Friday, 9 June 2017

An initial reaction

At one level, not a lot has changed; it is clear that we will still have a Tory Government, which will be able to rely on the members of the DUP for support on most issues, even without a formal agreement or coalition.  Yet at another level a great deal has changed; a Prime Minister who chose to make the election all about how strong she was and how she needed to strengthen her hand has become a Prime Minister who has demonstrated how weak she is and has weakened her own hand.  It was a spectacular miscalculation.
In terms of the immediate problem in hand, it does not change the fact of the Brexit vote; there is still no majority in parliament for revisiting the decision or allowing a second vote when the details are clear.  What has changed is that there is no longer a majority in the House of Commons for a form of Brexit which involves leaving both the single market and the Customs Union.  Even the DUP, as I understand their position, prefer continued membership of both whilst being outside the EU itself; and there are some members on the Tory benches – even some strong Brexiteers - who would also prefer that scenario, for a period at least, and who are rather less committed to the hard-line anti-immigrant rhetoric of people like May.
However, a preference for that outcome isn’t the same as a willingness to support the concessions which will be necessary to achieve it.  Whilst membership of the European Economic Area can offer many of the economic benefits of membership of the EU, it would come at a price, in terms of acceptance of EU rules, acceptance of the authority of the ECJ, annual payments into the EU, and a willingness to accept freedom of movement.  Without compromise on at least some of those, it’s hard to see how the parliamentary majority can be translated into a deal.
I find it hard to see how even May, with her recently well-demonstrated ability to stand on her head whilst arguing that she hasn’t moved, can make any of the necessary compromises – replacing her is probably the first prerequisite for a change in the UK’s position to a more pragmatic stance.  The good news is that her party will probably see to that, even if not immediately.  The second prerequisite is probably for the Labour Party to drop its insistence on an end to free movement and be a bit more open to compromise.  At the moment, I’m not sure how likely that is; they seem to have hooked themselves on an anti-immigration peg in the belief that it was electorally necessary.
Thinking around the alternative futures for Wales, I remain convinced that reversing Brexit is the best option, and I remain disappointed that so few are making that case.  But continued membership of the single market and Customs Union through the EEA would at least offer a fast-track return to the EU at some future date – either for the UK as a whole or for an independent Wales (and Scotland).  I can at least see a route forward for an independent Wales in that context, which I could not see in the context of the type of Brexit being pursued by May.  However, yesterday’s result was not enough to make me feel optimistic about such an outcome – just a little less pessimistic.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Appearing tough

There are three things which the Tories can normally be relied upon to do when a response is needed to any question of ‘Laura Norder’.  The first is to blame someone or something else, the second is to restrict citizens’ rights, and the third is to promise tougher penalties.  And, sure enough, the Prime Minister has rehearsed all three over the past day or two in response to the atrocities in Manchester and London.  And they’re all as irrelevant in this case as usual.
The implied blame in this case is a combination of incorporating human rights legislation into UK law, and making the UK subject to ‘foreign’ courts, which actually dare to uphold the relevant legislation.  It’s a convenient scapegoat, but it is being used to divert attention from the fact that, as Home Secretary, Theresa May herself failed to protect the UK using the already adequate powers which she had.  And part of the reason for that failure brings us to the second strand of her response.
Taking away, or reducing, citizens’ rights is always their preferred option.  In general, it often seems as though they’d really prefer it if citizens didn’t have any rights at all, and just did whatever they were told – the surprising thing is that so many people seem to accept that it’s a good idea, but then, they probably are assuming that it will only affect ‘someone else’.  But in many ways, tearing up our protections against over-intrusive security services is a way of making up for a lack of resources within those services.  And that’s what ties the first and the second strand together – the problem isn’t that someone else is to blame, nor that human rights prevent the proper operation of the security services, it is that the resources available to those services have been consciously and deliberately reduced over recent years by a Home Secretary whose priority was financial.  And let’s just remind ourselves who that Home Secretary was.
In the case of the third strand, the response is just plain silly.  The argument is that knowing that there will be longer jail sentences for perpetrators of crime makes them less likely to commit crime.  I can see how that might conceivably work in the case of, say, burglary, but it depends on the idea that the burglar will sit down and do a cost-benefit analysis of the potential gain from the burglary and the potential pain of the jail term.  That seems highly unlikely to me; insofar as our hypothetical burglar does any weighing of the pros and cons in advance, the factor most likely to weigh in his or her mind is the probability of getting caught.  (And that, of course, brings us straight back to the question of the level of police resources…)  However, in the case of our would-be terrorist attacker, he or she has already assumed that the outcome of the attack will be his or her death; either through use of a suicide bomb or else by police action.  The idea that knowing that they face a sentence of 30 years rather than 20, say, if they survive is hardly likely to be much of a deterrent.  Could it be a deterrent to those aiding and abetting the actual attackers?  That also seems unlikely to me; martyrdom is a part of their belief system, and prison is just another form of martyrdom.
I can’t believe that May actually believes any of what she says on these points; it looks more like a pitch to persuade people that she’s being tough.  But appearing to be tough isn’t the same as actually being tough, nor as solving a very serious problem.  It might win a few votes though, which is what it’s really about.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The problem with Corbyn

Whatever the result of the election, there is no question that Jeremy Corbyn has had a much better election than most assumed would be the case at the outset.  Partly, this has been because he’s been given more air time to reveal the real man rather than the bogeyman of the right wing media, and partly because the pressure of an election has revealed just how flaky and incompetent his opponent is.  And he’s been able to produce a manifesto which contains a series of very popular pledges.  It’s easy to imagine how much better he might have done if the majority of his own party’s MPs hadn’t spent most of the past two years seeking to undermine and destabilise him at every turn.  They have a lot to answer for.
And that brings me to the first of my doubts about both Corbyn and Labour.  Just supposing for a moment that he pulls off the electoral surprise of the century and ends up in a position in parliament where a Labour-led government or a Labour minority government becomes a realistic possibility.  They have said that they would put forward their manifesto proposals in the Queen’s Speech and challenge the other parties to support or oppose them.  That’s a reasonable basis for proceeding, except for one thing: how certain could we be that his own party’s MPs would back him?  Challenging Plaid, the SNP, the Greens, and the Lib Dems to oppose him if they dare is one thing – but what if all those recalcitrant MPs who would prefer large chunks of the Tory manifesto to the Labour one decide not to back him?
It’s not my only doubt about him and his party.  Leaving aside the question of Trident renewal, there are a number of other issues which concern me, of which I’ll mention just two.
Whilst I think that his approach to negotiation over Brexit is more likely to result in a deal of some sort than the petulant and hostile stance of someone who seems to believe that she has an entitlement to expect everyone else to cave in, Corbyn, like May, has already ruled out continued freedom of movement.  So whilst he’s less likely to see the UK crashing out with no deal of any sort, he’s unlikely to get a deal which goes much beyond some sort of transitional arrangements.  It’s hardly inspiring – and he, like May, has already ruled out putting the final terms back to the people, regardless of the state of public opinion at the time.
And my second major reservation about Corbyn is that he seems to have an inexplicable blind spot when it comes to Wales and Scotland.  Here is a man who supports the goal of an independent and united Ireland, who supports movements for freedom and democracy across the globe, yet seems to be incapable of coming to terms with the idea that there are people in Scotland – and to a lesser extent in Wales – who want to enjoy the same type of freedom.  I really do not understand why he is so unable to grasp the parallel.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Losing the argument

