Wednesday 23 December 2009

Basis of Selection

The idea of holding debates between the leaders of the parties at election times has been mooted for many years; I can't say that I'm surprised that it's finally going to happen. That doesn't mean that I'm exactly happy about it either.

It works well in the US because the people are actually electing a president when they vote; in the UK, we are not. We are electing a legislature from which a government is subsequently chosen, and the number of people who can actually vote directly for any of the leaders is very limited.

I'm quite open to the idea of holding separate elections for the government and the legislature. There are a whole series of details which would need to be resolved (not the least of which is that it would make changing a prime minister without a new election rather more difficult), but the idea has a number of advantages. However, simply grafting on a presidential style debate to a legislature based election brings a series of problems of its own.

Clearly, the choice of UK prime minister at the next election boils down to only two people, and if we were able to vote directly for a prime minister, I could see that benefit of having a debate between those two. But what is Clegg doing there? He has, to be blunt, no more chance of being the next UK Prime Minister than does Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid's parliamentary leader. I know it, the broadcasters know it - and even Clegg knows it.

It might be argued that the Lib Dems are fighting enough seats to be able, theoretically, to form a government if they won enough. But what if the Greens, or the BNP or UKIP then field enough candidates - do they get to be included?

It might also be argued that, in the event of a hung parliament, the third party would have a degree of influence beyond their numbers, so that people should know where they stand. But there's no reason to assume that the Lib Dems will be the third largest group. It's perfectly plausible that a 20-strong Plaid/SNP group would have just as much influence; everything depends on the final numbers of MPs.

In short, I can see no rational justification to include Clegg which could not also be used to justify the inclusion of a number of other possible leaders. And conversely, the basis on which others have been excluded could also be used to exclude Clegg.

The whole thing is a stitch-up by the broadcasters and the establishment parties. Nothing new there, then.

Friday 18 December 2009

Investing in Skills

This week, I've had cause to read another of the Welsh Assembly Government's many consultation papers. This time it's "Investing in Skills", setting out how the government intends to prioritise spending and support.

Much of it, as with so many government papers, is motherhood and apple pie; but the section on targeting sector priorities raised some concerns in my mind. It was the sentence "The limited evidence available suggests that most learners make broadly rational choices of learning, given the wage returns to different qualifications." which first raised my eyebrows.

The meaning is not immediately clear; it's the sort of sentence which on a quick reading might not have registered at all; but what it actually seems to be suggesting is that 'rational' choices of learning are those which lead to the qualifications which in turn give the highest earnings power. The corollary of course is that choices not based on that criterion are irrational. This interpretation is confirmed by the helpful footnote referring to exceptions with the words, "health and beauty therapy courses are popular despite evidence of relatively low returns".

It underlines a very utilitarian approach to training; and indeed that theme runs through the document, with its proposals to effectively ring fence part of the spending allocation to FE institutions for those courses considered to be most immediately useful by the Sector Skills Councils. One consequence is that courses which are currently fully-funded but which are not in the priority categories may no longer be fully-funded in future; learners will be expected to contribute to the costs. The potential consequences, for learners, FE institutions, and the range of courses available are obvious.

Now there's nothing wrong with employers (and the SSCs are largely composed of employers' representatives) setting out their training needs, and there's nothing wrong with those training needs receiving a degree of priority. That could be seen as a means of promoting the needs of the Welsh economy. But there are two aspects which concern me.

The first is that employers, by and large (and there are always exceptions to every rule), tend to take a pretty short term view of training. That is, they're good at identifying, and often providing, training to meet their own narrow immediate needs; they're rather less good at identifying future needs, let alone the needs of replacement industries.

The second is the assumption that training only benefits the economy directly if it is immediately relevant to today's economic needs. A point which I picked up in a meeting I attended recently is that tomorrow's NEETs can often, sadly, be identified at the age of 5. There are some key factors which identify the likely future employment status of children when they are at the beginning of their primary school years – and one of those factors is the educational attainment of the parents.

We always need to be careful of the distinction between a causal relationship and a correlation; but there is strong evidence to suggest that low levels of educational attainment and training beget low levels of educational attainment and training. If we assume that a reduction in the number of NEETs is itself economically beneficial (quite apart from the obvious social advantages), then addressing the factors which are creating tomorrow's NEETs has a direct economic advantage.

In short, providing training and qualifications of any level, even if the immediate economic benefit of that training is not obvious, will help to improve the level of educational attainment of the next generation and therefore have a delayed economic benefit. A skills strategy which over-emphasises meeting today's needs, on the other hand, may be helping to perpetuate a deep-rooted problem. Joined-up government means taking a much wider view.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Old news

And while I'm on the subject of Carmarthenshire County Council, I have today received my copy of their latest edition of Community News. There is comment elsewhere on the blatantly political attack which passes for an editorial, including a direct threat against local newspapers who dare to be unsycophantic in their approach.

However, it's the council's take on the idea of 'news' that struck me. Delivered today, the front page contains a story about events which people are encouraged to attend - on November 27th, December 4th, and December 12th. Really useful stuff. An inside page tells me about the consultation on closing care homes - which was scuppered two weeks ago.

Just because they use recycled paper, it doesn't mean that they need to recycle the content as well.

Council contortions

In trying to 'sell' the proposals to close four residential homes in the county a few weeks ago, Carmarthenshire's Independent Party council leader was at great pains to try and explain that it wasn't really about money at all; it was about the changing nature of the demand, and the need to help people to stay in their own homes.

Her tune this week is rather different. According to both Cllr Gravell and her deputy, Labour Cllr Kevin Madge, the choice is a stark one - close these four homes or sack a thousand staff. The message is primarily aimed at the 'back-benchers' on the council, telling them that they have no choice but to support the council's plans. It's not true, of course; but will it work?

Actually, it's not really aimed at all the backbenchers either. The Executive Board know full well that the Plaid opposition will not support their plans, but as long as all their own members vote with them, that doesn't matter. And that's the real nub of the issue - they can no longer depend on Labour councillors blindly following the Independent Party's lead on the council. Four Labour members - including the chair of their group - voted with Plaid at the scrutiny committee; they simply couldn't bring themselves to vote to close care homes. There are eight backbench Labour Councillors on the council, and if they all vote with Plaid at a full council meeting, they will defeat the administration's plans once and for all.

This week's alarm story is little more than an attempt to bully and browbeat those eight Labour councillors into supporting the closure of these homes; in a very real sense, the future of these homes now depends on those eight members. Will they have the courage of their convictions, or will they buckle under pressure? This is a critical moment for Labour in Carmarthenshire, and it could represent a turning point for the council. The challenge to Labour is simple - do they paper over the cracks, or do the cracks turn into a chasm?

Incidentally, this is not the only sign of panic breaking out in the council's administration. As Plaid's councillors have pointed out on their blog, the Executive Board has resorted to taking key decisions in 'informal meetings'; meetings where no agenda is issued in advance and the press, public, and other councillors are not even notified that they are happening. Highly irregular, and almost certainly illegal. This is an administration on the ropes.

Robbing Hood

I've never been a great fan of hedge funds. Buying things they don't want using other peoples' money and selling things they don't own in order to redistribute wealth from the many to the few has never struck me as being either a socially valuable activity, or a sound basis for an economy.

I've taken more interest since it became clear that these funds are donating large sums to the Tory party nationally, and that one of them is almost entirely funding the Tory campaign in this constituency.

Many people, myself included, have long harboured doubts that the people involved in some of the more complex financial instruments do not themselves fully understand the nature of those instruments, let alone the risks involved. If they were only working on the fringes of the financial system -- and if they were the only people taking those unquantified risks -- it might not matter. But it does matter -- firstly because their habit of shortselling directly contributed to the financial collapse, and secondly because it became clear that it was us, rather than them, who were taking the risks.

Wrecsam Plaid drew attention a few days ago to the massive payment being made to one hedge fund manager who admits that he made a great deal by short-selling the banks, including Bradford and Bingley. It seems that the people behind funds like this will completely escape the additional tax which is being imposed on bankers' bonuses.

Thee are two reasons for that. The first is, as Wrecsam Plaid points out, that they are not, in the strict sense of the word, 'bankers'. (Although some people may still consider them to be 'merchants'.) The second is that this company operates as a Limited Liability Partnership rather than as a limited company, as do a number of other hedge funds.

LLPs pay no corporation tax at all on their profits. Instead the profit made by the LLP (as opposed to the growth in the assets managed) is treated as the personal property of the partners, who can take it out of the partnership any time they want. And, whilst I don't know the details of the tax status of the particular company involved here, in most cases with companies like this the profits extracted are treated as coming from the purchase and sale of assets rather than as income - so they are subject to capital gains tax rather than income tax. This is an extremely beneficial arrangement - for those involved. It means, in effect, that they can pay themselves millions, but pay tax at a lower rate than the office cleaning staff.

