Friday, 29 May 2015

What's the real issue?

I thought that this story was rather confused and confusing when I read it first; and after re-reading it, I haven’t changed my mind.  There is a lack of clarity about whether the problem is where the powers lie, whether it’s about what is done with those powers, or whether it’s simply about spending priorities.
The headline claims that failure to devolve more road safety powers to Wales is costing lives on Welsh roads because the numbers of deaths and serious injuries have fallen more slowly here.  But the reasons for that are less than entirely clear – lack of devolution surely means that the policies being followed in Wales are the same as those in England - the question about why they have a different result is more complicated than simply where the power lies.
And later in the story, the director of the RAC which is the organisation behind the report says that “The UK risks breaking apart in terms of road safety policy with different administrations having varying levels of power, funding and political will to deal with death and injury on the highways”, which sounded to me more like an argument for less devolution than more - in direct contradiction of the headline.
In essence, the detail of the criticism seems to be more about whether the Welsh Government is spending enough on road safety than about where the power lies, but that looks more like a criticism of the Welsh Government for not setting the same spending priorities as England than of any lack of devolution.  It’s an argument for consistent central decision making rather than for more devolution.
And that, perhaps brings us to the nub of the issue here – as on so many issues, there is a lack of understanding of the fact that the very existence of devolved administrations inevitably means that there will be differences in outcomes in the different countries of the UK.  I don’t say that to defend a situation where Wales is failing to reduce deaths and injuries on roads as quickly as England; no-one would want to defend that.
Comparisons with what happens elsewhere are inevitable and entirely proper, and with England being so close, it’s the obvious point of comparison.  The RAC are right to draw attention to the divergence in outcomes, and it is something which should concern us.  I’m not sure that the story sheds much light on the answer though – calling on the Welsh Government to spend more in any area where it is underperforming (whilst it has no control of its total revenue) is easy; saying from where the cash should come is a great deal harder.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Britannic Confederations

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of a confederal Britain as floated by Leanne Wood last week.  I remember Gwynfor talking about the possibility in the 1970s, and I think that he wrote a pamphlet on a “Britannic Confederation” sometime in the 1960s, although I can’t lay my hand on the copy which I’m sure I have somewhere.  Whether it’s as good an idea now as it was pre-EU and pre-devolution is another question – even the best ideas only work in context.  The idea didn't disappear for a few decades by accident.
It’s unclear to me from the reporting of the speech containing the proposal whether it replaces the ‘aspiration’ for independence for Wales or is merely an attempt to define a staging post and a process for moving forward.  I’m assuming the latter, although I’m well aware that a confederation would have been enough for many in Plaid over the decades – and been several steps too far for some.
The idea of requiring no more than a majority vote in the Assembly to move all the way to a full confederal system is certainly a bold and radical one.  It’s only a matter of months since Plaid – very sensibly – moved away from its previous position that we needed another referendum just to get the power to make a minor variation in income tax.  It looks a bit like going from one extreme to the other; but the end result is a better position to be in than part of the Labour-Tory consensus that even small changes need another referendum.
Of course, using the argument that the people will have voted for it by electing a government committed to that position means that it becomes essential that the proposition is central to any manifesto; claiming a mandate for such a change if it’s only mentioned as a vague aspiration – as independence has been recently – is simply not credible.  The proposal makes sense only as an attempt to put the question back at the centre of the party’s proposition, rather than just another way of attempting to park the question.  So, how serious a proposal it is will become very obvious when the party publishes its manifesto for the next Assembly election, I guess.
As an idea, a confederation has its merits.  For anyone who believes that Wales’ progress is likely to be gradual rather than revolutionary, it does at least set out a credible path to the acquisition of many more powers within the current UK state, whilst leaving open the option of the more radical step later.  But my fear is that what looks like a gradualist, step at a time, change in Wales will inevitably look very different from an English perspective.
Whilst it’s not clear to me at what point on the journey from where we are to a confederation the English step change would have to happen, the fact that there would have to be one is surely inevitable.  A combined UK/English government and parliament can be made to work, after a fashion, in the current context, but there would have to be a clear separation between the two in any confederal system.  That won’t look like slow and gradual change to 85% of the population of the UK.
Could the UK parties and the English electorate be persuaded that it’s a price worth paying?  Maybe, if it maintained the precious union.  Or rather, maybe that would have been possible in the past.  If a clearly thought-through proposal along these lines had been put forward in 1997 instead of the devolution proposals which were enacted, I genuinely believe that it might have been possible for the unionists to win the argument – for a lengthy period at least.  But I think it’s now too late for that.
So, that leaves us with the question – why would the English parliament and government agree to a step change in their governing arrangements of the nature required to make this proposal work when the SNP definitely, and Plaid rather more hesitantly and apologetically, are saying that they only see it as an interim solution anyway?  What’s in it for them, if they think that they will be required to undo the changes in a few years time anyway?  It’s a proposal which will only ever make sense to England if they can be persuaded that it’s going to be a long term stable solution.  And it could only be credibly presented by the SNP as the very opposite of that.  In the place where it makes most sense – Wales – we’re dependent on the Scottish and English views.
As a short term process, it looks eminently sensible from a Welsh nationalist viewpoint, but as a long term solution, it would condemn us to a foreign and defence policy which continued to be based on possession of weapons of mass destruction, and it would prevent us becoming a member of the EU in our own right.  So whilst at first sight it looks like an attractive road forward to an increasingly powerful Assembly, I wonder whether its practicability in relation to the current context has really been thought through.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Repeating the same mistakes

