Friday 30 May 2008

Falling out

Something of a spat in Labour ranks in Pembrokeshire as a result of three of their candidates ‘jumping ship’ just before the county council elections, and fighting as ‘Independents’ instead. The three Labour candidates made their decision very late in the day, too late for Labour to select alternative candidates; and their decision was part of the reason for the fall in the number of Labour members of the county council.

After their election, the three promptly signed up as members of the ‘Independent Political Group’ (IPG), and the alleged ringleader, Cllr Ken Rowlands was rewarded for his disloyalty to his own party with a cabinet seat, along with the appropriate Special Responsibility Allowance. Suspicions that this offer was in fact made in advance of the election have been strenuously denied by Cllr Rowlands, who says the offer came out of the blue. 'Blue' in more senses than one, perhaps, given the political leanings of the leader of the IPG?

The fact that he has card-carrying members of the Labour Party in his IPG was something that the group leader used to claim that the IPG is not just a Tory front - although this is likely to be a short-lived state of affairs, as the three inevitably face expulsion from their former party.

According to the report in the Western Telegraph, Cllr Rowlands felt that the note sent to him by Labour's county leader, Sue Perkins, was “vitriolic”, and has led to Cllr Rowlands seeking legal advice about a possible action against her. (The note has inevitably ended up in the public domain). Cllr Rowlands claims that his local Labour branch understood what he was doing, and supported him. This one may run a while yet.

I cannot, in all honesty, say that I feel a huge amount of dismay at the disarray of the Labour Party in Pembrokeshire. As a candidate for another party, I doubt that anyone would expect me to. But I do have some sympathy with the statement by Cllr Perkins that the action of the three people concerned deprived voters of the choice of voting for a Labour candidate. (I could add, of course, given the overall election results, that it equally deprived voters of the chance to vote against Labour!).

PS: These are not the only Labour Party members on Pembrokeshire County Council facing possible action against them by their party. Danny Fellows, the staunch trades unionist who was for many years the agent to local MPs and candidates has also jumped ship and joined the IPG. After apparently failing to persuade the Labour candidate in his ward to stand down in his favour, he stood as an ‘Independent’ anyway and won. Another seat lost to Labour through the actions of their own members.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Conspiracy, gerrymandering, and democracy

The editor of Barn seems to be rather exercised about the locations selected for Plaid's hustings to select our European candidates, although Ordovicius takes a rather more relaxed view. Some have even suggested that this is some form of gerrymandering by the south to ensure that a particular candidate is selected.

I suppose that it’s always good to be talked about, but in this case, those raising the issue seem not to understand the background. The party’s NEC, which I chair for my sins, has actually discussed this matter twice, and the final decision was taken unanimously by the committee. That committee includes representatives from all parts of Wales - including the areas where one or two individuals seem to be unhappy – and the decision was taken after everyone had time and opportunity to input their views.

Our selection process is probably the most open and democratic of any of the parties, but there is always a balance between the costs and organisation involved in holding large numbers of meetings and the need to invvolve as many members as possible. And I won't argue that we always get it right.

But, the decision that we took was simply that we should hold the hustings based on the Assembly Electoral Regions – one meeting each in the three smaller regions, and two meetings each in the two larger regions. Of course, any decision is always open to criticism, and members will have their own opinions as to whether it’s the right decision or not, or even the right basis for taking the decision. But conspiracy and gerrymandering? Absolutely not.

Interpreting the polls

I didn’t quite know what to make of the detail in the opinion poll results on devolution this week, at first. The jump in Tory support for a parliament just doesn't fit with my own perception of likely Tory voters - not in this constituency anyway. Perhaps it’s different in other constituencies, but certainly many Conservative voters in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire are people who have retired to the area, often from England; and in canvassing them, I cannot honestly say that I have found much support for any form of devolution.

(In passing, the Western Mail’s report is slightly misleading in one respect, when they say about the Tories, "In the party...there is now 39% backing for a law-making parliament." Not so; this was a survey of voters, not party members. I remain convinced that most rank-and-file members of the Conservative party remain hostile, even if it is true that their supporters have moved on.)

The problem is, if I'm suspicious about the suggested level of support for a parliament amongst Conservative voters, how much faith can I have in the rest of the figures? And yet; the rest of the figures do not seem at all surprising. They’re broadly in line with what most of us would probably have expected. And from memory, they’re in line with what other polls have suggested.

