Friday 28 May 2010

Fair Taxation

One of the Lib Dem policies which found its way into the programme for the coalition in London is the idea of raising income tax thresholds, ultimately to £10,000. It was also a Plaid proposal to raise the basic rate tax threshold, so the decision is one which we should welcome, in principle at least.

It's not without its potential downside though, because as well as taking many people out of the income tax bracket completely, it also benefits everyone who pays income tax, including the most well-off. And if we end up with a counter-balancing increase in VAT, then it could actually mean that the least well-off end up paying more tax in total.

During a typical election campaign, candidates get bombarded with material from a wide variety of sources, asking candidates to pledge their support to this, that, and the other. And since candidates seeking election are not overly enthusiastic about alienating potential support, it's an approach which garners a great deal of support for the specific policies being promoted.

One organisation, calling itself the 'Fair Tax Campaign' suggested a different approach to income tax bands. Under their proposals, the tax-free limit of £10,000 would only apply to those earning under £18,000 a year, with the limit reverting to £6475 above that. Now there's an obvious and immediate problem with that specific proposal, in that a sudden reduction in the tax-free limit at a specific salary creates a situation where a very small increase in salary (from say £17,900 to £18,100) leaves people a great deal worse off.

But the underlying principle is something which I think deserves a bit more thought and consideration. Merely adjusting the level at which the basic band of income tax kicks in has the inevitable side-effect of benefiting not just the least well-off, but also the most well-off. Tapering the level at which basic rate tax starts (or even possibly tapering the level at which tax moves from basic to higher rate) depending on total salary might be a way of achieving the intended effect whilst avoiding - or at least reducing - the unintended one.

It sounds complex, but it really doesn't need to be. It's perfectly straightforward to come up with a system of tapering which means that there's no break point at which people suddenly start to lose out, but that the effective tax rate increases with increased income.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Waste and inefficiency

I can't say that I was ever entirely convinced about the Child Trust Fund which Labour introduced a few years ago. It seemed to me to be a well-intentioned idea, which hit some of the right issues, but there was never really enough money behind it to make a real difference. And it was always the case that those children whose parents were most likely to add to the fund were going to be the ones who least needed the potential boost at a later age.

The Welsh Government tried to partially address the problem by adding a top-up of its own, but it still didn't look to me like the sort of sum of money which was likely to be life-changing in the opportunity it created, particularly when compared with the imposition of huge fees for higher education when those children reached the age of 17/18.

That's not a case for scrapping it completely; but neither is it a case for retaining it unchanged.

No surprise therefore that I thought the reaction from Huw Lewis – who called it 'evil' and 'anti-child' - was a bit over the top. Amanwy's reaction was rather more measured – and it echoed a point which I've made a few times before. Politicians use words like 'efficiency savings' and 'cutting waste', because they sound like good things to do. After all, who'd want to argue in favour of waste or inefficiency?

But without defining what they consider to be inefficient or wasteful, the words are little more than a euphemism for cutting things that they don't think should be publicly funded. Allowing politicians to get away with referring only generically to waste and inefficiency throughout the election campaign meant that, in practice, none of them was forced to tell us what they really meant. And for all the huffing and puffing by Labour now, the key difference between them and the Tories boils down to what they would have included in their practical definition of those two key words.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Good cuts, bad cuts

Cuts, and the response to them, is unsurprisingly becoming the defining issue of the early weeks of the coalition government. But pinning the blame for them on the current government whilst ignoring the sins of its predecessor is a trap which we need to avoid.

The difference between the Labour and Conservative parties going into the election was around £6 billion. It sounds like an enormous sum of money, but in terms of the overall total of public expenditure, it's only around 1%. The difference in the total of cuts imposed by this government compared to those which would have been imposed by Labour is pretty small – more a matter of timing than real substance.

It's possible to argue of course that Labour's cuts would have fallen 'elsewhere' – a cynic might argue that keeping that line of argument open if they lost the election was the real reason why Labour was so keen to avoid specifics in advance. We shall, of course, never know for certain, but the spectacle of so many of them lining up to criticise decisions which they would probably have made themselves in other circumstances is not a pretty one.

