Friday 27 March 2009

It's debate, but not as we know it

Plenty of other people have already commented about the Labour Party's new website launched today. The video gave me a good laugh, and had the same effect for many other Pleidwyr (or should that now be Plaidis?); although probably not for the reasons intended by its authors.

We shouldn't be too unkind on them though; after all it has been very solemnly endorsed by two very serious politicians, although I found it a little hard to believe that they'd actually read the product that they were endorsing. Somehow, the words they use don't quite chime with the content.

Same goes for the press story in today's Western Mail. The promise made by Alun Davies about a "positive and constructive debate" didn't seem to me to bear much relation to the reality of the website. Has he read it either, I wondered?

I suppose I should be flattered to attract a mention on their first day in action; it's a pity though that a site which starts off by saying "So it should be no surprise that the quality of journalism has suffered and coverage of politics has followed in a similarly depressing way" should immediately fall into the trap of regurgitating a half truth. I suppose their concern only applies to reporting of the Labour Party.

What was saddest of all for me is that I had previously thought that Eluned Morgan, Peter Hain, and Alun Davies were, although highly partisan in their approach, serious politicians, able to think about issues and debate them. Still, if this is what the 'brightest and best' of the Labour Party can come up with, I give it an unqualified welcome.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Half a story

Contrary to the impression given in a story in today's Western Mail, no member of Plaid Cymru has been, nor will be if I have anything to do with it, disciplined in any way for disagreeing with the government on tuition fees, nor for continuing to argue for Plaid's policies instead. No surprise that Peter Black should choose to shoot at what the Western Mail has managed to make look like an open goal, though, and I can't really blame him for having a go. Not being in possession of the full facts is hardly a deterrent.

I have made it perfectly clear on several occasions that I disagree with the fees decision myself, and that I will continue to promote Plaid's policy, not that of the government. It would be extremely odd for me to say that others cannot do the same thing. As is often the case, however, the full story is not quite as it might seem.

On Saturday, the Western Mail published extracts from a "private" letter sent to Ieuan about the government's decision on student tuition fees. Nothing wrong with that in journalistic terms; they were obviously passed a copy of the "private" letter, although this particular "private" letter appears to have been circulated to so many people that no-one has any clue as to who could possibly have passed it to the newspaper.

Today, they ran a follow-up story about the way in which I interpreted the letter – on this occasion, the source was very clear. It's a pity however that in neither story did the Western Mail make it clear that they had actually published only edited extracts from the original letter.

I have no criticism of their decision to edit the letter; I would probably have done the same in their position. But it would have been nice if they had made it clear that they had done so, and that my response on behalf of the party was to the unexpurgated version, not just to the extracts which they chose to publish. Still, the Western Mail isn't really there just to make my life easy, and it would be unfair to expect otherwise.

But while I'm talking about 'leaks'…

Alongside that story on Saturday, they ran another, apparently completely unconnected, story about an alleged 'discussion paper' which had been 'leaked' to them. Whilst I had serious doubts initially, I no longer doubt that the paper was indeed passed to them by a member of the party. But I'm quite certain that the 'discussion group' referred to is entirely fictitious (although the Western Mail is not responsible for the fiction), and that the 'paper' was written not for internal discussion as claimed, but specifically for the purposes of creating a story which was deliberately intended to undermine the leader as well as the campaigns of a number of the party's candidates.

Why would any member of any party seek to undermine the campaigns of colleagues? Maybe, in quite a few years' time, some publisher or other would like to offer me a fat fee for my memoirs… For the time being, let's just say that this has little to do with the issue of student fees itself.

Holes in heads

One of the Labour Party's more – how shall I put it – 'colourful' characters in Carmarthenshire, Cllr Kevin Madge, said this week that "At this moment in time, we want more devolution like we want a hole in the head".

His point, insofar as he has one, is that we are in a recession, and the only thing that matters is jobs. I don't doubt, however, that if we weren't in a recession, there would be some other equally pressing reason why it was also the wrong time to debate the future status of Wales. For some people, it will always be the wrong time – because they're really against there being any discussion at all, and merely using specific issues to avoid having any meaningful debate.