So, even if the level of support amongst Conservative voters is exaggerated (as I suspect it probably is), given the levels of support for the various parties as demonstrated by various elections and polls, this poll shows a referendum to be very winnable. And if the Tory figures are anywhere near right, it could be won by a pretty decisive majority as well.

The only thing holding us back seems to be Labour’s internal disagreements on the issue.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Troubled Tywi

Sadly, it seems that Carmarthen’s annual River Festival has had to be cancelled this year, at very short notice. This is a great pity; it is always a highly enjoyable event, into which a lot of people put a great deal of time and effort.

The raft race is a firm favourite, with a good range of teams entering a variety of novelty rafts, most of which seem not to have been subject to any testing before the start of the race. That was scheduled for this Sunday afternoon, with the 'Jumping the Tywi' contest to follow next Wednesday, as well as a range of other events during the week-long festival, which was due to start tomorrow.

Cancellation will not only be a disappointment to locals; it will also be a blow to the tourist industry locally, particularly given the reason for cancellation. Not a good advertisement for the area, I'm afraid.

We’ve had a lot of rain over recent days, and the result has been an overflow of what has somewhat euphemistically been described as ‘storm water’ at a pumping station, on at least three separate occasions in the last week.

Since much of the fun (for onlookers at any event) at some of the key events depends on the participants getting extremely wet, the organisers have concluded that raw sewage flowing in the river makes it unsafe to proceed.

I remember some years ago when I was a member of the Vale of Glamorgan Council, the then council leader famously said in one meeting something along the lines of “People don’t swim in the sea off Barry Island, they merely go through the motions”. (I should immediately add, in fairness to Barry, that a lot of work has been done since then to clean up the waters of the Severn Estuary). But this is no joke. In the twenty first century, how on earth can we still be in a position where a little heavy rain means that our main rivers effectively become open sewers?

Sunday 25 May 2008

Reading the runes

Crewe and Nantwich is done and dusted; the inevitable defeat for Labour, and by a larger margin than many (other than Vaughan Roderick) predicted.

Of course some try to read the runes and make projections from any by-election; but one needs to be careful. I've been a candidate in a parliamentary by-election myself, and there’s no doubt that it’s always a bit of a circus, and a far from reliable indication for the future.

In my own case, it was in 1989, following the death of Sir Raymond Gower, who had been the Conservative MP for 38 years, ever since 1951. The Vale of Glamorgan, and Barry before it, had remained loyal to Sir Raymond and the Tories all through the Labour years under Wilson and Callaghan, despite the fact that, in psephological terms, it should always have been much more marginal than the Tory majority suggested.

However, the Tories were at a low ebb, and the seat was captured by Labour’s John Smith – as in Crewe and Nantwich, with a bigger majority than most had really expected. A 6,000 vote Tory majority became a 6,000 vote Labour majority. There were special factors – of course there were. It was a by-election, and there are always special factors. In this case, it was the intervention of an ‘Independent NHS’ candidate. He got a fairly low proportion of the vote (even lower than me!), but he focussed the campaign on a single issue, which had a particular resonance for people at the time.

As for me, well, I came a creditable fourth, and did at least beat Screaming Lord Sutch, Miss Whiplash, and the SDP by a respectable margin, although I failed to gain the even more creditable third place which the opinion polls had promised me. (They may have been less than entirely objective, mind – my wife was opinion-polled on three separate occasions during the campaign. I hope that boosted my score!)

But, and back to the plot, at the next election in 1992, the Tories regained the seat, albeit with a wafer-thin majority of 19, and the Tories retained their majority overall in Westminster, although reduced. But, and this is the big but, in the following election, in 1997, Labour swept the seat, and John Smith was returned with a massive majority of almost 11,000. John has held the seat ever since of course.

So, my point is this; the by-election undeniably exaggerated significantly the extent of the swing; but the direction of travel, to use one of the latest jargon phrases, was perfectly clear. That, I suspect, is the message of Crewe and Nantwich. Labour’s days are numbered. They may yet make the sort of recovery that John Major’s Tories achieved in 1992, but their days of large majorities in Parliament are finished.

Normal Mouth argues that the concept of tipping points is much-overstated, and certainly passé. Possibly; but sometimes a mood can set in. It may well be that the Tories have done well recently less out of a positive commitment to what they stand for than out of desperation for change. But winning seats, even in by-elections, that would previously have been thought beyond their reach gives the opposition heart, and disheartens the government. A small surge can become a flood in such circumstances, as MPs start to see the end of their careers looming in front of them, and begin to panic.

