Wednesday 30 September 2009

Andy and Ben

I bet that Ben Bradshaw is glad right now that he was reshuffled out of the Health Department in June, given that the Health Secretary has announced today that car parking charges will be abolished in English hospitals, following the lead set by Wales and already followed by Scotland. If he was still at health, he might well have found today's speech by Andy Burnham to be a bit too much to swallow.

When Wales set the pace, Bradshaw claimed it would be at the expense of reducing waiting times.

When Scotland followed suit, he said that it was not a "sensible use of limited resources". He also seemed to be saying that it was not a decision which could be taken centrally, since "In England, hospital car parking charges are decided locally by individual trusts to cover the cost of running and maintaining a car park".

Twelve months on, and the English Health Minister declares to the Labour Party conference that it's not only possible; it's both desirable and a priority for use of resources. Amazing how an impending election concentrates the mind and enables objections to be overcome.

There's a wider lesson to be borne in mind as well. When a Labour Minister says that something can't be done, (s)he is not necessarily telling the whole truth.

TV debates

As I have said before, one of the problems of a "head to head" debate between party leaders - which now seems pretty much inevitable - is that a UK general election isn't primarily (constitutionally, anyway) about electing a government; it is about electing a legislature. The government is then formed from within the legislature. That is a key difference between the UK system and, say, the US system where head-to-head debates are a natural part of the campaign.

It is, of course, entirely natural for any member of a party which has no chance of forming the next government of the UK to worry about being excluded from the debate about the selection of members of the legislature. But that is not my only concern about the proposed debates which now seem extremely likely to occur.

In reality only a tiny minority of the UK electorate can vote for Brown, Cameron, or Clegg. Only in three constituencies can electors vote for any of them, and there is no single constituency where individual electors can choose between the three. I'm sure that the broadcasters would argue that by limiting the debate to those three individuals, they are including only those who could conceivably be Prime Minister of the UK. In the case of Clegg in particular I'm sure I'm not the only one to doubt the rationale of that argument.

It could be argued that, in constitutional terms, they are in any event wrong to limit the debate to those who they think could be the next Prime Minister. According to the (unwritten) constitution of the UK, the Queen chooses the next prime minister. And there is nothing in law, as I understand it, which limits her choice to the leader of the largest party, or indeed the leader of any party, or indeed a member of the House of Commons. It is only political convention that limits the choice to two.

Holding direct debates involving only those with at least an outside chance of becoming the next prime minister of the UK excludes the views of other parties who stand a realistic chance of becoming members of the legislature, which is what is actually being elected. It is another step towards a presidential style of government rather than a Parliamentary style of government. I actually think that there may well be arguments in favour of holding separate elections for the legislature and the government; but that should be the subject of political discussion and decision. It should not be forced upon us by a commercial broadcaster holding a gun to the Prime Minister's head.

Brown has been given very little choice in this instance, but it is a sad day for democracy when the nature of UK politics can be changed by a commercial company acting largely in their own rather than the country's interests.

Friday 25 September 2009

Hart to Hart

Matt Withers draws attention, rather unkindly I thought, to the communication style of NUS Wales Women's Officer, Estelle Hart, daughter of Health Minister Edwina.

Estelle was at the Trinity Freshers' Fair on Tuesday, where she spent the best part of an hour in what looked like an eloquent, articulate, and animated discussion with Tory candidate, Simon Hart (no relation, as far as I am aware). I can't imagine that they found a lot of common ground though, unless they were discussing the origins of their shared surname. Still, she kept him away from the students for a lengthy period...

A meaningless gesture

The first elections of which I have any memory were those of 1964 and 1966. In the first Labour narrowly scraped in, and in the second, they consolidated their position. There was a lot of excitement, and a mood of change - sweeping away '13 years of Tory misrule', in the 'white heat of the technological revolution'. They were good slogans; sadly, in many ways they turned out to be just that – slogans.

