Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The People's Party

In a speech on Saturday, Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband proclaimed that he wants Labour to become once again the ‘People’s Party’.  Whilst I’m completely convinced that he would like people to believe that Labour can return to its roots to that extent, I’m rather less convinced that he really wants it to be true, or that it would be achievable if he did.
The British Establishment has always had a superb record of drawing discordant voices into itself and assimilating them without actually changing very much in the process.  I was re-reading parts of Bob McKenzie on British Political Parties the other day.  First time for years, but it reminded me of how different the origins of the Labour and Conservative Parties are, given how similar they’ve become.
The Conservative Party was founded in Parliament, of parliamentarians – indeed, if I remember correctly, until the 1980s, no-one who wasn’t an MP could actually join the party, they could only join the local ‘association’.  Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, with the aim of getting its representatives elected and securing radical change.
They’ve both changed.  People can now join the Conservative Party as ordinary members (although the party has never embraced the concept of democratic decision making!). 
Labour has changed far more; it’s become more top-down, less democratic, less open to serious debate on policy, and very much part of the establishment.  People sometimes suggest that Blairism was some sort of aberration; I suspect it was merely the latest manifestation of a very long set of processes.  The chances of Miliband (or Brown before him) reversing other than a few superficial policies were always negligible.
One could have an interesting debate about the causes.  Was it really the power grab by leaders and parliamentarians as which it’s sometimes been painted?  The problems certainly began very early in the party’s history, as entries in Beatrice Webb’s diaries reveal.  (One of my favourites was her description of Ramsay MacDonald as “a magnificent substitute for a leader”; her comments on others were equally acerbic.  I’d love to see what she would have had to say on Blair or Brown.)
I’m not convinced that what happened to the Labour Party was as simple as being the result of individuals pursuing their own interests.  I suspect that it was close to being an inevitable outcome when an initially radical party succumbed to the temptation to work entirely within the system, and fell under the control of the civil service in the process. 
The comparison between achieving something by working in and with the institutions and achieving nothing by being in perpetual conflict with them is a stark one; the temptation to do what they could to help people in the here and now must have been pretty much irresistible.  Given the social and economic conditions of the time, it’s harsh to be overly critical. 
But combining that sense of urgency in the here-and-now with keeping alive a radical vision was never going to be an easy thing for Labour to achieve; we shouldn’t really be surprised at the extent of their failure.  The surprising thing for me is more that so many people who do have a different vision have stuck with the party for so long.  
 In opposition, Labour generally have a tendency to sound rather more radical than their behaviour in government would suggest.  Miliband will, no doubt, follow that historical habit.  Somehow, though, I don’t see Labour ever really recapturing the idealism of the party’s founders.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Ring fences and Bureaucracy

Consistency and Lib Dems are not words often found together in a single sentence – at least, not in any sentence that I’m likely to write.  But sometimes they really should try at least a little bit harder.
This week, one of their AMs launched a strong attack on the cost of ring-fencing monies passed to local government by the Welsh Government.  Administering separate grants costs £35 million in administration, they proclaimed.  I cannot but agree that it sounds like a great deal of money being diverted away from front line services just to ensure that local councils spend it as instructed; it’s another form of creeping centralisation.
So the Lib Dems want to abolish ring-fencing, and give local councils a single sum which they are then free to spend as they wish?  Not exactly, it appears.  Local democracy and abolition of ring-fencing apply only to those initiatives proposed by other people, or with which the Lib Dems disagree.  They have some other ring-fencing proposals of their own.
Just a week or so earlier, their Assembly Group Leader called for the implementation of a pupil-premium in Welsh schools – a specific addition to school budgets targeted at particular pupils in particular schools.  The idea is not without its merits, but there’s no way that I can see of implementing it which does not effectively ring-fence monies passed by the Assembly Government to local councils – and then further ring-fence monies passed by local councils to schools.
There are good arguments for reviewing which decisions are taken centrally and which are taken locally - the current situation is something of a mish-mash.  The problem is that, rather than taking the bull by the horns and carrying out a thorough review of the issue, successive governments have imposed central direction by increasingly detailed control of local budgets.  There is a difference between challenging that as a process, and merely disagreeing about which elements should be decided centrally.  The Lib Dems are doing the latter - they should really not pretend that they're doing the former.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Carts and Horses