Even if Labour are not yet facing a rout, one would have to be pretty much detached from reality to believe that they are on course to gain seats at the next election. That brings me neatly to Martin Eaglestone. If I read him correctly, he seems to be saying, basically, that people should hold their noses and vote Labour in order to keep the Tories out. If that’s the best reason for voting Labour that they can come up with after 12 or 13 years in office, then they will lose – and they will deserve to lose.

Thursday 22 May 2008

A case of confused identity

Most of the local papers this week picked up on the story of a man from Pembroke Dock who claimed to have been a dambuster during the war. In fact according to his daughter, he was a market gardener during the war, and only joined the services – as a batman – later.

He managed to have himself photographed with the local AM and the Tory wannabe MP alongside a Spitfire at Carew airfield as well. I can’t honestly blame them for being taken in by him; I’m sure that he must have sounded completely sincere. There but for the grace of God, etc…

The story even made a number of the UK ‘national’ dailies as well – probably the first time for our local AM to make an appearance in the Sun. It has now also made the Mirror, but in a magnificent display of journalistic accuracy, they’ve promoted Ms Burns to being the man’s daughter, and reported her as having referred to her constituent as a "sad old fool".

Chesterton knew what he was talking about when it comes to journalists:

One can never hope to bribe nor twist
Thank God, the British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Rehashed Thatcherism

I was a bit surprised by Glyn Davies’ post today on Cameron’s big speech. Surprised for two reasons actually.

Firstly, because I really didn’t think that Glyn did sycophancy. Secondly, and more importantly, because it looks as though Cameron is starting to do what he’s steadfastly refused to do to date – by which I mean define what he stands for. And purely from reading Glyn’s account of the speech, I can certainly see why he’s been avoiding it to date.

Glyn says that the basic premise was that "We need to start living within our means". Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes, I remember. That was the homely way in which Maggie Thatcher introduced us all to the ‘pleasures’ of monetarism. That, of course, was the creed which led to the demise of much of Wales’ heavy industry.

They are also going to attack the ‘bloated’ state, apparently. Reducing the size of the state means one (or both) of two things; cuts in services and cuts in jobs. During the Assembly election, the Tories locally were keen to show their support for the workers at HMRC threatened by job losses as a result of Gordon Brown's Civil Service cuts. A little dishonest from a party which is planning even larger cuts, isn't it? Mind you, in all fairness, I have to say that it sounded less than sincere at the time.

It seems that Mr Cameron also wants more ‘choice’ in public services. Another message with echoes from the past. Wasn’t it ‘choice’ which gave us the internal market in the health service? And the idea of opt-out schools?

As I always suspected would be the case, it’s going to be difficult to tell the new Tories from the old ones. And it underlines the case for an early referendum on a parliament, so that Wales, like Scotland, will be able to opt out of the re-hashed Thatcherism which Cameron is promising us.

I said earlier that I could see why Cameron had avoided defining any sort of position to date; what I can’t understand is why he’s starting to let the cat out of the bag now. Does he really think victory is that certain that even revealing the truth about the Tories can’t stop him?

Thursday 15 May 2008

Politicians and the Trade Descriptions Act

The large number of so-called 'Independent' councillors in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire make it difficult to read the local election results for clues about the parliamentary election. The headline figures are that Plaid now have 7 councillors in the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency. With the Tories on 1, Labour on 3, and the Lib Dems on 1, that gives us more than all the other parties put together. It's certainly a very good basis for moving forward, and one on which we will be building.

But the other 24 seats are, of course, held by the ‘Independents’. If there was ever a case for prosecuting politicians under the Trade Descriptions Act, some of these people are the obvious targets.

Some of them – but only a tiny minority – really are exactly what they say they are. Genuinely independent and free to do their best for the people that they represent. In practice however, by being outside the formal group of ‘Independents’, they have the least influence of all the councillors when it comes to decisions of the council.

Some of them, especially in the Pembrokeshire end of the constituency, are clearly Tories in disguise; the attempt by their party to persuade them to stand in their true colours was an abject failure. The reasons are mixed; some of them are actually afraid (not without justification) that they would lose if they stood under the colours of their party, whilst others prefer the certainty of political patronage (and extra Special Responsibility Allowances) which comes from their membership of the 'Independent Political Group' (an oxymoron if ever there was one).

