Thursday 30 June 2011

When in doubt, reorganise

Consultants love to have a stock of memorable phrases and quotes to illustrate the points they make, and if no-one has said the right thing at the right time, then they’ll simply invent one.  So the following quote, generally attributed to the Roman Consul Gaius Petronius in AD66, was probably invented by a consultant in the 1950s.
“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising: and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”
It’s a pity that it wasn’t said that long ago, but nevertheless it has a certain feel to it.  Like all the best made-up quotes, it has credibility, which is probably why it appears on the staff notice boards of so many organisations facing reorganisation.
The idea that a reorganisation can or will solve the problems of an organisation is nothing new.  But for a reorganisation in itself to resolve a problem, the problem usually has to be one caused by the current organisational structure in the first place.  And it is rarely the case that the structure is what is causing the problems – they’re usually more, much more, to do with the people in the structure or the processes and policies being followed.
It’s in that context that I wonder whether the ‘radical’ solution to Wales’ under-performing education system announced by Leighton Andrews yesterday is really the right one.  That we have a problem is indisputable.  That there is too much duplication of effort by having 22 education authorities is less certain, but is the subject of widely-held consensus.  But I’ve seen no clear evidence that the one is the cause of the other.
And if the under-performance isn’t caused by the duplication of effort across 22 authorities, then in what way is it suggested that removing the duplication will rectify the performance?  I suspect that the problem is more around the processes, policies, and personnel on the institutional side, and the lack of aspiration and application, resulting from inequality and lack of opportunity, on the part of the pupils.  And I don’t immediately see how moving from a structure of 22 LEAs to one of four consortia does anything to address that.
It does, though, appear to be decisive and tough, and enable the government to claim to be acting.  And it’s something which can be implemented during the term of a single minister, leaving his successor to deal with the unresolved performance issue at some future date.
It’s what Petronius never actually called the ‘illusion of progress’.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Flawed arguments

Peter Hain, with the support of the Western Mail editorial writer, is apparently worried that ‘English votes for English MPs’ would create two different classes of MP, and threaten the future of the Union.  I’ll leave aside the way in which the continuance of the Union is perceived to be such a good thing that it can be used as a reason for opposing anything with no further justification; there are enough problems with his argument without bringing that one in.
In the first place, only someone completely immersed in, and constrained by, the institution of which he is a member could fail to see that there are already two classes of MP.  Being able to vote on every issue that comes before the House of Commons is not the same as being equal; and Welsh and Scottish MPs are already effectively prevented (quite properly) from voting on a whole range of issues affecting their constituents.  There are already two (or more precisely, four, given the different settlements) classes of MPs.
Secondly, he argues that England can’t have a parliament of her own, because England is too big in relation to the size of Wales or Scotland.  I wouldn’t presume to tell England how she should govern herself, let alone that her pattern of government has to be based on units which are of a size closer to that of Wales and Scotland.  It’s a sensible argument only for those who see Wales and Scotland as being simply ‘regions’ of the UK, with no ‘national’ dimension.
And thirdly, he calls for regional assemblies in England without specifying their powers.  I don’t know what he has in mind, but I find it hard to imagine that he is proposing legislative assemblies on the Welsh model, let alone on the Scottish model.  And introducing yet another variant on the model actually makes the initial problem (who in Westminster votes on what) worse.  I really can’t believe that he’s thought through what he’s saying.
Having a UK legislature where all members have equal voting rights on all matters requires as a starting point a symmetrical settlement between the various nations.  It is for England to decide whether that symmetry takes the form of an English parliament or the regionalisation of England, but an asymmetrical solution will always leave a difference between MPs as to who can vote on which issues affecting their constituents.

Monday 27 June 2011

Regional transfers

Returning to a post of a week or two ago, there is much more to the question of ‘inter-regional’ redistribution than tables of taxes and benefits broken down per capita.  The first question is whether we should even attempt to be redistributive.  Not everyone would take it as a given.
Some of the more extreme free-market thinkers would argue that the distribution of wealth can and should be determined entirely by the operation of the market, and if the result of competition is that jobs and wealth end up in one corner of the ‘country’ then so be it; people can either accept that they will live in relative poverty, improve their position by their own efforts, or else move to where the action is.  (There are some serious questions in there as to whether and to what extent the market which has created the imbalance is entirely free of intervention by policy-makers in the first place, but I’ll park that issue.) 
They don’t go as far as to put it in these terms, but it is close to saying that areas and individuals that are not doing well economically are in some way to blame for that themselves.
The alternative political perspective, to which I subscribe, is that it is implicit in the unwritten ‘contract’ which binds us all into a single nation (decide for yourself whether that’s Wales or the UK – it doesn’t really affect the argument) that there is a degree of ‘sharing’ of wealth, both vertically (from rich to poor) and geographically (from high GDP areas to low GDP areas). 
I think that most people subscribe to that view, although the word ‘degree’ hides a lot of scope for disagreement about the detail.  Certainly, it has been implicit in tax and benefits policy for many decades that there is an element of redistribution.  It was even implicit in the policies of the Thatcher years, although she and her colleagues never really shouted about that. 
It would be wrong to characterise the current UK Coalition as being against redistribution in principle, but entirely fair to point out that the implication of much of what they are doing is to lessen that element of redistribution and move closer to the free market position (and Labour’s policy on the deficit would have had much the same effect).
It’s an issue which leaves nationalists in a somewhat ambivalent position; sharing wealth more evenly across the whole is an essentially ‘unionist’ position to take, not least because there has to be a ‘whole’ across which to share.  Arguing for a bigger share whilst also arguing for no longer being part of the whole can – and often does – sound dissonant.  Whilst the circle can be logically squared by arguing that ‘as long as we are part of the whole we should have our fair share’, logic doesn’t always make for the clearest of political arguments.
But, and this is back to a point I made earlier, an independent Wales would face exactly the same issue, albeit on a smaller scale, with wealth concentrated in the south and east and other ‘regions’ comparatively worse off.  Unless and until we get down to a political unit which is small enough to encompass a single travel to work area, the question of geographical redistribution doesn’t go away (and vertical redistribution doesn’t go away even then).
Part of the problem with the UK’s approach has been that any attempts at redistribution are retrospective, i.e. they accept an imbalance in wealth creation, and attempt to redistribute only after the wealth has been created.  That in turn leads to a belief that the ‘rich’ are being robbed to help the ‘poor’ (‘England’s taxes subsidising Wales and Scotland’) but it ignores the question of how they became ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ in the fist place.  We need to ensure that the wealth is created more evenly across Wales (or the UK) in the first place.
The first anonymous comment on the previous post gave some details about German policies in this respect.  I haven’t looked into these in any more detail than is included in the comment, but it’s the sort of approach which seems to me to be worth exploring.  And it also places the emphasis on the ‘real’ economy rather than on simply moving money around.

