Tuesday 31 May 2011

Tangoing with the Tories

At the time of the 2007 Assembly election, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether Plaid would, or would not, enter a coalition with one of other of the parties in the Assembly.  It wasn’t always popular with the electors, though – I found a number of people telling me something along the lines of “If you go in with Labour/the Tories (delete as applicable), I’ll never vote for Plaid again”
Overall, the numbers deleting ‘Labour’ from that sentence were roughly equal to the number deleting ‘the Tories’.  It was of course a constituency where Labour and Tory supporters were fairly evenly balanced – as the eventual result showed.  I can imagine that the balance would be significantly more one-sided in the many constituencies in Wales where Labour have a large amount of traditional support and the Tories are close to non-existent.
I can understand, therefore, why Helen Mary would feel that, had Plaid ruled out any alliance with the Tories, she would still be AM.  Where a majority is as wafer-thin as that gained by Labour in Llanelli, a single factor such as that might well have made the difference.  But I’m not convinced that it is thus in the interests of either Plaid or Wales to respond to the 2011 election by explicitly ruling out working with the Tories.
Certainly, if Plaid is going to rule it out, it’s better to do it well in advance of any future election than to do it after the polls closed as happened earlier this month.  I was not alone in my incredulity at that one.  There is, though, a wider question about why the party would want to rule it out, and it comes right back to my questioning of what Plaid is trying to achieve.
If a national party’s main objective is to bring about self-government for Wales, and to take whatever opportunities that arise in the interim to move towards that, then it must surely be prepared to work with whichever party is most willing to facilitate the next step.  Now, it might be argued that the Tories are unlikely to be that party; that would be a valid and very pragmatic reason for ruling out working with them at a given point in time, but not necessarily for ever. 
For instance, if the Tories were to talk about moving to a formal federal set-up (David Melding has already got to that point, and it’s entirely conceivable that Cameron will get there at some stage as he tries to deal with both a referendum on Scottish Independence and a demand for ‘English votes on English issues’ from within his own ranks), then would a nationalist party really want to rule out working with them to achieve that, and argue that it should instead only work with a Labour Party which puts forward a much more limited programme of change?
Alternatively, it might be argued that Plaid has a strong commitment to decentralised socialism and cannot therefore ever work with a right wing centralist party like the Tories.  That’s a valid line, as far as it goes; but what then is the distinguishing feature between say Blair’s Labour and Cameron’s Tories which makes one acceptable and the other not?  On a rational basis, it’s hard to see one – and this was one of the issues where Plaid really struggled to demonstrate a clear narrative during the recent election and in the immediate aftermath.  Were they saying ‘Labour-Tory, all the same’, or were they saying ‘Tories are savage reactionaries and Labour are part of a progressive consensus’?  At times they appeared to be saying both, but they cannot both be true.
The third possible reason for ruling out ever working with the Tories is the hard-nosed electoral one.  There are many in Wales who do not simply dislike the Tories; there is a degree of hatred which is visceral.  It tends to be almost inherited rather than based on a reasoned analysis of the two parties’ respective policies.  Labour do everything in their power to keep the attitude alive and strong; it is in their own electoral interest to do so.
As long as it is thus, it might well be in the short-term electoral interests of Plaid to ‘go with the flow’ and simply rule out working with the Tories.  But there is a need to recognise that the main beneficiary of an approach which reinforces Labour’s narrative about the differences between themselves and the Tories will be Labour.
There is a phrase much-loved by consultants to describe the way in which many organisations work – ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’.  But, generally speaking, organisations achieve more if they aim before firing.