Others genuinely hold no affiliation with any of the usual parties, but their claim that they are free not to follow a political party’s line rings hollow when they instead follow the line laid down by the group leader. What actually is the difference – they’re still not free to vote as they choose.

I know that we still haven’t convinced people in the area that most of the so-called ‘Independents’ are anything but. And I suspect that some people who thought that they were voting for the man or woman who will stand up for their community will have a rude awakening when they discover that they’ve actually given a vote of confidence to a political grouping which is intent on closing their village school, privatising care homes, and contracting out care services.

Showing people the truth is a campaign which will continue.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

A winning team

Not my description, but that used by Carmarthenshire County Council’s leader, Meryl Gravell, to justify continuing with the anti-Plaid Alliance in County Hall.

It’s an interesting piece of doublespeak, certainly from the point of view of the Labour part of the team. As Vaughan Roderick (translated by Ordovicius here) has pointed out, it's an odd definition of winning. If going from 25 seats to 11 is winning, I wonder what losing looks like. We'll just have to wait four years to find out.

Even taking the Anti-Plaid Alliance position overall, however, it is worth noting how close Plaid came to overall control of the council. Plaid won 30 seats, but needed 38 to gain a majority. Looking at the 8 most marginal seats from Plaid’s perspective, a further 600 votes in those seats would have been enough for Plaid to have formed the administration. This was hardly a massive vote of confidence in the ruling clique.

Whilst there is, of course, nothing in any way illegal in the way that the Alliance have retained power, it is hardly a surprise that many people in Carmarthenshire are having difficulty understanding why a party which was trounced remains in power whilst one which made such a spectacular advance is excluded. It is something which we in Plaid will take great pains to fully explain over the coming months and years.

Decimated in Llanelli, and wiped out in Carmarthen Town, the days of this particular Alliance are numbered.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Shades of Blue

Prior to the county elections, the Tories claimed that they were going to turn Pembrokeshire blue. They started well, by putting up a total of 25 candidates. They finished rather less well by winning only 5 seats – the same as Plaid and Labour.

That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, however. Their tactics in deciding where to fight were interesting to say the least. Many of us have suspected for some time that many of the so-called ‘Independents’ who run the county were Tories in disguise, and the Tory election tactics seem to have confirmed as much. The ‘official' Tories were dispersed around the county to fight against the other parties, often miles from their own wards, where the ‘Independents’ were given a clear run.

Take Penally, for instance, where Angela Burns’ agent stood against Plaid Councillor, Carol Cavill (and lost). Ms Clements actually lives miles away in Martletwy, where the 'Independent' member, Rob Lewis (whose picture just happened to feature on Ms Burns' election literature) was re-elected unopposed. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Or how about Tenby, where the candidate from Pembroke Dock left (self-avowed Tory) 'Independent' Councillor Brian Hall to fight off a Labour challenge from Christine Gwyther, whilst taking herself off to Tenby, and a somewhat humiliating defeat by long-serving Plaid Councillor Mike Williams.

With three parties on five seats each, there is now apparently something of a debate about who should form the official opposition (and claim the extra allowances, of course). Old Grumpy tips the Tories to win, by peeling off one of their members from the ‘Independent’ Group. If this happens, it could be a first for the Tories (or, as far as I am aware, any other party in Wales). Both the council leader and the leader of the opposition would be members of the same party, and the Tories would be in government and opposition at the same time. Not for nothing is County Hall fondly known as the Kremlin on the Cleddau.

I didn’t think that that was quite what they meant when they said they’d turn the county blue, but I suppose it takes all sorts.

Second try

I briefly tried to run a blog during last year's campaign for the Assembly elections. It failed, for two main reasons. Firstly, the time and effort involved in the campaign - speaking to people in the flesh rather than in the cyberworld - meant that I simply didn't have the time or the energy to keep the blog updated and relevant. And secondly, attempting to incorporate it into my campaign website meant that I was using the wrong technology.

I'm in the process of cleaning up the campaign website, ready for the next battle (there's always a next battle), and I'm deleting the attempted blog from that site. So I thought I'd give it another try. How successful this will be remains to be seen - time commitments in particular may limit opportunities. Some of us still have to earn a living as well...

Anyway, I'll start here, and let's see what happens over the coming months.