Friday 24 June 2011

How to win friends and influence people

There’s no single right way to achieve that, but there are plenty of wrong ways.  Telling people that they’re complacent, bureaucratic, and under-performing is a pretty good example.  Yet that’s the message which the Welsh Government delivered yesterday to the assembled bosses of the WLGA, and Local Government Minister Carl Sergeant was the enthusiastic messenger.
My guess is that it’s unlikely to lead to the sort of joined-up collaborative thinking that is needed to implement the sort of scheme which I referred to yesterday.  But I’d also guess that that isn’t what the Welsh Government is looking for anyway.
The comments seem to be based on a preconception that the current structure of local government is not fit for purpose.  Nothing new there – it’s a pretty generally-held view.  There’s a lot less consensus, however, about what the ‘purpose’ is, and even less about what structure would be ‘fit’ for that purpose.  “Wales doesn’t need 22 Directors of Education (or whatever)” is the easy part; deciding how many we do need is a great deal harder.
He also talked about combined units having greater buying power – presumably he’d like them to emulate his Government and use their buying power to drive the cost of laptops up down to £700 each.  It’s also a well-proven way of ensuring that contracts get awarded to larger and larger companies from ever further away.
Forcing the merger of individual services on an opportunistic case-by-case basis may (although I’d need convincing about that – the devil is in the detail) reduce some costs.  But it will also have the effect of further reducing the power and influence of local elected members – probably an intended consequence of a centralising government.
I don’t have a firm view about how many councils we need in Wales or their precise functions and responsibilities.  I do have a view, though, on the sort of factors which should influence those decisions, such as:
·                Clarity over lines of responsibility and accountability
·                Meaningful ability to influence the nature of the services for which they are responsible rather than simply implementing central government policy
·                Boundaries reflecting natural human and geographical affinities
·                Joined-up delivery between complementary and overlapping services.
An approach for which the main drivers appear to be cost-cutting and being seen to be tough doesn’t seem to be designed to achieve any of those, other than perhaps by accident.
It is, once again, skirting around the issue that no-one wants to face up to, namely a proper and thorough review of the governance of Wales in the context of a devolved parliament.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Back-door borrowing

Gerry Holtham’s article in today’s Western Mail returns to the subject of a contribution he made to the last issue of the IWA’s Agenda.  In essence, he has set out a way in which the Welsh Government can use the existing borrowing powers of local government to significantly expand its capital programme, and suggests a borrowing capability of around £2.6 billion over five years.
It’s not only more ambitious than proposals put forward so far by political parties in Wales, but unlike those proposals, it needs no legislative changes or decisions by the UK Government to implement.  So why isn’t the idea being seized on?
There are some practical difficulties of course.  Getting co-operation between local authorities to pool their borrowing, let alone persuading them to share that borrowing with a government which seems to spend a lot of time castigating them, will take a great deal of determination and political will.  And, even if that will exists (and I’m not convinced), a cynic might suggest that it’s a great deal easier to complain about the UK Government not doing something than to actually go out and get to grips with the alternative.
I don’t agree with all the suggestions put forward for a funding programme – I have a particular concern about the resurrection of the M4 relief road – but deciding which schemes should be funded is a question of determining priorities.  And that’s a far better pastime for a government than whingeing about what London isn’t doing.  The suggested approach offers an enormous opportunity which any imaginative government would be grasping.
As Holtham points out, an expenditure of £2.6 billion over five years would be like adding around 1% to the total GDP of Wales.  With a workforce of around 1.5 million, that could equate to perhaps 15,000 extra jobs, quite apart from the infrastructure benefits which would accrue.
I wouldn’t suggest that the Welsh Government should desist in its efforts to obtain direct borrowing powers, but there seems to be no reason, other than politics, for not trying to move this idea forward in parallel.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Need for long term view