The idea that at any time there's only one issue that we can discuss, and that discussion of any other issue is therefore an irrelevance, is a device which far too many politicians employ. But by concentrating all discussion and debate only on the immediate pressing problem, there's a danger that we fail to lay the longer term foundations - and invite only more of the same as a consequence.

For me, being in a recession doesn't make the question of Wales' future less relevant – quite the opposite; a debate about the causes of, and the long term solution to, Wales' chronic underperformance is exactly what we do need.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Ghosts of the past

Like many others, I really don't understand how a 13% lead for the 'yes' camp in any referendum on enhancing the powers of the National Assembly has been covered as though it were a major problem. It's a very healthy lead – the sort that any government would be very happy with if it were about to call an election.

I do understand, though, why some are still so cautious. For those who got their fingers burnt in 1979 - and very nearly so again in 1997 - there is a real fear of failure. The danger, though, is that seeing only the echoes of the past, seeing only the similarities with what happened before, may blind us to the very real differences. Historical experience is a useful input to the present, but fear of a repeat of the past should not be allowed to determine our responses to such an extent that we wait for unanimity.

There are two key differences between the next referendum, whenever it happens, and the two previous referenda, and those differences need to be considered as carefully as the similarities. And then we need to make a measured judgement about the risks.

The first is that the Assembly now exists, and people have had ten years' experience of the new situation. The sky didn't fall in, and in a growing number of areas, the Assembly has started to make a real difference to people's lives. In some areas, there have been disappointments, of course, and it would be dishonest to deny that. But its influence on our daily lives is growing, and all the polls indicate that people understand that - and broadly welcome it.

The second key difference is that this is not an 'all or nothing' referendum, as were the two in 1979 and 1997. Even if the referendum were to be lost (and I don't believe that it would be), the Assembly would still be there, it would still be gaining powers and influence, just at a much slower pace. In short, there is less to lose.

That is not to say that a lost referendum wouldn't be a setback for Wales; it would. But the scale of the setback would be a great deal less that than which occurred in 1979 – and which so nearly happened again in 1997.

Some have argued that the opinion poll lead must be at least x% - put whatever number you like instead of the x – but I simply don't accept the validity of such a mechanistic approach. Setting an arbitrary threshold is no substitute for making a proper judgement of the situation at the time, and coming to a decision based on that judgement.

There is a danger that we see only the views of those with whom we concur, and rush into a judgement based on that. I attended the meeting of the Convention in Carmarthen a couple of weeks ago, and if the feeling of those who spoke at that meeting is typical of the views of the population as a whole, then the Carmarthen jury declared pretty clearly that the biggest problem with the proposed referendum is that it does not go far enough. I know, though, that other conclusions would probably be drawn from meetings elsewhere in Wales.

There are those who are starting to doubt the commitment of the One Wales government to holding the promised referendum. I do not share those doubts. For me, there were always two windows in which the One Wales government could have called a referendum. The first was immediately after taking office, in 2007; but the agreement of the partners to set up the Convention effectively ruled that one out. The second is after the Westminster election but before the 2011 Assembly elections.

That second window has been narrowed by the fact that Gordon Brown is now likely to hang on until the bitter end before calling the election, but it has not been closed by a long shot. Any referendum campaign is likely to be as painful for the Labour Party as it will be for the Conservatives, since both parties are hopelessly divided on the issue. Expecting Labour to expose and emphasise those internal disagreements in the period immediately before an election is just not realistic. And, whether we like it or not, the commitment of Labour to any campaign is a key element in ensuring success.

Friday 20 March 2009

Labour haven't won the argument

There were no surprises in the announcement this week of the scrapping of the Tuition Fees Grant; but then, no-one really expected any. I understand why the Government has taken the decision, but that isn't at all the same as agreeing with the decision.

There is no doubt, as Adam Price has persuasively argued, that the policy was not only a distinctive measure, but was also achieving one of the Assembly Government's stated objectives of encouraging more Welsh-domiciled students to study in Wales. In some ways, it was a blunt instrument; but even blunt instruments can work well on occasions. There's always an argument for replacing a blunt instrument with a sharper one - as long as it does a better job. This one doesn't.

Adam goes further, and argues that we should make a clear commitment to reversing the policy in the next Assembly manifesto. That's something which the membership will decide when we debate that manifesto, of course.

