Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Nods, winks, and peers of the realm

I find it hard to believe that Elfyn Llwyd’s call last week for Plaid to have more peers was preceded by a great deal of consultation with his party’s leader, Leanne Wood.  Given her long-standing opposition to the nomination of peers, Elfyn’s call looks a little incongruous to say the least.  Still, not even Elfyn’s best friends or biggest fans would say that always being “on message” was one of his fortes. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective, I suppose.  For party managers, being “off message” is always likely to be a problem, but for most others it probably depends on whether you agree with what he’s saying or not.
Personally, I agree with Elfyn and think Leanne is wrong on this one.  A party like Plaid has to choose between engaging with the institutions of the state and keeping them at arm’s length.  There are sound arguments for abstentionism, which was long a popular position amongst Irish nationalists.  However, there is little history of abstentionism in Wales, and it seems to me that if you’re going to engage with some institutions of the state you may as well engage with all of them and exercise as much influence as you possibly can.
On the substance of the critique of the existence and nature of the House of Lords itself  however, it would be hard to find any difference between Leanne and myself.  The fear is that appointing members serves to legitimise the institution, but a party which claims only to enter the House of Commons in order to secure Wales’ withdrawal from it can surely apply exactly the same argument to any other institution.  
Whatever, the real question which I wish to address here is the mysterious way in which the institutions of the British establishment work when it comes to the appointment of peers of the realm.
When Plaid chose three nominees for peerages (Dafydd Wigley, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, and Janet Davies), their details were passed through the murky “usual channels” to number 10 - and the then prime minister studiously ignored them.  That was, for a while, the end of the story.  I – and I think many others – believed that we had made our nominations, and that Brown was simply blocking them.
It turned out that we hadn’t actually “nominated” anyone at all; the PM was not ignoring our nominations because there were no nominations to ignore.  This only became clear after the election of Cameron as Prime Minister. 
Shortly after Cameron came to power, Ieuan Wyn Jones had an opportunity to lobby him for the appointment of Dafydd Wigley to the House of Lords.  (Although of course Dafydd had by then withdrawn his name, and was no longer one of Plaid’s nominees – but that’s another story).  Nods were nodded, winks were winked, it was made clear that the party would be allowed to submit one nomination, and in June 2010 I found myself presented with a nomination paper to complete and sign (political nominations have to be completed by party chairs - a revelation to me).
I really hadn’t realised that there was a formal channel available for submitting nominations to an allegedly independent panel.  Perhaps I should have known that – it would be a fair criticism of me that I hadn’t even made the effort to identify whether there was a formal process – but I’ll admit that I didn’t.
Anyway, after a brief hiatus while the NEC agreed to reinstate Dafydd Wigley as a party nominee - a precondition to my signing any nomination - the form was duly completed and submitted and, hey presto, three months later Dafydd’s peerage was duly confirmed after the said “independent panel” had given it their careful consideration.  In essence, despite the lengthy period which appeared to be passing from a public perspective, the actual period between formal nomination and appointment was a very short one.
It neatly illustrates the difference between the written-down formal process - which is the submission of a form, consideration by an independent panel, and appointment or rejection; and the actual process – which depends on a series of nods and winks from the right people before you even get to the starting block. 
Perhaps we should have challenged that more strongly at the time.  With the benefit of hindsight – and hindsight is always a wonderful thing – I think we should have accepted the nod and the wink, but pushed the boundaries by making three nominations at that point rather than just the one.  That would really have forced the establishment to either accept or else formally reject our nominations, rather than two of them remaining in a strange and continuing sort of limbo.
However we did not do that, and unless the other two nominations have been formally submitted since I stood down as Plaid’s chair in July 2010 (completing Wigley’s nomination was one of my final acts), I suspect that the party has only ever nominated one candidate.  So whilst I agree with the substance of what Elfyn says, in that Plaid should be more strongly represented in the second chamber, I’m not convinced that Plaid itself could not do more to achieve that if it really wanted to.  But that probably takes us right back to the question of whether Elfyn was speaking for his leader or not…