One of Labour's key pledges was to scrap Polaris; the change of heart once in government was one of the reasons why so many young people at the time ended up turning against the Labour Party. Nuclear weapons have always been something of an Achilles heel for them; they returned to an abolitionist position during their long period in opposition after the election of Thatcher, only to abandon that principled stand again before being re-elected in 1997.

Indeed, looking back, it seems that several of the key decisions to upgrade and renew the UK's nuclear weapons have actually been taken by a party many of whose members genuinely and sincerely oppose the very existence of such weapons.

I have never believed that the 'independent deterrent' was either 'independent' (the missiles cannot be fired without US permission) or a 'deterrent'; and at long last mainstream views are coming around to a similar viewpoint, even if only because the nature of any 'threats' is perceived to be different. Plaid have never been supporters of nuclear weapons, but at a time when both the Lib Dems and even the Tories are coming around to the idea that replacement of Trident is a pointless and unnecessary expense, the party which has traditionally provided the backbone of CND at UK level seems to be the only one still wedded to the concept.

It's against that backdrop that we need to consider the statement made by Brown yesterday that he might reduce the number of submarines from 4 to 3 in any replacement programme. The statement was so highly caveated as to be pretty meaningless. Effectively, he seemed to be saying that he'll reduce the number from 4 to 3 as long as he ends up convinced that the actual number of missiles which can be fired at any time remains the same as currently. And it was predicated on what happens as part of the replacement process, which will still proceed.

Trying to present that as a contribution to disarmament is one of the most utterly dishonest things that I've ever heard him say (and there's plenty of competition). In no sense or meaning is he proposing any reduction in the UK's capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction; indeed, his whole position is based on building a whole new generation of such weapons. To expect nuclear wannabes to respond by dropping their aspirations is totally unrealistic. The UK under Labour is making no contribution whatsoever to a process of global disarmament.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

No cold water

In response to my post yesterday, Matt Withers suggests that I am "pouring cold water" on Adam Price's future plans. Not at all - merely stating that which is as obvious to Adam as it is to me. It doesn't close off all options, it merely draws attention to the fact that some of the speculation that I've read has been a long way wide of the mark.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Aspirin anyone?

I spent some time this morning on the party's stand at Trinity Freshers' Fair. Last year, I noted that the Tories were offering free booze. A full twelve months later, they seemed to be promoting themselves as some sort of hangover cure. All I can say is that it must have been quite a hangover.

Just a pawn on the chess board?

It was inevitable once Adam announced his intention to stand down as MP that there would be speculation about both where he would stand for a seat in the Assembly, and about who would succeed him as the party's candidate for Westminster.

Reading some of the speculation, it seems that some people might be labouring under the delusion that the party is playing a gigantic game of chess, in which individual candidates are mere pawns who can simply be moved around at will. That would be to misunderstand the party and the way we work.

There are three points which people would do well to bear in mind.

The first is that it might well be New Labour's style to stitch things up in posh restaurants behind the backs of the party members, but Granita-type discussions are simply not Plaid's style. Our decisions on candidate selection – both in terms of choosing a successor candidate to Adam and in any constituency or region where Adam decides to submit his name as a candidate for the Assembly - will be made democratically by the members; and if there's one thing that Plaid members don't like, it's being taken for granted.

The second is that no-one should regard the constituency as being a safe seat for whoever is chosen as the Plaid candidate. I can understand how anyone looking at Adam's majority in 2005 might think that, but it would be a mistake to take the voters for granted either. The result in 2001 was a great deal closer - I was Adam's agent in that election, and never for one moment did I feel that there was any certainty about the result - and nothing stays still in politics.

And the third is that, whilst there are a number of additional winnable constituencies for the party in 2011, it's hard to see how any of them could be won without a long and hard campaign on the ground. Switching candidates in or out at the last minute is hardly the best way to set about that.

Monday 21 September 2009

With friends like these...

