Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Valid questions and silly answers

The suggestion from the Institute of Chartered Accountants that MPs should be allowed to sit in the Welsh Cabinet has not exactly attracted much support, to say the least.  It’s easy to understand why members of one elected parliament would not want members of another ‘interfering’ in their business.  Given the apparent attempts by the Westminster Government to roll back the boundaries of the devolution settlement as part of the latest Wales Bill, it’s also easy to see how this suggestion from an ‘EnglandandWales’ body looks like another attempt to ensure a proper London perspective in the affairs of Wales.
There is a danger, though, of throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.  There are two valid points being made by the Institute which are in danger of being lost because of the rather silly suggestion of using MPs to fill the gap.
The first point is about whether the talent pool in the Assembly is big enough to provide enough choice for a First Minister to select his cabinet.  The Institute isn’t the first body to conclude that it isn’t.  And the fact that the turnover of ministers has been as low as it has suggests that successive first ministers have recognised that their scope for change isn’t enormous.
One can identify several reasons for the situation.  Not least among them is the fact that the Assembly has so few members.  60 is a very small number to start with.  The largest party has had around half of those at all the elections since the establishment of the Assembly – choosing 9 ministers and a couple of deputies from a pool of 30 means that a very high proportion of the governing party’s elected members will also be ministers.  Increasing the numbers to 80 or 100 would help, but there is nothing in the electoral process which guarantees any concomitant increase in ability.
Another important reason is that, for at least 2 of the parties in the Assembly (the two largest as it happens), the Assembly is seen as a second rate institution.  The most ambitious (although I entirely accept that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the most able) tend to seek their careers in ‘proper’ politics, at Westminster.  Merely increasing the numbers in Cardiff might not actually resolve the problem in its entirety.
A third reason hat I’d add here is whether the political process is actually going to attract a sufficiently diverse group of people into the Assembly.  I have similar doubts about Westminster, in fairness; politics increasingly seems to be populated by career politicians rather than people with varied prior experience elsewhere.  It’s not just the numbers which are limited in Cardiff, it’s also the background which they bring to the job.
And that brings me to the second valid point which the Institute is implicitly raising.  Why do government ministers have to be drawn exclusively from the pool of people elected to the largest group in the legislature?  They confused the point by suggesting adding members of another legislature to the pool, but the point is a more general one.  I can understand, of course, why elected politicians want to reserve such roles to themselves, but it means that in Cardiff, as in Westminster, there is considerable confusion between the legislature and the executive. 
It’s an unnecessary level of confusion.  And it isn’t the only way of doing things.  It’s not the way that government works in the US for instance.  But one doesn’t have to go all the way down that route to see that bringing people into the executive who have not themselves been elected doesn’t lead to the end of democracy.  Holding ministers to account does not require them to be members of the body doing the holding.
Why shouldn’t the first minister be able to draw on talent and ability from outside the narrow pool of 50% of the membership of the Assembly if that will contribute towards achieving the government’s objectives and improve the government of Wales?  If the Institute had got that far, and not added the silly idea of using MPs, they might have struck rather more of a chord.  As it is, they’ve made it far too easy for the politicians to avoid discussing the real question.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Outraged - but at what?

