Thursday, 22 January 2015

Not following the leader

For reasons best known to themselves, and certainly not shared with me, some UKIP press officers have recently taken to sending this blog copies of their press statements.  It surely can’t be in the hope of securing a favourable mention, at least not if they’ve ever actually read anything written here.
Whatever, on Tuesday, before I’d even heard about Farage’s latest comments on replacing the tax-funding of the NHS with an insurance scheme, an e-mail dropped into my inbox containing a statement from the party’s “Health Spokesman” (who turns out to be a she rather than a he – the inaccurate title is where an over-zealous aversion to political correctness leads, I guess) distancing herself and the party from its leader.  In effect, she appears to be saying that UKIP is so democratic that members can hold any position they like on anything. 
It’s an interesting approach, but doomed, I suspect, to fail. 
As readers with a long memory may recall, I’m not without a certain amount of form myself in the department of trying to distance a party from the views of its leader.  I certainly didn’t feel that my efforts in that direction were terribly successful.  I’m sure that some would argue that that’s just because I wasn’t very good at it, although (and I would say this wouldn’t I?), on the basis of that experience I’m more inclined to the view that the task is an impossible one. 
Ultimately, and whether parties like it or not, the electors will believe that a party’s elected members will follow their leader on most issues, regardless of what the rest of the party actually says.  And the empirical evidence suggests that that tends to be a more reliable guide to the way that parties in power behave than any manifesto or policy statement, and that the electors are therefore justified in that belief. 
In UKIP’s case, though, it will probably make little difference what their policy on paying for the NHS is.  Most of their potential voters are only interested in one subject anyway, and that’s immigration.  They probably can get away with saying whatever they like on every other subject.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

It's all an act

I doubt that there’s anyone who really believes Cameron’s line about not wanting to take part in leaders’ debates because the Green Party has been excluded, even himself.  He’s simply calculated the potential risks and benefits and decided that the downsides of participation are greater than the upsides.  The line about the Green Party isn’t entirely the fig-leaf as which it’s been painted though.  Part of his calculation will have been that having Farage present as a perceived alternative to the Tories might at least partly be countered by having Natalie Bennett there as a perceived alternative to Labour.
The others are just as calculating.  Farage probably calculates that the status accorded to him and his party as a serious player, coupled with his ability to play the outsider, can only be a plus.  Miliband should be very wary of going head to head with Cameron if he has any sense at all, but is milking Cameron’s refusal to take part for all it’s worth.  I can certainly see why he’d calculate that going ahead with the debates without Cameron might help him.  As for Clegg – well who knows what goes on in the mind of a Liberal Democrat?  Probably that nothing he can do can make things much worse, so any chance at all of redeeming his party's position is better than nothing.
The way that they and their advisors are calculating the risks and rewards of these debates isn’t the only similarity between them of course.  When it comes to policy there isn’t that much to choose between them either.  And four middle-aged male millionaires from the South East of England, saying and believing much the same, aren’t exactly a representative or exciting prospect.
I’ve never been a fan of the idea of leaders’ debates anyway.  Partly that’s because of the exclusion of any serious alternative viewpoint, and partly it’s because the election is about electing a parliament not a president.  (Although I wouldn’t have a major objection to separating the election of the executive from the election of the legislature, as it happens – indeed, I can see a number of advantages to doing that.  But while we're still electing a parliament rather than an executive, treating the votes of all the citizens of the UK as votes for one or other of the ‘leaders’ is to treat local MPs as nothing more than lobby fodder.  That may well be what they are much of the time, but that’s another problem which needs to be addressed not reinforced.)
However, neither of those objections are really what concerns me.  My biggest objection of all is that they’re not even proper debates.  They’re staged to suit the broadcasters’ wish for good television. 
The participants have all been coached and rehearsed and we’re encouraged to distinguish between them on the basis of their performance.  It’s all an act where the ‘winner’ is the one who has the best coaches and the best memory.  Remembering to look sincere in the right places, to display the right degree of outrage at others, to deliver the scripted sound bites and even the scripted jokes – all of these are more important than the substance of policy.
Would it be any different if Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood, or Natalie Bennett (or even all three) were included?  It would certainly look different, but how certain could we really be that they too wouldn’t have been coached and rehearsed to perform well?  And how well would the format really suit the presentation of a serious alternative viewpoint?
I’m not at all confident on either score, much as I’d like to believe otherwise.  Unintentionally, perhaps Cameron is doing us all a favour by finding an excuse to block the debates.  For sure, the broadcasters will complain about the impact on democracy, but in reality it’s no such thing.  And believing that the broadcasters are interested in democracy rather than ratings would be as silly as believing that Cameron really cares about excluding the Green Party.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Blatant bribery