I'm sure that I’m far from being the only one who wonders how sincere Carwyn Jones really was in his call for the devolution of power over large energy projects.  And his party isn’t the only one which might be more than a little wrong-footed if power actually did get passed to Cardiff.  (Wylfa B, anyone?)
Trying to make sure that people blame someone else for unpopular decisions is all good fun, and the growth of opposition to the implications of a renewables-based solution is a fact of life to which politicians will naturally respond.  Trying to be seen to support those opponents may be an obvious response from those seeking their votes, but it isn’t the right way to make energy policy.
And there’s a more general point there, which I’ve touched on before.  If it is clear that we need to build renewable generating capacity, then that capacity has to go somewhere; and there will probably be objectors to any and every site suggested.  So how do we decide where to put it?
Opponents of on-shore wind (who generally, though far from exclusively, live a longish way from the coast) often suggest putting it off-shore.  There are certainly some advantages to off-shore installations – and there are disadvantages as well.  But they’re every bit as likely to generate opposition, even if it’s from a different group of opponents.
There is simply no such thing as generating capacity which has zero environmental impact.  And sub-stations will be needed in support of any new capacity, as will pylons to connect it to the grid; both of those apply whether we are talking about wind, hydro-electric, tidal power, or even large arrays of solar collectors.  (Some connections might be shorter than others, based on the location of the capacity, of course – but connections there will be.)
The real underlying problem is that, whilst people say at one level that they want to be ‘greener’, government and politicians have not really convinced enough of the populace of the need to move to a renewables-based energy economy.  Without doing that convincing, individual proposals are not put into a proper context. 
Actually, it’s worse than that.  Many of the politicians know perfectly well what needs to be done, and they know that many of the arguments against harnessing the wind are untrue, but they are afraid to be robust in putting the counter arguments for fear of losing votes.
During one hustings meeting last year, I was asked whether I was, on the whole, optimistic or pessimistic about mankind’s reaction to man-made climate change.  My response was that I was pessimistic – not because I thought that we couldn’t deal with the issue, but because I thought that we wouldn’t.  One of the reasons for that is that politicians taking a long-term view are always likely to be trumped by those prepared to take the opposite view for short-term electoral reasons.

Monday 20 June 2011

Competitive spirals

The Welsh Government seems to be a little bit confused as to what it thinks when it comes to devolving Corporation Tax.  According to the Business Section in Friday’s Western Mail, it was being ruled out pretty firmly, but Adrian Masters reveals a rather different stance on the issue in Government statements.
I’m still convinced that it could and should be devolved, but I have considerable sympathy with Carwyn Jones’ concern about a “competitive spiral to the bottom”.  It is a real potential danger.
The extent to which we need to worry about it depends though on what we really mean when we talk about ‘creating’ jobs.  It’s a word much-loved by politicians, particularly if they can claim that their actions have done the ‘creating’, but far too often what they actually mean is ‘moving’ jobs.
If the jobs are genuinely extra ones, then a lower rate of CT in one part of the unitary state can indeed be a significant factor in helping industries to decide where to ‘create’ those jobs.  And that makes it a valid approach from a unionist, not just a nationalist, perspective. 
Holtham’s recommendation for a rate of CT which varied according to the gap between ‘regional’ GVA and the ‘national’ average is a mechanism which anyone could support, regardless of their views on the constituonal position of Wales.  (And indeed, it’s something which Wales might even want to consider internally, in order to boost the prospects of places like Ynys Môn, rather than concentrate all new jobs in South-East Wales.)
If the jobs are not extra, and are merely being moved from an area of high CT to an area of low CT, then whilst it might have some positive effect by spreading economic prosperity and jobs more evenly (not to be sneezed at as an objective in itself), the net fiscal effect would be an overall loss to the Treasury with no overall total increase in economic prosperity to show for it. 
But, rather then seeking to oppose the idea as a result of such concerns, surely it would be better if our First Minister applied a little thought to the question of how we combine the power over CT with other actions so as to ensure that we target the genuine creation of new jobs?

Friday 17 June 2011

Sharing expenditure around

This report in yesterday’s Western Mail covered some research carried out by the SNP which suggested that, on a per capita basis, Wales is ‘losing out’ on billions of pounds of military expenditure each year, compared to other areas of the UK.  Military spending is an issue which used to be higher on the nationalist agenda, largely because it was an obvious area where an independent Wales could make sizable cuts, and use the savings either to offset Wales’ deficit, or else spend the money on other things.
In recent years, many nationalists have seemed almost afraid of dealing with the question of armed forces and Independence.  Indeed, one of my anonymous friends left a comment on another post a couple of weeks back, which coupled a suggestion that any discussion of Welsh Independence needed to consider the question of military forces with a hint perhaps that it was a subject which was being avoided.
There’s some truth in that, sadly.  For my part, it’s not so much a wish to avoid the subject as a result of spending more time on issues which are more immediate and which interest me more.  But I am, and always have been, willing to discuss any aspect of the Independence question; it’s the only way of increasing understanding of, and support for, that option.
I’d accept though that many do avoid discussing it at all.  Partly it’s because of a strong pacifist tendency running through nationalist thinking; partly it’s down to the same lack of confidence in the case for independence which leads some to avoid the whole subject, never mind its consequences; and partly it’s a fear of appearing to be in some way anti-British, and/or deterring potential voters.
But any rounded view of the implications of Welsh Independence has to consider what that means for defence.  And given that it has been a long-standing contention amongst nationalists that Wales would spend a great deal less on defence than the UK government spends, it’s also an important element of the economics of independence.
On spending, this table of military expenditure is interesting.  Whilst the UK spends around 2.7% of GDP on military activity (and has the fourth largest military budget in absolute terms worldwide), a small country such as Ireland spends only 0.6% of its GDP.  In parallel with that, of course, Ireland has a much more limited set of objectives (summarised here) for its military.
Every country faces different circumstances, and there will always be objections from some to any comparisons, but it seems to me that an independent Wales would have military objectives much more similar in nature to those of the Republic of Ireland than to those of the UK – and that expenditure levels would tend to follow that approach.  Why would that not be the case?
Debate around ‘defence’ at a UK level seems to broadly accept the status quo as a starting point, with the effect that the UK is trying to behave as though it were still a major power on the world stage.  France, another post-imperial power, has a similar outlook, and spends around 2.5% of its GDP on its military.  The comparison with Germany – at 1.4% - is instructive; and it’s notable that Germany is the large European country with the least pretension to being a world military power.
History (to say nothing of the wars of the past) plays a role in these attitudes of course; but that same history encourages some governments to want to see their role and importance as being greater than it really is.  And they then seek the military muscle to back that up.  It has long seemed to me that the UK Government’s attitude – regardless of party - has never really adapted to the loss of empire.
It was surprising last year to hear some nationalists arguing that Wales should have its ‘fair share’ of military expenditure; it was a complete reversal of positions taken in the past.  The superficial logic of that position is clear, since the GDP of those areas where the money is spent benefits from military expenditure. But I’m glad that that has not been the response to yesterday’s story.  It’s a fair share of total expenditure which we need, not a fair share of each individual budget line, and simply moving military expenditure to Wales in the interests of ‘fairness’ isn’t the best way either of achieving that aim or of preparing Wales to take more responsibility for her own future. 
What we really need is not to divert more military expenditure to Wales, but to be able to take advantage of the 2%+ of GDP which would be freed up for other purposes.  It’s a not insignificant part of the potential Independence dividend.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Regional winners and losers