Friday 27 May 2011

Over-riding local views

One of the cornerstones of my own political outlook is the idea that democracy should be both as local as possible and as participatory as possible.  But one of the big stumbling blocks is “what happens if, or rather when, local people take the ‘wrong’ decision?”.  It’s when nice idealistic theory meets hard practical reality.
The UK Government has got itself into a bit of a corner on the question this week, over the establishment of a site to bury low level radioactive waste.  What makes it harder for them is that the minister who’s taken the decision is the same Communities Minister who’s trumpeting localism as a principle, and piloting the Localism Bill through parliament.
Unfortunately for the government, albeit entirely predictably, the people living in the area of the proposed tip don’t want it.  In a local referendum, 98% of them voted against it; and the local county council voted unanimously against it as well.  I suspect that most, if not all, local communities would react in similar fashion to such a proposal.
The government have, of course, relied on ‘expert advice’ that the site will not be ‘harmful’ in coming to their decision to ignore local opinion.  Well, yes; but the experts aren’t necessarily local, and decision-making on the basis of expert advice isn’t the same thing as empowering local communities.  Nor is ‘expert advice’ in itself sufficient reason to disregard local opinion.
It’s not a situation which is unique to the question of nuclear waste.  There are parallels with the protest earlier this week outside the National Assembly against the infrastructure which will be needed to transmit power from mid-Wales windfarms to the National Grid.  In both cases, the government is trying to implement a cohesive overall policy, whereas local opinion is opposed to the impact on themselves.
By stretching the point just a little, we could also draw a parallel with some EU decisions, where ‘local’ opinion – even if ‘local’ means the UK – sometimes opposes those decisions.
In every case, the larger body, I am sure, would argue that it is acting for the greater good of the whole.
In the specific, it’s clear that nuclear waste has to be disposed of somewhere, and ultimately it is the responsibility of government to identify where.  But they shouldn’t expect the waste to be welcomed with open arms, wherever they decide to put it.
The underlying quandary is one with which I’ve long struggled.  How local is local, and how much decision-making should be local?  And, for those of us who believe that power is not something which comes from the centre and can be passed down, but something which belongs to the people in the first place, on what grounds should other people ever over-ride local wishes?
The legalistic answer would be that parliament has determined which powers reside where, and parliament has given the minister the right to over-ride local opinion in this case.  My problem with that is that parliament’s right to decide is predicated on the assumption that the power belongs to parliament (on behalf of the sovereign, naturally) in the first place.
Some suggest a ‘financial’ answer, based around an input of cash into the local community from either the government or the developers so that they see some direct benefit from accepting an unwelcome proposal.  Others see that as a form of bribery.
A more honest answer is that communities sometimes have to pay a price for belonging to a greater whole; membership of a wider community has both benefits and costs.  Building a more localised society and maintaining the consent of the governed requires rather more work in spelling out that balance, and that communities accept it.  What governments generally do in practice, though, is to simply carry on regardless.
If it is to be more than a mere slogan, building a more localised and empowered network of communities requires a complete change of approach, which seeks the active participation and support of local communities rather than just using raw power.  It depends on a more informed populace as well. 
It’s about more than simply persuasion; it’s a different paradigm.  Believing that it can be achieved by passing legislation or offering cash rewards simply shows how little some politicians really understand the issue.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Independence or irrelevance?

Gareth Hughes posts some interesting comments on the post-election analysis being conducted by Plaid, and BlogMenai responds with some counter comments of his own.  I don’t entirely agree with either of them.
I think that Gareth is right to draw attention to the point that a nationalist party whose leadership seems to be afraid of articulating the party’s aims is in deep trouble in an environment where all the other parties have come to support the concept of a legislative parliament which will inevitably increase in power over the coming years and decades.  It’s a point which I’ve made many times before – it’s like taking away the unique proposition.
I’m not sure that I agree with the rest of his analysis though.  The impression that I had was that the SNP sold themselves in the recent election as being very much the best people to run Scotland, much the same as Plaid attempted to do in Wales. 
There were two key differences though.  The first is that the SNP has never been afraid of the I-word; the reason they don’t need to reiterate it all the time is because it’s taken as a given.  And the second is that they had Alex Salmond.  The comparison between Alex and the leaders of the other parties in Scotland worked in a way that a similar comparison in Wales was never going to work.
MH at Syniadau posted an interesting article a few days ago on the situation in the Basque country.  I don’t really like using terms such as left and right; they’re not very helpful on the whole.  In this case, though, it’s hard to avoid without a lot more verbiage.  It looks as though the pro-Independence ‘left’ has finally got its act together and formed an electoral alliance to fight the local and regional elections there.  The result has been that the elections largely became a contest between the pro-Independence ‘left’ and the pro-Independence ‘centre-right’, with the pro-Union ‘left’ and ‘right’ coming off badly as a result.
I’m always cautious about reading across from one country to another; circumstances are very different and there is a limit to the usefulness of any analogy.  But the underlying principle here – that the contest is no longer between unionists and nationalists, but between different flavours of nationalism – is one that has a certain resonance for me.  It’s related to the point I made in a recent article on ClickonWales – it’s a transition from politics based on the relationship between Euskadi and others to a politics which assumes an outcome to that question and starts to debate in more detail what sort of country Euskadi can become.
At one level, it’s a very long way from where we are in Wales; the level of autonomy already achieved, and the level of autonomy taken as read for the next stage of debate, are both very much more advanced than the position in Wales.  But at another level, in a very different political climate, there is a sort of parallel.  Although three of the parties represented in our Assembly are Welsh branches of UK parties, we did, nevertheless, have a Welsh election fought on Welsh manifestos by four parties all of which support the existence of a legislative Welsh parliament, and all of which, albeit with differing degrees of enthusiasm, support the transfer of further powers to that Assembly.
In that climate, I don’t think that BlogMenai is right to say that the choice is to advocate Independence or become irrelevant; I think it’s between advocating Independence and adopting a clear and unique position on the sort of Wales which will emerge from the devolution process.  The problem with the recent election was that Plaid attempted to avoid doing either of those things, and became indistinguishable from the rest as a result.
There’s nothing wrong with moving to a position where Welsh politics becomes more normalised in a ‘left-right’ debate about the sort of Wales which we want to see, based on an underlying assumption that gradual increases in the level of autonomy are now inevitable.  Indeed, that would be a maturing of Welsh national politics.  Personally, I think it’s a premature move, but it seems pretty much inevitable in the absence of a party campaigning strongly on the constitutional question. 
But if that is where we are going, the idea that one of the parties competing in that arena can somehow manage to contain views from across the whole political spectrum starts to look untenable.  The only possible outcome from that is a failure to offer a clear and coherent alternative narrative – and that absence of a clear and distinct political position is what would lead to irrelevance.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

