Tuesday 21 December 2010

Nuclear manana

Dylan Jones Evans drew attention last week to an article in the Economist which suggested that a series of small "travelling wave" nuclear reactors would be a preferable alternative to a number of the larger 'traditional' nuclear stations.  At first sight it looks like an attractrive option, with Bill Gates claiming that it would solve all the usual problems with nuclear energy.

I'm not so sure though.  My biggest objection has long been over the issue of long-lived nuclear waste; it's a problem to which there is, as yet, no solution.  Gates claims that the travelling wave reactor solves even that problem, although the detail is light, to say the least.  I'd need a lot more explanation, rather than a simple bland statement, before I'd be convinced.

The other big problem is the one of timescales.  As this site indicates, the 'travelling wave' reactor is at this stage a design concept.  No-one has yet built one, and it looks like being another ten years before anyone does - and five years after that before there's any commercial application.  As is so often the case with the big technological fix to our energy problems, it's some time in the future, even by the optimistic projections of its backers.

That isn't an argument for not continuing research and debate; but it's a very strong argument for not depending on it.  We need answers sooner than that, and those answers, realistically, will come from existing renewable technologies and from those renewable technologies whch can be rapidly developed.  Assuming that new untried technologies will be our salvation is a recipe for continuing to ignore the need to act now.

Friday 17 December 2010

Theory and Practice

There was a lengthy piece in yesterday's Western Mail questioning how effective the Welsh Government will actually be in implementing its strategy for reducing emissions and fighting climate change.  It echoes a concern that I've expressed previously about the gulf between strategy and implementation. 

I sometimes wonder whether the production of government strategies is something done entirely independently of actual implementation of policy; once the strategy is produced and published and has attracted all the positive headlines, they all breathe a huge sigh of relief and carry on as before.

In a roundabout way it seems to me as though the Tory Environment Spokesperson has, albeit unintentionally, put her finger on the nub of the problem.  Her statement "While we accept the need to take urgent measures to reduce harmful carbon emissions, if this were at the expense of creating jobs and increasing social prosperity, there would in the long term be less money to maintain effective public services or to tackle the impact of climate change." seems to me to highlight the way in which politicians see the issues of creating jobs and taking action on climate change as being somehow in conflict.

It's an attitude, not restricted to her own party, which helps to explain why politicians can happily extol the virtues of a strategy one day and then welcome proposals which run directly counter to it the next.  And it's an attitude which gives me a degree of pessimism about Man's ability to tackle climate change, because the people taking the decisions are all too often driven by their assessment of their own short term electoral considerations and therefore unwilling to do that which needs to be done.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. 

In the first place, I'm not certain that the electoral assessment is correct.  I have rather more faith that people will be willing to take a longer term view if we're willing to be open and honest and consistent with them.

And in the second place, there is absolutely no reason why a strategy for getting to grips with emissions and man-made climate change cannot produce at least as many jobs as we can get from simply carrying on as usual.  The problem is that the 'free market' won't achieve that aim; it needs a much more directed approach.  Unless and until we elect governments which are prepared to take that more directed approach, no strategy is likely to be successful. 

To get such a government means that politicians have to be significantly braver in proposing alternatives.  Currently, that strikes me as being an unlikely scenario.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Whose power is it anyway?

It looks as though tuition fees will remain in the news for a while yet.  The Lib Dems, in particular, seem to be determined to keep digging.  Their members in the House of Lords apparently consider that the promise made during the general election was a pledge given by a series of individual candidates, and not a party commitment, so that they are free to vote as they choose.  Another argument for the democratisation of that institution.
Their MPs, of course, managed to split three ways in the vote, the back benchers in particular.  Ministers simply fell in with the long-standing convention that they were duty bound to either support the government or resign.
It’s an interesting convention, and one which seems to have been adopted, pretty much without question, by the devolved institutions in Wales and Scotland.  I think it deserves a bit more challenge than that, and I don’t see why we should tamely adopt conventions just because they've been around a long time and happen to suit those who want to govern us.
The effect of the convention is that a member of a governing party who was elected on a particular set of personal pledges to his or her constituents, and general party commitments to the electorate as a whole, is in fact expected to vote not in accordance with either of those sets of pledges but in accordance with the decisions of the leader of his or her party – even when those decisions are contrary to either or both of those sets of promises.
From that perspective, it’s a rather odd notion of democracy; it seems that ‘government’ trumps both ‘party’ and ‘electors’.  (Opposition members, of course, accuse government members of a lack of principle for doing exactly what they themselves did when in government and will do again if ever re-elected to government.)
I wonder if the roots of the convention don’t lie somewhere in the murky origins of the unwritten constitution of these islands.  It’s rarely put in quite these terms, but the constitutional position is that total power is given to the monarch by God (hence it’s the Archbishop who actually does the crowning), and the monarch exercises that power through HM Government.
But the sky wouldn’t fall in if we reversed that entirely and started from an assumption that power belongs to the people and is merely loaned to our elected members and governments to exercise on our behalf.  The natural expectation would then be that individual members owed their first loyalty not to their government and leadership, but to the people who elected them and the principles and policies on which they were elected.  

It would be a lot less comfortable for governments, but I can't say that I'd lose a lot of sleep over that.  It would mean that they'd have to win the arguments, not just use their muscle; and it might help ordinary electors to feel that they had some influence.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Follies and victims

