Wednesday 30 November 2011

Even more ado about less

I once met Lord Tebbit, albeit only in passing.  I was with Dafydd Wigley in the underground labyrinth which gives the basement of the Palace of Westminster the feel of a giant public convenience.  We were probably somewhere between ‘this house’ and ‘the other place’, when Tebbit appeared suddenly out of a side tunnel beaming from ear to ear.  He was regaling all and sundry (including Dafydd) with the news that their lordships had just inflicted a defeat on the (Tory) government of the day.
I can’t remember exactly what the subject was, but I have a vague recollection that it was a minor amendment to an obscure clause in some European legislation.  Oh, and that the government (as governments are wont to do) reversed the defeat in the Commons in due course.  It was a useful lesson in the way that some elected (or in this case, even unelected) members can get so institutionalised in the procedures and debates that they imbue the minutiae with a sense of importance which completely passes most of us by.  And they generally have difficulty understanding why the rest of us don’t care.
The incident came to mind in recent days during the reporting of discussions on the Welsh budget.  It’s another case of much ado about not very much at all.
We now know that the concessions secured by the Lib Dems amount to less than 0.2% of the entire Welsh budget, and that those demanded by Plaid amounted to somewhat less than 0.5% of the same budget.  We don’t really know what percentage change would have been needed to satisfy the Tories, but that doesn’t really matter.  Both Labour and Tory parties are far too tribal to have ever come to a deal with each other, even if it were to have been the cheapest deal of all.
I’m sure that the insignificance of the sums involved compared to the overall totals reflects a realistic and pragmatic approach to what was actually possible, and I don’t blame the Lib Dems (any more than I would have blamed Plaid) for accepting such a small change as the price for their support.  What I do blame all the opposition parties for, however, is the rhetoric in advance.
When they were telling us that they thought the budget was unacceptable, and that it didn’t meet the priorities of Wales it seems that what they really meant was that they thought the budget was over 99.5% acceptable and largely met the priorities of Wales.  It’s rather a different proposition.
It also highlights the real problem facing Welsh politics.  A budget isn’t the same as a programme, of course; but one would surely expect any radically different programme for government to come with much more significant budgetary differences than 0.5%.  In effect, during all the headline grabbing and posturing of the budget discussions, no party has put forward an alternative programme which is at odds in any major way with what Labour are planning to deliver. 
It seems that the smaller are the differences between them, the more attention gets drawn to them.  I’d sooner see less attention-grabbing and more real differences.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Fiddling at the fringes