The battering which Corbyn has taken throughout the election campaign on the question of Trident has been a sad reflection on the state of politics.  It’s an issue on which he has been utterly consistent for the whole of his political life, but seeing interviewers trying to bully him to say that he’s changed his mind when he very clearly has not done so has been a depressing exhibition of the power of the media to create and sustain the Tory narrative.  He’s handicapped, of course, by the lack of support for his viewpoint within his own party, particularly from those unions who seem to see preparing for nuclear annihilation as just an expensive job creation scheme, but refusing to change his mind, or even just pretend that he’s changed his mind to please a particular audience, is surely a sign of strength and conviction rather than the weakness as which it’s been portrayed.
The hounding of him on the issue during the Question Time non-debate left me feeling that there’s something very wrong in a country where a gung-ho willingness to incinerate millions by launching a first strike is deemed one of the most important tests of leadership.  It’s about time someone challenged the established consensus on nuclear weapons, and it’s a great pity that his own party has prevented Corbyn from doing that effectively at an election for the first time in a generation.
It also raises a question in my mind about the much-vaunted ‘British values’ which the Prime Minister keeps banging on about.  In the light of recent events, she has quite rightly condemned those who are prepared to strap on a suicide vest and go out and kill as many randomly selected civilians as they can as being something which is completely contrary to those values.  But at the same time, she tells us that being willing and ready to launch a nuclear strike which will kill millions of randomly selected civilians (as well as probably being suicidal for the UK if the target country itself possesses nuclear weapons) is a key test of support for those same values.
Now some will no doubt object to that comparison, and argue that the whole point of having nuclear weapons is never to need to use them; that the very act of possessing them acts as a deterrent.  And obviously, they can only be a deterrent if the ‘other side’ completely believes that the PM of the day will be ready and willing to use them if the UK is attacked or if he or she believes that the UK is in imminent danger of attack.  All of that is true, of course.  But my point is simply this: a Prime Minister who declares publicly and repeatedly that she is ready and willing to order the deaths of millions of civilians – men, women, and children alike – is not in a particularly good position to argue that attacking and killing civilians is somehow alien to her core values.  Of course there are differences of opinion about the circumstances in which it can be justified, but having stated that there are indeed circumstances in which it’s not only justified, but she’s willing to do it, she’s lost the argument about values and principles.  Corbyn, at least, is still in a position to argue on the basis of values and principles - May is not.
None of this can or should be taken to provide any sort of excuse or pretext for recent attacks, but ridding humanity of its propensity to resort to extreme violence isn’t a problem restricted only to ‘others’.  The UK’s continued possession of nuclear weapons is a clear and unequivocal statement of a willingness to use them, and thus is itself a provocative act.  And it’s the sort of act which tells us more about the true values of our political leaders than any amount of rhetoric ever can.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Magic Money Trees

One of the latest lines to come from the Tories has been the suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn believes that there is a ‘magic money tree’ somewhere.  This tree, they claim, is the only possible source of all the money he needs to pay for his election promises.  It’s actually a good line, and plays well to the idea that the government, like the average household, needs to raise money before it can spend it.  It’s also complete and utter nonsense.  There really is a magic money tree; it’s called quantitative easing. 
In essence, QE is a process in which the central bank creates new money out of thin air, and since QE started in 2009, the Bank of England has created some £435 billion of new money.  It has used this money to buy up government bonds, effectively repaying government debt by giving money back to those who loaned the money (the government now nominally owes the same money to the Bank – which the government also owns…) leaving those people free to decide how to re-invest the money which they’ve been repaid.  So governments can and do create money – and there’s no fixed limit on how much they can create.  Insofar as there is a practical limit, it’s the point at which all that extra money starts to cause inflation; a point which the UK has not yet reached, because of the overall weak state (whatever the government may claim) of the UK economy.
The bigger question is how that new money is used.  The idea behind the process was that the money would find its way into the ‘real’ economy and boost investment and productivity, but using it to repay debt by buying up bonds has merely put it into the hands of people who put it back into other financial products (and some of it even got loaned back to the government in new bonds).  The effect of this has been that very little of the money has actually reached the ‘real’ economy – most of it has ended up benefiting the richest 5%, according to an estimate by the campaigning group Positive-Money.  On their calculations, for every £ created by the Bank of England, around 8p has made it into the everyday economy whilst the rest has gone into the pockets of the wealthiest.
It didn’t have to be this way, though – there’s no hard and fast rule which says that newly created money can only be used to buy up government debt.  The same money could have been used to invest directly in new infrastructure – a proposal put forward by Corbyn in 2015, and described as People’s Quantitative Easing.  The idea is not without its problems, and is supported by some economists and criticised by others, but Positive-Money estimates that every £ used this way would generate around £2.80 worth of extra economic activity.  That means, of course, that a much lower level of money creation would have a much greater effect in terms of stimulating the economy.
In criticising Corbyn for believing in a magic money tree, the Tories are diverting attention from the fact that they already have one of which they are making extensive use, but are using it to benefit the few not the many.