Monday, 25 November 2013

Reviving the great and the good

Last week’s announcement of the membership of the board of the Cardiff city region attracted a lot of attention.  In comparison, the other announcement, made at the same time, of the membership of the Swansea Bay city region was virtually ignored by the media.  It’s another sign of how Cardiff-centric Welsh politicians and media have become – aping the failings of the UK, of which so many have been critical in the past.
My view is coloured of course by the fact that I now, apparently, live in something called a city region, despite being in a very rural spot miles away from, and having little in common with, the city of Swansea.  And if it feels like that in the north of Carmarthenshire, I wonder how people in Angle or Fishguard feel about it.
Still, that’s all an aside really.  What is of interest for the purposes of this post is who the members are, and how they were appointed.  Remember Labour’s “bonfire of the quangos”?  Well, here they are setting up two brand new quangos all of whose members are appointed at the whim of the Minister, and only a minority of whom – in both cases – actually hold any elected post.  It seems that 'the great and the good' of Wales never went away at all.
In theory, their powers are limited at present; but I wonder for how long that will be the case.  Centralising politicians have something of a penchant for preferring direct rule by their nominees over the vagaries of democracy.  And in this case, much of the commentariat seems to be supporting them.
There is nothing wrong with engaging experts to advise and assist; experience gained outside politics is often - perhaps even invariably - more valuable than experience gained within politics.  That is however the reverse of a situation where ‘experts’ oversee and direct the elected representatives, which is what seems to be developing here.

Friday, 22 November 2013

An idea whose time has gone

The spat between Cameron and the President of Sri Lanka drew more attention to the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government than it would normally merit.  Such attention would normally be more focused on the visit by the hereditary head (or in this case deputy head) of the ex-colonial power.  For what it’s worth (and despite my instinctive understanding of the reaction of the President to being lectured by former colonialists), on the substantive issue of an enquiry into alleged war crimes, I’m with Cameron.  (Although he seems to have taken his time about noticing the issue.)
That isn’t the subject of this post, however.  What exactly is the Commonwealth for?  It’s a curious organisation, which has attempted to redefine itself a few times over the decades to become more modern and relevant; but at root, it is about maintaining links between the UK and its former colonies.  As the charter puts it, it’s for those countries which have “a shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law”, and are “bound together by shared history and tradition”. That would be the shared experience of conquest and an imposed language, in most cases.
Two of the main criteria for membership are acceptance of the monarch of the UK (or rather the “monarch of the Commonwealth realms” as they would prefer to put it, using a formula which allows even republics to accept a residual role for the monarch), and the use of the English language.  It’s open to countries which were part of the Empire or which have some sort of constitutional relationship with countries which were part of the Empire (colonies of colonies, and dependencies of dependencies).  This is a rule which may only be waived in exceptional circumstances – in the interests, presumably, of apparent non-exclusiveness.
From the point of view of the London establishment, the attraction of an organisation which allows them to live in the past and pretend that they still have some sort of empire, dispensing their largesse (in terms of aid and trade) more favourably to former colonies than to others is perhaps understandable.  It also gives the Windsors opportunities to visit exotic places (and in the case of one of them, insult the local natives).
From the point of view of the other members, it’s either the fact that Her Maj is still their head of state, or else the expectation of favourable terms for aid and trade that encourages them to see some value in the organisation.  But in the twenty-first century, is there really still an argument for retaining a pretend empire like this?  Whether it’s dreams of the past, or even possibly a feeling of guilt for past misdemeanours, is there really any justification for differentiating amongst those who need aid and trade to favour those who ‘we’ used to rule?
It’s an idea whose time has long gone; it belongs, like the empire, to the past.  It may be an academic question though.  Accepting Elizabeth II as head of the Commonwealth for as long as she lives is comparatively easy; she was, after all, on the throne when most of the members gained their independence.  I somehow doubt that the idea of a hereditary head of the organisation will survive the death of the current monarch.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Perhaps they just haven't noticed...