The more important lesson for me - and I know for many others - is that it isn't just what's in the manifesto that matters. As Adam indicates, it's equally important to define what manifesto commitments are non-negotiable when it comes to coalition negotiations. Experience is not always the most comfortable way of learning a hard lesson.

The whole issue of student finance is, of course, a great deal more complicated than the simplistic question of fees, and the Assembly Government's package to start to address student debt is one aspect which should be welcomed. The question of principle, however, remains whether students should be in debt at the end of their studies in the first place.

For me, increasing the level of expertise and skills possessed by our young people when they complete their education is an investment in the future of all of us. Given a truly progressive tax system, those who use their expertise and skills to earn more than others will pay more in taxes in return, and that helps to fund the next generation's education.

Wales' biggest problem, in economic terms, is that our GVA per head is lower than the UK average. Part of the answer to that, surely, has to be encouraging our brightest young people to make their homes and careers in Wales, rather than to look elsewhere – and encouraging them to study in Wales helps to achieve that aim.

The introduction of top-up fees in England was always going to create difficulties in Wales unless the Assembly Government had a full range of powers on taxation and spending. And increases in the cap level in England were always going to make the situation worse. Policies being pursued in England inevitably constrain the range of options which could have been followed in Wales, and it would be naïve to pretend otherwise.

But, even having said all that, I still don't believe that the Assembly Government needed to simply follow the English lead, which is what the Labour Party wanted to do from the outset. The lack of imagination shown by the Labour Party in Wales on this issue is disappointing, to say the least. They may have got their way at this stage; but they haven't won the argument.

Monday 16 March 2009

Tax and donations

I've never been a particular fan of hedge funds, even before I realised that they were giving large sums of money to the Tories. I don't think that there's any justification for turning financial markets into casinos so that the gamblers and speculators can use our money to destroy our economy whilst they get rich in the process.

The news that the Government is planning to extend regulation to hedge funds is news which deserves only half a cheer – better to regulate them than not; but better yet to outlaw them completely.

However, if Brown is serious about looking at the way they operate, he might like to start looking at their tax status as well. Some of them – including the one which donates so generously to the local Conservatives – establish themselves as Limited Liability Partnerships rather than as limited companies. This means that the organisation as such pays not one penny in corporation tax on any profits it makes.

It also means, of course, that the partners are personally liable for all taxes instead, when they take their money out. There is, however, another twist. Rather than paying it in salaries which would be liable to income tax, they can choose to take it out as a trading profit. This completely avoids income tax as well, leaving them to pay only capital gains tax at a much lower level.

So, not only are they acting against the common good for private gain - they also get away with paying much less tax on their income than the rest of us. And that means that they have plenty of cash left over to donate to the party most likely to allow them to continue with their anti-social behaviour. And the Tory party, in turn, seems quite happy to be funded largely by people who pay less tax than the rest of us.

Friday 13 March 2009

Fees, debts, and deals

It's not without a degree of trepidation that I return to the question of student fees. It's not exactly the world's best-kept secret that the issue caused Plaid – and myself – a few headaches recently.

One question that I've been asked repeatedly is "how can you have a situation where your party says one thing whilst a government including ministers from your party does the opposite?". It's a fair question on the surface, but it really isn't that strange in a world of coalitions. This is, after all, a fairly common situation in democracies more accustomed to coalition than we are; it's just something we need to get used to. I'd go further, in fact – from the day Plaid signed up to One Wales, it was obvious to me that such a situation would happen sooner or later, on one issue or another.

In negotiating One Wales, the two parties agreed to maintain the current basis of student funding for the first three years, but crucially were unable to agree at that stage what should happen in year four.

So, we have a coalition between Labour on the one hand, who have long wanted to introduce top-up fees in Wales and are seemingly quite content to see our young people completing their education tens of thousands of pounds in debt, and Plaid on the other, who believe that tuition should be free and that our students should not be saddled with debt. The potential for conflict was therefore written into the agreement from the outset - there was never any way that both parties would be able to deliver their policies in full.