An offer we can't refuse

Devolved power over taxation, in the form likely to be ‘given’ by the UK Government is something of a double-edged sword.  I can understand why the Labour manifesto for the Assembly elections tried to rule it out, although it wasn’t a very realistic stance to take.
I can understand as well why they’ve now shifted their position to that put forward in Plaid’s Assembly manifesto, which is that it needs to be discussed as part of a package which also includes fair funding for Wales.  I’m not sure that position is any more realistic though.
As Eurfyl ap Gwilym has pointed out, taxation powers are likely to be ‘given’ to Wales whether we want them or not; trying to refuse them or make acceptance conditional seems unlikely to deter the UK government.  It’s also dubious politics; whilst people will naturally be hesitant about the possibility that they might have to pay higher taxes, I suspect that most people will readily understand the anomaly of a government which can spend money but not raise it.
It doesn’t follow, of course, that the tax levels in Wales have to be any different after tax powers are devolved than they are now.  Provided that the associated variation in the block grant precisely matches the amount of money which would be raised by keeping taxes at the same level – which ought to be the case, initially at least – then the Assembly’s income is unaltered.  It might be argued that that makes the whole exercise a little pointless.  In practical terms, it probably does; but it establishes the principle that tax-varying powers can and should be devolved.
Unless Scotland is somehow to be excluded from any Barnett reform, I think we can take it as read that any move to ‘fair funding’ through the block grant is now off the table until at least after the referendum on Scottish Independence.  So, whilst associating the two issues during the discussions with London might look like a good idea to the Labour Party, it simply isn’t going to happen in practice.
What would be more constructive is to widen the debate to include borrowing powers, and a wider range of taxes which can be varied.  I’m sceptical about the over-concentration on income tax in the discussions to date.  It’s a tax which provides a major source of government revenue, as well as being the most visible tax from the point of view of the taxpayers, both of which are ‘good’ in terms of ensuring fiscal responsibility.
However my argument for devolved taxation revolves not simply around that issue of fiscal responsibility, but around the question of giving the Welsh Government more power over the economy of Wales.  And that requires control of a number of different taxes, and the ability to vary them in different ways at different times.
Rather than trying to constrain and limit what the UK Government is proposing by seeking conditions which are extremely unlikely to be conceded, it would be far better for the Welsh Government to grasp the opportunity with both hands and seek to widen the remit of which taxes are devolved.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Who makes the laws?

I’m not particularly interested in what the footballer and the model did or did not do, wherever they did or did not do it.  And I don’t really understand why so many people apparently are interested in the salacious detail.  But the case does serve to underline the difference between matters in which some of the public may be interested, and matters where there is a public interest – they are not the same thing at all.
The judges have been doing what judges have always done in English law – trying to interpret what parliament actually meant when it passed legislation which contains inherent contradictions, such as the right to free speech and the right to privacy.  That’s not to say that the judges have got it right, but they are at least recognising that such rights cannot be absolute, but most be constrained when they infringe the rights of others.
There are three aspects of the incident which do concern me though.
The first is that, whilst in theory we all have the same rights, access to the law is differentially distributed – there is one law for most of us, and another for those with enough money to use the power of the law.  That cannot be right or fair, but that doesn’t mean that undermining the rights of the well-off is the right way to resolve that inequality.
The second is about parliamentary privilege.  There is no doubt that the concept of parliamentary privilege has been a powerful safeguard over the years, and it is with reluctance that I suggest curtailing it.  But surely, parliamentary privilege should not be so absolute that MPs and Lords can flout the law with impunity and undermine the rights which parliament has legislated for others to have, as well as undermining the legal processes themselves. 
And the third is the concept that the internet has now become so globalised and ubiquitous that any privacy law becomes unenforceable.  It appears to be a true statement, but there’s something akin to mob rule at work here which worries me as a precedent. 
It’s always been the case – even if the law doesn’t explicitly say as much – that government depends on the consent of the governed.  If the governed, or a sufficiently large proportion of them, withdraw that consent, then government becomes impossible.  Faced with tyranny or dictatorship, the courage of the governed to say ‘no more’ has often been the factor which leads to change. 
But the power of globalised electronic communication is doing something else here – it is allowing a determined if disparate set of individuals to make democratically determined laws unworkable.  In pursuit of what greater good, exactly?
It’s a genie that cannot be returned to its bottle, but I wonder where it will end.