Jeff Jones had an article on WalesHome on Monday, in which he argued that Labour was committing “an unpardonable folly” in taking the line that the Coalition Government in London was ‘anti-Welsh’.  I’m always happy, of course, for the Labour Party to commit whatever follies it wishes, but on the substance of the argument – whether the UK Government is or is not anti-Welsh, I have to agree with Jeff, and it has worried me that so many in Plaid have followed the same line of argument as the Labour Party.
My perspective on this isn’t the same as others, clearly.  Perhaps it’s at least partly about background – my late father was a Geordie, and that helps me to understand that many of the economic problems faced by Wales are shared with the North East of England.  A lot of their industrial history looks similar too.
The underlying problem is that the UK economy is hugely unbalanced, and the death of manufacturing and ‘heavy’ industry has served only to make it more so.  Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the south east corner, and left to the free market that is a tendency which will tend to increase.
From a very hard-nosed centralist perspective, it is perfectly possible to argue that increasing the total GDP of the UK also increases the average GDP per head; so continuing disproportionate growth in the South East benefits everyone eventually, particularly if there is a mechanism for redistributing that wealth across the UK.  Any such mechanism can only come from government, and will therefore inevitably stress public sector activity.  It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the poorest areas are most dependent on the public sector.
Devolution hasn’t changed any of this; it has merely made the fund transfer (slightly) more transparent and obvious.  The election of a different government in London hasn’t changed it dramatically either, although a government with a reduced commitment to both the public sector and to the organised redistribution of wealth is likely to exacerbate the problem.  That doesn’t make them ‘anti-Welsh’ though.
And lest anyone think this to be purely a UK issue, it is replicated in Wales as well.  The South-East of Wales is wealthier than the rest of the country, and the ERP states clearly (P6 for those who want to check) that one of the key opportunities for the Welsh economy is to build on the projected rapid population growth of Cardiff.  That sounds to me like a similar argument to that of the UK Government – growing the total GDP will increase the average GDP, even if the growth is uneven.  It doesn’t make the Welsh Government ‘anti-Dyfed’ or ‘anti-Gwynedd’ though.
I think we need to understand that the problem – whether at a Welsh level or at a UK level – is the approach to economic management, and the dependency on large centralised businesses.  At both levels, we need to be aiming for a more localised economy, with smaller, more dispersed businesses serving a more local customer base.  It’s harder – much, much harder – which is why governments have tended to concentrate on a smaller number of larger businesses.  But in the long run, it will be fairer, more sustainable, and more rewarding.
We would be better employed debating how we make that happen than by assuming that governments which don’t make it happen are just picking on us because of who we are or where we live.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

The cost of going green

It seems to be largely taken as read that we all want to develop a green economy in Wales, and Government strategy documents are liberally sprinkled with the magic word ‘sustainable’, albeit at times in a context which throws doubt on the meaning of the word.  But how seriously is the ambition taken in practice – and how far are we really moving?
It isn’t just a question for Wales, of course – all economies are facing the same issue, and all are being pretty sluggish in response.  I pick on Wales solely because of the immediate focus on ‘acting locally’.
One of the big issues is around competitiveness.  In the public mind, I suspect that there is a positive correlation between being ‘green’ and being competitive – it’s the market that we want to be in.  But from a business and government perspective, ‘green’ can be – and frequently is – seen as being a bar to competitiveness.
People and areas in search of jobs and the economic boost they bring can end up competing on the basis of who will have the least restrictive regime whilst still giving access to the same market, in order to maximise the profit of the investor.  The result is that governments are, naturally, cautious about imposing tighter environmental standards.
The ERP produced by the One Wales Government earlier this year shows clear signs of that thinking.  Having gone to great lengths over a number of years to seek the devolution of building regulations in order to pass measures which will ensure new buildings in Wales are zero-carbon, the Plan then notes that the implementation of changes will be slowed so as to run only “a little ahead” of England, rather than the more radical approach which had previously been suggested.
Such caution is natural and understandable, but if followed by all governments will mean that progress is very much slower than it needs to be. 
New buildings are one obvious example, but becoming greener can often have an initial cost impact for businesses, governments, and consumers alike; there’s a ‘feelgood’ reward immediately, but any financial reward is likely to come some time later.  Part of the reason for that is that the environmental costs of those who do not follow the green route are generally external costs – not paid directly by those who are, effectively, incurring them, and ultimately falling back on all of us as taxpayers.
Encouragement and regulation will take us only part of the way, particularly if we fear moving too fast.  Internalising the costs of not going green, and assistance in spreading the initial investment costs are both needed as well if we want to get Wales ahead of the game. 
With the limited powers – particularly fiscal – that it has, and will have after the next referendum, the Assembly Government has only a limited range of options, of course.  We shouldn’t use that as an excuse for excessive timidity though.

Monday 6 December 2010

I agree with 'Dave'

Well, up to a point, anyway.  The idea that our wealth as a society should not be measured in financial terms alone is not a new idea, but it’s one I’d support.  In a world of finite resources and rising population, unbridled consumerism is an untenable future.  But accepting that there is a limit on economic growth doesn’t mean that we cannot become wealthier in other ways; including those other things in a measure of wealth can help us to understand that.
The idea is not without its problems though.  For the have nots to be told by the haves (whether internally to our own country or on an international basis) that they should measure wealth in other ways doesn’t help to feed the hungry or house the homeless.  I normally try and avoid referring to the personal situation of individual politicians, but in this case it’s relevant – a cabinet of millionaires telling us that we must measure our wealth in ways other than the purely financial runs the danger of sounding like an excuse for maintaining the current balance of wealth and power. 
Including other things in our assessment of social wealth depends on those other things being valued by all, not on them being a substitute for material wealth for only some.  People can only really start to value non-material wealth once their basic material needs are met, and are unlikely to be terribly impressed with the concept before reaching that point.
Basic material needs sounds like something which can be turned into absolute terms, but in reality it’s evaluated in comparative terms, and cannot avoid considering the question of aspiration.  Aspiration within a society is likely to be stronger where the difference between the top and the bottom is greatest.  Reducing that level of material aspiration depends on reducing inequality.
That, for me, is the biggest problem with what Cameron has been saying – the idea of building a measure of prosperity which goes beyond the merely financial depends, if it is to be accepted, on the pursuit of greater equality of access to resources.  And I think we can be reasonably confident that that is not what he has in mind.

Friday 3 December 2010

The real agenda

The aspect of the latest forecasts from the OBR which have received the most attention has been the probable reduction in the number of public sector jobs which will be lost.  That’s natural, of course – it’s the most immediate impact seen by large numbers of people.
It wasn’t the only important aspect though.  The OBR also suggested that the Chancellor would have up to £6 billion available for tax cuts before the next election in 2015.
That goes to the heart of one of my concerns about the Coalition’s fiscal policy.  They have claimed from the outset that the cuts are about deficit reduction and are absolutely essential for that purpose.  I have feared that cutting the public sector was driven, at least in part, on ideological grounds in order to be able at some point to reduce taxes for the more well-off and shift the balance from collective provision to individual provision.  The OBR report provides a degree of confirmation of that fear.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with arguing for more individualism and less collectivism, although I’d take the opposite view.  But hiding that aim behind an entirely economic argument, and cutting more deeply and quickly than the economics requires in pursuit of an ideological objective, is not being entirely honest.