Friday, 2 June 2017

It's what she doesn't say that matters

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told us that she believes that the UK will become more prosperous following Brexit.  In the simplistic terms in which it is stated, and treating the phrase ‘following Brexit’ as a temporal rather than a causal expression with no specific date put on the realisation of that outcome, I’d even agree.  But it’s close to being a statement of the obvious; given economic history, the trend line over the long term towards increasing prosperity is clearly an upward one.  Regardless of what politicians do or say, the long term underlying trend points in only one direction.
It’s not answering the right question, though; like almost everything which the Prime Minister prefaces with the words “I’m very clear about…”, it’s obfuscation rather than an attempt to provide clarity.  The right question is not whether the UK is likely to be more prosperous in the future than it is now; it is whether it will be more prosperous because of Brexit than it would have been if Brexit didn’t happen.  And the second question – probably of even more significance – is how that prosperity is shared.
The answer to the first is essentially unknowable over the long term.  There are too many factors to be able to predict accurately, and any predictions would be based on assumptions – essentially guesses – as to what may happen.  I tend to the view that the longer term economic scenarios (Brexit vs no Brexit) will converge; the argument was never primarily an economic one for me.  But in the short term, it seems clear to me that growth in prosperity will falter.  It may even reverse for a while, depending on the terms of any deal - with ‘no deal’ causing the biggest short term problems.  In the short term, any form of Brexit has more economic downside than upside, and the Brexiteers would have been more honest had they spelled that out from the outset.  Whether it is really a case of ‘short term pain for long term gain’ remains to be seen (they may be right, even if I’m not convinced); but it’s a more honest position than claiming we’re on the way to an immediate land of milk and honey.
The bigger question is about how any increase in prosperity will be shared, both geographically and demographically.  Some of the proposals which have emanated from the Brexit camp, such as deregulation and seeking to become some sort of tax haven, carry very clear implications that the disparity in wealth between the well-off and the less so will continue to increase.  And the suggestion that targeted regional aid should be replaced by a pot of money for which regions could bid suggests a move away from the EU policy of trying to spread wealth geographically as well.  Under such a scenario, an ‘average’ increase in prosperity for the UK is unlikely to have much impact here in Wales.
As with so much of what May says, the most important part of what she said is what she didn’t say.  Not for nothing does she avoid committing to any detail.  

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Who's threatening who?

One of the slogans which the Prime Minister and other members of her party are repeating ad nauseam is the one about no deal being better than a bad deal.  It seems to be quite popular with a particular target audience - it’s just about the only line which got her any applause in the non-debate with Corbyn a few days ago.  It’s also one of the silliest things which she’s said – so how come she’s getting away with it?
At an irrational level, I suspect that it may be down to the fact that any compromise in discussions with the EU27 may require some flexibility – for the short term at least – on the question of freedom of movement, and for those who are motivated first and foremost by a desire to keep out foreigners, the economic price of no deal may well be outweighed by the dream of eliminating immigration.  On the other hand, those who are looking more at the economic consequences may well be mindful of the ‘truth’ that it is important in any negotiation that ‘the other side’ knows that if you can’t get a satisfactory deal, then you’ll walk away.  Anyone who’s ever been involved in a commercial negotiation will understand that – it’s precisely because it has a ring of truth about it that it strikes a chord.
Context is everything though.  In a negotiation to secure an improvement on the current situation which is beneficial to both sides, it is an entirely rational position to take.  In those circumstances, if the deal on the table at the end of the day was not better than the current status quo, then walking away with no deal would be a sensible thing to do.  At that point, all existing arrangements would simply prevail, and everything would carry on with no change.  That would be the situation, for instance, if the UK were currently outside the EU seeking entry.
The problem is – and this is why it’s such a silly and simplistic attitude – that that isn’t where we are.  We’re not negotiating for an improvement on our current situation – that was never going to be a possibility.  We’re negotiating to mitigate the economic impact of a decision which we’ve already taken, and the fall back is not simply to stay with the status quo, but to walk away with no mitigation at all.  May’s mantra amounts to saying that ‘no mitigation is better than less mitigation than we want’.  It’s utter nonsense, and no wonder that the EU27 are scratching their heads in amazement.  If the negotiations fail, walking away does not simply mean that the status quo continues; quite the reverse.  Walking away doesn’t take us back to where we were before we entered the EU; it takes us somewhere entirely different.
The UK Government has, it tells us, done little or no work on scoping out what ‘no deal’ looks like, but we know that it means a reversion to WTO rules and tariffs.   We also know that it means a lengthy period during which the UK has to renegotiate hundreds of deals and treaties with other countries.  Since the rest of the EU can’t offer a worse deal than WTO terms, even if it wanted to, I suspect that the very worst deal which could emerge from any negotiations is an agreement on a transitional period during which the UK can start to deal with the incredible amount of detail which needs attention.  The attitude of May and her cabinet seems almost designed to deter the EU27 from offering even that.  Even the worst conceivable deal – agreement on nothing other than a settlement of debts and a transitional period – is always going to be better than no deal at all, but they seem determined to create an excuse for walking away with nothing.
I’m struggling to understand whether they know all this really, and are just spinning a line in the hope of winning a few votes by sounding tough, or whether they really believe what they’re saying.  Perhaps sufficient UK electors may yet be taken in, but I doubt that the EU leaders are going to be quite as gullible as the crowd in that old cowboy film.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Old habits never die

I was ‘lucky’ enough to receive the election communication for our local Tory candidate this week, and it contains some ‘interesting’ claims.  Firstly, there was the rather strange claim that having campaigned for the Brexit Secretary David Davis means that he knows how to get a good deal for Carmarthenshire from Brexit.  The idea that this knowledge has transferred from one person to another by some sort of osmosis just by campaigning together is remarkable enough; even more remarkable is the implicit suggestion that David Davis has much idea himself about how to get a good deal.  Or perhaps that’s the problem – his fellow campaigner has somehow sucked all the knowledge out of him.
Apparently, voting for Havard Hughes (and Theresa May, who according to his posters – “standing with Theresa May in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr” – is also a local candidate) will “stop Plaid from blocking Brexit”.  I’m sure that Plaid would find his faith in their ability – with an expected 3 MPs out of 650 – to stop Brexit in its tracks more than a little flattering, but it only serves to convince me that, despite his apparently impeccable local pedigree, he has spent more time in the recent past dwelling in the same galaxy as his party’s leader.  And it completely ignores the fact that Plaid, like the remainers in his own party and the Labour Party, seem to have given up the fight to retain Wales’ place in Europe.
He goes further – a vote for him will “stop Plaid from helping Brussels break Britain and our economy in revenge for Brexit”.  This is the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth approach to those evil bureaucrats in Brussels which I would generally expect only from UKIP, but it serves to underline just how far in that direction a party which mostly (remember those faraway days just one year ago?) campaigned to remain in the EU has gone off the rails in its pursuit of UKIP votes.
In his write-up in the Carmarthen Journal last week, Mr Hughes revealed that he used to be a member of the Lib Dems, along with his mother (who fought previous elections in this area), before they both defected to the Tories.  However, his leaflet shows that he hasn’t lost all his Liberal Democrat tendencies; it includes a nice bar chart, based on “recent odds” from some bookie or other, which demonstrates, with complete disregard to any actual votes cast in the past, that only the Tories can beat Plaid in this constituency.  You can take a man out of the Lib Dems, but you can’t take the Lib Dems out of a man, to misquote an old saying.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Being strong