The decision by the UK Government to put the electrification of the line to Swansea ‘on hold’ is hugely disappointing.  The Government’s argument that “it needs to decide whether to replace the intercity fleet with electric trains, or electric-diesel hybrids beforehand” looks like a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
The fact that the rolling stock needs replacement is not new, nor is it a surprise.  Part of the justification for doing the electrification as early as possible should surely have been to enable the purchase of electric rolling stock, which would be faster, cheaper, more reliable, and environmentally preferable.  Taking the decision as to which trains to buy first looks like committing us to another 40 years of diesel operation.
Having said that, I’m not convinced about the sincerity of Labour’s response either.  It is increasingly clear that the ‘immediate’ start to preparatory work promised by Gordon Brown never actually happened, and in that context, it is hard to argue that his announcement was not a rather cynical pre-election ploy.
And, hand on heart, how many can people honestly and truly say that they are convinced that a CSR undertaken by a Labour Government would not have reached a similar conclusion?  After all, the difference in the total level of cuts proposed wasn’t that great.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Time to stop pretending

In the latter days of the Soviet Union, it was said that "the workers pretend to work, and we pretend to pay them".  It was quite a neat summary of the state which the economy had reached.  But pretence about the true nature of things isn't limited to the old Soviet Union.

Closer to home, we have, since the days of the Thatcher government, pretended that the railways are operated as profit-making companies in the private sector.  So Arriva Trains Wales receives something like £165 million a year from the public purse towards the cost of running its services, and pays out around £10 million a year in dividends to its shareholders as a reward for their 'profitable' investment.  It's nonsense, of course; the truth is that the services are effectively making a loss of £155 million per year; and not only are we as taxpayers making good that loss, we are also bunging the shareholders a £10 million bonus as well.  And under the sort of 'not-for-profit' proposal announced by Plaid recently, that pretence would end, and that extra £10 million would potentially be available for further rail investment.

It's been announced this week that fares are to rise by an above-inflation amount in the New Year, and I heard a spokesman for ATOC explaining this in a radio interview yesterday.  One of the points that he made was that this is a result of long term government policy to shift the balance of paying for rail services from the taxpayer to the rail user.  That isn't a policy which has been introduced since May this year, nor is it a response to the recession.

The idea that a service should be paid for by the users of that service is a valid viewpoint - it's the principle generally applied to private sector services.  It isn't the principle applied in general to public sector services, however (although successive governments have tried to move things more in that direction).  More specifically, it isn't the principle used for the main competitor to rail, namely road transport.  Trying to run railways as though they are a profitable enterprise is something which most of the rest of the world has eschewed - and with good reason.  We should stop pretending, too.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Choosing the next monarch

The banner headline on the Sunday Times this week proclaimed that “Public says William should be next king”.  It may, of course, just be an image thing; a desire to go for a younger generation.  It’s a feeling that his father benefited from a decade or three ago, but which the longevity of an even older generation of the family has now seen off.
What interested me more though, was the idea that this was a matter on which the public should have a view at all.  After all, the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is that it’s hereditary – start taking the people’s views into account, and the whole institution is undermined. 
In that context, the very fact that a large majority seem to take the view that the succession should not simply be as automatic as tradition dictates might just lead to a bit more thought about the wider question.  If the job isn’t limited to a single individual, why limit it to a single family?  And why not call it something different – such as ‘president’, for instance?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Efficiency savings explained

I’ve noted previously that the phrase ‘efficiency savings’ is generally a euphemism for budget cuts.  The two are not at all the same thing.  An efficiency saving is doing the same thing with less resource; providing a lesser service may well generate a saving, but it has little to do with efficiency.
The difference is often not recognised, but it was made crystal-clear last week by one of the UK’s biggest outsourcing companies.  Capita have been busily re-assuring their shareholders and investors that government pressure on them to reduce costs won’t affect profits at all; they’ll simply provide a reduced service.
It highlights the different priorities depending on viewpoint - protecting services versus protecting profits.  But it’s also an honest and straightforward appraisal of what will actually happen.  In practice, exactly the same thing will be happening with services provided ‘in-house’, but I doubt we’ll see the process described so clearly.  It’s a pity, because an honest assessment of what budget cuts actually mean would enable a more enlightened discussion about whether they’re acceptable or not.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Lost jobs and trivia

Unpredictability often appears to be second nature to the Lib Dems, but even so, this one managed to surprise me.
I’m not going to try and argue that the Techniums have been a roaring success; that would be silly.  But judging their success or failure on a comparison of their cost and the income generated is a very curious way of looking at them.  There is a cost to generating jobs; there are risks involved in start-up businesses of the type that they were supposed to help.
So, the issue for me is not whether they made a loss or not; but what they achieved for the money expended.  It was an experiment, and may have been replicated too far too fast, but an element of risk-taking is essential if we want to move forward.  Those issues seem to be  matters in which the Lib Dems have no interest – presumably because it would make for a complex story rather than a quick headline.
Either way, to ‘welcome’ a decision which is likely to lead to a number of job losses seems to be rather perverse.  And harping on about a £1500 cost for bringing 10 people from all over Wales together for a meeting looks like elevating trivia over substance.