Thursday 2 December 2010

More wriggling from the Lib Dems

I heard a Lib Dem MP verbally wriggling yesterday as he tried to explain why the proposed changes on tuition fees are not in breach of the pledge which his party made at the election in May.  His argument was that there were actually two elements to the pledge; the first was no increase in fees, and the second was to make the system fairer.  And they had succeeded, he said, in the second.
He actually went further and described the changes to the repayment rules as turning the fees from a debt into a graduate tax, because the amount owed was no longer a total which had to be repaid, but a maximum which people would repay according to ability to pay.  It was a valiant effort.
It does, though, highlight a point that I’ve made before; the difference between student debt and a graduate tax is more in the eye of the beholder than a difference of substance.  Simply calling it something different and changing the rules for repayment are not enough to alter the underlying fact that students are incurring a significant future liability in order to pay for their university education.
Changing the nomenclature and a bit of clever presentation are not the same thing as abolishing student debt, and making the system ‘fairer’ is not the same as overturning it.  But I guess that some politicians will continue trying to persuade us that they are.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Changing the arguments

There is no doubt that the decision by the Welsh Government to abolish the Tuition Fee Grant from September this year was one of the most problematic issues for Plaid since entering the One Wales coalition.  It led to a number of difficult discussions at the time, but coalition sometimes means having to accept decisions by ministers of the other party with which you strongly disagree.
By comparison, the decision announced yesterday by Leighton Andrews that Welsh students will not have to pay the increases faced by English students is an extremely welcome one.  With fees likely to rise from £3290 to up to £9000, the decision that the Welsh Government will pay the difference of up to £5710 is, I think, absolutely the right decision.  Ensuring that we have a well-educated population, and that all of our young people are enabled to receive the best education that they can get, are some of the key things that we can do to build our collective future.
It also highlights the difference which devolved power can make in enabling Wales to follow a different path where that is the best thing for our nation.
There are one or two nagging little questions in the back of my mind, though, given what looks like a major turnaround from the arguments used when the previous grant was abolished.  I have an instinctive aversion to inconsistency, whether by friends or opponents, and I like to understand what has changed.
In abolishing the tuition fee grant, the then minister Jane Hutt, said that paying £1890 per student per annum was neither affordable nor a good use of funds in what were described at the time as challenging economic circumstances.  Her replacement, Leighton Andrews, now seems to be saying that paying up to £5710 per student per annum is both affordable and a good use of funds, although the economic circumstances are, if anything, rather more challenging.
Similarly, the fact that the Welsh Government had to pay the same level of grant for EU nationals studying in Wales was presented as a problem two years ago.  Now it is dismissed as not being a problem because of reciprocity – Welsh students studying elsewhere in the EU benefit from the ‘local’ rules.
I suppose that it could just be down to having a more enlightened Education Minister, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the General Election in May this year just might have been the factor which has led to Labour’s change of heart.  A reluctance to take a different view from a Labour Government in London appears to have been replaced by a certain amount of delight in taking a different view from a Conservative-led Government.
Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome turnaround, and good news for Welsh students and their families.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

The People's Party

In a speech on Saturday, Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband proclaimed that he wants Labour to become once again the ‘People’s Party’.  Whilst I’m completely convinced that he would like people to believe that Labour can return to its roots to that extent, I’m rather less convinced that he really wants it to be true, or that it would be achievable if he did.
The British Establishment has always had a superb record of drawing discordant voices into itself and assimilating them without actually changing very much in the process.  I was re-reading parts of Bob McKenzie on British Political Parties the other day.  First time for years, but it reminded me of how different the origins of the Labour and Conservative Parties are, given how similar they’ve become.
The Conservative Party was founded in Parliament, of parliamentarians – indeed, if I remember correctly, until the 1980s, no-one who wasn’t an MP could actually join the party, they could only join the local ‘association’.  Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, with the aim of getting its representatives elected and securing radical change.
They’ve both changed.  People can now join the Conservative Party as ordinary members (although the party has never embraced the concept of democratic decision making!). 
Labour has changed far more; it’s become more top-down, less democratic, less open to serious debate on policy, and very much part of the establishment.  People sometimes suggest that Blairism was some sort of aberration; I suspect it was merely the latest manifestation of a very long set of processes.  The chances of Miliband (or Brown before him) reversing other than a few superficial policies were always negligible.
One could have an interesting debate about the causes.  Was it really the power grab by leaders and parliamentarians as which it’s sometimes been painted?  The problems certainly began very early in the party’s history, as entries in Beatrice Webb’s diaries reveal.  (One of my favourites was her description of Ramsay MacDonald as “a magnificent substitute for a leader”; her comments on others were equally acerbic.  I’d love to see what she would have had to say on Blair or Brown.)
I’m not convinced that what happened to the Labour Party was as simple as being the result of individuals pursuing their own interests.  I suspect that it was close to being an inevitable outcome when an initially radical party succumbed to the temptation to work entirely within the system, and fell under the control of the civil service in the process. 
The comparison between achieving something by working in and with the institutions and achieving nothing by being in perpetual conflict with them is a stark one; the temptation to do what they could to help people in the here and now must have been pretty much irresistible.  Given the social and economic conditions of the time, it’s harsh to be overly critical. 
But combining that sense of urgency in the here-and-now with keeping alive a radical vision was never going to be an easy thing for Labour to achieve; we shouldn’t really be surprised at the extent of their failure.  The surprising thing for me is more that so many people who do have a different vision have stuck with the party for so long.  
 In opposition, Labour generally have a tendency to sound rather more radical than their behaviour in government would suggest.  Miliband will, no doubt, follow that historical habit.  Somehow, though, I don’t see Labour ever really recapturing the idealism of the party’s founders.

Friday 26 November 2010

Ring fences and Bureaucracy

Consistency and Lib Dems are not words often found together in a single sentence – at least, not in any sentence that I’m likely to write.  But sometimes they really should try at least a little bit harder.
This week, one of their AMs launched a strong attack on the cost of ring-fencing monies passed to local government by the Welsh Government.  Administering separate grants costs £35 million in administration, they proclaimed.  I cannot but agree that it sounds like a great deal of money being diverted away from front line services just to ensure that local councils spend it as instructed; it’s another form of creeping centralisation.
So the Lib Dems want to abolish ring-fencing, and give local councils a single sum which they are then free to spend as they wish?  Not exactly, it appears.  Local democracy and abolition of ring-fencing apply only to those initiatives proposed by other people, or with which the Lib Dems disagree.  They have some other ring-fencing proposals of their own.
Just a week or so earlier, their Assembly Group Leader called for the implementation of a pupil-premium in Welsh schools – a specific addition to school budgets targeted at particular pupils in particular schools.  The idea is not without its merits, but there’s no way that I can see of implementing it which does not effectively ring-fence monies passed by the Assembly Government to local councils – and then further ring-fence monies passed by local councils to schools.
There are good arguments for reviewing which decisions are taken centrally and which are taken locally - the current situation is something of a mish-mash.  The problem is that, rather than taking the bull by the horns and carrying out a thorough review of the issue, successive governments have imposed central direction by increasingly detailed control of local budgets.  There is a difference between challenging that as a process, and merely disagreeing about which elements should be decided centrally.  The Lib Dems are doing the latter - they should really not pretend that they're doing the former.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Carts and Horses