Friday 20 May 2011

So - was it worth it?

If One Wales was part good, part bad, and part ugly, was it worth doing overall?  It’s hard to make an assessment of what would otherwise have happened; there’s inevitably an element of subjectivity and guesswork. 
Taking the Good first:
I don’t think that we would have had the Holtham Commission without One Wales – and that has to be a major plus point for the agreement.
I don’t think that we would have had the new language Measure either – at least not in as comprehensive a form.
Whether we would have had the referendum is a more open question.  We certainly would not have had it under the Rainbow option for which Plaid’s leader and many others were initially so enthusiastic, and I don’t think we would have had it under a minority Labour Government either.  Whether Carwyn Jones would have decided to go for it in this new term is also open to question; some say he would have done, but I’m inclined to think that he would have waited at least another term, until the reduced number of MPs had been elected on new boundaries, thereby reducing his own internal opposition.
Turning to the Bad:
Had Plaid Cymru remained in opposition to a minority Labour government, I’m convinced that Labour would have been unable to get their change of policy on tuition fees through the Assembly; it would have remained a matter of principle for more AMs.  What would have happened under the Rainbow is a more open question.
Absence of One Wales would have made no significant difference on the question of a Welsh daily newspaper, or on the implementation of government policies on small schools or Welsh medium education.
And in summary, therefore, most of the Bad that I noted would still have happened, but we would have lost some important elements of the Good.  Purely on a comparison between the Good and the Bad, therefore, it seems to me that One Wales did more good than harm from the point of view of the national project.
But it’s the Ugly that is the killer for me, because it blunted the one force which had previously been so responsible for shaping the debate about the future of Wales.  Whether permanently or purely temporarily is something that remains unclear at this point.
Actually this was one of the things that most concerned me about entering One Wales in the first place.  I was never convinced that the party was being led with a sufficiently clear sense of direction to be able to both make and justify short term compromises whilst also being able to continue to present a more far-reaching vision of how things can be.  Without that, pragmatism replaces idealism rather than supports it.
I’ve never opposed the idea that Plaid should be willing and ready to take responsibility – even shared responsibility as a junior partner – for the government of Wales. 
And, unlike some former colleagues, I don’t see that Labour and the Conservatives are so different, in the context of longer term ambitions for Wales, that there should be any axiomatic differentiation between them as potential coalition partners.  There are sound political considerations and significant practical difficulties in terms of policy agreements for taking a different view about the two, but no great issues of principle as far as I’m concerned.  Treating the Tories as untouchables is playing to the Labour agenda.
But any coalition or agreement should have clear objectives, rooted in the context of the wider aspirations, which move the project along in definable ways.  And people should not be afraid or embarrassed about stating where compromises are being made, and especially not afraid of enunciating clearly what the preferred option would have been in such cases.
Failing to do that, and trying to insist on absolute loyalty and support for a compromise programme as though it were the real thing, is to ape the binary (government-opposition) model which operates in Westminster, and to lose an opportunity to create a very different and more pluralistic kind of politics here in Wales.  Copying a model that we know is always easier than devising a new model, but that doesn’t make it the best solution.
Many are talking about a change of leadership as though that will solve the problems, but it is really only part of the solution.  The problem is also one of institutionalisation; those who are part of an establishment have ended up conforming to, and working within, its norms, limitations, and culture. 
Westminster has frequently been described as being the best club in London; there is a danger that the Senedd becomes the best club in Cardiff.  It doesn’t have to be that way, though.  There always seemed to be a certain inevitability about the final paragraph of Animal Farm, but if the other animals had realised what was happening sooner, I’m sure that they could have prevented it.

Thursday 19 May 2011

... and The Ugly.

