Thursday 29 April 2010

Hustings #8

There was a good crowd in Tenby on Tuesday for the eighth in the series of hustings meetings. Around 80-90, I reckon.

As a follow-on from the televised debates, the first question asked each of the three London party candidates to explain why his leader should be PM, without mentioning any of the other parties. Nick Ainger just about managed that, John Gossage for the Lib Dems managed to convince precisely no-one that Nick Clegg was even in the running, and Simon Hart failed totally by basing his whole answer on an attack on Brown and Labour. He did, though, manage to fail to mention his own leader at all. Spectacular own goal. My contribution, as ever, was to point out that no-one in the room could actually vote for any of the three men concerned.

The hunting issue came up again, as might be expected. Once again, Simon Hart fudged his answer. Instead of making any attempt to justify either the practice or his own stance on it, he framed his response in terms of standing up for persecuted minorities in society. You could almost read the bubble above some heads - if he's not being straight about his own core issue, to what extent can we believe what he says on anything else?

It was the first hustings meeting at which we were joined by the UKIP candidate, but I doubt that anyone left any the wiser about what they stand for. Apart from being against "Europe" and in favour of cutting fuel duty, which were the only two themes about which we heard anything.

I personally like the question time format for meetings like this with other candidates, and I've enjoyed all eight in the series. They're a useful part of the democratic process, but I'm never sure how many of the audience are not already committed to one or other party. Certainly there have been some at each of the meetings, but never as many as I might have liked. For those who do come, it's a good way to compare and contrast - both parties and candidates.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

More negativity

The Channel 4 news team spent what seemed like an awful lot of time with us yesterday for the few seconds which made it onto the programme. It was a pleasant surprise to see, in the finished item, the extent to which the other parties seemed to be concentrating their attention on potential Plaid supporters. They've clearly recognised the extent of our support.

Both the Tory and Labour candidates were extremely negative in their approach though, as we have seen throughout the campaign. The best that Nick Ainger came up with was that people should vote for him to keep the Tory out - and the best that Simon Hart could come up with was that people should vote for him to get Labour out. Not a positive idea between them.

Even if some people followed each of them, the votes would end up just cancelling each other out. But it's the underlying assumptions that I reject. Labour seem to be assuming that Plaid supporters are more interested in keeping the Tories out than giving Plaid a strong voice - and the Tories are assuming that the same people are more interested in getting Labour out than giving Plaid a strong voice. They can't both be right - but they can both be wrong.

As for the poor Lib Dem who's been fighting a lonely one-man campaign - well, he said that perhaps the upturn in Lib Dem support nationally means that it's worth buying a few posters after all. That sums up the state of the Lib Dems locally far better than anything that I can say.

Saturday 24 April 2010

A case of mistaken identity

Outrage all round after Cardiff North Lib Dems were caught out using a staged photograph of their candidate talking to a 'nurse' who turned out to be one of Mick Bates' staff dressed in what was presumably a hired or borrowed uniform. Given the alleged recent interaction between Mr Bates and hospital staff, one wonders what on earth they were thinking of. Can anyone on the campaign team really have thought "Let's just remind voters of that unfortunate incident, shall we?".

Betsan notes that there had been a response from other parties, but not from Plaid at the time she posted her piece. In a roundabout way, I may have been responsible for the lack of reaction...

When Plaid first became aware of the gaffe, there was, apparently, some confusion as to why I would have been using a picture of Mick Bates' assistant on a leaflet. Had the Lib Dems been so dastardly that they'd sent someone dressed in a nurse's uniform all the way down here so that she could be photographed talking to me, only to be deliberately exposed as a hoax later?

And given that I was out on the stump - and mobile telephone coverage is, unfortunately, not brilliant in parts of rural west Wales, it wasn't immediately possible to ask me what was going on. It would have made an even better story - but it was all down to a simple case of confusion between two candidates from different parties who just happen to share a name...

Friday 23 April 2010

Hustings #7

Back to Carmarthen for last night's session - 'Ask the Climate Change Question', organised by the RSPB. Can't say why, exactly, but it didn't seem to have the same spark as some of the other sessions we've had - hope we're not all becoming jaded. One more to go, in Tenby next Tuesday.

Good range of questions again tonight. One was on nuclear power - no real surprise. Nick Ainger inevitably drew attention to the fact that my position doesn't accord with that of the party leader. Can't blame him for trying, but once again, I can only point out that Plaid makes its policies democratically, and I am promoting the policy agreed by the membership and reiterated in the manifesto.