In the last county council elections, Plaid made gains across Carmarthenshire, but the most stunning progress was made in the Llanelli area, largely at the expense of the Labour Party. All the reports that I get tell me that our campaign to get Myfanwy Davies elected as a Plaid MP for Llanelli is also going well, and that the party is continuing to advance in the constituency.

No surprise then to hear that the local Labour Party are getting increasingly worried that the party is "haemorrhaging support". Given that, it's not really a huge surprise that the local party has written directly to Gordon Brown, calling for a reversal of a range of policies.

What perhaps is a surprise is that they've issued the letter to the local newspaper, the Llanelli Star, in order to start a very public process of putting as much distance as possible between them and their own party's government. It smacks of desperation to me. With friends like these, Gordon Brown doesn't really need any enemies.

Friday 18 September 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and UKIP statistics

In a letter to the Western Mail this week, Wales' UKIP MEP repeats the standard line that '75% of laws' come from 'Europe' as though it is a proven fact. Indeed, this figure seems to have been bandied around quite a lot, but it is far from being as much of a 'fact' as opponents of the EU suggest.

There's quite an interesting analysis of the claim here, in a piece which also looks at a range of other claims as to what the percentage actually is. The real answer depends on a number of factors, not the least of which are what we define as 'laws' and 'regulations', and whether we count laws and regulations made by devolved parliaments in the UK and elsewhere.

It also seems that all attempts to calculate the percentage are based on a straight count of 'items' of legislation, such that one long and complicated act of parliament is treated as being equivalent to 1 one-page regulation or directive (and, of course, vice versa). It's a pretty meaningless way of comparing.

The '75%' claim, in particular, seems to be based on a complete misinterpretation of a point made by an MEP, who was actually talking about the proportion of EU-wide law made by the European Parliament as opposed to the European Commission. It's a completely different thing, and was never intended to refer to the difference between European and National law.

I don't pretend that I've done anything like enough research to be able to quote an accurate figure, but it is probably somewhere in the range of 10% to 30% - a very long way short of the figures being quoted by the Euro-sceptics, or even the 'nearly 50%' quoted recently by David Cameron. Law affecting individuals is likely to be at the lowest end of the range, whilst law affecting companies and competition is likely to be at the higher end. And, in terms of the volume of law which actually applies to what we do on a day to day basis, it's probably lower again.

But then UKIP are also fond of claiming, time after time, that moves to establish a National Assembly only started after joining the EU, and are part of a ghastly European plot, as though 80 years of nationalist agitation from within Wales can just be written off completely. Can we believe anything at all that they say?

Thursday 17 September 2009

One swallow...

I can understand why Plaid's political opponents are making so much fuss about this month's rise in unemployment in Wales, given that a number of my colleagues were so quick to seize on the good figures for the previous two months.

It was, perhaps, a bit premature for people to read too much into one month's figures, or even two months' figures, and I held back from doing so. Not because I don't think that Re-Act and Pro-Act are good schemes, nor because I don't think that the One Wales Government is, on the whole, doing a good job during the recession. In fact, there's a general consensus that One Wales is doing pretty well, within the limited economic powers available to it, and Plaid can take some pride in the performance of Ieuan Wyn Jones on the issue.

But a recession, and the recovery from it, is a complex business. Progress will never be smooth and even, and we should expect bad months as well as good ones. Those seizing on one month's bad figures as are misguided as those seizing on one month's good figures. The real test is in overall performance, and how well Wales fares over the whole period compared to the rest of the UK.

On that score, so far, One Wales seems to me to be successfully tackling the issue.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Asking the right questions

I was not in the least surprised at the results of the recent opinion poll about whether people would prefer to plug the budget gap by raising taxes or by cutting public spending. But I'm not convinced that the survey has added much light to the debate. It seems to have proved, mostly, that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

If the choice people were given had been between modest tax rises and closing half the country's hospitals, I'm reasonably certain that the headline could equally have read - 'people demand tax increases'. That alternative question is not a fair or realistic way of framing the question, of course; but my point is that neither was the question which was actually put to people.