Nice little earner

PFI has been a nice little earner for those companies who’ve been able to take advantage of it.  The theory is that it’s some sort of partnership between the public and the private sector; the reality is that one part of that ‘partnership’ has benefited, whilst the other has lost out.
Those cash-strapped public bodies who found themselves pushed into using the approach have found that they have got shiny new hospitals and schools which they could not otherwise have afforded, but are faced with huge ongoing annual costs about which they can do little.  And that, in turn, has constrained their ability for further investment in other facilities until the end of the contract period.
The companies, on the other hand, have found themselves with a guaranteed source of long-term income, whilst all the risk remains with their customers.  It’s a completely unequal partnership, and has been from the outset.
No real surprise then that the CBI – which represents the sort of companies which have benefited – is again pressing for Wales to use PFI.  From their perspective, it’s a neat way of transferring resources from the public sector into the private one.  But over the long term, it also means that the public sector gets less for a given amount of expenditure – the opposite, in effect, of what the CBI and other organisations have long been urging on government.
The Welsh Government is absolutely right to rule out PFI – and I hope that they will continue to do so.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cut somewhere else

I can't remember the exact detail, but there was a Spitting Image scene where the budget deficit was being explained to Ronald Reagan.  It went something like, "Mr President, suppose you have ten apples, and you take away three trillion; how many do you have left?", to which Reagan replied, "Oh, I don't know, but there must be a few at least".

It came to mind when I read this report, or more precisely the comments of Paul Davies AM, on rural transport this morning.  Transport is a major issue in rural areas, of course.  And I agree with him that we need to increase the frequency of train services to Fishguard in particular and West Wales in general - although I still think that his repeated calls for dualling the A40 are a completely inappropriate response.  The point is, though, that rural transport issues will never be resolved by the private sector; they require a large dose of investment from public funds.  I recognise that, and am prepared to argue for the sort of public sector spending regime which can deliver that.

Mr Davies, though, does not.  Only yesterday, he and his party were arguing that health spending - note, spending, not delivery - should be protected from any cuts at all, which means larger cuts elsewhere.  He and his party have argued consistently that the public sector needs to be cut by a large amount and in a short timescale to rectify the deficit.  I disagree with him and his party on both of those; but there's nothing at all wrong with him putting those arguments.  There's something more than a little dishonest, though, about then calling for significant extra government expenditure in his own constituency.

It smacks of the all-too-common refrain of people who support cutting public expenditure, as long as the cuts happen somewhere else, and to somebody else.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Vote 'no' - or the Passport Office gets it

It’s just as well that we have those stalwart defenders of Wales, True Wales, to protect us from the nasty nationalists of Plaid Cymru and, apparently, the Labour Party. 
In March 2009, they told us that a yes vote would undoubtedly lead to Independence and that Independence would equally surely lead to the loss of a large number of jobs in UK institutions based in Wales, including, interestingly enough, those at the Passport Office.
As opposed to a no vote which would ensure …  what, exactly?