There was also a question on the Severn Barrage. The Lib Dem and I both argued against the large barrage. Nick Ainger wanted to see the outcome of the studies being conducted before coming to a conclusion. Not an entirely unreasonable position to take - pity I didn't find the opportunity to point out that that puts him at odds with his leader, given that Hain wanted to include a firm commitment to the barrage in their manifesto.

The Tory, Simon Hart, could only say that he didn't have a clue what his party's policy is on the issue. Honest answer, but a little bit surprising given that energy policy was always likely to feature in a debate about climate change.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Hustings # 5 and 6

Monday night saw us all gathered together again at Penuel Chapel in Carmarthen, and last night at Westgate Chapel in Pembroke. Tonight it's back to Carmarthen for number 7, "Ask the Climate Change question", organised by the RSPB.

We've had an interesting range of questions at the six events so far, covering a wide range of topics. Somewhat surprisingly, last night was the first time that the hunting question came up - and following the rota, it just so happened that Simon Hart was the last one to answer.

My response was the one I have given many times on the doorstep - that I fully support actions taken to control foxes where they are causing problems, but cannot and will not support chasing and killing wildlife for pleasure or 'sport'. Which is why I would not vote for the repeal of the current legislation. The Labour and Lib Dem candidates both made it clear that neither of them would support repeal either - so Simon had his chance to express an alternative view and explain why he supported hunting and repeal of the act.

And he fudged it. He made no attempt to justify or support hunting, and didn't even make out any rational case for repeal. All he could say was that in his opinion the act was nothing more than spite in the first place, and that legislation must be evidence-based in future. Given that everyone knows what his real views are, it simply added to the perception of a lack of openness and honesty about the nature of his campaign - an attempt to get all the way to election day without saying anything substantive about one particular issue.

Sunday 18 April 2010

What's irrelevant to some...

Faced with questions about the issue which must not be mentioned, it seems that the Hunting Party Tory candidate for this constituency described the issue as being "completely irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of people".

That's not really surprising - he has form on this. He has in the past claimed that there are 1001 issues more important to rural areas than hunting. Just for a change, I agree with him on both these statements.

There is a 'but', however.

Irrelevant it may be to most of the people living here, but it is not irrelevant to the candidate, despite his strenuous efforts to avoid mentioning it. What he cannot escape from is that the local Conservative Association was taken over by pro-hunters with the specific intention of selecting a pro-hunting candidate; that the campaign is very generously funded by people whose sole political objective is the repeal of the Hunting Act, and that much of the human resources (instructed not to mention the subject of hunting) for the campaign is being provided by an organisation specifically set up to promote the election of pro-hunting candidates.

In addition, the candidate's biography as published in his election material and in local newspapers seems to consistently omit his ten year period as a Master of Foxhounds.

The reason the issue is not going to go away is not because Simon Hart is a supporter of hunting; he's perfectly entitled to hold that view and campaign for it. It's rather because of the lack of openness and transparency about the objectives of the Tories' campaign. They'd be better off simply being open with people.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Hustings #4

Last night was the fourth round of hustings in the constituency. With another four booked - three of them next week - it means we're about half way through that element of the campaign. Last night's event was in Narberth, organised by Friends of the Earth, and concentrating on matters environmental (although the Lib Dem did at one point launch into a complicated lecture on global economics. Didn't really go down too well, I must say.).

John Gossage, the Lib Dem, produced another surprise as well - it was the first time I'd understood that they are now in favour of replacing Trident with a new generation of nuclear weapons, only not on a 'like for like basis'. No, I don't understand what that actually means either, but apparently it's what Clegg said in THAT debate - which I didn't watch. Better things to do with my time at the moment.

There was another surprise to see Simon Hart, the Tory, nodding vigorously in apparent agreement with me when I talked about us needing to allocate resources on the basis of co-operation and agreement rather than competition, and for more equal access to resources across the world. It's so far removed from core Conservative philosophy that I could only conclude that he didn't really understand what I was saying. Hopefully, most of the audience did.

Simon somehow omitted to mention one key aspect of his party's energy policy - the one Cameron announced last week of building a new generation of coal-fired power stations. I wondered why, but didn't find the right opportunity to challenge him on that. He surely wasn't choosing his message to try and match the audience?

Overall, it was a good session - and I was pleased to be able to draw some very clear lines between Plaid on the one hand and the three London parties on the other. They all seemed to be saying much the same thing on most issues. And that's something which THOSE debates are apparently sadly missing as a result of the exclusion of Plaid and others. There's just no real challenge to the cosy London consensus. It's a stitch-up which is encouraging people to treat the election as an air-brushed beauty contest, rather than a serious debate about all our futures.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Business Rates

Business Rates is a very hot topic locally. Towns like Narberth are suffering serious problems from the revaluation exercise, but the problem is much more general. The whole basis of the system is unfair, and has been since it was introduced in the 1980s.

