Friday 29 April 2011

What's the big idea #3

Like all the other main parties, Plaid claim that their manifesto is the one with the ideas and the vision.  It certainly has the rhetoric of ideas and vision, and if I were awarding the prize for rhetoric, I’d give it to Plaid.  I’m more interested in looking at the substance, though, and asking whether it really does what it says on the tin.
Plaid have four main pledges for this election, and the first has probably received the most attention – the commitment to reduce the level of illiteracy and innumeracy amongst children leaving our primary schools.  It’s an important issue; lack of basic skills is certainly something which holds individuals back from achieving their full potential, and it is unacceptable that our children do not gain these basic skills.
However, stripped of the rhetoric, is this commitment really any more than a statement that primary schools should teach children to read, write, and count?  I wouldn’t want to understate the importance of that as an outcome, but it really doesn’t strike me as a particularly big, or even original, idea.  And I certainly don’t believe that the other parties actually want the current levels of failure to continue, even if they’ve not chosen to give this issue top billing.
The way in which Plaid propose to achieve this result is to learn from best practice elsewhere and then apply it to Wales.  Again, that is a sensible, if not exactly a revolutionary idea.  In fact, it’s a highly managerial approach, essentially similar to what any of the other parties would do (although I don’t think any of the others have set as specific a target as 95% plus, or told us that it will take them nine years to achieve it).
The claim that it is some sort of big idea ultimately boils down to a claim not that Plaid would do something radically different, but that Plaid would deliver on the pledge, whilst the other parties have failed.  That the other parties have failed our children when in government is irrefutable, but why changing the party managing the system will do any better is a good deal less clear.  It is, in effect, another form of the ‘we can manage Wales better’ message.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Who to believe

‘Bizarre’, the word used by FoE to describe the stance of the leaders of both Labour and Plaid over Wylfa B, struck me as an apt one.  Given the work done by One Wales to develop an energy strategy for Wales based entirely on renewable energy – a strategy which I fully support – it is odd that both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister support a proposal which runs in direct contradiction to their own government’s policy.
The response of the Labour Party spokesman was, if anything, even more bizarre.  Stating that “Welsh Labour remains committed to the construction of Wylfa B, a position we set out in the 2010 General Election manifesto” is a true and accurate statement, but it is completely at odds with their manifesto for this year’s election, which states:
“By 2050, at the latest, we will meet almost all of our local energy needs, whether for heat, electrical power or vehicle transport, by low carbon electricity production. Half of this will come from marine energy, a third from wind and the rest from sustainable biomass and other sources.”
That clear and unequivocal statement of intent leaves no role for nuclear energy to meet Wales’ needs; it simply doesn’t fit with the strategy. 
The response of the ‘spokesman’ also seems to suggest that the 2010 UK manifesto somehow ‘trumps’ the 2011 Welsh manifesto, and renders part of it invalid – which also raises the question, of course, about how much of the rest of the manifesto we are supposed to treat seriously.
Plaid’s manifesto also makes a commitment to depending on renewable energy for the future: “Plaid will aim to make Wales self-sufficient in renewable electricity by 2030”.  I’ve made my views on Plaid’s dilemma over nuclear pretty clear in the past; I won’t reiterate them in detail here, but it is worth noting that support for Wylfa B is not confined to one person alone.
Politically, where does it leave electors?  We have two parties, both of which have produced manifestos which clearly set out a commitment to renewable energy as the way forward, neither of whose leaders are able to support that manifesto commitment.  When push comes to shove, will the parties’ elected members support their leaders or their manifestos? 
With the honorable exception of some individual members, history doesn’t leave me overly optimistic about the answer to that question.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

