’s something farcical about Farage claiming retrospectively that he never said that we’d all be better off when there is so much evidence to show that actually he did say exactly that.  But this isn’t one-sided either; is anyone going to argue that none on the Remain side thought that they would be better off if the country rejected Brexit?  Why is it only the winning side whose motives should be questioned?
There’s something more than a little hypocritical about anyone complaining that campaigners on either side were acting out of personal self-interest when the whole campaign strategy of both sides was based almost entirely on an appeal to voters to understand where their economic interests lay, and to vote accordingly.  Both campaigns were more to do with how much people would gain or lose individually as a result of the decision taken than with any consideration of what sort of Europe and world we want to live in.
The odd thing is that although the campaigns might have been based so strongly around the idea that people would vote for their own economic self-interest, and although many people will justify their votes in those terms, I’m far from certain that such rationalisations have much to do with reality.  I suspect that it was more about (conscious or unconscious) pre-existing beliefs.  It’s much easier to oppose immigration based on false arguments about depressing wages than on an innate hostility to foreigners or to oppose contributing to the EU budget on grounds of not paying in more than we take out rather than on not wanting to help poorer regions.  And it’s much easier to stress the economic benefits of the single market than to argue that integration and harmonisation are good things in themselves.
With Brexit increasingly looking like an impossible task in anything resembling the timetable being demanded by the Brexiteers, debate will inevitably move, over coming months, to a reconsideration of the principle rather than simple the detail.  The sad thing is that I see no real prospect of holding a debate which is any more honest about the choice of futures facing us than was the last one. Neither side seems capable of extricating itself from the fundamental assumption that the only thing that matters to anyone is his or her own short term financial gain.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Agreement breaks out?


After many months of difficult negotiations, accompanied by sometimes bitter briefings, leaks, and recriminations, agreement has finally been reached on one key element in the increasingly fraught EU negotiations.  Theresa May and David Davis have finally managed to achieve what look like consensus on the colour of the unicorn which they are going to demand from the EU.  It’s taken two years, but at last there is now a clear route forward to the point at which the UK government formally asks the EU to declare its proposals unworkable, unrealistic, and undeliverable.
How on earth they can possibly imagine that the EU’s insistence on a backstop arrangement for Ireland – to which they both apparently agreed last December (albeit with their fingers crossed behind their backs) – can be realised by agreeing a date at which said backstop comes to an end whilst still not having a clue about what will replace it, is a mystery only to those who fail to understand the sheer uniqueness and specialness of the UK.  So, most of the world, then.
Meanwhile, Corporal Johnson, one of the other ringleaders of this whole process, has been recorded privately warning that Brexit (or rather the more ‘combative’ approach which the Prime Minister is going to take in relation to her demand for that unicorn) will lead to a ‘meltdown’, but like his near namesake, his response is simply to tell everyone not to panic.  But as I recall from that old TV programme, the customary sequel to “Don’t panic” was a request for “Permission to panic, sir?”, so we have at least something to look forward to in this long-running end-of-the-pier show before the entire cast lead the audience over the end of said pier, waving union flags and singing Rule Britannia out of key.
A good scriptwriter would have at least some idea about how he’d get his characters out of the briny for the next episode; but at the moment there’s nothing better on offer than the traditional “with one bound he was free”.  It’s a plot line that might have worked on steam radio in the 40s and 50s, but surely no-one would seriously depend on such a cliched mechanism in this day and age?

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Choosing low productivity?


By apparently preparing to announce its decisions on Wylfa B and the Swansea Tidal Lagoon in the same week, the government has put the two schemes into a direct and wholly inappropriate competition for support.  And they seem determined to come down on what is for me the ‘wrong’ side of that comparison by supporting Wylfa B and rejecting the lagoon scheme.
The financial viability of Wylfa B at the agreed price for the electricity depends on the assumption that the price is sufficient to allow the companies concerned to build and run the plant for some 30 years and then decommission it over a period of some decades and manage the waste in some currently undetermined fashion for the indefinite future, all at no further cost to the public purse.  I simply don’t find this in the least credible; it’s not the way that capitalism works.  A much more likely scenario is that the essentially unknown costs of future decommissioning and waste management will fall back on the government of the day – building Wylfa B creates a huge liability for the future.  That would be a problem for a country the size of the UK; it would be crippling for a future independent Wales.  Wylfa B fails the financial test, let alone the other problems associated with nuclear power.
Nevertheless, the flawed cost figures, built on such a wholly unrealistic assumption, seem to be the main basis on which the government is taking its decisions.  There are risks associated with both schemes, of course.  But the size and near certainty of the financial risk from Wylfa B dwarfs the potential risk from the lagoon scheme; it’s just being ignored.
There was, though, another part of what the Secretary of State said yesterday which attracted my attention, when he referred to the difference in the numbers of jobs created by the two schemes.  Specifically, he said "We are also looking at nuclear provision in Wales that would create 10 times more jobs in construction and more than a thousand extra during operation”.  I suspect that it’s a reasonably accurate conclusion; indeed, it may be an underestimate: he could have gone further and talked about the hundreds of jobs which will be required well into the future for decommissioning and waste management.
I wonder, though, whether he fully understands the economic implications of what he is saying here.  I can understand why any minister wants to be able to point at all the wonderful jobs (s)he has helped to ‘create’; but if we compare any two schemes with broadly similar outputs (whether in terms of KwH, numbers of widgets produced, or whatever), deliberately choosing the one which employs the largest number of people is tantamount to deliberately choosing the scheme with the lowest productivity.  I don’t have any problem with that as an approach; creating full employment is surely an admirable economic objective, and more important for me than maximising the efficiency of individual activities at the cost of reducing the overall size of the workforce, which is the likely outcome of increased automation.  I’m somewhat amazed, though, to see it coming from a minister in a Tory government which is generally obsessed with reducing the size of its own workforce in the interests of ‘efficiency’.
I can think of plenty of other opportunities for employing more people to achieve a specific output, but I somehow don’t see the government supporting them.  Somehow I think it unlikely that this is the start of a new trend. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Whatever happened to whatsisname?


