Thursday, 31 March 2016

Ignoring difficult questions

Instinctively, it seems to me that anyone who took to any part of the Welsh media to argue against government intervention in the steel industry in the light of the Tata announcement would be a very brave person indeed.  But someone actually has, and in fairness, some of the points he makes deserve consideration rather than outright rejection (which is not the same as saying that I concur with his conclusions).
Much of the reaction to Tata’s decision looks like knee-jerk stuff – ‘the government must do something’ – rather than a thought-out strategy for responding to the underlying problem of a globalised economy in which an outdated industry in Wales is struggling to compete.  Paul Swinney’s point about it not being clear how any government bail-out “would help turn around the plant’s fortunes” is an entirely valid point to raise, and one which cannot and should not be dismissed lightly.
He also questions whether we should even be trying to compete with lower wage economies elsewhere for such basic industries as steel, or whether we should accept that our future lies elsewhere.  That’s not an easy question to be asking either, but it is another brave one.  For various reasons which I won’t go into here, I don’t think that it’s the right approach, but merely asking the question raises doubts in my own mind as to whether either the Welsh or the UK governments have any sort of coherent strategy either way.  Sometimes they seem to be paying lip-service to the idea of maintaining a heavy industry element in the economy; at other times their actions seem to suggest that they’ve already written off that approach and are only interested in the new.  But committing to a coherent strategy, one way or the other, would surely be better than merely reacting to events.
Many of those suggesting some form of nationalisation seem to see it as a purely temporary situation, pending the onward sale of some or all assets.  It’s an approach which meets the requirement of ‘being seen to do something’ in the short term, but could all too easily lead to a cherry-picking of assets with the biggest loss-makers simply ending up as the responsibility of Government.  It doesn’t look much like a long term strategy – nationalisation is being regarded here as a response to market failure rather than as an option for a sound long-term economy.
Adam Price’s article in today’s Western Mail offers a glimpse of a more forward-looking strategy in which we would have a Welsh steel company with an entire portfolio from steel production to high-end value-added products.  If the steel industry is to be a viable part of the Welsh economy for the long term, that ‘entire portfolio’ is surely one of the most important factors; the more conventional approach of insisting that each individual component turns a decent profit is a recipe for ending up with nothing. 
It’s not a problem-free solution, however, and I’m far from certain that it isn’t glossing over some of the issues.  One of the problems causing the industry in Wales to lose out to competitors elsewhere is precisely the fragmented and dispersed nature of the industry here compared to more integrated plants elsewhere.  Steel travelling by road or rail from one plant to another to be processed is a factor in the production process which places us at a disadvantage and one whose rational resolution in order to make the industry more viable would itself be far from painless.
And that issue of competition with other plants elsewhere brings us to the central economic question which we need to be asking.  The intensity of that competition itself varies over time.  That’s partly a result of the economic cycle; the demand for steel is closely related to the health of the economy at a point in time.  It’s also partly a result of developing economies not wanting to be dependent on others for basic materials.
Nationalisation in itself, whether in full or in part, addresses neither of those issues and that makes it very much a short term response, because neither issue is going to disappear.  Given the immediacy of the requirement to respond and the failure of governments to have an industrial strategy in place, it may well be the most realistic option, but unless there is a longer term industrial strategy to underpin it, it’s unlikely to offer much for the long term.
Capitalism has, over the past half-century or so, become increasingly short-term in its outlook, but there are parts of the economy which require a longer term view to be taken.  Non-interventionism has become almost a creed, for Tory and Labour alike, who prefer to let ‘the market’ decide.  But what if ‘the market’ is unable or unwilling to take the longer term view required?  If government won’t do so either, then we are at the mercy of short-termism.  What is being presented and treated as a short term crisis in one industry is actually drawing attention to a wider economic failure – a failure of vision, strategy, and direction.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Changing the arguments

