Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Is more of the same inevitable?

There is nothing new in the latest statement from Leanne Wood ruling out any deal with the Tories after next May’s Assembly elections.  It has attracted comments in a number of Welsh blogs already.  Peter Black suggests that categorically ruling out such a deal will weaken Plaid’s negotiating position.  I can’t disagree with that assessment.  It’s in line with a comment that I made in advance of the UK election – but it’s only a problem if establishing a good negotiating position is the intent, and it clearly is not.  Jac o’ The North suggests that effectively it means that a vote for Plaid is a vote for a Labour Government.  And given the range of outcomes from next May’s election which are currently credible, I can’t disagree with that either.  The only choice we’re being given is Labour by themselves, or Labour with a partner.
Gwynoro Jones sees it as a potentially huge missed opportunity, and a repeat of the situation in 2007.  This one I’m a great deal less sure about.  It is based to an extent on the idea that demonstrating that there is a viable alternative to Labour, however cobbled together, will be enough in itself to bring about the sort of change in Welsh politics which will destroy the hegemony of the Labour Party.  That’s not dissimilar to the arguments which were being put forward by the supporters of an alliance with the Tories in 2007.  I thought the argument was wrong then, partly because I feared that such an alliance would end up strengthening rather than weakening Labour, and partly because, for a serious nationalist party, there has to be a long term gain to justify the short term pain which would probably follow such an alliance, and I simply didn’t see such a gain in 2007.
The question for me was (and is) not whether a simple coalition between Plaid and the Tories would be a good idea or not (it wouldn’t), but whether the gain for Wales would be enough to justify the pain for Plaid.  My disagreement with the position taken so categorically by Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru this time round is that it rules out even considering whether there might be such a trade-off.
And it does so on the basis of what seems to me to be an assumption that the Tories are still the untouchables of Welsh politics.  I’m not at all convinced that that assumption is as valid as many seem to think, but if we accept that it is true, it means in effect that short term electoral advantage for the party is considered more important than considering whether there might be a real long term gain for Wales.
Accepting for the sake of argument the premise that any form of post-election arrangement with the Tories would be electorally damaging to Plaid, could the Tories offer anything at all which might justify such a sacrifice by Plaid in the short term to advance the cause of Wales in the long term?  That is, I think, the question which should be being asked but doesn’t seem to be.  And it’s complicated, of course, by the fact that any conceivable arrangement of parties which comes to a majority over Labour needs to include – on the basis of current polling – at least the tacit support of UKIP as well (an even more unpalatable prospect for Plaid).
Despite all the difficulties and problems, there is actually one potential prize which I think might be worthwhile.  Under the latest Wales Bill, the Assembly is to get control over its own membership and electoral system, and a move to an even more proportional system of elections would be a better way of bringing about the step change in Welsh politics which most parties claim to support in principle.  An Assembly based on 60 constituency seats elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, with a further 20 list members from a single national list, would produce a legislature whose membership matched very closely the overall share of votes across the whole of Wales.
Labour’s projected vote according to the latest polls is around 35%, but the current electoral system is likely to give them over 40% of the seats and be within a few seats of an overall majority as a result.  An electoral system which gave them only 28 seats out of 80 for that 35% would not only be fairer, but with 52 non-Labour members, it would transform the playing field of Welsh politics.
It’s not a huge step forward for most of the parties involved.  Most parties recognise that an increase to 80 members will happen at some stage; Plaid, the Green Party and the Lib Dems are long-time supporters of STV; and UKIP and Plaid recently joined forces with the Greens and others to present a demand for a more proportional system of voting.  Could the Tories be brought round to such a proposal? 
It would not, of course, be enough to make for a stable Welsh Government for a full four or five-year term, but a government which passed such legislation and then sought to dissolve the Assembly for new elections to be held under the new system should be able to hold together for long enough to achieve that more limited aim.  If they’re as serious as they all claim to be in wanting to see the log-jam of Welsh politics removed – and removed by democratic vote, rather than stitch-up – this would be a far better way than trying to put together a far-from-credible multi-party coalition for a full term.
Making peoples’ votes count – all of them, across the whole of Wales – would probably lead to a different outcome, beyond the difference resulting solely from proportionality, as people think about their second and third choices as well as their first.  And it would also open up the possibility of realignment of parties and an opportunity for new and different parties to emerge. 
It’s the stuff of fantasy, of course.  I really don’t see the non-Labour parties in the Assembly being able to come together around such a proposal.  But in the absence of a step change of some sort, then the conclusion reached by Gwynoro looks depressingly likely to be true – we will be facing more of the same for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Shoddily built