Two Tory AMs have taken to the media today to express their outrage at the level of redundancy payments being made by Welsh public bodies.  Given that this follows a report by an Assembly Committee, I can understand why the Committee Chair was given such prominence; what was less obvious to me is why the only other AM quoted was another Tory who isn’t even a member of the committee concerned.  There are eight members of the committee, only two of whom are Tories.  Have the others lost their tongues, or could this just possibly be a bit of deliberate selection by the Western Mail?
What the report left me less than clear about is what exactly the AMs concerned – all of them, not just the Tories – think should change here.  Drawing attention to apparently large figures to attract headlines is easy.  Encouraging others to feel equally outraged is equally easy.  But what is the actual problem, and what solution are they offering?
Presumably, the arrangements for voluntary redundancy were freely negotiated between staff and employees – are the AMs arguing that the Welsh Government, or the Assembly through legislation, should interfere with or in some way constrain the rights of either or both parties to negotiate such a scheme?
The report particularly focuses on the payments being made to higher paid staff, but any scheme which bases the size of redundancy payments on salary and length of service will inevitably favour higher-paid staff.  Are the AMs suggesting that long-serving higher-paid staff should be excluded from the schemes, or made subject to some other, less generous scheme?
Maybe they’re suggesting that there’s nothing wrong with the schemes, or with the selection of the people for redundancy, but that the way in which the schemes have been applied has been over-generous.
Or perhaps they’re suggesting that the staff concerned should not have been made redundant at all.  They might be right on that, in some cases at least, but that would sit strangely with a position where AMs of all parties are also calling for ‘greater efficiency’ and ‘reduced management overheads’.  I’m sure that some of the same people have also criticised public bodies for keeping senior people on the payroll even after their roles had been abolished, although I can’t immediately trace the press reports from the time.
It looks like just another part of a continued overall assault on the public sector and those who work in it.  That wouldn’t be at all unexpected from the Tories; what is rather less expected is that is that all the other parties who’ve signed up to the report are so keen to join in.
Most organisations find from time to time that their requirements have changed and that there is an impact on the numbers and type of staff employed.  The point of redundancy schemes is that they aim to ease the transition and maintain the goodwill of those affected by change.  Under almost any scheme imaginable, those with the highest salary and the longest service are likely to receive the highest pay-outs.  That is a feature, rather than a flaw, in the process.
I’m no fan of the size of the pay differential between the highest and lowest paid staff in organisations, whether in the public or the private sector.  But merely criticising the numbers of pounds attached to the outcome of processes based on that differential looks like simple headline-chasing rather than addressing the underlying unfairness and inequality.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Living in the past

There seems no logical reason why a monarch whose only role in the government of the country is to do as she is told by ministers should be privy to the confidential documents and papers otherwise seen only by ministers.  And there’s even less reason for her children or grandchildren to have access to the same material.  The monarch doesn’t even need to know what is in the acts which she signs into existence, let alone the detail of the discussions which led to them.
Similarly, there is no logical reason why a mixed bunch of appointees, hereditary aristocrats, and senior clerics from one particular sect of one particular religious tendency should have any formal input into the laws which govern our behaviour.  Yet this, like the access of the monarch and her offspring to confidential material, is part of the fabric of the constitution of the UK.
The only reason why either practice survives is unwillingness on the part of successive governments to depart from history and tradition.  In all other aspects of activity, governments – of both parties – repeat the mantra that we must reform to be more ‘efficient’.  Removal of outdated practices is seen as inherently ‘good’ in almost every field – except when it comes to dealing with the remaining privileges of inheritance and rank.
If we were designing a constitutional structure from scratch, it’s hard to believe that many would even suggest either a hereditary head of state or the curiosity which is the House of Lords, let alone assign any powers or rights to either of them.  It’s even harder to believe that such suggestions would be taken seriously.
Tinkering on the fringes by restricting the powers of the Lords ever to disagree with the Commons, or debating which documents the monarch should or should not see, is missing the point.  I wouldn’t go as far as the French revolutionaries’ approach of “off with the heads”, but peaceful democratic abolition of both institutions is long overdue.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

More about Labour than UKIP

We heard on Monday that an “internal Labour analysis” is projecting that unless the party does more to counter UKIP, it could lose control of the Assembly in next May’s elections.  The first question that crossed my mind was about how genuine the analysis is.  From experience, it’s not unknown for people with an axe to grind to invent ‘internal’ documents with the specific aim of ‘leaking’ them to a friendly journalist.  But let’s assume for a moment that this one really is genuine.  On the basis of that assumption, it raised two other issues for me.
The first is that, looking at the detail of the newspaper report, the fear within Labour is that, if UKIP do well, Labour will lose seats to the Tories, Plaid, or the Lib Dems.  To anyone and everyone, really.  But on the numbers being quoted, that can only happen if Labour voters are over-represented amongst those switching to UKIP.  I find that entirely credible – the idea that there is some sort of reservoir of support for Labour which can never be attracted by the political ‘right’ is one that I’ve argued against previously.  It still surprises me, though, to see any Labour source admitting that what UKIP says is likely to be more attractive to Labour voters than to supporters of other parties.
And the second is that, even if UKIP do win 8 or 9 seats – as currently seems possible – and Labour fall to around 26 in consequence, in what sense does that mean that Labour will ‘lose control’ of the Assembly?  It would certainly mean that there would be more non-Labour members than Labour members – a balance of 34:26 – but if that 34 really does include 8 or 9 UKIP members, can anyone really foresee any outcome other than a Labour-led government?  Whether as a minority or in some sort of arrangement with Plaid or the Lib Dems (if there are any of the latter left), it is inconceivable on the basis of current polling that we will not still have a Labour First Minister after the elections.
For sure, without a clear overall majority, they will have to come to accommodations with one or other party to get their budget approved, and they may have to modify some of their legislative proposals; but the number of occasions when all 34 opposition AMs line up together to oppose Labour seems likely to be minimal.  Labour will still be in control, even if not as absolutely as they might like.
And that brings me back to my doubts about the bone fides of the leaked “analysis”.  No-one in Labour can really doubt the outcome any more than I do, and anyone in a position to be producing official (or even semi-official) analyses from the party would understand that.  Is the real story here more to do with Labour’s internal battles, and an attempt to undermine Corbyn by blaming him in advance for any success enjoyed by UKIP?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