The former Cabinet Secretary has today challenged the idea that the UK could effectively negotiate its way out of the EU and into a series of new treaties and agreements within the two years noted in the EU treaties for the departure of a member state.  The points he makes seem reasonable to me, although the suggestion that it could take as long as 10 years seems a bit excessive.  Given that no member state has ever left in the past, there is no precedent on which to base a judgement as to where within that range of 2 to 10 years the actual timescale would lie.
In any case, and regardless of the context in which the comments have been placed, it doesn’t look like an argument either for or against exit to me.  Whilst in general terms ending any period of certainty as soon as possible by a rapid series of negotiations would be in the best interests of all concerned, there can be little doubt that the negotiations would be complex and lengthy in practice as all concerned sought to get them ‘right’ from their perspective.
What also struck me in the piece, though, was the comparison with Greenland.  The situation of Greenland as a small country was a good deal more straightforward, but it still took some three years between a vote to leave and the actual departure. 
The situation of Greenland, in this context, is interesting from another aspect as well.  It actually voted to leave the EU and still it took three years to negotiate its way to the exit.
Contrast that with, for instance, the position of Scotland or Catalonia.  In both cases, we are told by opponents of independence that any decision to become independent would instantly leave them outside the EU even if they specifically indicated as part of the independence referendum that they wanted to remain, and that they would have to spend many years negotiating re-admission. 
It’s not an exact parallel of course; Greenland remains formally part of Denmark despite being on a trajectory to an increasing degree of home rule, whereas in Scotland or Catalonia the people would be voting to leave an existing member state.  But there’s enough of a parallel to ask why a country voting for more home rule which asks to leave the EU gets three years to negotiate an orderly exit whereas a country voting for independence which wants to remain would, apparently, be booted out immediately.
The ‘explanation’ for this inconsistency lies in political messaging and scaremongering, not in the cool hard assessment of reality which is what would actually happen.  The ‘arguments’ put forward depend more on the point that the politicians are trying to ‘prove’ at the time than on hard fact.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My dad's bigger than your dad

I’m not sure quite what impact the pro and anti EU camps think lists of prominent businessmen supporting their respective causes will have.  The fact that one bunch of fat-cats support remaining and another bunch support leaving doesn’t do a lot for me.  Perhaps it will swing some votes, perhaps not.
But arguing over who has the longest, or the most accurate, or the most credible list of fat-cats is a debate even further removed from the core discussion about the merits or otherwise of EU membership.  It’s more reminiscent of a squabble amongst children than a grown-up debate about the future direction of the country, however one defines ‘country’ in this context.
There are two alternative views as to what the impact of leaving the EU would be on business, and of course the reasons for those differing views should be a part of any rational debate about the decision which is to be taken.  But does anyone really believe that the question of who is right on the issue boils down to who has the longest list of supporters? 

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Motivation and cynicism

A couple of weeks ago, Roger Scully’s Elections in Wales blog carried a guest post by a new colleague of his, Dr Stuart Fox.  It dealt with the subject of young voters and how to appeal to them.  It concluded, in essence, that the difference between younger voters and their older peers isn’t about the issues that concern them so much as about their willingness to vote at all; in broad terms, their concerns largely mirror those of other sections of the electorate.
I thought that it was an interesting conclusion.  By and large, the thrust of what the various parties are doing to attract younger voters assumes almost the direct opposite, and is largely based on the assumption that younger voters do have a different agenda and can be motivated to go out and vote for party X by an electoral offering which targets those policy areas which the parties assume are of direct personal interest to the target group.
In a sense, the parties are behaving in a consistent fashion here in assuming that issues like tuition fees and voting age will motivate younger voters – they also assume that issues such as pensions will motivate older voters, and so on.  It’s possible of course that the parties are right and the pollsters are wrong on this.  By that, I don’t necessarily mean that the pollsters are wrong in the numbers or in their analysis of the numbers – the post shows plenty of evidence to support the conclusions and analysis drawn from them.
But the validity of all that depends on the veracity of the responses given by people when asked the questions, and there are two obvious ways in which the answers might be invalid.  The first is that people might just be lying.  It is at least possible that people might say one thing (because they might not want to appear selfish) but do another; I seem to remember that there was some evidence of that phenomenon a few years ago in relation to the idea of an income tax rise.  The other is that people might be drawing a distinction in their own minds between what they see as being the ‘most important issues’ facing the country and what might actually motivate them to vote as individuals.  If either of those were to be true, than perhaps the parties have got it right after all.
But what if they’re not?  What if the responses given are entirely truthful, so that the analysis and conclusions drawn are entirely valid?  That would suggest (and not just for young people) that the electorate was going to decide much more on the basis of what they feel is right for the country as a whole rather than on a narrowly selfish basis. (And I realise, of course, that ‘group selfishness’ in this context isn’t at all the same thing as altruism).  That would suggest that continued and repeated appeals to the more selfish instincts of particular groups of people might simply add to the cynicism about politicians and parties rather than improve the motivation to participate.   