Hedge funds do make some people wealthy, but they don't generate wealth, as some of them claim. The two things are quite different. They actually redistribute wealth - to themselves. They perform no useful function for the many, and the sooner they are closed down the better.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Toryside Alliance

A link to an interesting letter found its way into my inbox this week. It's a letter from our local Tory candidate, in his guise as Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, providing a briefing to Tory candidates in marginal seats. It's a novel way for the Chief Executive of an "all-party" campaign to behave.

The "all-party" campaign has itself, it seems, been conducting "extensive and detailed polling" in some of those self-same marginal seats asking "whether the Conservative Party's position on repeal is likely to alter voting patterns". The boundaries between the CA and the Tory Party seem to be becoming a little blurred here, to say the least.

One of the other points made in the letter is a suggestion that the League Against Cruel Sports may have abused its position as a charity, since its activities might be perceived as being 'anti-Conservative'. The point of principle - i.e. that a charity may not get involved in party political activity - is correct. It's a serious allegation, but it is a matter for the Charity Commission and the law to determine whether LACS have actually breached the law.

I note however, from the CA site that all donations made to them, as well as the greater part of membership monies, qualify for Gift Aid as charitable donations. Most of the work of the CA is, it seems, regarded as coming under the remit of 'charity'. So clearly, if that organisation were to be caught out undertaking activities aimed at benefiting one party, wouldn't that fall to be dealt with under the same rules?

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Do try and keep up

Interesting that Nick Bourne states today that he has written to Carmarthenshire county council opposing the proposals to close four care homes.

It seems that the proposals he is opposing are the same ones which were thrown out on the motion of Plaid's councillors a fortnight ago.

Maybe he's just been on a stable-door bolting course.

Float like a bee

Myth has always been a powerful element of human culture, and that's fine in its place; but it should surely not displace science when it comes to matters of public policy. Mathematics is something that not everyone finds easy; some of us are very comfortable with numbers, others less so. But when it comes to taking decisions, it's surely important that numbers are properly interpreted, rather than completely misinterpreted.

It is in that context that I return again to the magic magnets which Carmarthenshire County Council has decided to fit to its fleet of vehicles "where appropriate". The subject came up again at the full council meeting last week, where one of Plaid's team challenged the decision, given the complete lack of scientific evidence for their efficacy.

The response he got was, basically, that it doesn't matter a jot whether anyone understands how they work; the only important thing is that they do. One councillor suggested that sometimes things happen and we only understand why much later; another memorably trotted out the hoary old urban myth that scientists have 'proved' that bumble bees can't fly, so what do they know about anything. (That particular myth has been well and truly debunked on a number of occasions – here's an example – but still seems to have an amazing degree of traction in the public mind).

In principle, "as long as it works" is a good response – but it does rather assume that the magic has been proved to work. And that's where we move from the unscientific to the unmathematical.

The council actually tried the devices on 22 vehicles, and after analysing the results, came to the conclusion that the devices worked on "some" of them, without having the foggiest notion why that should be.

What their figures actually showed was that 5 of the 22 results had to be disregarded because they were 'outliers' - i.e. so far removed from the sorts of results being achieved on the majority as to be not credible. As for the rest, they showed that in 9 there was a 'negligible' effect, 1 actually showed an increase in fuel consumption, and the remaining 7 showed an apparent improvement of between 3% and 9%.

They also noted that "some results have been skewed by the effect of operating conditions". This was intended to explain why some of the results were so low (after all, they 'know' that the devices work, and were only trying to measure how well). They don't seem to have realised that it could equally be the explanation for all of the apparent improvements. A more corrrect interpretation of the words would be "we haven't been able to exclude an effect from other factors so can't really be certain that any of these figures prove anything".

And in fact, on the basis of their own trial, they have proved precisely nothing. They haven't a clue how the devices might work, or why they might appear to work on some vehicles and not on others. But they have concluded that urban myth and scientific bunkum carries more weight than objective analysis and research.

On that flimsy basis, they are going to fit more of the devices – at taxpayers' expense – on other vehicles in their fleet, presumably based on sheer guesswork as to where they will 'work', since they have no objective basis on which to make such a decision.

And the council's endorsement of the product, showing a saving of 14% (which bears no relation whatsoever to any figures which they have published), remains on the company's website, where it will help to encourage more people to buy into the magic. The particular result on which this wild claim is based actually shows that the vehicle in question achieved fewer mpg with the magnets fitted than did other trucks of the same type without the magnets - a point which no-one seems to have questioned.

I understand that the salesman for invisible clothing is eagerly anticipating his visit to the council.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Rewriting history

During the days of the Soviet Union, one Russian historian was reported to have said, "In my country, only the future is certain. The past is always changing." It was a neat allusion to the way in which the history books were forever being rewritten, and photographs doctored, to play down or delete the influence of those out of favour whilst exaggerating the role of the current leader.

The allusion came to mind yesterday when I read these words "I argued against independence while a Plaid member. I was in a minority and my view was defeated." They are the words, of course, of an essay in the name of former Plaid AM, Mohammad Asghar, in yesterday's Western Mail.

I chair meetings of Plaid's NEC, National Council, and Conference (the clue is in the job title), and I can categorically state that his view on this issue was never 'defeated' in any meeting of any of those bodies. The main reason for that was that, on the few occasions where he was also present, he never raised the issue in any of those fora.

I can understand, of course, why the author of the piece would want to try and present the defection as being based on issues of policy and principle rather than personal advancement. But attempting to re-write history, even on a small scale, completely undermines the effort.

Friday 11 December 2009

Planning and the language

I've referred previously to the Carmarthenshire Draft LDP. Another aspect of this which deserves more attention is its objectives in relation to, and potential impact on, the Welsh language.

Carmarthenshire still has a majority of Welsh speakers – just. Notwithstanding the apparent determination of the county council, aided and abetted by the Welsh Assembly Government, to reduce the commitment to the language in the field of education, there is no obvious reason why the language should not be able to hold its own, or even recover, in the county.

Planning is one of a number of factors in this, but in this respect, the proposed LDP is weak in three aspects.

Firstly, it refers to "language sensitive areas" where "Linguistic Impact Assessments" will be required. It does not, however, spell out which areas are to be regarded as "language sensitive", nor even what the criteria for defining them might be. And in a county which is on the tipping point for Welsh ceasing to be a majority language, it is not immediately obvious to me why any part of the county would be other than "language sensitive".

Secondly, the council's favoured option for development is to concentrate new developments in the major towns. Real support for the language must include enabling our young people to stay in their own communities where they wish to do so, and that involves a degree of development – both residential and industrial – being dispersed rather than concentrated, since the language tends to be in a stronger position in more rural areas. In short, the favoured option does not seem to me to be the one most likely to help retain and promote Welsh as a community language.

Finally, their proposed indicator for assessing the success of their policy in relation to the language is "the number of planning applications determined where a Language Impact Assessment has been required". For me, this misses the point entirely. I don't really care how many assessments are carried out which is what they are proposing to count. I'm far more interested in what those assessments say and what is actually done in response to them.

In the field of planning, as in the field of education, Carmarthenshire County Council is displaying a complete lack of any real commitment to the future of the language. In an area like Carmarthenshire, that is not just a lost opportunity – it is little short of a tragedy.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Toffs and Proles

The opinion polls seem to suggest that the tactics adopted by some in the Labour Party of painting Cameron and his cronies as 'toffs' because they went to Eton or other public schools does actually strike a chord with people. I suspect that means that it will continue to be used as a tactic as a result; it's a reflection of the state to which political debate has largely been reduced that the fact that a particular tactic works has become more important than whether it is right or not. Nor does fairness seem to enter the equation; on the basis of a definition based on which school someone attended, Labour have more than a few 'toffs' of their own.

Personally, I don't care where any particular politician received his or her education; they didn't choose it, their parents chose it on their behalf. And individuals don't choose whether they're born into a rich or a poor family. Family background and education can shape attitudes of course; but those can change over time; none of us is bound to abide by the values or attitudes inculcated in us by either family or schooling. Backgrounds - under-privileged as well as privileged - can leave us with baggage in later life; but baggage can be discarded.

The question should not therefore be about Cameron's background, but about his attitudes and approach; about whether he's been able to overcome the limitations of his background and see the wider picture.

His use of the NHS and the state education sector does seem to be rather more than just a gimmick. But when it comes to financial issues - key to reducing inequality and privilege in society - he shows much less understanding. His obsession with reforms to the Inheritance Tax system which would benefit a very small number of already wealthy people – including not a few members of the shadow cabinet – suggests a continued keenness to protect the wealthy and privileged. That's a much more legitimate political target than his background.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

The Other Resignation

The departure of Mohammed Asghar from Plaid's ranks was a surprise, in that the timing, method, and destination were all unexpected; but I can't honestly say that it was a shock. It had been obvious to myself and many others for some time that his views were, to put it mildly, at variance with the mainstream of Plaid on a range of issues, including our core aims and principles.