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an item about the planned refurbishment of Buckingham Palace.  An enthusiastic spokesman for one organisation – didn’t catch which – told listeners that it was essential that the work should be done, because the palace is a vital part of British heritage.  In almost the next breath, he said that part of the problem was that the palace had been thrown up using shoddy materials in the first place.  I couldn’t help but see in that juxtapositioning a wider analogy about the way that ‘our’ heritage has developed.
The £150 million cost of refurbishing the royal palace is small beer, of course, compared to the estimates for refurbishing the Palace of Westminster which were floated last week, but there is nevertheless a common thread.  In both cases, it is proposed to spend large sums of money on repairing and patching up old buildings which are not suitable for purpose now and will still not be suitable for purpose when the work is completed.  Doing them up a bit as tourist attractions is one thing, but pretending that the result will be buildings which are fit for the 21st century is simply delusional.
But, in another analogy with ‘our’ heritage, pretending that delusion is reality seems to be mainstream accepted consensus.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly people who walk in through the doors of the Palace of Westminster become wedded to the place with all its peculiar foibles and arcane practices, and end up believing that it’s the only possible way of doing things.
In any rational world, the fact that Parliament is falling apart would be seen as an opportunity to find or design a building which actually had enough seats and office space for all the members, and which enabled them to vote in seconds at their seats rather then spending hours walking in circles so that they can be counted like a farmer counts his sheep.  (And a building fit for purpose would raise an awful lot of questions about other processes and procedures as well.)
A crumbling royal palace should be a good opportunity to ask whether a family which actually lives in a nine-room apartment really needs a 775 room palace (to say nothing of the other palaces).  Or why a largely ceremonial monarchy with no real power over anything needs so many staff and offices.
It is, though, in the nature of ‘our’ heritage, jerry-built with shoddy materials as it is, to never ask such impertinent questions, let alone expect our rulers to answer them.  Clinging on to the past is all they seem to know, even when it’s literally collapsing around them.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Causes and symptoms

Yesterday’s scenes at Calais following the closure of the Channel Tunnel highlight again the lengths to which people are prepared to go to reach the UK.  But there seems to be an uncritical acceptance by media and politicians alike that there is a distinction to be drawn between ‘genuine’ asylum seekers and ‘economic migrants’ and that we should therefore be showing sympathy to the first group whilst sending the others back.  Effectively, that is saying that it’s somehow OK to send people back to poverty, as long as they’re not being actively persecuted – and that assumption goes largely unchallenged.
Escaping poverty is as valid a reason for migration – from the point of view of the migrants at least – as is escaping persecution or war.  And I’m certain that there are plenty in politics and the media who understand that, but are afraid to say so given the prevailing climate of hostility towards migrants.  It’s a somewhat cowardly position to take, and it means that the underlying problem largely goes unaddressed.
That underlying problem is a very simple one – global inequality, which modern media and communications makes visible in a way which would not have been the case in previous times.  People can see a higher standard of living is attainable elsewhere, and there is nothing at all unnatural or unexpected about them wanting part of it.  And as long as the wealthy parts of the world try to hold on to their wealth rather than see it shared more evenly, we can and should expect increasing levels of what is euphemistically called ‘economic migration’.  We can either move the wealth to the people, or the people will seek to move to the wealth.  Isn’t that the essence of the message about ‘getting on your bike’?  The Tory perspective seems to be that it’s the right thing to do within the UK, but the wrong thing to do if it involves crossing a border.
Trying to stem the flow is simply responding to the symptoms; and attempting to regulate it by only accepting those with qualifications or skills which we need delivers a double blow to those countries from where the migrants come, because not only are we leaving them in poverty, we’re also taking the most skilled and able of their people to meet our needs rather than theirs.
One might think that in Wales of all places, we would understand this only too well.  Whilst Welsh poverty is not on the same scale as the countries from which so many are trying to escape, have we not suffered, for generations, from the export of our most talented young people?  Is that not part of a process which mantains and perpetuates relative Welsh poverty? 
People rail against the unfair distribution of wealth in the UK which causes the problem in Wales, yet seem unable to see that the scenes at Calais are the result of a similar problem writ large on a global scale.  The problem isn’t migration, it’s inequality.  And unless and until we recognise that and address it, desperate people will continue to do desperate things.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