And I suspect that that cynicism, coupled with a feeling that ‘it doesn’t really make any difference’ (given that the offerings are all so similar) might actually be a more accurate reason for low turnout than any failure to ‘press the right buttons’ for any particular section of the electorate.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Customers and employees

There was a report on Sunday claiming that the introduction of the national Living Wage will disproportionately affect Welsh jobs, because “we have a more economically instable (sic) environment".
I don’t doubt that for companies trading on the margins, any increase in costs could indeed tip the company into the red.  But how viable really, in economic terms, is any company which can only survive by paying its staff less than the amount which the government calculates they need to live on?  Paying staff a low wage and then depending on those staff receiving in-work benefits to survive is a form of back-door subsidy to any company affected; in essence it transfers part of the cost of wages from the employer to the state.  And since the state has no magic money tree, it transfers the cost of wages to taxation.
There was another aspect of this which struck me as well.  It was also stated that "We're seeing accelerated rates of shop closures in Wales - we're also seeing higher rates of footfall decline”.  I don’t doubt that; it's something we see in our towns regularly.  But the question is why it is happening.  At its simplest, people don’t feel that they have the money to spend by going to the shops and businesses.  Arguing that, therefore, wages should be kept low seems to me to be a somewhat curious response to a problem of a lack of money in the pockets of customers.
But it goes to the heart of the real problem which the businesses complaining about the living wage have.  They seem at times not to understand that employees are also customers – and it’s an underlying problem with the current economic paradigm in general.  Companies look at their own situation, and from that perspective, minimising wages can seem like a good idea.  But seen from a wider perspective, it’s simply a race to the bottom which nobody wins in the end.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Fear and courage

I’ve commented previously that it is silly for those in favour of leaving the EU to be arguing that it would not be an economic shock.  Far better that they accept that it would be and argue for that being a positive rather than a negative.  I’d still be against for a host of other reasons, but it would be a more honest argument, and I think a much better one.  Economic shocks aren’t always a bad thing, and they can lead to good results.  It was interesting to see today that one supporter of Brexit has done just that.
Now if only I could persuade people in Wales to see the prospect of independence in the same light.  There simply are no certainties either way, but sometimes a degree of uncertainty can be an inspiration and an incentive rather than something to be frightened of.  Instead, too many people see it as something which has to be removed and eliminated before we can even consider the possibility.
That underlines the fact that, in some ways, it isn’t economics which holds us back – it’s a lack of imagination and courage.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A sad ending