I tend to agree with Alun Davies that “People would be happy to vote for a penny on income tax to help fund the Welsh NHS”; opinion polls have consistently suggested that there is a general willingness to pay more tax in order to have a properly-funded NHS (although there is also some evidence that that doesn't always translate into a willingness to vote for a party which proposes exactly that).  But the ‘conclusion’ which he, like several other politicians before him, has drawn (some sort of hypothecated tax increase specifically for the NHS) is one of the daftest and most unworkable policies ever suggested.
Firstly, a hypothecated tax which only pays for part of the NHS does not protect the NHS from cuts.  Future governments can always point to the extra revenue from the ‘new’ tax and say that the whole of ‘that revenue’ is still going into the NHS, but it can only be ‘extra’ if the whole of the previous budget is protected in real terms for the indefinite future.  And that represents a tying of government hands to which no government could or should ever agree, as well as potentially fossilising the way in which funds are spent from that original budget.
But secondly, and more importantly, far from being the radical approach claimed, it is in fact an acceptance of the basic premise of ‘austerity’, which is that government spending depends on first raising funds through taxation.  The blind acceptance of that mantra is what leads the Labour Party in general to a position in which its argument is, in effect, that Labour austerity will be kinder and fairer than Tory austerity; it does not expose the premise of the policy for the lie that it is.
In fairness, of course, the situation in Wales is different.  As a non-sovereign devolved parliament, the Assembly is obliged to produce a balanced budget, in the same way as the local authorities to which it is equivalent in this sense.  Without the powers of a sovereign government, the Assembly cannot break free of austerity – the best it can do is to “ameliorate Tory policy” – exactly what Alun is arguing that Labour should not be doing.  The really radical argument would be to demand that Wales break free of those constraints which ‘devolution’ places on it.  I remember another Alun Davies who used to argue along similar lines – I wonder what became of him?

Monday, 4 June 2018

Identifying the real beneficiaries


A few days ago, I referred to Lord Lawson and his decision to seek formal confirmation of his right to live in France, noting that the opposition of Brexiteers to freedom of movement – insofar as they’re really opposed to it at all – was targeted at ‘other’ people, not at themselves.  And particularly at the poorest.
There’s another aspect to this, which is more general in application.  It’s a classic example of the way in which a ruling elite divide and rule.  It’s never the rulers that cause the problems, it’s always others amongst the ruled.  Turning some groups of the disadvantaged against other groups of disadvantaged – and usually those even more disadvantaged than themselves – is a neat way of diverting attention away from where the real inequality in society is lurking. 
So, immigrants, those on benefits, the sick and the disabled – all are turned into targets, and all are blamed for the lack of jobs, poor education systems, and a failing health service.  Those with the most highly-paid jobs, who buy the best education for their children, and pay for the best health care for themselves and their families tell those on average incomes, with access to average schools, and an average health service that the problems are all being caused by those on the lowest incomes, in the catchment areas of the worst schools, in areas which struggle to attract the personnel to provide an acceptable health service.
Among the latest targets are the old, who are apparently a burden on the state because they (perhaps I should now say 'we'!) are using a disproportionate level of resources from the NHS, and not contributing enough in taxes to pay for it.  One of the lowest state pension levels in the EU is presented as ‘unaffordable’, and there are calls for increasing taxation and reducing benefits for the elderly.  Recently, one celebrity called for those in receipt of the winter fuel allowance to be ‘allowed’ to contribute the sum to the NHS instead.  (As an aside, I’m not a fan of the winter fuel allowance at all – it is and always has been more of a political gimmick than a serious attempt to reduce fuel poverty amongst pensioners.  It would be better just to pay a proper level of state pension in the first place than to complicate it with gimmicky extras.  I feel much the same way about free TV licences and the Christmas bonus for older people – more gimmicks delivered instead of increases in the basic pension.)
And it’s true, of course, that the call has been for people to ‘voluntarily’ give up their fuel allowance (and there have been similar calls in the past in relation to the TV licence), but an appeal to people to ‘volunteer’ is in some ways even worse than an enforced change.  As many charities will confirm, the less well-off are often willing to give proportionately more of their incomes; a ‘voluntary’ system of taxes (for that is what we are in effect talking about here) benefits the most well-off rather than the poorest.  And that brings me back to the underlying point here.  The problem is never that the wealthiest do not pay enough tax, it is always that the least well-off receive too many benefits.  And attempting to create divisions between groups in society, including between young and old, is a classic strategy of divide and rule which diverts attention away from the real overall beneficiaries of the UK’s tax and benefit system.