What's the big idea #2

From much of what Labour has had to say during this election campaign, one could be forgiven for thinking that their biggest idea is that they are ‘not-the-Tories’.  Perhaps that’s an unfair understatement – they are really claiming to be more ‘not-the-Tories’ than anyone else.  It may well help them to win the election, so I can’t really blame them for using that line.
Their manifesto however is a little more positive than that, if one gets away from the simplistic sloganising of Peter Hain.
The theme is all about delivery.  It chimes with the speech which Carwyn Jones made at Labour’s Conference – we’ve spent enough time writing strategies, now it’s time to implement some of them.  There’s a lot to be said for being that honest about their intentions, and not encouraging us to expect a lot of originality in government, just a government that will get on with things.
It does though mean that their key positive message is much the same as that of the Lib Dems – it amounts to a claim that Labour can manage Wales better than the others.  But is it any more credible?

Tuesday 26 April 2011

What's the big idea #1

Whilst all the parties are claiming that their manifestos are full of big ideas, it’s not that easy to work out what the substance is behind the rhetoric in which they are cloaked.
In the case of the Lib Dems, it seems to be that they will cut government waste.  It’s not just what appears in their daily wastewatch exercise, on which I’ve commented before; it’s also a clear theme of their manifesto.  In section after section of their manifesto, ‘cutting waste’ appears, in one form or another, as one of their key proposed actions.
Well, I’m all for cutting out waste, but what’s rather less clear is how they will actually achieve that worthy aim.  One man’s waste is another’s essential service; and it is clear that in at least some instances, their idea of cutting waste is actually about not doing certain things any longer.  It’s not so long ago that they were arguing, for instance, that free prescriptions were a ‘waste’.  It’s a valid stance to take, but it isn’t quite what most people would assume that ‘cutting waste’ means.
Clearly, they believe, or at least want us to believe, that a Lib Dem government would lose fewer blackberries and build cheaper dormouse bridges.  But how?  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what they are really saying boils down to little more than a simple claim that they will conduct more audits and manage (or perhaps micro-manage) the Government of Wales better than anyone else.  No surprise that it needs to be wrapped in several layers of rhetoric, really.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