The proposed ban of e-cigarettes has been strongly debated over many months.  The argument over whether they are a gateway to smoking or an aid to quitting is one where the evidence is far from categorical one way or the other.  But given the lack of regulation of the manufacture and content of the devices, the uncertainty of the impact on non-vapers, and the concern that it may be a way of re-normalising smoking, I’ve leaned, on the whole, to support of the Welsh Government’s position on the issue.
It’s puzzled me, though, that it became such a party political issue.  In the absence of absolute clear-cut evidence one way or the other, it seemed to me – until yesterday – that Plaid was the one party in the Assembly which called the issue the right way, leaving it to the decision of individual AMs to decide how to vote.  There are some issues on which taking a stance as a party doesn’t really seem to me to be essential, and suggests a lack of capacity by AMs to reach an informed judgement.
To say that yesterday was a disappointment would be an understatement.  The cheap shot by Leighton Andrews was poor and unnecessary.  For a government which was depending on the support of members of Plaid to pass a key piece of legislation shortly afterwards, folly is an inadequate description.  And it was indeed, as Plaid have said, an example of the arrogance which Labour can display on a regular basis towards opposition parties.
But Plaid’s reaction was no better.  Not only have they thrown out a ban which some of their own AMs supported, they’ve also thrown away a lot of other stuff which was non-controversial and generally welcomed, in a fit of tantrum.
I find it hard to decide which was the most unedifying – the Minister’s cheap shot, or Plaid’s reaction to it.  It’s kindergarten politics rather than a grown-up approach to legislation.  I know that some AMs think that emulating the style of Westminster is somehow a step towards maturity, but it really isn’t.  This is the sort of thing that happens all too easily when people find themselves in a bubble, isolated from the real world outside, where who said what to whom has a level of intense importance to them which is unlikely to be shared by other than the most tribal and partisan of supporters outside the bubble.
It’s a very sad note on which to end the fourth Assembly.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Not much of an argument

It’s not often that I find myself defending the leader of the Conservative Assembly group; in fact it may even be a first.  But yesterday’s attack on him for alleged hypocrisy in accepting payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) whilst advocating leaving the EU seemed to me to be more than a little misplaced.  I see no inconsistency between arguing for a different way of doing things on the one hand and making the best of the current situation on the other.  It would be unkind of me (although that won’t stop me) to point out that the criticism seems to be coming mostly from his own party, but whoever is doing it, attacking him personally for accepting farm subsidies from the EU which are not currently available from the UK Government is a long way removed from grown-up debate.  

(A more accurate accusation of hypocrisy would compare his support for farming subsidies to well-off farmers such as himself with his opposition to benefit payments for the poorest in society.  When is a benefit not a benefit? The answer, it seems, is that it depends on to whom it is being paid.)
The spokesperson for Davies is entirely correct to say that the money is effectively funded from the UK’s contributions; and those campaigning for a ‘leave’ vote are equally right in saying that, freed of having to pay the money into the EU, the UK government could simply make the payments direct to UK farmers.  There is no magic money tree in Brussels from which the money springs forth, no more than there is a magic money tree in London from which the block grant to the Assembly springs forth.  In effect, making payments to ‘Brussels’ (or any central government) is, in part, a redistributive mechanism; all countries make payments in and all countries receive payments out, but the proportion of receipts is not the same as the proportion of payments.
On the question of the flow of funds to Wales, the ‘remainers’ are repeatedly asking us to accept that we can trust Brussels more than London to pass funding on to Wales.  I happen to think that they are right on that question (which, incidentally, is part of the reason for a nationalist being more supportive of membership of the EU than of the UK); but that’s because I see the EU as being instinctively more redistributive than the UK.  (It’s not as redistributive as I’d wish, but we’re dealing here with the two options which are on the table, rather than what I might wish for.) 
The issue does, though, draw attention yet again to one of the weaknesses of the ‘remain’ campaign.  I just don’t feel that repeatedly telling us ‘you can trust Brussels more than you can trust us’ is the cleverest argument to be putting.  Politicians supporting continued membership of the EU seem almost afraid to put the underlying argument – that of a deliberately redistributive policy – before us, but that is, in essence, the real difference on this issue.  The ‘leavers’ are playing an essentially selfish hand – we can keep all our money and not pay any to those foreigners across the water - whilst the ‘remainers’ are effectively arguing for a system of active aid to the poorest regions of the EU.  But instead of putting that argument of principle, which actually equates Wales with other countries and nations within the EU and argues for the institution in principle, the ‘remainers’ are responding to selfishness by trying to put a selfish spin on their line as well – ‘we (Wales) will do better in than out’.  It’s not an argument which does much for me.
On the specific of the CAP, there’s another point as well.  As a rule, I tend to argue that trying to predict whether something will or will not change in the future is a dodgy business.  In principle, we can no more be certain that the CAP will continue unchanged than we can be certain that the UK Government would simply replace the CAP subsidies with UK subsidies.  I’ll make an exception in this case, though.  Despite the widespread understanding and agreement that the CAP needs to change, there are so many vested interests and obstacles to change that I think we can be reasonably certain that we will see no significant change any time soon.  However, arguing that the EU is sclerotically unable to make necessary changes doesn’t strike me as the most brilliant argument for continued membership either.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Financial black holes