I’m grateful to Jeff Jones, who, in a comment on an earlier post, drew my attention to this report.  Jeff pointed me specifically at the table on page 28, which talks about ‘regional’ (in a UK context) winners and losers in terms of taxes and benefits. 
The table sets out to show whether, and to what extent, taxation and benefits policy in the UK over the past 30 years has been ‘redistributive’ in geographic terms.  Now, there are always going to be some estimates and assumptions behind work of this nature, but on the basis of the report’s authors’ best endeavours, they do indeed identify that there was a degree of redistribution implicit in the Thatcherite/Blairite approach.
Wales is a net gainer, as one might expect, although the biggest gainer by far is the North East of England.  London and the South East are losers – again, as one might expect – but it was interesting to note that Scotland is also a significant loser.  I’d be surprised if the SNP didn’t attempt to turn that finding to political advantage!
The point which the authors make, however, is that the cuts being implemented by the current coalition are directly undermining that inter-regional redistributive effect, and are doing so largely at the behest of those who run the financial services which did so much damage to the economy in the first place.  (And, lest anyone conclude that this supports Labour’s views on the cuts, the scale of cuts proposed by Labour would have had a mighty similar effect – and were being driven by the same people for the same reasons).
But there was much more of interest in the report than the table on page 28.
The underlying point of the authors is this:
This paper argues that the City of London has power like that of a City State in a country like the UK where financial elites dominate and competition of elites has failed. This is now a serious problem because expenditure cuts after the crisis are undermining the redistributive settlement of benefits and publicly funded jobs which were the life support of the ex-industrial areas under Thatcher and Blair. The only credible response is radical new economic policies which can usefully be launched through local and regional initiative.
That sounds initially a little like the long-standing nationalist argument that the UK Government works in the interests of London and the South East, whilst ignoring the needs of Wales, but the analysis offers far more than that simplistic conclusion. 
It makes it very clear (as most of us knew already, even though not all are willing to admit it) that this isn’t about England v Wales; most of England’s regions suffer in the same way as Wales looked at in this context.  ‘London’ really isn’t synonymous with ‘England’.
(And ‘London’ isn’t even synonymous with ‘Londoners’.  The very recent relative economic success of London has at least partly been a case of “growth com[ing] from a sweated, casualised workforce providing cheap services for a small group of working rich and their employers and… immigrants claim[ing] most of the jobs at top and bottom.”  The point here isn’t about immigration per se, merely an attempt to analyse why the apparent success of London doesn’t necessarily benefit Londoners any more than it benefits the rest of us.  And we should never forget either that boundaries are artificial; within London, there are pockets of both poverty and wealth.  It isn’t really ‘London’ which is doing well, but some individuals and groups within London.)
I’ll admit that it surprised me to learn (although it probably shouldn’t have) that elections to the City of London Corporation still allow ‘business’ votes, rather then simply residential voters – and that the number of ‘business’ votes outnumbers the residential votes.  It’s a not insignificant example of the way in which the financial sector influences political decision-making at the heart of the UK.
That London’s economy has become dysfunctional, and that those responsible for the financial industries of London have disproportionate influence are surely undeniable conclusions.  But it is the effects of that dysfunctionality and disproportionate influence on the rest of the UK which is really the issue which should most concern us here in Wales.
Solutions?  Well, there are a few suggestions in the paper, some of which I’ll return to in future posts, and some of which they admit need more work.  But they won’t come from a continuation of the Labour-Tory economic policies of the past/present.  Indeed, the report actually says at one point, “we are for the foreseeable future most probably caught in a world of elite closure where the (Labour) opposition front bench is part of the problem not of the solution”.
It goes on to say that “we need a new politics as much as new policies because radical alternatives will get nowhere until they break the metropolitan monopoly of power and knowledge”.  Not a message which will be unfamiliar to many of us, but there is also a very clear warning that those who seek to simply build a replica of Westminster in Cardiff, with policy – and particularly economic policy – confined to the straitjacket of convention – are barking up the wrong tree. 
And it seems to me that we especially need to break free of the misguided notion that because the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is wrong, then the Labour opposition is right.  Looked at from this perspective, there really isn’t that much difference between them.  Another familiar message which some seem to have forgotten.