It's also possible to argue that Labour would have made cuts reluctantly, whereas it is clear that some in the coalition are doing so with a degree of ideological zeal. But cutting services 'only with regret' doesn't make much difference to those no longer receiving them.

In the run-up to the election, it seemed as though Labour's position was that making massive cuts was both inevitable and prudent – but adding another 1% was utterly irresponsible and reckless. Since the election, that mantra, Tory Cuts Bad, Labour Cuts Good has metamorphosed into Tory Cuts Bad, What Labour Cuts?

Inevitably, attention will focus on the actual decisions being made by the current government, rather than those which would have been made by another government had the election result been different. We mustn't let them get away with it.

Friday 21 May 2010

Backdoor subsidies

One of the approaches which has been used to try and encourage 'market forces' to operate in ways which reduce emissions rather than increase them was the introduction of carbon trading schemes. In essence, having to buy permits to release emissions into the atmosphere was intended to encourage investment in emissions reduction.

I've always been sceptical about the whole approach. Those wedded to the concept that markets can and should drive all or most decisions like the idea of course – and certainly prefer it to regulation and coercion. But the problem with markets is that they can, and frequently do, operate in ways which have unintended consequences.

In the case of carbon trading, the price has at times been so low that it has been cheaper for companies to buy the permits and carry on polluting than to do anything to reduce emissions. And if that's what helps their profitability, that's what the 'markets' will encourage them to do.

The system has also led to increasingly complex financial instruments being created around carbon permits, and the main operators in the carbon markets are not the companies creating the emissions, nor those involved in reducing emissions, but the banks and the financial institutions. It's a situation which, in an only slightly different context, almost led to a complete melt-down of our financial systems.

The system is a complete failure, and is doomed to remain such – what we actually need are statutory enforced limits on emissions. The free marketeers will never accept that, and instead choose to believe that simply manipulating the market a bit further can overcome the problems.

Which brings me to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition agreement. One of the commitments made by the partners in their agreement is to 'introduce a floor price for carbon', and another is to 'persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning' of permits. Tinkering with a flawed concept to try and make it work is a fundamental mistake - and will have consequences beyond those specifically intended.

Certainly, setting a high enough floor price will do more to encourage the reduction of emissions, since it overcomes one of the problems referred to above – namely that it can be cheaper for companies to buy permits than to reduce their emissions. But it is also a backdoor way of making nuclear power more financially attractive, since it effectively transfers the financial risk from those who build and develop the power stations to the consumers of the energy which they produce.

Contrary to the stated policy of the Tories that there will be no subsidy for nuclear power, this proposal effectively achieves the same aim by another route. It could also further encourage the transfer of emissions generators from high carbon priced zones to low carbon priced zones - merely moving the problem from one place to another rather than actually dealing with it.

Thursday 20 May 2010

What progressive majority?

At some point in the immediate aftermath of the General Election, the Labour Party seems to have been transformed in the eyes of some from being one of the 'London Parties' (and I'm re-thinking my use of that terminology after reading this yesterday, since some people at least seem to be interpreting it in a way that I don't intend) to being part of the 'progressive majority' I'm not entirely sure how that apparent transformation happened. But I am sure that it's more apparent than real.

'Progressive' is one of those pretty meaningless labels which people use in politics to apply to those things we like; but insofar as it has any real meaning, it's surely more accurate when applied to individuals or policies than to complete parties.

Some of the policies of the Con/ Lib Dem coalition can certainly be reasonably described as being progressive. Didn't the Chartists demand both fixed term parliaments and the right to recall MPs? And replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber (although I'm worried about the occasional use of the qualifier 'partly') surely also deserves to be labelled as progressive.

On the other hand, the fact that the Labour Party was founded on progressive principles doesn't mean that it is necessarily a progressive party today – that idea is based more on sentiment and historical perception than on a rational analysis of its manifesto.

We need to be a bit more careful in our use of the term. There are certainly individuals in the Labour Party to whom I would be quite happy to apply the term progressive, although they're not necessarily in leadership roles. And I'd apply the same statement to the Lib Dems. And maybe even to some Tories, although their voices tend to be more muted.