Some have asked how we could be in a position where someone who disagrees with the raison d'être of the party could be propelled into such a prominent position. At one level, the answer is quite simple - all members sign an application form declaring their support for the party's aims and objectives, and from that point on, their support for those aims is taken as read. We don't use polygraphs to test their sincerity, nor would I want to.

That, however, would be too glib an answer. Our processes for adding members' names to the approved central list of candidates have been proved wanting. Even that's no great surprise to me; NEC members in particular know that I've been banging on about that for some time. Yesterday's events merely emphasise the need for the internal discussions we are currently having about the way in which we select, train, and prepare our candidates.

Those who say that we need to look again at our selection processes are right; but change was on the way anyway. The reality has been that our attitude to selection has, in some aspects, not moved on from the 1960s and 1970s, when we had to twist people's arms to get them to stand in hopeless seats, and greeted any volunteer with open arms. On a personal level, I've been at both ends of that twisting process myself. One of the problems of success is that we cannot afford to take that approach any longer - but I'd still rather be dealing with the problems of success than those of failure.

Should members who cross the floor resign? In principle, I think that they should. It's more obvious in the case of a list member than a constituency member, since the list election is based on voting for a party rather than an individual, but even at constituency level, the idea that people win because of who they are rather than the party which they represent is something of a convenient constitutional fiction.

It's true that candidates have a 'personal' vote as well as a party vote, but by and large the extent of that personal vote is greatly exaggerated. As a long time canvasser for candidates other than myself, I can say from experience that every candidate (even some of Plaid's highest profile politicians), also attracts a personal 'anti-vote'. That is to say, whilst there are people who will say, 'I'm not normally Plaid, but I'm voting for X', there are others who will say 'I normally vote Plaid, but I'm not voting for X'. Any experienced canvasser, for any party, will understand that point, even if the candidates don't necessarily hear the same message when they knock doors themselves.

In truth, party candidates get elected because they are party candidates, not because of who they are. And whilst they are entitled to change their views, changing party after being elected means that the electorate are no longer being represented by that for which they voted.

Of course, some people end up changing party not because they've changed their views, but because they've held to the views on which they were elected, whilst the party has gone off in another direction, but that's a wholly different can of worms. A story for another day perhaps.

In this case, the situation seems to be perfectly clear – we have an elected member effectively saying that he never agreed with the platform on which he was elected. Of course he should resign.

That resignation

I wouldn't say that I know Rhodri Morgan particularly well, but over almost 40 years of political activity, our paths have inevitably crossed from time to time. Wales is a small place at the best of times; but mostly, it's the Dinas Powys connection – he lives in the ward which I represented for 12 years on the Vale of Glamorgan Council.

His affinity for the Old Arcade in Cardiff has often been referred to, but I bumped into him more often ensconced in the back bar in the Star in the centre of the village. It was one of my late brother's favourite haunts, although I was always more of a Cross Keys man myself. I haven't been there for many a year, so I don't know whether he still makes an occasional appearance.

Politically, we are opponents, of course, but in 1979 (long before he held any elected office) we found ourselves on the same side in the devolution referendum of that year. Rhodri was one of the very few Labour Party members actually prepared to come out and campaign for a yes vote – delivering leaflets on the ground alongside myself and other Plaid members, rather than pontificating from above. It was a time when others in his party - including the man credited as being the 'father' of devolution - were still on the 'wrong' side of the debate. Rhodri had then, and I know still has, a genuine commitment to devolution for Wales.

I haven't always been impressed with him in Government, to be honest. He was definitely an improvement on his predecessor, but overall has turned out to be more cautious and less radical in his approach than I had expected. It's easy to blame the limited nature of the Assembly's powers; but still, from what I knew of him, I had expected more flair and imagination in the use of those powers. He has though made an undoubtedly unique contribution to the 'bedding down' of our Assembly.

He has managed to retain a down-to-earth style, as others have commented. It should be a source of pride in our fledgeling democracy that our First Minister can behave in such an ordinary fashion, and still maintain that contact with the people who put him where he is. And it says a lot about the man that he would want to adopt that style as well.

Like many others, I wish him a long and happy retirement now that he has stepped down as First Minister. I do hope though that he will feel able to perform one last service to the people of Wales. I cannot imagine a better person to take a leading role in the campaign to deliver a 'yes' vote in the next referendum to be held sometime between now and May 2011.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Her most gracious secretaryship

A few weeks ago, Cameron announced that he would not block an application from the Assembly for a referendum under the Government of Wales Act. It's quite kind of the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Cheryl Gillan, to spell out in a bit more detail that we will be allowed a referendum on implementing Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act within two years if her party wins the election in England. The wishes of the people of Wales, as expressed through a vote in the elected National Assembly, do not seem to be for her a major factor in deciding the timing.

From her perspective, it probably sounds like an entirely reasonable response, but the underlying attitude displayed is one that says that powers are theirs to give rather than ours to take. And it seems to me that it is an attitude based on an implicit assumption about who 'owns' powers in the first place.

The unwritten UK constitution is quite clear - all power has been vested by God in the monarch who graciously allows parliament to exercise most of it on his or her behalf. For me, power belongs to the people, who allow governments to exercise it collectively on behalf of all of us.

In practice, the result usually looks much the same - a parliamentary democracy; but the underlying difference in attitude comes to the surface when we start debating constitutional futures. I start from the view that Wales as a nation has the right to govern itself any time that the people of Wales so decide, and that the debate is about whether we should or should not exercise that right.

Tories start from the viewpoint that it is for London to decide how much power should be passed to Wales and when; and that we have to justify to them what power we want and why. In that respect, much of what many in the Labour Party say is based on the same perspective; Hain's attitude to 'allowing' us a referendum is not that dissimilar, and the Labour-Tory attitude to LCOs has been pretty consistent.

I can understand how a party such as the Tories which is, and always has been, so tightly wedded to the top-down idea of sovereignty, reacts in the way it does, and why Gillan's statement would seem to them to be so utterly reasonable. I have rather more difficulty in understanding how the Labour Party – founded, after all, on egalitarian principles - adopts in practice such a similar approach to who 'owns' power.

Monday 7 December 2009

Just moving it around

Bonuses are a part of the remuneration package of a lot of people in a lot of jobs; it isn't just bankers that benefit. And in principle, rewarding those who achieve targets can help to improve the effectiveness of organisations. There are, however, legitimate questions to be asked about the size of bonuses, and the basis on which they are paid.

It's a mistake to lump all 'bankers' together as though they were all the same – they are not. But they're not all in line for big bonuses either. The bankers who do the more mundane day to day stuff which we all depend upon to manage our money are performing a useful function - but they're not the ones in line for the big payouts. No, it's the gamblers and speculators; the ones who take all the risks with other people's money - they're the ones lining up to claim their rewards.

What some of the people in the financial services sector seem to be unable to understand is that it isn't the mere fact that they want to pay themselves bonuses which raises hackles; it's a combination of the size of those bonuses and the relationship (or lack of) with their contribution to the success of the organisations for which they work.

There is a great deal of difference between making people wealthy, and creating wealth. There is no doubt that the gamblers and speculators achieve the first; some people (and not just the bankers themselves) have become very wealthy as a result of their activities. But it isn't because they have actually created any wealth; all they've done is to move it around a bit.

Like Robin Hood in reverse, they actually take a little from the many to give a lot to the few. In that sense, their activities have not only been socially useless; they have actually been detrimental to the interests of most of us. The fact that some of them have threatened to take their 'skills' elsewhere unless they are allowed to be paid that to which they think they are entitled shows only how far removed they are from reality. I'm tempted to say 'let them go'; my problem is that I wouldn't wish them on anyone else either.

Friday 4 December 2009

Cracks in the coalition

No, not that coalition!

Carmarthenshire County Council is looking to save money, and came up with the wheeze of closing a number of the council's residential homes. To no-one's great surprise (except, apparently, the administration at County Hall), this proposal did not exactly receive a universal welcome from the residents of the homes, or their families or carers. The local papers this week make for interesting reading on the subject, especially the Llanelli Star.

On one of the centre pages, a smiling council leader, Meryl Gravell, explains why the homes are no longer necessary, supported by a statement from the also-smiling Director. The two Executive Board members directly responsible, Labour Councillors Pat Jones and Hugh Evans (also both smiling) set out their reasons for supporting the proposals which they have signed off and put forward for public consultation. The facing page contains a picture of a rather angry looking Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli, alongside a statement making her opposition to her own party's proposals very clear.

