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.