If people are serious about putting together a long term progressive alliance – something which will probably be easier at a Welsh level than at a UK level – it seems to me that that is more about building bridges between individuals than between whole parties, and that when it comes to working at a party level, alliances are likely to be more about achieving specific objectives than entire programmes.

The Tory/ Lib Dem coalition can in this context can be interpreted more as a means to an end – achieving limited objectives at a point in time – than about being an end in itself, and it is on achievement of those objectives (particularly if they are likely to be all but irreversible), and the price paid for them, that the success or otherwise of the Lib Dems should be judged.

Criticising the Lib Dems for doing a deal, let alone criticising them on the basis that the partner they have chosen is not the most 'progressive', seems to me to make for good sound bites, but poor political debate. Complaining that they've 'let the Tories in' is as meaningless as the complaint that they have made about Plaid 'propping up Labour' in Cardiff – neither is a sensible basis for judging the coalition deal. Selling their souls for a seat in a ministerial car - now where have I heard that before? - is another example of the same sort of substitute for debate.

The questions should be – what have they achieved, and what price have they paid to get it?

At the moment, it looks to me that the price they have paid in economic terms is too high for the benefits gained in terms of progressive reform. That is, I think, on what any critique of what they have done should be based; not on the mere fact of being willing to pay a price for political reform.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Coming back to bite us

When the announcement was made that the term of the current parliament will end with an election being held on the same date as the 2015 Assembly Election, there were some mixed reactions. Some saw conspiracy - a deliberate attempt to ensure that the election for the Assembly was fought on UK issues rather than on Welsh issues.

Others, myself included, saw merely cock-up – they simply hadn't realised up in London that the Welsh and Scottish elections were scheduled for the same date. It looks like we were all wrong. My interpretation of the Western Mail's story yesterday is that there is actually a third 'C' coming into play - it seems to be down more to contempt. They just don't see the Welsh and Scottish elections as being that important.

We already knew that the Tories regard Nick Bourne as having no more status in their party than the leader of a Tory group on a county council; and Gillan confirmed yesterday that they see the elections for our National Assembly as being no different in essence to local government elections in England. And it looks increasingly likely that the referendum will be delayed by the new administration - possibly until the same date as the 2011 Assembly elections.

Such decisions completely undermine the position taken by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in Wales that holding a referendum on the same day as the Assembly election would undermine the legitimacy of that election by confusing two issues. Both even threatened to sabotage the vote in the Assembly unless they got their own way just a few months ago. No doubt we'll see members of both parties trying to spin their way out of that, but it'll be interesting to watch.

There is a wider point though – and I think it's one that my own party needs to take account of as well. In an age of coalition politics, declaring anything to be 'completely unacceptable' unless we are prepared to make it a red-line issue looks like an unwise thing for any politician to be doing. It's the sort of phrase which is likely to come back and bite us at some future date.

We will instead have to start arguing not why 'A' is entirely right and 'B' is completely wrong, but why 'A' is better than 'B'. I don't think that's a bad thing – forcing politicians to debate the detailed reasoning for their positions rather than resorting to hyperbole and insult is something which I think will help people to re-engage with politics. And it could even help to outline the real difference in approaches between parties more effectively than the current style of politics.

Opening the books

After going all the way through the election without revealing the true scale and nature of the cuts and/ or tax increases that they were planning to impose, it was never going to be more than a matter of time before we heard the refrain, "Now we've seen the books, and the situation is much worse than we thought", or some variation thereon. (Although quite how Labour would have managed to spin that had they been re-elected must remain an unanswered question).

So Sunday's story came as absolutely no surprise to me. The precise list of issues which would be used to justify the claim would have been hard to predict, but the broad nature of the claim was as likely as night following day.

It's the sort of spin which is essential if they want to be able to explain an increase in VAT, for example, which is being widely trailed. And we can depend on the government's supporters to make the most of the claim to justify the forthcoming decisions (and I see that Peter Black is at it already).

There was one item on the list which did surprise me though, and that was the reference to the fact that the decommissioning costs for nuclear power stations have almost certainly been grossly under-estimated. The fact that they've been underestimated comes as no surprise at all - I think that those of us who have been opposed to future nuclear build have been arguing for some time that no government could possibly have a proper handle on these costs. No, the surprise is that the incoming government has drawn attention to it.