Perhaps it was a little unfair to refer to the decision by some AMs to refuse the planned pay rise as “student politics” as Lee Waters did.  But seeing politicians scrambling to be seen to be doing the right thing, almost invariably caveated with variations on the wording “at a time of public sector pay restraint” wasn’t terribly edifying.  The implication is that it’s the timing rather then the principle which is the problem, and that, if only the lower paid were getting a bigger rise then their large rise would be OK too.
I certainly, though, take the point that a large disparity between the salaries of AMs and MPs can give the impression that we value one set of politicians more than another.  But there are two things wrong with simply chasing the level of salary elsewhere.  The first is that two wrongs don’t make a right – the fact that one group of people are overpaid doesn’t make it right to overpay another group simply to maintain comparability.  And the second is that it reduces the question of how we ‘value’ our politicians to a simple financial equation, and there surely ought to be more to it than that.
In confirming the recommendations of the independent salary review body last week, the chair said something to the effect that they’d listened carefully to the public reaction that they’d received, but had found nothing to make them change their minds.  What that tells us above all is that, whatever the criteria being used to set salaries, acceptability in the court of public opinion – let alone public outrage – isn’t one of them.
That in turn raises the question of who sets the criteria that they use, and who appoints the people who then apply those criteria.  And the answer to that question brings us right back to the people who are washing their hands of the problem, and claiming that the board is an independent one over which they have no control.  Because those statements are only part of the story.
The criteria to be used are set by legislation, available here.  In essence, the AMs themselves have set the criteria which are to be used – and a very limited set of criteria they are too, amounting in essence to:
(a) providing Assembly members with a level of remuneration which—
(i) fairly reflects the complexity and importance of the functions which they are expected to discharge, and
(ii) does not, on financial grounds, deter persons with the necessary commitment and ability from seeking election to the Assembly,
Criteria set by AMs can be changed by AMs; if they don’t like the answers being produced, they can change the criteria being used by further legislation. 
And who appoints the members of the Panel?  Well, that would be the Assembly Commission – which includes, conveniently, one representative from each of the political parties represented in the Assembly.  Yes, the same parties which are now complaining about the recommendations made by the people they appointed applying the criteria which they set.
The biggest argument being used to justify the large increase on an already high salary is all about attracting the most able people to sit in the Assembly.  But what is the mechanism by which that happens?  It seems to be down to blind faith that higher salaries = more ability, but there is absolutely no evidence to support that blind faith.
Even if we accept that it is true that there is a problem with the level of ability of at least some Assembly members (and for the sake of argument, I’m prepared to accept that, although I’d also accept the same proposition in relation to the – higher-paid – Members of Parliament, too by way of demonstrating that paying them more doesn’t actually solve the problem), increasing their salary doesn’t get rid of them, it simply puts more money in their pockets.  It’s a remarkably ineffective way of addressing the perceived issue.
There are no formal criteria for the job, and no qualifications are required.  The ‘ability’ required is undefined.  The selection process is not far off being random in relation to applying any tests of ability.  Deploying a salary increase as the only conceivable response to the perceived problem is only ever going to mean that we pay more for the same sort of people.  And the beneficiaries?  Ah, that would be the same people who set the criteria and appoint the people to apply them…

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Banging on about the constitution