The decision by the UK Government to put the electrification of the line to Swansea ‘on hold’ is hugely disappointing.  The Government’s argument that “it needs to decide whether to replace the intercity fleet with electric trains, or electric-diesel hybrids beforehand” looks like a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
The fact that the rolling stock needs replacement is not new, nor is it a surprise.  Part of the justification for doing the electrification as early as possible should surely have been to enable the purchase of electric rolling stock, which would be faster, cheaper, more reliable, and environmentally preferable.  Taking the decision as to which trains to buy first looks like committing us to another 40 years of diesel operation.
Having said that, I’m not convinced about the sincerity of Labour’s response either.  It is increasingly clear that the ‘immediate’ start to preparatory work promised by Gordon Brown never actually happened, and in that context, it is hard to argue that his announcement was not a rather cynical pre-election ploy.
And, hand on heart, how many can people honestly and truly say that they are convinced that a CSR undertaken by a Labour Government would not have reached a similar conclusion?  After all, the difference in the total level of cuts proposed wasn’t that great.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Time to stop pretending

In the latter days of the Soviet Union, it was said that "the workers pretend to work, and we pretend to pay them".  It was quite a neat summary of the state which the economy had reached.  But pretence about the true nature of things isn't limited to the old Soviet Union.

Closer to home, we have, since the days of the Thatcher government, pretended that the railways are operated as profit-making companies in the private sector.  So Arriva Trains Wales receives something like £165 million a year from the public purse towards the cost of running its services, and pays out around £10 million a year in dividends to its shareholders as a reward for their 'profitable' investment.  It's nonsense, of course; the truth is that the services are effectively making a loss of £155 million per year; and not only are we as taxpayers making good that loss, we are also bunging the shareholders a £10 million bonus as well.  And under the sort of 'not-for-profit' proposal announced by Plaid recently, that pretence would end, and that extra £10 million would potentially be available for further rail investment.

It's been announced this week that fares are to rise by an above-inflation amount in the New Year, and I heard a spokesman for ATOC explaining this in a radio interview yesterday.  One of the points that he made was that this is a result of long term government policy to shift the balance of paying for rail services from the taxpayer to the rail user.  That isn't a policy which has been introduced since May this year, nor is it a response to the recession.

The idea that a service should be paid for by the users of that service is a valid viewpoint - it's the principle generally applied to private sector services.  It isn't the principle applied in general to public sector services, however (although successive governments have tried to move things more in that direction).  More specifically, it isn't the principle used for the main competitor to rail, namely road transport.  Trying to run railways as though they are a profitable enterprise is something which most of the rest of the world has eschewed - and with good reason.  We should stop pretending, too.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Choosing the next monarch

The banner headline on the Sunday Times this week proclaimed that “Public says William should be next king”.  It may, of course, just be an image thing; a desire to go for a younger generation.  It’s a feeling that his father benefited from a decade or three ago, but which the longevity of an even older generation of the family has now seen off.
What interested me more though, was the idea that this was a matter on which the public should have a view at all.  After all, the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is that it’s hereditary – start taking the people’s views into account, and the whole institution is undermined. 
In that context, the very fact that a large majority seem to take the view that the succession should not simply be as automatic as tradition dictates might just lead to a bit more thought about the wider question.  If the job isn’t limited to a single individual, why limit it to a single family?  And why not call it something different – such as ‘president’, for instance?

Monday 22 November 2010

Efficiency savings explained

I’ve noted previously that the phrase ‘efficiency savings’ is generally a euphemism for budget cuts.  The two are not at all the same thing.  An efficiency saving is doing the same thing with less resource; providing a lesser service may well generate a saving, but it has little to do with efficiency.
The difference is often not recognised, but it was made crystal-clear last week by one of the UK’s biggest outsourcing companies.  Capita have been busily re-assuring their shareholders and investors that government pressure on them to reduce costs won’t affect profits at all; they’ll simply provide a reduced service.
It highlights the different priorities depending on viewpoint - protecting services versus protecting profits.  But it’s also an honest and straightforward appraisal of what will actually happen.  In practice, exactly the same thing will be happening with services provided ‘in-house’, but I doubt we’ll see the process described so clearly.  It’s a pity, because an honest assessment of what budget cuts actually mean would enable a more enlightened discussion about whether they’re acceptable or not.

Friday 19 November 2010

Lost jobs and trivia

Unpredictability often appears to be second nature to the Lib Dems, but even so, this one managed to surprise me.
I’m not going to try and argue that the Techniums have been a roaring success; that would be silly.  But judging their success or failure on a comparison of their cost and the income generated is a very curious way of looking at them.  There is a cost to generating jobs; there are risks involved in start-up businesses of the type that they were supposed to help.
So, the issue for me is not whether they made a loss or not; but what they achieved for the money expended.  It was an experiment, and may have been replicated too far too fast, but an element of risk-taking is essential if we want to move forward.  Those issues seem to be  matters in which the Lib Dems have no interest – presumably because it would make for a complex story rather than a quick headline.
Either way, to ‘welcome’ a decision which is likely to lead to a number of job losses seems to be rather perverse.  And harping on about a £1500 cost for bringing 10 people from all over Wales together for a meeting looks like elevating trivia over substance.