More than just a vote

For what it’s worth, I’m willing to accept that the Prime Minister sincerely believes that continued membership of the EU is in the best interests of the UK, and is desperately keen to reach a position where he can credibly argue that any changes he has negotiated are sufficient.  But that serves only to underline the utter folly of putting that membership at risk in an attempt to pacify the members of his own party and head off the threat from UKIP.  Worse still, even if he wins, it is likely that he will achieve neither of those things.
Members of his own party are already prejudging the outcome to the extent of setting up a group to campaign against continued membership, whatever the outcome of the ‘negotiations’.  And the key themes of that campaign are already becoming clear.  They will be about ‘control of our borders’ (a euphemism for opposing immigration), ‘reducing regulation’ (a euphemism for discarding protection for workers and the environment), and the ‘sovereignty of the UK’ (an appeal to little Englanders everywhere).  The notable thing about all three is that, however much they may be rationalized, they are essentially appeals to the heart, not to the head.
In comparison, the main lines which the supporters of EU membership seem likely to take look dull, weak, and are open to easy rebuttal.  The main one to date has been that the EU is ‘good for business’, and businesses are lining up to make dire threats about what an exit would mean.  But ‘good for existing businesses’ is not the same as ‘good for business’ in a more generic sense.  Even leaving aside the far from insignificant question about whether the head honchos of large businesses making threats will be a positive or a negative factor in the minds of people, this whole argument has an air of ‘well, they would, wouldn’t they’ about it.  Businesses doing well in a particular environment will seek to preserve that environment, but it doesn’t mean that other businesses could not do equally as well in a different environment.
And – in Wales at least – the other main line of defence is around the funding that Wales receives ‘from Brussels’.  The separatists have logic on their side when they argue that it is just our own money being recycled and that there’s no reason why the UK Government couldn’t simply allocate the money directly and cut out the middle man.  I don’t believe that they would, and neither – it seems – do politicians of any of the parties which might conceivably form a UK Government, but ‘vote yes because unelected Brussels bureaucrats rare more likely to treat us fairly that the politicians we elect to London’ is a long way short of inspirational.
The problem is that even the EU’s strongest supporters in the UK don’t ever seem to have bought in to the founding principles of the Union, and have seen it as being a matter of simple economics.  I’m not convinced that that will be enough to win the day in the long term.  It may succeed in getting a yes vote in a particular referendum, but that’s a short term victory which could turn out to be Pyrrhic.
Just supposing that the ‘yes’ side wins, by a margin of say 55-45, to pull a figure out of the air.  Does that mean that the ‘losing’ side simply go away, or is there a danger that they simply become stronger than before?  Something very similar happened in another context in the very recent past, after all.  The point is that the ‘yes’ side need to win the argument, not just the vote, but I see few signs of any realisation of that.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Generals with maps

I rather liked the line about the dangers of a general with a map in a combat zone.  I’m not sure that it stands up to scrutiny though – it strikes me that a general without a map might potentially be even more dangerous.
It’s clear by now that the minister is determined to press ahead with a reorganisation of local authorities which will reduce the number of 8 or 9 in total.  It’s also clear that the other three centralist parties represented in the Assembly agree in principle with the push for a reduced number, even if they are quibbling about the detail.
It’s also clear that there are councillors in all the parties who will resist the proposed changes.  Here in Carmarthenshire, in a rare display of unity a few weeks ago, Labour, Plaid, and the Independent Party joined forces to declare that Carmarthenshire should remain a stand-alone authority.  They’re whistling in the wind though – their influence on their leaders in Cardiff is about as close to zero as it can get, and their views will simply be dismissed as self-interest.
It might be true that their protests are based on self-interest, but even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are genuinely seeking to do what’s best for local democracy in Wales, they’ll still be ignored.  That simply isn’t the question being asked; and having the right answer to the wrong question won’t advance their case greatly.
It seems to me that the question being asked by Cardiff’s centralists has little to do with good or effective local democracy at all – it is, rather, about finding the most efficient way of delivering certain key services, and primarily amongst those, education.  Efficiency and democracy are not at all the same thing.  But seeking to judge the latest proposals against that key criterion of ‘efficiency’ (assuming that the term even has a simple agreed definition) raises more questions that it answers.
Firstly, why does the area of Glamorgan and Gwent require four regions, when four or at most five is deemed adequate for the whole of the rest of Wales?  Where is the evidence that requires the population of a region to be less than x and no more than y?
Secondly, why is the sanctity of existing boundaries taken as a given?  What’s wrong, for instance, with splitting Conwy and merging half with Gwynedd and the other half with the rest of north Wales?  Yes, I know, of course, that it’s easier to treat existing authorities as whole units, but if the question is how we find the most ‘efficient’ structure, this is an unnecessary constraint.
Thirdly, why do all services have to be delivered to the same pattern?  I can understand – even if I’m not entirely convinced by the evidence – why fewer education authorities might be an improvement, but why do services such as leisure centres have to be managed at the same level?  It simply looks like a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Fourthly, given the need for better co-ordination between health and social services, why is the NHS not being included, and aligned to the same boundaries, as Plaid have in fact suggested?
Fifthly, where does this leave the Welsh Government’s drive for city regions?  Whereas the regions have previously included ‘whole’ authorities (for instance, Carmarthenshire in Swansea Bay), the new plan will mean that some authorities (such as Dyfed) are partly in and partly out.
But the biggest question of all, which the minister seems to be completely unwilling even to contemplate, is about the value of democratic elections to these new ‘authorities’.  If the aim is to ensure the most efficient delivery of centrally prescribed services to centrally ordained standards in a consistent fashion, how does electing councillors to regional authorities add any value at all?  How much influence can any elected councillors actually have?
It’s a point that I’ve raised before – if certain services are considered so important that they have to be uniform and consistent in terms of both policy and delivery across the whole of Wales (I’m not at all convinced about that, but it seems that all four Assembly parties are), then why pretend that elected local government has any rôle in delivering them?  Better by far to keep local government local and let it concentrate on those services where there is room for local variation and difference.