At recent hustings meetings, I have set out Plaid's position, which is that local business taxes should be based on profitability rather than the notional commercial rent of the premises being used. Not everyone would be a winner from such a change, of course; but overall, it has been quite a popular suggestion, since it means that there is at least some relationship between the amount being paid and the ability to pay it.

Interestingly, in one hustings meeting, the Lib Dem candidate tried to suggest that I was simply making up the policy. I'm not sure why he thought that he might know more about Plaid's thinking than I do - but what I've been saying is completely in line with what Ieuan Wyn Jones said earlier this week.

Interestingly, at the second hustings meeting where the subject came up, the local Conservative candidate decided to agree with me. I'm not entirely convinced that that's his party's position, but I always welcome converts. And I really don't have the time to comb through the big thick hard-back Daily Mail Conservative election manifesto to check.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Don't mention the war

According the the Tories locally, their candidate is head of the Countryside Alliance, "which campaigns for rural communities and provides outdoor education opportunities for youngsters". It's a bit like saying that the Army runs the largest apprenticeship scheme in the UK. Both are entirely true, but neither statement conveys the entire truth about the organisation's aims.

The Countryside Alliance, like the Tory candidate in this constituency, has one single over-riding objective, namely the repeal of the Hunting Act. It's never mentioned locally though - those who support hunting know who to vote for, and those who don't would only be put off by the candidate's real objective.

No surprise then that the Labour campaign did their very best to highlight the issue yesterday.

Sunday 11 April 2010

....the first week's impressions

This was the week when the question asked most often changed. After two years of "What are you doing here – there's no election yet, is there?", the response to my appearance on doorsteps has seamlessly morphed into "How come we only see you people at election time?". Not even a brief respite between the two.

There is still a huge amount of anger about politicians in general, and MPs in particular. And all of us are tarred with the same brush in the eyes of many. I wonder how on earth some of the MPs who were guilty of the worst excesses can have managed to avoid hearing that same sort of feedback themselves. Do they never talk to people? I've had to promise a number of people that I neither possess, nor intend to acquire, a moat or any ducks...

It looks as if many of those voting in this election are likely to be doing so for negative rather than positive reasons – and I wouldn't be surprised to see quite a low turnout. Amongst those expressing any sort of preference between the two main London parties, the split between "We have to get Labour out", and "We mustn't let the Tories in" seems pretty even to me. But I've found very little positive enthusiasm for either of them. Disillusion with Labour has not been replaced with any fervour for the Tories, who are just not trusted still. The next UK Prime Minister – whoever it may be – needs to understand that he will have been elected primarily because he isn't the other one. A sad reflection, really.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Fifteen Reasons

A good day's campaigning in Pembroke Dock today, and a large team out in support. The Conservatives in Wales were also in town - handing out a little leaflet entitled "15 reasons to Vote for Simon Hart".

When asked for a Welsh version of the leaflet, the response given was that they didn't have any. No surprise, therefore, that 'support for the Welsh language' didn't make the top 15.

Opposing Plaid Cymru's policy on Independence did though. That was a surprise, but also a compliment in a roundabout sort of way. Listing opposition to Plaid's constitutional policy as one of the 15 most important things that they can do suggests that they give the policy more credence than is usual for the Tories.

Their policy on spending cuts is to make some - but the only list on the leaflet is those things which they will not cut; hardly helping to spread enlightenment and knowledge about their real agenda.

Friday 9 April 2010

Conjuring up numbers

I have considerable sympathy with Gordon Brown's response to Cameron's extra £12billion of savings. It seems clear that faced with a need to offer an unsustainable reduction in income by promising to cancel the NI increases, Cameron has been forced to pluck a figure out of the air and claim that he will 'cut waste' to achieve it.

The problem with Brown's argument, however, is that his own starting figure of £15billion is as arbitrary and unfounded as is Cameron's extra £12billion. And if one of them can just pluck figures from the air, why shouldn't the other do likewise?

Everyone wants to 'cut waste', of course. But it's impossible to simply put a figure magically on how much waste there is available to cut. And the phrase 'cutting waste' conceals a multitude of sins. As we saw in the coverage of the IoD/TPA report recently, the word 'waste' can be used to refer to any government expenditure with which someone disagrees.