The UK Government’s new Pensioners’ Bonds seem to be popular amongst those pensioners who can afford to buy them.  There seems little doubt that the whole of the £10bn issue will be sold, and a million or more pensioners will be very happy with the above-average return on their investment.  There are, though, two sides to any investment.  As anyone who’s ever had anything to do with accounting will realise, one person’s savings are another person’s debt.  And in this case, the debt is the government’s – and therefore ultimately ours.
What has been presented as ‘selling’ £10bn worth of bonds to pensioners is in effect borrowing £10bn from pensioners.  There’s nothing wrong with that of course; governments borrow all the time, and most of their money is borrowed from citizens.  As an alternative to simply taking our money away in taxes, paying us a guaranteed rate of interest to loan them money is not without its attractions to many.
There are, however, two special factors about this particular bond issue.
The first is the generous rate of interest.  A government which has spent most of the past five years telling us that we must cut the deficit because continued borrowing commits the taxpayers to paying interest in future has decided, in effect, to pay over the odds to borrow £10bn which it could easily have borrowed on the bond markets at a lower rate of interest.
And the second is that it has restricted access to this generous rate of interest to a small section of the population, namely those pensioners who have spare cash to invest.  To put it another way, they have decided to commit all those of us who pay tax to paying interest at above the going rate to the most well-off pensioners. 
I don’t know how anyone can see this as anything other than a blatant bribe to a targeted section of the population – wealthier pensioners – in advance of the UK General Election in May.  And a bribe paid for by the rest of us at that – which is spun as a safe and well-rewarded investment to help our elderly.
But there’s another little lesson that we should learn as well.  When they say that we can’t afford to go on borrowing because of the future interest payments, what they actually mean is that we can afford to borrow as long as it helps them to win an election.  The worst of it is that it might actually work, and the irony is that many of those benefiting are probably amongst those whose support for cutting borrowing is strongest.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Can ministers solve the education problems?

