Thursday 31 March 2011

More bad news on education

Yet another report on education this week draws attention to the ways in which our education services are failing our children.  Yet another wake-up call according to the Minister.  I wonder, though, about some of the reaction to the stream of reports highlighting the issues. 
It may well be that a reorganisation of the way education is managed will give more strategic leadership to the sector, as well as generating some savings on overheads.  But management reorganisations have a habit of diverting attention from the front line whilst they are in progress, as people manoeuvre for new jobs, and the history of reorganisations in the public sector does not exactly paint a clear picture of effective cost reduction.
There also seems to be some misunderstanding of the so-called ‘funding gap’ between English and Welsh schools, and the impact any reorganisation might have on that.  Clearly, a reduction in ‘overhead costs’, if it really could be achieved, would potentially free up more cash to go direct to schools; but it would not necessarily have any impact on the funding gap.
As the Welsh Government report which identified the size of the gap pointed out, “Education spend per pupil … is not a measure of 'schools' expenditure per pupil as the only way of making a consistent comparison over time with England is to include adult and youth education expenditure and use overall education spend. The reason for calculating education spend per pupil is therefore solely for the purpose of making a comparison with England.”, and “The figures include expenditure on schools services, LA central costs, mandatory student awards, inter-authority education recoupment, nursery schools and adult and youth education”.
So the costs of 22 education departments are already factored into the comparison, and a re-allocation of funds within the education spend will have no impact on the comparison with England.  To reduce the gap means that the total education budget would need to be increased – anyone proposing that in current circumstances needs to spell out which other spending would then be cut to compensate, because there’s certainly not going to be a large pot of extra money available.
I’m still unconvinced about the relationship between ‘spend’ and ‘outcomes’, in any event.  Whilst there ought, intuitively, to be a relationship of some sort, it is not a straight line relationship, as pointed out in comments on a previous post.  The lowest spend per pupil in Wales is in the Vale of Glamorgan, which achieves some of the best results, and the second highest spend is in Blaenau Gwent, which achieves some of the worst results.  That suggests to me that social factors – and particularly relative wealth – are at least as important as determinants as the amount of money being spent.  That in turn suggests that whilst reorganising the management and increasing the spend might look like decisive action, the real action needed is much more about tackling the underlying inequalities - and thus has little to do with the education portfolio at all.

Monday 28 March 2011

Building the nation

Interesting report from John Osmond of the IWA on a panel discussion with representatives of the four main parties.  His conclusion “Meanwhile, on the evidence of last week’s conference, the difficulty is going to be distinguishing the parties one from another” touches directly on an issue which I’ve raised before, and which is relevant to this post last week. 
I expect a lot of similarity between Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem parties; that’s become normal; but with Plaid joining the consensus as a post-nationalist party – what is the distinguishing feature?  Shorn of Obama-esque rhetoric about hope and change, the leader’s speech to Plaid's Spring Conference as reported in the media seemed to be based primarily on the simple assertion that Plaid would manage things better.
It’s a bold assertion, but leaving aside any (entirely reasonable) questions about whether it is a supportable statement or not, I remain as unconvinced as I was the first time I heard it that it is a plausible distinguishing feature from the point of view of the electorate at large, let alone a sufficiently radical message.
One of the two coherent responses I’ve had to the question of whether Plaid still has a USP in the new context of Welsh politics has been to talk about the need for ‘nation-building’; creating and building the institutions and consciousness of Wales as a nation.  It’s a long term project, which can keep the party busy for decades, to paraphrase what one of Plaid’s members said to me.
I don’t disagree with the suggestion that there’s a job to be done on nation building, nor with the idea that Plaid has a role to play in doing that job.  But I do question whether that role is either ambitious enough, or unique enough, for a nationalist, or even post-nationalist, party.
One rather less-than-fully-gruntled Plaid member once described ‘nation-building’ to me as being little more than an excuse for some of Plaid’s elected members to join the establishment, claim their generous salaries and expenses, challenge nothing, yet claim that they are still advancing the national cause.  It’s a parody, and it’s unfair to some members, but like all the best parodies there’s enough of a hint of truth in there somewhere to give it bite.
To take the first of my questions, I certainly don’t see ‘nation-building’ as being a sufficiently ambitious aim for a nationalist party.  It represents a huge step backwards from the ambitions of the past, however unrealistic the timescales suggested may have been (such as Gwynfor’s ‘self-government within 15 years’, for instance).  It reduces an argument for radical and fundamental change in the way Wales is governed to an electoral appeal based largely on the idea that Plaid can manage things better than the rest (which is clearly the direction being set at present).
And that brings me to the second point (the lack of uniqueness), which is of even greater concern.  All four parties in the Assembly – to a greater or lesser extent – have effectively committed themselves (admittedly, in the case of the Tories, it’s been done against the better judgement of most party members) to strengthening Welsh institutions.  Much, and perhaps all, of the detail of policy coming under the broad heading of ‘nation-building’ could be said or advocated by any of the four parties.  It’s no accident that they are sounding increasingly similar.
But does Wales really need four parties all saying much the same thing?  History and tribalism prevent the Conservatives-in-Wales and the Labour Party from recognising the extent to which their policies are similar, and it seems unlikely that they could ever work together.  But one of the things which started to make me think seriously about where Plaid was going and why was the period immediately after the 2007 election, when it became clear that any other combination was a real possibility.
It was Lenin who talked about the concept of an ‘objective alliance’, and if a radical and different party has a clear objective in mind in entering into an alliance, and is visionary enough to maintain a focus on longer term issues, then it is possible to justify doing do.  But if the objective is, in effect, little more than becoming a ‘party of government’, and involves abandoning – or deferring more-or-less indefinitely as they would probably prefer to put it – any wider aspirations, then the ultimate gainer from the ‘objective alliance’ is the establishment, not the radical alternative.
And actually, if ‘nation-building’ really is the main objective from now on, then the best way to achieve that might be for nationalists to join the Welsh wings of the unionist parties and reinforce the Welsh identity of those parties.  It’s not an objective which requires a separate party to achieve – indeed, I think I could make a reasonable argument that trying to claim that aim as the territory of one party might actually make it harder to achieve.