What sort of future for Wales?

There were two stories in the media on Monday about Wales and the forthcoming EU referendum, both of which featured His Unroyal Hainness prominently.  I almost felt a little sorry for him after reading the first one, which said that he had been formally unveiled by Carwyn Jones, as though he were some sort of statue or commemorative plaque.  (Although, come to think of it, perhaps the comparison is not entirely without merit…)
The second was a reference to an article written by Hain and the Welsh Labour MEP, Derek Vaughan about the issues at stake in the referendum.  The headline was a little over the top, I thought.  “The very future of Wales is at stake” implies that somehow Wales might cease to exist if the vote goes the wrong way, as though we will somehow be wiped from the map.  But I suppose that a more realistic “Wales’ future outside the EU would not be the same as its future inside the EU” lacks in impact what it makes up for in truth.
Overall, the article was hugely disappointing.  Firstly, that was because so much of it concentrated on the argument that jobs depend on the EU.  I simply don’t accept that argument as being true – and I’m amongst those who want to stay in the EU.  It’s facile, and based on an assumption that the economy wouldn’t adapt to a new context.
The second issue that they spent many words discussing is the question of immigration.  Arguing that it’s easier to control immigration as a member than it would be outside is an obvious attempt to appeal to those who want out because of immigration, but the basis of their argument looks decidedly dodgy to me.  And even if they were right, the idea that the referendum on the EU is about the best way to control immigration is a long way short of putting a positive case for the EU.
Many of the advantages that they do mention – such as employee rights – don’t actually require the existence of the EU; they are things that any half-decent UK Government could have done anyway.  And there’s something very depressing about Labour politicians arguing that UK Governments, even of their own party, have only introduced such measures because the EU told them to.  That’s pretty close to conceding the case being put by opponents of membership that all these regulations have been ‘imposed’ on unwilling UK governments by ‘Brussels’.
We’re only having a referendum at all because of internal divisions within the Tory party.  A tactic adopted by Cameron to try and retain control of his own party has led to the electorate being asked to take a decision which looks increasingly likely to be made on the basis of a very shallow analysis with little thought about the sort of long term future we want to see.
To return to the lurid headline that I mentioned earlier, there actually is a sense in which the very future of Wales as a nation might depend on the outcome, although I don’t believe for a moment that it is what Hain and Vaughan – let alone the Western Mail’s headline writers – had in mind.  There is a huge difference between the sort of future we can have as a region of the EU (let alone if the aspirations of those of us who want to see Wales become a full member state come to pass) and the future we will have as a small periphery of an offshore island state.  It still doesn’t exactly challenge the continued existence of Wales, but it certainly makes a huge difference to what Wales actually is and can become.  The ‘national question’ is central to the debate, but is thus far hardly being mentioned.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Jobs for life

I have only limited sympathy for those poor Labour MPs who are being castigated for voting in favour of dropping bombs in Iraq.  Some of the threats and language contained in the messages were clearly unacceptable and have no place in rational political discourse; my sympathy is limited solely to those receiving those particular comments.
But much of what some of the MPs seem to be complaining about doesn’t look much different from the normal cajoling, threats and blackmail which are the stock-in-trade of the Whips’ Offices; and it looks as though some of the more delicate souls amongst them are really complaining more about the source of the responses than about their content.  How dare ordinary party members – let alone the voting public – threaten not to vote for MPs just because they disagree with them?
But why on earth shouldn’t members of any party, who have selected a candidate for election and then canvassed and leafletted on his or her behalf, have an absolute right to withdraw their support and demand an opportunity to select a candidate more in tune with their own views?  The concept of deselection or reselection of MPs is being treated as though it is utterly outrageous, and the MPs concerned sound as though they believe that they should have a job for life, regardless of what they do or say.  Why?  What gives them that right?  The very fact that they think they should have such a right underlines how far the Labour Party has drifted from being the property of its members.