On Wednesday this week, the proposals were put to a joint meeting of the county council's Housing and Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committees, with a recommendation that the document be approved for publication for a public consultation exercise.

One after another, the Plaid scrutiny members savaged the proposals with a series of arguments which the proponents of the scheme found difficult to rebut. When the matter was put to the vote, all four of Labour's voting members supported the Plaid proposal that the document be not accepted as a basis for consultation, realising that their party's Executive Board members had got it totally wrong. The two Labour Executive Board members, who were present but unable to vote, could only watch in anguish as their proposals were comprehensively torn apart before being rejected by a clear majority of the councillors present.

It's the first time that I'm aware of that the ruling Independent Party / Labour Party coalition have lost a vote - or been so obviously split along party lines. I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall at the next Labour group meeting at County Hall.

Politics aside, however, it's instructional to consider how such an ill-advised policy proposal could have got so far without being challenged. It exposes one of the weaknesses of the current cabinet / scrutiny system in local government, where the Executive members alone are aware of policy discussions such as this. There is a culture of secrecy, and back-benchers, even in the ruling groups, are largely kept in the dark about potential policy changes. A more open discussion, involving all the councillors, would have alerted the council to the likely reaction to these proposals well in advance.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. The current administration at County Hall are not renowned for changing direction - I wouldn't be at all surprised to see these proposals being resurrected in some form. The 30-strong Plaid Group can be expected to continue to oppose them.

Thursday 3 December 2009

WAG double-speak

The contribution to debate made by teaching unions today over the future of Welsh-medium education is to be welcomed. This is an issue which we have been battling in Carmarthenshire for many months, and it is clearly now starting to impact on other counties.

Carmarthenshire's proposals involve totally ignoring the demand for Welsh-medium secondary provision in parts of the county, by adopting a 'bilingual' teaching model; it seems that Rhondda Cynon Tâf are now in the firing line for proposing something similar. The common thread, of course, is that both are trying to act on the advice and guidance being given to them by the Welsh Government in Cardiff. And that advice is fundamentally flawed.

Part of the problem is nomenclature. The phrase 'bilingual school' means different things to different people; and it doesn't help that there are three separate categories of bilingual school. The most common category in Carmarthenshire is category 2C, which officially means that at least 50% of all subjects taught are 'offered' through the medium of Welsh. It sounds impressive - until you start asking about what teaching actually happens in Welsh.

Believe it or not, the council doesn't know the answer to that question. They do not actually record what proportion of children take up the 'offer'; let alone how many find that the 'offer' is illusory, and can in practice be withdrawn at any time (whilst still being counted in the 50%, of course!) if the numbers in any particular subject in any particular year are regarded by the school as being 'too low'. The gulf between the theory and the practice is an enormous one.

There appear to be no checks on this, and no records are kept outside the individual schools. My best guess is that in a school nominally offering between 50% and 80% of its subjects through the medium of Welsh, the proportion of pupils actually receiving any part of their education in Welsh is probably well under 30%; and the proportion receiving the majority of their education through the medium of Welsh is almost certainly zero. What is completely undeniable is that they are all receiving their education in a predominantly English-medium institution.

It is against that background of utter failure to protect and promote the Welsh language that we must judge the encouragement being actively given by WAG to development of a 'bilingual' as opposed to Welsh-medium model for education; advice seized upon by cash-strapped education authorities who see this as an opportunity to introduce a 'one-size fits all' policy, and rationalise their school provision.

The statement by a WAG spokesman, “We’ve made it clear in Y Siwrnai, all Transformation plans must take account of bilingual provision, ensuring there are a range of quality opportunities available across the network for learning options through the medium of Welsh.” is just a laughable piece of Orwellian double-speak. They have consistently shown that they simply do not - or will not - understand the difference between Welsh-medium 'provision' and Welsh-medium education. But it is a piece of double-speak which is in danger of concealing one of the most damaging government policies ever to be inflicted on the Welsh language.


As the dust settles, many are turning their minds to the shape of the new cabinet under Labour's new leader. Glyn Davies and Valleys Mam join in today, after Peter Black and others added their views in recent days.

It's interesting though that the speculation seems to be concentrated on who is to be rewarded, who is to be punished, how the jobs should be spread geographically, whether Carwyn Jones will deliberately seek to spring a surprise or two, and above all, whether he will stamp his authority on his party. In which other profession or organisation would any of those be the main bases of decision rather than the ability and experience of the individuals and their suitability to do the job?

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Investing or gambling

It seems that Pembrokeshire County Council's Executive Board, meeting in closed session with the public and press excluded, has decided to convert a loan made to the Bluestone Project into an equity share as part of the restructuring of that company. The precise circumstances leading to this decision remain clouded in doubt, given the way in which the matter has been discussed and the decision reached, but I know that I am not alone in wondering whether the decision is in the best interests of the council taxpayers.

Old Grumpy has expressed his concern over the exclusion of the public and press (see 'Public Interest'), and Cllr Michael Williams, leader of the five-strong Plaid Group on the council has submitted a series of questions to which he is seeking answers.

The company is not traded on the stock exchange, so valuing its shares is not straightforward. In swapping a loan with an agreed rate of interest and agreed repayment terms for shares of an unquantifiable value, have the cabinet reduced the security of the financial commitment made by the taxpayer?

The decision may or may not be the right one for the taxpayer - I currently have serious doubts. But the way in which the decision has been taken gives me real concern about a lack of transparency and scrutiny over a major financial decision made in the name of the public.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Bravery called for

The results of the poll published yesterday on Welsh attitudes towards climate change made interesting reading. No doubt, like most poll results, they will be subjected to a range of different interpretations.

What I found most interesting was the conclusion that a little over half had reached, namely that they as individuals can make little difference; and that 72% therefore said that the government had to take a lead, and use the law if necessary to bring about changes in behaviour.

People are right, of course, to conclude that each of us can make only a tiny difference; and that even the total elimination of emissions by the UK would make but a very small difference to the total world situation. Some of the most vociferous opponents of renewable energy projects use precisely that line of argument to justify their stance; but carried to its logical conclusion, no-one would do anything, and we'd all lose out in the end. It's a version of the 'tragedy of the commons'.

There's also a danger, which may be part of what is behind the responses obtained, that when some people are altruistic in their use of resources, then others will merely take their opportunity to help themselves to a greater share; on that basis, only decisions made at a collective level will ensure that altruism is not taken advantage of.

One of the reasons why governments - and politicians more generally - have been afraid to legislate has been a fear of consequent electoral unpopularity. And the question which appears not to have been answered by the poll is whether people would still be as happy to see the law used to implement changes if they as individuals ended up worse off as a result.

It's disappointing that people feel so unempowered; but the fact that so many people feel that government should be willing to legislate should encourage all of those of us involved in political activity to be prepared to be more creative - and, dare I say it, a little braver - when it comes to proposing actions. For instance, offering people carrots for 'good' behaviour, rather than threatening them with sticks for 'bad' behaviour may make politicans less unpopular - but is it really honest in a time when public spending will be coming under pressure?

Wednesday 25 November 2009

The hand of Hain

It's tempting to dismiss yesterday's mini-drama at the Bay as just another dose of froth; desperately important to those in the bubble, but of passing interest, at best, to those outside. The eventual resolution seems to boil down to an agreement by all concerned (well, almost all) to recognise a degree of ambiguity in the original Labour statement as a basis for the restoration of a degree of peace and harmony.

So, was it really all down to a badly-worded press statement, blown out of proportion by politicians extracting the maximum nuance, and media hounds keen for a bit of drama?

Possibly – and if I didn't detect the "hand of Hain" behind the original statement, I'd probably just write it off as a bit of incompetence. But it looks to me more like a deliberate case of handball on the political field of play.

Hain has been consistent (give him that, at least) in his attempts to block early progress towards a further referendum; and it's hard to interpret yesterday's announcement other than in that context. The clear and unequivocal message from Sir Emyr seems not to have changed his view one jot.

He has also consistently shown himself to be one of the most partisan and tribal members of his party. The zeal of the convert, perhaps; or a need to show, even after all this time, that he really is one of them, and not a Lib Dem infiltrator. Certainly, he has never accepted the One Wales coalition agreement. Indeed, more generally, he seems to be struggling to get his head around the softer and more consensual approach to politics which is going to be inevitable in a legislature elected by a form of proportional representation.

His motivation cannot be personal advancement – he must surely have realised by now that he is simply not in contention if Labour needs a new leadership team after the next election. And, by being in London rather than in Cardiff, he has missed the opportunity provided by Rhodri Morgan's retirement.