There are those who consider that achieving independence for Wales is really not the most important thing right now; that the immediate problems such as jobs, housing, and education are much more important to people in their daily lives.  So why do I keep banging on about the constitution?
My answer depends partly on whether one sees independence as an end in itself or as just a means to an end, and partly on the importance of process as well as outcomes.  Those two factors together help to explain why I’ve sometimes referred to myself as an accidental nationalist.
There are certainly many nationalists who see independence as an end in itself, which simply involves transferring power from one set of institutions and politicians to another set of institutions and politicians, based on a different set of territorial boundaries.  The basic processes remain the same; power is exercised at the centre by an elected government.  Cardiff is Westminster writ small. 
It’s a conventional and unimaginative approach, which simply replicates the same resistance and obstacles to change in a different place.  And if that is all that there is to independence, then I’d find it impossible to argue that it should be any sort of priority over the bread-and-butter issues which I referred to above.
But some of us believe that the Westminster model is an irreparably broken system; it’s unamenable to reform, it works for the interests of the few rather than the many – economically, socially, and geographically – and is a barrier to the sort of change which would fully address those bread-and-butter issues.  It’s also an inherent barrier to participation rather than a means of facilitating it.  It’s part of a world order which sees big as being good, and power as theirs to exercise.  In that context, independence isn’t just about institutions; it’s about establishing a process which can facilitate more fundamental change.
My purpose in advocating independence is not simply to replace one bunch of politicians with another, but to change the way things work much more fundamentally; to put power back in the hands of the people where it belongs and for people to be more directly involved in the process of running their society.  Self-government means more than transferring power from one institution to another; it’s about ‘self’ government in a much wider sense for people and communities.
And that’s where my second emphasis comes into play.  Process is important.  The sort of independence that I want to see won’t come about by electing politicians to make laws; it will come about because people are convinced that it’s the right thing for their future.  It will be achieved by people rather than done to them. 
One of the most exhilarating aspects of the Scottish campaign leading up to September’s referendum was the increasing level of direct involvement of people who had never engaged in political activity before, largely outside the party political system.  Whilst I’m delighted with the subsequent electoral success of the SNP, I know that I’m not alone in worrying about the danger that all that new energy ends up being channelled back into a more conventional type of party-based politics for the long term, rather than simply using conventional politics as a short term instrument. 
In Wales, we can only dream about the sort of movement which built up so much steam in Scotland last year – seeing the Welsh equivalent being put back in the box is the least of our worries.  And my underlying point in a series of recent posts has been that telling people that even the replacement of one institution with another – let alone changing the nature of the institution – is impossible for the foreseeable future is a remarkably ineffective way of laying the groundwork for that much wider programme of change.
The process of getting from where we are to where we want to be is not the property of any politician or party; it belongs to all of us.  The mere election of people to an institution is an abdication, rather than an exercise, of people power.  The job of any politician who really wants meaningful change is to lead and inspire the people to demand it, not just to seek election to office which they can use to impose rather more limited change by passing laws.
As we saw in Scotland last year, a real campaign for independence is as much about process as outcome – actually, maybe even more so.  That point needs to be better understood in Wales.

Monday, 18 May 2015

A cunning plan?

