Monday 31 January 2011

Conservatives at odds

Last week, Pembrokeshire’s two Tory MPs announced that they will be voting against further powers for the National Assembly.  That will have surprised precisely nobody – they’re much more in touch with what rank and file members of their party think than are Nick Bourne and the Tory AMs who have said that they will be supporting a yes vote. 
Most Conservatives-in-Wales remain deeply hostile to the whole concept of devolution and are highly sceptical of the motives of the party’s AMs, as perhaps evidenced by the quotation by one senior Tory (Henry Lloyd Davies) in John Osmond’s piece on ClickonWales today that “… they’re on the gravy train. They’ve got their noses in the trough.” 
John argues that this makes much of the debate an internal one to the Conservative Party in Wales, and that the outcome will be a more explicitly Welsh Conservative Party.  I’m not so sure; there’s certainly a debate between the AMs on the one hand and the majority of their MPs on the other; but at grass roots level, opinion is overwhelmingly one-sided.  The call by one Tory constituency chair (Harri Lloyd Davies, son of Henry) for the party to become more Welsh doesn’t reflect the reality of the Conservative Party I see locally.
Although they haven’t put it in quite this way themselves, the two MPs’ argument appears to be that they’re unhappy with the policies being pursued by the Assembly Government and will therefore not support further powers.  It’s almost a mirror image of Hain’s argument that he’s unhappy with the policies being pursued at Westminster so Cardiff (and Labour) should have more powers. 
In effect, they are all saying that they want power to reside wherever their party can exercise it.  It’s an argument – like much of what ‘True Wales’ are saying – which is all about which party is in power and what policies are being implemented; judging the institution on the basis of who's in control.  It’s taking a very short term view, rather than considering what structure is right for the long term. 
In some ways, it may turn the referendum debate into another front in the UK-wide Labour-Tory battle, a way of fighting that battle by proxy.  Purely considering ends and means, that may not be entirely a bad thing at one level – given Wales’ long love affair with the Labour Party, presenting the choice in that way is more likely to help the yes side than the no side.  The ‘boys from London’ (as Harri Lloyd Davies puts it) are almost certainly over-estimating the strength of their party’s support.
What it does not do, though, is promote the case for change in the context of a Welsh debate about the future direction and government of Wales.  It was always going to be difficult to enthuse anyone about the merits of Part 4 over Part 3, so it should be no surprise that extraneous factors creep in.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a lost opportunity though.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Consultants and Fishermen

Reading this report in yesterday’s Western Mail brought to mind the old story of the consultant and the fisherman.  It’s true, of course, that many Welsh SMEs are not engaged with the export market – but is it really a problem?
The underlying assumptions behind the criticism of companies which are not exporting are that all businesses must want to expand, expansion means always looking for new opportunities, and looking for new opportunities means exporting.  And it isn’t just the newspaper report which is built on those unstated assumptions – the economic development policies pursued by successive governments of all parties at all levels appear to be based on the same assumptions.
I tend to be with the fisherman on this, however; not all businesses want or need to grow, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not useful, or should be considered as failures in any way.  There are limits to economic growth, and economic policy needs to start recognising that fact, not simply continuing as though it were not so.
Neither is exporting necessarily a good thing either.  Indeed, in a world where energy for transportation is going to become increasingly expensive, having more localised businesses is generally likely to be a ‘greener’ approach.
There is a mismatch between the needs at a macro level and the needs at a micro level.  At a macro level, governments are – quite rightly – concerned with ensuring that there are well-paid jobs available for all, and that the country’s total imports and exports are kept in balance.  That is generally translated into economic policy as meaning that all businesses need to be helped to grow and export – but there have been a few points lost in the translation.
A sustainable economic strategy means deliberately encouraging more localised businesses and distributing production rather than merely distributing product.  Meeting more of our own needs locally is just as effective a way of contributing to a reduction in the balance of payments deficit as producing more than we can sell and sending it abroad, whilst importing the same goods and services from elsewhere.  It requires a major shift of thinking to achieve it though.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Energy Quotas