London’s Mayor has done his best today to ‘warn off’ Obama from intervening in the EU referendum by expressing the clear preference of the US for the UK to remain a member.  I’m not sure how good an idea it is for Cameron to be orchestrating such support for his position from his friends abroad.  Personally, I suspect that it is likely to be counter-productive on the whole.
Whatever, as part of his comments, Johnson came out with this gem: "There is no country in the world that defends its own sovereignty with such hysterical vigilance as the United States of America.  This is a nation born from its glorious refusal to accept overseas control."
It’s a very poor comparison with the question of EU membership of course – the UK gets more of a say in the affairs of the EU than it ever wanted to allow the citizens of the US.  Political rhetoric only needs to sound good, though.
But it also reminded me of this piece on Wings Over Scotland last week, drawing attention to the arguments of those who opposed independence for the US, on the grounds that they couldn’t afford it.  However, the ‘refusal to accept overseas control’ proved stronger than that.  And for a poor and hopelessly dependent economy, things didn’t turn out so badly in the end.
On the other hand, if they’d had to wait until they could produce a budget showing that they really could be self-sufficient – the bar set by many for Wales and Scotland – they’d probably still be waiting.  And no doubt the opponents of American independence would now be pointing to the latest figures claiming that there was a $544 billion black hole in the plans of those demanding independence, just like they’re doing in the case of Scotland at present.
The point?  Simply that the willingness to accept responsibility is the important factor.  Our future is ultimately what we make it.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Pantomime decision-making

The trail of poor arguments from both sides in the EU debate continues unabated.  The out side claim that leaving the EU would enable the UK government to tear up a lot of the rules governing the behaviour of companies in the UK.  It’s true, of course, that the government could decide to scrap some regulations, change others, or add new ones as it wished.  But for any company then wishing to trade with the EU, it simply means that they would need to comply with two different regulatory frameworks, one for the home market and the other for trade with the EU.  Perhaps I’m missing something here, but I fail to see how that amounts to a guaranteed ‘reduction’ in what they like to call ‘red tape’ even for companies trading only in the UK – for those trading with the EU as well, it looks more like a potential increase to me.
In another aspect of the debate, I heard a Labour politician claim recently that workers’ rights are threatened by a decision to leave the EU.  Why?  Whilst it’s certainly true that there are a number of EU directives covering workers’ rights, there’s absolutely no reason why any UK government outside the EU could not protect all those rights – or even improve them.  A Labour argument that those rights would be threatened by an exit tells us that Labour either has no confidence at all that it can win a general election, or that Labour hasn’t the will to protect workers’ rights unless they’re told to do so by someone else.  I suspect both are true.
And another thing on the EU debate - it was claimed recently that leaving the EU would cause an economic shock.  As is ever the case, the discussion from that point on descended into a rather pointless pantomime argument along the lines of “Oh no it won’t” / “Oh yes it will”.  A more illuminating approach would surely be to ask how much of a shock and whether economic shocks are always a bad thing anyway.  Sometimes, shaking things up a bit is a positive, not a negative, even if the positive effect is more long term. 
Pantomime is a lot easier than reasoned debate, but judging which side is shouting loudest isn’t much of a basis for taking a decision – not outside the theatre, anyway.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Risk and outcome