The compromise agreed by the One Wales partners effectively allows Labour to introduce their fees, but also provides a package to start to tackle student debt – a key election pledge for Plaid. I wouldn't describe that as a draw, by any means (but then the two teams aren't equal in size), but it's an agreement which reflects elements of both parties' policies.

The other question that I've been asked is whether we could have got a better deal – one closer to Plaid's view. Political opponents are particularly quick to criticise, and suggest that we could and should have got a better deal. I honestly don't know whether they're right or not; the discussions took place at government rather than party level. Those of us outside the discussions can only judge based on our own opinions.

What I do know is that once our team have done their best, once a deal like this is struck, on any issue, the only choices we have as a party are to accept it or to walk away from One Wales. And that's ultimately a question of deciding whether to walk away from what is being achieved overall because of one item which is not being achieved.

It's public knowledge that we've had some agonising before coming to a conclusion, and that some have been agonising more than others. But ultimately, we have to weigh the failures against the successes, and decide whether those successes outweigh the failures. On this issue, we've made our choice, and it is up to the voters next time round to decide whether they think we made the right choice or not.

It's a compromise; of course it is. Not the first, and I'm certain that it won't be the last. It's certainly the biggest one to date, and one which means that our ministers are involved in implementing a policy which runs contrary to what most of us continue to believe to be right. It does not mean that the party has changed its position – and it certainly does not mean that I and other opponents of the policy will be arguing that top-up fees are the right thing to do. They're not, and I shall continue to say that, as will Plaid Cymru as a party.

Ultimately, the conclusion that we reach in circumstances such as these is not so much about whether it's the right decision to take, but whether, taken overall, One Wales is still right for Wales. And I will continue supporting the government as long as I believe that to be the case, even though I may disagree with particular decisions. Where those decisions conflict with Plaid policy, there is nothing at all inconsistent in continuing to promote the party's view.

What we need, if we want to implement more of our policies, is a numerically stronger Plaid team in the Assembly next time round. The larger the team, the fewer the compromises.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Woolly Jumpers

Clearly her appointment as Tory Environment spokesperson is causing our local AM to start to think about energy saving initiatives. In her column in this week's 'Carmarthen Journal', she refers to her 'woolly jumper' theory. I was expecting something about sheep at that point, but it was not to be…

She quotes the example of a London householder who managed to cut his energy bills by 45% by a series of actions, the most important of which seems to have been donning a woolly jumper. Ms Burns goes on to suggest that we should all start thinking about our own 'woolly jumper' tactics to save energy.

I've got a good idea for her. Instead of building a CCGT power station at Angle, and another over the Haven at Milford Haven, why not build a series of smaller CHP power stations? These would extract twice the energy value from the same volume of gas, and therefore both extend the life of gas reserves and halve the volume of emissions per usable unit of energy.

Apparently, however, she considers wasting half of that energy to be a particularly good idea, and has given unqualified support to the proposal. Mustn't interfere with the right of big business to make money, whatever the environmental consequences.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

English, Welsh, and Double-Dutch

In arguing against any degree of further legislation or regulation over the use of Welsh, the CBI have suggested that the real problem is lack of take-up of the services which are offered - that Welsh-speakers themselves don't create the 'market' for the facility. This is a real issue for those of us who want to see a truly bilingual Wales.

There are a large number of reasons, of course. Some are more comfortable using English when dealing with officialdom, often because they've got used to doing it that way before the option of a Welsh service was available. I hear some people - invariably with excellent Welsh - expressing fear that their Welsh 'isn't good enough', or that there might be long words which they won't understand.

Others again have always seen Welsh as the language of the hearth, but English as the language of official business. This is an attitude of mind which I see often when I go to meetings as a translator and hear people who speak beautiful colloquial Welsh before the meeting turning to English as soon as the Chair bangs his (usually his rather than her before anyone corrects me!) gavel and calls the meeting to order.

Much of this is a result of our history and the way that Welsh has been perceived and used by previous generations. There are certainly signs of change happening, abeit slowly. Does any of this mean that we should not be so insistent on providing bilingual services? I don't believe so. Part of the change in attitudes is a result of giving Welsh a status in public which it did not enjoy for so many years – the very act of making Welsh more visible and usable itself helps to promote an environment in which it will be used more.