This report on Tuesday drew attention to the failure – to date at least – of the Welsh Government’s Literary and Numeracy Framework.  Whilst the spokeswoman for the Government tried her best to skirt around the problems by referring to the report as a “timely reminder that there is still much to do”, it seems to me that the fact of failure so far is unarguable.  The question is about the causes of the failure and what, if anything, can be done to redeem it.
Plaid’s education spokesman, Simon Thomas made a very telling point when he said that “As is so often the case, the principles behind Welsh Government strategies are sound but ministers find it difficult to ensure delivery of their policies on the ground”.  I’m not so sure, however, about the unstated implication that different ministers, or ministers of another party, might be able to do better.  It’s at least conceivable that his statement may be true in the more generic way in which it reads.
I remember a lecturer on a course I attended some years ago talking about leading change in organisations as being like throwing pebbles into a pond.  Initiating one change (throwing in a single pebble) leads to a nice set of concentric rings as the ‘wave’ of change spreads evenly out across the whole pond.  Initiating two changes gives two nice concentric rings, but the interference pattern which they cause means that sometimes the change waves reinforce each other, but at others they actually cancel each other out.  Initiating a large number of changes (throwing in a whole handful of pebbles) simply results in complete chaos.
And that perhaps underlines the response of Elaine Edwards of UCAC, as quoted in the report, who said that “Our members have faced a barrage of new initiatives in recent years…”  Another point well made.
Part of the underlying problem facing our education system is certainly the short-term view taken by politicians in general, who will always, and inevitably, have an eye to the next election.  Those in power need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ to address the problems; those in opposition need to be seen to be saying that they would do better – and if they do get their hands on power, existing initiatives are reversed and new ones kicked off.
But perhaps a more serious issue, to return to the point which Simon Thomas made, is whether any minister of any party actually can solve the problems by means of central directives and initiatives.  It’s a very managerialist stance to take, and I’m sceptical at best about managerialism.  But in education, we also have a system where authority is spread across a number of different organisations, and ministers don’t sit at the top of a neat hierarchy in any event.  What if the expectation that government ministers can put things right is unrealistic in the first place?
Ultimately, success or failure in education is something which surely depends heavily on the ability and motivation of teachers to teach and the desire of the learners to learn.  If either, or both, of those are a problem, then producing ever lengthier and more detailed tomes of guidance, and a host of new initiatives with fancy names, are likely to do more harm than good.  Might it be that concentrating more on the motivation of both educators and learners might do more to improve things than trying to micro-manage the detail from afar?  

It might not be good politics through…

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Doomed to fail

Clearly, flags and other symbols have a great deal of significance to many people.  Were that not the case, the UK Government would not have found it necessary to exempt the six counties of Northern Ireland from its decision to put the union flag on UK driving licences.  That exemption does, of course, underline that there’s no real need to have a flag there at all; the government could simply have decided to carry on with things as they were.  But no, they’ve decided to spend an unnecessary £188,000, at a time of cuts in more essential spending, on adding a flag to all UK mainland driving licences.
I don’t know how much more it would cost to vary the flag by country.  As far as I’m aware, although they’ve used the extra cost as part of their argument against doing that, they haven’t actually revealed what the extra cost would be.  But given the apparent low level of cost of including a flag in the first place, I can’t believe that it would be very much at all; certainly not the prohibitive amount of extra cost suggested by their response.  It’s the cost of giving people the option which they’re baulking at; the cost of merely varying the flag according to place of residence would be minimal.
The second quoted reason for rejecting the idea is probably the more important to them.  It would, said the Welsh Office Minister “strengthen the UK’s sense of national identity”; and of course, if that’s the objective, then offering anyone a choice would completely undermine it.  That second argument automatically renders the cost argument irrelevant anyway.  The whole point of the exercise is precisely that people do not have a choice in the matter.
But will it actually work?  For those who already consider themselves British, having their ‘national’ flag on their driving licence may, I suppose, have an almost imperceptible or subliminal effect on strengthening that feeling.  But it’s not as if the driving licence is something any of us look at daily; to have the desired effect, the flag would have to start appearing in a lot of other places as well. 
Maybe that’s their plan.  But if it is, they should also consider the effect on those who do not consider themselves primarily British.  For such people, being obliged to carry documents bearing a flag with which they feel no particularly strong sense of identity (and knowing that it’s been put there to try and make them feel more British)  will only serve as a reminder that they are citizens in a state which seeks to impose one particular sense of nationality upon them.  And I would have thought that would turn out to be counter-productive for supporters of the UK in both Wales and Scotland.
Perhaps it isn’t such a bad decision after all.
Actually, I can understand why the UK state would seek to try and strengthen the feeling of identity which its citizens have with it.  And I don’t doubt that the governments of an independent Wales or Scotland would seek to do the same.  It’s a common theme across the world, not least because for most countries, identity with the state post-dates rather than pre-dates the establishment of state boundaries.  Most boundaries reflect the results of conflict rather than older national or more local identity; preserving those boundaries requires states to try and build an identity around them.
Whether ‘preserving those boundaries’ is the right thing to do is another matter entirely, but it’s not a matter for this post.  The problem which the UK state has is that those in charge know that they want to do it, they know that they need to rebuild a UK identity in order to achieve it, but they haven’t really got much of a clue about how to do it.  And in thrashing around looking for a way forward, one of the very best ideas that they can come up with is forcing all drivers to carry a licence with a union jack on it.  But if that’s the best they can do, their efforts are doomed to failure.
As I say, perhaps it isn’t such a bad decision after all…

