Friday, 26 November 2021

Moving towards a new norm?

 

A few days ago, the Welsh branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party blasted the agreement between Labour and Plaid as a “move towards Welsh independence”. I can’t have been the only independentista to read the report and sigh, “If only!”. The rather, how shall I put it, ‘overblown’ claim from Plaid’s leader that this is some sort of “down-payment on independence” can only have added to the Tories’ sense of outrage, a sense which is easily triggered, and seems to have only two settings – extremely high and totally over the top. In reality, of course, the content of the agreement in itself has little or nothing to do with independence, and will advance it not a jot.

There may be another sense, however, in which it is indeed a step along the road, and that is not about the content but about the very fact of the agreement’s existence. It marks a move, initiated by Labour on this occasion in circumstances where some might consider that it wasn’t entirely necessary, to a more mature politics in Wales, one which recognises that in a proportional system (soon to become more proportional, hopefully, as a result of the agreement, although it’s yet to be seen how far Labour will move in practice towards STV), absolute majorities of seats without absolute majorities of votes are at best unlikely, and that some form of co-operation between parties needs to become the norm. Whilst the Tories (and the London leadership of the Labour Party) are stuck in the name-calling ‘we can never work with *separatists / *socialists / *Tories’ (*delete according to your own prejudices) mode of politics, Welsh Labour and Plaid have shown a willingness to move towards the much more European style of politics where post-electoral negotiations and agreements are the mark of a normal grown-up democracy. As Cynog Dafis has pointed out, the idea that everything in the agreement might be delivered in a single three year period is unlikely, underlining the fact that co-operation needs to be seen as a long term norm rather than a one-off fix. It is in that sense of building in more maturity that it might indeed be a step along the road to strengthening the powers of the Senedd and a step further down the long road to independence. The Tories might be slightly right, even if for completely the wrong reason.

It is a pity that both parties (Plaid having been more guilty than Labour on this score) went into the election denying any intention of coming to any agreement with anyone, each party pretending that it could end up forming a government with an overall majority all by itself. The shadow cast by the First Past The Post electoral system used for Westminster elections is a long and dark one. Coming to an agreement after the event can (and will) then be presented by opponents as some sort of U-turn, no matter how the proponents try to finesse the wording. Unfortunately, it looks as though it may yet take some time for the media (and the parties) to understand that the new norm makes trying to rule things out, absolutely, in advance a somewhat silly approach, and that they need, instead, to help the wider public understand the probable outcomes and consequences of proportional voting systems. Obsessing in advance about the precise implications of any particular post-election agreement is unhelpful, because it’s nigh-on impossible to accurately second-guess the outcome of any election and it’s a diversion from a proper examination of the programmes of the respective parties.

The fact that some sort of post-electoral agreement ought to become the accepted norm does not, of course, mean that any particular agreement is necessarily the right thing to do at the right time. My own scepticism in 2007 about both the One Wales agreement and the aborted All Wales Accord was on the details, not the principle. It is entirely to be expected that members of both parties should hold differing views on the detail and be debating those differences. Whilst the current agreement includes a lot of policies which will be acceptable to both Labour and Plaid members and supporters, the degree to which it will be a ‘success’ is hard to prejudge. The detail of the small print in an agreement – to say nothing of the things that aren’t written anywhere – will always leave plenty of scope for disagreement and disappointment in one party or the other. By way of example, one of the biggest running sores within Plaid over the One Wales agreement was over student fees, and it wasn’t because of what the agreement did say (no increase for three years), but because of what it didn’t say (what happens in year four?).

It’s a bold political move for Mark Drakeford and Labour, and a pragmatic one for Adam Price and Plaid. Only history will tell us whether, and to what extent, it actually takes Wales forward.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Controlling the parameters

 

One of the great successes of the Tories in recent years – since the days of Thatcher, effectively – is that they’ve managed to persuade people that the government’s finances should be treated in exactly the same way as a household’s finances. It’s absolute nonsense, of course, but it has established the perimeters of political debate for other parties.  They feel obliged to follow the Tories’ example of setting a ‘fiscal rule’ for government spending, and Labour is this week reiterating its own commitment to that ideological viewpoint.