As a follow on to last week’s post, I remember that Phil Williams often told the story about the man in Bargoed who told him that if only Plaid would drop all talk of independence, the party would sweep the valleys.  Phil thought it amusing, but I don’t think that he ever really considered it to be a sensible plan of action.
Whether it was actually true or not is an interesting question for some harmless speculation.  Personally, I doubt it.  In the first General Election during my period of party membership, in February 1974, the party won 2 seats on 10.8% of the vote (adding a third seat later the same year on the same percentage).  Fast forward 41 years, and in the election earlier this month, the party won 3 seats on 12.1% of the vote.  In all the intervening elections, the number of seats won has varied between 3 and 4; and the percentage of the vote has varied between 7.3% and 14.3%.  It’s a fairly consistent long term pattern at UK level.
However, whether I believe that sidelining even further the question of independence would transform the party’s electoral chances is irrelevant.  What’s more important here is that there certainly are people within the party who believe it (and there are others who don’t support the aim at all – but I’m going to ignore that group).  One of the responses to last week’s post suggested that the author was far from certain that adopting a more full-blooded position of support for independence would have worked for Plaid in the election.  And actually, I agree – but that wasn’t the question that I was raising. My question was more about what is the route from where we are to achieving independence.
There are certainly some who believe that the two are the same thing – that the route to independence is through Plaid achieving electoral success, and that the party needs to do whatever it takes to achieve that success.  The problem is that that leads to a curious position which claims that:
a)    The only way that we can win independence is if Plaid Cymru wins elections
b)    The only way that Plaid Cymru can win elections is by sidelining the question of independence.
I’m sure that Baldrick would describe this as a plan more cunning than the cunningest cunning plan ever devised, but the logic of it escapes me.  And an endorsement from Baldrick, given the success rate of his cunning plans, wouldn’t be much of a recommendation anyway.
I oversimplify the position – of course.  It’s clouded and complicated by talk of ‘nation-building’, the creation of institutions,  and the need to take things one at a time.  But sometimes, a drastic simplification is the best way of exposing the central fallacy of an argument; and in this case, the fallacy is clear; no matter how the argument is finessed, winning elections on a platform which does not include independence will never bring about that independence.  A corollary is that no argument was ever won by not putting the case.
But that in turn just highlights the core question – what is Plaid for?
If it is ‘for’ winning elections and gaining and exercising power, then it is arguable that the current strategy might well be the best one, even if it isn’t proving very successful (there's no rule that says even the best plan will necessarily succeed).  But if it is ‘for’ gaining independence for Wales, then the current strategy is doomed to fail, based as it is on arguing that the core aim is not even open to consideration in the foreseeable future.  It leaves one important open question, though.  If that isn’t the vehicle for achieving independence, what is?

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The road to independence

When I first joined Plaid Cymru, back in 1971, the plan seemed to be fairly clear.  ‘All’ that we needed to do was win a majority of votes and seats in a General Election and Wales would become a self-governing nation (the word ‘independence’ being taboo back then, although ‘self-government’ effectively meant the same thing).  How the one would lead to the other was rather less well-defined; the more revolutionary elements talked of withdrawing from Westminster and setting up a Welsh parliament, whilst the more level-headed talked of a mandate for opening negotiations.
It wasn’t the most brilliant or well thought-through of plans (and there was no plan B).  But given how far away from the elusive majority the party was, it was as good as it needed to be.  And the core of it was that independence would come about by majority will of the Welsh people expressed through the ballot box by voting for a party which proposed self-government.  As we’ve seen this year in Scotland, even winning all, or nearly all, of the seats does not, in itself, give a mandate for independence, unless independence is a core element of the proposition put to the electors by the winning party; but the idea that independence – in whatever words were chosen to describe it – wasn’t core to the election appeal would have been a very strange one to most of us back in the 1970s.
The establishment of the Assembly in 1999 opened the possibility of there being a plan B.  Having a democratically elected all-Wales body meant that a more gradualist approach was possible through the accretion over time of more powers to an existing institution.  It was what Kinnock and others referred to as the slippery slope to independence, of course.  I’m not sure that I ever really disagreed with the idea that the slope was a slippery one; my disagreement was more about where on the slope we were standing and which way we were trying to move.  For them, we were at the top facing an easy slide downwards; for me we were close to the bottom, trying to push a heavy load up.  The slope was still just as slippery.
The point is that adding power to an existing body is easier to do, in principle, than establishing that body in the first place, but it still requires the consent of the people.  And, if my memory of history is broadly correct, as a general rule the route to independence of former colonies (where it wasn’t a violent one) was usually by the assumption of more power by a pre-existing body – either with or without the prior consent of the colonial power.
In Scotland, the SNP has fought Scottish parliamentary elections on a very clear platform of calling a referendum on independence.  They couldn’t call the referendum after the 2007 election because they were a minority government and there was a parliamentary majority against holding a referendum of the sort.  But given a clear overall parliamentary majority for a referendum following the 2011 election, the road was open for the vote which was held last year.  And the result was better than many would have anticipated at the time of the 2007 election.
What happens next is yet to be seen.  Nicola Sturgeon has been quite clear that a further referendum will happen if, and only if, the Scottish people vote into power a majority in the Scottish parliament committed to holding one.  And at this stage, it’s far from certain that the SNP manifesto for 2016 will include such a commitment.  Even if it does, it is likely to be predicated on a condition that there has to be some significant change first (such as an English vote to leave the EU whilst the Scots vote to stay).  I think she’s right to be cautious – rushing into, and potentially losing, a second referendum in such short order would be a bigger setback than waiting a little longer and winning.  But I remain convinced that it is now only a matter of timing.
Where does that leave Wales?  Plaid has had no such commitment to a referendum in its Assembly manifestos to date.  Even if the party had won a majority and formed the government after any election to the Assembly, it would have had no mandate to call for a referendum.  And it seems unlikely to me that the party will be including such a commitment in its manifesto for next year’s election either; indeed, the party’s current position, as I understand it, is that Wales is too poor even to consider the question at this stage, and that it should remain a distant aspiration.
The process by which we become sufficiently unpoor for that to change is as unclear as the criteria which are to be used to judge whether our degree of poorness has been sufficiently reduced.  The judgement as to when we will become sufficiently unpoor looks as arbitrary as the decision to announce that we are currently too poor.  I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the argument for independence will not be put unless it has already been won; we won’t be offered an independence referendum by any party until we’ve already declared through the ballot box that we want it.  It’s a bit of a Catch 22.
Coupled with the wholly foreseeable reluctance of the most unionist party of all (which is celebrating an increase in support in Wales in last week’s election), we seem to be condemned to an even more gradualist approach.  I don’t doubt that we will hear loud complaints in the months to come about Wales only being given the crumbs when it comes to new powers, but if all we ask for is crumbs why should we expect more?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Radical Wales?