Monday, 12 January 2015

Exploiting the gullible electors

In a lengthy piece in Saturday’s Western Mail, Labour’s shadow Secretary of State for Wales gave us the benefit of his views on the economy.
(As an aside, the Western Mail’s change in the use of language between the printed version and the online version is interesting.  The online “shafted” became “not getting a fair crack of the whip” and “exploited” in the print version, both versions being shown as direct quotes from Owen Smith.  I wonder which version he actually used – and what it says about the accuracy of reported speech in the Western Mail.)
One of his pearls was this: “Who is our economy meant to serve?  What’s it there for?  It’s not there to serve governments.  It’s not there to serve corporations.  It’s there to serve people”.  It is, of course, complete nonsense.  Our economy is there to serve those who control it; a capitalist economy serves the capitalists, not the people.  It wasn’t developed to serve the people, and no-one should be in the least surprised if it doesn’t do so.  And that’s a point which those who founded the Labour Party understood very well, even if, sadly, their modern-day successors do not.
If he’d presented the idea that the economy should serve the people as a proposal, with a plan to get there – or even as an aspiration – I’d have had rather more sympathy with his argument.  But trying to suggest that changing the party and people in government and passing a few laws giving workers a few more rights is somehow going to change the nature of the economy and make it work for ordinary people is utterly disingenuous – and made more so by the fact his party contributed to the weakening of workers’ rights and the strengthening of the power of the capitalists when it was in power.
I actually agree with one of his key statements in the interview, when he says “But the reality is that is exactly the base of our economy: people’s work.  What they do day after day is what drives corporations, is what drives an economy.”  Followed to its logical conclusion, it’s an argument for a fundamental change in the nature of our economy, a change precisely of the nature which he and his party are not proposing.
All in all, the whole interview succeeds only in exposing the basic fallacy which underpins the concept of social democracy, which is that there is no alternative to a capitalist economy, and that the best we can hope for is a few minor legislative changes to mitigate some of the worst aspects.  There is little in what he said which could not have been said by members of any of the four social democratic parties with members representing Wales, of course, so perhaps it’s unfair to pick on him – it’s simply that he’s the one who’s been interviewed on this occasion.
But what we need is an alternative paradigm, not just a few bits of stick on veneer.  Economic relationships in society are based on power, and power is in the hands of those who own and control capital.  Without changing that, those who sell their labour will continued to be shafted (or exploited, for Western Mail readers of a more delicate constitution).  And the Labour Party is clearly planning to continue to aid and abet that shafting.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Poor Mr Murphy

Labour’s new branch manager in Scotland has run into a little difficulty with his pledge to use the mansion tax to fund the employment of more Scottish nurses.  But I actually have some sympathy for him.
Admittedly, one part of his promise was asking for trouble – promising to employ 1,000 extra nurses, on top of anything that the SNP promise, was just plain silly.  And the implementation of his promise depends not only on Labour winning the 2015 UK election, but also winning the 2016 Scottish election, a combination of circumstances which looks more than a little unlikely at this juncture.  But let’s ignore those (albeit far from trivial) caveats and get back to the principle.
What has been openly challenged, not just by the Tories but also by his Labour colleagues, is more than just how he would like to see Scotland’s share of the money spent.  They’ve been challenging the whole principle that revenue raised from a new tax which will, because of property values, disproportionately come from one part of the UK, should be redistributed across the UK, giving Scotland a share of the proceeds.
And that’s the issue on which I have some sympathy with Murphy.  He is, after all, merely echoing the unionist line during the recent referendum on independence for Scotland, which was that by remaining part of the union, resources would be pooled.  Unusually for a Labour politician, he’s being entirely consistent in saying that under a devolved system, extra cash will get distributed, and it is for the Scots to decide how to spend their share.
What the reaction has exposed however is how shallow the commitment of other unionists to that principle of pooling really was.  It was just a line which they could use to win a particular vote; they didn’t really expect that they would have to act on it.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Not so grand