I don’t recall precisely how and when Plaid spokespeople started to use the phrase ‘Plaid-driven’ to describe the government, but I felt from the outset that it was a mistake.  I don’t recall it ever being discussed with party officers outside the Bay, but it somehow slipped into widespread use.  It seriously compromised the party later though - to spend four years talking about the government being driven by Plaid, and supporting all government motions, and then start rubbishing the decisions of the Labour ministers looked, and was, disingenuous to put it politely. 
It was simply not a credible approach.  Dafydd Elis Thomas has recently talked about the negative campaign; more specifically, he talked about exactly this point – supporting government decisions for four years and then attacking those same decisions.  On this point, I agree with him.
But it goes further than that.  During the 2007 Assembly election, I was critical of the local Labour AM for having supported government decisions in vote after vote in the Assembly and then claiming to be leading the campaign against those same policies in the constituency.  I took a similar line with the Labour MP over post office closures.  I thought – and still think - that it was fair criticism. 
But what we’ve seen this year is some Plaid AMs doing exactly the same thing.  Spending four years voting through One Wales policies and then claiming to be campaigning against those same policies is simply not a credible or principled way of operating.  It looked as though Plaid had simply been sucked into the system and was trying to operate in the same way as the other parties, when what was needed was either more determination to oppose the policies in the Assembly itself, or else a more robust defence of them outside.  And I’d have greatly preferred the former.
Simplistic sloganeering is no substitute for critical analysis.  It felt at times as though there was an expectation that all Plaid members would say that everything the government did was good and everything the opposition said was bad.  That’s nonsense.  It led, for instance, to the embarrassing interlude when Plaid spokespeople were claiming that ProAct and ReAct had somehow protected Wales from recession, on the basis of a single month’s employment figures.  Pure folly.  And it was exposed as such by subsequent months’ figures.
If Plaid is to be credible in the future, it needs to regain its ability to cast a critical eye over what government is doing – and subject its own government’s policies to the same level of scrutiny, however uncomfortable that might be at times.  The idea that government backbenchers are on committees to ensure that the government’s views prevail rather than to provide genuine scrutiny must be abandoned, and rapidly.  And those outside the Assembly should be less afraid to voice discordant views from time to time, particularly if they are merely reiterating agreed party policy.
Perhaps worst of all was the inability of some to accept that the party might sometimes say something different from the government.  Making and supporting a compromise is one thing; making out that that compromise is actually the right policy in principle is quite another.  Expecting the party to trim its policies to match those of the government is to deliberately lower horizons, and it’s a major part of the attitude which led to this year’s bland programme.
A party like Plaid, if it is to have any unique relevance, needs to have, and retain, a sense of vision about its purpose, as a context within which compromises can and must be made to drive things forward.  Seeing some members failing to hold to that vision and seeking to amend the party’s position to fit with that of the government was a depressing sight.
The rush of some to get back into government as quickly as possible looks from the outside as a failure to learn the key lessons.  I remain as convinced as ever that Plaid must always be willing to take on the responsibility of governing our nation, but it must do so from a position which is about rather more than simplistic and persistent pragmatism.  If that lesson is not learned, the party’s distinctiveness and mission will simply be further eroded.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

... The Bad ...

From my vantage point, the absolute low point of the One Wales years was the change of government policy on student fees.  Seeing Plaid AMs voting against one of the manifesto commitments on which they were elected was an uncomfortable moment, to say the least. 
Compromise in coalition is sometimes inevitable, and we all need to understand that, but the worst aspects of this episode were not to do with the making of the compromise itself, but the failure by some within the Assembly to recognise just how strongly some of us outside the Assembly felt on this issue, and the apparent expectation that the party would simply fall into line behind what the leader and the ministers had decided.
The failure to deliver on a daily newspaper in Welsh was another disappointment.  Again, though, it was the handling of it which caused me the most grief.  An honest statement that a pledge was being broken because the numbers simply didn’t stack up would have been immensely preferable to an attempt to argue that no pledge was being broken at all because there had never been any commitment to one particular option.  (There had not, of course, been a specific commitment to Y Byd, nor should there have been; but the simple and undeniable facts are that One Wales pledged a daily newspaper in Welsh - and there is still no such newspaper.)
It’s all very well developing exciting strategies, but they also need to be implemented.  I don’t think that I’m alone in feeling that production of strategies seems to have become an end in itself, and that once the strategies have been published, business carries on as before.  I don’t think I’m far away from Carwyn Jones on this one; we’ve probably got enough strategies to be going on with – let’s implement some of them, and do so with conviction and determination.
Locally in Carmarthenshire, the difference between words and actions - what the government said it was doing and what it actually did - came very much to the fore in the field of education.  I’ve posted on this a number of times, but for all its fine words on Welsh-medium education, the One Wales government was effectively an active participant in denying that opportunity to children in parts of Carmarthenshire.  Similarly, the drive from Cardiff to close small rural schools ran directly against what most of us had been saying for years.  Simply blaming the councils which were implementing government policy was not good enough.
And then, of course, there’s the economy.  I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to say that One Wales failed spectacularly – the Welsh Government doesn’t really have the tools and levers it needs to have the necessary degree of influence.  There is though, a tendency to suggest that they can achieve more than is ever actually going to be achievable, and that invites people to compare performance with the promise rather than with the achievable.  On that comparison, the failure looks worse than it should or need look – why oh why do politicians walk into that one?

Tuesday 17 May 2011

One Wales: The Good...