'Cutting public spending' is always likely to prove popular; it's only when people are asked more specifically about what to cut that they have to give the question a bit more thought. Far too often, some politicians (of all parties, sadly) lead people to think that the answer is as simple as 'eliminating waste and bureaucracy'. There's a danger that that simply avoids facing up to the real question.

That's not to say that there isn't any 'waste and bureaucracy' in public expenditure. No organisation can be as big as the public sector without having some scope to improve its efficiency; but it is wrong and misleading to suggest either that such improvements can be achieved as a result of simply cutting their overall budgets by an arbitrary percentage, or that the level of savings likely to be achieved will be enough to plug the budget deficit without any cuts to services.

There are some big programmes which could and should be chopped, of course. There's a developing consensus that ID cards and the replacement of Trident are in that category. I'd add illegal wars to the list as well, although bringing involvement in those to an end will not be a simple task.

Even after taking such obvious steps, the gap between government income and current levels of expenditure remains a large one. And, for a variety of reasons including the need to spend on something else in some cases, and the costs already committed, the savings are not likely to be as large as the headline costs of the projects.

The cost of bailing out the financial sector has been a phenomenal cost which has led to a hugely increased level of government debt. (As an aside, I'm far from convinced that enough is being done to ensure that the same cannot happen again in the future. That's not directly relevant to the argument about how we get out of the current hole, but it's vital that government tackles that issue, and does so soon.)

Plugging that gap will be the major economic task facing the next government, and for all the attempts by Labour to try and paint themselves as being different from the Conservatives on this issue, it seems to me that whichever of the two leads the government after the election, there will, in reality, be a mix of both service cuts and tax rises. That will pose a particular challenge in Wales, for two main reasons.

Firstly, we are more heavily dependent on the public sector, and secondly, under the current devolution settlement (and even after the changed situation which will pertain after the referendum which is to be held in the next two and a half years) we have no tax-varying powers. Cuts in English public expenditure will lead to an automatic reduction in the block grant – and the Welsh government will find itself forced to cut budgets in some areas.

LIke most other people, I find discussion of Barnett incredibly boring – but the issue of fair funding for Wales has never been more important than it is right now. The current unfair funding system means, effectively, that those parts of the UK which are underfunded on a needs basis will suffer disproportionately from spending cuts – the exact opposite of what any needs-based approach would suggest should happen.

The One Wales government will be faced with some difficult choices in the near future - but we should surely start by trying to ensure that we have a fair allocation of funding in the first place, rather than by rolling over and accepting the situation.

Monday 14 September 2009

Of leaders and speeches

In an attempt to sow discord where there is none, Peter Black suggests that what has been widely acknowledged as a superb speech by Adam Price at the Conference is in some way irritating or embarrassing for others in the party. (As an aside, it's interesting that his authority for criticising the speech by Ieuan Wyn was – er, another Lib Dem blogger…). Let me say clearly that I'm not in the least embarrassed or irritated by the fact that he's a better speaker than myself and most of my colleagues. Au contraire.

Adam is a powerful and effective speaker – probably the best we currently have in the party. It's a talent which he deployed to great effect on Saturday, and there's no doubt that the party benefited greatly from his performance. When a party has a talent like that, making the best use of it is absolutely the right thing to do. The alternative, of not allowing him to perform at his best in case he is compared with someone else, would be a pretty stupid way of proceeding.

In a more thoughtful, and considerably less partisan, piece on Wales Home last week, a former Labour spin doctor talked about how Labour in particular could learn from the way which Plaid uses different people with different talents to perform different roles. Working as a team is generally more effective, in any organisation, than expecting the leader to be the best at everything. And you don't choose a leader solely on the basis of his or her ability to deliver the best speech.

Onward and upward

Another year and another highly successful conference. I suppose it's natural for any party member attending his or her own party's conference to feel positive about both the experience and the outcome - and having chaired most of the formal sessions as well as taken part in one of the less formal sessions on Thursday, I'm hardly the most objective judge.