I don't understand what game he is playing. It's possible, of course, that he really and genuinely believes that a referendum would be lost, and he's just trying to protect us all from our own over-enthusiasm. Occam's Razor may apply, although somehow I doubt it in this case.

In relation to the recent deliberate handball on the football pitch, Thierry Henri was quick to own up. I suspect we'll have to wait rather longer before we get a similar degree of candour from Hain. In the meantime, for reasons best known to himself, he has, once again, come close to wrecking a government led by his own party in Cardiff. He's failed this time; but it's hard to be certain that he'll keep failing.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Experience desirable

In the latest issue of 'Agenda', Geraint Talfan Davies underlines the extent to which elected members in Wales are drawn from the public rather than the private sector. There's just the barest hint of a suggestion that private sector=good, public sector=bad. But does it really matter? It seems to me that the answer depends on the answer to a question I have asked before - what are MPs and AMs for?

If they are primarily intended to be a representative sample of the population, then the analysis performed by Mr Davies merely reflects the fact that Wales is, to a very large extent, a public sector economy. One may have different views as to whether that is or is not a good thing; but if we want a parliament reflecting wider society, the public sector bias should not surprise us.

If they are there to represent the electorate in their own area, then whether their background is public or private sector would not seem to me to make a vast amount of difference; the question is more one of whether they have the relevant skills to do the job. And if they are there to pass laws, there is no obvious reason why a background in one sector is more appropriate than a background in another.

There is, however, one part of their function where it may make a difference – and that is the business of governing as opposed to legislating or representing. But even then, it's not a public sector background per se which may be questionable; it's more about the type of experience which people have gained - although there are some types of experience more likely to have been gained in the private sector than in the public sector in the economy as it is today.

When ministers are appointed, a number of factors come into account. First ministers and prime ministers need to reward their political allies and supporters; their foes may need to be punished, or if particularly popular, placed into a position where their loyalty is guaranteed. Ability to run a major department is something of a secondary consideration in all of this.

If Mr Davies was challenging whether the background and experience of too many politicians left them ill-equipped to take ministerial office, I think he'd have a much better point. Hapless Hacker may be something of a cliché, but it's a result of a system where the senior civil servants have the experience and ability to run the departments, and politicians struggle to exert any real influence. Lack of comparable experience may well be a significant factor in that regard.

The civil service is an inherently conservative institution, and many public sector organisations are similarly conservative in their approach. If we want government to drive real and deep change (which is surely the starting point for any radical politician), we need ministers who impose their will on their departments.

The current system does manage to produce some of those, but I don't think that they're the norm. Choosing ministers solely from the ranks of the legislature doesn't seem to me as being necessarily the best way to get more of them either.

Friday 20 November 2009

The wrong type of paint

During the summer months, there was considerable disruption to traffic locally, as the various components of a new wind farm were transported along the main road north from Carmarthen. They were destined for the Blaengwen wind farm - now renamed the Alltwalis wind farm despite howls of protest from the village and a petition signed by at least one resident of almost every house in the village; a classic example of how not to win friends and influence people. Ten turbines, 3 blades to each - it was quite a complex logistics exercise to get them all on site.

The turbines have now been erected and are being tested, with the farm due to be fully operational by the end of this month. It seems that a problem has been encountered, however - and 12 of the 30 turbine blades need to be replaced, leading to a further period of disruption of the traffic.

The company say that the problem is a "paint defect". Sounds a bit like one of the as-yet unused excuses in the British Rail handbook to me; but shipping 12 turbine blades off the site and 12 new ones in seems like an awfully drastic solution to such a minor problem. I think local residents can be forgiven for wondering why it couldn't be resolved by a man with a 'cherry-picker' and a large pot of paint.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Processes and outcomes

One of the more throw-away comments made by Sir Emyr in publishing his report, according to the Western Mail, was "It may be that some wit will say that you could have told us this on the back of an envelope in a day. Yes, but it wouldn’t have been evidence- based".

It's an obvious temptation to wonder whether he had any particular wit in mind. I have to admit, though, that I do actually have some sympathy for the viewpoint that the conclusion is, in some ways, a statement of the obvious. But...

In a previous existence, I did a lot of project management, and projects are generally about achieving change. One of the things that I learned about project teams is that there are often two types of people involved. The first type are totally focused on the outcome, and will seek to achieve that by whatever means are possible, and in the shortest and cheapest fashion possible. And they don't always worry too much about who gets hurt in the process, or how happy anyone else is. The second type are more focused on the process followed to get to the result; or perhaps more accurately will only be fully engaged if they are happy with the process. Over-simplistic, of course, but broadly true.

The most successful change projects are not always the cheapest or the fastest; getting the maximum buy-in from all participants often increases costs and timescales. But it's an approach which is more likely to achieve deep-rooted and effective change, and establish a more consensual base-line for the future.

I've been confident from the outset about the probable conclusions of the Convention; and confident that the referendum would be held within the agreed timescale. I suspect that history will judge that the work of the Convention has been of great importance, not so much for its conclusions, as for the process followed. There's nothing unusual about a longer term view varying from the assessment which many make at the time.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

More Snake Oil

Carmarthenshire County Council's website now includes the detailed report on Fleet Management which went to yesterday's meeting of the Executive Board. The section about the magic magnets which they have been installing on vehicles includes some interesting details.

Firstly, they have repeated the claim made by the manufacturers about how the device 'works' ("realign the carbon molecules allowing the fuel to burn more efficiently") with no qualification or challenge whatsoever. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to substantiate this claim.

Secondly, by stating that "some results have been skewed by the effect of operating conditions", they are effectively saying that, although they have measured some change in fuel efficiency, they have absolutely no means of knowing whether that is attributable to the devices fitted or to other factors, which they were unable to exclude from the trial.

Thirdly, after removing the 'outlying' vehicles from the results (I take that to mean those vehicles which showed the greatest variation – in either direction), they are left with a set of results which is a long way away from the claimed level of savings. The most common result seems to be that the effect is, at best, 'negligible'. Rather than concluding from the overall set of results that this product simply doesn't do what it's claimed to do, they have instead concluded that it only works on some vehicles and are, apparently, setting out to fit it to vehicles which seem to fit the pattern of 'working'. There seems to have been no questioning as to why a device would only work on 'some' vehicles.

Fourthly, the endorsement from the council carried on the company's website quotes only one result - showing a 14% saving. Interesting that that result is considered good enough to use in an endorsement, but not good enough to be included in the evaluation report given to councillors – I assume that it's been disregarded as an 'outlying' result.

Fifthly, the point which they really seem to have missed is the huge variation in mpg between vehicles of the same type – much wider than any effect of any magic device. All of the 'improvements' measured are smaller than the variation which is occurring between vehicles of the same type anyway.

Finally, they proudly state that "Carmarthenshire was the only council in England and Wales to trial the product". Still no alarm bells ringing anywhere?

P.T. Barnum may have been wrongly credited with his famous phrase, but that doesn't mean it was wrong.

Monday 16 November 2009

Welsh desirable

Today's story in the Western Mail about whether the First Minister should be able to speak Welsh or not is, of course, based on a bit of mischief-making amongst the contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party. Given that background, it's tempting to simply ignore the question, and treat it as a bit of froth.

However, the fact that anyone can raise the question as a serious one in any context is something which worries me more than a little. Is someone seriously suggesting that the post of First Minister should be restricted to the 25-30% who have enough knowledge of Welsh to be able to give interviews in either language? I can think of absolutely no reason why a non Welsh-speaker should be barred from the job - devolution and the future of Wales is about much, much more than the Welsh language.

The Western Mail's editorial comment, suggesting that this is an issue which has a limited lifespan because all children educated in Wales now learn Welsh is the stuff of fantasy, sadly. Anyone who believes that the education system is turning out bilingual children is deluding him or herself.

I wish that it were so, but the harsh reality is that teaching second languages in school - whether Welsh or any other language - simply does not turn children into fluent speakers by the time that they leave school. Only fully Welsh-medium education achieves that, and the demand for that type of education continues to exceed the supply.

And far from turning Wales into a bilingual nation, the current policy direction of the Welsh Assembly Government seems to be to support those who seek to deliberately weaken Welsh-medium provision in places like Carmarthenshire, in pursuit of a more 'cost-effective' approach to the provision of school places. That issue of policy matters far more to the future of the language than the ability of any particular politician to speak Welsh.

Friday 13 November 2009

Who to vote for?

At the risk of Adam Higgitt withdrawing his kind words, I'm going to make a comment on the curious way in which the Labour Party electoral college works. The spur for this is the discovery that a member of my local branch of Plaid Cymru – someone who's been a party member for over 30 years, and who thought that she had made it clear that she had no wish to pay her union's political levy – has received a voting paper for the Labour Party's leadership election.