I was a member of the housing committee of what was at the time the Vale of Glamorgan Borough Council when the Thatcher government introduced the so-called “right to buy” legislation.  It was a piece of legislation about which I have always been rather ambivalent.
On the one hand, it was clear from the outset that what was a popular and populist policy in the short term would lead to a shortage of affordable houses to rent in the longer term – an outcome exacerbated both by the generous discounts on offer and the rule that the capital receipts could not be used to build new houses.  And one of the motives behind the policy was always to take the state – even the local state in the form of local councils – out of housing completely.  It was a piece of dogma more than anything else.
On the other hand, as someone who was also at the time living in a council house with his parents I also understood why so many tenants wanted to be able to buy their homes.  Thatcher, for all her faults, seemed to understand the difference between houses and homes in a way that many others in her own party – to say nothing of those in other parties – did not.
It was never simply about becoming a property owner or getting a foot on the housing ladder; it was about enjoying the use of the home without the restrictions which council tenancies often included.  People tend to forget how paternalistic the attitude of many councils was at that time towards their tenants.
The suggestion recently by the Tories in Wales that they would enable councils once again to build significant numbers of council homes, and would also amend the right to buy legislation in such a way as to ensure that a new home was built for every one sold, is something of a welcome conversion.  There is no sign however that they have really thought through the implications.
It’s an eye-catching headline policy, but I haven’t seen the financial detail which explains how you bridge the gap between the reduced price at which an existing house is sold and the higher price at which a new one would be built.  Nor am I entirely convinced that there is not still an ideological aversion to council ownership of homes amongst the party’s leaders, even if the Welsh branch is saying something different (or perhaps Andrew RT Davies’ bosses simply haven’t noticed his statement yet).  But since, in practice, the probability that they will ever be in a position to implement this policy in Wales is so remote, I guess it’s not something we need particularly to worry about.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A giant leap or just one small step?

The Western Mail yesterday was in no doubt at all that the detailed response of the UK Government to Silk was a ‘giant leap’; others, including Jess Blair and Lee Waters were rather more circumspect.
With all due respect to any Greek readers, the old adage about Greeks bearing gifts seems somehow appropriate when those who had long seemed to be arch enemies of devolution turn out to be such vociferous supporters of devolving a limited range of taxation powers. 
Those welcoming the boost for the property and construction industries don’t always look like natural supporters of devolution either, but reading between the lines, it seems that their support actually has little to do with the question of where the tax levels should be set, and a great deal to do with their belief that devolved taxes will go in only one direction – down.
Similarly, the support of the Tories for a yes vote in any referendum on income tax seems to be predicated on an assumption that the people of Wales will then vote for a party (such as the Tories) which promises to cut taxes.  They may be right, but all of these instinctive tax cutters are being less than entirely honest about how they will then balance the Welsh budget.
Simply promising to cut every tax in sight when they’ve spent so long talking about the size of the Welsh budget deficit seems a curious approach to fiscal prudence.  But I suppose they’ve already factored in the unlikelihood of them every having to honour any promises they make.
In practice, it seems that even the Welsh subsidiary of the Conservative Party is showing some signs of understanding that the inability to disentangle the different rates of income tax makes the power to vary tax rates considerably less attractive as a practical option.
It’s still not clear to me how much freedom the Welsh Government will have to decide what to do with its new borrowing powers either.  All the talk has been about just one or two schemes – and Glyn Davies went so far as to suggest that the power would only be devolved if it was to be used on two specific schemes - the M4 and the A55. 
The whole package looks increasingly like a classic example of power devolved being power retained.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Abdicating power