Monday, 15 November 2010


The philosophers tell us that whilst the screen on the desk in front of me may well have an objective existence of its own, we can only ever perceive it through our senses, so no two of us will ever “see” precisely the same screen.  The same applies to statements and words, too, and I, like everyone else, sometimes forget that not everyone understands the perspective from which I start.  It can apply to motivation as well; it’s all too easy to see the actions of others through the prism of one’s own motivations, and misunderstand them as a result.
I was once talking to a working colleague about our different approaches to staff development.  For him, everything revolved around helping people to prepare for promotion to the next level.  I asked something along the lines of “What about those who don’t want promotion?  How do we develop them?”  I don’t think he understood the question.
It works both ways.  Just as some people don’t ‘get’ the idea of a lack of personal ambition, so some of us, myself included, have never really been able to ‘get’ the idea of personal ambition as a driver.  I like to do things which interest me, but I often end up doing things which don’t, either because someone asks me to, or just because somebody needs to do them in order to achieve a particular end.  Making sure that the goal is scored – and that it’s the right goal to be scoring - have always been more important to me than who actually kicks the ball over the line.
I’ve been around long enough to know that people will not all see things in the same way, and will not necessarily understand that that’s where I’m coming from, but as my post last week showed, I can still get caught out.  I think I’m pursuing a point of interest because it matters; others assume that I’m pursuing a personal agenda of some sort, or criticising other people.
I want to see a politics where differentiation between parties is based more on substance than on image; where we have a range of different faces and voices; and where we are harnessing the best talents of all our people for the benefit of society as a whole.  It would be an absolute bonus if we also created a bit more space for freethinkers and mavericks, although that will send a shiver down the spine of some party managers.
The increasingly narrow range of backgrounds from which people are entering politics is one of a number of factors militating against that, and is therefore an important one.  Understanding why people would – or, more importantly, would not – want to be elected to Parliament or the Assembly is part of the key to addressing that.  It’s an issue to which I shall return.  But it really isn't one on which I have any personal agenda.

Friday, 12 November 2010

...and again

I was disappointed by today's story in the Western Mail, although I can't say I was really surprised.  If I were to worry too much about seeing part of what I say or write taken out of context and blown up, I'd never say or write anything.

I've never been one of those people who has a desperate need to 'set the record straight', so I will not go through the inaccuracies individually.  I will say though that the "Plaid source" quoted is someone who clearly doesn't know me very well, has a poor understanding of what happened in the 2007 and 2010 elections in Carmarthen West, and is clueless about what was or was not said in conversations between Ieuan and myself.  Perfectly placed to comment then.

The story does, however, illustrate two points.

The first is that people who are driven by strong personal ambitions always assume that everyone else is subject to the same drivers.  It ain't necessarily so, as the song goes.  (Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with some people having strong personal ambitions - as long as they're fully aligned with the aims of the organisation.)

And the second, and more important, echoes a point that I've been making for some time.  Plaid members briefing against other Plaid members is something which has, unfortunately, become all too frequent since the advent of the Assembly, and the huge increase in the number of professional politicians in the party.  But it's a diversion from the party's task.  Plaid has fallen into the modus operandi of the other parties; concentrating on personality rather than substance.  The party has lost its focus on outcomes, and is taking far too short-term a view.

Missing the point

Different political bloggers adopt different styles.  Some simply regurgitate press releases, others reiterate the party line, whilst others spend their efforts attacking others.  The nature of blogging is that in some ways it offers an opportunity for a more personal style and approach; and part of my approach is to illustrate my points with anecdote and personal experience.  It’s a technique to get my point across which I found effective as a manager and which I use in my writing.
There is a problem though; sometimes people can pick up on the illustration rather than the main point – and that seems to have happened with yesterday’s post.  So, let me be clear – if I had intended to post largely about myself, I would have done so, and some months ago at that.
Politics is overly dominated by men in suits (although I’d prefer the expression middle-aged rather than old men!); on that I agree with Ieuan, and I have been trying for many years to address that – openly and democratically through the party’s processes.  My point, however, was that a concentration on addressing the image aspect of that alone will have an impact on the level and range of experiences which people bring into politics.
It isn’t the only factor limiting the experience which politicians bring; there are a number of others.  Here are a few for starters.
  1. The intensely personalised nature of politics.  Some of the most able people in other walks of life do their best work in a collaborative fashion.  Ability in others is seen as an asset to be leveraged rather than as a threat.  In the world of science in particular, Dr Phil used to talk about how one scientist correcting another would earn thanks and a friend for life; a politician doing the same would make a bitter enemy.  "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" is no basis for building the most able team.
  2. The lack of responsibility.  Although AMs and MPs claim to have highly responsible jobs, in practice few of them have real authority over anything.  Backbenchers are usually told what to say and how to vote.  Ministers have rather more authority, but the Civil Service as an institution exists largely to prevent them exercising it.  Why would someone with real authority and responsibility relinquish that for the possibility of sitting on the backbenches in opposition?
  3. Time commitments.  People sometimes talk about the salaries of politicians as though increasing them would attract high-fliers.  I’m not convinced.  Firstly, politicians are already paid well above average wages, and secondly, it would take a very significant increase to attract some of the real high fliers.  But I don’t think that it’s the salary which keeps them out in the first place – it’s more the case that people on the highest salaries have to make a massive commitment of time and energy to their work and would find it difficult to sustain a campaign as well.
There are others, of course.  But to return to the point which I think Adam was making – the pool from which politicians are being selected is a very small one, and getting smaller.  I believe that all parties are having difficulties in attracting candidates from outside that narrow range, and are increasingly falling back on 'career politicians'.  And I think that it is the nature of political debate and activity which is causing that to be the case. 
It’s also a vicious circle, unfortunately.  We need a paradigm shift in the nature of our politics, but the narrower the pool from which politicians are selected, the more likely it is to deter others – and the less likely it is that those within the pool will be able to make that shift.  That’s the issue which we should be discussing, not the personal feelings of any individual; but the fact that people choose to reduce the debate to comments about individuals serves only to highlight one of the problems.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The thoughts of Adam