Thursday 24 March 2011

The Chancellor giveth...

…and the Chancellor taketh away.  For all the huffing and puffing by politicians trying to say either that the budget was divine, or else that it was the work of the devil, it looked like a bit of a non-event to me, from the point of view of the average punter. 
For everything that was given with one hand, something else was taken away with the other.  Given the direction set by his first budget last year, and the complete absence of any advance indications of Damascene conversions, that was all that could realistically be expected.
His attempt to simplify the tax system, by moving towards a merger of income tax and NI as well as removing all sorts of obscure rules is one of those things that sound superficially attractive – after all, who would really want to argue that tax should be complex if it can be simple?  The devil, though, will be in the detail.  I’d lay odds that a lot of the obscure rules were introduced to plug loopholes, even if those operating the system have long since forgotten what those loopholes were.  The clever accountants will soon enough rediscover them though.
The headline was the action that he has taken on fuel taxes.  Rarely can so much fuss have been made about so little.  Reducing the amount of tax paid at the pump by increasing the tax on the oil extraction companies might appear to reduce the proportion of the pump price which is directly attributable to tax, but it might also turn out not to have as much impact on the total price as people expect.  Taxes on companies have a habit of ending up factored into the end price eventually.
What he has emphatically not done is introduce a fuel price stabilisation mechanism, and it surprises me that anyone could think that he has.  Whether the price of fuel goes up, down, or stays the same during the remainder of this year is not something I’d like to predict; but we can be pretty certain that whichever of those happens, it will have little to do with this budget.
One thing that the budget does underline though is the extent to which even a budget which is neutral overall can involve a number of changes to a number of taxes in order to rebalance the sources of government income in ways which the government obviously hopes will achieve its desired outcomes. 
That’s an important factor to consider in looking at what taxation powers should be devolved at some point to the Assembly.  Power to change one or two might well give the Assembly a degree of responsibility over its own income; but serious economic power means being able to vary a number of taxes in combination.