The TUC claimed recently that low pay is costing the UK Treasury more than £3.2 billion in means tested benefits and tax credits, and called for the introduction of a living wage.  Well, they would say that, of course; but the argument that using tax revenues to top up wages of working people is an effective subsidy to underpaying companies is a compelling one.
Both the CBI and the FSB have responded – equally predictably, I suppose – by saying that businesses “can’t afford” to pay their employees a living wage.  In my mind, that simply raises a question as to whether the businesses concerned are actually economically viable concerns at all.
It isn’t just wages that are at issue here.  The same organisations complain – almost daily it seems – that they “can’t afford” to comply with environmental or health and safety legislation, and they “can’t afford” to pay business rates or other taxes.  What exactly can they afford?  Well, many of them seem to have no major problems in playing executive salaries – or shareholders’ dividends; but then that’s what they are in business for, not to pay their employees.
But here’s the thing – classical economics says that any company unable to charge a high enough price for its products and services to be able to pay its costs of production and still make a profit is simply not viable.  And surely, paying a wage which is adequate for employees to be able to live on without claiming benefits is – or should be – a basic minimum requirement when calculating the cost of production.  The fact that it clearly is not merely underlines where economic power actually lies.
The real question which needs to be addressed is about pricing, rather than cost.  Why is it that businesses are unable to charge prices at a level which enables them to cover the costs of production, rather than forcing down wages?
The answer they would give of course is “competition”.  They have to compete with other companies to sell their wares, and to do that they need to keep their prices down.  It’s another obvious conclusion of classical economics.  But the way they’re setting about ‘competing’ at present is little more than a race to the bottom.  And it's the employees who are paying the cost of that race.
There’s something of a vicious circle here.  They’re mostly competing with each other; the greatest rewards go to those who can most ruthlessly reduce the cost of labour.  If all of them had to pay a basic living wage, then they would all be subject to the same rules – and cost-cutting would have to focus elsewhere.
There is a complication when those companies are competing on a wider stage than merely the UK.  But allowing our wages to be set at a level which is primarily driven by competition with low-wage economies is just another example of abdicating responsibility and leaving power in the hands of multi-national capitalists rather than elected governments.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Providing the right incentives

I came across this report a while ago, but never quite got round to reading it properly until this week.  It suggests that the actual life of wind farms might be only 10 to 15 years rather than the 25 years generally assumed.
At one level, a shorter life might not actually matter very much; if the economics still stack up over a shorter period, and if they still achieve the planned emissions reductions, they’d still be viable.  At another level, “re-powering” them more often brings its own costs (and unpopularity) in terms of traffic disruption, and the carbon cost of construction.
The detail of the report, however, is not quite as black-and-white as the conclusion some might draw from it.  And it raises a few other interesting questions as well.
It’s based on looking at already installed capacity in both the UK and Denmark.  It may well be the case, as some detractors of the report have claimed, that the performance of new technology will be better, and so conclusions cannot be drawn based on previously installed equipment.  Perhaps; but it’s one of those things about which we won’t be certain for some years.
The big question for me was what actually causes the observed degradation in performance.  As the report itself makes clear, the answer to that question is by no means straightforward.  The performance of individual turbines seems to vary greatly, and there is a significant disparity between the situation in the UK and that in Denmark, both in terms of overall averages and in the disparity between the best and worst performances.
This suggests to me that there is something else at work here other than merely wear and tear and maintenance schedules.  And that brings us to the nub of the question.  Much of what the report is dealing with isn’t actually the mechanical life of the turbines, but the economic life.  For sure, the economic life is impacted by the technical life; poor maintenance and excessive wear and tear will shorten both.  But they are not the same thing.
The economics are affected greatly by the financial regime under which the wind farms operate – and it may well be that the differences in financial arrangements between the UK and Denmark explain, partially at least, the differences in performance.
Two things about the UK’s ROC regime leapt out at me from this report in relation to the financial framework.
  1. The report makes the point “the subsidies provided by ROC’s are sufficient to underwrite investment in inefficient plants…  Those subsidies are extremely generous for plants that operate close to the efficient frontier.  As location is likely to be the main factor that determines the performance of a specific plant relative to all the plants, the inference must be that many wind plants have been developed on sites with poor characteristics...  In effect, the financial regime appears to be encouraging investment in plant which is installed in suboptimal locations”.  (It seems to me that the opposition to siting them in the most optimal locations is a significant part of what drives developers to those suboptimal locations.  It’s somewhat ironic that windfarm opponents are not succeeding in preventing wind developments from taking place, merely in driving them to the wrong locations.) 
  2. The financial framework means that “wind operators will have a strong incentive to decommission plants after no more than 15 years and replace the turbines with newer equipment”.  That again is an economic driver not a technical one.
In summary, the report is not so much an argument for not building turbines – as some have inevitably claimed, seizing on the headline – as an argument for reviewing the financial framework to ensure that we incentivise the “right” windfarms in the “right” places, and incentivise maximising useful lifespan rather than premature replacement.
It’s hard to disagree with that principle.  This is a useful contribution to debate – it’s not the killer argument against wind that some have claimed, but neither should it be simply dismissed.  I’m not at this stage convinced what the right financial framework might look like but it certainly does seem that there is cause for reconsidering the nature of the current financial framework.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Symptoms and causes