According to this story yesterday, job losses in the Welsh public sector could be up to 26,000, and each job loss in the public sector could be matched by a job loss in the private sector, pushing the total cost to the Welsh economy up to around £3.65 billion.  I assume that to be an annual figure, although it wasn’t stated as such, and nor was there much by way of clear justification of any of the other figures.  I’m not sure how confident we can be, as a result, in the precise figures, but there are some key general points that do emerge.
The first is that cutting spending in the public sector is not neutral in its effect on private sector employment.  There is a direct knock-on effect as the public sector places fewer contracts and buys fewer goods and services.  It’s a relationship which should be obvious, really, and I don’t understand why those who are so keen to cut the public sector quickly and deeply don’t understand that relationship. 
The result is that, even if we assume that the private sector is going to create jobs to take up the pool of labour created by public sector cuts, the total number of jobs needed is much higher than simply those cut from the public sector.  And that’s just to stand still, without doing anything about the high levels of unemployment which were there to start with.
The second thing that struck me about the report was the quote from the IoD representative, who claimed that “the private sector was doing its best to create jobs to compensate for public sector cuts”.  I’m not convinced about that.  For how many organisations in the private sector does the question of ‘creating jobs’ feature in the mission statement, strategy, or objectives?  Not many, I suspect. 
Private companies exist to make money for shareholders, not to employ staff, and part of the reason that the economic system is badly broken is that there has been an obsession with ‘efficiency’ as companies try to produce more goods and services more cheaply – generally for less effort using fewer employees.  Whilst it’s true that the expansion of private companies can create jobs, that’s a side-effect – it’s not the aim.  Suggesting otherwise is mere spin.
The third point is the repetition of the canard that the problem with the Welsh economy is that we are “over-reliant on the public sector”.  That’s an ideological belief rather than a statement of fact.  There is no magic number for the percentage of the economy which belongs in one sector or the other, and it really doesn’t matter, in terms of GVA, whether a particular activity is carried out by the private sector, by the public sector, or by the private sector as a contractor to the public sector. 
(I’d accept that there are questions about whether the public sector has historically been as ‘efficient’ as the private sector.  That’s a subject for another day, but the point is that there really is no inherent reason why the public sector should be any less productive or effective than the private sector.  And there have been, in the past, plenty of examples of profitable businesses in the public sector – until they were sold off.) 
Who owns enterprises is irrelevant from a GVA perspective, but we’re stuck in the Thatcherite mode of believing that only private profit can drive an economy, and that the state should only concern itself with the provision of a limited range of services.  It’s a paradigm which patently isn’t working, yet governments and oppositions alike only offer us more of the same.
On the same page as that story was the report about Cameron stating that “getting debt under control is harder than envisaged…”.  The only thing that surprises me is that he or anyone else would be in any way surprised at that.  Increasing the numbers of unemployed people reduces tax revenue and increases benefit expenditure, leading to the government needing to borrow just as much as if they had stuck to Labour’s plans.  They’re effectively just spending a similar amount of money in a different way.
Labour seem to take some satisfaction from that, but they really shouldn’t.  The difference between the two parties' approaches is little more than fiddling at the fringes.  £6billion may sound like a lot of money, but it’s really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.  But within the current paradigm, fiddling at the fringes is the best we’re likely to be offered by conventional political parties.  None of them is offering a real alternative.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Rigging the system

Ynys Môn council has been dysfunctional for many years, and regular attempts from both inside and outside the island to resolve the issues have failed.  The differences are generally not political, but personal; councillors are as prone to falling out with members of their own party as they are to falling out with members of other parties.  And ‘independent’ covers a multitude of sins.
Clearly, something needed to be done, and sending in the commissioners can have come as no surprise to most people.  New elections – and preferable a largely new set of councillors – are an inevitable part of the longer term solution.  I’m concerned, though, about the latest proposals from the boundary commission.  Or, rather, I’m concerned about the direction given to the boundary commission by the minister.
The general guidance used by the boundary commission in relation to all councils in Wales is set out here.  In paragraphs 5.4 onwards, the preference for single-member wards is made clear.  Although the commission can and must consider whether multi-member wards have advantages, in general they are asked to prefer single-member wards.
The minister has the right to over-rule the consideration – paragraph 5.5 of the general guidance specifies that he may do so in specified areas.  In the case of Ynys Môn, he has decided to do so.  As the introduction to the report on the island’s electoral arrangements makes clear, the Minister made a specific direction in relation to Ynys Môn, which “requires that we should, in the first instance, consider the desirability of multi-member electoral divisions throughout the County”.
Personally, like anyone else who advocates STV, I favour multi-member wards; they’re essential if we want to have a more proportional result.  So I have no objection to the introduction of multi-member wards per se (although I’d prefer it to be accompanied by a move to STV).
But is it right to have a different approach in one council area from that being implemented everywhere else, where the main reason for that difference appears to be to facilitate the election of different people?  There is no doubt in my mind that the Minister has acted in accordance with the powers conferred upon him, because those powers don’t seem to require that he provides any reason or argument for adopting a different approach in one area, or place any constraints on what considerations he might apply.
And that’s where my concern lies.  There is a dangerous precedent here, under which the Minister has directly interfered in the work of the boundary commission to instruct them to take a particular approach in Ynys Môn, largely because he doesn’t like the result of the elections there.  I don’t like them either – but I’m simply not convinced that rigging the electoral system is the right way to deal with that problem. 
And Ynys Môn isn’t the only place where I don’t like the results of the elections.  If the Minister also feels that, what is to stop him interfering further in other areas to obtain a result more to his liking?