The larger coalition partner remains completely committed to new nuclear build, but keeps harping on about there being no public subsidies available. Exposing the fact that there are large backdoor subsidies and that they've been underestimated can hardly help their case. Not that I'm complaining.

Friday 14 May 2010

Who's being reckless?

According to a report in the Western Mail today, the Plaid group on Carmarthenshire was being 'reckless' in challenging the location of a new school proposed for the Dinefwr area. It would be easy to simply point out that the comment came from Labour Group leader Kevin Madge, who does have something of a propensity for hyperbole when he gets a bit worked up (which generally happens at least once in each council meeting).

The basic problem is that the council has, from the outset, been trying to bulldoze its plans through with minimal discussion, consultation, or consideration of the alternatives. At every discussion prior to the one at Wednesday's meeting of the council, councillors were told that no final decision was being made about the siting, and that there would be an opportunity to discuss that later.

By this week, the position had suddenly become that it's too late to change the location now, the business plan has been prepared on the basis of the selected site. The blame, of course, is placed at the door of the external consultants engaged by the council to evaluate a range of alternative sites. Their recommended site was announced to councillors at a (non decision-making) seminar a couple of months ago, and has somehow become the de facto choice since then.

Many of the councillors from the ruling parties seem to think that the consultants have taken the decision for them. That's a nonsense of course. The consultants gave them a list of pros and cons for each site, and drew attention to the fact that one site matched the brief they were given by the council better than the others - but that never meant that the council had no alternative.

In any event, as an ex-consultant, I've always believed that the definition of a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. The real decision is taken by those who prepare the brief.

It's an echo of yesterday's post in many ways. Just as when preparing a business plan the real decision is which business plan you choose to write, so when employing consultants the real decision is not what you do with their report but the brief that you write for them in the first place.

And in a further echo of yesterday's post, having come to a conclusion on the site, the council has prepared an outline business plan for submission to the Assembly Government. It 'proves' that the council's proposals are viable, of course. But then it was never going to do otherwise. It is, in essence, a device to unlock funding for a decision which was taken three years ago, not a basis for taking that decision.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Dubious economics

I think that it was probably during the Thatcher years that the idea of preparing a 'business case' for anything and everything first came into vogue in the public sector. It was imported, of course, from the private sector which had been using the idea for a long time.

The principle is extremely sensible; before taking a decision to spend money, one should seek to identify all the costs and all the benefits, and ensure that the decision taken is a sensible one in financial terms. And over the years, I've written more than a few such documents myself (mostly in the private sector, as it happens).

In practice, most business cases are not written on a blank sheet of paper as part of an attempt to establish what the right approach is, but are drawn up after the real decision has been taken, as a basis for justifying that decision to those people who control the funding. The important decision is not the one taken on the basis of the presented business case, but the decision as to which business case to write.

One of the hardest things to do is to ensure that the suggested savings are genuine and honest. From my own experience, I know that there's an element of 'creative writing' in a lot of business case documents, particularly when everyone knows that the proposal is a good one, but some of the benefits are intangible. But it can also work the other way – figures can be chosen and presented selectively to get to the 'right' answer.

One figure that I've heard bandied about a lot recently (as part of schools reorganisation proposals) is the 'cost of empty school places'. The figure varies from county to county, as does the number of surplus places. Superficially, it's obvious that there is a cost to surplus places; but that which is superficially obvious isn't always necessarily convertible into a realisable cost saving. It was no surprise to see today that a campaign group has challenged the basis on which such business cases are put together.

I have long suspected that the 'cost of an empty place' is based on a pretty crude approach of dividing the costs of running a school by the number of places, and apportioning the costs then between 'used' places and 'surplus' places. The result looks good in a business case, but that is not, as Hyb have correctly identified, the same thing as identifying achievable cost savings.