The idea that the Prime Minister of the UK should be a ‘strong’ person is core to the Tory election appeal.  And I can understand why anyone would want to think that the country’s leader was a ‘strong’ person.  Whether the current Prime Minister meets the criterion (which is the other side of the Tories’ campaign) is another question; and the answer depends largely on what the word ‘strong’ actually means.
Over many years – in both politics and my working life - I’ve come across a variety of leaders of different types, some of which I’d regard as having been strong leaders, and others of which I’d regard as having been weak leaders.  And I’ve been thinking about the attributes which lead me to those conclusions. 
Strong is certainly not the same as stubborn; a degree of determination can make a leader appear strong, but a refusal ever to consider the possibility of an alternative approach is stubborn rather than determined.
Then there’s the question of discussion with others.  Indecisiveness – and giving the impression that you agree with whoever was the last person you spoke to – will always come across as weakness, but it’s often the strongest leaders who have the confidence to listen to and discuss with others before forming a conclusion.  The line between those two positions isn’t always clear, but it’s an important distinction.  Being unable to hear an opposing view is invariably a sign of weakness rather than strength. 
In any negotiation, having a clear idea of what you want to get out of the discussions from the outset is clearly a strength, but being unable to articulate that – or, even worse, being unable to distinguish between a wish list and an acceptable outcome – is a weakness, not a strength.  And assuming that the other side will roll over if only you shout loud enough is not negotiating at all.
So, confidence tempered by a willingness to listen; an ability to persuade rather than simply instruct; and an ability to be flexible around the detail whilst working for a clear overall aim – all these things would help me to feel that a leader is ‘strong’.  Applying all of these tests to the leaders of the two main UK parties doesn't give me a whole heap of confidence in either, but insofar as there is a 'winner' at all, it isn’t Theresa May.  So how are the Tories and their friends in the media getting away with portraying a weak leader as something she patently is not?

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Beware leopards and spots

The launch of the Tories’ ‘Welsh’ manifesto on Monday was somewhat (deliberate understatement) overshadowed by the astonishing U-turn on a social care cap, and the Prime Minister’s Trump-like insistence that a reversal of what has been said just a few days previously was merely an alternative fact a minor clarification.  But it meant that the import of some of the other things being said – in a more specifically Welsh context – did not get the attention it deserved.
I suppose the very fact that the ‘Welsh’ manifesto was launched by the UK leader rather than depending on any natives should have been warning in itself (the self-styled ‘Welsh leader’ wasn’t even present – whether by lack of invitation or lack of inclination is unstated).  But some of the comments made should give serious cause for concern in relation to the resilience (I was tempted to say strength and stability) of the devolution settlement.  How can these statements:
·         "The United Kingdom Government has in the past tended to 'devolve and forget'.  This Conservative government will put that right.”
·         “We will work closely with the Welsh Government for the benefit of all our people - but that will not be the limit of our actions in Wales."
be interpreted, other than as a clear statement that a re-elected Theresa May would have no intention of respecting the boundaries between devolved and non-devolved responsibilities?
And, constitutionally, she has every right to interfere and over-rule the Welsh Government and the National Assembly at any time of her choosing.  The convention that the UK Government would not do so is exactly what it says, a convention. And as the Article 50 Supreme Court proceedings demonstrated, there is absolutely no requirement on the UK Government to abide by that convention.  It underlines the truth which devolutionists would prefer that we didn’t understand – all the powers of the National Assembly and Welsh Government are ‘on loan’ from Westminster, and can be reclaimed at any time.
There is one way, and only one way, of replacing the concept of sovereignty as the inalienable right of the Crown-in-Parliament with the concept of sovereignty belonging to the people of Wales and that is by securing Welsh independence.  The Tories’ commitment to devolution is being shown to be the same as their commitment to any other policy – it will only last as long as the UK leader decides (which, as we’ve seen on other policy areas, might only be days at a time).

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Keeping a straight face

As the wheels increasingly fall off the Tory election battle jalopy, their Scottish branch office has managed to claim that a vote for the Tories in Scotland is a vote both for and against the same policy.  Apparently, if voters in Scotland vote Tory, they’re voting to keep the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit in Scotland whilst introducing a means test on the benefit in Englandandwales.  And because it would not be a standalone piece of legislation, but part of the budget, it would not be affected by the legislation on English Votes for English Laws, so any Tories elected as part of ‘Theresa May’s Team’ from Scotland would be whipped into supporting the means test, whilst leaving the party’s MSPs free to oppose it in Scotland.
It gets better; because of the effect of the Barnett formula, the savings following the imposition of a means test in Engalndandwales would reduce the budget available to Scotland, which would then have to cut other spending to finance the continuation of the benefit.  So the Tory MSPs get to oppose an unpopular policy being introduced elsewhere by their own party, demand that the SNP doesn’t follow the Westminster Government on this policy, and then criticise any savings made elsewhere to pay for the policy.  Win-win, eh?
But how do they manage to keep a straight face? 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The difference is more fundamental than many think

I’ve often heard people – including some who should know better – argue that the UK is now in a state of post-ideology politics.  Insofar as there is any validity to this at all, it is because the government and opposition parties, to a significant extent, have accepted the victory of one particular ideology.  Sometimes however, even in the pretend world of manufactured outrage which generally passes for political debate, proposals come to the surface which demonstrate and underline the need for ideological differences to reassert themselves.  One such is the Tory proposal on paying for care for those who need it in the latter years of their life.   
Of those of us lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, some will need care whilst others will not.  The reasons for needing care will vary; it could be physical disability but there is also an increasing incidence of dementia, bringing a need for expensive round the clock care.  It’s mostly not ‘healthcare’ as such, but it is unquestionably a need generated by a health problem, and the distinction between health care and social care is close to meaningless in this context.  The question, at its most fundamental, is whether we pay for that care by pooling the risk, or whether we push the costs of that care onto individual sufferers and their families.
That is, in essence, a question of ideology.  The Tories have pinned their colours very firmly to the mast of individual responsibility – pay low taxes and pay the costs of care yourself.  That is not the principle which underpins the NHS, which is rooted in the idea that we all pay in through taxes and NI, and can access the services as and when we need them.  In effect, we are pooling the risk, and the tax and NI contributions we make are a form of insurance against needing the services provided.  There is no fundamental practical reason why we could not adopt exactly the same approach to providing other sorts of care. 
There would be a financial consequence, of course – the cost would be distributed over the population as a whole, and it would mean that many of us have to pay a bit more tax, of one sort or another.  For those of us who need the services – and none of us can be sure that we won’t – it provides the certainty that the care will be available when we need it.  For those who don’t – well, it’s like paying any other insurance premium; if the event insured against doesn’t happen, it’s a sunk cost. 
One of the most common arguments used against such a collective approach is that the more well-off get the benefits as well as the poor, and that applying a means test (which is what the £100,000 limit proposed by the Tories amounts to) means that the help is targeted at those who need it.  But a proper taxation regime means that those who can afford it will be paying more in advance; the extra cost of providing services to all is recovered by extra taxes on those who can afford to pay.  The argument against providing universal benefits is a fallacy used to rationalise a desire to keep taxes low for the most well-off in society.  In this specific case, it’s also a means of protecting the assets of the very wealthiest by raiding the assets of those whose assets are limited to a modest home.  The astounding thing is that so many fall for it – at least, until the problem hits their families.
There was a report last week about the reaction of voters in a solid Labour constituency to the idea of extending means testing in general, and it showed the extent to which the individualist ideology has triumphed over a more collectivist approach.  It related to the means-testing of the winter fuel allowance rather than the social care policy, but the underlying attitude applies to both.  And although it’s easy for people to think that ‘those who can afford to should pay’, they’re usually thinking about someone else.  What many don’t yet seem to realise is that, in the case of the new Tory policy on paying for care, ‘those who can afford to pay’ is being defined as ‘every home-owner’.  The legacy of New Labour has a lot to answer for. 
The problem is partly that people are looking at only one side of the equation – payments made by the government.  A balanced system needs also to consider the other side – payments to the government, aka taxes.  As Chris Dillow posted last week, if the objective is to ensure that those who can most afford to pay stump up the most, then a progressive taxation system coupled with universal benefits is a more efficient means of achieving that than a system of means-testing. 
After being slammed by the Tories and their media friends prior to the last election for talking about introducing a ‘death tax’, Labour back-pedalled on their proposal to place an extra tax on estates to pay for the increasing social care costs.  Given that history, I can’t blame them for seeing an opportunity here to attack the Tories in the same terms, but what they don’t seem to be doing is pointing out the essential difference in the two approaches, which is that their proposal was based on taxation of all to pay for those in need, whereas the Tories’ proposal is based on charging those receiving the services, albeit posthumously. 
They seem to have lost sight of the essential difference between an individualistic approach and a collective one.  Yet failure to make that distinction turns the debate into merely an argument over taxation and expenditure rather than one about what sort of society we want to live in.  And allowing the debate to take place only at that more limited, ideology-free, level is allowing it to take place on the Tories’ terms.  It’s a very strange situation when the most vociferous opposition to this individualistic approach is likely to come not from those who should traditionally be promoting a collectivist approach, but from those who fear that traditional Tory voters are the most likely to be hit financially by the proposal.  