Reaction to the appearance of the Governor of the Bank of England in front of MPs yesterday concentrated on his view that exiting the EU represented a risk to the economy in the short term.  In reality, his position overall was rather more neutral than that on the question, since he went on to say that in the longer term, no-one could be certain whether the overall impact of exit would be a good thing or a bad thing for the UK.  It all depends on what happens afterwards.  (That is something of a parallel, by coincidence, with the point that I made about Welsh independence a few days ago.)
I don’t really understand the reaction of those supporting exit, in trying to argue both that there is no risk involved and that anyone who says that there is must therefore be biased.  Anyone in the position of the governor must be continually looking at what might happen in the future and pondering whether and to what extent it increases uncertainty in the short term.  He would be guilty of dereliction of duty if he didn’t identify that a major decision with uncertain consequences poses a risk to current policies and strategies.
If I were supporting exit, I think that I’d be responding in rather a different way.  The question is surely not whether a UK exit would represent a shock to the economic system, but whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, how much of a shock, how long it would last, and whether the long term benefits would outweigh the short term risks.  It’s an approach which might also help to build a more informed debate on the issue.  Concentrating instead on whether the Governor is or is not entering the political realm looks like either a lack of confidence in their own arguments, or falling into the default short-termism which characterises UK politics.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A costly 'opportunity'?

The various Companies Acts, and equivalent legislation in other countries, place statutory responsibilities on directors of companies to act at all times in a way which protects the interests of their companies, and even more so, their shareholders.  This can sometimes be ‘inconvenient’ for those of a more reckless bent, and one of the reasons for some of the more spectacular company failures over the years has been the willingness of directors to either fall in line or allow themselves to be browbeaten into compliance with the will of others rather than raise a challenge at the appropriate time.
When a director holds out against such pressure, it's an event notable for its rarity.  The resignation of the Finance Director at EDF is one such example.  Now I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know, the detail of the financial state of the company, or the extent to which that company would really be jeopardized by a decision to proceed with the construction of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley.  And it’s always possible that his judgement is simply wrong, and that the judgement of others is better.
Nevertheless, it concerns me – and I think it should concern us all – that the reaction of the UK and French governments has been not that his concerns should be examined in more detail, but more a sense of relief that a perceived ‘obstacle’ has been removed.  From the outside, it looks like a case of political will triumphing over financial reality.
At one level, whether a particular company succeeds or fails isn’t the issue; companies fail regularly.  But at another, we are dealing here with a construction project with very long term implications.  I’ve long been sceptical about the reality of the promises that the companies which build and operate nuclear power stations will be around long enough, and have the available reserves put aside from operating profit, to be able to pay the clean-up and decommissioning costs of nuclear power plants. 
If those stations have been built on shaky financial grounds in the first place, it becomes even more likely that we as taxpayers will end up picking up the tab.  For an economy the size of the UK, it will be a substantial cost; for an economy the size of Wales, it would be a crippling cost.  Hinkley, the current example where this issue comes to the fore, isn’t in Wales.  But Wylfa is – and it would be a mistake to assume that the economics of that project are any more likely to stack up than those of Hinkley.  Rather than seeing the resignation of M. Piquemal as an opportunity, governments really should be looking into his concerns rather more thoroughly.