So for the IoD/TPA, free bus passes seem to count as 'waste'; for the Tories, 'free prescriptions' is a form of 'waste'. Politicians - of any party - who claim that they are going to fund spending pledges by 'cutting waste' need to be challenged far more robustly over what they mean by 'waste' than seems to be happening currently.

Thursday 8 April 2010

In Paxton's footsteps?

There was a time when only the wealthy could afford to become MPs; but then Sir William Paxton was a very wealthy man. So when he stood for the Whigs in Carmarthenshire in the Great Election of 1802, he was in a position to spare no expense. There were only 2,500 people eligible to vote in the whole constituency, and Paxton assiduously set about winning their support.

By the end of the campaign, Paxton had spent £15,690 on trying to win over those electors – including the provision of 11,070 breakfasts, 36,901 lunches, 684 suppers, 25,275 gallons of beer, and 11,068 bottles of spirits. It was a very large sum of money in 1802; it would be an enormous sum today.

'Treating' electors, by providing them with food and drink, was legal in those days of course, but these days it is not allowed – largely as a result of such historical excess. Election candidates must not 'treat' by offering food or drink to electors, as the Electoral Commission's guidance to candidates and agents makes perfectly clear.

Or does it? Certainly, once an election has been called, the practice is illegal, but how about in the days and weeks before that? It's an interesting question – and far from being entirely academic, either.

The local constituency association of the Conservatives in Wales is also quite wealthy. Funded largely by hunters and hedgies, their own accounts reveal that they have a healthy reserve of £85,000 available to spend. Enough for the odd buffet or glass of wine, at least. And the postage to invite electors to come along and partake.

Last night, they held a little get-together in Cynwyl Elfed – described as an opportunity to meet the Tory candidate informally "over light refreshments". The invitation made it clear that there was no requirement for people to give advance notice of their attendance, but said that advance notice "would help us arrange the catering".

It's a sensible precaution – if you're inviting a lot of people to an event, I can see that it might be difficult to ensure that you have the right quantity of food and drink available. And they do seem to have invited a large number of people. A very large number of people. Everyone in Cynwyl Elfed and Llanpumsaint – including, of course, Plaid's many members and supporters in the area - seems to have been invited by letter sent out through the post. That's about 1400 people in total.

And it seems that t's not the only such event that they've organised – they held a similar one at the Pantyrathro Hotel in Llansteffan a few weeks ago, and seem to have invited everyone in the Llansteffan ward – around another 1600 people. I don't, at this stage, know whether any others have been held or planned, but I wouldn't be at all surprised.

There was a sting in the tail for Paxton. The people of Carmarthenshire were canny enough to recognise a bit of attempted bribery when they saw it. After partaking of his hospitality, and in the privacy of the polling booth, they voted for his opponent anyway.

A few years later, Paxton built a large folly, officially dedicated to the memory of Nelson. But many locals still claim that Paxton's Tower was actually built as a place from which he could look down on those who had rejected him; a permanent reminder of the events of "Y Lecsiwn Fawr".

Will history repeat itself? Only time will tell - but "Hart's Folly" has a certain ring to it.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Rehashing the old arguments

A week or so ago, Ieuan Wyn Jones announced the route for the much-awaited Llanddewi Velfrey by-pass. It's still a couple of years away, by the time it goes through all the final design phases, and the legal processes, but it's a commitment and it's in the plan.

Who knows for certain whether it will stay in the plan for long after the election, with Labour committed to significant reductions in capital spending, and the Tories complaining that Labour aren't cutting quickly or deeply enough? (At least, that's what I think the Tories were saying yesterday, but their economic policies currently seem to be changing on an almost daily basis.)

The Tory response locally was extremely negative. Instead of welcoming the commitment to addressing the very serious problems being experienced by residents in Llanddewi Velfrey, they have complained that the road is not going to be a dual carriageway. In short, the party of deepest cuts in public expenditure is complaining that the Government is not spending a great deal more on building a bigger and better road.

(That does seem to be a general problem with the Conservatives in Wales at Assembly level – much of their critique of the government seems to be about why the government has not spent more. They seem to be significantly detached from the Conservatives of England, although it's the latter who actually set their economic policy. Would they still feel as free to argue for more spending under a Cameron government, I wonder.)

In arguing for a dual carriageway, they are effectively arguing for a longer delay before the by-pass is built – they know as well as I do that the increased cost could only be met by robbing other schemes or by delaying this one. They also seem to have forgotten that when the same arguments were used in relation to the Robeston Wathen by-pass, those arguments were comprehensively and unanimously refuted by the Assembly committee which considered the matter at the behest of Pembrokeshire County Council. Even the Tory on the relevant committee recognised the fallacy of the arguments presented.