I’m not quite sure what Adam Price was thinking when he made his comments yesterday about the lack of skills and experience amongst Assembly Members.  It’s not that the point isn’t a relevant one, it’s more that there is a danger that a politician making such a criticism of other politicians can give an unfortunate impression of superiority.
I was on a course once (to prepare us for impending redundancy, as it happens), and one of the key messages was that “Negative criticism is a dishonest form of self-praise”.  It’s a useful thought for people to bear in mind.
Having said that, does he have a point?  Certainly, as the Assembly gains more power and influence, I think all of us, whether involved in politics or not, would want our AMs to be of the highest quality. 
But what do we mean by that – and who decides how to measure ‘quality’?  And how do we balance ‘ability’ and ‘experience’?  These are not simple questions; ultimately, they are matters for the political parties to consider as part of their selection processes.  It’s an issue which much exercised me when I was trying to reform Plaid’s selection processes and introduce more objective candidate assessment processes.
I cannot, of course, speak in detail about the selection processes of other parties, but there does seem to be something of a ‘cult of youth’ affecting all parties.  There’s an increasing tendency for people to go straight from university to politics, with no wider experience of the world outside, and I’ve never been convinced that’s an entirely good thing.  Some adapt well, but others can sometimes appear to be stuck in a rather more simplistic approach to politics, and, as Adam suggested, lack that broader background which comes from outside experience.
That cult certainly affects Plaid Cymru.  When Ieuan told me in June that he did not want me to be a candidate for next May’s Assembly elections, my age was one of the issues he raised.  It was his view that, with Ron Davies likely to be selected in Caerffili, the party simply couldn’t afford to have any other old men standing as candidates where we might win, because that would send the wrong message about what sort of a party Plaid Cymru is.
It’s a valid viewpoint, but it owes more to getting the right image than the right mix of skills and experience, it seems to me.  In that sense, I’m not sure that Plaid’s response to Adam’s comments was quite as complete as it could have been. 
I very much doubt that Plaid is the only party which is concerned to choose candidates who project the ‘right’ image, and in an increasingly policy-lite style of politics it’s probably an inevitable development.   It adds weight to what I think is the very valid point which Adam raised.  It would be better, though, if his comments were to be interpreted as a criticism of parties and their selection criteria, rather than of the individuals selected as a result.  Otherwise, his comments will not receive the consideration which they deserve.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Tendering Linguistics

Increasingly, tendering for public sector work in Wales involves the use of electronic facilities, such as those promoted by Value Wales, an arm of the Welsh Government.  In principle, it's a sensible way to go, and I found myself registering as a supplier last week in order to express an interest in a particular contract.

The website actually permits registration in English or in Welsh - in theory.  And it's an example of why so many people end up saying 'why bother, I may as well just do it in English'.  It's only half-translated, which means that some of the questions are in Welsh, and others are in English only.  Most of the drop-down options lists are in English only as well.  And for me, the absolute gem was the screen I got at the end confirming my registration:

Apart from the interesting observations that American and English are apparently considered to be two different languages, and that there seems to be a word missing in both of them, Welsh doesn't even get included, even for those who have tried to register in Welsh.  The order of appearance of the languages also conveys a subtle message about the likely location of suppliers to the Welsh public sector.