…who’s the most devolutionary of them all? 
In a comment on a recent post, ‘Adam’ took me to task for not recognising that there were things in Plaid’s manifesto which the other parties could not say.  Specifically, he mentioned “devolution of police and criminal justice, the coastguard, broadcasting, natural resources, teachers pay and conditions, various stuff regarding rail and of course it speaks independence”.  I hadn’t seen the other manifestos at that point, but I have now, so it’s possible to examine the question more closely. 
Firstly, on the question of Independence, the manifesto does indeed mention it, but it does so, as Adrian Masters astutely pointed out, only to immediately sideline it, saying that Wales will be better served during the next period by concentrating on further devolution in certain areas, and reform of Barnett.
Now for the rest of the list – and some other things which ‘Adam’ didn’t mention.  The question was not whether other parties were uniquely saying that they would devolve certain matters, but whether it was only conceivable that one party could say that they would do so, consistent with the rest of what they have to say.
On police and criminal justice, the Lib Dems specifically say that they will press for such devolution and the Tories promise a White Paper on a legal jurisdiction for Wales.  Carwyn Jones has also talked in the past about a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales, although it doesn’t appear in Labour’s manifesto, and the party now appears to be against it.  Only Plaid specifically mention devolution of family courts, but it’s such a logical result of a Welsh jurisdiction that I can’t believe it would be a huge issue of principle.
On the Coastguard, only Plaid specifically mention it as a matter for devolution.  Possibly unique, but I can’t see any obvious reason why the others couldn’t propose it; there’s nothing obviously inconsistent with the rest of what they say.  And with the Ambulance and Fire Services already devolved, it would be a natural follow-on from policing, as the fourth emergency service.
On broadcasting, Labour say that they want to oblige broadcasters operating in Wales to “keep the National Assembly informed of their activities”.  Not quite the same as devolving control, but a step in the same direction.  The Tories want S4C to be the subject of some sort of ‘joint mechanism’ with Westminster.  Again, not exactly devolution of broadcasting, but a step towards that.
On teachers’ pay and conditions, Plaid is the only party calling for devolution.  But UK Governments have in the past supported ‘regional’ bargaining in some areas; I don’t find it completely inconceivable that they could support devolution in the right circumstances.
On rail services, the Tories want to explore the possibility of devolving Network Rail to Wales, and Labour say “that Network Rail should have a greater degree of accountability to the Assembly Government”.
Of the points raised by ‘Adam’, it is only when we start to talk about control of natural resources that I can really see that the claim that Plaid is unique in calling for further devolution might be made to stand up.  The commitment, though, is pretty vague. 
The manifesto says only “that Wales should have control over its own natural resources – wind, water, sun and tidal – and we will press for the devolution of responsibility for these areas as well as all energy generation projects”.  Indeed, looking at all references to the question of natural resources in the manifesto, it is a phrase which always seems to be closely linked with the question of energy.  And Plaid is not unique in calling for further devolution in the area of energy policy.  The Tories want devolution of power on projects up to 100MW; the Lib Dems want power over ‘larger energy projects’; and Labour seek to devolve control of renewable (an odd limitation) consents up to 100MW.
Plaid also propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency.  Whilst Labour and Lib Dems don’t specifically propose devolving the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency, both do talk about bringing them together in one body, which implies to me that they have to have been devolved first.
On the question of taxation powers, it is the Lib Dems and Tories who are specifically proposing limited taxation powers.  Labour explicitly rule out taxation powers, and Plaid link it to reform of Barnett, a rather more conditional form of support.
Plaid also propose devolving Job Search Services, the Food Standards Agency, and Research Funding.  None of these look like being huge issues of principle to any of the other parties to me, although they are unique to Plaid’s manifesto.
Only one party also includes a more open-ended pledge to look at other matters which might be devolved – and that’s the Lib Dems.
So, to answer my opening question – who’s the most devolutionary?  On balance, the answer would have to be Plaid.  But, having sidelined the bigger question at the outset, it’s not quite the strong USP as which ‘Adam’ was trying to present it.  Devolution of further powers is something which all parties are proposing (although the Labour Party is significantly less forthright on the matter than the rest).  It’s not really therefore as strong a distinguishing feature as some might suggest.
The fact that calling for devolution of a range of specific responsibilities is something which all parties can convincingly do shows how far Wales has travelled, and how successful Plaid has been at shifting the centre of debate in a particular direction.  But, even taking all the proposals together, Wales would still not have a Scottish-style parliament.  That should be the next major step, but it's a goal for which none of the parties is promising to argue during the next Assembly term.  And as long as the argument is not put, it will not be won.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Repetition, repetition...

I did wonder last week how on earth the Lib Dems would keep their Daily Wastewatch going for the whole election period.  Today, we have the answer.  Just recycle the same story with a few different numbers...

The missing promise

There was some talk a couple of weeks ago that the Tories’ manifesto had been sent to London to be censored, so as to eliminate any commitments with which the UK Party was unhappy.  Not having seen the drafts, it’s difficult for outsiders to spot what is missing, obviously.
There is, though, one glaring omission, I thought when I read it.  The party’s economic commission, under Dylan Jones-Evans, produced a report not long ago with a number of recommendations in it.  There was no doubt in my mind, from the way that Dylan presented it, and from my own reading of it, that the one single proposal seen as being most important was the variation of Corporation Tax.
However, it is nowhere to be found in the published document.  It means that the party is putting forward an economic policy which its own commission would recognise as being less than optimal.