Monday 21 November 2011

Controlling the markets

Marcus draws attention to the extent to which ‘the markets’ now control policy, with governments being mere bystanders.  The Observer article to which he links also underlines the way in which governments are being changed undemocratically to satisfy ‘the markets’.
Saturday’s Western Mail had a leader column on the Eurozone crisis, which argued that two things are now necessary.  The first is that Germany must take the lead, and the second is that ‘the markets’ must give the Eurozone time to breathe.  I don’t know whether the first will happen or not; but I’m confident that the second won’t.
There is a tendency for politicians and commentators to imbue ‘the markets’ with rather more rationality than is actually justifiable; the idea that they should also show some responsibility or compassion to the people of countries such as Greece and Italy is about as likely as porcine aviation.
The economic idea of the market acting as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to match buyers and sellers has long since been lost in the financial sphere, as individuals and organisations have realised that they can make money for themselves by speculating rather than buying or selling anything, let alone investing.  But as with any other type of gambling, one person’s profit is another person’s loss.  And the losers, in this case, are most of us.
If the speculators believe that they can make a profit by bankrupting a country or two, undermining a currency, or bringing down a few leaders, then no appeal to their better nature will stop them.  And even if it did stop some of them, there would simply be others who would pounce on what they would see as weakness to line their own pockets.
That doesn’t mean that the WM leader writer is wrong to want to see the markets giving the Eurozone a break; it just won’t happen voluntarily.  We sometimes seem to forget that the markets are a human artifice, not something with an objective existence of their own.  They were created to fill a social need, but have been subverted in the interests of the few – it’s another example of the 1% and the 99%. 
If we wanted, collectively and internationally, to re-assert social control over them we could do so.  The fact that so many of our politicians are unwilling even to countenance that merely underlines the extent to which those who benefit from the system also control the political agenda.
In many other contexts, people who enrich themselves at the expense of others, even whole countries, would be regarded as criminals.  Why do we allow ourselves to be so beholden to them?

Friday 18 November 2011

How long a piece of string?

According to the Tories’ group leader, £4million a year is an ‘excessive and wasteful’ sum of money to spend on maintaining Wales’ largest occupied office building.  So, if £4million is the ‘wrong’ answer, what’s the ‘right’ one? 
Actually, he wasn’t quite as precise as that.  He said only that he ‘fears’ that it is excessive and wasteful, which sort of suggests that he himself doesn’t actually know what the right answer would be.  Select a number, any number, as long as it’s smaller, perhaps?  (‘Zero’ would be quite a good answer from his perspective, one suspects.)
There is, in the way his views are expressed, an underlying suggestion that civil servants should not expect to have high quality office accommodation – that is to be reserved for the private sector.  And if their conditions deteriorate over time, and no longer meet current standards and expectations, then they should simply accept that as part of the package.  Whilst we shouldn't be paying for anyone to work in opulent surroundings, it is surely reasonable for them to expect to be working in modern conditions which comply with current standards, isn't it?
It’s interesting that he claims that the money could be better used in supporting businesses, as in “There are untold numbers of businesses in Wales that would benefit from financial support”.  I’m sure that there are.  But is he really saying that he’d prefer to see taxpayers’ money used to give grants and subsidies to businesses rather than to purchase services and materials from them?  Because that’s where most of the £4million will actually have gone – to private companies in return for work done.  Providing state handouts rather than giving business to companies is an odd position for a Tory to take.
I don’t know whether £4 million is excessive or not.  It sounds a lot, but there also seems to be an element of catch-up after some years of neglect.  I simply don’t have enough information to judge.  And neither, I suspect, do the Tories. 
There’s nothing new in their approach though.  Far too often, opposition politicians seize on any large numbers which come into view because they make good headlines.  But headline chasing isn’t the same as detailed scrutiny and constructive opposition.  Nor is it the best way of ensuring that those who work in public services on behalf of all of us have suitable, but not extravagant, working conditions.