Monday 21 March 2011

Bringing together a few straws from the wind

In the wake of the Assembly powers referendum, the line being taken by some in the Labour Party is that Wales now has a legislative parliament, so “What is the point of Plaid Cymru?”. 
In some ways, it’s not that different from the question which I posed myself in an article published in Agenda last December (and which I’ve raised in varying ways over a longer period), which questioned whether and when Plaid should decide that the constitutional battle has effectively been won and either disband itself or else simply become a main-stream party of government within the Assembly. 
I wasn’t asking it as simply an academic question; it seems to me that the party is increasingly behaving as though it has already decided to become a post-nationalist party.  Personally, I feel that the decision is premature.  In any event, it leaves a question as to what remains which distinguishes Plaid from other parties.
In a recent article on WalesHome, Jeff Jones suggested that what Wales actually needs now might be “the creation of a new regional political party which would be committed to staying in the UK but whose main aim would be to get the best deal for Wales. Its model would be parties such as the moderate Catalan parties. The aim would be to win control of the Assembly and a majority of the UK Parliamentary seats. Its tactics would be to exploit any situation where any of the major UK parties failed to win a majority in the UK Parliament. It would judge policies from those parties on how they would benefit Wales even if in ideological terms it was closer to some parties than others”.
In a recent post on the referendum, I argued that part of the problem with the devolution journey was that the end-point was not clear, and I suggested that the Labour Party was mostly responsible for that.  One response (which came from a long-time Plaid member) was that Plaid’s position doesn’t look that clear these days either. 
I’m not sure that I agree with that – I think Plaid’s new purpose is becoming increasingly clear.  To all intents and purposes, Plaid is becoming precisely the sort of ‘post-nationalist’ party which Jeff described – i.e. a party whose main aim in practice (whatever it may say in its own constitution) is to gain and exercise power within existing institutions (and, in the case of Plaid, to do so as a junior partner to Labour).
Saturday’s story in the Western Mail speculating about the composition of the next government seemed to me to be underlining the difficulty which such a party has in establishing a role.  Suggesting that Plaid is the best junior partner for a Labour-led coalition is a long way short of the ambitions of the past.
A pseudonymous comment on a recent post on this blog asked me whether I was suggesting that Plaid had reached a new philosophical conclusion along the lines of “full independence is a chimera in today’s globalised, interconnected times. All we really want is for Wales to be recognised as a distinct geo/political entity within the EU, NATO, Eurozone (delete to taste) and for the principle of subsidiarity to be applied wherever possible.  Consequently, with all the other major parties now apparently firmly signed up to this idea themselves, Plaid's purpose has been largely served”.
I don’t believe that it’s been thought through clearly enough to be described as a ‘philosophical conclusion’; it’s more about some of those involved in the daily grind of electoral politics falling into a very limited institutional vision of what politics is about.  But, however and whyever it’s happened, I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Plaid is – by its actions, if not always by the words of some members – adopting precisely the sort of role which Jeff outlined, and which would justify the above quoted comment.
Adopting that sort of role is a valid decision for the party to take; but it’s the equivalent of opening Schrödinger’s box.  The consequences may not be entirely predictable. 
Over recent months, I’ve been questioning on what basis a post-nationalist party can then distinguish itself from other parties.  I’ve had two answers suggesting possible options, and I’ll cover those in future posts.

Friday 18 March 2011

Creating jobs

With an election on the horizon, and the economic situation in which Wales finds itself likely to be a key factor, it is no surprise to find that politicians’ thoughts turn to ideas for boosting the economy and creating jobs.
I’ll admit that I was highly sceptical of the promise made by Hain, on behalf of Labour, during the last election that Labour would create 50,000 jobs in Wales.  It’s not that we don’t need the jobs, more that I’m not sure that politicians and government can actually ‘create’ jobs at all, other than by increasing taxes and employing people directly. 
It is surely more than pure coincidence that Plaid’s promise to create jobs alights on the same number, 50,000, (albeit with the added bonus of 30,000 promised apprenticeships).  But my innate scepticism about what governments can achieve doesn’t magically disappear just because the source is different.
Some would argue that economic performance is simply not terribly amenable to being improved by government policy at all, as this research suggests.  I wouldn’t support taking a fatalistic approach on that basis, though.  We expect politicians to have answers to problems, and they will always oblige by telling us what their solutions are.  But we do need to exercise an appropriate degree of care before simply accepting any figures which are put forward for primarily electoral purposes.
Betsan Powys pointed out some confusion as to the mechanism actually being proposed.  And, rather than debating whether the idea of finding a creative way around Treasury rules to get hold of £500m to invest in Welsh infrastructure is a good one or not, the other parties seem to be more interested in demolishing the idea because of the detail of the approach proposed and the idea’s provenance rather than on its merit.
But leaving aside – for the moment at least – the question as to whether the establishment of such a fund is practicable, the more important questions are surely whether such a fund, if it could be established, would enable investment of the sums suggested, or could have the effect of creating the numbers of jobs suggested.
On the jobs issue, I’m not entirely convinced by the numbers.  That an investment of £500million in infrastructure developments in Wales would create, or at least safeguard, jobs in the short term is irrefutable, but how many and for how long?  £500m invested to create up to 50,000 jobs looks like something of a bargain – it implies that one job can be created for each £10,000 of direct capital spend in the public sector. 
That’s a rather better return on investment than either Objective One Funding or Convergence Funding have achieved.  Neither of them have come close to that level of job creation, despite the very much higher levels of funding involved.  Perhaps we should just note the words ‘up to’ and set our expectations accordingly.
It would be a pity though if an attempt at a creative approach to trying to fund serious investment in Welsh infrastructure were to be dismissed because of where it came from, or because the number of jobs likely to be created might have been overstated.  A more constructive approach would be to take the core idea and collectively work out how it, or something similar, actually could be implemented – particularly given that at least two of the parties agree that 50,000 more jobs is a reasonable target to aim at.  Isn’t that what we should expect of politicians if they’re serious about working together for Wales?