Now that it has come to an end, I’d like to think that the successes and failures of the One Wales period can be dissected a little more objectively than has tended to happen to date.  Supporters of the agreement tend to see only the good, whilst opponents see only the bad; and whether people want to rush into another similar agreement or not seems to depend on which side of that argument they find themselves.  In real life, there were some things that were good, some things that were bad, and some things which were downright ugly.
I’ll start with some of the good points, although this is not intended to be a comprehensive list.  And I make no apologies for looking at the issue from the standpoint of my own political outlook.
One of the things most frequently bandied about was that the hospital rationalisation programme of the previous Labour government was halted.  Technically, this actually happened before One Wales was agreed, so it isn’t a direct result of One Wales.  But One Wales would have been impossible without it, and Labour could read that writing on the wall.
I felt that one of the most positive things about One Wales wasn’t an outcome as such, it was the detail in which the programme was defined.  There is often a world of difference between what a party says in a manifesto and what it does once elected; the discipline of having a detailed written programme, which was essential to any decision by Plaid to enter coalition, gave a road-map to the government for a four year term.  It’s something that perhaps even single party governments might learn from.
The reports of the Holtham Commission were hugely significant.  Although Plaid had been banging on about the unfairness of Barnett for years, the reports of the Commission finally convinced the other parties.  Labour’s argument that it wasn’t necessary to do anything about it earlier because the squeeze didn’t apply when the settlement was generous might be technically correct, but it sounded a bit like saying that we didn’t need to fix the hole in the roof because it wasn’t raining.  Holtham changed the basis of the debate – in Wales, at least.
The calling and winning of a referendum on Part 4 of GOWA was undoubtedly a huge plus for the agreement.  I’ve noted before that the Lib Dems could legitimately claim a certain amount of credit for that, albeit by accident, but it was One Wales which delivered, and delivered handsomely.  The result has created a quite different sort of Assembly in Cardiff, and gives Wales a new basis for moving forward.
There can be little doubt that the Welsh Language Measure steered through by Alun Ffred was a major piece of legislation.  Sure, it doesn’t do everything that some of us would like, and there’s more to be done, but surely no-one can really believe that we would have had anything like this Measure without One Wales.
Some of the strategies produced by One Wales, such as on energy and the environment are extremely far-reaching.  The government took huge strides forward in recognising the importance of lowering Wales’ ecological footprint; and related to this was the switch in emphasis within the transport programme from road-building to public transport.  All of this creates a sound foundation for the future.
But not everything was perfect…

Monday 16 May 2011

There's this bloke down the pub, and he said...

I’ve commented before that I understand and can empathise with those who oppose windfarms on aesthetic grounds.  Whether such aesthetic considerations can or should outweigh the need to act on emissions is a rather more complex issue, however; and when opponents of windfarms start to go into technical detail, they frequently get it plain wrong.
There was a lengthy article in yesterday’s Sunday Times – hidden behind their paywall, I’m afraid, so I can’t link to it – by Frieda Hughes lamenting the construction of wind farms in the part of Wales where she has chosen to live.
She makes some good points, but also includes some absolute howlers.  What can one make for instance, of the statement that:
“We should not forget that the Welsh assembly also allowed the apparently unnecessary flooding of Welsh valleys to supply water for Birmingham.”
Her intention appears to be to challenge the credibility of the Assembly on TAN8.  That it undermines somebody's credibility is not in doubt; but it misses its intended target, and is a pretty spectacular own goal.
In a variation of the old ‘I know it’s true because I met this bloke down the pub, and he said…’, she also makes the astonishing claim that, if the power should fail in Aberystwyth, the entire Cefn Croes wind farm would only supply enough power to run one light bulb in each house.  Well, maybe, but the question I asked myself after a few quick sums was 'who’d want to sit in a room illuminated by a 5000 watt light bulb?'
The authority for this particular gem was the painter who was decorating every room in her house, and he knew because he’d recently been working at Cefn Croes…
Sadly, the power of the internet is such that I’d not be at all surprised to see these ‘facts’ slowly spread and replicate, reinforcing the prejudices of those who oppose windfarms.  It’s a pity, because it serves only to obscure serious debate.  What really surprises me though is that a ‘quality’ newspaper could have reproduced such claims at all, even as personal opinion.

Friday 13 May 2011

Off with their heads

I didn’t really doubt for a moment that Ieuan would eventually realise that his departure is a pre-condition for any regrouping by his party.  But there is, as John Osmond notes, an aspect of his character and style which naturally leads to a certain vagueness and ambiguity about his timetable.  That doesn’t make it helpful though.
Whilst two and a half years is too long – or rather doesn’t leave enough time for the new leader to make his or her mark – the apparent desire of some to have a quick review and hold a leadership election with unseemly haste seems to be more about ensuring that the party largely carries on as before with as little change as possible.
‘Sentence first, verdict afterwards’, proclaimed the Queen of Hearts; but it’s not an approach which has ever appealed to me.  Properly implemented, it just leads to people losing their heads.  And headless people tend not to make considered decisions.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Not really a minority government