I posted a while ago on the idea of personal carbon quotas.  As far as I’m aware, only one party in the UK (The Green Party) formally supports the concept as policy.  The idea is, though, slowly gaining ground, and if we wanted to have a ‘big idea’ underpinning the future development of Wales, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.  It would certainly be a great deal more ‘transformational’ than many of the ideas being sold as such at present, most of which seem to be more managerial than transformational.
A week or so ago, an All-Party group of MPs produced a report recommending a move to TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas), which is a slightly narrower version of the same idea.  (The full report is available here.)  It suggests that the idea is gaining some traction, although ‘all-party’ groups are not the same thing as formal committees of the House.  (And in this case, as the membership shows, support from the main governing party is a little thin, to say the least.)
It’s encouraging, nevertheless, that such a radical idea is being supported by MPs from more than one party.  One of the attractions to me (apart from the impact on carbon emissions) is that it is potentially a highly redistributive policy.  By allocating the same allowance to all, reducing that allowance over a period as we move towards a sustainable level, and allowing a market in the quotas, the inevitable result would be that those whose lifestyle is more carbon-costly than others (let us call them the rich, although that is a slight oversimplification) would have to buy additional quotas.
That would, in itself, represent a transfer of money from the most well-off to the least well-off.  The report argues that it is in the interest of all to keep quota prices low, and that that should be the outcome of such a scheme.  I’d tend to agree with the first, but admit to a degree of scepticism about the second.  It will be true if, and only to the extent that, the introduction of such a scheme rapidly encourages a change in behaviour in relation to energy usage.
If it does not have that effect in its early stages, then (especially given reductions in the total quotas) the quota price is likely to rise (which will actually reinforce the overall redistributive effect).  Eventually, the effect would be to force behavioural change as the most carbon-intensive lifestyles became prohibitively expensive – a properly-run scheme would allow no escape from the overall national energy (or carbon) budget.
Could Wales – should Wales – attempt to go it alone on this? 
On the first part, I’ll admit that I don’t know for certain whether the Assembly will have all the necessary powers, even after a yes vote; but I very much doubt it.  It could, though, be a significant and coherent focus for a future transfer of powers, if the Welsh Government were to support the concept.
As to the second, my first reaction was that it might prove difficult for any nation to ‘go it alone’ on a scheme like this, but the MPs’ report actually talks about the advantages of being first in the field.  I suspect that ‘early adopter’ is a better description that ‘going it alone’ in reality – if the world is serious about tackling man’s impact on the composition of the atmosphere, we’re all going to need to adopt this, or something like it, at some point.
Will it be popular?  I doubt it – and that’s probably why only the Green Party have formally adopted it as policy to date.  That does, though, bring me back to one of my favourite themes – should parties and politicians be in the business of telling people what they want to hear in order to win votes, or should they be in the business of telling people what they believe to be right, with a view to changing public opinion?
On environmental policy (as on constitutional policy), I’ve always taken the view that it is the job of any party which is serious about securing real and fundamental change to lead, not follow, public opinion.  Putting radical objectives to one side in pursuit of votes means that politics becomes little more than a beauty contest to decide which bunch of politicians should be in government.  And on the question of emissions control, merely reflecting and trying to implement existing public opinion will mean that action will be too little and too late. 
The future is simply too important for that.

Monday 24 January 2011

False prospecti

I suppose the conversion of Peter Hain from prophet of doom to enthusiastic supporter of a yes vote in March is something we should welcome.  His reasoning, though, leaves me cold, since it appears to be based on an assumption that Wales only needs protection from UK Governments if they’re not Labour.  As with much else, the bottom line seems to be party advantage, rather than any real consideration of the interests of Wales.
One of the arguments often put forward by the no campaign is that the Assembly hasn’t delivered on the promises that were made in 1997, particularly in relation to the economy.  They draw attention, naturally enough, to the extent to which Welsh GVA continues to lag behind the UK average. 
The argument is all too easily dismissed by pointing out that the Assembly doesn’t have the powers to make that much difference.  I think that’s missing the point of the ‘no’ argument.  Whether the Assembly has the powers or not isn’t their issue; their issue is that they claim that promises were made and then not kept – so why believe the politicians this time around either?
In that context, Hain doesn’t help matters by talking about a yes vote giving the Welsh Government the power to transform the Welsh economy.  It doesn’t give them that at all, as MH has pointed out on Syniadau.  It’s just another false prospectus of the sort which is likely, over time, to add to the disconnect between politicians and everyone else.
There are plenty of reasons for a yes vote in March without resorting to this sort of tactic.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Formal briefs and cosy chats