Monday, 7 March 2016

For better or for worse

A question which often comes up in relation to independence is whether it would make people in Wales better or worse off.  It’s a very easy question to ask, but a great deal harder to answer.
I can certainly envisage an independent Wales in which the energies and talents of the people are harnessed positively and constructively to build a better future for all who live here.  I can also envisage an independent Wales in which we elect the same old politicians to do the same old things and Wales continues to limp along behind the UK average.  Choosing independence does not, in itself, guarantee choosing a different way of doing things. 
By the same token, I can envisage a future for Wales within the UK where either of those two outcomes are possible as well.  Whilst we can definitively say, in empirical terms, that the status quo isn’t working terribly well for Wales, it’s impossible to be entirely certain that the alternative wouldn’t be just as bad in simple economic terms, because that depends on what we do with independence, not on the mere fact of it.
That in turn means that the only answer that I can give those who want me to say whether Wales would be better or worse off with independence is that ‘it all depends’.  If we simply replicate the structures and policies which are currently the norm, then we can hardly expect to make much difference – if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.  If, on the other hand, we make the best use of the tools that would then be available to us, then there is no fundamental reason why we should not do a lot better.  We are no more innately poor or stupid than any of the other nations in Europe, or indeed the wider world.
The question becomes one of probabilities, in one sense.  Is it more likely that taking responsibility and doing things for ourselves will concentrate our minds and efforts on improving things in Wales, or is it more likely that someone else will do that for us?  Do we place our trust and faith in our own ability to turn Wales around, or do we sit back and moan about others not doing it for us?
I can’t prove, in completely definitive terms, which produces the best outcomes; but I have a strong belief that taking responsibility for ourselves is very much more likely to produce a better outcome over the long term.
For those who want to reduce the whole question to one about whether we’d be materially better off or not, and to receive a definitive answer to that question, I have to accept that my answer is unlikely to be an adequate one.  It’s an honest answer, though; more honest than the position of those, on either side of the debate, who claim to know with absolute certainty that the option which they favour would be the best.  But simple economics is not, and has never been, the prime motivation of most of those of us who want Wales to become independent. 
I can understand why some supporters of independence ‘in principle’, when faced with a question to which they can’t give a sufficiently positive answer, prefer to punt the whole question into the long grass, and present it as an aspiration for the distant future rather than as a serious alternative way forward.  It’s a cop-out though; and it’s not at all clear how or when they would ever feel able to put the question on the agenda.  But, as things stand, we are effectively abdicating responsibility for our future, and complaining about what others are doing (or failing to do) to us and for us.  I want us to take responsibility ourselves with the aim of doing better.  That question of accepting responsibility is about a lot more than mere economics.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Voting for 'me'