Thursday 17 November 2011

What a difference a day makes

On Tuesday, the First Minister argued that allowing different parts of the UK to use Corporation Tax to compete against each other would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’.  Yesterday, he argued in favour of devolving Aviation Passenger Duty, to enable the Welsh Government to cut the level of tax so that Cardiff Airport could better compete against other airports, such as Bristol.
Why one of those two proposals will inevitably spark a ‘race to the bottom’, whilst the other will not, is not immediately obvious to me.  And of course, since the Welsh Government currently has no tax raising structures, any proposal to devolve any control over any taxation must surely fall foul of the second principle which he outlined on Tuesday, namely that any further devolution must ’be accommodated within existing Welsh Government structures’.
Yesterday, he also called for the devolution of control over stamp duty.  Again, it’s hard for me to see how that complies with the second of Tuesday’s three key principles.  And, having said on Tuesday that Wales should not call for devolution of powers simply because they were devolved to Scotland or Northern Ireland, yesterday he demanded borrowing powers for Wales, and argued that it did not make sense that “a large project could go ahead in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, but not in Wales because the government here cannot borrow”.
I have some sympathy with his concerns about a ‘race to the bottom’.  It’s why Gerry Holtham, for instance, hasn’t called for devolution of control over tax rates, but rather for the rate to be varied on a ‘regional’ basis by the UK Government, based on an objective criterion set around the relative level of GVA.  And it’s part of the reason that we need to look at the devolution of a range of taxation and other economic levers as a complete package rather than taking CT as a stand-alone proposal. 
I even have some sympathy for the difficulty Carwyn faces in dealing with the internal contradictions and differences of opinion within his own party.  I’m not sure that I’d go as far as one commenter on yesterday’s post, who declared that Carwyn is, as a result, “making it up as he goes along”, but I can see why people might think that.
He’s walking a difficult tightrope, but he made a major mistake in trying to suggest that pragmatic responses to individual proposals are somehow based on a set of thought-out principles.  I doubt that he, or his party, will really be in any position to take a clear line on the devolution of taxation until the Silk Commission has reported and the UK Coalition Government has legislated on its recommendations, probably in the teeth of ferocious opposition from Labour’s MPs. 
After that, we’ll probably find that it was their idea all along…

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Carwyn's tests

In a lecture in Aberystwyth, the First Minister has set out his criteria for deciding whether or not further powers should be devolved to Wales.  Superficially, his three tests (“devolution of responsibility would benefit the Welsh public, be accommodated within existing Welsh Government structures, and have limited impact on the wider UK”) seem to be straightforward, but are they really as simple as they look?
Clearly, I start from a very different perspective; his second and third tests are not really ones which any nationalist would propose or support in any event.  As for his first, well, if I didn’t believe that an independent Wales ‘would benefit the Welsh public’, then I wouldn’t argue for it, so it’s not a test that anything would ever be likely to fail from my perspective.
But does it stand up, even from his perspective?  I’m not sure that it’s as clear as he suggests.  In what is presumably a précis of a much longer speech, the newspaper report refers to only three specific examples highlighted by Carwyn.
The first is the devolution of consents for renewable energy projects; something which he says would meet his tests.  It is left unexplained why devolution of renewable consents meets the tests, whereas devolution of non-renewable consents does not.  Why does the one ‘benefit the Welsh public’, whilst the other does not?
I suspect that what he’s really saying is that his government would take a different view from the current UK Government on the one, but really wouldn’t want the responsibility of the other which would merely highlight the difficulties all Welsh parties face over issues such as Wylfa B.  And that highlights a common problem – it seems to me that those arguing that a particular decision should be taken at a particular level are often doing so not from any basis of principle, but from the basis that that is the level most likely to take the decision that they want.  It may well be a valid approach, but we shouldn’t pretend that it’s based on a series of objective tests.
The second is the devolution of corporation tax.  In truth, I share his concern about the danger of a ‘race to the bottom’, but that’s taking a very narrow view of the power.  It highlights another problem with his approach – breaking things down into single-issue decisions avoids any attempt to look at the bigger picture. 
Having control over a range of taxes, as well as other economic powers, would enable different administrations to use different combinations of policies to promote their own economies.  That doesn’t necessarily lead to a race to the bottom at all.  But looking at individual powers on a case by case basis, in the way that Carwyn seems to be doing, will almost inevitably lead to a rejection of all.  His three principles don’t seem to allow for taking a broader view.
He also rejects the devolution of any power over income tax, but here he seems to be introducing a fourth test, that of a requirement for a referendum, although there doesn’t seem to be any hard definition of which items require a referendum and which do not.
One issue which he did not refer to was the devolution of criminal justice and the establishment of a Welsh jurisdiction.  It’s something he has himself supported in the past, but I don’t see how it can ever pass his second test, that of being “accommodated within existing Welsh Government structures”, so presumably he would now reject it as an option.
In principle, I welcome any effort by Labour’s leaders to spell out where they see devolution going, and what principles should underlie that; but in this case, Carwyn’s attempt falls a long way short of the clarity which is needed.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Still struggling with the arithmetic