Public authorities have come to depend on the 'business case' as their excuse for taking unpopular decisions, conveniently overlooking the fact that most business cases have actually been written in a way which suits the decision they wanted to take anyway. It's good to see that approach being challenged.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Changing the language of politics

It's generally recognised that coalitions are likely to be the norm in Cardiff Bay. It's too soon to say whether a similar statement can be made about Westminster, but the hung parliament looks like the result of a long term trend for the two main parties to receive an ever diminishing share of the vote. And any change to the voting system – even non-proportional AV – is likely to increase the number of MPs who come from neither of the two major parties.

However, the language being used by politicians – of all parties, including my own – still seems stuck in a world where single party government is the norm and no party will ever have to talk to, or work with, any other party. I don't think that's terribly helpful, and I don't think it really helps the electors to know what to expect.

Referring to the junior partner in any arrangement as the 'poodles' of the larger, or even as being their 'little helpers' amounts to little more than an attempt to demonise one party by association with another. But demonising only really works if the target audience agrees that the larger party is, indeed, a demon. Such tribalism is alive and well within our political system – but it seems to me to be increasingly breaking down amongst the voters.

And it's no substitute for serious discussion about policies and programmes. Or, rather, it's often an attempt to avoid discussion of policy and programmes. Worst of all, it falls into the trap set by Labour and Conservative alike, of trying to make out that they are really very different, and that people must choose between two differing philosophies and approaches. Letting them get away with that – or even worse, joining them in doing it - can only serve to further marginalise the real alternative voices, by concentrating debate around what are, in practice, fairly minor differences of opinion.

I don't dispute for one moment that the founding principles of the Labour and Conservative parties are very different; I'm just not sure how relevant that is to the twenty-first century. Am I, personally, more comfortable with the founding principles of Labour than those of the Tories? Yes, of course I am – but we need to deal with their programmes for government, not with their founding principles, which are frequently more honoured in the breach.

On an objective analysis of policy overall, it seems to me that the most obvious and rational coalition would have been Tory-Labour. (Or Labour-Tory in the Assembly). There is much on which they agree. However, I don't expect to see such an arrangement any time soon. It may match their policy positions, but it doesn't suit their interests, let alone their current culture or style. And they are both still too emotionally attached to what they think they are to be able to rationally analyse what they actually are in practice.

I think that the future may well belong to those parties who are most able to move out of such a confrontational, partisan, and essentially negative approach. Parties which can move away from name-calling and guilt-by-association and talk more about their policies, and what they would do differently. Parties which state honestly and openly that their programme for government is what they will deliver if elected with a majority, but that they will be prepared to talk to whichever other politicians the public choose to elect if no party has an overall majority.

I really don't see the position of the Labour Party on a whole series of issues as being so radically different from that of the Tories that forming an arrangement with one is acceptable, but even talking to the other is shameful – and I don't see why we should allow either of them to define that for us. It simply helps to set an agenda where we are forever outsiders.

The question in coalition discussions is about whether we can persuade any potential partners to move far enough in our direction to deliver a programme of government which we believe to be better – or even simply less bad - than that which would otherwise be delivered. And the most valid criticism to make of those parties which then form a coalition is not about with whom they have coalesced, but about the nature of the package negotiated – and about its delivery.

That's the basis on which I shall be reading the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems. And that's the basis on which I'd like people to judge the success or failure of One Wales. It's time to change the style and language of political debate.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

There he goes again...

Peter Hain has made it perfectly clear what he expects of Plaid Cymru, it seems. After having been pretty tribal towards us throughout the campaign, he now 'expects' that we will lend our support to a Labour-led administration.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to him - there are, after all, two ways of interpreting the word 'expect'. One is a simple matter of prediction; the other is more prescriptive. Fairly or unfairly, in Hain's case it is always going to sound like he's using the word in the latter sense - and because it sounds like that, it grates. And when he appears to be telling us what we must do, there's a danger that he achieves the opposite effect. But then, perhaps that's what he really wants...

The main thing wrong with his statement, though, is that it is based on an assumption that the main driving force for Plaid is that we are anti-Conservative, and that that motivation will be uppermost in our minds. There's always a danger in a member of one party trying to analyse and make assumptions about another party; they're not in a sufficiently objective position to do so. The main plank of Labour during the recent election was certainly that they were not the Conservatives - but that wasn't the main plank of what Plaid were saying.