Monday, 7 December 2015

'Raising' taxes

It’s unfortunate that the English language uses the same word – raise – to mean two different things in relation to taxation.  The first meaning is simply the imposition and collection of taxes; the second is to increase the level of those taxes.  The confusion between the two has inevitably coloured discussion about devolving taxation powers, and those who are opposed to the idea in principle are more than happy to exploit that linguistic confusion by encouraging the idea that devolving the power is equivalent to increasing the level of taxation.
In that context, it is in one sense encouraging that the leader of the Conservative group in the Assembly has taken to pledging that, in the inconceivable scenario that he is ever in power, his party will not use any of the new powers to increase the level of income tax.  Such a clear pronouncement should help to clarify the difference between the two meanings of the one word.
I’m far from certain though that it is really sensible or credible of them to promise, apparently in relation to any and every proposed taxation power for Wales, that they will use the powers to cut taxes.  It looks like a knee-jerk reaction.  But it also reveals that they understand that they will never have to deliver on any promises they make.  
I fear that the proportion of the population of Wales driven primarily by selfish motives when it comes to taxation is higher than many of us might wish to believe, but I’m fairly certain that it’s a long way short of a majority.  The number of people who care at least as much about what the government does with taxes – health, education etc. - seems to me to be significantly higher.  That’s what one would probably expect in a comparatively low income economy like Wales.
An electoral strategy based on criticising the Welsh Government for the poor standards of services such as health and education whilst at the same time promising to reduce significantly the total amount of money available to spend on services is a strategy which will no doubt appeal to the Tories’ core voters, and may help to reinforce their vote.  But it’s a strategy which they must surely realise will never take them anywhere close to electoral victory.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Does history work that way?

The debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday was about deploying UK forces and weaponry in Syria; but the MPs themselves managed to deploy plenty of colourful language.  Murderous, monstrous, medieval, mad, homicidal, death cult – at times it almost looked like a competition to see who could come up with the most condemnatory description – preferably involving at least a couple of alliterative ’m’s.
It’s generally easier to justify killing people if they can first be demonised and made into something ‘other’.  It’s a technique which has long been used against the ‘enemy’, whoever he may be at any particular time.  But serving the needs of those who seek to solve problems by aerial bombardment is not the same thing as serving the need to build a more peaceful world.  When it comes to defeating an ideology, demonization is as blunt an instrument as a bomb.
Some MPs – including Hilary Benn whose ‘summing up’ was almost the exact opposite of my understanding of the meaning of the term – deployed the ever-useful word ‘fascist’ to describe IS.
It’s true of course that IS (which, for reasons that I don’t pretend to understand, is a term which apparently may only ever be used if preceded by the words “so-called”, in a classic example of the way in which the BBC in particular use language to present a viewpoint rather than merely the facts) tolerate no dissent or alternative views.  And it’s true that fascists tend to take a similar position.  But it isn’t only fascists who take that position; and nor is such a position a necessary and inevitable concomitant of fascism.  It is not, in short, an adequate reason for determining that any individual or group is a fascist.
Labelling people is never any substitute for debate; indeed, it is often an obstacle to rational debate.  And ultimately, debate and the presentation of alternative ideas are necessary steps in defeating any set of ideas.  That’s not to say that there’s any hope or prospect of rational debate with the leaders of IS, so-called or not.  But not all its supporters or fighters are absolutists.  There are all sorts of reasons why some people have thrown in (or might be tempted to do so) their lot with an absolutist leadership.  Amongst those reasons are perceived or actual past injustices and conflicts, and religious differences internal to Islam.
Any meaningful long term strategy to defeat IS must surely include attempts at dialogue and understanding with those less absolutist supporters and potential supporters.  It’s likely to be a lengthy and frustrating process.  But bombing them with high-tech munitions – or simply labelling them with ever more pejorative insults – looks more likely to be counter-productive in the long run.
Perhaps it might help at least a little if we were to examine some of our own, fairly recent in historical terms, cultural norms.  We suffer from a prevailing attitude of short-termism, of demanding results and demanding them now.  In politics, the horizon rarely stretches further than the next election – and sometimes no further than tomorrow’s headline.  We’re used to rapid change.
But human history – real human history in its grand sweep of movements and ideas – doesn’t work that way.  Change may sometimes appear sudden, but analysis invariably reveals that the roots of even very sudden change go back a long way.  I agree with the wish of most of the world to see the defeat of the sort of absolutism which underpins movements like IS.  But the idea that that can be done quickly or militarily doesn’t sit easily with my understanding of human history.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Perhaps Wales is shrinking...