In practice, I don’t think that the Tories have ever stuck to any rule that they’ve laid down. The rule is for show, not for obeying. In economic terms, they don’t need to abide by the rule, and they know it. For them, aided and abetted by their friends in the media, the main purpose of the rule they so carefully lay out isn’t to constrain their own actions so much as to put limits on the ambitions of any opposition parties. And that’s where we see the real extent of their success: they’ve managed to hamstring the main opposition party into declaring it will follow a set of rules which the Tories themselves never follow, and thereby make it harder to propose radical alternatives. 

The Tories have effectively seized control of the parameters of the Overton window of political debate. An opposition party which was serious about wanting change would never allow itself to be suckered in such a way; fortunately for the Tories, their main opposition party doesn’t meet that criterion. The result is a Labour Party which is, without spelling it out, more committed to following the fiscal policy which led to austerity than the government itself.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Letting people determine their own future

 

The British Labour Party has long suffered from a blind spot when it comes to the idea of national liberation. They have been enthusiastic supporters of the concept across the whole of the former Empire, arguing that it is for the people of the former colonies and possessions to determine their own future. But when it comes to England’s earliest possessions and conquests, here within the UK itself, their position is rather different. They’ve never quite been able to make up their minds about where Ireland fits in all this, though. Whilst Corbyn was a committed supporter of a united Ireland, Starmer has made it clear that he takes a much more unionist position and would campaign for the continuation of partition in the event of a border poll.

Whether that it the position of everyone in his party is another question – his shadow Northern Ireland Secretary said yesterday that the British Government should remain neutral on the question if a poll were to be called. As she put it, “It is only for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future”. It’s a sound principle, and logically it has more general application. I never understood how Corbyn could be such a strong supporter of a free united Ireland and still be such a strong opponent of Scottish or Welsh independence, and by the same token, I don’t understand how Labour can argue that the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland is entirely a matter for the people there to determine without interference from London, but the future constitutional position of Wales and Scotland is very much a matter for the London parties and the UK government to take a view on.

It might be argued that the ‘situation’ (a euphemism for decades of violence) in Northern Ireland is different, but there’s a danger in taking that view of indicating that, in some sense, violence pays. Another difference is that the British Labour Party organises and contests elections in Wales and Scotland, whereas it does not do so in Northern Ireland; that  would make it reasonable for the branch offices in Wales and Scotland to take a view and campaign on one side or the other, but it’s not much of a justification for the UK government or the English Labour Party to get involved. Doing so goes directly against the sound principle that the Shadow Secretary outlined yesterday. Still, no one should really expect the thinking of the Labour and Unionist Party to be any more logical, or any less muddled, than that of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Unionism always somehow trumps logic.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

They weren't supposed to take him seriously

 

It seems as though the PM is finding some of his backbenchers increasingly restless over what he has labelled as his ‘social care plan’. In reality, it is no such thing – it does nothing at all to address the current gaps and failings in social care. It is, in fact, more of an inheritance protection plan, targeted in particular at the wealthiest in society. Under his plan, those who have least stand to lose it all if they need social care, whilst those who have the most will lose just a small part of their accumulated wealth. And the main beneficiaries will be the adult children of the most well-off in the richest part of the UK, namely the south east of England.

It’s easy enough to see many opponents are unhappy with the proposal, but I can understand why the PM might be puzzled by the opposition coming from within his own party. After all, isn’t protecting the wealth of the richest what Tories do? What else are they for? The problem for his whingeing minority is that they were silly enough to stand for election – and win – in constituencies where there are many fewer wealthy people, and to do so on the back of a very unconservative promise (and one of the many which the PM never had any intention of actually doing anything about) to ‘level up’ the country. It’s a promise which, if it meant anything at all, could only ever have been achieved by spreading wealth more evenly.

It’s a sort of ‘Brexit bonus’ in reverse for the PM; having purged the traditional Conservatives from his party prior to the 2019 election and replaced them with people for whom the only thing that mattered was Brexit, he now finds himself leading a party many of whose MPs aren’t even proper Tories, and don’t understand that their sole mission in life is to protect the wealth of the wealthiest. Whilst it’s true that they were supposed to convince the less wealthy electors in their constituencies that they would look after them as well, they were never supposed to believe it themselves. Johnson himself probably can’t even begin to understand what’s going wrong for him. After all, someone who doesn’t believe a word of what he says himself must find it very strange to discover that anyone else might take him seriously.