Monday 18 April 2011

Bland and blander

With all four main parties now having published their manifestos, people can compare and contrast.  Well, compare, anyway; contrasting is a lot more difficult with so much overlap between the four parties on just about everything.  Much of the content could simply be swapped from one manifesto to any one of the others.
In his column in the Western Mail on Saturday, Matt Withers came to a similar conclusion.  I entirely agree with his comment that “essentially these four documents are all about make (sic) a case for being the most competent managers.”  We are not really being asked to decide between alternative routes forward for Wales; just between four leaders who want to take us to pretty much the same place, but all claiming that they can drive better than the others.
I don’t doubt that all four parties would try to argue that the statement is not true, and each would say that they (and they alone) have got some really big and original ideas in their manifestos – but that’s more about rhetoric and spin than about substance.
I also agree with his comment on the language in which the manifestos are couched.  Far too many of what look like promises are actually preceded by words such as seek, try, work towards, consider, examine, investigate, review, strive, develop, encourage…  None of these can be taken as firm promises, but discounting every ‘promise’ which starts with such weasel words would leave some very thin documents.
I cannot, though, agree with his conclusion that “the days of ideological warfare are over”.  The fact that the four main parties have chosen to converge in the same ideological territory doesn’t mean that there is no alternative which can be put.  It just means that we shouldn’t expect to see that alternative actually being put by the leaders of any of these parties.

Friday 15 April 2011

More on 'funding gaps'

MH at Syniadau points out a mathematical howler in an article by the Lib Dem policy officer on WalesHome today.  In fairness, it isn’t the first time that I’ve seen the ‘average spend per pupil in Wales is £600 less than in England’ turned into ‘Wales spends £600 less on every child’, which I suspect is at the root of the error.  Not everyone understands the difference between the two statements (although Policy Officers should).
Misunderstanding what the so-called funding gap is telling us is pretty common, sadly.  I’ve seen more than one politician trying to claim that the gap can be plugged by switching spending from the central local authority costs, and passing the money direct to schools.  But the statistical paper which indentified the size of the gap makes it clear that the gap is not an expression of the differences in the amounts reaching schools, it’s an expression of the total spend on education per pupil. 
Passing a greater proportion of total spend to schools may, or may not, be a good thing; there are a range of issues to consider.  But the Local Authority central costs are already included in the comparison, and giving individual schools in Wales a higher proportion of the lower total Welsh budget does absolutely nothing to close the ‘funding gap’.  It can be closed only in two ways – increasing Welsh total educational spend, or decreasing English total educational spend.
Certainly, the use of PFI in England will be one factor leading to a greater educational spend – where it has been used, the total costs of providing equivalent premises will be higher.  That’s no reason to emulate the English spending pattern, though.  It simply indicates that different approaches to financing can make the figures less comparable. 
(And, as an aside, Plaid Cymru are proposing a change, the side effect of which may well be to increase the apparent ‘funding gap’ by taking the cost of providing school buildings out of the education budgets.  It doesn’t actually mean a reduction in spending though; it might just look like one in the relevant stats.)
My real criticism of the approach being taken by the Lib Dems to the ‘funding gap’ is that they only seem to be looking at the spend, not the effect of the spend.  For all I know, the English spend could be higher because they’re just running the education service less efficiently, and if that were true, it certainly would not follow that our school children are losing out as a result.  For a party which has made ‘cutting unnecessary expenditure’ the keynote of its campaign, calling for an increase in spending on any service purely because England spends more seems more than a little incongruous.
I don’t know whether we’re spending enough on education to give our children the start in life they need and deserve.  I suspect not, but simply comparing our expenditure with someone else’s is never going to answer that question satisfactorily.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Helping our neighbours

The Lib Dem manifesto has a handy little table at the end setting out where they will make savings and where they will spend more.  Apparently, they're planning to spend £1.5 million a year on a clinic in Camden.  And I thought that foreign aid was a non-devolved matter...