Thursday 17 March 2011

The poverty of aspiration

It would be an over-simplification to present part of the last century as a battle between collectivism and individualism, but it seems to me that there was certainly an element of that in the Labour v Tory decades.  The immediate post-war years saw a significant swing towards collectivism, even if implemented through a centralised state, and the Tories under the likes of Macmillan and Eden – and even Heath, although it didn’t feel that way at the time - largely accepted the new status quo which had been created.
But the 1980s saw a pretty decisive break with that post-war consensus, and took us to a new status quo – sadly one in which the leaders of Labour throughout the subsequent years largely acquiesced.  For Thatcher, and those who followed her, individualism was king, and ‘freeing’ individuals, in the economic sense, became the mantra for economic growth and wellbeing.
It would be wrong to say that it happened all at once, but over a period, excessive personal greed went from being something which was frowned upon to something which was openly encouraged, and through ever more effective targeting of fewer and fewer voters, the electoral contest increasingly concentrated on the ‘aspirational classes’, whose aspirations were not for society as a whole, but for the individual and his or her immediate circle.
So, when Sir Terry Matthews says that we need people to be a bit more greedy and to want to become wealthy, he is only expressing what has become the accepted norm.  And when politicians and parties try to tailor their policies to appeal to the ‘aspirational classes’, they are merely following the attitudinal changes which have occurred.
There’s a problem though.  For such an approach to be the basis of a sound economy, one has to believe that the cake can always be made ever bigger.  And that is no small problem.
In a world of growing population, and with finite limits on the available resources, one man’s greed is another man’s poverty.  For everyone who accumulates more than his or her share of resources and assets, there has to be someone else who gets less than his or her share.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need innovators and entrepreneurs, nor that we shouldn’t hold them in high regard; but it does mean that personal greed is not sustainable as a driver.  And in political terms, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire towards building a better and fairer society; but it does mean that appealing to voters on the basis of promising them continued improvement in their own personal wealth is ultimately a dishonest and unsustainable approach.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Room for more consensus?

I’ve had some time this week to read the report of the Welsh Conservatives’ Economic Commission, penned by Dylan JE, and which he has been highlighting in bite-sized chunks on his blog over the past couple of weeks.  It’s probably more widely-available by now, but my source was Syniadau here.
One of the first things that struck me was the similarity in style of the analysis of the Welsh economy since 1999 to the sort of analysis which Plaid Cymru would have produced prior to 2007.  And that isn’t intended as a suggestion that such an analysis has somehow become any less valid. 
The other thing that struck me was the graphic way in which the report highlights the huge disparity between GVA/ head in London and GVA/ head in any other part of the UK.  From a UK (rather than a simply Welsh) perspective, the ‘above-average’ levels of London are as much a part of the problem as the ‘below average’ levels in Wales.
However, as might be expected, even where I agree with the analysis of the problems, I don’t agree with all the suggested solutions; there are things in the document with which I agree, and others with which I do not.  I don’t understand the Conservative obsession for introducing the private sector into the health service, for instance.
It is, though, a worthwhile contribution to debate about the way forward for the Welsh economy, and it indicated to me that there is at least a possibility of developing a degree of consensus around some policies, whilst continuing to disagree about others.
The headline policy, described by Dylan himself in his introduction as the ‘main recommendation’, is to vary the rate of Corporation Tax in Wales. 
(If I may be forgiven a political side-swipe a moment, I really don’t understand why the proposal that the Welsh Conservative Party (is there really such a beast, by the way?) should lobby the UK Government to adopt this approach is predicated on the words ‘if elected’.  If it’s the right thing to do, then it’s the right thing whoever is in government in Cardiff – why wouldn’t members of the Conservative Party in Wales want to lobby their own party’s government to make this change regardless of the outcome of the election?)
The method of achieving the reduction in CT isn’t spelled out, although the relevant passage in the Holtham report is quoted with approval.  It isn’t what nationalists would ask for – i.e. the right for the Assembly to vary the rate of CT – but it’s a neat unionist solution, tying regional variations in the rate of CT to the variations in GVA per head.  And, if it achieves the desired result, I can live with a unionist solution, for the short term at least.
As an aside, Dylan reported on his blog an interesting comment on the idea of varying the rate of CT, which deserves to be considered properly.  It’s given some food for thought, even if it hasn’t led me to change my mind about the value of reducing CT in Wales.  The comparison with the Irish experience is instructive; but the purpose of a change in Wales isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about encouraging companies to move here so much as giving indigenous companies a better chance of success.  Wales won’t get the tax receipts either way, so it isn’t about raising revenue.
It's worth bearing in mind when talking about varying the rate of CT is that it is a policy which will largely benefit precisely the target companies for future economic growth in Wales – the SMEs.  For the larger, international companies, CT is largely a voluntary tax anyway – they can and will declare their ‘profits’ in whichever tax regime is most favourable to them.  (That’s a loophole which needs to be plugged, of course, but it isn’t one which is immediately relevant to a discussion about the ‘right’ rate of CT for the Welsh economy.)
So – is a regionally-varied rate of CT a good place to start looking for cross-party consensus in promoting the Welsh economy?