The Lib Dems continue to struggle to understand the difference between absolute numbers and percentages.  According to Freedom Central, in her statement this afternoon, the party’s leader said that “Labour still spends £600 less on each pupil each year compared to those living in England”.
I’ve referred to this mathematical inexactitude before.  Converting an average to an absolute in this way is distorting the truth in an attempt to make a political point.  But here’s a question – how much faith can we have in anyone’s understanding of the complex numbers in the budget if they don’t understand the difference between an average and an absolute number?

United we fall

It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that the Labour Government in Cardiff has behaved in a somewhat high-handed fashion in preparing this year’s budget proposals, with no meaningful discussion with the other parties.  It’s easy to see how frustration with that approach has led the three opposition parties to table a joint amendment.
But I’m not overly impressed with that joint amendment.  In trying to combine three different and incompatible sets of priorities, it ends up putting forward little which is constructive, and is little more than a fig-leaf to justify them all voting together against the government’s proposal.  One doesn’t have to agree with the government’s own proposals to realise that there is no way of changing them to fully accommodate all the points raised by the amendment.
It’s true of course that the government doesn’t have an overall majority to vote its budget through; but neither does the combined opposition have a majority to vote through an alternative – even in the unlikely event that they were able to agree on a positive alternative rather than simply a wrecking amendment.
The stalemate of tied votes may make for a few newspaper headlines, and seen from the perspective of the bubble, it may even give the participants a welcome bit of excitement, but it has little to do with good government.  Those proposing the amendment must also be fully aware of all this.  So what do the opposition parties really hope to get from this, knowing as they must that they are asking for the impossible? 
One and a half of the opposition parties would rather like to join Labour around the cabinet table in coalition, and if that were to happen, we could be sure that much of what is ‘unacceptable’ today would not only become ‘acceptable’, but even ‘essential’, as the members currently lined up to vote against the budget found themselves whipped into supporting the same basic proposals with a few cosmetic changes around the edges.
If the government avoids the coalition route, and tries to offer enough concessions to get the support, or at least the abstention, of one of the opposition parties, the result would be that two of those parties will have got nothing out of this little collaboration.  It makes me wonder whether they’ve really thought through what they’re doing rather than indulging in a little bit of short term game-playing. 
Given Labour’s one-tune narrative of presenting anything and everything as being a choice between a Labour government and a Tory-led opposition, it’s hard to see how the opposition parties are doing anything other than reinforcing that narrative.