I've been going to them for long enough, though, to understand the difference between the marginal feel-good factor of being among friends during a difficult political period - probably 1979 was about the lowest point for me – and the buzz of a successful well organised conference when things are generally going well. 2009 was definitely a 'buzz' year. I can't imagine that many members of the Labour Party will be looking ahead to their conference this year in the same way that I was before ours. And I doubt even more that they'll come away with the same upbeat feel.

We may or may not fit in our Spring Conference before the next Westminster elections; but this will certainly be our last annual conference before those elections. All the polls are still saying that there will be a change of government in London before then. And the polls also suggest that we'll see a growth in support for both Plaid and our colleagues in the SNP, with both parties likely to return a record number of MPs. How much of an increase depends not simply on how well we or the other opposition parties perform, but, as much as anything, on exactly how badly the Labour party collapses.

Prediction is a difficult game, but it looks to me as though the electoral pattern in a number of constituencies is changing. We've already seen that in Aberconwy, for instance. Not so long ago, the constituency moved from being seen as a Labour-Tory fight at Westminster level to a three-way Labour-Tory-Plaid fight. Increasingly it is looking like the real fight is between Plaid and the Tories, with Labour now out of the running.

I see similar signs locally as well. Prior to the Assembly election in 2007, most people saw this constituency as a Plaid-Labour struggle. The Assembly elections saw three parties – Plaid, Labour and Tories, all finishing within 1% of each other. Until recently, most people were regarding the Westminster election as a straight fight between Labour and the Tories – but things are changing on the ground – I really think it could yet turn out that the real fight is between ourselves and the Tories.

In a very hard-hitting speech at Conference, Adam rehearsed extremely well the reasons why people faced with that sort of choice should choose Plaid. Now, how to put that message across locally...

PS - If I really deprived Ordovicius of his place in the food queue, it was both entirely unintentional, and almost entirely unrewarded in terms of the nourishment obtained. By wholly inadequate way of reparation, many thanks to Ordo for the job he did at conference as resident blogger!

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Whose heads?

There's been some debate recently as to whether the UK should ape the US approach of having head to head debates between the party leaders in the run-up to the general election. The reaction from the party leaders has been pretty predictable – oppositions always support the idea; the incumbents always reject it.

I'm far from convinced about the idea myself. It's not simply the fact that my own party is likely to be excluded, although I cannot deny that that is a factor – and a special 'Welsh' debate is hardly the same thing. Even leaving that issue aside, I still have major doubts.

In the first place, I think that the US debates are somewhat over-rated. The early ones, Nixon-Kennedy, say, were quite dramatic, and people remember that. But in recent years, those taking part have been coached, scripted, and rehearsed to such an extent that the debates have become pretty meaningless in reality. It's more a comparison of acting skills than of fitness for office.

Secondly, there is a real question over who should take part. In the US, they are electing a president – the head of government. The US is very much a two-party system – in the legislature as well as in the presidential contest - so it is easy to reduce the field to two contenders. A UK general election, on the other hand, is about electing the whole legislature, not just the Prime Minister, and there is an increasing plurality of parties.

It might be fairly easy to predict that the next prime minister will be one of two people – but it's a lot less easy to be certain about the make-up of the House of Commons. There's an argument that only the two obvious contenders should take part, but the very act of doing that would be to polarise attention on just two of the parties contesting the election, and to marginalise others – and that gives an unfair advantage to those two parties.

In theory, the leader of any party contesting more than half the seats in the House of Commons could end up as PM, however unlikely that might seem. Should broadcasters be allowed to 'second-guess' the result and exclude them – and if so, on what basis? And it isn't just the Lib Dems who are likely to be in that position.

If the election of a government was a separate matter from the election of the legislature, I might come to a different view; but as long as the government is drawn from the legislature, the introduction of such 'debates' would serve to change the nature of politics in a way which favours two parties in particular. And I really don't like the way in which one broadcaster is trying to force the issue.