Friday, 19 May 2017

Setting double standards

Some of the proposals announced in the Tory manifesto yesterday seemed, at first sight, to be an attack on one of their most loyal groups of voters, pensioners.  Anecdotal evidence is necessarily unreliable as to the attitudes of the many, but after seeing a few pensioners interviewed following the launch, I suspect that attacking their benefits is not much of a gamble after all.  There are plenty of them prepared to blame immigrants, overseas aid, unemployed people – anyone except those actually taking the decisions.  Getting different groups to blame each other looks like a successful political strategy, sadly.
But it’s the response to the economic aspects of the manifesto that struck me.  I posted a few days ago that the expectation that any political party could realistically produce a sound costed manifesto for the next five years was plain silly, because there are too many unknowns and variables.  What parties can do, however, is look at one or other side of the balance sheet.  They can, for instance, set out their approach to taxation and borrowing, and state that they will manage expenditure in order to meet their targets.  Alternatively, they can set out a programme of policies and state that they will manage taxation and borrowing in order to deliver that programme.  It’s a bit like an economic version of the uncertainty principle – you can do one or the other but doing both is impossible.
In 2010 and 2015 the Tories effectively took the first approach.  They set out their over-riding aim of eliminating the deficit within 5 years, promised not to increase any of the main taxes, and simply stated that they would cut spending in order to achieve that.  Detail on what would be cut was sparse, to say the least, but they got away with it because they framed the whole debate in terms of the absolute necessity of that objective.  As it subsequently turned out, on the basis of the bar which they set for themselves they failed miserably.  Not only did they not eliminate the deficit, they borrowed ever more. 
In this election, they have thrown that approach out of the window.  Yes, they still have some vague commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2025, but in essence, their approach this time round is to set out their programme and state that they will adjust taxation and borrowing as necessary to deliver that programme, without spelling out any detail.  The chances of them achieving that deficit target look slim to me, but it doesn’t matter because it’s more than one election away, and it was always the wrong target anyway.  The ‘deficit elimination’ mantra served its political purpose of framing the agenda and putting the other parties on the spot; it was never that important in economic terms.
The point is, however, that the Tories have been allowed, for three elections in a row, to set out the detail of only one side of the equation, whilst the other parties have been forced onto the defensive in trying to explain exactly what they would do about both sides.  How has this happened?  Why are we in a situation where the bar has been set so much higher for everyone else?  Double standards have been applied with the active support and complicity of the press and media, including the publicly-funded BBC.  The real victory of the Tories, not just in one or two elections, is that they have been able to turn ‘impartial’ news media into their own propaganda arm; barely challenging what they say and do even in comparison with their own self-imposed target whilst tearing pieces out of anyone failing to meet a higher – and essentially unattainable – standard.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

What's the vision?

One of the consistent themes on this blog is about whether political parties should be leading or merely following public opinion.  The former involves having and setting out a clear vision about the sort of future they want to see and trying to persuade or lead people to follow; the latter is more of a beauty contest, with parties saying much the same thing and arguing about which has the best team to deliver on the popular policies.  The second scenario does not necessarily mean that all policies are identical; there’s still some scope to appeal to different demographics and groups, but in essence, much of the core will look essentially similar, and election campaigns will concentrate on ability to deliver.
In some ways, this election looks like something of an exception.  Jeremy Corbyn seems to be trying to articulate a different set of values and priorities in a way which Labour has not really attempted for decades.  Indeed, that is precisely his biggest sin in the eyes of many of his party’s MPs, who are much more comfortable with the beauty contest style of politics.  The Tories, on the other hand, seem increasingly prepared to say anything which they think might be popular, and to concentrate all their efforts on trying to prove that an automaton is better qualified to implement them than a thoughtful man who actually wants to consider the facts first.
Here in Wales, this dichotomy between the two approaches is a particular problem for Plaid.  The party that I joined in 1971 was, unquestionably, a party which had a vision for a different future for Wales and set out to convince people about that future.  The Plaid contesting next month’s general election seems to be much more in the second camp.  The idea that Plaid might actually be better at defending Wales than the Labour Party has the advantage of probable truth, but ‘we’re more anti-Tory than Labour’ isn’t much of a vision for the future, and seems to me to be playing to an interpretation of Welsh politics which is increasingly divergent from contemporary reality.
At the core of the party’s appeal for this election is the idea that Plaid is the only party that will put the interests of Wales ahead of its own interests, yet that doesn’t always seem to be supported by the detail.  According to this report from BBC Wales’ political editor, Plaid has now accepted that Brexit is inevitable, and a Plaid insider told him that ‘they felt there were no votes to be gained by re-fighting last year's battle’.  As an assessment of the probability of garnering votes on this particular issue at this particular time, I’d agree with that conclusion.  It’s the same problem being faced by the Lib Dems in trying to appeal to voters on the issue – their promise of a second referendum seems to be making little impact. 
The question for me, though, is not about whether it would win votes but about where the best interests of Wales lie.  If someone really believes that the best interests of Wales lie in membership of the European Union, shouldn’t they be making the case for that outcome when given the opportunity, even if less than half the population agree with them?  That does not preclude attempting to influence the nature of any Brexit deal in the interim, nor seeking to maximise any opportunities which may exist, but it does require having and presenting a clear vision about what sort of Wales they want to see, and how they see Wales’ place in the world.
And that brings us to the question of independence.  For sure, the word is given more prominence than has been the case for some years now, with a clear statement right on the first page that “It remains our ambition for Wales to become an independent nation”; but the detail of what independence actually means in a post-Brexit world is conspicuous by its absence.  For decades, the word has been synonymous with ‘full membership of the EU’; but for a party accepting Brexit it must now mean something else.  And if I, as a long-term independentista, don’t know what that is and am unsure about supporting it, what chance of convincing the rest of Wales?  But then, there are even fewer votes to be gained by promoting independence than in opposing Brexit - which brings us right back to the question of what politics should be about.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