Monday, 1 June 2015

What to do about Labour?

Last month, Nick Bourne floated – again – the idea of a rainbow alliance forming a new Welsh Government next May.  Personally, I don’t see it happening.  Of course, a lot could change between now and Next May, but any scenario which doesn’t see Labour emerging as the largest party with between 27 and 32 seats looks highly unlikely at present.  And any result in that range means that an alternative government needs to include all the opposition parties – which on current probabilities means a Conservative-led government with active participation from Plaid, UKIP and the Lib Dems (if there are any of them left).
But where’s the big idea behind such a government – the big win for Wales which would justify the pain which would inevitably be felt by at least one of the parties?  There isn’t one, and the need for one is not even understood.  The only common thread between that disparate bunch is that they’re not Labour - it would essentially be a government pieced together on the back of a negative.  That was part of the problem with the similar proposal in 2007 for some of us – and I’ve often wondered since then whether Mike German really understood how much damage he did to the whole idea in the eyes of some in Plaid when he referred to it as an “anti-socialist alliance”.
But the fact that the proposed prescription – a rainbow government – looks to be the stuff of fantasy, doesn’t mean that the underlying diagnosis is wrong.  Wales has a political problem in that there is not currently a credible alternative to a Labour, or Labour-led, government in Cardiff.  I concur with the view that continued Labour rule is not only a recipe for complacency, it’s holding Wales back.  I also concur with the view that a healthy democracy needs a credible alternative - although ultimately it’s the way people cast their votes which creates that situation, and we need to bear in mind that Labour only enjoys its hegemony because people vote for the party. 
If Labour is the problem, what is the solution?  There are, it seems to me, three potential responses to that question – push it, reform it, or destroy it.
The first is to attempt to push Labour in a particular direction from the outside and is effectively – although not always openly stated as such – the route which Plaid has been following for many years.  It depends on winning the intellectual arguments and/or simply posing a sufficiently strong electoral threat.  I’d argue that it has not been without its successes.  The question now is whether that approach has run its course.
Whether the second possible approach – trying to change the Labour party from within – would have been even more effective is a matter of conjecture; it’s certainly something that I’ve often pondered.  But we only live history once; choices were made and we have to live with the outcomes.  What has happened is in the past and cannot be changed – but it leaves open the question as to whether that could yet be an effective way forward in the future.  Is Labour beyond all hope or not?  I concluded long ago that it is.  Whilst hope always resurfaces when the party is in opposition, a year or two of a Labour government is sufficient to dispel any illusion.
The third option is to destroy the Labour Party in Wales and replace it with an alternative which can articulate a different vision for our future.  The SNP have achieved just that in Scotland – could we yet achieve it in Wales?  The honest answer is that I don’t know, even though it’s my preferred option.  But if it were to be the aim, it would need a determined and consistent strategy to achieve it.  I’m fairly certain that forming a Conservative-led rainbow government in 2016 would be more likely to have the opposite effect.  And continually referring to the Labour Party as a ‘progressive force’ and reinforcing their narrative of needing to stop the evil Tories seems equally unlikely to accomplish the objective.