Earlier this week, an opinion poll suggested that the health service would be the top priority issue for people voting in the Assembly elections in May.  Whilst I can’t dispute the findings of the poll itself – I’m sure that it’s an accurate reflection of what people said – I wonder what it actually means.  The implication is that those who see health as their top issue will sit down and carefully compare the detailed promises of each party on the subject and come to a conclusion about which party is proposing the policies which will do most to improve the health service in Wales before going out and making their mark alongside the name of the appropriate party and candidate.
Years of political campaigning, however, tell me that it hasn’t worked that way in the past, and it is unlikely to work that way in the future.  It seems to me much more likely that voters will use their general perceptions and prejudices about parties to justify voting in much the same way as they would have voted anyway; the number of voters swayed by detailed policy commitments is a lot lower than politicians and the media would have us believe.
The question of what motivates people to vote as they do has also come up in comments on a few recent posts on this blog, most recently here.  One of my anonymous ‘friends’ argued that “People vote 'for' a reasonable expectation of a better standard of living.  And people vote 'against' anything that is likely to get in the way of an anticipated improvement in standard of living”.  In a rather more nuanced contribution, Democritus argued that “when it comes to votes of first order importance … the main issue tends to revolve around which choice is likely on balance to make the polity as a whole or the voter as an individual better, or at least not worse, off”.
If it were really true that most people vote in accordance with the more extreme interpretation of that perspective, then it would set a very high – (perhaps impossible, for reasons I’ve touched on before and will return to in the future) – bar to achieving independence, because it would require us to convince the majority of people in Wales that they could be certain of being personally materially better off as a result.  Even the more nuanced position which ‘merely’ requires people to be convinced that we’d be materially better off as a whole (or at least no worse off) is still a fairly high bar to set.
Personally, I’m not so certain that either of these positions stands up well to detailed examination, although I’m closer to agreeing with the second than the first. 
Whilst there are some individuals who really do vote at elections on the basis of naked short term self-interest, I wonder how general that really is.  I'd agree that it has become more common in recent years; I’d put the turning point at around 1979 - although whether the election of that year led to a change in attitude or caught a mood which was growing anyway is more of a moot point.  In either event, from that point on, the Tories positively encouraged a more selfish and self-interested approach, and Labour caught up under Blair.  Much of what passes for politics since then has seen parties (and not just those two – the infection has spread) carefully crafting their offerings to seek to appeal to the perceived self-interest of selected target groups.  And the media have aided and abetted in that process.  But does it really govern the voting behaviour of the majority?
It’s also possible to argue, of course, that even people who don’t vote on the basis of such narrow personal interests nevertheless vote for what they see as being the best outcome for some larger group of which they are members, which is still voting on the basis of self-interest albeit in a more diffuse fashion.  They could be voting for what they think is best for their children or grandchildren; for their socio-economic class; for their nation; or even for the planet as a whole.  All of these can be interpreted as self-interest of a form, even if at one or more removes.
There are occasions, however, when what looks like a vote in favour of an economic self-interest is actually little more than a rationalisation of a much darker motive dressed in the clothing of economics.  I’m thinking here of the antipathy towards immigration, usually expressed in terms of jobs or economic costs such as benefits no matter how much that rationalisation is at variance with the facts.  But if we were to interpret self-interest more widely again, then I suppose that we could see ‘not wanting to have more foreigners in the country’ as little more than a variant on the theme of self-interest.
All of the above assumes, in one way or another, that electors are considering all the options before voting and that voting is a considered and rational act.  I wonder.  In my time at university I read about the work of Graham Wallas who argued as long ago as 1908 (Human Nature in Politics) that voting is largely the result of habit based on irrational assumptions.  That still seems as perspicacious an assessment now as it did when I first read about in in 1971.  To the extent that the electorate as a whole votes on the basis of self-interest, I rather suspect that it is more a question of viewing self-interest through a prism based on pre-existing prejudices and assumptions.  That includes the rather simplistic, and hopelessly out-of-date, perception that Labour is for the workers and the Tories are for the bosses.
None of the above means that voting behaviour can’t and won’t change, but it helps to explain why change is often slow.  Even where change appears sudden (Scotland for instance?), that is usually the result of a process where perceptions have been changed over a much longer period.  Sudden voting change doesn’t come from nowhere.
What does all this mean for the independence project in Wales?  Two things, it seems to me.  The first is that a vote for independence can only follow – never precede – a lengthy process of changing the perceptions through which people view the issue; and we will never do that by simply parking the issue until things ‘get better’ by themselves.  And secondly, that convincing people that we should be independent isn’t simply a question of demonstrating direct and incontrovertible economic benefit; those who argue that it is are not merely postponing the question, they’re setting what looks to be an unsurmountable barrier, which simply makes me wonder about their real commitment to the aim.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A question of trust

One of the points made frequently by those who wish to see the UK leave the EU is that the ‘European’ funds which areas such as Wales receive aren’t really European at all; they’re just UK funds cycled through Brussels.  On this basis, the argument goes, any UK government outside the EU could simply give the money directly to Wales and cut out the middle man.
The logic of that is inescapable, and the usual counter argument is that whilst it may theoretically be true, the UK government could not be depended on to do that.  I agree with that as well in practice, but boiling the issue down to who we trust least means that it isn’t really an economic argument at all.
Last week, when he was in Wales, Cameron himself made it clear that he could not and would not guarantee to replace EU funding with equivalent UK funding in the event of a UK exit.  It was refreshingly honest, but I can’t help feeling that it’s rather strange for any politician, and perhaps especially for a Prime Minister, to try and win any argument by saying, in effect, “You can’t trust me”.  It’s a strange world sometimes.