Update:  I hadn't seen this report when I posted the above.  The CRESC report is an interesting piece of work in its totality, as I noted above.  There are dangers though - which I hope I avoided - in picking out particular tables and giving them attention out of context, which is what it seems to me has happened in the Western Mail's report today.  The purpose of the table in question was not to show which households 'paid more (or less) in taxes than they received in benefits', but to show the extent to which government policy on taxes and benefits is having a redistributive effect in geographical terms, and it seems to me that the narrower meaning being given to the figures is therefore potentially misleading.

I don't always agree with spokespersons for the Welsh Government, but in this case, I think they're right to draw a distinction between the issue of fair funding on matters within the devolved areas and a taxation and benefits regime which partly addresses the question of economic imbalances.  There is a relationship between the two things, but it isn't the straight line relationship as which it is being portrayed, and I don't really think that the effect identified by CRESC can reasonably or logically be used to argue against a needs-based formula for the block grant.

But, as I noted in the original post, neither do I agree with the simplistic response from Jonathan Edwards that 'London' has had an unfair share of the increase in jobs; that's a statement which obscures more than it tells us.  Where I do agree with what Jonathan says is that benefits cuts (and I'd extend that to public sector cuts in general) will impact Wales harder than some other parts of the UK, and will, in the process, undermine the geographical redistribution which leads to the figure of £800, therefore undoing the effect which Jeff highlights.  In that sense, these figures actually strengthen the argument for Barnett reform at a time of cutbacks.

Jeff is right to draw attention to an interesting set of figures; and the implicit suggestion that financing devolved administrations needs to be looked at in totality rather than one piece at a time is something I'd support, but I disagree with his suggestion that these figures undermine the need for Barnett reform.  

There is, in all this, a danger that people simply pick on the figures which support a particular point of view rather than look at the position as a whole - and that's a point-scoring approach rather than a debate about the future financing of Wales.  We really need to look properly at the whole question.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Going their own way

I confess that I quite enjoyed the sight of Cameron, Clegg, and their film crews being berated and told to leave by an angry doctor during their hospital visit yesterday.  There was a certain poetic justice in it, given that their visit was part of their efforts to sell their proposals to give doctors more power over what happens in the NHS in England.  ‘Be careful what you wish for…’ might just be ringing in their ears.
I’m not convinced that the much-trumpeted changes in the policy are as significant as the presentation of them might suggest.  The Conservatives want to present the changes as a result of listening to what people have to say, whilst the Lib Dems seek to present them as a Lib Dem victory within the coalition.  Labour of course simply want to be able to describe them as being a U-turn. 
The result is that all three parties have a vested interest in making out that the changes are significant – whatever the reality.  But the key principles – of extending the market approach and letting in more competition – seem to be unchanged. 
In that sense, the Tories have won.  They can always reintroduce a firm timescale later, and extend the degree of competition.  The Lib Dems have been bought off by being allowed to claim some sort of victory.  And Labour are left shouting on the sidelines, trying to oppose something which they’ve also described as being a U-turn from the original proposals.
It doesn’t affect us in Wales directly, of course.  But it is the biggest example yet that I can think of where the increasing divergence between NHS structures in Wales and NHS structures in England stems from a change made in England, rather than, as over the previous four years, from changes being made in Wales. 
It’s a clear case of ‘England going its own way on health’ (and why not, if it’s what they want), but I find it interesting that it doesn’t get presented that way.  It certainly would if it were Wales or Scotland introducing such changes.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Boardrooms and carbon quotas

When newspapers describe a political leader as staging a fightback, it’s usually clear that the newspapers concerned have decided that the leader’s days are numbered.  Poor old Ed Miliband – hardly been in the job five minutes and already he’s staging a fightback.
He’s leading it with an attack on boardroom pay (coupled with an attack on abuses of the benefits system, just for a nice bit of balance).  It’s hard to say how serious he is.  It’s the sort of thing that Labour politicians say when in opposition - and sometimes even when in government – but whether they’ll ever actually do anything about it other than mount verbal attacks is another question.
I suspect not; the emphasis seemed to be very much on appealing to the highest paid to moderate their behaviour on the basis of some sense of fairness or higher moral values.  Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely to work to me.
His basic point, though, is a valid one.  The level of economic inequality in our society is large and growing (and it grew consistently under Labour as well).  I’d agree with him that it needs to be tackled – but he’s whistling in the wind if he believes that it can be tackled by appealing to anyone’s sense of fair play.
Traditionally, many have believed that it can be tackled through the tax and welfare systems, as though the government is some sort of Robin Hood writ large, taking from the rich to give to the poor.  Government action can indeed be used up to a point to achieve greater equality of access to services and goods, if it’s willing to adopt a highly progressive tax system coupled with an extension of collective purchase of goods and services (which is the way I prefer to describe provision made by the state).  The potential effect of that approach is limited though. 
It depends on people being willing to vote for a high tax government in return for a high level of ‘free’ or ‘subsidised’ provision; and the reality of such an approach is that the ‘rich’ who have to pay the higher taxes are not merely the super-rich – whose votes are too few to be an obstacle in purely electoral terms – but also a very much wider swathe of those on higher than average pay.  And whilst very many of us will tell the opinion pollsters that we’re in favour of higher tax for better services, the harsh reality is that most respondents actually mean higher tax for somebody else.
Inequality also needs to be tackled at a more fundamental level.  But it helps if we understand how inequality arises, and why it is growing, in the first place.  Economic inequality largely follows economic power.  Or, as Marxists might say, capital, and those who control it, have the power, labour doesn’t.  I wouldn’t describe myself as a Marxist; but the mere fact that Marx said it doesn’t make it false either. 
The fact that the balance of power has shifted even further away from labour towards capital in recent years is not unrelated to the huge and continuing growth in the supply of labour.  And most particularly, cheap labour, in places such as India and China.  The ability of manufacturers to move their capital to where the labour is cheapest has led directly to the decline of UK manufacturing.  And the weakening of the power of labour coupled with a strengthening in the power of capital and those who control it has also – on a global scale, not just a local one – allowed an increase in inequality in society.
To believe that curbing boardroom pay in the UK, even were it possible, is going to address this issue of inequality – which seems to be where Miliband is starting – is delusional at best.  We actually need a shift in the balance of power. 
In days gone by, the assumption was that that shift would be the result of collective action.  And certainly, there is plenty of scope for more collective and co-operative action on the small scale; but the days of mass unionisation and effective collective action at a larger scale seem to have passed in an age of increasing affluence and individualism.
There is, though, one limiting factor which constrains the compound growth of both capital and labour – and that is the finite resources of the planet on which we live.  Food production capacity, clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and most particularly, the capacity of the eco-system to handle our impact on it – all of these things are of necessity limited in a way which a world with a much smaller population didn’t really notice. 
And we have a choice about how we share those resources out between us; we can either do it competitively or we can do it co-operatively on a basis of equality.  Of the two, I am completely convinced that only a co-operative approach will be sustainable for the long term – both within our own Welsh or UK society and on a global scale.  And if the extent to which wealth can buy unequal access to resources is limited, wealth itself becomes less valuable. 
Economic inequality and environmental unsustainability are, in a sense, different sides of the same coin.  If Miliband is really serious, he needs to mint a new currency which has sustainability on one side, and equality on the other.  Personal, or domestic, carbon quotas woud be a very good place to start.