Spotting the difference

Putting a title on a manifesto can be harder than writing the content sometimes.  The titles of the two that I’ve seen so far (For a Better Wales, and Wales Can Do Better) remind me of the competitions that they used to run on the back of cereal packets – combine the words ‘Wales’ and ‘Better’ into a phrase of 6 words or less to describe why you would choose X.  We could then disqualify any party which failed to meet the set criteria.
Perhaps when I’ve seen them all I’ll be better placed to identify the differences of substance rather than of rhetoric, but to date there is a large degree of overlap.  For me, a genuine USP isn’t just about saying something that no-one else is saying; it’s about saying something that no-one else could say, because it’s based on a different set of values or aims.
Alternatively, maybe we should just use the approach to differentiation which Betsan and Vaughan seem to be pioneering – count the spelling, grammar, and typographical errors in the manifestos and associated press releases and rank the parties accordingly.  The question is, though – what do we vote for, the highest score, or the lowest?

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Grants, loans and vigorous wooing

The comparison between the relative success of the different parts of the UK in attracting new jobs made for interesting reading.  Clearly, Scotland is doing well – certainly better than Wales – in attracting inward investment.  What’s less clear though are the reasons for that better performance.
Certainly, the Scottish Government seems to have spent a lot of time and effort wooing potential investors, and to have been effective in so doing.  That need for long term persistent relationship-building was a point which Dylan Jones-Evans highlighted a while ago.  The focus provided for their efforts by Scottish Development International will ring some bells with those of us who rue the way in which the WDA baby was thrown out with the bathwater when it was merged into the Civil Service.
But one of the main points seems to be the fact that the Scottish Government has retained more of a system of grants than Wales has, and is able to offer more money to companies locating there.  For companies looking to the bottom line, significant financial incentives will always be a major factor.
That doesn’t make it right though, and I find myself somewhat torn between recognising the need to compete on the one hand, and the feeling that such competition is ultimately self-defeating on the other.  Cash payments to companies to encourage them to build their factories and offices in one place rather than another may buy jobs in the short term, but they also encourage a bidding war where different areas seek to compete by offering ever larger handouts.  And they encourage companies to think about moving again (or at least to say that they are thinking of doing so) in order to seek further future subsidies.
The approach also shifts an element of the risk - sometimes a significant element - from private capital to the taxpayer, whilst leaving the rewards safely in private hands.  But if everyone else is doing it, can we afford not to?
The great promise of the ERP was that it would switch the emphasis away from attracting inward investment towards developing indigenous companies.  But progress has been slow – painfully so – and it has sometimes looked as though internal reorganisation has taken priority over customer-facing action.   It also looks as though we have phased out the old before the new was really ready to start.
Wales needs action, and it needs that action to be faster than that of which government has to date shown itself capable.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Exaggerated hyperbole

On the basis of their performance so far, it looks to me as if the Lib Dems are going to be struggling to keep their daily wastewatch going through the whole period of the election.  I’m not sure that it was a particularly good idea in the first place to focus on alleged Labour-Plaid waste; it’s too much like motherhood and apple pie for me.  After all, no-one is going to stand up and say that they’re in favour of waste are they?
(Although, actually, the Tory Finance spokesperson came close to doing so a month ago, when she criticised ‘excessive waste’.  The conclusion which I drew is that ordinary non-excessive waste is OK.  That’s what happens when people use superfluous adjectives in pursuit of a nice-sounding phrase.)
But back to the Lib Dems.  Their little series hasn’t even started particularly well. 
The example that they gave us on Day 2 was that Labour-Plaid had lost 31 laptops, 10 Blackberries and 6 mobile phones.  To make this stand up as a valid accusation, they would need firstly to show that that is a very poor performance in relation to any other body of similar size (because, like it or not, all organisations suffer such losses from time to time), and secondly to demonstrate exactly how the politicians in charge were responsible for and/or could have prevented such losses.  Failed on both counts.
Then, on Day 7, they told us that Labour-Plaid had spent too much on external consultants, whilst recognising that expert advice is sometimes necessary.  So, Goldilocks, how much is ‘just enough’?  Answer was there none.  All they can really say is ‘less than the other parties’.
Criticising waste is easy, and it may even grab a few headlines.  But fighting a Welsh general election on the premise that a Lib Dem Government would lose fewer laptops serves only to demonstrate a paucity of real ideas. 
The problem though is wider than that.  I suppose that the Lib Dems really are too irrelevant to deserve the effort of a serious media debunking of this sort of stuff.  But I’ve seen all the parties making statements which are open to serious challenge and getting away with it. 
There are times when it looks as if the media see their responsibility as just reporting what people are saying, but they’d be doing us all more of a service – and perhaps making the election a bit more interesting – if they were to start dissecting the exaggerated hyperbole and forcing people to defend their glib statements.