Nice little earner

PFI has been a nice little earner for those companies who’ve been able to take advantage of it.  The theory is that it’s some sort of partnership between the public and the private sector; the reality is that one part of that ‘partnership’ has benefited, whilst the other has lost out.
Those cash-strapped public bodies who found themselves pushed into using the approach have found that they have got shiny new hospitals and schools which they could not otherwise have afforded, but are faced with huge ongoing annual costs about which they can do little.  And that, in turn, has constrained their ability for further investment in other facilities until the end of the contract period.
The companies, on the other hand, have found themselves with a guaranteed source of long-term income, whilst all the risk remains with their customers.  It’s a completely unequal partnership, and has been from the outset.
No real surprise then that the CBI – which represents the sort of companies which have benefited – is again pressing for Wales to use PFI.  From their perspective, it’s a neat way of transferring resources from the public sector into the private one.  But over the long term, it also means that the public sector gets less for a given amount of expenditure – the opposite, in effect, of what the CBI and other organisations have long been urging on government.
The Welsh Government is absolutely right to rule out PFI – and I hope that they will continue to do so.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Cut somewhere else

I can't remember the exact detail, but there was a Spitting Image scene where the budget deficit was being explained to Ronald Reagan.  It went something like, "Mr President, suppose you have ten apples, and you take away three trillion; how many do you have left?", to which Reagan replied, "Oh, I don't know, but there must be a few at least".

It came to mind when I read this report, or more precisely the comments of Paul Davies AM, on rural transport this morning.  Transport is a major issue in rural areas, of course.  And I agree with him that we need to increase the frequency of train services to Fishguard in particular and West Wales in general - although I still think that his repeated calls for dualling the A40 are a completely inappropriate response.  The point is, though, that rural transport issues will never be resolved by the private sector; they require a large dose of investment from public funds.  I recognise that, and am prepared to argue for the sort of public sector spending regime which can deliver that.

Mr Davies, though, does not.  Only yesterday, he and his party were arguing that health spending - note, spending, not delivery - should be protected from any cuts at all, which means larger cuts elsewhere.  He and his party have argued consistently that the public sector needs to be cut by a large amount and in a short timescale to rectify the deficit.  I disagree with him and his party on both of those; but there's nothing at all wrong with him putting those arguments.  There's something more than a little dishonest, though, about then calling for significant extra government expenditure in his own constituency.

It smacks of the all-too-common refrain of people who support cutting public expenditure, as long as the cuts happen somewhere else, and to somebody else.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Vote 'no' - or the Passport Office gets it

It’s just as well that we have those stalwart defenders of Wales, True Wales, to protect us from the nasty nationalists of Plaid Cymru and, apparently, the Labour Party. 
In March 2009, they told us that a yes vote would undoubtedly lead to Independence and that Independence would equally surely lead to the loss of a large number of jobs in UK institutions based in Wales, including, interestingly enough, those at the Passport Office.
As opposed to a no vote which would ensure …  what, exactly?

Monday 15 November 2010


The philosophers tell us that whilst the screen on the desk in front of me may well have an objective existence of its own, we can only ever perceive it through our senses, so no two of us will ever “see” precisely the same screen.  The same applies to statements and words, too, and I, like everyone else, sometimes forget that not everyone understands the perspective from which I start.  It can apply to motivation as well; it’s all too easy to see the actions of others through the prism of one’s own motivations, and misunderstand them as a result.
I was once talking to a working colleague about our different approaches to staff development.  For him, everything revolved around helping people to prepare for promotion to the next level.  I asked something along the lines of “What about those who don’t want promotion?  How do we develop them?”  I don’t think he understood the question.
It works both ways.  Just as some people don’t ‘get’ the idea of a lack of personal ambition, so some of us, myself included, have never really been able to ‘get’ the idea of personal ambition as a driver.  I like to do things which interest me, but I often end up doing things which don’t, either because someone asks me to, or just because somebody needs to do them in order to achieve a particular end.  Making sure that the goal is scored – and that it’s the right goal to be scoring - have always been more important to me than who actually kicks the ball over the line.
I’ve been around long enough to know that people will not all see things in the same way, and will not necessarily understand that that’s where I’m coming from, but as my post last week showed, I can still get caught out.  I think I’m pursuing a point of interest because it matters; others assume that I’m pursuing a personal agenda of some sort, or criticising other people.
I want to see a politics where differentiation between parties is based more on substance than on image; where we have a range of different faces and voices; and where we are harnessing the best talents of all our people for the benefit of society as a whole.  It would be an absolute bonus if we also created a bit more space for freethinkers and mavericks, although that will send a shiver down the spine of some party managers.
The increasingly narrow range of backgrounds from which people are entering politics is one of a number of factors militating against that, and is therefore an important one.  Understanding why people would – or, more importantly, would not – want to be elected to Parliament or the Assembly is part of the key to addressing that.  It’s an issue to which I shall return.  But it really isn't one on which I have any personal agenda.

Friday 12 November 2010

...and again

I was disappointed by today's story in the Western Mail, although I can't say I was really surprised.  If I were to worry too much about seeing part of what I say or write taken out of context and blown up, I'd never say or write anything.

I've never been one of those people who has a desperate need to 'set the record straight', so I will not go through the inaccuracies individually.  I will say though that the "Plaid source" quoted is someone who clearly doesn't know me very well, has a poor understanding of what happened in the 2007 and 2010 elections in Carmarthen West, and is clueless about what was or was not said in conversations between Ieuan and myself.  Perfectly placed to comment then.

The story does, however, illustrate two points.

The first is that people who are driven by strong personal ambitions always assume that everyone else is subject to the same drivers.  It ain't necessarily so, as the song goes.  (Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with some people having strong personal ambitions - as long as they're fully aligned with the aims of the organisation.)

And the second, and more important, echoes a point that I've been making for some time.  Plaid members briefing against other Plaid members is something which has, unfortunately, become all too frequent since the advent of the Assembly, and the huge increase in the number of professional politicians in the party.  But it's a diversion from the party's task.  Plaid has fallen into the modus operandi of the other parties; concentrating on personality rather than substance.  The party has lost its focus on outcomes, and is taking far too short-term a view.