Monday 13 June 2011

Parity is about more than borrowing

Betsan Powys notes some extracts from a statement made by Carwyn Jones in response to the announcement of new financial powers for Scotland.  The sentence which caught my eye particularly was this one:
“I say to him what is good for Scotland is good for Wales and the same responsibilities must now be transferred from Westminster to Cardiff.”
I wonder if he’ll live to regret those words – because they can be applied much more widely than simply to borrowing powers.  There are many more aspects of the Scottish settlement where one could – and I would – say exactly the same thing.  No doubt Carwyn wouldn’t want to see his statement interpreted as having such wide-ranging implications, but there is a problem with trying to cherry-pick.
There is no way that the UK Coalition is going to want to give Wales the ‘goodies’ (as defined by C. Jones Esq.) other than as part of a package.  And that package will also include some things which he’s already said he doesn’t want, such as powers over taxation.
‘Parity with Scotland’ would be a good rallying cry for the next five years if he wanted to go for it – and it would probably be a more devolutionist position than that being put forward by other parties.  He might even find himself pushing at an open door in London.  I doubt that he'll push very hard though, just in case.

Friday 10 June 2011

Carwyn and Canute

In continuing to oppose taxation powers for Wales, Carwyn Jones is at least being consistent with what he and his party said during this year’s elections.  Even if it’s only being consistently wrong.
He’s not a stupid man, so I half wonder whether he isn’t acting in the true spirit of Canute.  He knows that he can’t stop the tide, but has to act as though he can in order to convince a reluctant Labour Party that they really have no choice.  The question is how far the tide has to rise before he abandons the position he has taken.
I can see how he might even believe that getting half wet in the attempt might, in a roundabout sort of way, be doing Wales a favour.  It won’t change anything, but it might carry more of his own tribe with him than embracing the proposal with a little more enthusiasm.  But if that is his reasoning, I think that he’d be wrong on that score as well – because it would be, in essence, just another example of the way the devolution process has been managed to suit the internal needs of one fractious party rather than the practical needs of Wales.
And in reality, failing to engage with London in a proper debate at an early stage means that the nature of taxation powers to be devolved will be shaped entirely by those following a different agenda.  There’s no guarantee, of course, that they’d actually listen to a reasoned case even if Carwyn put it forward; but there’s an absolute guarantee that they won’t listen to a case which isn’t put.
The case which the Welsh Government should be putting is for a range of taxation powers which would give them more control over the Welsh economy; more power to adjust the ratio between different taxes, rather than simply power over a proportion of one tax, which could easily turn out to be a double-edged sword.
The main argument used by Labour in their successful election campaign was that they would protect Wales from the UK Government.  But protecting Wales surely requires a willingness to seek to influence the UK government, not simply reject its proposals.

Thursday 9 June 2011

French leave

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, I really don’t see any excuse for AMs (or MPs, come to that) from any party to be taking their holidays during the period when the institution is formally sitting.  There are enough weeks when it is not sitting for that to be unnecessary.  So, unless there are circumstances which have not been made public, criticism of Ieuan Wyn Jones for being absent is not without justification.  But he isn’t the only one to have done it, and any fair criticism would acknowledge that as well.
The attempt by some, though, to deliberately confuse that issue with the royal visit is utterly without justification.  To suggest that Ieuan would deliberately snub the monarch, or absent himself out of some sort of sympathy with the republican cause, is plainly ridiculous to anyone who knows him.  Neither are things that he is ever likely to do (and yes, I’m aware that some would see that as part of the problem, but that isn’t the point here).
This piece on WalesHome was typical of the Labour approach on this, but I thought that it said more about the author than his target.  It’s a case of trying to turn anything and everything into an attack on an individual, with no room to allow facts to get in the way.  It’s a poor substitute for proper politics.
It’s no surprise to me that Plaid’s “senior sources” are at it again, always prepared to say what they think as long as they think that no-one knows who they are.  It’s a problem which all parties suffer from at times, when rivalries are played out in public, but anonymously.  The most sensible comment I’ve seen on that was at Syniadau, who rightly questions whether those doing the briefing are in fact pushing personal agendas.
Turning the real issues into simply a question of a change of leadership, or, worse, an even less substantial debate about the timing of that change, looks like an avoidance mechanism rather than a strategy.  But it is probably what some people want.  It's the 'why' which is more important.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Fanfares and vol-au-vents