Friday 8 April 2011

On the buses

I’m not sure that it’s always helpful to refer to anything and everything which people get for ‘free’ as a ‘benefit’.  It’s linguistically accurate, of course, in the sense that people benefit from it, but it seems to be confusing – perhaps deliberately in some cases – the issue of benefits for ‘the needy’ with the issue of services provided at no cost at the point of use. 
But I’m inclined to think about the second category as being more a case of ‘collective purchase’ of services; and the reasons for deciding to purchase some services collectively can be much wider than merely the matter of whether the recipients need or deserve the services concerned.
Taking bus passes as an example, not everyone approaches the issue from the same perspective.  I don’t really consider free bus passes as being a ‘benefit’ in the narrow sense.  There are a number of reasons why we might decide to give cheap access to public transport (and ‘free’, in this context, is merely a special case of ‘cheap’) to some or all groups in society, not least the environmental advantages of getting people out of cars and into buses. 
My support for free public transport for pensioners and other groups is not, therefore, based solely on the idea of identifying ‘need’, either at a personal level or at a group level.  Nor is it based on the extent to which such a policy is popular, or even populist. 
Yet populism seems to be the main issue, when it comes down to the way in which the parties present their take on this policy; or rather, populism plus an attempt to hit the right emotional buttons in identifying which groups should receive the ‘benefit’.  It looks as though there is no longer any argument about the principle between the four parties about the question (in Wales, at least – the UK parties may be a different issue); the debate is solely about which groups should benefit. 
I suppose that we should welcome the Tories’ conversion, just as I sort of welcomed the Lib Dems’ conversion to free prescriptions yesterday; but (again, in a parallel with yesterday’s comments) I can’t help wondering if they’ve really changed their minds at all, or simply recognised the unpopularity of their previous position.
I also wonder how important this issue really is in terms of the electoral contest in May.  It no longer tells us very much about underlying values and principles, which means it’s of little real use in distinguishing between parties and their policies.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Politicians of principle

The Lib Dems’ flip-flop on prescription charges is really too easy a target, as Vaughan pointed out yesterday.  Free prescriptions have gone from being an example of wasteful and unnecessary expenditure to being a key element of the party’s health policy.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with any party changing its policy, and I suppose we should all be pleased that the Lib Dems have seen the light.  Keynes famously said that “When the facts change, I change my mind.”; so the question going through my mind is simply this – “Which are the facts that have changed, as far as the Lib Dems are concerned?”.
In 2007, their then health spokesperson declared that “Free prescriptions for all sounds great on election leaflets”, before proceeding to set out why, even though it might be a popular policy, they thought that it was the wrong one.  Presumably, their own election leaflets will look a bit better this year as a result of their change of heart, but surely the policy change can’t just be down to an acceptance that free prescriptions are popular?  Responsible politicians wouldn’t just support something that they’d previously argued was wrong in principle for such an unprincipled reason would they?