The media and some politicians have given a lot of attention recently to the idea of a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories if the next election produces, as seems highly likely, a hung parliament.  The idea is not without a certain logic; looking at the avowed policies of all the parties currently represented in the House of Commons, the two with the most similar outlook are undoubtedly Labour and the Conservatives.  Whilst there are some minor differences of emphasis, on all the major issues there’s a high level of agreement.  And faced with demands from other parties for either the abolition of Trident or a retreat from austerity (or both), they’d find it easier to agree with each other on the substance of those issues than to yield any ground.
But the UK isn’t Germany, and we don’t have the sort of proportional voting system which makes hung parliaments the norm.  Both the major parties are clinging to the notion that an overall majority for one party is the UK norm, and that the last election was nothing more than a temporary aberration.  They expect their version of ‘normality’ to return soon.  And given that the apparent probability, as it currently appears, of a large block of SNP MPs is part of the reason for the speculation, their expectation isn’t entirely unreasonable – after all, post Scottish independence, that problem will disappear.  Besides which, and despite the pitifully minor differences between them on policy, the Labour and Tory parties are going to spend the next four months defining themselves in terms of not being the other.
Short of a major UK crisis – and I don’t think that a block of 30-50 SNP MPs led by Alex Salmond really counts, even if it might look like that to some commentators – I really don’t see any possibility of a grand coalition.  We are, after all, dealing with politics here, not logic; and the two things rarely coincide.
Anyway, the speculation is driven in part by a false premise, which is that a stable government needs to have the guaranteed support of 326 of the 650 MPs to form a workable administration.  The commentators are simply looking at the numbers to see what combinations might arrive at that magic number, but there’s more to it than that.  
Certainly, there is a need to come to some sort of arrangement in order to get a budget approved by a majority in parliament, but for all the hand-wringing about the deficit, they all know that, in reality, they have plenty of room for manoeuvre.  The sort of money they would need to find to ‘buy’ a majority for a budget is chicken feed in the overall scale of things.  And (unless the SNP changes its policy in relation to voting on ‘England-only’ matters) on most policy issues a majority for the government of the day will only need around 280-290 votes; a much more achievable target for either party, particularly if they have the support of even a much reduced group of ever-compliant Lib Dems, whose own policy catalogue isn’t that different in any event.
Much as I’d quite like to see Labour and Tory lining up together formally, I simply don’t see it happening in the real world.  It would help to expose how little difference there actually is between them, and how narrow the Overton window within which political ‘debate’ is allowed, something which neither of them will be keen on, to say the least.  They’ll avoid that at all costs.  But none of that will stop the pundits speculating of course – they’ve got column inches to fill.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Due process