Tuesday 15 March 2011

An unnecessary risk

No surprise at all that recent events in Japan are causing a number of people to think again about the proposal to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK.  The problems being experienced in Japan highlight an aspect of this type of risk which most of us have difficulty in getting our heads round effectively – whilst the probability of an event is extremely low, the potential seriousness of it is high.
The problems in Japan haven’t changed the probability of a nuclear accident at Wylfa should the plans go ahead.  That probability remains extremely low, and Wylfa is rather less likely than Japan to suffer either an earthquake or a tsunami (although it’s worth noting that ‘rather less likely’ isn’t the same as a ‘zero’ probability).  What the problems have done, however, is to draw attention to the danger that even highly improbable and well-planned for events can get out of control and have a wide-ranging impact.
All human activity has a level of risk associated with it, and we all take risks on a daily basis, often without giving them a second thought.  Governments and companies also take collective risks on our behalf on a regular basis, although the fact that they are doing so is not always obvious.  Taking a level of risk is unavoidable in securing our collective futures.
Some risks, though, are entirely avoidable.  We don’t need nuclear energy – we can meet all our needs from renewable sources.  That will be both a faster and a lower-risk way of meeting our future energy needs.  I hope that those who have argued that securing jobs on Ynys Môn is more important than building a renewable energy future (always a weak argument in any event) will be prompted to revise their views.

Friday 11 March 2011

Post Hain Ergo Propter Hain

In the opinion poll published today, Plaid’s support is down 2 points in the immediate wake of Pater Hain’s attack on the party and its leader.  Apparently, that is enough for Hain to conclude that his attack strategy is working.
I’ll have to revise my opinion of him if this carries on.  It must be quite something to be able to swing public opinion across Wales so significantly just by uttering a few brief sentences.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Hitting the target

Target-setting, at both a corporate and a personal level, is a fact of life in most organisations.  It’s a way of setting out priorities and enabling the measurement of progress towards key objectives.  It can become something of a blunt instrument, though, when it is applied blindly.  People will naturally manage to meet the targets, particularly if their annual salary or bonus is based thereon.
Sadly, targets set by government often end up being applied in that blind fashion.  A year or two ago, I heard the Chief Executive of one local authority telling his members that they had already exceeded one government-set target significantly, so there was an opportunity to cut that particular service area, and reduce the level of service to meet the target.
That highlights one of the major issues with simplistic targets – telling people that they must achieve 90% of whatever also says that a 10% fail rate is acceptable, even if that 10% could be eliminated with little or no extra effort.  And when the targets relate to health, say, or education, how willing are we to declare up front that an x% fail rate is acceptable?
I’m reminded of the (almost certainly apocryphal) story about the UK computer manufacturer who ordered 100,000 electronic chips from a company in Japan, specifying that 99.95% must have zero defects.  When the order arrived, 50 of the chips were packed in a separate envelope with a note from the Japanese company which read something like “We don’t understand why you want 50 defective chips, but we’ve packed them separately for you”.
From their point of view, they had designed their systems to eliminate failure from the outset, not to allow for a tolerated level of failure.
I suspect that, over the next two months, we’ll hear a lot of talk from all the parties about the targets they are going to be setting for the next Assembly term (although probably rather less about how they intend to achieve them).  Like the Japanese micro-chip company, perhaps our response to each should be to ask why a (100-x)% failure rate is acceptable.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Dodgy Comparisons