The appeal by Pembrokeshire added significant delay to the process, as well as costing around £250,000 to stage. The Tories seem to want only to re-hash the same debate over again, rather than accepting that the time for argument is long since over. I, like local residents, will be hoping that Ieuan ignores them, and gets on with it.

Friday 2 April 2010

Plaid man in honesty shock

This blog can exclusively reveal today that one of Plaid Cymru's candidates for the forthcoming election has declared his intention to support the policies adopted by the party's membership and included in the party's manifesto, and to refer to them during his election campaign. Even more shockingly, the candidate concerned is advocating the same policies which he has been heard to espouse in the past.

One experienced commentator said, "This will clearly be embarrassing news. It's not the sort of behaviour expected of politicians."

A spokesperson for the LabConLib Alliance declared, "This is a serious breach of accepted political practice, and must be condemned out of hand. Before we know where we are, people will be expecting consistency from other politicians."

On other pages – Pope revealed to have been a secret Catholic for at least 50 years.

Yes, I know – it's a day late.

Thursday 1 April 2010

The real agenda?

No-one would expect me to always agree with Dylan Jones-Evans, given our different political perspectives. But his articles and posts are usually worth reading, and often thought-provoking. And he has a very good way of challenging things which others may be taking for granted.

Today, however, I was somewhat taken aback by his commendation of the report produced jointly by the IoD and the self-styled 'TaxPayers' Alliance'. I've always suspected that the TPA was a Tory front organisation, and I've been amazed at the way in which the media have treated them as though they were some sort of independent think tank.

The report is certainly worth a read, because it gives an interesting insight to the minds of those ideologically opposed to the public sector. And let me be clear about this after looking at the report – ideology is what drives it, not economics.

I don't disagree with everything they say – cutting the Eurofighter project, for instance, is something which features in our own proposals. But some of the rest is pretty alarming to anyone who believes in protecting the most vulnerable in society.

So, whilst Plaid argues for an increase in the state pension, this document argues for a freeze – a real terms cut.

Whilst Plaid argues for fair funding for Wales, the report argues for a freeze on the block transfer to the Assembly budget - and then argues for significant cuts in large areas of education, health, and social services spending which would obviously lead to significant consequential cuts in the block as a result of the Barnett formula.

Whilst Plaid remains opposed to student tuition fees, the report argues that student loans should be at commercial interest rates – directly adding to the burden of student debt.

Anyone supporting this report is supporting the abolition of free TV licences for pensioners, means testing pensioners' bus passes, abolishing child benefit, abolishing the EMA, abolishing Sure Start - I could go on. And suggesting that these can in any way be described as 'government waste' or 'efficiency savings' is beyond belief.

The question is – is this an insight to the real agenda of the Tories? Dylan is, after all, the Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives' Economic Commission, and described the report as an 'excellent document'.

School meals

The news this week about the extent to which school meals are still failing our children should surprise no one. I expect the situation to get worse in coming years as councils attempt to tighten their belts.

Carmarthenshire haas already decided to increase the charge for providing school meals by 5p above inflation for each of the next two years, whilst cutting the cost of providing those meals by 1p per meal. (Need I say that these are all misleadingly described as 'efficiency savings'?) I'm sure that they won't be the only authority looking to do something similar.

The response of some, according to the Western Mail story, has been to call for more regulation to standardise school food across Wales. I'm sure that could be done - if we really want yet more centralisation of decision-taking.

But, as I've pointed out several times recently, let's not pretend that continued standardisation and increasing central control has anything to do with local democracy.

Outdated Horizons

There's no surprise in the announcement that Horizon are keen to build a new nuclear station on Ynys Môn. The final decision will, of course, be outside the control of the Welsh Government or the National Assembly, and will be taken primarily on the basis of the energy needs of England. And the interests of the construction companies, no doubt.

Having produced an energy statement only a fortnight ago which showed that Wales has no need of new nuclear or fossil fuel power stations, the Welsh Government must oppose this development, and their call for a public enquiry is to be welcomed. It would be utterly inconsistent for them to do otherwise.

I've expressed concern previously that governments find it easy to produce strategies, and easy to support those developments which match those strategies. But if we are serious about the strategies, implementing them also involves preventing those developments which do not match, and that's a much harder thing to do.

Hard it may be; but if we are really to create the sort of green economy in Wales which most of us want, opposing the 'bad' developments is probably the most important aspect of all in delivering the strategy.