When he says that low levels of attainment in education are linked to levels of poverty, I cannot but agree with the Education Minister.  It’s also impossible to deny the evidence that that is truer in Wales than in England, at least insofar as a simplistic definition of poverty in terms of receiving free school meals is accepted.  Nor can I disagree with his assertion that something needs to be done about all of this.
I’m left concerned though at the nature of his response, which is about ‘breaking the link between poverty and attainment’.  At first sight, it seems to be an obvious response, but it ignores the reality of the long-term failure which is staring us in the face.  It is, at best, an attempt to treat the symptoms, not the disease.
There’s nothing new about the link between social background and attainment.  It’s been studied and reported on for at least half a century.  For at least half a century, politicians have been talking about breaking the link.  And for at least half a century, they have singularly failed to do so.  Yet today’s politicians still seem to be supremely confident that they can achieve something which has defeated others for at least five decades.
It is, of course, much easier to talk about breaking the link than it is to talk about addressing the underlying causes.  And given the average life span of a minister, it’s a pretty safe assumption that it will become someone else’s problem in a few years’ time.  None of that stands up as much of an excuse, though.
The first simple fact is that, if social background is one of the main determinants of attainment, then improving attainment depends on reducing those differences in social background.  And the second is that there is no way of doing that without addressing inequality.  There was a time when one might have expected an understanding of that from a Labour politician.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

How many submarines?