For all the rhetoric emanating from the government, it's sometimes hard to believe that they are really serious about encouraging indigenous suppliers, let alone those who choose to operate through the medium of Welsh.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Benefits and Wages

One of the mantras of the current UK Government is that work should pay more than welfare, so that living on benefits is not a choice which leaves people better off than seeking work.  It’s hard to disagree with the principle, but as any good mathematician would know, if A>B, there are two ways of reversing the sign, not just one.
Leaving aside for the time being the not inconsiderable problem that if there are no jobs available, then effectively B=0, the other problem with the government’s approach is that they have sought to concentrate entirely on reducing the benefit side of the relationship.  One of the better decisions of the previous government was the introduction of a minimum wage; but the fact that leaving benefits to take a job at the minimum wage doesn’t pay for a number of people highlights the inadequacy of the level at which the minimum was set.
There is always scope to review benefits to make sure that they are set at a suitable level, but there is also scope for making sure that the minimum wage paid to those people in work is set at a level which ensures that work really does pay.  Setting the wage at a level which means that people receiving it have an income below the officially defined poverty line contributes directly to the imbalance.
Employers and businesses will object, naturally.  They objected to the minimum wage in the first place as well.  But I simply don’t believe that large numbers of businesses are only viable if they are allowed to underpay their employees.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Twisting and Turning

The Lib Dems continue to twist and turn over student fees, desperately seeking a way out which enables them to support their ministers whilst retaining some integrity around the promise that they made at the last election. 
Labour, meanwhile, are showing the zeal of the convert as they attack the government’s decision to do what the review set up by Labour recommended.  We should not forget that it was Labour who drew up the terms of reference, and Labour who appointed Lord Browne to conduct the review; the results can hardly have been a surprise to them. 
Things could have been very different, of course.  The Lib Dems could have decided not to join a regressive coalition with the Tories, and joined a regressive coalition with Labour instead.  For reasons which completely escaped me at the time, and which escape me still, there were some within Plaid who publicly suggested that Plaid MPs should join the same regressive alliance.
Had that alternative coalition come about, we would now have those Labour MPs who say that higher fees are unacceptable explaining why they are essential, whilst the Tories currently backing the plans would be vociferously attacking their unfairness.  The Lib Dems would still be twisting and turning of course; there’s no respite for them.  But they might have been joined by Plaid MPs, finding themselves in a similar position to that of the party’s AMs in Cardiff Bay.
In the great game of Westminster politics played by the Labour and Conservative parties, the nature of their deeply-held ‘beliefs’ often seems to depend more on which side of the House they happen to be sitting at the time than on anything else. 
For the people affected by their decisions, it’s far more important than that.  This really is not a game.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Feeling a bit like Clover

Toll Roads have never been a popular idea - particularly in this part of Wales, where Rebecca and her Daughters knew exactly how to deal with them.  And I guess that they'll never be popular with anyone who has to pay the tolls.

The main reason used by Governments in favour of tolls has been that it's a way by which users of the transport infrastructure pay towards the costs of providing it.  In short, a way of transferring infrastructure costs from general taxation to a usage charge.  I'm not a fan of that approach in general, and indeed, it seems to run directly contrary to the main thrust of the new Economic Renewal Plan which is about investing in infrastructure to enable growth.  Businesses have long argued - and I've agreed with them - that the tolls on the Severn crossings are a direct disincentive to basing their activity on this side of the estuary.

I'm more open-minded about the environmental argument (even though that is unlikely to make the concept any more popular).  Switching travel from cars to buses or rail by reducing the cost of one and increasing the cost of the other certainly has its attractions.

What I've never been convinced about is the idea of selective tolling on bridges and tunnels.  They may well be the most expensive parts of the road network, but they are still part of a whole, and treating them differently seems an odd thing to do.  It's also often taxing a 'captive customer'; the alternative to paying to cross the Cleddau or the Severn involves a lengthy detour and a lot of extra time.

Certainly, during the last General Election I argued for the abolition of tolls on the Cleddau bridge, which have become a nice little earner for Pembrokeshire County Council, used to subsidise other expenditure.  I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see in this morning's paper that Plaid Cymru are in favour of tolls, albeit set at a lower level, over the Severn estuary, as long as the money is kept in Wales and spent on other infrastructure.  It sounds awfully like the argument used by the county council for retaining tolls on the Cleddau Bridge.

I could have sworn that the sign on the wall used to read "no tolls good, bridge tolls bad", but it definitely says "no tolls good, Welsh tolls better" now.  My memory must be failing me - it must be my age.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

How many MPs is enough?