I attended my first ever Plaid Cymru annual conference in 1971, at Porthcawl.  The event was exciting, if more than a little disorganised.  I met many people who have influenced my politics for the first time at the event, including Dr Phil - who needed to borrow my comb as he rushed past on the way from the street to the podium where he was due to speak.  That was in the days when he had hair – not that any comb ever made any difference to the appearance of his hair!
One of the others whom I met for the first time was Harri Webb.  Nationalist, socialist, republican – and, of course, poet.  I was not the only nationalist in the class of ’71 who found him an inspiring figure, even if much of what he said was not exactly to the taste of the party establishment of the day.
He was one of those characters who were larger than life.  Indeed, he was large in more ways than one – ferrying him home to Aberpennar after a ‘Poems and Pints’ evening in Dinas Powys a few years later was when I discovered that the seat belts on an Austin 1100 had never been designed with the not insubstantial girth of someone like Harri in mind.
He wasn’t what anyone would ever have called a ‘moderate’ by any means; his talk, like that of others in that era, was of revolution rather than evolution.  He was one of those who provided a hard edge to nationalist thinking, but he was never destined to play much of a practical part in building a movement.
Some of the excitement died in 1979 – indeed, many of the class of ’71 departed in the lean years which followed. Those of us who did not sought instead to build an effective, organised party which could engage more positively with electoral politics.  Much time and energy within Plaid over the years was expended on that task in one way or another, and the result of the efforts of many people over many years has been to create a much more effective political arm for the national movement than ever existed previously.
The aim, though, was never to lose that passion which Harri displayed, albeit sometimes to excess.  It was, rather, to combine idealism with pragmatism in order to be able to better present the message, not change it.  We wanted to be effective, yet remain a democratic party, owned and controlled by the members; to complement rather than replace what had gone before.  In seeking to professionalise that party’s activities, it was never any part of my objectives to use ‘professional’ in its tighter meaning, and to put the control of party largely into the hands of the ‘professional’ politicians.
Yet somehow that is largely what has happened.  Yesterday’s opening of the Assembly stirred more than a few memories, and there are some interesting comparisons which struck me.
The class of ’71 regularly railed at the way in which the Government could afford military bands but could not afford to meet more down-to-earth needs.  The class of ’11 watches the military bands performing outside the Senedd.
The class of ’71 campaigned against low-flying jets disrupting the peace of Wales.  The class of ’11 admires them flying past the Senedd.
The class of ’71 ridiculed and scorned the ruritanian anachronisms of heraldry, fanfares and pomp.  The class of ’11 watches in awe as the Herald of Wales leads the monarch out of the Senedd, and listens to a new fanfare especially commissioned for the event.
I could go on.  Harri wrote a poem called “Merlin’s Prophecy 1969”, which reads:
One day, when Wales is free and prosperous
And dull, they’ll all be wishing they were us.
We’re a long way off prosperity (other than in the relative sense so clumsily referred to by Peter Hain a few years ago); and we’re not exactly free yet; but nationalist politics has become a great deal duller since then.  It’s not quite as it was foreseen.  But then, somehow, I don’t think that many in the class of ’71 ever expected that the road to independence would be paved with fanfares and vol-au-vents either.  Unless, of course, we’ve somehow taken a wrong turning somewhere along the way.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Battenberg and symbolism

I’ve met very few politicians over the years who are either able or willing to defend and justify the principle of an hereditary head of state.  For sure, there are plenty who will defend the institution on more pragmatic grounds – “it works” or “the people are happy with it” being far and away the most common; but that isn’t the same as supporting the underlying principle.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of those arguments – particularly the first one, especially for those of us who are happy to argue in other contexts that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  However, that isn’t the same as saying that anyone would actually propose heredity as the method of choosing the head of state if presented with a blank sheet of paper.
Republicanism isn’t limited to the ranks of nationalists in Wales, although one might think that from reading some reports in recent days.  Nor is it a particularly ‘Welsh’ issue.  In my experience, many, many members of the Labour Party are also natural republicans; and – whisper this quietly - there are more than a few Tories who take a similar view, although they’re the most reluctant to come out and say so.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that at least some of those who have chosen to attack the four Plaid AMs who want nothing to do with the royal opening of the Assembly are themselves closet republicans; they have simply chosen to adopt what they assume to be a populist position for a bit of point-scoring.  It’s all part of the game, I suppose.
At one level, one can argue that much of what the monarch does is more about symbolism than about practical issues; as long as the Queen never actually refuses to sign into law an Act passed by a parliament at any level, then real power lies with the elected bodies, no matter what the constitution says.  And the exercise of that real power to bring about change is what practical politics is about.
The symbolism is powerful, though.  The royal opening – which even some 'nationalists' pushed for in the early days of the Assembly because they saw it as conferring status and legitimacy on the institution – actually symbolises that power devolved is power retained.  Such powers as the Assembly possesses are by consent of the monarch-in-parliament.  In that sense, it is a symbol not of the power and status of the Assembly, but of the fact that that power and status is only on loan.
The oath of allegiance that AMs have to take is another symbol.  It’s something that they all have to do to take their seats, but I’m certain that the ranks of those who take it with a complete lack of sincerity are not limited to the Plaid AMs.  The idea of swearing loyalty to the head of state (and heirs), rather than to the people represented, is an anachronism from days long gone and should be abolished, and the sooner the better.  (The same applies to the UK Parliament – this isn’t a nationalist issue).
Failing to attend today’s event is another form of symbolism.  It will achieve little, but I’m sure that the four AMs fully realise that.  It symbolises the fact that the AMs concerned see their first loyalty as being to the people they represent, and not to someone who only occupies her position by dint of heredity.
So, I support the Plaid 4 in the symbolic stance they have taken against the royal symbolism.  My only real problem with it is that it draws attention to the fact that only four AMs are prepared to take such a stance.