Looking at the share of the vote obtained by the different parties in Wales last Thursday, one thing which obviously stands out is how well UKIP did, despite winning no seats.  Taking the chart of percentages from Roger Scully’s blog, in a fully proportional election the numbers of seats won by each party would have been as follows (with the actual numbers shown in brackets):

Labour                       15        (25)
Conservative               11        (11)
UKIP                           5          (0)
Plaid                           5          (3)
Lib Dems                     3          (1)
Green                          1          (0)
It’s not an entirely valid projection of course.  There would only be a fully proportional result if there was a single national list for Wales, and as far as I’m aware, no-one is suggesting that there should be.  Any system which includes a number of multi-member constituencies across Wales will end up delivering a less proportional result than that.  But the key point to draw from this is that Labour remains significantly over-represented by share of vote, and the losers are UKIP, Plaid, the Lib Dems, and the Greens.  Interestingly, the Tories’ share of seats actually matches their share of the votes.
The second thing that I draw out of that table is that the combined number of seats for the Tories and UKIP would be higher than that for Labour – broadly speaking, the parties generally held to be ‘of the right’ (a term with which I’m far from happy, and which needs further discussion in itself, but which I’m using here as shorthand) outpolled the Labour Party, a repeat of the result in the European election (which, because of the lower turnout, was far too easy to ignore).
Even under first past the post, looking at the results in individual constituencies, if Tory and UKIP voters had, in each case, voted for the higher placed candidate of the two, Labour would have lost an additional 8 seats to the Tories – a result which would have left Labour on 17 and the Tories on 19.  Again, that’s an unrealistic analysis, because votes are not that easily transferable between parties, and there are a whole series of reasons behind the UKIP vote which aren’t all down to supporting a party of the right.
But it reinforces the point arising from the table above – there were more people in Wales prepared, for whatever reason, to vote for a party ‘of the right’ than for the Labour party.  And that is a truly remarkable outcome in Wales, underlining the fact that the result was far, far worse for Labour than the overall drop of 1 seat suggests.
I draw three things from this.
Firstly, for decades now the Labour Party in Wales has depended heavily on the fact that they are ‘not the Conservatives’.  There has been a demonization of that party and all those associated with it, based largely on folk memories which are becoming weaker with each passing generation.  But it’s a demonization based on ‘being Conservatives’, not on ideology or policy or actions, which means that if another party comes along which is also ‘not the Conservatives’, even if its ideology is very similar to that of the Tories, the demonization doesn’t readily transfer.  The very superficiality of Labour’s core message in Wales now works against them.  And it’s more than possible that many former Labour supporters, who have been convinced never to vote for the Tories, have been quite happy to vote UKIP as a result.
Secondly, much that Labour said during the election (and Plaid, too, come to that) was based on an assumption that there is a set of communal (broadly ‘social democratic’) values in Wales which is widely shared.  In that context, the electoral appeal needs only to speak to those values to motivate people to vote, and the debate is about which party (Labour or Plaid) can best speak to those values.  But the assumption is profoundly wrong; the romantic image of a radical electorate in Wales is more myth than fact.  Even if it was right a few decades ago, it isn’t now (and I say that with regret, rather than any feeling of pleasure).  But by only speaking to those who hold those values, any party which assumes them to be general has ended up speaking to a diminishing proportion of the electorate in wide swathes of Wales. 
And thirdly, there is a reservoir of Tory support in Wales which is bigger than many of us have chosen to believe.  It’s been there a long time, albeit not always visible – ‘why vote when the votes for Labour are going to be weighed rather than counted?’ has been the view of some of them in the past.  And it’s growing, for reasons which this post is too short to cover.
Whilst politics in Scotland and England are diverging, the opposite is true here – at Westminster level, Welsh politics is becoming increasingly similar to English politics (outside a handful of constituencies where the Welsh language remains strong).  The supposed difference has been taken as read for too long already.  
The values which were prevalent in the past need to be fought for and sold to people, not simply taken for granted; but elections have become too superficial for that to happen.  They’ve become more to do with reinforcing existing views and motivating supporters to vote than with winning people over to a different view.  That doesn’t mean that people’s political standpoints don’t change; it just means that the changes happen outside the formal political process and that political parties are not the main influencers.  And allowing that to happen will always help the ‘right’ rather than the ‘left’.
The danger in the analyses which parties will be making in the aftermath of this election will be that they arrive at the right answer to the wrong question.  Instead of asking how they change people’s values and viewpoints, they will ask how they appeal to people with a different set of values.  That’s precisely what New Labour was all about.  But what we need is a different future, not just the same future under alternative leaders.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Assisting the enemy