When Carmarthenshire County Council was faced with a difficult decision about the siting of a new secondary school, the Assembly Government agreed to pay for the council to hire some consultants to consider the options.  The fact that the Assembly Government was paying was enough for some of the councillors to claim that it was the Government, not the county council, which had employed the consultants, so the county council was only accepting the site selected for them by the Government.  Politically convenient, if utterly disingenuous.
Interestingly, one local blogger issued a FoI request to the county council to see a copy of the brief given to the consultants.  Clearly, they had to have some sort of ToR for a study of this sort, costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds, didn’t they?
Well, er, apparently not.  The council’s reply is that there was no formal brief at all, and no written ToR; they simply had a few little (unrecorded and unminuted) chats with the consultants and then left them to get on with it.  Apart from giving the county council what Richard Nixon used to refer to as ‘credible deniability’, it means that no-one (except those party to the little chats) is in any position to assess whether the report did or did not fulfil the brief, or whether it represented value for money.
It’s just one more flaw in an already very badly flawed process aimed at closing schools.  It’s neither transparent nor democratic.  Will the Welsh Government raise any issues over the way in which the money they gave the county council has been spent?  I suspect not – after all, the Welsh Government has been complicit from the outset in the flawed process.  In closing schools and denying the right to Welsh-medium secondary education in the Tywi Valley, the county is merely implementing the will of the government.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Fighting past battles

One of the closest things that I’ve heard from the ‘no’ side to a reasoned argument for retaining the current system of LCOs is that the National Assembly is a unicameral legislature with no revising chamber.  (As, of course are the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly).
In the context in which the argument is put forward, it’s utterly misplaced – the suggestion that a legislature which looks at which powers are to be transferred before legislation under those powers is even drawn up is in any way acting as a ‘revising’ chamber is obviously a nonsense.  But is there, nevertheless, a germ of a point in there somewhere about the dangers of a unicameral legislature?
Acting as a revising chamber was never the original intention of the House of Lords – it was far more to do with securing the representation of different interests, and specifically different classes.  Giving the traditional hereditary aristocracy at least an equal say with the richest of the Commoners was the aim.  But things change with time, and the functions performed by the Second Chamber now are very different from those envisaged at the time of its creation. 
Few would deny that the House of Lords has, on occasion, managed to improve legislation, sometimes significantly so.  Does that prove the need for a Second Chamber?  I’m unconvinced.  Around half the world’s states seem to manage quite happily with a unicameral system of government; it’s far too easy to assume that that to which we are accustomed is somehow the ‘norm’.
I suspect that the real reasons why the UK probably still needs a Second Chamber (albeit not the current one) are that the First Chamber is too dominated by the Executive to give proper consideration to the legislation it considers, and frequently too rushed in its consideration.  Those are the real lessons for our National Assembly, and I’m not sure that they’ve been learned yet; it sometimes appears that the Assembly is in danger of replicating the mistakes of the past with over-compliant backbenchers and rushed legislation.  The so-called 'Mother of Parliaments' has a habit of creating images of itself rather than building on the needs of people.
Insofar as the naysayers have a point (about the need for a revising chamber) what they should logically be proposing is either the establishment of a bicameral system in Wales, or else the submission of Assembly Measures to an existing body (such as the Welsh Grand, if they'd really like to reduce things to farce).  Both of those options, however, start from an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Assembly – and that is the real problem of the ‘no’ campaigners.  They are, in truth, still fighting the battles of the past.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Transforming the rhetoric

Thankfully, David Cameron’s proposed changes to the way the NHS operates will only affect England (unless, of course, the Attorney General decides that ‘human rights’ demand that we are given the same ‘opportunity’ to ‘enjoy’ a free market health service!).  The substance of what he said is not therefore relevant in Wales; but the words he used do have a degree of resonance.
He talked about the need to ‘modernise’ the health service, and to ‘transform’ it.  These are two words which we hear a lot in other contexts as well.  They’re words with positive connotations, of course – who wouldn’t want to ‘modernise’ something, for example?  It’s only when he starts to spell out what he means by modernisation and transformation that any doubts start to arise.
The point is that both modernisation and transformation are processes, not outcomes; it’s an important distinction but not always a clear one.  Modernising something, and transforming it from one state to another, sound like an offer of radical change – and it may well be exactly that.  But change, even radical change, isn’t always the same thing as improvement.  We need to see the substance behind the rhetoric – and politicians aren’t always willing to reveal it.
We’ve had a classic example in Wales in recent years.  The Welsh Government’s plans for ‘Transforming Education’ sounded like a good idea; but the plan turned out to be something of a euphemism for encouraging county councils to close schools, abolish sixth forms, and ignore the demand for Welsh medium education.  Similarly, Cameron’s plans for ‘modernising the NHS’ seem to be a euphemism for privatising large chunks of it, and extending the internal market which is the legacy of Thatcher and Blair.
Words with a nice positive feel to them make for great political rhetoric, especially when worked on at length by the spin doctors; but Cameron’s announcement yesterday underlines that we need to ensure that we understand what they are really planning and aren't simply swayed by the words.