Monday, 22 November 2021

Following the headlines

 

Apparently, Boris Johnson is so exasperated with the continued flow of migrants across the channel from France that addressing the issue has been elevated to his top priority, eclipsing the Covid pandemic. Many might think that the arrival of a few thousand refugees is actually a fairly minor problem for a rich country, particularly when the government is actively pursuing policies which are leading to 1,000 premature deaths every week. The reaction, however, is driven by headlines and the pursuit of votes, not by logic and certainly not by compassion.

His ministers and backbenchers are coming up with ever more drastic ‘solutions’ to the problem, including exporting all new arrivals to Albania for processing. It seems no-one actually bothered to seek permission from the Albanians before leaking the proposal, but then they probably just assumed that, as a small country, Albania should know its place and do as it is told. Others have floated the idea of sending refugees to the Falklands for processing, presumably in the belief that being sent to an internment camp on a cold small island with inadequate facilities will act as a deterrent. There is, of course, a question as to whether any of this is allowed under international law, but post-Brexit, international law no longer applies to the UK, or so the government seem to believe.

The Home Secretary is blaming the EU (of course – we all know that everything is the fault of the EU); in this case for not having internal borders between countries, and allowing people within the EU to travel freely across the continent. How dare they! I can’t help thinking that this is a woman who, if she thought she could get away with it, would be demanding controls on movement at county level across the UK in order to stop migrants arriving in Kent from getting to London, let alone further afield.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party – this ‘progressive’ party which wants all non-Tories to unite behind it – can only manage to criticise the government for not doing more to stop migrants from arriving. That’s right – faced with a vicious government doing everything it can to prevent refugees from fleeing persecution, war, and hunger, and risking their lives and those of their children in the process, the ‘opposition’ can only demand even tougher action. Shameful is an inadequate word to describe Labour’s response. Labour, like the Tories, are being driven by headline stories in the mass media which the supporters of both consume on a daily basis. Neither is interested in what’s right or wrong; neither has any concern for the human tragedies involved. They both believe that being seen to be tough on refugees will gain support, or at least bolster their support, amongst their target groups of electors. The most depressing part of all is that they may well be right.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Not being special

 

It has long seemed to me that the principal unionist argument against independence for Wales – that we are too poor to be independent and too stupid to change that – is ultimately self-defeating. It inevitably invites the question: if the result of 500 years of union with England is that Wales is too poor to run its affairs, and according to unionists will always be so, in what sense has the union been a good thing? It’s impossible to pretend that the current economic situation of Wales is nothing at all to do with the way in which we have been governed for five centuries.

In that sense, Gove’s admission yesterday that “of course [Wales] could [thrive as a independent nation]” is a significant step away from telling us that we could not, and is a much more honest assessment. A positive case for the union could then be built on the claim that even if we could thrive as an independent nation, there are other reasons to make a positive choice to remain part of the UK. The problem for Gove is that he is completely incapable of finding and articulating those reasons. He’s not alone in that, which I guess is why most unionists fear to even dabble with admitting that Wales could be a successful independent country.

The only benefit he adduces is that “…the United Kingdom is the single most successful state in the world”. The evidence to back up that assertion is notable only by its absence. What does ‘successful’ actually mean? A middle-ranking military power, an economy which is not particularly exceptional, an empire forced into retreat, an unspectacular offshore European state – that’s the reality. It’s not even as if the UK is a particularly long-lived state – it’s existed in its current form and in its current borders for barely a century, and there are plenty of states which have been around much longer than that. Any appeal to history claiming longevity and continuity is inevitably based on the never-stated assumption that England is an ancient state, but has merely adopted different form and borders over the centuries – not an assumption likely to convince many outside the borders of England. But then, jingoistic nationalists like Gove don’t need ‘evidence’; they simply ‘know’ that their country is the bestest and most successful of all time simply because it is.