It’s nice to see so many of Wales’ MPs exercised about a single subject and almost saying the same thing; it’s just a pity that the subject in question is how many of them there should be.  It’s hardly the top item on most people’s agenda; fewer politicians (however achieved) rather than more is definitely the flavour of the moment. 
(As an aside, I remember someone once saying to me that ‘if the answer to a question is more politicians, then it must be a very curious question indeed’.)
There are different ways of looking at the issue, of course; a lot depends on one’s perspective.  From a nationalist point of view, the target number of MPs at Westminster is obviously zero, once the constitutional objective is attained.  That’s the easy part; the hard part is, how many should there be in the interim, and what are the factors which should drive change?
Some have argued that as more powers are transferred to the Assembly, then the numbers should be reduced accordingly.  Given the tight control that Westminster still maintains over so much of our lives – and most importantly, over the purse-strings – that seems to me to be superficially logical, but over-simplistic.
If Wales is treated just as a region sending representatives to a unitary parliament, then there is absolutely no basis for continued over-representation, or for treating Wales any differently from any other area in the UK.  Indeed (dare I say it?), from that strongly unionist perspective there is no real logic in the rigid rule that parliamentary constituencies should not cross national boundaries.
If, however, Wales is sending representatives to what may well increasingly become a federal-type parliament, with ‘England-only’ decisions being taken by English MPs only, then there is an argument to be made for deliberate over-representation of Wales.  Many less unitary states than the UK do indeed provide for over-representation of smaller parts, and the UK Parliament is so dominated by English MPs that even our current modest over-representation still leaves Wales with fairly minimal influence.
Plaid’s pitch at European level has long included the statement that, as an independent nation, we would be entitled to about 11 MEPs instead of the current 4.  So treating Wales as a nation within Europe leads to a different approach than treating us as a region within the UK.  Why should the same not apply to Westminster for as long as Wales is part of the UK?
I wish that I could be certain that the heightened levels of awareness of the distinctiveness of Wales amongst Wales’ MPs were motivated by such considerations rather than mere self-preservation.  At the moment, the image which keeps coming to mind is of Harri Webb’s budgie.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

For Wales, see Angleterre

Last night's news carried the story of the agreement between the UK and French Governments to share aircraft carriers and other military capabilities.  Sarkozy talked about the agreement between France and 'Angleterre', before the voice over translation cut in and appeared to mistranslate it as France and 'Britain'.  I suspect that Monsieur le Président was closer to the actualité, even if more out of ignorance than intent.

The agreement is one between two faded imperial powers, neither of which is able to quite let go of their own conception of their past influence and rôle, despite the fact that neither can really afford to compete in that arena, even if it made any sense for them to do so.  They both wish to maintain the pretence of being 'world powers', although the world which they wish to inhabit is one which disappeared decades ago.

Their so-called 'independent' deterrents are completely useless against any of the real threats facing the world in the 21st century, and aircraft carriers are of use only in an offensive operation - even if they could afford to put any aircraft on them.  So they continue to spend beyond their means on next to useless military hardware, whilst trying to save face and money through a limited pooling of resources.

It really is time for a more modern and realistic appraisal of the role in the world which the countries of these islands could and should play; but, not for the first time, the UK government has, instead, looked for a way of further delaying the inevitable.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

How the mighty fall

It looks as though Obama’s Democrats are in for something of a drubbing in today’s mid-term elections; and that it is widely being seen as an opportunity to deliver a verdict on Obama himself.  It doesn’t make his situation irrecoverable – other presidents have suffered a similar fate and gone on to win a second term – but it’s an astonishing turnaround in fortune for a man who seemed to be offering so much.
There are politicians in the UK – and in Wales – who saw Obama’s success in 2008, and have thought that they’d like to emulate it, by copying the style, technique, or even just the rhetoric used by Obama; but the decline in his popularity in the US should cause them to stop and think.  The question they should be asking is just how much substance was there under all that froth and excitement.
Obama’s words appeared to be offering a vision of a very different America.  Perhaps he really does want to see a very different America, but he seems to have raised higher expectations than he is able to fulfil.  Maybe it’s just a ‘timescale’ issue, and he was insufficiently clear about how long it might take to deliver.  Either way, a lot of people are feeling very let down.
I’ve always believed that it’s important to offer people a vision of a different future, but it has to be genuine, clear, and honest about timescales - and there is much more to a vision of the future than mere rhetoric.  Politicians who confuse the two deserve to fail.  Words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ are meaningful only in the context of a programme to deliver them.