Or has she? The Labour Party's processes are pretty arcane in many ways; but if I understand the process correctly, what trade union members have been given is not actually a direct vote in the leadership election itself, but a vote in an internal union poll which decides how the union's block vote is then distributed. The 'value' of an individual member's vote may thus be rather detached from the concept of one member, one vote.

I'm sure that someone from the Labour Party will correct me if I've actually got this totally wrong, but the number of members affiliated by any one union (and thus the number of votes allocated to that union) does not necessarily seem to be the same as the number of members paying the political levy (which explains why the numbers affiliated seem to be mostly nice round numbers). A union may choose to affiliate a smaller number, and thus pay less money, or even a larger number, and thus gain more votes.

If I'm right, that means that a union with 20,000 affiliated votes then casts 20,000 votes in the electoral college, even if they've only got 10,000 members paying the political levy, and even if only, say, 50% of those then actually vote. That's certainly what I understood Lee Waters to be saying, when he noted "Unions will have to ballot their membership and then divide their vote proportionally according to the wishes of their membership.".

It's the first time, I think, that I've ever seen a ballot paper which includes clear advice telling people for whom they should vote, given that the union concerned has chosen to support one particular candidate. It's also the first time I've ever seen a ballot paper which asks the voters to confirm that they are actually eligible to vote before they cast their vote, by ticking a box to confirm that they are not a "supporter of any organisation opposed to" the Labour Party.

There must be hundreds of members of other parties who have been given a voice in an internal election as a result of the curious process used, and as a member of an alternative political party, there's an obvious temptation for a bit of mischief making by recommending one candidate or another. But I couldn't honestly advise any Plaid member to tick the box confirming that they do not support an opposing organisation, and on balance, my advice would be to not interfere.

But to anyone in the Labour Party who's reading – you really do need to look at how you get yourself in a position of inviting members of other parties to participate in your internal election.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Snake Oil

I suspect that 'miracle' products have been around since the dawn of mankind; ever since one human discovered how gullible some of his fellow men could be. The advance of human science and knowledge, far from putting an end to such scams, has served only to give more complex and credible pseudo-scientific 'explanations' as to how the products work.

One of these little miracles, which has been around in one form or another since the 1920s, is the fuel-line magnet. At its simplest, it involves attaching very small (and invariably very expensive!) magnets to the fuel line on a vehicle, which, it is claimed, improves fuel consumption. How? Well the latest explanation is that the magnets somehow 'align' the hydrocarbon molecules and make them burn better or more completely. It's bunkum, of course, and has been well-refuted on many occasions (here are two simple responses), including by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has evaluated a number of specific products. The Advertising Standards Agency has also forced at least one company to withdraw the claims that they have made for their products.

The obvious question, of course, is if these devices work as well as their suppliers claim, why is there no motor vehicle manufacturer, anywhere in the world, which fits them as standard? Apparently, it's because there is a giant conspiracy between motor manufacturers and oil companies to suppress the introduction of devices which would reduce fuel consumption. And I suppose it's therefore equally obvious that motor manufacturers would sooner spend millions on research into new ways of meeting tighter environmental controls on fuel consumption than fit a 'tried and tested' device as standard. And the moon is made of blue cheese.

Companies selling this sort of device seem invariably to be of the 'network marketing' type, and Trading Standards Departments up and down the country are concerned about the validity of claims being made. Standard advice seems to be that the best way of saving money with these products is to keep it in your pocket.

One company selling these devices is called Magno-Flo, and I was somewhat surprised yesterday to discover that Carmarthenshire County Council have been trialling the product on 22 vehicles. (I'll bet that it wasn't a 'blind' trial, let alone a 'double-blind' trial. The placebo effect is an extremely powerful phenomenon.) So pleased are they with the outcome that the Policy and Resources Committee has decided to recommend them being fitted on more vehicles, 'where appropriate'. The county runs around 700 vehicles in its fleet, and at £300 a throw, that's a potential £210,000 of council tax-payers' money for 1400 very small magnets. Nice work if you can get it.

Better yet, the council has become the first (and so far only, as far as I can establish) public authority anywhere in the UK to give a formal endorsement of the product, which the company is using on its website. I wonder whether the department concerned has consulted with their colleagues in Trading Standards? Somehow, I doubt it.

The race is now on to see which local authority will be the first to endorse snake oil as the cure for all ills. Carmarthenshire County Council must start as an early favourite.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Defining merit

Interesting report published this week by the IWA on the effect that women have had on the development of the National Assembly, and the likely changes in the representation of women in the next Assembly. Both Labour and Plaid took particular measures to try and ensure fair representation for women, and those measures are what led to such a good gender balance in the Assembly.

The Tories did nothing to achieve such balance -- and it shows in the overwhelming number of males in their group. The Lib Dems say that they took no special measures but didn't need to, because a process of selection purely on merit gave them an equal balance anyway. It seems to me that they are deluding themselves rather; their 'balance' may well be largely the result of electoral failure. They weren't really close enough to winning any other seats to assess how the balance might have changed had they done so, but I suspect that the apparent balance may be more sensitive to electoral fortune than they realise.

And ultimately that's the sort of analysis which led me to a change of view on the system which Plaid has used to date. In simplistic terms, a system of using the top place on the regional lists to try and achieve balance -- instead of dealing with the question of constituency selections -- works only at a particular level of electoral success. Winning more seats leads to a greater male preponderance. As just one obvious (and very close to home) example demonstrates: had I won 251 extra votes, the Plaid team would have been 9:6 instead of 8:7. And had we won, say Clwyd West, it would have been 10:5. From near equality to gross inequality for less than 2,000 extra votes; and all without changing the total number of seats won.

Recognising the need to address constituency selections is, of course, not the same thing as actually doing so. The biggest advantage of the approach adopted by Labour (twinning) was precisely that it did address that issue. But it was an approach imposed from the top; a democratic party like Plaid was simply unable to do that.

The main argument against having a mechanism for achieving something like a numerical balance is the idea that selection should be based entirely on 'merit'. If women have the same level of merit as men, then they will get selected; if they don't then there's nothing wrong with having an unbalanced slate. It merely reflects the spread of merit within the party.

At its simplest, it is an argument which is difficult to refute; who can seriously argue that we should deliberately field a team which is other than the strongest available? But it is a seriously flawed argument, since it is based on the fundamental, and usually unstated, assumptions:

a). that 'merit' is a defined and clear criterion;
b). that 'merit' has been defined in a gender neutral way;
c). that the selection processes employed by parties do actually assess 'merit'; and
d). that they make that assessment in a gender neutral fashion.

If all four of these assumptions were provably valid, then I for one would be entirely happy to support a selection process based solely on merit. But, actually, I think all four are probably invalid, and parties actually operate selection processes which indirectly favour men, and use assessment criteria under which men are more likely to succeed than women.

It's not easy to correct this. In fact it is so difficult that we have largely avoided dealing with it to date. I'd go so far as to argue that, by going for some sort of artificial process to try and achieve numerical balance, what we have done (and Labour too, in my view) is to address the symptom rather than the disease.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind -- most over-the-counter flu treatments do exactly the same thing, and as long as the objective (i.e. the alleviation of the symptoms) is achieved, we accept that approach.

However, short-term alleviation of symptoms, even when it works, doesn't mean that we should stop working towards identifying a cure. The same should be true of the historical under-representation of women as well. Plaid are working on that -- using external support to try and define what 'merit' is, and how we can more accurately assess it through gender neutral processes. I honestly don't know at this stage whether the approach will work; but I think we're entirely right to try it.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Nuclear is still the wrong answer

The announcement yesterday that the UK government is still determined to press ahead with a programme of building new nuclear power stations was hardly unexpected; but that doesn't make it any more welcome. It was pleasing, though, to see the First Minister reiterating the policy of the One Wales Government in clear and forthright terms.

The UK government, and other supporters of nuclear power, continue to completely gloss over the unresolved issue of waste disposal, to which there is still no solution. And the full costs of the nuclear option remain uncertain.

I understand the views of those who want the jobs which come with a nuclear programme, of course. But I have never believed that we should adopt a 'jobs at any price' attitude. We need jobs in Wales - and Ynys Môn is desperately in need of an economic boost - but we need jobs which contribute to building the sort of future we want to see, not jobs which take us away from that future and repeat the mistakes of the past.

Would we go out of our way to welcome the development of a plant in Wales to treat toxic waste, or to produce GM seeds for instance? Scarcely, I suspect. And once we acknowledge that there are some industries which we don't want to encourage or to host, we are talking about where we draw the line in welcoming the economic benefits of a particular proposal, not whether there is a line or not. It is clear that we are not all in agreement about where the line should be drawn - either between or within parties.