Monday 14 November 2011

Hain slapped down by Labour

There is more than one way of looking at the Labour Party’s statement at the weekend on possible changes to the electoral system for the National Assembly.  Predictably, most people have picked up on the part of the statement which says that if the system is to be changed at all, then it should be changed to a wholly FPTP system, and portrayed that as support for what Peter Hain has been saying for some time.
The ‘if’ is important though; because the first part of the statement says that Labour will oppose any change to the voting system if proposed by the UK Government.  Their default position, therefore, is that the current system should remain unchanged, and that any change which does happen should be decided in Wales rather than in London.  As Glyn Davies points out (“Until today, we thought that all parties supported changing National Assembly electoral arrangements to being based on 30 coterminous constituencies as well”), this is a significant shift away from what Peter Hain has been saying.
Their proposal for what should happen if the system is to be changed at all is rightly ridiculed by all and sundry, but concentrating on that aspect - which they effectively describe as their second choice - is to give inadequate attention to their first choice solution.
It’s not so long ago that Hain was claiming that “Everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales, and maintain the same boundaries for Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies”.  I was not alone in wondering at the time who this ‘everyone’ was and what was the basis for the statement.  This weekend’s announcement puts a significant distance between what the Labour Party thinks and what Hain has been saying.
For all the scorn being poured on Labour, the position taken by them is actually more robust – and, dare I say it, more nationalist – than any other party in Wales.  They’re now the only party rejecting the need for co-terminosity, and the only party arguing that the decision should be made in Wales rather than in London.  It's something of a turn-up.

Friday 11 November 2011

Self-determination is a right

According to international law, all nations have the right to decide for themselves whether, and to what extent, they should exercise sovereignty directly, share that sovereignty with others, or even completely subsume themselves in another entity.  The ‘right’ to self-determination does not mandate any nation to use that right in any particular way.
But international law does not attempt to define what a ‘nation’ actually is.  That’s no surprise; many of those of us who have thought long and hard about what constitutes a ‘nation’ would also struggle to provide a clear, unambiguous, and objective definition.  What is clear, however, is that whatever a ‘nation’ is, it has the right to determine its own status in the world without external compulsion or interference.
In posting today about the possible attempt by the UK Government to hi-jack the independence referendum in Scotland, Peter Black makes the sweeping statement that “Scotland is not in a position to decide its own fate”.  And insisting, as he does, that “the consent of the rest of the United Kingdom will be necessary for any change” runs directly counter to the principle that self-determination can be exercised without external interference.
It seems that the Lib Dems either don’t accept international law, or else don’t agree that Scotland is a nation.  I can’t see any other rationale for making such statements.  Worse, the statements seem to be based on the highly illiberal premise that sovereignty belongs to the centre rather than the people.
There are arguments both for and against independence, whether we’re talking about Scotland or Wales.  And it is perfectly proper that people put those arguments to the people of Scotland in advance of their referendum, so that the people have the opportunity to make an informed decision on their own future.  But arguing that they have no right to make their own decision, or trying to take control of the referendum process is not only wrong, it’s also likely to be self-defeating.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Consultation or advice

Dylan Jones-Evans posts an interesting comparison today between the membership of the ‘Economic Renewal Council’ in Wales and the membership of the ‘Council of Economic Advisors’ in Scotland.  As a like-for-like comparison, it makes for grim reading, but I wonder whether that is entirely fair.
The two animals have evolved by very different routes.  Whilst the purpose of the Scottish body is to give the best possible economic advice to the Scottish Government, the Welsh body has, as Dylan himself notes, grown out of a statutory requirement to consult; and it seems to be more about seeking consensus than setting a new direction. 
During the early part of the recession, the Welsh body seemed to be performing quite well in that more limited role, although I suspected at the time that there was more than an element of spin about the extent of its contribution.  However, a body containing representatives of the different stakeholders, meeting periodically to discuss the economic situation with the Welsh ministers is no bad thing in itself.  To that extent, I’d disagree with Dylan’s criticism. 
However, the unanswered question for me is this – where is the body in Wales which is performing the rôle being performed in Scotland by the Council of Economic Advisors?  This is not a representative body taking part in consultation, but a group of leading people in the field with a much better capability to do some pro-active and wide-ranging thinking and advising – and it appears to be missing in Wales.
I doubt that the ‘sector groups’ which the Welsh Government spent the best part of two years setting up are really working on the same level, or are likely to do so.  The problem, it seems to me, isn’t so much with the membership of the body we have trying to perform the functions allocated to it, but with the lack of a rather different focus which could probably only be provided with a very different membership.
On that point, I can only echo Dylan’s question about a lack of economic ambition on the part of the Welsh Government.