Monday 17 January 2011

Picking over the bones

With the Lib Dems plunging ever lower in the opinion polls, it’s no surprise that other parties should be making their appeals to disillusioned Lib Dem voters.  If the polls prove to be accurate, and if those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 don’t simply decide not to bother voting again, then clearly they will find another home somewhere.
I’m not sure, though, about some of the arguments being advanced, particularly the way in which the word ‘progressive’ is again being bandied about.  ‘Progressive’ is a label to which all the parties want to stake a claim, but its meaning is increasingly obscure – it seems mostly to mean whatever those using it want it to mean.
Putting such semantic objections to one side, can Lib Dem voters be described as being supporters of ‘progressive’ policies?  Can they even be treated as being anywhere near a homogeneous group?  I tend to think not.
One of the main factors which has driven the party’s parliamentary representation up from a long period of single figures has been their effective branding of themselves as being ‘none of the above’.  Taken further, their little ‘only the Lib Dems can beat Labour/Tory/Plaid (delete as required) here’ graphs show that they have tended to define themselves not in terms of what they are for, but simply in terms of not being the incumbent. 
It is, in essence, an approach which encourages people to vote negatively rather than positively, and which seeks to mobilise antipathy to others whilst avoiding alienating any sector themselves.
The result is that their voters have, more often than not, just been voting against someone else rather than for the Lib Dems – and that means that they won’t have come from one particular part of the political spectrum.  And by extension, they will not simply return to one particular part of the spectrum – their votes are likely to be distributed amongst all the other parties; probably not based on any particular policies put forward by those parties (let alone any ‘appeal’ made to them by those parties).
I wonder if the real moral of the story isn’t that encouraging people to vote negatively works fine for a party which campaigns at pavement level and remains in opposition, but will inevitably unravel for a party of government, which has to start showing what it is, rather than what it is not.

Friday 14 January 2011

Taking the scenic route

The railway services to and from West Wales have been a pretty regular theme of this blog.  Whilst the service from Carmarthen has improved in recent years, the services further west remain poor and infrequent, not least because of the division of the line at Whitland. 
One of the better developments has been the introduction of the service between West Wales and Manchester using modern trains.  It’s particularly useful from Carmarthen, but again the variation in end points between Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock has made it less of an improvement for those further west.  It’s a service I’ve used a couple of times a month in recent years, mostly just to get to Cardiff or Newport.
It is therefore with some dismay that I discovered earlier this week that the timetable has changed – for the worse – when I boarded the 8:30 from Carmarthen.  The problem is well illustrated by the National Rail Enquiries website, which I used after returning home – because I simply couldn’t believe what they’d done to the service.
The NRE website recommends the following route to Manchester from Carmarthen at that time of day.  At 8:30 in Carmarthen, board the Pembroke Dock to Manchester Piccadilly service; change at Swansea to the Swansea to Paddington service; and then change again at Bristol Parkway for the Temple Meads to Manchester service, arriving Manchester at 13:59.
If you’ve nothing better to do, you can then sit on the platform for a quarter of an hour, until 14:15, when the train that you caught from Carmarthen to Swansea – which has followed the more direct route – will gracefully pull into the station.  How can this be?  Simple – the train now spends 30 minutes sitting at the platform at Swansea instead of pulling in and leaving a few minutes later.
Now, it might be argued that not many people travel all the way from Carmarthen to Manchester anyway, and that would be true.  But quite a few do travel from Carmarthen to Cardiff, and a service which used to be direct now involves a change of train – or a half hour delay – at Swansea.  This is a step backwards for services from West Wales and I cannot understand how those running the franchise – let alone those supposed to be managing and monitoring it – have allowed this to happen.