Although he can’t explain what he means by ‘successful’, he does set out why (in his opinion) it has become so successful. As he puts it: “We have the most diverse cabinet, the most diverse parliament, the most diverse leadership in all public institutions of any developed democracy and we have that because we are a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state, that shares attachment to the rule of law, to respect for property rights, to democracy, equality and decency”.

There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s difficult to know where to start. Let’s just take one indicator of diversity, gender. House of Lords 28%; House of Commons 34%; Cabinet 26%. Unless we define none of the 38 countries above the UK in this list as being ‘developed democracies’, then his statement is demonstrable nonsense. And anyone looking at most of the public institutions in the UK would see an obvious predominance of white males which in no way reflects the overall population. Then, how about “… attachment to the rule of law, … to democracy, equality and decency”? For anyone who has paid any attention at all to what the current government has been doing, that is simply risible. Yet he manages to say it with a straight face – he’s taking us all for fools.

Like most Anglo-British nationalists, he starts from the absolute and firm conviction that the UK is the very best, most special country in the whole world, and closes his eyes and mind to any suggestions, let alone facts, to the contrary. In fairness, that belief that one’s country is in some ways ‘better’ than all others isn’t restricted simply to nationalists of the Anglo-British variety, even if that particular group seem to have caught the bug in one of its most virulent forms. It’s one of the reasons that I prefer the term independentista to nationalist. I don’t want Wales to make any claim to being better than anywhere else, I simply want Wales to be a normal country, at peace with its own abilities and limitations. A country which is good at some things and less good at others, and accepts that. A country which seeks to co-operate with others rather than dominate them or demand special treatment. A country which sets out to be a good world citizen rather than a bully, buccaneer or pirate. A country which honours its international commitments rather than tears them up. A country which treats all people as human beings rather than dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and demonising the poorest.

At one level, that doesn’t look like much of an ambition, but it’s actually a greater and more honourable ambition than someone like Gove could ever understand. And it’s only achievable by ridding Wales of the influence of the Goves of this world once and for all.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Looking for the simplest explanation

 

As is customary and expected with any sudden change of course by the PM, he has failed to think through the implications of his attempt to undermine Labour by proposing some tinkering with the rules on outside earnings by MPs. The Guardian has pointed out that, of all the MPs who have second jobs, only around 10 would be impacted by the changes which the PM has proposed. Once again, appearances have been given more prominence than substance and, once again, his words fall apart as soon as they are subjected to any analysis.

His words in describing the case of Owen Paterson as “a sad case” in which Paterson “had fallen foul of the rules” as though it was some sort of accidental transgression suggest that he still does not understand quite how egregious Paterson’s actions were. As additional evidence for that conclusion, the Guardian points out that his new proposals (although they have been described as some sort of ‘ban’) would probably not even have covered the case of Owen Paterson. The Chair of the Commons Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, has said today that the PM’s proposals are “not very well thought through”. If there were any evidence of competence or thought on the part of Johnson, I’d almost be tempted to disagree. Proposing a ‘clean-up’ which would have exonerated Paterson, and actually leave more freedom for his MPs to enrich themselves on the side by lobbying than current standards allow might start to look like a cunning plan. It’s either so cunning that even the intended beneficiaries don’t understand it, or else it’s as silly and unworkable as it appears. Occam’s razor applies.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Watching the worms wriggle

 

There used to be an advert for a large insurance company which claimed that they would never make a drama out of a crisis. It would be a piece of good advice for the current government, whose leader seems reluctant to let any crisis go past without turning it into a long drawn-out drama, largely because of a lack of attention to detail and a strange belief, which persists in the face of all experience to the contrary, that quick action (or, even better, a quick verbal promise of future action), the consequences of which have not even been considered momentarily, will make the crisis go away. He thought that the Paterson issue would go away once he instructed his MPs to do what the editor of the Telegraph told him to do, and he thought that he could kill the ‘second jobs’ issue by introducing a partial ban. The problem, as ever, is that neither was given much thought beyond the expected headlines.

One of the results today is not just that different ministers are giving different responses as to what the new policy means, but some ministers are even managing to contradict themselves. This morning, apparently, the International Trade Secretary told Times Radio that MPs should be able to work 8-10 hours a week and told BBC Breakfast that 10 or 15 hours a week was reasonable, before going on the BBC Today Programme to suggest a figure of 10 to 20 hours per week. Maybe they should just have stuck to asking her to state the length of a piece of string. The problem with the government’s approach is that every ‘quick answer’ which they come up with merely opens the door to more questions. And the detail just hasn’t been thought through.