Monday 7 November 2011

Who are these people?

There was a story about a month ago claiming that there was a possible loophole in the Welsh Government’s policy on paying tuition fees.  The nub of the issue was that different lawyers appeared to be giving different advice (as lawyers are wont to do) about the law in this area, with some claiming that the Welsh Government could find itself open to paying fees for all EU students studying in the UK.
I still suspect, as I noted at the time, that this is one of those situations where only a test case will prove who is right and who is wrong; but I couldn’t see how anyone’s interest would be served by bringing such a test case.
I still don’t see whose interest would be served, but it looks as though we may be moving to a position where a test case becomes a possibility.  According to the Western Mail this morning, a “think-tank” which I’d never heard of before has decided to actively encourage EU students in England to apply to the Welsh Government for funding.
The “think-tank” concerned has a single-page web presence here, which actually tells us very little about them.  The banner at the top, showing a combination of the union flag and the stars and stripes makes me wonder what the nature of the US connection is, but there is little hard information to be had.  The Western Mail tells us that their spokesman is England-based – do they have any connection with Wales at all?
The key question, surely, is what the motivation is behind this intervention in Welsh politics.  It’s a question which the Western Mail seems not to have even asked. 
Their web page says that they want to expose the “stupidity and inequity” of the policy being pursued by “the Welsh Assembly” (sic – do they not understand the difference between the Assembly and the Government, and what does that say about their knowledge?).  But who would pay for them to do this, and if they’re not being paid for it, why would they divert time and effort into something which is more political campaign than policy research and development?
It’s an odd thing for a “think-tank” to do; and the report in the paper raised more questions than answers in my mind. 
I wasn’t particularly surprised at the Tories jumping on the bandwagon to criticise the policy yet again, although I still don’t understand why they think such a stance holds any political advantage for them.  Supporting an organisation based elsewhere in an attempt to undermine a popular policy doesn’t look like good politics to me.

Friday 4 November 2011


Hain yesterday, Murphy today.  The same message from both of them, which I suppose at least displays a degree of unity, something for which the Labour Party hasn’t always been best-known.
Sadly, however, neither man’s message gets much beyond “Labour Good, Tories Bad”; any proposal coming from the Conservatives must be wrong and therefore should be opposed.  There is no real attempt whatsoever to engage with, or even discuss, the substance or merits of the case.
In response to my post on Hain’s comments yesterday, Jeff Jones commented that this sort of approach “plays well with the core vote particularly if it is over 60 and still living in a world which stopped in 1979”.  There’s a sense in which that is the most hopeful aspect – they’re playing to a demographic which will inevitably decline over the years.