The First Minister made the telling point that a massive investment in a new round of nuclear power plants may well mean a reduction in funds for research and development in the sort of renewable technologies which we all agree that we want to encourage and attract. As in so many things, it seems unlikely that we can have both. And, if we're serious about creating the sort of new economy which the Welsh Government has strongly advocated, and on which I entirely support what they have said, then we need to continue to reject the nuclear option.

(PS. For the benefit of 'Jac Codi Baw' in Golwg, my position is precisely the same whoever uses the jobs argument!).

Monday 9 November 2009

Praise and criticism

We all like to be praised for the things we do right, but criticism for the things that are not so good can sometimes be an unpleasant experience. However, it's also something we can learn from – provided that we are willing to listen.

Carmarthenshire County Council revels in praise when they receive it. Their leaders are only too quick to seize on any report which shows the county in a good light, and boast about their achievements. Not long ago, they even issued a press release which listed a number of achievements including the high proportion of children in the county who had their teeth checked by a dentist - not obviously a matter over which the council had any real control.

So how about when a report dares to criticise the council, as a recent report from Estyn did? Well one councillor rose to his feet in the chamber to fulminate against the authors, attacking the quality of the staff and suggesting that the report showed only that Estyn were unable to assess and correlate the information they were given.

It didn't sound to me like a council that was terribly keen on learning from criticism.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Staying calm

I've noted previously that there's a danger that people over-react to statements made by Labour's leadership hopefuls. We all need to remember that they are appealing to a particular audience for a particular purpose.

Today's little storm over whether Carwyn Jones is in order to 'consult' the Labour Party over the timing of any referendum is a case in point.

The commitment to holding a referendum on or before the date of the next Assembly election stands; it's a commitment to which both parties signed up in agreeing the coalition deal. The precise timing of that referendum is a matter for the One Wales government to decide; but it would surely be surprising in the extreme if they didn't want to hear the views of party members – in both parties - before making the final decision on the date.

Indeed, the relevant section of the One Wales agreement itself makes explicit reference to what happens after the Convention: "Both parties will then … need to assess the levels of support … to trigger the referendum". I'm expecting there to be some internal discussions within Plaid – why on earth shouldn't Labour be doing the same thing?

What we all need to bear in mind, as I've said before, is not what candidates in a leadership race say, but what members of the cabinet do when the issue comes before them in due course. I remain entirely confident that both parties understand exactly what they agreed to - and will honour their agreement.

Friday 6 November 2009

There was no alternative

At long last, David Cameron has managed to climb down from one of his many fences and agree that he would not veto a referendum on additional powers if he were to be in government, and if the Assembly were to request one.

In reality, Cameron must have seen that he didn't really have a lot of choice; there was only one sensible answer that he could have given. And unless we want to believe that he's basically thick (and I don't believe that), it must have been obvious to him for months that that was the case. So why delay for so long before stating the obvious?

Two reasons, I suspect. The first is the simple fact that Wales really doesn't feature very highly on his list of priorities. The answer to the question may have been of interest here in the two western peninsulas of Britain, but he expects to win power in England, not in Wales.

And the second? Well, I suspect that he would really have liked to give the opposite answer. But if he couldn't give the answer he would have liked to give, a lengthy delay at least sends a clear message that he is cool on the whole idea. It is a long, long way from Nick Bourne's assertion that the reluctant and much-delayed answer to a very simple question "demonstrates the Conservative Party’s commitment to devolution". It actually demonstrates the complete opposite.

Over-used words

One way and another, I get to read a lot of documents (sad life, I know) produced by various government bodies at different levels. Some I have the pleasure of translating; others I read as background or for research purposes.

One thing that jumps out at me is the way that some words are used with increasing frequency; and sometimes in ways which seem designed to press the right buttons, but don't necessarily mean a great deal.

'Partnership' is one of my current favourites, and no official document is complete without the word being liberally scattered through it, often accompanied by 'working'.

Another is 'sustainable'. This is a particularly good word, which can be used in several different ways in many different contexts.

This week, I have been reading Carmarthenshire's Pre-deposit Preferred Strategy which they've published as part of the process of preparing the Local Development Plan. In the course of so doing, I have learned that Carmarthen is in a sustainable location, and reading a little further, I discovered that Llanelli is also in a sustainable location. Now I'm sure that this will be good news for the residents of both towns; I'd certainly hate to think of the implications if the council were to conclude that either town was in an 'unsustainable' location. But what on earth does it actually mean?

The document also informs me that I live in Sustainable Community 19 (a nomenclature of which the old Soviet Union would surely have been proud), which consists of Alltwalis, Llanpumsaint, Rhydargaeau, Pontarsais, and Nebo. Apparently, this means that there is a degree of interdependence between these settlements, so that they can be treated as a (sustainable, of course) whole. I suspect that would be news to the inhabitants of Alltwalis and Nebo – the whole thing looks more like arbitrary lines on a map to me. And don't even start me on the area covered by Sustainable Community 18, which manages to lump Cwmdwyfran into the same Sustainable Community as Llangain!

At least every settlement in the county seems to have been allocated to a numbered Sustainable Community as far as I can see. I can't find any communities or settlements which have been identified as being unsustainable, although it's not always easy to spot what has not been included in a list. But does it mean anything?

(PS - I've also learned that a number of strategic (or even 'strategical') sites are strategically located and contribute to the implementation of the strategy – but I'll save my feelings about the over-use of that family of words for another day.)

Thursday 5 November 2009

Performance politics

The closer they get to a scent of power, the more obvious it becomes that the Tories remain split from top to bottom over the UK's relationship with the European Union.

Most members of the Conservative Party are, at heart, deeply sceptical about the idea that political power should lie anywhere other than Westminster. From that perspective, sharing sovereignty at European level is much akin to devolving power to Wales - something to be avoided at all costs.

It's actually a valid political position to hold, even though not one I'd agree with. It's remarkably similar to the position of Ukip, in essence - and that's part of Cameron's problem. He knows that many of his party's members (and not a few of his elected MPs and MEPs) hold views which are very much in tune with Ukip; but he also knows that it's not a realistic position for a potential party of government to adopt.

The result is that he fudges. He is desperately looking for ways in which he can sound sufficiently anti-European to keep his own side happy without tying his hands too tightly in advance. He always knew that there was no chance of the Lisbon Treaty remaining unratified by the time he came to power; so a promise of a referendum was an easy promise to make, since it would never have to be fulfilled.

Now he's looking for another, similarly meaningless commitment, and he's come up with the idea of a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill – a bill which will change nothing very much, but sounds suitably tough.

For a minister in another European government to refer to the Tory position as 'autistic' was an unfortunate turn of phrase to say the least. Not only is it way out of order to use what is a serious condition as a term of abuse; it also serves to divert attention from the issue at hand.

It's also unfair at another level – Cameron is, I suspect, no more serious about this than he was about the referendum. It's just part of a tightrope act between now and the election. It's performance, not reality.

Life's little mysteries

I have no intention of responding on a detailed basis to today's story in the Western Mail, which repeats the usual inaccuracies and half-truths (including publishing a highly edited version of a letter as though it were the complete text) which I have come to expect of all reporting on this issue.

There are two things which remain a mystery to me, though. The first is why any party member who was seriously committed to promoting the party's aims and policies would want to disseminate misleading and damaging stories in the first place. And the second is how easily an experienced and professional journalist on a reputable newspaper can be taken in by dishonest and unreliable sources.

Hey ho.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

What are they for?

The statement by Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain that the Tories were planning to reduce the number of MPs from Wales, and the impact of that on the National Assembly, sparked something of a debate on Syniadau. That debate concentrated more on whether the link between numbers of MPs and AMs had been properly understood than on the principle of a cut in the numbers.

But I'd like to return to the substantive issue, and ask how many MPs we actually need.

Cameron's proposal for a 10% cut seems to be primarily an attempt to make populist capital out of the unpopularity of politicians. The figure of 10% has surely been simply plucked out of the air. But why 10%? Why not 9% or 11% or 20%? And if he really wants to be popular, why not 90% or even 100%? There is no obvious rational basis for the level of cut specified; but then there's no obvious rationale for the current number of MPs either.

Clearly, the apparent over-representation of Wales in numerical terms has been dragged into the debate, along with the suggestion that, as the powers of the Assembly grow, so the need for MPs decreases. I can understand why some would want to suggest that, but I'm not convinced – even when those on my own side support the suggestion.

Our argument for changing our policy on the Second Chamber, and sending peers to London (foolishly and short-sightedly spiked by Brown's pettiness) was based on the principle that we should seek to maximise Wales' voice in any institution making decisions which affect us. At a European level, we have argued that we would more or less triple our representation in the European Parliament as an independent nation-state; and we don't argue in that case that that would be a numerical over-representation.

In many multi-unit states (let's call them federal states), smaller units are deliberately and consciously over-represented. Why wouldn't we want that to be the case for Wales – at all levels?