What those who would wish us to act in a certain way need to think carefully about is not what we are against at all - but what we are for. Our position throughout the election has been that we want the best deal for Wales, and we've spelled out what we mean by that. Those thinking about inviting us to dance need to turn their attention to those issues, and not simply assume that we will agree to anything proposed by anyone who isn't a Tory.

Monday 10 May 2010

Huntin', Shootin', and Votin'

An anonymous comment on my previous post takes me to task for my 'ridiculous stance' on hunting during the election campaign, and claims that I lost votes every time that I attacked the Tory candidate for his pro-hunting views. Actually, I don't think that I once 'attacked him for his pro-hunting views' – my attacks were more about the way he chose to fudge or hide his views on the issue.

I do have a view about hunting, and I expressed that clearly whenever the question came up, as it often did on the doorstep. (And, incidentally, it was raised far more often by those opposed to hunting than by hunt supporters.) I know that there are some who would have preferred me to have been less forthright in expressing my views, or to try and fudge in the way that others have been prepared to do. But that's not my style – it may be old-fashioned, but I believe that if someone asks me my view on any issue, they have a right to expect an honest answer, not a lie or a fudge.

But my real concern in all this wasn't actually about hunting as such – it was about three things which worried me – and continue to worry me – about the integrity of the democratic process. In this context, hunting was merely the common thread running through them and binding them together.

The first was the way in which a local constituency of a major party can be infiltrated and then taken over by a group of people motivated by one specific issue.

The second was the way in which they then fought a campaign which deliberately ignored that issue publicly, whilst the human and financial resources for the campaign were being provided entirely or largely by people who wanted a particular outcome on that one issue.

And the third was the way in which individuals and groups can pour money into constituencies to obtain a particular result. Whilst that is a wider question for a number of constituencies, in this area, the same underlying issue was the prime motivation.

Regardless of one's views on the question of repealing the Hunting Act, I think that these are all valid concerns, and I do not for one moment regret raising them repeatedly.

Friday 7 May 2010

And in the cold light of day?

Our result locally was disappointing, of course. Whilst we didn't really expect to win this time (but were bound by the unwritten rule that you can never say that in advance), we really did think that we'd move forward rather than backwards. So what happened?

It has obviously confirmed the trend of the previous six elections in the constituency for the pattern of voting at Assembly level to be markedly different to the pattern of voting for the Westminster seat. Quelle surprise.

It's also shown what an effect money can have on the outcome. I think voters should be more worried than they appear to be about the way in which groups of people with a specific political outcome in mind can influence an election by pouring large sums of money into specific constituencies. Somehow, I doubt that reforming that aspect of the system will be uppermost for any administration which has benefited from it in the election.

The point I made yesterday about there actually being several different movements of voters between parties is one which I would still support. The actual result put some net numbers on those flows – and the negative movements have obviously outweighed the positives. But it is important to understand that the overall result is a net movement, and it is over-simplistic to try and analyse it as a single movement.

For instance, in one interview in the early hours, it was put to me that our vote had collapsed and gone across to the Conservatives. Collapsed is an exaggeration if we do the comparison between 2005 and 2010 (accepting as a given that Assembly voting patterns and Westminster voting patterns are continuing to show a clear difference), but it would also be a gross misreading of the situation to suggest that we lost 1300 votes directly to the Conservatives.

In the first place, we actually lost more than that net figure of 1300 – although I don't know how many more – because we unquestionably also gained some from Labour and Tory alike. And in the second place, those we lost went in at least three different directions – some went to the Tories, some to Labour, and some to the Lib Dems. So, more analysis needed of the ebbs and flows, and no simplistic conclusions to be drawn.

I don't think that there are many who would disagree that the more a UK election focuses on the personalities of the leaders whom the broadcasters decide are potential prime ministers, rather than on the election of constituency MPs, the harder it will be for a party perceived as being a 'minority' party at UK level to compete on a level playing field. The nature of our electoral process has been changed – not by the will of the people or by any due democratic process, but at the behest of the broadcasters and the three establishment parties. An election to choose constituency MPs has become a UK-wide personality contest between three men.