There will be as many theories about what caused the election result last Thursday as there are people analysing it.  Most of us will see those things which confirm our own preconceptions, and give rather less weight to those which suggest the opposite.  In reality, there will have been almost as many causes as there were people casting their votes.  Voting is in essence an individual action, prompted by a range of factors including image and emotion as well as policy, tradition and self interest.
Personally, one of my own preconceptions is that elections ought to be about different views of the world, and making a choice between them – first and foremost about policies and programmes rather than personalities and image.  I’m realistic enough to recognise, however, that detailed analysis of policies and programmes is something that only a minority of voters do.  And many voters discount all promises on the basis that they have little expectation that they’ll be honoured anyway.
With that caveat – i.e. that policies are only one small factor in the outcome – I’ll return to last Wednesday’s post about deficit elimination.  In this election, we were faced with a range of parties, all telling us that it was essential to eliminate the deficit, but with only one of them arguing that it needed to be done rapidly and resolutely.  I can’t help wondering whether the fact that the other parties all conceded the basic case for a balanced budget, and then tried to argue for doing it differently or more slowly, didn’t end up helping the Tories overall (except in Scotland, which was obviously a special case). 
When they’re all saying that ‘x’ needs to be done, why wouldn’t people who are convinced by that argument back the one party that says it really is going to do ‘x’?  The case for not needing to do it was never really put at all.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Friends and enemies

By this time tomorrow, the dust will be starting to settle, and we’ll know whether, or to what extent, the opinion polls have been right about the catastrophe for Labour in Scotland.  And of course whether the suggestion of some sort of tie-up between Labour and the SNP has been rendered academic or essential by the results.
Many have found it difficult to understand why Labour is so absolute in its rejection of working with the SNP in Scotland on the grounds that the SNP wants to remove part of the UK from the union, yet so relaxed about working with the SDLP in the north of Ireland, which also wants to remove part of the UK from the union.  I think that Daran Hill, in his article in Tuesday’s Western Mail, explained it very clearly when, arguing that Labour was making a mistake in rejecting Plaid as well as the SNP, he said “… you can work with another party if it is annoying you, but not destroying you”.
The line about not working with the SNP because they want to end the union is just a very poor rationalisation for a much more visceral reaction against a party which really does seem to be on the verge of destroying them.  From that perspective, Plaid is a mere annoyance; maybe doing well in six seats in Wales which are strongly Welsh-speaking, but hardly going to have any impact elsewhere.  An SNP similarly limited to the Western Isles would also be looked at more as an annoyance than the nemesis which threatens Labour’s traditional heartlands.
In the case of the SDLP, it’s not even an annoyance.  The Labour Party treats this particular nationalist party as a sister party, and allows it a free run, knowing that any MPs elected are likely to be voting in accordance with the Labour whip most of the time.  And that made me wonder – could we see a similar situation developing in Scotland?  Could the Labour Party in Scotland simply give up the ghost and leave the social democratic field free for the SNP, thus allowing the two parties to work together effectively at UK level (only for as long as the union holds, obviously)?
The answer to that probably depends on two factors: the extent of the annihilation of Labour by the end of today, and the extent to which Labour believe that the situation is a permanent one rather than one from which they will recover in an election or two.  As long as they believe that they can recover, the enmity will continue – probably with increasing bitterness.  But if what we’re seeing turns out to be a generational shift, as I suspect that it will, and if English Labour responds intelligently to that shift, then two bitter enemies might find it quite easy to work together after all.  A good dose of reality can often turn worst enemies into best friends.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Conceding the narrative