Monday 6 June 2011

Nuclear confusion

I didn’t see Question Time last week myself, but MH draws attention to a pretty black-and-white statement by Elfyn Llwyd which clearly is not in line with the wording of the motion passed by Plaid’s members at last year’s annual conference.  The amendment proposed by Plaid’s Assembly Group – and therefore, presumably, supported by at least a majority of that group - only called for any benefits of building Wylfa B to go to the local community. 
It did not support the building of the power station itself.  For an allegedly nationalist party, the wording was more than a little wishy washy though.  “Conference recognises that the decision as to whether a new nuclear power station is built at Wylfa is a matter for the UK Government”, as though that is excuse enough for taking a more neutral stance on the issue.  It’s akin to saying that we can’t influence the decision, we can only deal with the consequences of it.  I found it hard to believe that this was coming from the same party which did so much to oppose the Tryweryn proposal half a century ago.
As I noted at the time, many of those who spoke in favour of the amendment made it very clear that they were actually supporting the building of Wylfa B.  My concern then was that the amendment would be interpreted in precisely the way in which Elfyn interpreted it last week.  And I suspected at the time that that was probably the intention of those behind the wording.
What is perfectly clear by now – and again, it’s a point to which I’ve alluded before – is that Ieuan Wyn Jones is by no means alone within Plaid in supporting the construction of Wylfa B; there are a significant number of other elected members and candidates who support his stance.
There are two separate issues here which are often confused.  The first is whether opposing nuclear energy is the right or the wrong thing to do.  Personally, I’m opposed; I’ve made that clear, along with the grounds for my opposition, on a number of occasions.  It’s not a great issue of principle for me, but a conclusion to which I have come on the basis of the evidence available.  Others come to a different conclusion on the basis of the same evidence.  That’s a viewpoint which I can respect and debate with.
But the second issue is the one of political credibility, and it’s much more general than the simple question of nuclear energy.  To what extent can any party claim to take a clear position on a particular policy issue when a significant number of its candidates and elected members will not actually support that policy when it comes to a vote?  And how can a party claim that its policy is determined by the membership if the party’s elected members are free to ignore it or even argue the exact opposite?
‘Policy’ is supposed to be what a party would implement if in government; it’s pointless having a policy on an issue if that ceases to be true.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic

I’ve noted a number of times that those politicians who complain about the ‘spending gap’ in education are barking up the wrong tree.  Whilst the amount spent per pupil is not an entirely irrelevant issue, there appears to be little direct correlation between that figure and educational attainment – there’s a far greater correlation between social inequality and educational attainment.
It is absolutely key that the new Welsh Government should give proper attention to the poor levels of attainment in Welsh schools, and particularly the failure to ensure that pupils leaving our primary schools have basic numeracy and literacy skills.  It is a mistake, though, to imagine or assume that the issue can be dealt with purely within the education system itself – a mistake made by all of the parties in last month’s election.
The Druid has some pretty graphs which underline the point.  It’s a very effective way of presenting the key link between attainment and inequality, and it’s good to see that even some Tories are able to understand the criticality of the link.  He fails, however, to follow that link through to the inescapable conclusion; instead he merely argues that we need to do something to ‘break the link’.
In fairness, he’s not the only one to respond in that way.  It is the same response that successive governments, both in Cardiff and London, have given to the situation, albeit that some have tried harder than others to implement such an approach.  It hasn’t worked, though – and that was part of the problem with recent election promises by parties which said that they would address the issue by changes to the education system or processes.
It’s not that schools can’t do better - of course they can – but schools and education policy alone can never get to grips with the underlying causes of under-achievement; they can only address the symptoms.  And that means that any programme which seeks to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy by slow gradual improvement in the education system is essentially managerial, not transformational.
Nor is it the case that some of the negative attitudes towards education which also show some correlation with the same underlying social factors are totally resistant to change.  More can be done on that front as well.
But a truly transformational policy would seek to deal with the underlying social inequality.  For many years, I’ve argued that whilst it is important to do what we can to address the consequences of inequality, we will never eliminate the problems by focussing solely on those consequences.  Governments and parties have failed to eliminate under-attainment not because they don’t care, nor because they haven’t tried, but because they are only treating the symptoms, not the causes.
Politicians who try to argue that such attempts have failed not because they’re only tackling the symptoms but simply because other parties have done it incompetently - and that a different team can somehow succeed where they’ve failed - are falling into the same trap.  And in some cases, taking a huge step backwards in understanding.  It's easier, of course, to promise to 'fix' the education system than to reduce or eliminate inequality.
I truly want to transform Wales and the life chances of our children – I don’t just want to transform the rhetoric.