Missing the point

Different political bloggers adopt different styles.  Some simply regurgitate press releases, others reiterate the party line, whilst others spend their efforts attacking others.  The nature of blogging is that in some ways it offers an opportunity for a more personal style and approach; and part of my approach is to illustrate my points with anecdote and personal experience.  It’s a technique to get my point across which I found effective as a manager and which I use in my writing.
There is a problem though; sometimes people can pick up on the illustration rather than the main point – and that seems to have happened with yesterday’s post.  So, let me be clear – if I had intended to post largely about myself, I would have done so, and some months ago at that.
Politics is overly dominated by men in suits (although I’d prefer the expression middle-aged rather than old men!); on that I agree with Ieuan, and I have been trying for many years to address that – openly and democratically through the party’s processes.  My point, however, was that a concentration on addressing the image aspect of that alone will have an impact on the level and range of experiences which people bring into politics.
It isn’t the only factor limiting the experience which politicians bring; there are a number of others.  Here are a few for starters.
  1. The intensely personalised nature of politics.  Some of the most able people in other walks of life do their best work in a collaborative fashion.  Ability in others is seen as an asset to be leveraged rather than as a threat.  In the world of science in particular, Dr Phil used to talk about how one scientist correcting another would earn thanks and a friend for life; a politician doing the same would make a bitter enemy.  "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer" is no basis for building the most able team.
  2. The lack of responsibility.  Although AMs and MPs claim to have highly responsible jobs, in practice few of them have real authority over anything.  Backbenchers are usually told what to say and how to vote.  Ministers have rather more authority, but the Civil Service as an institution exists largely to prevent them exercising it.  Why would someone with real authority and responsibility relinquish that for the possibility of sitting on the backbenches in opposition?
  3. Time commitments.  People sometimes talk about the salaries of politicians as though increasing them would attract high-fliers.  I’m not convinced.  Firstly, politicians are already paid well above average wages, and secondly, it would take a very significant increase to attract some of the real high fliers.  But I don’t think that it’s the salary which keeps them out in the first place – it’s more the case that people on the highest salaries have to make a massive commitment of time and energy to their work and would find it difficult to sustain a campaign as well.
There are others, of course.  But to return to the point which I think Adam was making – the pool from which politicians are being selected is a very small one, and getting smaller.  I believe that all parties are having difficulties in attracting candidates from outside that narrow range, and are increasingly falling back on 'career politicians'.  And I think that it is the nature of political debate and activity which is causing that to be the case. 
It’s also a vicious circle, unfortunately.  We need a paradigm shift in the nature of our politics, but the narrower the pool from which politicians are selected, the more likely it is to deter others – and the less likely it is that those within the pool will be able to make that shift.  That’s the issue which we should be discussing, not the personal feelings of any individual; but the fact that people choose to reduce the debate to comments about individuals serves only to highlight one of the problems.

Thursday 11 November 2010

The thoughts of Adam

I’m not quite sure what Adam Price was thinking when he made his comments yesterday about the lack of skills and experience amongst Assembly Members.  It’s not that the point isn’t a relevant one, it’s more that there is a danger that a politician making such a criticism of other politicians can give an unfortunate impression of superiority.
I was on a course once (to prepare us for impending redundancy, as it happens), and one of the key messages was that “Negative criticism is a dishonest form of self-praise”.  It’s a useful thought for people to bear in mind.
Having said that, does he have a point?  Certainly, as the Assembly gains more power and influence, I think all of us, whether involved in politics or not, would want our AMs to be of the highest quality. 
But what do we mean by that – and who decides how to measure ‘quality’?  And how do we balance ‘ability’ and ‘experience’?  These are not simple questions; ultimately, they are matters for the political parties to consider as part of their selection processes.  It’s an issue which much exercised me when I was trying to reform Plaid’s selection processes and introduce more objective candidate assessment processes.
I cannot, of course, speak in detail about the selection processes of other parties, but there does seem to be something of a ‘cult of youth’ affecting all parties.  There’s an increasing tendency for people to go straight from university to politics, with no wider experience of the world outside, and I’ve never been convinced that’s an entirely good thing.  Some adapt well, but others can sometimes appear to be stuck in a rather more simplistic approach to politics, and, as Adam suggested, lack that broader background which comes from outside experience.
That cult certainly affects Plaid Cymru.  When Ieuan told me in June that he did not want me to be a candidate for next May’s Assembly elections, my age was one of the issues he raised.  It was his view that, with Ron Davies likely to be selected in Caerffili, the party simply couldn’t afford to have any other old men standing as candidates where we might win, because that would send the wrong message about what sort of a party Plaid Cymru is.
It’s a valid viewpoint, but it owes more to getting the right image than the right mix of skills and experience, it seems to me.  In that sense, I’m not sure that Plaid’s response to Adam’s comments was quite as complete as it could have been. 
I very much doubt that Plaid is the only party which is concerned to choose candidates who project the ‘right’ image, and in an increasingly policy-lite style of politics it’s probably an inevitable development.   It adds weight to what I think is the very valid point which Adam raised.  It would be better, though, if his comments were to be interpreted as a criticism of parties and their selection criteria, rather than of the individuals selected as a result.  Otherwise, his comments will not receive the consideration which they deserve.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Tendering Linguistics

Increasingly, tendering for public sector work in Wales involves the use of electronic facilities, such as those promoted by Value Wales, an arm of the Welsh Government.  In principle, it's a sensible way to go, and I found myself registering as a supplier last week in order to express an interest in a particular contract.

The website actually permits registration in English or in Welsh - in theory.  And it's an example of why so many people end up saying 'why bother, I may as well just do it in English'.  It's only half-translated, which means that some of the questions are in Welsh, and others are in English only.  Most of the drop-down options lists are in English only as well.  And for me, the absolute gem was the screen I got at the end confirming my registration:

Apart from the interesting observations that American and English are apparently considered to be two different languages, and that there seems to be a word missing in both of them, Welsh doesn't even get included, even for those who have tried to register in Welsh.  The order of appearance of the languages also conveys a subtle message about the likely location of suppliers to the Welsh public sector.

For all the rhetoric emanating from the government, it's sometimes hard to believe that they are really serious about encouraging indigenous suppliers, let alone those who choose to operate through the medium of Welsh.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Benefits and Wages

One of the mantras of the current UK Government is that work should pay more than welfare, so that living on benefits is not a choice which leaves people better off than seeking work.  It’s hard to disagree with the principle, but as any good mathematician would know, if A>B, there are two ways of reversing the sign, not just one.
Leaving aside for the time being the not inconsiderable problem that if there are no jobs available, then effectively B=0, the other problem with the government’s approach is that they have sought to concentrate entirely on reducing the benefit side of the relationship.  One of the better decisions of the previous government was the introduction of a minimum wage; but the fact that leaving benefits to take a job at the minimum wage doesn’t pay for a number of people highlights the inadequacy of the level at which the minimum was set.
There is always scope to review benefits to make sure that they are set at a suitable level, but there is also scope for making sure that the minimum wage paid to those people in work is set at a level which ensures that work really does pay.  Setting the wage at a level which means that people receiving it have an income below the officially defined poverty line contributes directly to the imbalance.
Employers and businesses will object, naturally.  They objected to the minimum wage in the first place as well.  But I simply don’t believe that large numbers of businesses are only viable if they are allowed to underpay their employees.

