Wednesday 27 May 2009

Old vinegar in new bottles

Cameron got a lot of coverage for his speech yesterday, and superficially it sounded as though it was full of new and different ideas. But even having worked through the full text, I still feel that there was a lack of hard detail. It read - as I suppose it was intended to - like one of Tony Blair's speeches; full of juicy sound bites, lacking in any real bite.

On the one hand, he talked a lot about devolving power – but managed to do so without once mentioning either Wales or Scotland. He did say that "We're going to get rid of pointless and unaccountable regional government and bureaucracy"; but my guess is that this was a speech intended primarily for English consumption, and that we shouldn't read too much into that.

Indeed, much of the speech dealt with matters which are devolved in Wales and Scotland, and it's still entirely unclear whether the Tories can or would try to foist these policies on Wales and Scotland at all. Again, he's not really aiming at a Welsh or Scottish audience is he? He knows he'll lose here whatever he says.

And although the content seemed to be new and fresh, some of it was just the madcap ideas of Thatcher and Joseph recycled and relabelled for a generation with a different zeitgeist. Old vinegar in new bottles.

"Choice" is a word which the Tories have used a lot in the past in relation to education; no real surprise to see it re-appearing. It sounds a bit motherhood and apple pie; it's hard to disagree with the idea of giving people choices, but neither is it clear how that would work, particularly in rural areas such as Wales. I'm for having all schools up to scratch in the first place – and that's a policy which, unlike the idea of 'choice', is as relevant to rural areas as urban ones.

Taking "… power over children's education out of the council's hands…" sounds an awful lot like the failed policy of school opt-outs. And giving any group that wants to the right to set up new schools sounds a lot like the Labour policy which has led to academies being founded by creationists amongst others.

Fixed term parliaments was one of the headlines; and I'd support that. But, for all the attention that one grabbed, he didn't actually promise to do anything more than think about it. I suspect that it's one of those things that appeals to him as an opposition leader but will quickly be dropped if he gets to No. 10.

PS I was pleased to see him having a go at "...bankers reaping their bonuses despite breaking the economy...". Pity he didn't extend his condemnation to political parties largely funded on the profits of wrecking the economy.


Cibwr said...

He talks the talk but can he walk the walk. Like most people I expect the Tories to will the next UK general election (if on less than 50% of the popular vote). As you suggest its easy for opposition politicians to talk up reform and then once in power let it slip. As you say he only promises to look at fixed term parliaments, no commitment there to do anything. The choice agenda is a nonsense given Wales, it might work in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea but no where else would it be realistic or viable. And what choice would there really be? The atomization of administration and dedemocratisation of public services is the real agenda. Its the taking power away from elected representatives and handing it to unelected private companies, in the form of academies and publicly funded private schools. Where is the coordination and cooperation? Instead we have waste and competition. England does have a democratic deficit, there are regional outposts of a number of departments of state, what is lacking is local democratic oversite of those. Abolishing the regional outposts will do nothing to improve the administration of the English Regions, its a centralising agenda. While there is no great desire for regional devolution in England there is a general sense that London based government does not understand the needs of the English regions. I would venture to say that the North East rejected the devolution package precisely because it was so week as to be practically meaningless.
But back to Cameron, he grabs the headlines but avoids the issue. Reform of Parliament, he offers a cut in the number of MPs, which is good headline grabbing stuff, but why a 10% cut, that just seems plucked out of the air. All it will do is increase the constituency workload of MPs, giving them less time to scrutinise government. No proposals for electoral reform, so nothing modernising or reforming there. Elect select committee chairs - well we need more meat there before we can say this would be an improvement. More free votes, but what on? Another nebulous promise, it can mean anything he wants unless we get specifics.

In short its all spin and little or no substance. Just like New Labour.

Spirit of BME said...

Dear old Spliff Cameron- clearly the head had not cleared by his early morning statement,so please do not expect detail.
On the matter of number of MPs to the English Parliament, Cibwr asks the question " why 10%" ? When in my mortal form and a member of Plaid I allways proposed the best solution for Wales was to cut its MPs by 100%.

Cibwr said...

Believe me I'd love there to be no Welsh MPs at Westminster, its truly is the unnecessary tier of government as far as Wales is concerned. However given that independence is not going to happen within the life time of the next parliament. We are probably going to be stuck with what ever Cameron does for the next ten years.

The excellent Richard Report on powers for the National Assembly for Wales pointed out how important it is that committees have the correct political balance and have time to properly scruitinise government. The conclusion was that if we were to have proper legislative powers then the burden on members would be greater and that to work we would need around 80 AMs. If Cameron cuts the House of Commons by 10% and has equal sized constituencies throughout the UK then that would give Wales around 30 MPs. As the National Assembly is set at a strict ratio of 1 additional member for every two constituency member and the constituencies are tied to the Westminster constituencies, the logic is that the National Assembly would have 45 members. Also with only 3 per regional list you would have a far less proportional result. Clearly there would be great pressure from Wales from many, but would the Conservatives be in a mood to listen? Decoupling Welsh constituencies from Westminster would be strongly resisted by the Conservatives in Westminster.

John Dixon said...


The point you raise about the impact of a change in Westminster constituencies on the Assembly is a very valid one. As far as I can see, the Tories' proposal would have the automatic effect of a drastic reduction in membership of teh Assembly at the following election unless thre was primary legislation to decouple the two sets of boundaries. I very much doubt that the Tories have even thought about that one - Wales doesn't rate highly on their radar. But in Scotland, the two sets of boundaries have already been decoupled.

Cibwr said...

Yes they were in Scotland, and very much against the wishes of Tony Blair, but the political reality of a shrunk Scottish Parliament and the knock on affect it would have had on Labour ensured that the voice of Scottish Labour predominated. Somehow I don't think the same considerations apply in Wales. Welsh Tories just don't have that clout within the Tory Party at Westminster, and I doubt if their Welsh MPs care that much. I am sure David Davies would be all in favour of a large scale reduction.

Cutting the number of elected members, together with their expenses, is a very populist thing to do. The reality is that you damage the ability of the legislature to scrutinise government and that is ultimately bad. The effect in Wales would be magnified many times and we would all suffer as a result.

Back in the early 1990s Norman Tebbit fantasised about the ideal council of the future. Serving about 1/2 million people it would have about 5 members. It would meet once a year to elect a person to act as Mayor, approve the budget and reallocate the contracts for running all the services. Total time taken 30 minutes. If that is the sort of government the Tories are proposing maybe they should be honest about it.