How will you pay for it?

When it comes to political manifestos, I struggle to work out which is the silliest – asking that question, or trying to answer it.  But that doesn’t stop them.  Having ‘fully-costed’ manifestos is, it seems, de rigueur, even if it’s economic nonsense, and yesterday’s Labour manifesto was a case in point.  I can’t remember when or how it became necessary for parties to explain in detail both the cost and the method of financing of their policy proposals, but I suspect it’s a consequence of the Thatcher years when a political ideology contrary to the interests of the many was promulgated by the simple expedient of pretending that government spending is like household spending, and must always balance out.
It’s a simple enough comparison to make, and it’s counter-intuitive to argue that it’s nonsense, which is why it has taken hold to the extent that it has.  The press and broadcast media promote the ideology by default – whether because they are biased towards it, see it as in their own best interest, are innumerate, or are just plain lazy is an open question.  It doesn’t really matter why – the effect is that parties have become so afraid of challenging the established wisdom that they seek to comply even if at least some of those involved realise how silly it is.
So, yesterday was Labour’s turn to answer the silly question and explain how they will pay for one of the boldest manifestos put forward for many a year, so they duly gave an appropriately silly answer.  Oh the numbers certainly add up, it’s just that they’re based on so many unstated assumptions as to be completely meaningless.  The government, with all its statisticians and experts, has only just been able to tell us what the rate of inflation was last month, and nobody knows what the actual rate of economic growth is until after the event either.  And that’s without throwing in uncertainty over exchange rates, Brexit, and unexpected events which are, by their nature, unforeseeable.  Yet producing a ‘fully-costed’ manifesto requires all of these things to be known for the next five years in advance.  It’s impossible; figures which can only be, at best, rough estimates based on a whole range of assumptions are being bandied around as though they are gospel truth.
Since being elected in 2010, and again in 2015, the Tories have borrowed hundreds of billions of pounds more than they said they would.  This is equivalent to hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of uncosted expenditure compared to their manifesto promise, yet few of the media so keen to pin down Labour and other opposition parties seem to bat an eyelid over that.  Politicians can get away with uncosted expenditure as long as either a) they don’t predict it in advance, or b) they’re Tories, apparently.  But having said that, I should make it clear that it’s the hypocrisy and double standards to which I object, not the borrowing itself.
Borrowing, despite all the rhetoric, actually makes sense at a time when people are queuing up to lend money to the government at what are, effectively, negative real interest rates.  They don’t call it lending to the government, of course – they call it investing in NSI products, or buying government bonds.  But whatever they call it they are in fact lending money to the government, and are currently willing to go on doing so.  Labour’s talk of increasing borrowing not only makes economic sense, it’s a welcome change from the ideological straitjacket.  My main criticism would be that they’ve tried to put a firm figure on it, rather than simply stating that they will borrow whenever it makes sense to do so.
There’s an interesting analysis here of borrowing over the years by Labour and Conservative governments respectively.  It clearly shows that the rhetoric generally being used is at variance with the truth: overall, Tory governments borrow more and Labour governments are actually better at repaying debt.  One possible (and counter-intuitive interpretation) of this is that, actually, the Tories really are better at economics than Labour, and that, despite what they say, they have a willingness to borrow as and when appropriate – we just need to judge them on what they do, rather than on what they say they will do.  It isn’t the only possible interpretation however, and it would be a far too simplistic one.  A more detailed analysis of the difference in circumstances facing governments of the two parties would be too lengthy for this post.  It’s enough for the time being to indicate that knee-jerk criticism of Labour for planning to borrow owes more to spin than to good economics.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

What's the real intention?

Policies can invariably be presented in more than one way; and most policies have ramifications elsewhere, even if that isn’t entirely clear at the time.  Yesterday’s announcement by the Tories that they will legislate to allow people to take up to a year off to look after sick relatives appears a strange one, for several reasons, but I find myself wondering whether this isn’t a victory for presentation over substance.
Firstly, it seems to have emerged from nowhere and to have been given very little thought.  The implications for businesses are far from clear, as many businesses have been quick to point out; how they will be expected to cover for such absences is an obvious concern for them.  The implications for the staff themselves haven’t been made explicit either – whilst their jobs will be kept open for them when they return, it’s an open question as to how they will be able to support themselves unpaid for a year.  The detail is completely absent: it’s easy for the Tories to say that they’ll think about that later, but it means that voters are being asked to buy something superficially attractive without knowing how it will work in practice.
And secondly, it seems so un-Tory-like.  Imposing extra costs and bureaucracy on businesses is exactly what they normally claim to be against; their more usual approach is to talk about getting rid of rules and regulations.  Of course they’re trying to steal Labour votes by appearing to adopt some of Labour’s traditional approaches, but this one looks like an attempt to sound like they think Labour ought to sound without really understanding what that means.
There is, however, another possible explanation, and it’s much more in line with traditional Tory approaches.  There is a looming crisis for care services as the population ages, and the costs of providing care are inevitable going to increase.  Freeing up relatives to provide care on a voluntary basis is likely to help to ease that pressure, and reduce the demand for state-provided care.  This could, of course, merely be an unexpected consequence of an otherwise well-intentioned policy, and perhaps I’m just being my usual cynical self; but I can’t help wondering whether this new ‘right for employees’ is actually a cost-saving measure being spun as something it really isn’t.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Forgetting the objective

On Tuesday, a former Secretary of State for Wales told us that scrapping the pensions triple lock before 2020 would be an act of bad faith, given the promise which he and his party made only two years ago.  My first reaction was that, given Mrs May’s clear and intense dislike of opposition to anything she says from the opposition parties let alone from her own side, Crabb has obviously written off his chances of returning to the Cabinet any time soon. 
There is one thing that he has learned from his leader however, and that is the art of making policy U-turns.  Unless I’m very much mistaken, this is the very same Stephen Crabb who argued strongly  last year, just after the Tory leadership election, that the pensions lock should be scrapped, or at the very least modified, immediately.  Clearly, changing it two years after promising it would be in place for five is ‘bad faith’, but changing it only one year after making that promise is entirely reasonable.  But then, when he made his statement last year, he wasn't expecting to be facing the electors quite so soon, and might have thought that they'd have a bit more time to forget the decision.  The U-turn might suggest that he is from the same planet as May after all, but if he wants to get on, he probably needs to co-ordinate his policy flip-flops so they coincide with May’s, rather than conflict.