Thursday 13 January 2011

Presumed consent

Clearly, a few feathers have been ruffled over the LCO on presumed consent.  The debate has been succinctly summarised by Adrian Masters; and it is indeed difficult to determine how much of what is being said is being driven by political agendas rather than by debate over the substance.
The comment which best summarised my concern over the way this has been handled was that from Dai Lloyd, who pointed out that the arguments being put forward by the Attorney General could be applied to any and every LCO submitted.  It may even be worse than that – it would also provide a basis for challenging the legality of any Assembly measure, even if there is a yes vote in March which eliminates the need for an LCO.
In that context, I’m not sure that the spat is as helpful to the yes cause as some are suggesting; it’s more a case of highlighting the fundamental flaw in the different approach adopted towards Wales, where only specified powers are devolved, compared with Scotland, where only specific powers are reserved.  That issue doesn’t go away on March 4th; a yes vote simply moves the potential debate from the two elected legislatures into the courts.
I was also somewhat surprised at the opinion of the Attorney General that it may not be “practical” to have a different system in Wales from that in operation in England.  Surely such a judgement goes way beyond the remit of an opinion as to the legality of the proposal?

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Managing the price of fuel

The idea of creating some sort of mechanism to smooth out fuel price changes is a highly attractive one if it can be made to work.  It’s something which Plaid Cymru have called for for some years, and which the Conservatives put forward as a proposal in last year’s election. 
Giving businesses and individuals a more stable basis, free of sudden and unexpected fuel price changes, on which to plan their finances is clearly advantageous.  The devil is in the detail, though, and I’m not really surprised that Cameron has had second thoughts on his plan.  I’m disappointed, though, at the apparent reasoning behind his change of heart.
The Office for Budget Responsibility did some work on the question over the summer and produced this report on their conclusions.  The first thing that struck me is that the remit was rather more complex than the political rhetoric would suggest.  Certainly it starts out by talking about whether ‘a Fair Fuel Stabiliser could support motorists when the cost of living is rising, by reducing fuel duty when oil prices rise (and vice versa)’; but it goes on to talk about ‘a key principle underlying a Fair Fuel Stabiliser should be that it reduces the sensitivity of the public finances to oil prices and improves the long-term stability of the public finances’. 
The title of the report (Assessment of the Effect of Oil Price Fluctuations on the Public Finances) itself betrays where the emphasis lies, and indeed, most of the detail of the report then goes on to consider the second point in rather more detail than the first, in what seems like a pretty significant departure from the original objective.  And, somewhat counter-intuitively many might feel, it actually concludes that the Treasury lose out overall from higher fuel prices because of wider economic effects and the impact on other tax revenues.  I think we can probably assume that the idea is pretty much a dead one as far as the current government is concerned.
My main reservation about the idea of such a mechanism is not about the impact on the public finances, but about the practical difficulty of knowing whether a given change in fuel costs is a ‘temporary’ one or a ‘permanent’ one.  The report itself makes that very point, noting: In practice the distinction between what constitutes a ‘temporary’ and a ‘permanent’ oil price shock is highly subjective. It is extremely difficult to identify in real time whether movements in the oil price are temporary or are likely to persist beyond the near term’.
That, in my view, is a much more serious objection to the idea.  The simple concept of reducing fuel duty when the price fluctuates upwards, and increasing it again when the price fluctuates downwards carries within it an implicit assumption that the fluctuation is happening around a fixed point.  And we all know that that assumption is an invalid one.
The problem could be overcome to an extent if the government were to set the fixed point – whether in absolute terms for a fixed period, or in terms of the expected ‘normal’ rise around which the price might be expected to fluctuate, or even in terms of an indexation against some other factors, such as overall inflation.  But these approaches have their own problems. 
Setting a fixed point for a defined period merely stores up the price shock until the start of the next period, when the jump is then likely to be larger. 
And publishing any sort of expected price trend for a period in advance has political problems as well as the obvious financial one (that the government might simply get their prediction wrong).  Telling us all in advance that a given level of rise in fuel prices over a given period is both expected and acceptable sounds to me like something which Sir Humphrey would describe as a ‘very brave decision’.
Can the core idea of government intervention to provide a more stable price regime for fuel be somehow rescued from the practical difficulties?  I’d like to think so, but I don’t immediately see how it can be done whilst oil prices are set by the markets as at present. 