Wales is not Scotland, and it’s always a mistake to assume that what applies to one can easily be applied to the other.  But it’s also a mistake to assume that what applies to one can never be applied to the other.
For the last four years, Scotland has had a minority administration.  Certainly, that has meant that Alex Salmond’s government has been constrained at times, and that he has had to cut deals from time to time.  But it worked; the sky didn’t fall in, and a crafty and cunning operator used the situation to his, and his party’s, great advantage.
I haven’t understood the recent speculation that Labour in Wales would have to form a coalition because 50% of the seats isn’t enough to govern, and I’m not in the least surprised that Labour have decided to try it.  They’ll have to learn to accept some constraints on what they do – they cannot expect automatic support – and to cut an occasional deal.  I don’t think Carwyn Jones will find that much of a problem.
There’s another angle as well.  The idea that he would have difficulty getting his programme through is based on the mathematical presupposition that all the opposition parties would work together consistently in order to defeat him.  I don’t see it. 
Labour fought – and won – an election on the basis of opposition to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London, and did so using the (less than entirely honest) claim that a vote for Plaid was a vote for a Tory-led administration.  Surely, the last thing that Plaid AMs would do now is to enable Labour to confirm that message by taking a blindly oppositionist stance to the government, and working over-closely with the Tories and Lib Dems? 
I never understood why, from the start of One Wales, there was such a stress on the government always voting down opposition motions, even if they said what one of the coalition partners had said during the previous election.  Such an outright binary position wasn’t necessary then; in the new circumstances, it’s not only unnecessary, it would be completely counter-productive. 
I suspect that Labour will have an easier ride than some are suggesting; for a while at least.

Monday 9 May 2011

To knife, or not to knife...

That I was less than enthusiastic about Plaid’s programme for the Assembly elections will have been obvious in recent weeks and months.  But there is a bigger question underlying that lack of enthusiasm, and it is this.  How can a party which started out with such a far-ranging vision for Wales have gone into an election claiming that its four biggest ideas are:
·                that schools should teach almost all pupils to read, write, and count;
·                that people should be able to see a doctor or dentist when they want to;
·                that physical and electronic communications within Wales should be improved; and
·                that we should be able to borrow the equivalent of 6 months’ capital spending?
The above are all good and sensible policies; there’s nothing to disagree with in any of them.  But overall, it’s the most timid programme which Plaid have ever put forward at an election, and trying to present any of the above as being ‘bold’ or ‘ambitious’ - let alone ‘transformational’ – is to elevate presentation and style above substance.
Perhaps from the perspective of those who inhabit the Bay Bubble, the ideas actually looked bolder and more ambitious than they look from outside; I certainly suspect that to be a part of the problem.  It’s something that can happen when people become institutionalised.  I’ve seen it elsewhere, when people become so steeped in the culture of an organisation that they simply cannot see how constrained they are by it.
But Plaid, of all parties, was supposed to be the one that wouldn’t get sucked into the system, the one that had a wider view of politics than machinations and intrigues in the Siambr, the one that was a campaigning party, not just an electoral party.
Some are calling for Ieuan’s head in the light of the poor results; others are pointing out that a few hundred people voting differently in the right places would have made the result look very different.  MH at Syniadau has hosted a debate about whether or not Ieuan should be knifed now.  Certainly, Ieuan has to bear a significant degree of responsibility for the bland managerial style of the party’s programme, but there is a danger in blaming one man - after all, the party agreed to his approach to the election - or in jumping straight into a leadership contest.
Perhaps there is something in the Welsh character which leads us to think that all can be solved if only we have the right leadership.  From the myth about Arthur waiting for the call in his cave, through the hailing of Graham Henry as the Great Redeemer (until he failed), to the wistful hoping for the return of the prodigal son across the water (or even the prodigal daughter closer to home), we’re always looking for a saviour, even though we know, in our heart of hearts, that idols usually turn out to have feet of clay.
The more important debate which Plaid needs to have is the one it hasn’t really had since the advent of devolution – what is Plaid for?  Does it want to be simply a party of government within the devolved structures, allowing further devolution to take its natural course, or does it want to regain a sense of mission, either around its old aims, or around some newer vision of Wales?
If Plaid wants to pursue the first course, then Ieuan might as well stay on.  But if it wants to choose the second, there is little point in selecting another leader in the same mould.  Rushing to choose a new leader simply avoids facing up to the question.