I don't immediately see any way in which that genie can be put back in the bottle, and future Westminster elections seem likely to be fought on the basis that the contest is between three parties all essentially saying very similar things, with any genuine alternative voice effectively excluded. It's going to be very difficult for a party like Plaid to fight that sort of election, but it's an issue to which we are going to have to give some very serious thought.

What happened to the Lib Dem surge? Given that large numbers of people had already voted by post before the surge started melting away, the extent of their failure to make more ground looks a little surprising, even allowing for the fact that our electoral system makes it hard for them to turn a general increase in votes into seats. It'd be interesting to see a correlation between those who were part of that surge and 'likelihood of voting'. It's just a gut feeling, but I wonder whether those most carried along with the surge were also those least likely to turn out and vote.

Finally, what price electoral reform? There was always a danger that, if the Labour and Tory parties succeeded in their strategy of encouraging people to vote against the other rather than for any third or fourth party, we would end up with a parliament unlikely to change a system which kept most seats in the hands of the two parties which have historically benefited most from the current system.

As long as they believe that they can use the system to squeeze out others, why change it? This may turn out to be a premature prediction, but I have a feeling that those who fell for the 'tactical' voting approach may actually have helped to delay change rather than bring it about.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Election round up

The official history of this election will be written in due course, once all the results are in. But after a long and hard campaign, here are a few initial thoughts, untainted, as it were, by any actual numbers.

Clearly, both the main UK parties thought they were learning from Obama by stressing the words 'Hope' in the case of Labour, and 'Change' in the case of the Tories. But it has seemed to me from the outset that they've heard the words, but not understood the message, because my perception is that the campaigns have actually centred around two rather different words.

Labour's campaign seems to have been primarily based around 'Fear' - fear of the Tories and what they might do. The Tories, on the other hand, seem to have opted for 'Despair' - despair about Brown and all his works. In short they've taken two essentially very positive words, and corrupted them into two highly negative campaigns.

Yesterday, Nick Ainger had an article on the IWA website, in which he said "many supporters of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have said they intend to vote tactically vote for me to ensure that the Conservative candidate doesn’t get in". I don't doubt that he's found a few saying that, as have I. I'm not sure about the use of the word 'many' though – but I'll come back to that.

Similarly, one of Simon Hart's leaflets carried a picture of a claimed 'Plaid supporter' who has switched to the Tories because "the only way to replace Labour is to vote for the Welsh (sic) Conservatives". He too has claimed that many others are saying the same.

Now, the fact that some supporters of Plaid and the Lib Dems are considering voting tactically against one or other of the main UK parties is no surprise at all. But I suspect that the extent of that is being exaggerated, and it's an over-simplistic analysis which ignores some other trends. Labour and Tory both need to exaggerate the trend, of course. So-called 'tactical' voting of this sort needs people to believe that lots of others are doing the same thing, or else it becomes pointless. In reality, to the extent that it is happening, I suspect that the two different sorts of 'anti' votes are largely cancelling each other out locally.

(As an aside, although AV is not a proportional system of voting, it does allow people to express a second choice, and have that second choice taken into account. I suspect that all parties would find that the second choices of their supporters are nowhere near as uniform as they seem to believe – and that some of them would be quite surprising. A topic for another day.)

The two trends identified by Labour and Tory candidates may be the only ones that they want to talk about – but they're not the only ones which are happening. There's a 'plague on both your houses' trend happening as well – traditional supporters of Labour and Tory alike, fed up at the sameness and bickering, who are looking for an alternative. Some of them will undoubtedly go to the Lib Dems on the back of Clegg's performance; but equally, I have picked up a sense that for some people, Clegg has simply 'joined the mainstream', and that the plague is now being cast upon all three of them.

Then we come to local factors.

'Hunting' is the one subject which the Tories have studiously avoided mentioning. It's easy to see why. Although hunting is a popular subject amongst a certain minority, it has no traction with the wider public. I suspect that even a majority of Tory supporters are opposed to repeal – I've certainly picked up some of them who will not vote for the Tory candidate because of this one issue.