Friday 7 January 2011

To drill or not to drill

Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has quite rightly spurred governments to give more thought to the potential implications of the push to seek oil in ever-increasingly difficult locations.  Increasing oil prices will certainly make it more attractive for companies to push at the limits in pursuit of profits.
A committee of MPs has been considering the specific question of deep sea drilling off the coast of the UK, and has come to the conclusion that there is no reason for a moratorium, largely on the grounds of ‘energy security’.  I’m unconvinced about their logic; but that isn’t necessarily the same as supporting the total ban on drilling for new oil reserves offshore which some have called for.
The question for me is a very simple one – are we serious about freeing ourselves of dependency on oil or not?  Only if we can answer an unequivocal ‘yes’ to that question can we honestly support a ban on developing new oil reserves.  To answer in the negative, and then demand a ban, is to say that we are happy to depend on oil produced elsewhere – with all the environmental costs involved – but not happy to take the environmental risks ourselves.  That’s not good world citizenship, to say the least.
Personally, I’m for an oil-free future, and I believe that it can be achieved, if we plan for it and are determined to secure it.  The Welsh Government has produced a plan for an energy future based entirely on renewable energy; with the political will, and the necessary powers, it can be achieved.
The powers are clearly not there at present – and they still won’t be there, even after a ‘yes’ vote next March.  It can be too easy to hide behind the lack of powers though; my real concern is whether the political will is there.  It’s too tempting at times for politicians facing elections to support non-renewable energy projects because they might bring economic benefits; and it’s too easy to court popularity by opposing renewable developments as well.
If we’re serious about freeing ourselves from our oil-dependent economy, we need a consistent long-term energy policy, and sometimes that will mean saying no and meaning it.  Only those prepared to do that can honestly oppose continued oil exploration.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Big Ideas and Rhetoric

Victoria Winckler’s post on the lack of big ideas in Welsh politics certainly provoked some responses in the coverage of it in the Western Mail.  I think she had a point, and that some of the responses are too defensive by far. 
I don’t accept that the ‘Big Society’ is a big idea, mind, which seemed to be the starting point for the discussion.  I’m not convinced that its supporters – or even its originator – really know what they mean by it; it’s always seemed to me more like an excuse for simply shrinking the public sector as rapidly as possible.  Insofar as it has any philosophy behind it, it’s thus more about cutting the public sector than about voluntary and community action, which is just presentational.
Back to Wales, however, and I tend to agree with her assertion that much of what the parties are saying really is more about managing things better rather than about any underlying philosophical differences.  Part of the reason for that is touched on in the comments by Professor Richard Wyn Jones in that there is a higher degree of consensus between the parties at a Welsh level than there is at a UK level. 
I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a ‘left of centre’ consensus and that the solution is to have ‘a more visible centre-right’ though.  I think I could equally suggest that the real problem is the lack of a credible left-wing alternative to centrist market-based policies.  It probably depends on where different people see the ‘centre’.
He’s right, though, to suggest that having our own law-making parliament is a big idea of sorts.  The problem with that is that what was once a ‘big idea’ espoused largely by one party has become a consensus supported by people in all parties (even if not by all the people in some parties); and the party which initially stood alone in pushing for full self-government has become increasingly unwilling to depart from the more recent consensus in favour of small incremental changes.  ‘Big idea’ it might be, but it’s not a ‘big idea’ which any longer differentiates meaningfully between parties.
As voters in the US discovered recently, there’s a difference between a ‘big idea’ and mere rhetoric; simply repeating words like ‘hope’, ‘change’, ‘radical’, and ‘transformation’ is really not the same thing as offering a substantive alternative.
I’m sure that all parties will be looking for striking policies to put in their manifestos for May’s election.  On the basis of past experience, I’d expect Plaid to come up with the most original ideas – the party has something of a track record on that score.  It isn’t the same thing as a ‘big idea’ though – it’s more about being imaginative and original within the confines of the current paradigm, when what we are really lacking is an alternative paradigm.
Hotelling’s Law goes some way towards explaining why a number of parties all seeking votes from the same people will tend to end up offering broadly similar policies, for fear of excluding some potential supporters.  It seriously limits the range within which product differentiation occurs unless one or more players is sufficiently brave to make a bold leap outside that range.
At the moment, I suspect that Victoria Winckler is right to doubt whether that will happen. 

Interesting logic

A letter in this week's 'Carmarthen Journal' drew my attention to a report that I somehow missed in the same paper a week or two before Christmas.  The report covers the reactions of local MPs to the vote on the increase in tuition fees.

There should be no surprise, of course, about the fact that the Tory MP for Carmarthen West supported his government's policy; but the refreshing honesty with which he explains his actions is rather more surprising.  He refers directly to the fact that "it's not going to affect Welsh students", because of course the decision in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Government.  "Lucky Wales", he might almost have added, "that students here won't suffer as a result of my support for government policies".

It does, once again, highlight the 'West Lothian question'; there is surely something very wrong with a situation where MPs can happily vote in favour of an unpopular policy on the basis that it doesn't affect their own constituents.