Friday 6 May 2011

What's politics for

One of the responses to some of the things that I have been saying in recent months has been to ask ‘What are you in politics for?' (...if not to win elections)’.  Superficially, it sounds like a good question, but there are several things which worry me about it as a question.
The first and most obvious is that it assumes that ‘politics’ and ‘electoral politics’ are one and the same thing.  They are not.  When Tony Benn announced that he was leaving parliament to spend more time involved in politics, I thought he was making a very important point.  Politics isn’t something just for the ‘professional’ politicians, with the rest of us asked to do no more than listen to them and then give them our vote.  It is – or should be – about alternative futures, and that’s something we should all be part of.
But my real objection to the way the question is asked is that it legitimises an approach to politics which leads to a drab sameness amongst politicians – exactly what we have seen in this year’s Assembly elections.  Let me put it another way – it seems to me that there are essentially two very different ways of looking at the business of winning elections.
The first is to find out what people want to hear and then tell them that.  It’s a focus group approach to politics, and victory ultimately depends on which party can most effectively tell people what they want to hear.  In short the messages are all going to be very similar, but the presentation, and effectiveness of the presentation, will determine the outcome (to the extent that pre-existing prejudices about parties permit).
The second is to spell out a vision for the future and seek to persuade people to support that vision.  It’s a very different approach, and, to be honest, is much less likely to lead to electoral success in the short term.
The argument generally used for the first approach is that it’s better to be in power and make small changes than to be in opposition and fail to persuade people of the need for larger changes.  There are, though, two major problems with it as an approach.
The first is the danger that someone else will say the same thing better, or more credibly.  And the second, most importantly of all, is that electoral success on that basis gives a party a mandate to do only what they said they would do – which is, in essence, going to be little different from what would have happened had they not won.
My objection is not to winning elections per se – I didn’t stand in 20 elections as a candidate with the intention of losing any of them – but to winning elections with a mandate just to do the same as everyone else.  I want to persuade people that an alternative future is both possible and desirable, and I want them to embrace that alternative. 
But, as I’ve said before, if the argument for that alternative is not put, it will never be won.  And focus group electioneering means that the argument does not get put.

Thursday 5 May 2011

The battle of trivia

When the election campaign for the National Assembly started, all the parties told us that, in the new context of an Assembly with law-making powers, we could, and should, expect those who would wish to govern us to be setting out some exciting ideas for the new Wales.  Reality has been disappointing – it’s been less a battle of ideas than a battle of trivia.
From the plain silly idea that a party is planning to do anything that its manifesto doesn’t explicitly rule out, to trawling electronic media in the hope that a candidate for another party might possibly have said something ten years ago that (s)he’d regret saying today, attention has focussed on anything and everything apart from serious hard policy, where there is so little to distinguish the main parties from each other.
And, as the circus wends its weary way to an end of sorts, there is something vaguely reminiscent of trench warfare, with the probability that the parties have fought each other to something pretty close to a standstill, with little movement since day 1.  There has been nothing, as Daran Hill put it, which in any way resembles a game-changer.
There can be little argument with the proposition that this has largely been a Westminster election by proxy.  That’s naturally disappointing for those of us who have long yearned for a more distinctly Welsh style of politics, fought largely around Welsh issues, but yearning for something is not enough to bring it about. 
Partly, it may be a result of the still-limited powers of the Assembly, and the unfamiliarity of all Assembly politicians with actually making laws; but I suspect that the more important factor is the continued dominance of the Labour Party in much of Wales, and the still-strong suspicion, or even hatred, of the Tories in some of the demographics of Welsh society on which Labour are able to play so well.  As long as the only conceivable alternative to Labour is a mish-mash in which all of the other parties have to come together, what Labour say and do will continue to dominate campaign themes in Assembly elections.
There will be plenty of people, mostly Labour supporters unsurprisingly, who will be quite happy with that, and see no reason to change it.  No surprise, I’m sure, if I take the opposite view.  The question is how to change it.
One factor might be the detoxification of the Tory brand in Wales.  I’ve long believed that to have been one of the objectives of some supporters of the ill-fated Rainbow, but apart from wondering why a nationalist party would seek to detoxify the most unionist party of them all, I remain worried that this particular ‘cure’ might turn out to be worse than the illness.
Another factor has to be the inadequacy of the Welsh media.  Even a small nation like Wales can surely support a more vibrant and pluralistic media than we have.  And the media have, it seems to me, been far too tame on occasions – politicians have been allowed to get away with making statements which deserve much stronger challenge than they get.  I don’t necessarily want all Welsh interviewers to try and emulate Paxman, but the relationship often seems far too cosy.
And we need at least one party to break away from the consensus and present us with a real alternative, so that we can debate what Wales can be rather than merely who should run the country.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

What's the big idea #4

Surprisingly, given the influence of David Melding on their policy in Wales, I found the Tory manifesto to have a certain lack of focus; I had expected more clarity.  It’s not that the individual policies proposed aren’t clear or specific – the advantage of having the shortest manifesto is that it is, of necessity, more succinct.  I just couldn’t see where it was going.
Certainly there is a theme of saying that Labour and Plaid have managed things badly.  And certainly, just like the other three parties, there are a large number of proposals which could happily sit in any of the four manifestos.  And rhetoric about ‘ambition’ abounds here, as elsewhere.
Torn between not wanting to say anything that the boss in London wouldn’t like, and not wanting to say anything that puts them too far outside the Cardiff Bay consensus, the result reads to me like an attempt to make ‘not a lot’ sound like a lot more than it is. 
It would be very aesthetically pleasing for me to end this little tour of the four manifestos by saying that the theme of ‘we can manage Wales better’ is as clear cut in this manifesto as it was in the others, and maybe that’s what they really mean; but somehow, they seemed to stop short of actually saying it.  Perhaps they don’t really believe it themselves.
I suppose that creates a distance, of sorts, between them and the other parties, but it’s not exactly a very positive one.