The underlying question, which hasn’t been properly asked as yet, is ‘what are MPs for?’ Over time, the job has developed into something of a mish-mash of different and sometimes conflicting roles. The government has been trying to talk up their role as working for their constituents, and it’s true that most MPs do a lot of casework on behalf of their constituents. Or is it? From observation, most MPs delegate most of that work to their staff. It is often the caseworkers who meet with constituents, do the necessary research and write the letters; an MP with a good and well-run office has to do little more than sign the letters placed in front of him or her. And with the technology to scan signatures into computers, I wonder how many actually do even that. There is an expectation that MPs will show their face at various events in their constituencies, but it is clear that many (particularly in ‘safe’ seats) spend little time on that either.

They do have a role in passing legislation though parliament, but for most of them, that role is limited to turning up and voting the way their party’s whips tell them to vote, and many will not even have read the legislation on which they are voting. They have a theoretical role in holding the executive branch to account, and that’s a role which many of them consider to be important, but faced with an executive which follows the lead of a man who either avoids answering the question or simply lies, it’s not a role at which most of them are, or can ever be, terribly effective. And it is, in any event, more of a role for the opposition members than those on the government benches who are generally encouraged to lob soft questions to ministers rather than challenge them.

They also form the ‘gene pool’ from which ministers, shadow ministers, and committee chairs can be drawn. For those whose motivations are to do with their own careers, this may well be the most important role of all. That isn’t necessarily the view of those who put them there, though.

Idle hands make mischief as the saying goes; for many backbench MPs in a situation where the government has a secure majority of 80, a majority endangered only by its own recklessness and incompetence, it’s easy enough to see how – for all their claims of working 70-80 hour weeks – there is scope for enough of them to treat the gig as a part-time one, and enrich themselves by pursuing other avenues at the same time. Add in the culture of corruptness of a government which awards contracts, honours and benefits to its friends and donors, and the attraction to businesses of paying an MP to promote their interests is obvious. It is only those in receipt of the cheques who are naïve enough to believe that they are being paid for their expertise and knowledge rather than for their access to power.

It’s tempting to argue that all outside work should be banned, but there are a few complications. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, need to demonstrate that they are still practicing to maintain their licences, and given that they could lose their seats at the next election, it isn’t wholly unreasonable to allow them to do the minimum required to maintain the currency of their licences. There is though, as far as I’m aware, nothing which requires either that they be paid for their efforts or that they retain any monies thus earned. If their salary as an MP was tapered (like Universal Credit for example), it would be reduced by the amount of any external earnings. Or they could simply donate the extra to charity. Lots of MPs also get paid by the media, whether for writing columns or being interviewed; one could legitimately argue that that is part of their responsibility to communicate with their constituents, and express their political views. But aren’t they, in effect, already being paid for doing precisely that through their salary?

It isn’t just about outside work. In some ways, being paid to do something is more honest than receiving gifts (free holidays in Mustique or Málaga, anyone?) for, allegedly, no consideration at all.  It is true that some MPs get paid less as an MP than they might get paid for doing other work (and I have myself fought elections knowing on some occasions that such would be the outcome), but a salary of over £80,000 a year puts them in the highest 5% of UK citizens. There is no evidence at all that increasing the salary would draw in more talent; indeed, many might suspect that it would simply draw in more people whose interest is more in the money than in any concept of public service. In any event, most electors don’t vote on the basis of the candidates’ ability and experience anyway, they vote according to the colour of the rosette pinned to their clothing.