Does the local campaign make any difference in the television age? I'm sure it still does, but it's hard to say how much. The Tory campaign, buoyed up by massive inflows of both financial and human resources from those whose sole aim is the repeal of the Hunting Act has been the strongest and most visible. Money talks – but is it enough to buy victory?

They've certainly had more posters up than anyone else, but most of them seem to be on farmland, which actually tells us little about the underlying strength of their support. And I've even heard suggestions that there have been landowners who have insisted on showing Tory posters even if the tenants are somewhat less enthusiastic. Now that would be an echo of the politics of the past, and of the reasons for the deep-seated hostility to Tories in parts of Wales.

The second strongest and most visible campaign has undoubtedly been the Plaid campaign. 'We've only seen you and the Tories' has been a common message as we've travelled around the constituency. We even picked up a hint over the weekend that the Tories were becoming more worried about our challenge than about Labour.

The Labour campaign seems to have been much patchier than I've ever seen it before – little evidence of a serious effort in many areas. And the Lib Dems have been all but invisible; their campaign has depended totally on the performance of Clegg in the media.

So – where does that leave us? A week or two ago, Vaughan Roderick blogged that no-one had a clue what was happening. I agreed with him then, and still do today. There are movements in voting patterns, but without knowing the relative volumes, it's hard to see an overall picture. Each party - inevitably - concentrates on those switches of allegiance from which it benefits, and conveniently ignores the others. It's spin rather than analysis, of course.

Large numbers of people, even yesterday, were still saying that they hadn't decided. Traditionally, that's been a polite way of saying 'no' in some cases, but I think that there are genuinely more uncertain people this time around, and canvassers from other parties have been saying the same thing.

One final point, which much of the analysis of the latest polls seems not to take into account, is the impact of postal voting. Whilst those voting today will be taking account of all the final statements and news, many of those voting by post – around 9,000 in this constituency – will already have cast their votes on the basis of the position as it looked a week or ten days ago.

Overall, sadly, an overwhelmingly negative election, with no real enthusiasm either for the present government or for the official opposition. And they know that as well as I do.

Enough navel-gazing – out to get on with another sort of roundup.

Monday 3 May 2010

Protecting local jobs?

The latest Tory leaflet to hit some houses in Carmarthen has a section on "Protecting and creating local jobs", which tells us that "Simon hears from a Pembroke shipbuilder how to help local businesses survive the recession and employ more local people".

Pity he didn't talk to a local printer as well - the leaflet is printed in Newport, Gwent. Clearly, it's only some local jobs that they want to protect and create...

Sunday 2 May 2010


To say that I'm having trouble keeping this blog updated at the moment would be something of an understatement. It's been a hectic campaign to date - another three days to go to make a difference.

Last Wednesday, I found myself on the Wales 2010 Election debate with Wayne David, David Davies, and Jenny Willott. Wayne and David (the 'and' is crucial in the context, although I suspect that even without it, he could have had a good argument with himself) spent most of their time arguing with each other. Nothing new there - but when I hear Labour and Tory spokespersons arguing like that, it always reminds me of the last few lines of a limerick I heard many years ago "They argued all night, Over who had the right, To do what and with which and to whom".

When we were talking about hung parliaments and who was prepared to talk to whom, Wayne was most insistent about emphasising the point that Plaid was willing to talk to the Tories. In his eyes, even being prepared to talk to the Tories is clearly some sort of mortal sin. I just don't get this sort of tribalism.

It's not that I'm a particular fan of the Tories (and I could equally have put Labour or Lib Dems in that clause), as any regular reader of this blog would quickly recognise. But how can any party which is serious about putting Wales' interests first and foremost declare in advance that we will not even be prepared to talk to one of the parties which could form the next government? Being prepared to talk to anyone in the context of a hung parliament doesn't mean that you agree with their core philosophy, or their likely government programme. It's more about recognising political reality when you see it.

For most of the people in Wales, it really does seem to me that the traditional tribal political loyalties of the past are rapidly breaking down. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on your viewpoint. But your viewpoint can't change the fact that is is happening. The underlying message of the Labour campaign in Wales for this election seems to have been based from the outset on an appeal to that tribalism as though nothing has changed. And they still don't understand why they've got it so wrong.