The Ched Evans affair rumbles on as he continues to protest his innocence despite the verdict of the court.  I don’t know the truth of that; courts can get it wrong, of course, but they don’t get it wrong anything like as often as often as those convicted claim.  The bigger question is about his putative return to football.  The lawyers always say that concentrating on individual cases makes for bad law, and that’s a fair starting point – so I’m not really going to comment on the individual case except insofar as it illuminates a more general problem.
There is a principle in law that once people have served their sentence, they should be rehabilitated, but it isn’t an absolute principle – there are a number of agreed exceptions.  The most obvious example is that sex offenders have to remain on the register for a period, and are, in general, barred from certain roles, such as working with children – often for life.
So there’s nothing particularly exceptional about a demand from some quarters that an individual should not return to a high profile rôle where he or she acts as a rôle model after committing certain types of crime.  And if that opinion is held as widely as it seems to be, then there is certainly a case to be made for legislation to enshrine that in law.  It’s something that I’d support, and something which has a great deal of relevance to the current case attracting attention.
Changing the law would enable proper consideration to be given to trying to draw up a set of definitions and rules which govern which jobs and which crimes would be covered, or at the very least creating a ‘due process’.  It’s probably impossible to arrive at a precise definition which covers all circumstances, but the usual way around that is to give discretion to the judges when sentencing those found guilty.  That approach also allows for the possibility of appeal and review.
The alternative to making it part of law, and allowing the judge to decide, is that individual cases become the subject of individual extra-judicial decisions, driven by the media and public anger.  No matter how much I agree with the stance taken by so many in the particular case, I can’t help but wonder whether this isn’t closer to being a form of mob rule than the application of due process.
It is, of course, much easier for politicians to join in the hue and cry – in what is close to the original sense of the phrase – than it is to initiate complex and probably contentious legislation; but isn’t initiating legislation when required what they are there for?  And isn't joining in the hue and cry effectively abdicating their responsibility to set proper rules?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Another year, another toll increase

This year’s increase in the tolls to cross the Severn bridges is less than it has been in some previous years, but it’s still an increase.  And it remains a deterrent to economic growth in Wales.  There is, as the Lib Dems have been quick to point out, now only one of the four parties in Wales which calls for outright abolition of the tolls; the other three all seem to support retention of the tolls in one form or another.
It wasn’t always that way, of course.  I can remember Plaid conferences in the 1970s and 1980s where members fulminated against the iniquity of the tolls and, whilst I can’t immediately lay my hands on them, I’m pretty certain that strongly worded motions were passed demanding the immediate abolition of the tolls.  I’m not sure how that policy was changed, but I remember when it was changed.  It was November 2010; and the first that I knew of the new policy was when I read about it in the Western Mail. 
As I blogged at the time, it was one of a number of ‘four legs good, two legs better’ moments which occurred during the One Wales period; overnight, the party went from believing that the tolls were an unfair imposition on the Welsh economy to believing that they were a jolly good way of raising money to invest in other infrastructure in Wales.  I’m not sure whether this year’s policy announcement is the same policy or not; there certainly seems to be less emphasis on using the tolls to raise extra money to pay for other things than there was in 2010.
There’s nothing wrong with changing policy per se – as Keynes said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions”.  I was just never clear what the changed information was, other than the party becoming part of the Welsh Government.  I have no real confidence that a similar change in circumstances wouldn’t lead to a similar change in policy by the Lib Dems as well – it’s not as if they don’t have form on that…
The real issue though isn’t about point-scoring or the policy gyrations of politicians, it’s about whether we should be paying tolls or not.  And it seems to me that the answer to that should really depend on the nature of the Welsh economy – as it is, and as we want it to be.
If the Welsh economy were a largely self-sufficient and highly localised economy, as I’d like it to be, then there would be a good case for a comprehensive system of tolls across all Welsh trunk roads on environmental grounds.  It wouldn’t be a particularly popular policy, but discouraging long distance road transport, whether of goods or of people, would help to build a more sustainable economy in Wales.
On the other hand, if the Welsh economy is a peripheral economy, at the end of a long distribution chain, then an extra charge to travel the roads at what would be seen as the “far end” is inevitably going to be an economic barrier, which will encourage those businesses which have a choice as to where they site their premises to be on the ‘right’ side of the toll barrier.
It hardly takes a great deal of analysis to decide which of those scenarios is the more accurate in looking at the Welsh economy as it is today; and whilst some politicians might have aspirations to move from one to the other, there is no real plan or route map for doing so; nor any prospect of it actually happening in the foreseeable future.  And without such a plan, continuing to charge tolls on a key pinch point will continue to militate against the economic interests of Wales.