There is one other factor which may be relevant when it comes to take up of services as well, of course - and that is the quality of the service offered. Some organisations are very poor at this - I'm aware of a whole host of examples where Welsh-language material has been allowed out of an organisation to a standard which would never have been allowed were it in English.

Recently, I had an e-mail from one public sector organisation (which will remain nameless to spare their blushes) which told me that their decision (not to make an on-line payment facility available in Welsh) was "obedient to the Welsh-speaking milk deed". I'm fairly certain that they meant to say "complies with the Welsh Language Act", but should I, as a user, really have to guess at what they might mean? The rest of their note was so full of errors as to be incomprehensible – I had to ask them to re-send it in English so that I could try and make some sense of the Welsh.

I can only assume that they've used the notoriously fallible on-line translation facility which has landed other organisations in trouble in the past; but faced with gobbledy-gook like that, is it any wonder that people opt out of the Welsh service and simply use English?

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Promises, promises, and com-promises

The conflict between what parties promise in their manifestoes and what they can actually deliver in coalition government is an issue which has, not unsurprisingly, been much exercising me of late. Although it's Plaid which has come under the spotlight in the past few weeks, it's an issue which could very easily have faced other parties as well had the 2007 coalition talks ended differently. It ought to be affecting the Labour Party as well, but I suppose that their manifesto was so bland and unambitious that they didn't really have that many promises to fail on.

Parties drafting their manifestoes try to present themselves as different and distinctive when they choose which policies to highlight as key promises. The difficulty in doing that is especially acute at Assembly level, given the comparatively narrow range of powers available.

When we put our manifesto before the people of Wales in 2007, we certainly believed and intended that, given a majority of seats in the Assembly, we had a programme which we could and would fully implement over a four year term. I'm reasonably certain that the other parties felt the same way about their programmes.

In reality, of course, we didn't win a majority of seats – and nor did any other party. And in the absence of that majority, it is unrealistic to expect full implementation of our programme, particularly in coalition with a party which was fundamentally opposed to key elements of it. Indeed, one could even go further and argue that the people of Wales didn't want the full implementation of our programme - if they had wanted that, in sufficient numbers, they would have given us the mandate we needed for that.

If we expect – as I certainly do – that coalition will be the norm in Wales, then where does that leave party manifestoes? Perhaps all parties should put some sort of 'health warning' on them, making it clear that they are programmes for a majority government, but that no such programme can ever be implemented in full by a coalition involving two or more parties.

In a coalition context, manifestoes are more like 'shopping lists' which each party takes to the negotiating table when a programme for government is being hammered out. And the largest parties in any coalition are always going to get more of their manifesto included in the programme than the smaller ones – doesn't that simply reflect the relative levels of electoral support?

So some promises made at election time will inevitably turn into compromises during the process of negotiating a programme for government. That's hard for a lot of us to accept given the history of UK politics, however normal it may be in most of the rest of Europe. We're going to have to get used to it – and perhaps we all have a responsibility to do a better job of explaining to the electorate why and how some promises will become compromises.

Friday 6 March 2009

Constraints of Democracy

Carmarthenshire County Council, like all elected authorities, sets its council tax in the full glare of public scrutiny. So there was a good debate last week during which the Labour/Independent members attempted to justify an above-inflation rise of 3.3%, whilst the opposition Plaid group put forward a reasoned case for a lower rise.

In the meantime, police authorities which do not face direct election for their membership set their own council tax precepts, often with much less attention. I understand that Dyfed Powys are looking for an increase of over 5%, for instance.

The furore over the increase in the neighbouring South Wales force has been somewhat exceptional, but has amounted to an argument about whether the increase should be 5% or 9.8%, with the Chief Constable threatening all sorts of repercussions if the authority don't do what she wants them to do.

But would either authority have been talking about an increase as high as 5% even, let alone 9.8%, if their members had to face the electorate directly and account for their actions? Somehow, I doubt it. It was almost certainly not her intention, but I suspect that the Chief Constable of South Wales Police has actually strengthened the argument for more democratic accountability.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Is it right?

At Nuremburg, the defence offered by some of the accused was that they 'were only following orders'. It's on nothing like the same scale – and I certainly wouldn't want anyone to think that I'm really comparing either the individuals or the situations - but the recent penchant for saying that 'I was following the rules' does seem to suggest a broadly similar mindset.