Monday 8 November 2010

Twisting and Turning

The Lib Dems continue to twist and turn over student fees, desperately seeking a way out which enables them to support their ministers whilst retaining some integrity around the promise that they made at the last election. 
Labour, meanwhile, are showing the zeal of the convert as they attack the government’s decision to do what the review set up by Labour recommended.  We should not forget that it was Labour who drew up the terms of reference, and Labour who appointed Lord Browne to conduct the review; the results can hardly have been a surprise to them. 
Things could have been very different, of course.  The Lib Dems could have decided not to join a regressive coalition with the Tories, and joined a regressive coalition with Labour instead.  For reasons which completely escaped me at the time, and which escape me still, there were some within Plaid who publicly suggested that Plaid MPs should join the same regressive alliance.
Had that alternative coalition come about, we would now have those Labour MPs who say that higher fees are unacceptable explaining why they are essential, whilst the Tories currently backing the plans would be vociferously attacking their unfairness.  The Lib Dems would still be twisting and turning of course; there’s no respite for them.  But they might have been joined by Plaid MPs, finding themselves in a similar position to that of the party’s AMs in Cardiff Bay.
In the great game of Westminster politics played by the Labour and Conservative parties, the nature of their deeply-held ‘beliefs’ often seems to depend more on which side of the House they happen to be sitting at the time than on anything else. 
For the people affected by their decisions, it’s far more important than that.  This really is not a game.

Friday 5 November 2010

Feeling a bit like Clover

Toll Roads have never been a popular idea - particularly in this part of Wales, where Rebecca and her Daughters knew exactly how to deal with them.  And I guess that they'll never be popular with anyone who has to pay the tolls.

The main reason used by Governments in favour of tolls has been that it's a way by which users of the transport infrastructure pay towards the costs of providing it.  In short, a way of transferring infrastructure costs from general taxation to a usage charge.  I'm not a fan of that approach in general, and indeed, it seems to run directly contrary to the main thrust of the new Economic Renewal Plan which is about investing in infrastructure to enable growth.  Businesses have long argued - and I've agreed with them - that the tolls on the Severn crossings are a direct disincentive to basing their activity on this side of the estuary.

I'm more open-minded about the environmental argument (even though that is unlikely to make the concept any more popular).  Switching travel from cars to buses or rail by reducing the cost of one and increasing the cost of the other certainly has its attractions.

What I've never been convinced about is the idea of selective tolling on bridges and tunnels.  They may well be the most expensive parts of the road network, but they are still part of a whole, and treating them differently seems an odd thing to do.  It's also often taxing a 'captive customer'; the alternative to paying to cross the Cleddau or the Severn involves a lengthy detour and a lot of extra time.

Certainly, during the last General Election I argued for the abolition of tolls on the Cleddau bridge, which have become a nice little earner for Pembrokeshire County Council, used to subsidise other expenditure.  I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see in this morning's paper that Plaid Cymru are in favour of tolls, albeit set at a lower level, over the Severn estuary, as long as the money is kept in Wales and spent on other infrastructure.  It sounds awfully like the argument used by the county council for retaining tolls on the Cleddau Bridge.

I could have sworn that the sign on the wall used to read "no tolls good, bridge tolls bad", but it definitely says "no tolls good, Welsh tolls better" now.  My memory must be failing me - it must be my age.

Thursday 4 November 2010

How many MPs is enough?

It’s nice to see so many of Wales’ MPs exercised about a single subject and almost saying the same thing; it’s just a pity that the subject in question is how many of them there should be.  It’s hardly the top item on most people’s agenda; fewer politicians (however achieved) rather than more is definitely the flavour of the moment. 
(As an aside, I remember someone once saying to me that ‘if the answer to a question is more politicians, then it must be a very curious question indeed’.)
There are different ways of looking at the issue, of course; a lot depends on one’s perspective.  From a nationalist point of view, the target number of MPs at Westminster is obviously zero, once the constitutional objective is attained.  That’s the easy part; the hard part is, how many should there be in the interim, and what are the factors which should drive change?
Some have argued that as more powers are transferred to the Assembly, then the numbers should be reduced accordingly.  Given the tight control that Westminster still maintains over so much of our lives – and most importantly, over the purse-strings – that seems to me to be superficially logical, but over-simplistic.
If Wales is treated just as a region sending representatives to a unitary parliament, then there is absolutely no basis for continued over-representation, or for treating Wales any differently from any other area in the UK.  Indeed (dare I say it?), from that strongly unionist perspective there is no real logic in the rigid rule that parliamentary constituencies should not cross national boundaries.
If, however, Wales is sending representatives to what may well increasingly become a federal-type parliament, with ‘England-only’ decisions being taken by English MPs only, then there is an argument to be made for deliberate over-representation of Wales.  Many less unitary states than the UK do indeed provide for over-representation of smaller parts, and the UK Parliament is so dominated by English MPs that even our current modest over-representation still leaves Wales with fairly minimal influence.
Plaid’s pitch at European level has long included the statement that, as an independent nation, we would be entitled to about 11 MEPs instead of the current 4.  So treating Wales as a nation within Europe leads to a different approach than treating us as a region within the UK.  Why should the same not apply to Westminster for as long as Wales is part of the UK?
I wish that I could be certain that the heightened levels of awareness of the distinctiveness of Wales amongst Wales’ MPs were motivated by such considerations rather than mere self-preservation.  At the moment, the image which keeps coming to mind is of Harri Webb’s budgie.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

For Wales, see Angleterre

Last night's news carried the story of the agreement between the UK and French Governments to share aircraft carriers and other military capabilities.  Sarkozy talked about the agreement between France and 'Angleterre', before the voice over translation cut in and appeared to mistranslate it as France and 'Britain'.  I suspect that Monsieur le Président was closer to the actualité, even if more out of ignorance than intent.

The agreement is one between two faded imperial powers, neither of which is able to quite let go of their own conception of their past influence and rôle, despite the fact that neither can really afford to compete in that arena, even if it made any sense for them to do so.  They both wish to maintain the pretence of being 'world powers', although the world which they wish to inhabit is one which disappeared decades ago.

Their so-called 'independent' deterrents are completely useless against any of the real threats facing the world in the 21st century, and aircraft carriers are of use only in an offensive operation - even if they could afford to put any aircraft on them.  So they continue to spend beyond their means on next to useless military hardware, whilst trying to save face and money through a limited pooling of resources.