One of the most cringe-worthy moments prior to the 2007 assembly election was when David Williams asked Bethan Jenkins how many aircraft carriers an independent Wales would have.  To be fair, there are few people involved in politics who haven’t given an interview at some stage which they later regretted (and I certainly include myself in that), and the question itself was one of the silliest I’ve ever seen put to a politician; but the episode was, nevertheless, something of an embarrassment.
It led some to the view that since we didn’t have properly worked out answers to such silly questions we should simply avoid raising the question of independence at all.  That seemed to me to be something of a ‘baby and bathwater’ response.  It was precisely the lack of debate around independence and its consequences which led to the situation of candidates not being able to answer the question, rather than the other way around.
Whatever, the episode was brought to mind again recently when I read through the report of the House of Commons defence committee (available here) on the implications of Scottish independence on defence.  This time, however, the question seems to be about how many submarines and fast jets Scotland would need, where it would get them, and how it would pay for them.  On a per head basis, a split of UK military assets would apparently give Scotland 0.7 of an Astute class submarine and 1.6 frigates and destroyers.  As for fast jets, well perhaps around 10 -12 on my reading of the figures.  Not enough, say the MPs and military experts, to provide a “credible” defence for Scotland.
My first reaction was simply to dismiss this as yet another silly question, albeit not being asked by a journalist this time.  However, on reading the report, it became clear that it was not, after all, such a silly question – because the SNP’s defence policy does indeed call for Scotland to possess a fleet (size unspecified) of submarines and a fleet (size unspecified) of fast jets.  They have, in short, invited the question.
Whether Scotland actually needs submarines and fast jets is another question entirely.  It all boils down to what it is that Scotland needs to defend itself from and which countries are used as comparators.
For years, decades even, before some of the party’s leading figures got cold feet about discussing the issue at all, Plaid used to compare Wales with the Republic of Ireland, drawing on that country’s experience.  Ireland spends a low proportion of its GDP on defence, as a purely defensive capability which can also be deployed in support of the civil authorities and the Republic has long had a clear commitment to support UN peacekeeping activities.  Its policy is not predicated on the assumption that the rest of the world is just waiting to invade and conquer it at any sign of weakness.  And it doesn't go round the rest of the world pursuing a foreign policy likely to make it a target.
Contrast that with the UK stance.  Much of the UK’s armed forces constitute an offensive rather than defensive capability (aircraft carriers, for instance); and UK policy is indeed predicated on an almost paranoid assumption about everybody else’s intentions.
Faced with that contrasting scenario it is pretty clear to me which stance makes most sense from a Welsh – or Scottish – viewpoint.  The surprise and disappointment to me is that the SNP’s policy was recently changed to align itself much more clearly with the UK rather than Republic of Ireland view of the world.  This even extends to an expressed wish to join NATO – a nuclear armed alliance.  On that specific, I find it hard, no matter how much I might want to, to disagree with the House of Commons committee’s point that there’s more than a tiny inconsistency between the rejection of stationing nuclear weapons on Scottish soil and the embracing of membership of a nuclear alliance.
I can understand why the SNP wants to make independence look less of a risk, to be less of a major step, to be less different, in order to win the referendum.  But for me, being different and taking a different worldview is part of the point of independence.  Moving away from the imperial mind-set of the past is key to developing a different world order, and breaking up one of the old imperial powers is part of the route to doing that.  Replicating it on a smaller scale undermines what is for me a major plank of the case.
The answer to the question about submarines should surely be the same as the answer which should have been given about Welsh aircraft carriers – ‘why on earth would we want any of those?’.  It’s disappointing that that is not the answer being given - and they can't plead youth and inexperience either.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Agreeing with the opposition 2

Following on from Friday’s post, the second story in Thursday’s Western Mail leading me to agree with a comment from an unusual quarter was this opinion piece by Stephen Crabb.  The devil is in the detail, however.
His core argument – the bit that I agree with – is that we should see major transport infrastructure investment not just in narrow terms about what Wales does or does not get, but as a wider question of vision for the future.  A proper transport infrastructure does not stop at, nor is it confined to, national borders or jurisdictions. 
It’s a pity, however, that he seems to see the issue merely in terms of which borders confine the vision.  He attacks insular politics in Wales but seems to want to replace a narrow focus on Wales with a narrow focus on the UK, seeing everything from a London-centric viewpoint.
The two biggest concerns that I have had about HS2 from the outset are: firstly that it’s been looked at as a stand-alone investment, rather than a first step (HS2 isn’t a network, as he described it, it’s a line – I only wish that it were indeed part of a network); and secondly, that using a different London terminus from that used by HS1 creates an artificial and unnecessary break in a European network.
Whilst Crabb and the UK parties – to whatever extent they still support the project – are looking solely at transport within the UK, the rest of continental Europe is busy building an integrated high speed network allowing direct connections across the continent.  Now that is truly a vision freed of Crabb’s insular politics (using insular in its more literal meaning).  And it recognises that building a line through one country can often benefit another; joint planning is key.
For a nationalist wanting to see Wales taking her place as a European nation, the link to Brussels is every bit as important as the link to London, which from this perspective is merely a stop along the route.  An important stop, sure, but just a stop all the same.

Monday, 4 November 2013

More like the sheriff of Nottingham...