Any system of rules which attempt to define which outside earnings are acceptable and which are not will leave loopholes and grey areas, and the unscrupulous ( and the ‘unscrupulous community’, if I may coin a phrase, often seems to be over-represented amongst politicians) will take advantage. In an attempt to overcome a run of bad publicity, Johnson has opened a large can of worms. The only way to shut it completely is to cap MPs earnings at the level of their already generous salary. I can confidently predict that the worms will continue to wriggle for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Aiming at the right target

Christoper Chope MP is probably not at the top of the PM's Christmas card list, if indeed he was ever on it. And he obviously hasn't exactly endeared himself to many of his colleagues judging by some of the comments they've made about him. They were rather hoping that a motion accepting the report of the Standards Committee on Owen Paterson would go through the House of Commons quietly last night in an attempt to draw a line under an embarrassing episode. I wonder though whether they’re aiming their ire at the right target, given that he's done the same thing so many times before.

It’s surely reasonable to ask exactly what sort of democracy allows the sort of arcane procedure under which one MP shouting the word “object” from his corner of the chamber is considered to have ‘won’ the vote and defeated the motion, overriding all other members present, even if all of the other 649 are in favour of the motion. An organisation which runs its affairs on the basis of silly rules really shouldn’t be surprised if silly people use those rules to make silly points. The silliest people are those who ignore the fact that the rules are silly.

Monday, 15 November 2021

Too little too late is still better than nothing

 

The world has emerged from the COP26 summit in Glasgow with some sort of an agreement, albeit a seriously inadequate one. In an echo of the Brexit process, a deal of any sort is better than no deal at all, however marginally. In another echo of Brexit, the PM has welcomed the deal as “a big step forward”, although even his boosterism hasn’t, so far at least, run to proclaiming its world-beating brilliance. Whether, and to what extent, the failure of the talks can be blamed on the host state and its at best semi-engaged Prime Minister is a matter of opinion, but Glasgow will certainly not go down in history as the new Paris, as he had suggested that it would in advance.

I find myself wondering whether there will be, in the coming weeks and months, even more echoes of Brexit. How long will it be before the PM claims that he only signed the agreement under duress because of time pressures; that he never understood the implications; that he didn’t think that anyone really expected the deal to be implemented; and that it is entirely reasonable for the UK to opt out of any bits it doesn’t like? The difference in this case is that it won’t just be Johnson and the UK discovering ways and excuses for not implementing even the seriously watered-down agreement which emerged.

Whether Glasgow really was the last chance as which it was painted is far from being as certain as many claim. One doesn’t need to be a climate change sceptic to recognise that the relationship between Gigatons of Carbon and degrees Celsius of global warming cannot be as precise as some of the charts (including this one from the BBC) would have us believe. Climate is too complex for even our very best models to identify and give the correct weighting to every possible factor; what we have are merely the best estimates of those who have invested their whole careers in attempting to model the whole system. They could be wrong – but that’s no excuse for inaction. It’s as likely that they are being over-optimistic as that they are being over-pessimistic; the lack of the absolute certainty which some would like to have is no reason for ignoring what the models tell us.

It is hard for less economically advanced states to accept curbs in their own development when the more advanced states which have done so much to create the problems prefer to spout fine words than take the urgent actions required. It’s worse when those richer states refuse to provide the resources required to help them (or in the case of the host state, actually reduce aid in the lead-up to the summit). Given that the two large economies which demanded a last minute watering down of the commitment to phase out coal, India and China, are both nuclear-armed states with advanced space programmes and burgeoning cities, it’s easy to forget that they are also both states where a large proportion of the population is extremely poor, and that both see rapid economic development as a route out of that poverty. For both of them, to say nothing of a large number of smaller countries, a demand that they find a way of combining that economic development with a zero carbon approach, and do so out of their own resources, is a big ask. And it’s an ask coming from places which achieved their own relative wealth without worrying about the environmental impact.

In a crisis which demands immediate collective global action, any agreement which depends on individual states taking action essentially leaves global inequality untouched. Without addressing that issue, progress will continue to be more limited than it could be, and needs to be. One of the simplest yet most effective steps the richest countries in the world could take would be to dramatically increase the amount of aid being provided to the poorest to assist them in reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Given that the UK, instead of leading the charge as the host state, decided to lead the retreat by reducing aid, the chance of progress being made on the scale required in Glasgow was hopelessly overblown from the outset.

Whether it’s now too late to keep overall warming down to 1.5 degrees is a matter of expert opinion, the balance of which currently looks negative. But either way, it’s still worth doing the too little too late which has been agreed rather than nothing, whilst continuing to press for more.