In his speech to his troops over the weekend, Cameron used a neat little comparison between a sprint and an election to pour scorn on AV.  He said, “Just imagine it's the Olympics, London 2012.  We're all watching the 100 metres.  Usain Bolt powers first over the line.  But when he gets to the podium, it's the guy who comes third who gets the gold.”.
It’s a typical political trick; I’ve seen lots of them do it.  Choose a comparison that isn’t really valid, say it quickly, get the laughter, and move quickly on before anyone spots the flaw.
The purpose of a race is to see who is the fastest.  It’s a demonstrable, objectively measurable outcome.  It doesn’t matter whether the winner is widely loved, or hated by all; the amount of support which he or she has makes no difference to that objective measurement of speed.
Elections work completely the other way.  Support counts for everything, and it’s support which decides victory or defeat.  It doesn’t matter which candidate is the best qualified or the most able; the voters are perfectly entitled to choose the dumbest and least qualified if they wish (readers can decide for themselves how often that actually happens in practice!).
In choosing an electoral system, the issue is how we want to measure support.  Supporters of ‘first past the post’ would argue that the winner under the current system has demonstrated that (s)he has more support than any other candidate.  It’s patently true, and in a largely two party system probably adequate; but in a more pluralist political model, it can also mean that there are considerably more people strongly opposed to that candidate than there are in support.
AV takes people’s second (and subsequent, if there are many candidates) choices into account; it aims to assess ‘support’ by looking at preferences rather than simply first choices.  In effect, it elects the first candidate to be liked more than disliked, even if some of the ‘likers’ are at best half hearted about their liking.
Cameron dismissed the system as one used in few places, but that’s a bit sweeping.  France, for instance, doesn’t use AV, but holds ‘run-off’ elections between the leading candidates.  It’s another way of achieving something very similar; it just means you have two elections instead of one election with two counts.
The one thing that is absolutely clear is that AV is not a system of proportional representation.  It is, as Clegg himself described it before deciding it was so important that it had to be a major plank of the coalition agreement, a “miserable little compromise”.  In true AV fashion, I’ll end up voting in favour on the basis that I like the current system less, but I'll do so without any real enthusiasm.  I’m sorely tempted to take an AV view of the referendum, and simply rank ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in order of preference.  That’s a better expression of my position that to say that I’m for one option and against the other.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

It was _____ wot won it.

As the dust settles, three of Wales’ four main parties have all been claiming their share of the credit for the referendum result, just as, no doubt, they were all ready with their accusations against everyone else had things gone wrong.
So it was Labour who delivered for Wales, by passing the legislation in the first place and getting their supporters out on the day.
Or perhaps it was Plaid who delivered for Wales, by insisting on including the referendum commitment in the One Wales programme, and getting their troops out on the ground.
Or perhaps it was the Tories who delivered for Wales, by having a Secretary of State prepared to allow the referendum to be held rather than sitting on the request as her predecessor had done.
But what about the poor old Lib Dems?  Can they not find a way of claiming that it was all their doing?  I think they can probably claim to have been the most influential of all, even if only by accident.
If I may indulge in a little counterfactual history, let’s step back just under 4 years to the time of the coalition negotiations in 2007.  There was almost a done deal on the Rainbow arrangement, until a procedural hiccup occurred at the Lib Dems’ meeting (a lack of a process for resolving a tied vote, of all things).  It was a hiccup which didn’t actually kill off the Rainbow (although it’s sometimes been presented that way) but did buy enough time to halt the momentum, and enable more discussion to take place between Plaid and Labour.
Had it not been for that one little slip, I don’t doubt that we would now be coming to the end of a four-year period of a government in which Plaid found itself in coalition in Wales with the very parties responsible for the ‘savage slash and burn cuts’ in London  (somehow I suspect that the rhetoric might have been toned down just a little).  Based on the way the two One Wales parties describe their roles, I guess we would have seen it regularly described as either a ‘Plaid-led’ government, or else a ‘Conservative-driven’ one, depending on which party was issuing the press release.
As far as the referendum was concerned, the three governing parties had signed up to a referendum anyway, but would not have had the crucial two-thirds majority in the Assembly.  Everything would then have hinged on what Labour decided to do.
So, what would Labour have done?  It’s impossible to be certain, of course.  I don’t doubt that there would be some in the Labour Party who would have wanted to go for a referendum anyway, but my best guess is that the temptation for an opposition party to derail a major plank of the policy being put forward by all three of the parties that they were seeking to defeat in the 2011 election, and perhaps cause friction between them, would just have been too strong to resist.
So, no resolution in the Assembly, no referendum, a probable Labour overall majority for the next 4 years in Cardiff on an anti-Tory/ Lib Dem surge, and the whole issue of legislative powers kicked into the long grass for at least another four years.  And the Lib Dems’ approach to writing standing orders for the conduct of meetings turns out to have been perhaps the most significant event of all.
So, cheer up Lib Dems; with the aid of the law of unintended consequences, you’ve achieved much more than you realise.