It really is time for a more modern and realistic appraisal of the role in the world which the countries of these islands could and should play; but, not for the first time, the UK government has, instead, looked for a way of further delaying the inevitable.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

How the mighty fall

It looks as though Obama’s Democrats are in for something of a drubbing in today’s mid-term elections; and that it is widely being seen as an opportunity to deliver a verdict on Obama himself.  It doesn’t make his situation irrecoverable – other presidents have suffered a similar fate and gone on to win a second term – but it’s an astonishing turnaround in fortune for a man who seemed to be offering so much.
There are politicians in the UK – and in Wales – who saw Obama’s success in 2008, and have thought that they’d like to emulate it, by copying the style, technique, or even just the rhetoric used by Obama; but the decline in his popularity in the US should cause them to stop and think.  The question they should be asking is just how much substance was there under all that froth and excitement.
Obama’s words appeared to be offering a vision of a very different America.  Perhaps he really does want to see a very different America, but he seems to have raised higher expectations than he is able to fulfil.  Maybe it’s just a ‘timescale’ issue, and he was insufficiently clear about how long it might take to deliver.  Either way, a lot of people are feeling very let down.
I’ve always believed that it’s important to offer people a vision of a different future, but it has to be genuine, clear, and honest about timescales - and there is much more to a vision of the future than mere rhetoric.  Politicians who confuse the two deserve to fail.  Words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ are meaningful only in the context of a programme to deliver them.

Friday 29 October 2010

Electrification - let's get on with it

My initial reaction when I read the part of today's story about the electrification of the mainline was a degree of outrage at the idea that the UK Government would ask the Assembly Government to pay part of the costs.  But then I asked myself whether this expenditure is Barnettised or not - and I have to admit that I don't actually know the answer to that.  If this is additional UK expenditure, over and above the existing transport budget, then the reaction stands; but if the expenditure is coming out of the English transport budget for which Wales has already had, or will be receiving, a Barnett share, then it it not entirely unreasonable for the UK Government to start talking to the Welsh Government about a contribution.

What is absolutely clear, though, is that asking the Welsh Government to pay a proportion is not a way of delivering the project for "less than the £1bn initially estimated", which seems to be the UK Government's starting point.  Paying out of different pots is simply not the same thing as reducing the cost - and disingenuous is an understatement for the suggestion that it is.

I'm clear that there is a good case for electrification - greater reliability, lower maintenance costs, less pollution.  It helps meet emissions targets (depending on how the electricity is generated), and it helps the switch from road to rail.  And there's a good case for the timing; with the rolling stock needing replacement in the next few years, failure to electrify now condemns us to another 40 years of diesel powered railways.  Electrifying the whole railway network as rapidly as possible is something which deserves support.

I'm not entirely convinced that 20 minutes off the journey time makes as much difference as some seem to suggest.  Certainly I, like most other people, like to get from A to B as rapidly as possible, but when I was travelling fairly regularly from South Wales to London it was the lack of certainty about the arrival time which was much more of a concern to me.  Having to catch a train an hour earlier 'just in case' is a real deterrent.

And I'd like to see research which indicates that this will have the massive impact on economic growth which some seem to imply - particularly if the Welsh Government is serious about switching its economic strategy to development of indigenous companies.  I'm not suggesting that it won't have an impact, merely that the impact may have been somewhat exaggerated.

And we simply don't need to exaggerate or play the victim; the project stands up without that.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Shouting too soon?

The report yesterday that the economy grew during the last quarter is, of course, good news, although how good remains to be seen - the figures have a habit of being revised as more information comes to hand.  Whether it's quite as good as some claim, and whether the growth will be sustained are open questions at this stage.

Whilst politicians (of all parties) and economists debate the runes with a ferocious degree of certitude, the truth is that none of us really know which way the economy will go from here.  We 'merely' have opinions, based on economics, history, and personal or political prejudice.  And we can all find our own 'experts' to justify a particular viewpoint.  The modern global economy is so complex and interwoven that chaos theory is probably the most relevant branch of mathematics to apply.

That doesn't mean that debate is irrelevant - the impact of decisions being taken on people and families is far-reaching, and taking the wrong decisions can have a serious effect on a lot of people.  Those of us who think that the government is getting it wrong will continue to argue for an alternative approach.

Some months ago, it worried me that some people in Plaid were being just a little too quick to seize on one month's figures for unemployment in Wales to claim that the One Wales Government had beaten the recession.  Life, particularly economic life, just isn't as simple as that - as the following month's figures showed.  I find myself wondering at the moment whether supporters of the UK Government who have seized on the latest figures won't also be left with a degree of egg on face in another quarter or two.

Clearly, the quarter's numbers are good - although there is good reason to look at the detail; the dependence on construction in particular could leave them susceptible to a downturn with a cut in capital spending.  But I think we can be fairly clear that few, if any, of the government's announcements have yet started to impact the economy at all.  Governments might like to claim the credit when things are going well, but a government which has been in power for only five months, and whose major changes on spending and taxation will not kick in for some months, is taking something of a risk in claiming that the latest figures vindicate their position.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Fantasy economics?

Some politicians get themselves quite worked up if they think another party has 'stolen' one of their policies; I prefer to see it as flattery and vindication.  Politics for me has always been more about making the right decisions than about who makes them.

So I'm not in the least unhappy to see that the Conservatives and Lib Dems have come round at last to a policy on state pensions which looks remarkably like the one which Plaid Cymru proposed in May's General Election.  The devil is in the detail, of course, and they are planning to pay for it in ways which were not the same as those which we suggested.  Nevertheless, the weekly figures which they are suggesting are stunningly close to those which Plaid advocated.

It is likely to cause a degree of indigestion, however, as some people have to eat their words

I particularly liked Vince Cable's claim that it was that it was a Liberal Democrat idea that had been developed by the party over several years in opposition.  Clearly the party hadn't told Kirsty Williams that they had spent several years developing this policy when she said "These half-baked plans will never see the light of day, because the sums just don’t add up. You simply cannot fund huge pension increases for millions of people, without endangering the front-line services upon which many older people depend".  Although it's possible, I suppose, that her caveat may tell us more than she intended about the way her party intends to fund the policy.

And presumably, Iain Duncan Smith hadn't talked to Cheryl Gillan either when she said "This is fantasy economics that Plaid cannot deliver and know gives false hopes to pensioners across Wales".

Still, thanks to the One Wales policy of free prescriptions, Kirsty at least will be able to get something to assist with her digestive problems.  Our Secretary of State will have to pay for her medicine though, I'm afraid.