Amongst the more useful things that I’ve learned over the years are that that which is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and that that which is true isn’t necessarily obvious.  Assuming the obvious to be true is a common mistake, but in this election the failure to challenge the ‘truth’ of the obvious has allowed the Tories to frame the debate and win the argument on economic narratives.  To describe that as disappointing is an understatement.
When it comes to the budget deficit, all three of the main UK parties are committed to the view that it needs to be eliminated; any disagreement is solely about the method by which that is achieved and the timing.  Even the self-styled ‘anti-austerity’ parties, despite calling for an increase in borrowing to fund infrastructure in the short term, seem to have bought into the ‘truth’ of the ‘obvious’ need to eliminate the deficit.  In her piece for the Western Mail on Saturday, Plaid’s leader said “The Party of Wales wants to see the fiscal deficit eliminated”, going on to argue that it just doesn’t have to be done so quickly.
Deficit elimination as a necessity is a narrative which the Tories, aided by their friends in the media, have set, and which has gone unchallenged.  It is, after all ‘obvious’ that a government cannot run a deficit forever.  But is it true?
As the chart on this page shows, deficits have been the norm over a very lengthy period.  Where there have been surpluses, they’ve been short-lived and very much smaller than the deficits.  The simple conclusion is that countries are not like households; the budget really doesn’t have to be balanced, even over the long term.  Governments really can run deficits more or less indefinitely if they choose, however counter-intuitive that may seem.  And because it’s so counter-intuitive, it’s a point which simply hasn’t been made effectively during the election campaign.
The extent to which it’s possible to run a deficit indefinitely depends on a number of factors, most notable perhaps inflation and the level of economic growth, although it’s important to remember the importance of international comparisons as well – relative security of funds is more relevant than absolute security.  That’s why a more useful measure than the existence of a deficit per se is the relationship between that deficit and the overall size of the economy over time. 
If they’d all talked about ‘reducing’ the deficit, rather than eliminating it, I’d be a good deal less critical, because there probably is an upper limit to the size of the deficit.  However, I don’t know what that limit is, even if I suspect that the UK got closer to it than was wise.  But here’s the thing – neither does anyone else know what that limit is. 
For sure, any number of different economists will tell you with apparent certitude what the limit is, and justify setting it at that level by reference to all sorts of economic theories based on what’s happened in the past.  But none of them can be, whatever they may say, certain.  In effect, governments can go on borrowing until people won’t lend them money any more – not a sensible thing to do, but the only way anyone will ever know what the limit is.  Everything else said about the deficit is simply opinion, not fact.
One of the few things which are certain is that the existence of a deficit per se is not a problem – which is precisely the opposite of what all the politicians are telling us.  It’s clear enough why the Tories are telling us the reverse of the truth.  Using the ‘obvious’ comparisons with household debt or ‘maxing out the credit card’ provides them with the cover they need for an ideologically based desire to shrink the state and further redistribute power and wealth from the many to the few.  What’s a good deal less clear is why the rest of them have allowed the Tories to get away with this unchallenged.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dutch Auctions

Fortunately, there’s only another two days to go.  I dread to think how far the collective insanity to which Cameron and Miliband seem to be succumbing would go given another week or two.
First they tried to outbid each other as to which of them could most effectively tie his own hands once in government; now they’re trying to outbid each other to see who can lay out the most convincing obstacles to becoming Prime Minister.  Miliband will not lead any government which in any way depends on the SNP or Plaid; Cameron will not lead any government which does not commit to a referendum on membership of the EU.
I can understand why each of them would be trying to make things as difficult as possible for the other, but am struggling to understand why they’re both so keen to stockpile rods for their own backs, with which they’re threatening to beat themselves if we don’t do as they ask.
Perhaps I’ve just misunderstood the whole process, and neither of them actually wants the job at all.