Monday 7 March 2011

That's enough voting

I thought that it was unwise for supporters of a yes vote during the recent referendum to start giving out promises that there would be no further devolution without another referendum, even if such statements did help to sway some people. 
I’m not sure that it’s any wiser, though, to start saying that there will never be a need for another referendum on a constitutional issue.  There is a danger that that simply plays to the worst fears of this year’s no campaigners – that there is no defined end point, and that change will instead happen by what I’m sure that they would call stealth.
It’s not really possible to pre-determine which changes will or will not require public support to be demonstrated at the ballot box.  Things which might look highly controversial now might attract a high level of consensus in a few years’ time, and surely the last thing we want is a repeat of the 2011 referendum, just because of a rashly-given promise in advance.
Possible next steps on the devolution journey will include changing the situation in Wales to match that in Scotland, where the powers of the Parliament are defined by what is reserved rather than by what is devolved; policing; creation of a Welsh legal system, and, inevitably, taxation. 
I’m also attracted by the idea put forward by Cynog Dafis after the vote last week that we should aim to ‘entrench’ the powers of the Assembly, which are currently only ‘on loan’ from Westminster.  At least, that’s the legal position, even if not exactly the de facto one.  I’m not sure though that it is possible that a parliament whose whole self-definition is based on the idea of its own absolute sovereignty could or would ever pass an act renouncing part of that sovereignty.  Could such an act, if passed, ever really be entirely non-repealable, I wonder.
One thing, though, on which I think it is possible to be categorical, and that is that Wales could not become an independent country without a referendum endorsement first.  I guess that are just some people and parties who don’t ever expect that to be on the agenda.

Friday 4 March 2011

Still wriggling

What is it with Peter Hain?  Does he really think that he can convince people that black is white just by repeating it often enough?  Or does he just think everyone else has as short term a memory as he himself appears to have?  From ‘the referendum is unwinnable’, through ‘it’s all Plaid’s fault’, to ‘what a great day for Wales’ in a few short weeks.  Perhaps next week, an independent Wales will turn out to have been his very own idea all along.
I heard him earlier today, peddling the line that the referendum result is sending a clear message to London about Tory cuts.  Nothing to do with devolution for Wales, then.
He was also denying vehemently that the dog’s breakfast which passes for GOWA 2006, and the commitment to a referendum, were anything to do with internal divisions in the Labour Party.  Not at all, he claimed.  The referendum commitment had to be included, he said, because that was the only way he could get the Act through Parliament.
Perhaps he’s just forgotten that the Labour Party had a very clear overall majority at the time.  Or maybe he didn’t even realise that the people with whom he was conducting these delicate negotiations were in his own party...

Powers and Holidays

Q.  When is a power not a power?
A.  When it’s just a one-off decision.
At first sight, the idea that the UK Government would give the Assembly the ‘power’ to make St David’s Day a Bank Holiday sounded encouraging.  I’m not sure which ‘field’ Bank Holidays comes under in the context of Parts 3 and 4 of GOWA, but I suspect that it’s outside all of them, and therefore giving the Assembly new rights.
Then I read the small print.
Actually, they’re only proposing to ‘consult’ with the Assembly over whether the Assembly might like to decide which option to take when the UK Government abolishes the May Day Bank Holiday.  The Assembly will most definitely not be given the power either to create another Bank Holiday, nor to keep May Day.
I suspect that the Minister making the suggestion genuinely thought that we’d all be delighted at the Assembly being consulted about whether it might like to take this decision.  It tends to underline how little they really understand.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Asking different questions

Over the past few weeks, one consistent theme of the ‘yes’ camp has been to ask “Where should laws only affecting Wales be made?”.  It’s a good question, and asked like that, there’s only one sensible answer.  But it doesn’t really answer the implicit question being asked by those who have their doubts, which is “Why should laws only affecting Wales be made?”.
There are only a few letters different between the two questions; but the second is the much more philosophical of the two, even if is really an argument about the principle of devolution rather than the change which will happen after today’s vote. 
At first sight, it appears to highlight a real ideological difference between those who support devolved decision-making and those who don’t.  At a very simplistic level, one either supports the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws, or one supports the idea that allowing different areas (nations/ regions/ as you wish) to decide their own laws in some areas is a better approach.
It’s interesting to observe, however, that many (most?) of those who support the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws applying to the UK are also amongst the most vociferous opponents of the idea that there should be a single consistent set of laws applying to the countries of the EU.  So I guess that there’s rather more unanimity around the idea that not all decisions should be taken centrally and that some should be taken more locally than the past few weeks suggest; the argument is more about what we mean by ‘central’ and ‘local’.
There are those who attempt to simplify this by splitting the debaters into Welsh nationalists and British nationalists; but I consider that a less than adequate response.  I call myself a Welsh nationalist, but it doesn’t follow that I believe that all laws in Wales should be made centrally; I don’t see why some cannot be made even more locally*, and I'm quite happy to cede some power to larger units to make decisions as well.  Similarly, there are people who would admit to being British nationalists (or perhaps more correctly UK nationalists) who fully support devolved law-making within the UK.
So, given the apparent general acceptance in principle that some things should be done ‘centrally’ and others ‘locally’, is the debate really no more complicated than a difference of opinion about what the ‘right’ units are for making which decisions?
* There is a separate question over how we define ‘laws’ as well; what is the difference in effect between a decision made by a local authority applying to its area and a decision made by the Assembly applying to the whole of Wales?  But that’s for another day… 