There's another aspect to this as well.  If dropping one promise three years early is a sign of bad faith, why is it then OK to drop other promises?  On the basis of that argument, the manifesto for the first three years would have to simply carry forward the pledges made in 2015, but part of the reasoning for holding an election at all is surely so that May can free herself from all commitments made by the Conservative Party and implement the UKIP ones a manifesto more to her liking instead.
Anyway, to the substance of the matter.  My recollection of the reason for introducing the triple lock in the first place was that pensioners had lost ground in relative terms over the period since Thatcher scrapped the link with earnings, and the intention of the policy was to restore their relative position.  There has been some criticism recently that, as a result of the policy, pensioner income is growing faster than income for other people – but that was precisely the intention.  The question should not be ‘are pensioner incomes growing faster?’, but ‘has their relative position been restored yet?’  In any rational world, the question of whether the triple lock should be retained would be related directly to determining a target ratio between pensions and earnings and then establishing whether that has been achieved.
When that point has been reached, it would seem entirely reasonable to me to re-open the debate about how pensions increases should be calculated and how we ensure that the relative position of pensioners should be maintained.  I haven’t done the sums; my feeling is that we’re probably not there yet; but maintaining the triple lock indefinitely would result in a significant target overshoot over time.  But it’s as though the politicians have all forgotten the origins and rationale for the policy.
The policy is promoted as something which will appeal to pensioners, and attacked as something with which young working people are being burdened.  That is completely at odds with reality.  I’m not at all convinced that Einstein ever said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, but it certainly is a powerful financial force.  And it means that the biggest beneficiaries of a triple lock maintained indefinitely are not current pensioners, nor those about to retire, but those who haven’t even been born yet.
I don’t think that it’s right or sensible to maintain the policy for ever, but it would be helpful to have a more informed debate about the objectives of pensions policy rather than an attempt at point-scoring between those who are targeting older voters and those targeting the young.  It’s another example of the froth of modern politics.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Tax is a good thing

One of the depressing aspects of this election, as with others which have gone before, is that the parties feel constrained to argue about which of them will keep taxes lowest.  It’s an argument predicated on the assumption that tax is always a bad thing, and that people will always vote for the party which taxes them the least.  What it avoids is any debate about the nature and purpose of taxation.
Even when politicians do talk about the need to increase taxation, they do it in a cautious and hesitant fashion.  One very recent example was the Lib Dem promise to raise income tax by 1p to fund NHS and Social Care.  I’m not a fan, to say the least, of hypothecated taxes like this; saying that this penny of income tax is for the NHS, that one for Defence, the other one for pensions isn’t a particularly helpful way of managing government finances, particularly when circumstances change (as they always do).  It isn’t just the Lib Dems though – look at the hesitancy with which Labour talk about raising the top rate of income tax.  Even in the way in which it was presented, it was about those who would not face a tax increase under Labour rather than those who would.
That isn’t the only aspect of language used which colours debate.  Why is taxation, for instance, always described as a ‘burden’, with debate limited to who should bear this ‘burden’?  This sort of language evidences the underlying assumption that taxation is some form of ‘necessary evil’; but the idea that it’s an evil of any sort effectively concedes the ideological argument.  The argument that it is better for people to keep more of their own money and decide for themselves how to spend it is itself an ideological argument, not a statement of fact.  Why is it ‘better’; who decided that; what are the criteria being used to arrive at that judgement; and where is the evidence that lower taxation meets those criteria?
There’s another aspect to all this as well, and that is that the debate usually concentrates on taxes on income.  Part of the reason for that is that taxes on income are generally more visible – people looking at their payslips can see immediately how much has been deducted in tax.  VAT, on the other hand, is a lot less visible.  For sure, higher VAT leads to higher prices, but most consumers when purchasing items don’t distinguish between VAT and other causes of high prices; the question is only whether the total price is affordable.  So, whilst the parties get themselves worked up over whether or not VAT will be increased, it’s a tax which is a lot less visible to most of those paying it.
Taxes such as VAT are not only less visible than direct taxes on income; they’re also much less progressive or fair.  On most of the vatable goods and services which most of us buy, we all pay the same amount, regardless of means.  Any shift away from visible to less visible taxation is in effect a transfer of tax from the richer to the poorer.
There is, though, an alternative ideological viewpoint.  Tax is, in essence, a good thing, and the more it’s related to ability to pay the better.  Tax underpins civilisation.  Taxation is one way of ensuring that the economy benefits the many not the few, and enables the maintenance of a caring and compassionate society.  Seen from this perspective, any party claiming to be the party of low taxation is a party which is, in effect, promoting personal selfishness at the expense of community solidarity.
Rejecting the idea that taxation is something inherently bad, and defending and promoting the idea that it is central to any society which values all its members, is just one of the steps which are required if we are to reject the increasing division of society into haves and have nots.  Where, other than Sweden, are the politicians brave enough to make the case for taxation in a bold and assertive fashion?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Differing in degree, not in kind