But I digress – my real point is to ask how we should actually decide what is the 'right' number for the membership of any legislature. The current basis seems to be pretty much arbitrary; based more on 'that's the way it is' than on any rational analysis. In any other walk of life, we'd start from an analysis of what the job is and what the workload is.

So – what are MPs actually for?

Monday 2 November 2009

Will it all unravel?

It's been clear for a while that the Tories have been taking a major risk by accepting massive donations from Lord Ashcroft, but I was still astounded at the news that they are compounding that risk by including him in formal meetings overseas, let alone potentially lining him up for a senior role in government.

The Electoral Commission have yet to conclude their investigation into the legality of around £5 million of donations which have been channelled through a company which seems to do very little other than donate money to the Tories. It remains a possibility that all the money will have to be repaid. The investigation seems to revolve around the definition of 'trading within the UK' by a company which seems to have only one client (which just happens to be another Ashcroft company), and whose annual losses bear a remarkable resemblance to the size of its donations to the Tories.

It's not clear why the investigation has already taken 12 months with no stated completion date in view, but it's pretty obvious who has the biggest vested interest in delaying any potentially embarrassing result until after a general election.

There also remain outstanding questions about his tax status, which he and his party have consistently refused to confirm. The obvious question, however, is that if he is indeed a UK voter and taxpayer (which is what he promised to become when accepting his peerage), why go to all the trouble of funnelling money through a string of companies instead of just donating it directly?

The way in which the Tories have been prepared to accept funding from a range of questionable sources could yet prove to be their undoing.

PS - although Ashcroft has had a hand in the Tory campaign in this constituency, with a representative from his office attending campaign meetings, I have yet to see any declaration of donations, whether cash or in kind.

Friday 30 October 2009

Cut them some slack?

When I first heard that the report of the All Wales Convention was to be published in the middle of the Labour leadership election, I did sort of wonder whether that was really such a good idea. Whatever it recommended, it was inevitably going to put all three contenders on the spot, at a time when they were looking to maximise their support in all three parts of the electoral college.

And so it has come to pass. Gareth Hughes is amongst those who wonder where this leaves One Wales, with two of the three sounding at best luke-warm on the issue.

Given the constituency to which they are trying to appeal at present, I'm not really surprised at a degree of equivocation, to say the least. And at this stage, I'm not overly concerned about it either. All three candidates are finding themselves in a position where their target audience is the internal one, but the most effective way of reaching that audience is through external media.

What matters is not what they say now, but what they will say and do when sitting around the cabinet table after the dust has settled. In the meantime, perhaps we should just cut them a bit of slack, and hope that they all have the sense not to say anything too irrevocable.

I'm much more concerned about the continued interference of the Secretary of State, who seems at times to be determined to derail his own government and party.

Ex-future-president Blair

It's surprised me for a while that there's been so much speculation about the idea of Blair becoming president of the EU, but it seems that, at last, reality is starting to dawn.

Surely, only in the UK can anyone have believed that the other countries of the EU would really want as their leader a person who has both consistently tried to keep his own member-state closer to the US than to our European partners and at the same time worked to keep his own member-state out of two of the most important projects for the EU, namely the Euro and the Schengen agreement.

It seemed pretty self-evident to me that the major players would want someone who had demonstrated a degree of commitment to their objectives, rather than someone who would be likely to use the position to undermine those objectives. Diplomatic niceties prevented them from making other than generally complimentary comments, but their comments weren't meant to be taken seriously.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Hain as the new Kinnock?

The collapse of a tired and worn-out government is not a pretty sight. The causes are usually multiple, although those with a particular axe to grind will always blame the one which fits best with their own perspective on events. The obvious comparison between current events and previous examples is the end of the Major government in 1997; but there are also some parallels with the end of Labour's last period in office in 1979.

It's interesting that in both those years, there was also a referendum on devolution; and in that respect at least, history seems likely to repeat itself again – 2010 seems likely to be both a year in which a tired old government is removed and a year for holding another referendum on the governance of Wales. It's yet to be made clear which will come first.

In 1997, the referendum which was so narrowly won followed the election of the new government; whilst in 1979, it preceded the defeat of the old. From a London perspective, I suspect that the influence of that failed referendum in 1979 on the results of the general election is underestimated. The referenda were only held in Wales and Scotland, after all; and both countries remained more loyal to Labour than did England, despite the Tories reaching double-figures here in Wales.

But although the referendum might have looked peripheral from London, there was little doubt that months of internecine warfare did not help the Labour Party. And that sort of warfare sapped the strength of the party as a whole, not just in Wales and Scotland.

A future Labour leader – widely regarded as one of their rising stars at the time – was pitted against the official line of his party in implementing a policy for which the rank and file had voted. I really don't think that Kinnock has been given the credit / blame (choose according to perspective) which he deserves for his role in ushering in the Thatcher era.

At first sight, any comparison between Hain and Kinnock seems unlikely and unfair – Hain is, after all, a self-avowed devophile, whereas Kinnock was anything but. And yet...

A situation seems to be developing where Hain (although I'm not sure that many would still consider him to be a rising star) is positioning himself in opposition to a clear pledge given by his party (as a result of a vote in a special conference, not just a leadership pronouncement) as part of the One Wales agreement.

He claims, of course, that his opposition is based on a pragmatic assessment of the probable result; but this seems to be based largely on the view that his own assessment is more reliable than that of the opinion polls, or of anyone else. But the similarity with the events of 1979 is that Hain, like Kinnock before him, is in danger of doing more damage to his own party than to his political opponents.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Outside expertise

Over the last week or so, Brown and Cameron have both suggested changes in relation to ministers who are in the House of Lords rather than the Commons. They've both recognised an issue; but neither seems keen to follow the point to its logical conclusion.

Brown has suggested that cabinet ministers (such as Mandelson) who sit in the second chamber should be required to be accountable to MPs, and answer questions in the Commons in same way as any other ministers. Cameron on the other hand has suggested that people might be appointed to the Lords on a 'temporary' basis whilst they serve as ministers, leaving the chamber again once they resign or get fired. The suggestions are not, actually, mutually exclusive.

But why should government ministers be sitting in an unelected chamber in the first place?

At one level, it seems fundamentally undemocratic for people who have never fought an election in their lives (let alone those who have fought and lost, or simply resigned from elected office at some point in the past) to end up running significant ministries of state. But in other countries, where the distinction between the administration and the legislature is much more formal, it's often the norm. And congressional pre-appointment hearings, for example, mean that those appointed as members of the US government are subjected to far more scrutiny of their background, experience, and expertise than is the case for ministers in the UK.

Part of the underlying problem faced by any Prime Minister is ensuring that (s)he has the right talents and abilities in the right jobs. A PM with an overall majority has perhaps 350 MPs to choose from, as well as a number of sitting peers; but still most PMs feel the need to bring in outside talent or expertise on occasion, and they currently do so by simply creating new lords.

On reflection, it should probably be no great surprise that a talent pool of 350 may not be enough to fill all the relevant ministerial posts – the selection process for MPs (both within parties, and through the electoral process) owes little to any assessment of administrative or management ability. And the increasing trend for MPs to be from a 'political' background, rather than having experience of life in the 'real world' outside politics before being elected makes it less likely that the pool will contain the mix of experience and expertise needed for government.

So, to be a little more radical, why do ministers have to sit in parliament at all? Some countries - the US and France, to name but two comparable democracies, elect the legislature and their government entirely separately.

Until fairly recently, I would have argued for the principle that all government ministers should themselves be elected members, but the establishment of the National Assembly has led me to wonder whether an alternative approach needs more consideration. There are two factors in particular which have led me to be more open to alternatives – and both relate to the small number of members of the assembly.

By the time an administration is formed – Ministers, deputy ministers, and whips etc -- the number of backbenchers seems to me (and of course to the Richard commission) to be too small to provide adequate scrutiny of both the government and of legislation.

The second manifestation of the same issue is that the pool of members from which an administration can be drawn is small. Typically, even under a coalition arrangement, the government majority in the assembly is likely to comprise between 30 and 40 members. Around one in three of those are likely to find themselves as ministers or deputy ministers, purely in numerical terms, and the first minister has no "second house" on which to draw – in fact, no means at all of bringing in additional expertise and experience in the way that UK PMs can.

I make no comment on the competence of all of those who are or have been members of the Welsh government since 1999, but it has struck me several times when ministers have come under criticism that even if the First Minister did want to replace them, he may have felt that his choice of alternatives was so limited that he was better off sticking with what he had.

As long as those appointed are subject to proper scrutiny, why not allow the First Minister (or the senior minister of any coalition partner) a way of bringing in outside expertise to run ministries, if that's what (s)he feels is needed?