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Longer term view needed

Clearly, the electrification of the main line to Cardiff is good news.  But the decision not to continue on to Swansea is bad news for those of us in West Wales.  And the worst news of all (despite apologists for the current UK coalition government trying to claim it as good news) is the decision to go ahead with hybrid rolling stock, having both electric and diesel power.
I understand why clutching at the straw of not having to change trains at Cardiff may appear to be good news, but the choice of hybrid rolling stock has two major disadvantages, in my view.  The first is that it undermines many of the advantages of electric stock – it reduces the cost savings, the extra weight undermines the reduction in wear and tear on the line itself, and the extra complexity means that it loses the advantages of improved reliability and reduced maintenance costs which accompany the move to electric power.
But it is the second disadvantage which concerns me more.  That is that this is inherently a decision with long term consequences.  The new rolling stock is likely to have at least a forty year lifespan, and that reduces the incentive for extension of electrification to Swansea and beyond at an early future date. 
Although it would obviously be preferable to have made the decision on the whole line to Swansea now, the electrification project has such a lengthy timescale that that there is still a window of several years to enable the project to be extended, without incurring the extra costs of a whole new and separate project.  And the environmental, reliability, and cost advantages of electric power are such that I, even as a resident of West Wales, would have preferred to put up with a (comparatively, when looking at a 40 years lifespan) short term change of train at Cardiff in the hope of getting that extension.
The underlying problem is that this government, like its predecessor, is taking decisions on a case by case basis, rather than having a master plan for electrification of the whole network, which is where any government which is serious about reducing the environmental impact of transport would start.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the announcement of a willingness to look at a comprehensive electrification of the Valleys.  It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, I fear. 
On the one hand, it is clearly a significant investment in transport infrastructure and emissions reduction in a heavily trafficked part of Wales’ rail network, and that has to be welcomed.  On the other hand – and I accept that this is very much said from a West Wales perspective – it emphasises once again a Cardiff-centric approach.
This again underlines the piecemeal approach being taken – if it were just the next step in an overall programme to electrify the whole network, I might grumble a bit about why it has to start in Cardiff, but I’d have to accept that there would be a certain logic to that.  But as a step on its own with no promise of follow-up, coupled with the limitation on the main-line announcement, those of us in the West can surely be forgiven for feeling that we are being left behind with a second class rail network.
And this is more than just a question of transport infrastructure.  It sometimes looks as though the UK policy of development concentrated in the South East whilst the rest is left behind – a policy which has been so damaging to Wales over the decades – is being repeated on a smaller scale in Wales.  I’ve commented before on the apparent emphasis in the Economic Renewal Plan on developing the major conurbation around Cardiff as a significant economic driver.  Concentrating investment in transport infrastructure on that area will serve only to reinforce that trend.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Repeating the mistakes of the past

I hope that Russell Goodway has by now honoured the pledge he made yesterday and voted yes in the referendum, but I was fascinated by his reasons for descending from the fence on which he appeared to be sitting just a few days ago.  It seems to be based on the ‘assurances’ that he has been given that there will not be another referendum seeking more powers in the near future.  Apparently, it’s the leadership of the Labour Party who have given him those assurances.
It’s not the only time in recent weeks that I have seen some ‘assurances’ about the future being given.  Carwyn Jones has said that tax-varying powers are not needed, and some ‘yes’ campaigners have said that there cannot be tax-varying powers without a further referendum, for instance.
The question that struck me was this - on what basis is anyone in any position to give such assurances?  At best they can only be expressing a personal preference or making a personal pledge that they will not support further powers; they cannot speak with authority for Wales as a whole. 
I’m not actually expecting, or calling for, an early referendum on any further devolution.  We do need to be clear, however, that there are some issues (such as taxation and borrowing powers, or fiscal responsibility as I'd prefer to see it) which are not going to magically disappear on Friday morning.  And the idea that the outcome of this week’s referendum somehow freezes a settlement for the foreseeable future is palpable nonsense; nothing stays static for long.
I don’t believe that any and every change necessarily requires a referendum to be held either; but we do need to try and get a greater degree of consensus about which changes do and which do not require a referendum, rather than issuing assurances based on purely personal perspectives.  Surely the one lesson we should learn from this particular plebiscite is that holding referenda on the wrong issues is a silly thing to do.  A referendum on an issue of principle is a useful tool;  promised future referenda to buy off political opponents in the present are not.
There is a danger here that we repeat the mistakes of the past, and end up creating a position where any or every future change needs to be preceded by a referendum on the basis that ‘you promised it’.  That would imply that we have learned nothing from the Part 3 vs. Part 4 fiasco.