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Tackling the symptoms

There are some fine words from Nick Clegg in his foreword to the UK Government’s strategy for social mobility.  Fairness, he says, is a society “Where birth is never destiny”, and he goes on to say, “In Britain today, life chances are narrowed for too many by the circumstances of their birth: the home they’re born into, the neighbourhood they grow up in or the jobs their parents do. Patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next.”  I think it’s fair, then, to judge the strategy on whether or not it tackles that fundamental unfairness.
He has certainly identified a very important point, which is that we live in a society where life chances are determined more by who our parents are and how much wealth or income they have than by any considerations of talent and ability.  As the document itself states very early on, “The income and social class of parents continue to have a huge bearing on a child’s chances”.
The problem is, though, that although they appear to have identified the cause, the strategy seems to vacillate between describing it as causality and correlation.  I suspect that that is largely because the whole strategy is about dealing with the symptoms, and completely avoids any actions aimed at reducing the underlying inequalities; to fully recognise those as being causal would only serve to underline the failure to tackle them.  In short, the basic inequality is taken as a given, and the government plans to concentrate its efforts on trying to mitigate the effects of that inequality.
I’m not against trying to mitigate the symptoms; anything that helps some is better than nothing.  But the result of this strategy, I fear, is that it cannot and will not live up to the worthy words of its sponsor.  Wealth and privilege will continue to give unfair advantages to the children of the wealthy and privileged.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Greening the nation

I noted previously that I’d received two coherent responses on the issue of a possible USP for Plaid if the party is no longer going to distinguish its position primarily on the question of constitutional change.  I mentioned the first last week; the second was to argue that Plaid in Wales should seek to occupy the slot which the Green Party occupies in England. 
It’s an option which would build on the excellent work which the party has done over many years (led by Dr Phil and Cynog some years ago, and more recently by people like Leanne with initiatives such as her work on the Valleys Greenprint) to create and present a credible ‘green’ alternative vision of Wales.  A ‘green’ approach must also incorporate a robust stance on equality of access to resources, another attractive feature.
It is still problematic though, for three main reasons.
The first is that, whilst it might be identifying a defining feature which would set Plaid apart from the other three parties currently represented in the Assembly, it isn’t the same defining feature which led to many of the party’s members joining it.  That doesn’t invalidate it; it just means that it would be a mistake to assume that such a change in mission would carry everyone with it.
The second is that the objective of those who are taking the party to the centre ground to win elections appears to be to get away from expressing views which might polarise opinion and/or appeal only to a minority.  It’s the operation of Hotelling’s Law.  A ‘green’ future merely swaps one currently limited range of appeal for another.  Like arguing for the concept of Independence, it depends on being willing to say what is right rather than simply that which will not put people off. 
But the third, and most relevant, is that there is already a party in that part of the political spectrum.  It might be small and ineffective (and not particularly strong on the ‘national question’) but to displace it means that the commitment to green issues of the party seeking to do the displacing would need to be strong, robust, and consistent.
And that’s where the problem lies.  It’s not that Plaid’s formal policies have not been sufficiently robust; it’s simply that the presentation of those policies in practice often seems to depend on the commitment of individual candidates, and on what might prove popular in their own constituencies.  There is a lack of overall coherence as a result.
I’d start with energy policy.  Most people who are serious about tackling man’s impact on the planet would agree that energy policy is absolutely central, but Plaid’s stance on energy has become at best confused.
I have tried to explain on more than one occasion (on this blog and elsewhere) that the fact that the party leader supports the building of a new nuclear power station at Wylfa does not change the party’s position at all.  During last year’s election, I found myself on a number of hustings panels, and whenever this issue came up, I quoted Plaid’s official policy.  The rather different stance taken by Ieuan was the obvious and immediate rejoinder thrown at me each time. 
It is not comfortable for a national officer of the party to be repeatedly and publicly dissociating himself, and the party, from the position taken by the leader.  And to be blunt, the more I did it, the less credible it felt.  My conclusion is that a party cannot credibly claim to be against something if its leader is saying the opposite, no matter how many times people repeat the point.  I’ve tried it. 
And at last year’s Plaid conference, it became clear to me that Ieuan is far from being alone in his inability to support Plaid’s opposition to nuclear energy – a number of other elected members and candidates took to the rostrum to support him.  As I said at the time, there is a danger that the party appears to be against nuclear power stations only in locations where no-one wants to build them anyway (leading to Gareth Hughes questioning how such a sceptic could have got into the conference at all).
It isn’t just the leader who’s sometimes at odds with Plaid’s policy on energy.  During last year’s election, a candidate and AM in one constituency put out a statement saying that ‘Plaid Cymru’ was calling for a 2km buffer zone around any new wind farm.  It was a classic case of ‘invent-a-policy’ as a basis for opposing the construction of unpopular wind farms in their own area, but it had never been discussed or agreed by anyone else in the party.  In response to questions, I ended up distancing myself from that statement as well.
For the last four years, Plaid has been part of a government which has produced a forward-looking and imaginative energy policy under which Wales would move away from the use of fossil fuels.  Yet last year’s conference was faced with an amendment on energy policy submitted by the Assembly group, which was passed, which effectively supported greater use of coal, thereby seriously undermining the party’s commitment to a fossil fuel free future.
So, to summarise Plaid’s current energy policy in practice, rather than in theory, the party is:
·                in favour of meeting all our needs from renewable energy;
·                against burning fossil fuels, particularly coal; and
·                supports renewable energy projects,
unless local candidates feel that:
·                supporting non-renewable generation will win votes;
·                producing and burning fossil fuels will lead to more jobs; or
·                renewable energy projects will prove unpopular.
That is simply not a basis on which any party could even begin to think about occupying the position on the spectrum currently held by the Green Party.  Against this background, if people are going to support a green party, why ever would they not simply choose the real thing?  It’s a plausible option for the future only for a party which has a coherent and credible policy, consistently presented.