The mindset that I'm referring to is one that allows us to abrogate all responsibility for deciding for ourselves whether something is wrong or right. Whoever wrote 'the rule book' has already decided that for us. But at what point did our own personal or collective sense of what is right and wrong get replaced by a set of rigid rules? How and when did the idea take hold that anything goes as long as it isn't specifically banned?

The most recent example, perhaps, is the furore over the massive early pension given to a man who presided over the collapse of one of our biggest banks. It's a 'contractual obligation', it seems. But 'Is it right?' is the question that everyone seems to be asking.

The government, from the prime minister down, seems to be asking the same question – but there is an element of double standards here. It seems to be OK for the politicians – Labour and Tory alike – to say that there is a moral dimension as well as a legal dimension when it comes to the claimed misdemeanours of someone else (such as the rich banker, for instance). But when it comes to their own actions, they're just as quick to hide behind 'the rules'.

The Home Secretary's absurd claim that the back room of her sister's house is her main residence, whilst the family home in Redditch is a second home was 'checked with the officials' and 'within the rules of what's allowed'. Yes – but is it right?

Nick Bourne's purchase of an i-Pod was 'cleared by the officials', and 'within the rules'. Yes – but is it right?

The Tories have accepted vast sums of money from the speculators and gamblers who have done so much to wreck the economy. They've 'done nothing illegal'. Agreed – but is it right?

The gamblers and speculators themselves, the people who've been betting against the interests of ordinary people, have 'done nothing wrong'. They claim that 'the regulators didn't tell them that they couldn't'. Agreed - but is it right?

Certainly, there's a moral dimension to the huge pension being paid to Sir Fred. But that same moral dimension applies in a whole host of other areas as well. Politicians can't really expect to get away with saying that what they've done is alright because it's within the rules and then expect a higher standard of morality from others.

I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that we all have a responsibility to satisfy ourselves that what we are doing is right and proper, as well as simply being legal. Hiding behind a set of rules simply can't absolve people from the responsibility to use a little bit of judgement as well. No more than following orders.

Monday 2 March 2009

Big back pockets

The Assembly Government has a scheme running, called Improvement Agreement Grants, under which it offfers additional grants to local authorities across Wales who achieve certain targets. They've allocated £31.4 million to the scheme for 2009-10, and Carmarthenshire County Council is in line to receive around £1.922 million of it.

It's a nice little earner, and is on top of the other monies being paid to the council. It's conditional, of course, and there may well be some costs that the council has to pay out in order to meet the targets, but one would expect most of it to end up in the council's piggy bank by the end of the year.

Not according to the council's leaders, however. According to the report submitted to the full council last week, "it is deemed imprudent to assume any of this funding coming into play for next year". So none of this money was counted at all when the administration worked out that it needed a higher than inflation rise in Council Tax. And instead of going into the piggy bank, the money will be craftily placed into a back pocket somewhere and then magically extracted from a hat later in the year.

Nice word, 'deemed'. It avoids the need for any further explanation. And a very crafty piece of financial sleight of hand from the ruling Labour Party / Independent Party coalition. The only losers are the poor council tax payers, who will be hit with a higher than necessary increase as a result.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Anti-Social Behaviour?

Last week, the Tories returned to the theme of anti-social behaviour, this time with a scheme to 'ground' children aged from 10 to 17 for up to a month. Their argument is that they want to stop the young people concerned from growing up into a life of crime.

I don't dispute for one moment that there is such a thing as anti-social behaviour. I won't even dispute that there are a minority of young people who can cause problems from time to time, although that which is these days referred to as anti-social behaviour sometimes looks more like tabloid-driven over-reaction.

But anti-social behaviour comes in other forms as well. I think I'd argue that the sort of behaviour which helped to drive banks out of business and wreck the economy is pretty anti-social as well. I'm not sure that I'd go as far as the former Soviet bloc and try those responsible for 'economic crimes'; but I wouldn't allow them to carry on regardless either.

Surely, the fact that the Tories (and to a lesser extent Labour) have benefited financially from the latter sort of anti-social behaviour couldn't be the reason for the difference in approach?