Giving Wales the right to vary income tax is something of a double-edged sword.  It’s a power that is unlikely to be much used, I suspect.  The package of other tax measures likely to be devolved as part of the announcement made last week by Cameron and Clegg is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  On top of all of that, it seems likely that given borrowing powers, the Welsh Government is likely to blow the lot on one hugely expensive and environmentally damaging road scheme in the south east corner of Wales for which the rest of the country will end up paying for decades, if not generations.
None of that, however, is a reason to oppose the proposals, and if referendum there will be, then as a nationalist, I cannot vote other than ‘yes’ to the next step along the tortuous path.  Having the powers, and what we do with them, are two entirely separate issues, and separate they should remain.  I may not feel any huge enthusiasm for what the Welsh Government will do with the powers, but I’ll vote for the proposal, although somehow I can't see them rushing into calling a referendum.
The joint statement by Cameron and Clegg tells us something about the sort of society they both believe in.  It’s not a surprise coming from the Tories, but I suppose there are still some people out there who don’t understand that the Lib Dems have signed up to a very similar agenda.  One sentence in particular caught my eye: “one of the best ways to raise living standards is to cut people’s taxes”.
From the point of view of those whose taxes are cut, this may well be true, or at least feel as if it’s true.  More money in the pocket always pleases people.  But there are two sides to the ‘lower taxes’ coin, and the other side is ‘lower government expenditure’.  That in turn affects the services and benefits which people receive, and those most dependant on those services and benefits are likely to experience lower taxes as something which lowers rather than raises their living standards.
What the Tories and Lib Dems are both, in effect, saying is that they support improving the living standards of the most well-off whilst reducing the living standards of the least well-off.  Maybe children from their social background were fed a rather different version of the Robin Hood stories than the one that I read.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Agreeing with the opposition 1

There were two stories in yesterday’s Western Mail which found me agreeing with the basic points being made by two politicians with whom I’d normally disagree on most things.

The first story was the one about the ‘leaked’ letter (experience tells me that for journalists, ‘leak’ can, and frequently does, cover a multitude of sins) from Cllr Hedley McCarthy to ‘party colleagues across Wales’ (a phrase which suggests that the letter finding its way into the public eye can hardly have come as a surprise to the author, given the singularly unfraternal relationships which exist between members of the Labour Party).
There seems to be a lot of general whingeing in the letter – typical internal Labour Party stuff – and the Western Mail seized on it as a sign of a ‘split’.  There seems to be little that the paper likes more than a ‘split’, and the more personal the better.  No surprise that some political opponents leapt onto the ‘split’ bandwagon; it’s a lot less taxing to debate at that level than to engage with the nub of the argument.
None of that was the bit that led me to find myself in agreement with the councillor.  It was rather the nugget at the heart of his argument - almost lost in the coverage of the froth - that the idea that small councils cannot deliver services “…is theoretical and not backed up by any serious evidence”.  This is a very significant point, which I have no doubt that the four centralist parties in the Assembly will completely ignore.  They have already decided that size, or rather lack of size, is the problem.
It is true, of course, that the councils suffering the biggest problems at present are smaller ones; but that’s correlation, not proof of causation.  It could just be that the councillors and officers in those councils happen to be less competent (although I suspect that Cllr McCarthy and I might disagree on that!).  It might even be, as Cllr McCarthy himself seems to half suggest, that the basis used by the Minister for determining ‘failure’ was itself rigged to favour the result that he wanted.
But here’s the real point which those rushing to centralise and consolidate councils are missing: if there’s no hard evidence that the small size of some councils is the problem, there is equally no hard evidence that amalgamating them into larger councils is the solution.  That it is the solution to some problem or other is not in doubt of course – but the problems which it solves are more to do with a populist attempt to cull the number of politicians, and a rather less open and honest attempt to strengthen the control of the centre.
I’m not opposed to reform or re-organisation of local government; on the contrary, I think we need a root and branch review of what powers local government should have, and form and size should flow from that.  To be worthwhile, local government needs to have clearly defined powers and be left to exercise them.  That isn’t what we are getting though – we are getting a process which simply implements the already formed prejudices of centralising politicians who are accreting power into their own hands.
The surprise is not that one Labour councillor from Gwent is expressing his opposition; it’s the fact that he seems so isolated.