Monday 4 April 2011

Parties and differences

I never met Brynle Williams, but from the tributes paid to him, he obviously got along well with political friends and opponents alike.  I was struck by two points in particular in the glowing tributes paid to him.
The first was from Dafydd Elis Thomas, who said “he could have probably stood for at least three parties”.  He left unstated which one he was less certain about.  Some might jump to the conclusion that, as a Conservative and Unionist, the most likely party to be the odd one out in this context would be Plaid, although I rather suspect that Dafydd was actually thinking about the Labour Party.
The second quote was from Brynle’s former researcher, who went further and said “he could have fitted in to any party, and they’d all have been pleased to have him”.
The two quotes set me thinking, and I found myself wondering how many AMs I could think of who really could fit into one and only one party.  It wasn’t a very long list.  Then I thought about how many could actually slot quite easily into two, three, or even all four parties – and came up with a rather longer list.
The names on the lists are unimportant; no doubt some would agree with me on some, but not on others.  The point is that an ability to imagine some of our politicians fitting so easily into a multiplicity of parties tells us something about political positioning. 
The degree of consensus in the Bay is far too cosy, it seems to me. 

Friday 1 April 2011

The real spoof

It's that day of the year when we need to be careful about believing what we read in the papers or see on the television; there's always someone out to fool us.

The Western Mail carried a story about having to wear goggles to visit the casino in Swansea.  (Can't find an online link; perhaps they think their web pages are too serious for this sort of stuff.)  Not bad, but they blamed European legislation for the new ruling, and that's a bit too hackneyed for me.  I'm sure that they've used the same basis for their spoofs several times before.

Welsh Ramblings went totally over the top in this post, so far so as to make it obvious that (s)he was having us on.  Update:  Seems Ramblings had second thoughts about calling for an Iraq-style overthrow of Castro, even in jest, and the post has been removed, so this link no longer works.

I always think the best ones are those that are almost indistinguishable from real news, so for me the best spoof was this one produced by the BBC and the Tories, in which David Cameron apparently claimed that the Tories were 'delivering for Wales', and tried to take the credit for lower public spending cuts in Wales.  It gave me more of a laugh than the other spoofs did, at any rate.