The Prime Minister is determined to stick to her unachievable pledge to reduce net immigration to an arbitrary level of ‘under 100,000’ per annum.  In the meantime, the provisional wing of her party, aka UKIP, has plumped for an equally arbitrary level of zero.  Both figures have merely been plucked from thin air in an attempt to appease voters who don’t like foreigners, and both are justified by the use of the magic word ‘sustainable’, a word whose use is, apparently, enough to justify anything with no further explanation required.  The difference between these two policies is not one of kind, merely one of degree – an arbitrary target for net migration levels regardless of economic impact is exactly that, at whatever level it is set. 
Both parties rehearse the usual arguments; no matter how many times they’ve been rationally and logically dissected, analysed, and debunked, they appeal to a sector of the electorate and are therefore wheeled out time and again.  I haven’t, in the past, paid too much attention to the detail of UKIP policy statements, but based on what has happened over recent years, UKIP’s policy today is probably just a foretaste of Tory Party policy and arguments for the next election. 
One of the arguments that UKIP make is that England is the "sixth most overcrowded country in the world".  I assume that they’re talking about relative population density, but I can’t make any sense of this claim.  This data from the Office of National Statistics says that the average population of England is 413 per square km, and this table shows the countries of the world, which can be ranked in order of population density.  The UK is obviously there as a single entity in 51st position, but if we use the England-only figure, it would be in 31st position, between Burundi and the Netherlands.  Even if we exclude those overseas territories which are not sovereign countries from the list, I still can’t get England to a higher position than around 17 or 18.
But let’s put aside the mere detail of the claim about England’s position in the table of overcrowding, and turn to the essence of the claim itself – which is that England is ‘overcrowded’.  What exactly does that mean?  Clearly, anyone who believes that country A is ‘overcrowded’ must have at least some idea of what the ‘right’ population level for that country is, but I’ve never heard them answering that one, and I don’t know how they could or would.  It’s an utterly meaningless statement which still manages to appeal to many of those hearing it, usually as a rationalisation of a much baser instinct.
We should also come back to the fact that they are quite deliberately talking only about ‘England’ here.  In Wales (149 per square km), Northern Ireland (135) and Scotland (68), the situation is very different.  Do they think we’re overcrowded as well?  If they do, then merely controlling net migration isn’t going to help them get the English population down to their imaginary ideal level – and if they don’t, then why apply a policy based on the situation in England?  I doubt that they’ve given a moment’s thought to that question.
Part of the problem in all of the discussion about immigration is that the Tories and UKIP do have one valid underlying point, albeit one that they’re failing to grasp other than in a highly distorted fashion.  It is this: if the population in a country is growing and the provision of services is not, then there will be additional pressures on health and other services.  (It’s also true that a country with an aging population will face greater pressures on services such as health and social care.)
That statement is surely indisputable, and the resulting pressures are regularly used as arguments by those opposing immigration.  But that is ignoring the key caveat about matching the growth in provision of services to the growth in population.  If services do not keep pace with the requirements of a growing population, it’s because the government presiding over the situation is neither planning nor providing adequate services.  When people blame immigrants, they’re diverting attention from the failure of successive governments to make adequate provision.  Whose interests does that serve, I wonder?

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Knowing the boundaries

Early last week, I had a nice little letter from the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, seeking support for his re-election.  It was delivered through the Royal Mail – that’s an expensive method of distributing leaflets, but it arrived (just) before the deadline for counting expenditure towards election expenses, so probably doesn’t count towards his re-election expenses for the constituency.  Getting it in early shows that he’s probably keen not to add his name to the list of Tory MPs currently still waiting to hear whether they will be charged for election offences following the submission of some ‘interesting’ expenses returns at the last election in 2015.
And fair play, it’s completely bilingual as well (not something one can always count on from the Tories, even in heavily Welsh-speaking areas like this), although something got lost in the translation of “continue to champion the Armed Forces in Parliament” which ended up as “Yn cefnogi ein holl drigolion, p’un ai ydynt yn fy nghefnogi neu beidio, neu yn wir, os byddant yn pleidleisio o gwbl”.  Still, mistakes can happen to all of us, and that looks like a simple case of changing the wording after the original had been sent for translation and hoping that no-one would notice.
However, talking of mistakes, an accidental mistranslation isn’t the biggest one with the leaflet.  The much bigger error is that I don’t live or vote in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.  I live in border country, true enough – I can’t leave my drive without entering the Carmarthen West constituency.  But I don’t live in that constituency, which means that he really didn’t need to worry about getting it to me before the deadline after all.  On my understanding of electoral law, he doesn’t have to declare expenditure on writing to random people who don’t live in his constituency.  The question which arises isn’t about the cost, it’s about the rationale.
If the leaflet had been hand-delivered by one of the Tories’ volunteers, it would be an easily understandable mistake.  I’ll admit that it’s a mistake which I’ve made myself in the past when leafletting in rural areas where boundaries can occur in seemingly strange places.  But it wasn’t hand-delivered - it came through the post, and the address has been printed from a database.  It raises a few interesting questions about which database is being used and why: it’s clearly not one which is limited to the constituency boundaries.  Still, I suppose that it helps to keep printers, postmen and those involved in recycling paper in gainful employment.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Where's the alternative?

Whilst the extent of their success may have been somewhat overplayed by the press and media, there can be no doubt that last Thursday’s local elections were a boost to the Tories.  But if there’s one thing that must be even more pleasing than the actual results to the Welsh Tory high command, it’s the reaction of the other parties.
This response from Wayne David was typical of the complacency coming from Labour in particular.  It is of course true that the Tory advance in Wales was not as great as some polls had been suggesting, and was less than in England, but at least part of that is down to the fact that there are large swathes of the old Glamorgan and Gwent where the Tories can rarely even be bothered to stand.  Holding off a Tory surge in areas where the Tories have few or no candidates hardly counts as a huge achievement.  At a time when yet another election has demonstrated that many parts of Wales are becoming similar to England in terms of voting behaviour, suggesting that Welsh Labour has somehow got it right and can teach English Labour a thing or two looks more like ignoring reality than facing up to it.
As voting behaviour in Wales increasingly changes to match that in England, few things will please the Tories more than to see Welsh Labour reverting to its default – and only – strategy of not being the Tories.  I suspect that Labour will have to suffer even more damage – possibly even terminal damage – before they realize that the strategy is of increasingly limited value.  Harking back to Thatcher and the miners – let alone Churchill and Tonypandy – is appealing to a demographic which is inevitably and inexorably declining due to natural causes.
But one of the problems facing us in Wales is that it isn’t just Labour which is depending on this out-dated strategy.  Much of what I‘ve seen of Plaid’s messaging for the General Election so far seems to be based on the idea that they’re even more anti-Tory than the Labour Party.  It looks as if we’re facing an election where the two main opponents of the Tories in Wales are going to spend much of their time arguing over who’s best-placed to defend us from those who will, yet again, be painted as baby-eaters or worse.
It’s an essentially negative approach, with little by way of vision for an alternative future.  Worse still, it fails to present an alternative set of values.  One of the reasons for the increasing success of the Tories has been that they have managed to get increasing numbers of people to buy in to what is essentially a selfish political philosophy.  Whether they’re talking about looking after Brits first, controlling the borders, cutting benefits, or cutting taxes, the underlying theme is one of an appeal to individualism and selfishness amongst the target demographic and demonising the non-target demographic.
In much of their response to this approach, the self-styled ‘progressive’ parties seem largely to accept the implicit values and propose minor variations to policy; what they’re not doing is promoting an alternative set of values based around community solidarity and collectivism.  The existence of that alternative set of values amongst the Welsh electorate is simply assumed, despite the growing evidence to the contrary.  But failure to promote an alternative set of values leaves a situation in which people are being asked to choose which of the parties will best deliver on the one set of values which is evident.  Why wouldn’t voters increasingly turn to the Tories?