I don’t doubt the importance of the proposed Metro system for Cardiff and district.  And I can understand why its proponents and supporters are getting increasingly excited about the possibility of it coming to fruition.  But there is such a thing as hype.
The story on the subject in Monday’s Western Mail was a case in point – the printed version was headlined with the claim that it would be a “catalyst for transformation of Wales”.  It is, I suppose, possible that for some people Wales really is just that area around Cardiff bounded by Merthyr and Bridgend, but surely the First Minister should know better than to claim that an investment heavily geared to the needs of Cardiff and its hinterland can really transform “the economic and social prospects of … the country as a whole”?
Anyone making such a bold claim needs to be able to demonstrate exactly how putting such a high proportion of Wales’ transport investment into one corner of the country really delivers benefits to the rest.  It’s not that I doubt the value of transport infrastructure to those who benefit from it, but from a bit further west we’ve just heard that the electrification of the railway line to Swansea is to be delayed, and electrification even further west than that hasn’t even made it onto the agenda yet.
One of the driving forces behind demands for devolution to Wales has long been the perception that successive UK governments, of both colours, have favoured and prioritized investment in the South-east to the detriment of the rest of the UK.  Disappointment is an inadequate word to describe my reaction to seeing the same attitude becoming increasingly prevalent in Wales.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Losing the plot

One of the things that struck me shortly after being first elected to the Vale of Glamorgan council in 1979 was the different approach to items of expenditure.  The larger items, sometimes in the millions, were generally nodded through, whereas the smaller items were the subject of much more debate.  I remember a lengthy debate at one personnel committee about whether an officer should or should not be sent on a course costing a few hundred pounds.  My suggestion that minor decisions of that nature should really be operational ones made by officers wasn’t exactly well-received.
There’s a general point here.  Most of us find it easier to discuss and deal with sums of money which are within our experience.  Hundreds and thousands of pounds are ‘real’ amounts of money; millions are just numbers.  I suspect this is the underlying reason why so much of what passes for politics is concentrating on the smaller sums rather than the larger ones – just think about a number of recent press releases from the Taxpayers’ Alliance or the opposition parties in the Assembly talking about expenses and salaries.  It’s not that salaries and expenses aren’t important; it’s just that they are close to being insignificant in the context of overall public expenditure.
In the same way, a lot of the debate around the proposed reductions in the numbers of local authorities in Wales has been around the number of Chief Executives or Directors of Education, and the cost of employing 22 rather than, say, 8.  But that isn’t where any real savings will come from.
(And, as an aside, it’s by no means certain that these particular savings will actually be realised anyway.  If, for instance, 8 Directors of Education each appoint an assistant to look after each of the former council areas, the result could well be that there is a reduction in the number of Directors from 22 to 8, but the number of people doing their work increases from 22 to 30.  And no doubt the 8 will expect higher salaries than the 22 in respect of their increased responsibilities.  There are an awful lot of devils hiding in the detail here.)
If there are significant savings to be achieved, they won’t come from simple reductions in the numbers of chief officers.  They will come from combining teams and reducing jobs at much lower levels in the organisation; they will come from harmonising systems and procedures; and they will come at a cost of a significant initial investment.
Last week, the Welsh Government produced a headline figure of £650million savings.  Reluctant as I am to agree with the Tories, I can’t help but feel that this is, as they say, a figure plucked out of the air.  I don’t know whether it’s an accurate figure or not, but what we can say with a high degree of certainty is that any savings that are achieved will largely come at the expense of jobs.  Jobs will be cut directly by dictat of the Labour government – and they seem quite proud of it.
But, hold on a minute – is saving money really the driver for local government reorganisation?  The savings seem to have become central to the debate, but wasn’t the original argument more about taking a strategic view and addressing the perceived failures in the services being delivered?  When did that argument turn into a financial one?  I was never convinced that reorganisation was the best way to improve performance in any event; but reorganisation aimed at saving money is almost certainly not.