Thursday 3 November 2011


Another day, another statement by Hain.  The Western Mail’s extensive coverage is here; the unexpurgated words of the man himself are here.  The juxtaposition of the words attributed to the Presiding Officer in a rather different context (“Oh here we go now”) on the same page of the paper, and to the left of the piece on Hain, seemed strangely prescient.
He’s not alone in his love of hyperbole to make a point, but the suggestion that taxation powers for the National Assembly would "destroy Wales" seemed a bit far-fetched, even for him.
That’s not to say that taxation powers are necessarily an unmitigated opportunity for Wales; they are potentially a double-edged sword.  But, and not for the first time, he puts up a straw man that no-one is seriously suggesting (an immediate move to full power over all taxation and expenditure) in order to knock it down – and dismiss more modest proposals at the same time.
The devil is in the detail; a move to a situation where the block grant is reduced by an amount equivalent to a certain percentage of income tax and the Assembly given the power to vary income tax to recover the lost grant is potentially neutral in its effects on both the Assembly’s total income and expenditure and on the level of income tax paid by people in Wales.  And I suspect that’s much closer to what will potentially be on offer.
My doubts about such a proposal aren’t simply that a power to vary the level of tax (rather than merely recover the lost revenue) is a power which probably dare not be used.  It's more that it adds little to the ability of the Welsh Government to vary the mix of taxation revenues in order to achieve goals beyond the merely fiscal.
There is one point in what Hain said where I actually agree with him, albeit only up to a point.  He said that “We shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed... [of the fact that Wales needs more expenditure than we raise in taxation] …Wales’ needs are greater than most other parts of UK”.  It’s a point I made in a piece on WalesHome a few months ago.  Whether the ‘central government’ in question is a Welsh one or a UK one, it can and should be trying to mitigate the effects of geographical wealth inequalities.
Where I part company with him though is that he seems to be implicitly assuming that Wales’ relative poverty is an inherent, unchangeable fact of life which only redistribution by the UK Government can resolve.  I find that depressing and defeatist; one of the best reasons that I can think of for rejecting Hain and his party is precisely that such thinking seems to be endemic to them.  Where is his/their plan to build the Welsh economy to the point where we don’t need handouts?  Where’s the belief in the ability of the people of this small country to turn things round?  Where’s the positive leadership?
I don’t doubt that some would argue that he actually wants to keep Wales as it is, that a dependent Wales providing a block of safe seats to Labour in the UK Parliament is what best suits the Labour Party.  I’ve had similar comments on this blog often over the years I’ve been running it.  I don’t think it’s an entirely fair criticism, though.  The outcome might well suit him, but I don’t believe that he’d deliberately hold us back for such self-interested reasons.  A far more damning criticism is that he just doesn’t seem to be able to imagine any alternative.

Relative Wisdom

Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP whose career came to an end over the ‘cash-for-questions’ affair has now joined UKIP and been elected to its NEC, it appears.  Their loss is presumably the Conservatives’ gain.
I was struck in particular by this quote from UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage.  He said that Hamilton’s “experience and wisdom will contribute significantly to UKIP”.  I couldn’t help but ask myself what exactly that says about the wisdom and experience of the rest of UKIP.  I suppose that wisdom, like much else, is relative.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Where's the meat

Both the BBC and the Western Mail give us a preview of Carwyn Jones’ speech to a Welfare to Work Convention in Cardiff today.  The impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms seems to be getting a large chunk of his speech.
I’d agree with him that the ‘reforms’ are going to have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable, and I think he’s right to defend the Welsh Government’s record on issues such as prescriptions.  And I can see how some of those policies being pursued in Wales can foster and encourage social inclusion; free transport for older and disabled people, for instance, can enable them to participate in activities which would otherwise be beyond their reach.
I wonder though how free prescriptions and bus passes really promote ‘social mobility’ as he seems to be claiming.  And, not for the first time, I wonder whether ‘social mobility’ is the right objective anyway – it’s not the movement of individuals between levels which we need so much as an evening out of the levels.
But the thing that really struck me about his speech as reported is the dearth of firm alternative proposals.  He talks about “monitoring developments closely”, and establishing “a ministerial ‘task and finish’ group responsible for assessing and monitoring the cumulative impact of all the welfare changes”; he refers to the government taking “its responsibilities seriously to meet this challenge” and being “progressive” and says that he would “never shirk away from tackling issues that could have detrimental implications to Welsh Government policies, services and Welsh citizens”.
There is, though, little of substance by way of positive action.  There is a recycling of the claim that they will “create 4,000 new jobs a year in Wales for the next three years”, which is in reality little more than offering a series of 6-month placements to 2000 people at a time.  It’s not a bad idea in itself, but it’s been hyped to be more than it is.
Overall, the speech is more rhetoric than programme.  I’m sure that other parties will use that to demonstrate, yet again, a lack of ambition.  That’s probably not entirely unfair, but the lack of firm proposals also reflects the Welsh Government’s lack of real power on economic issues.  Criticism of a lack of ambition by the governing party suggests that the solution is as simple as changing the governing party.  It really isn’t that simple, and suggesting that it is diverts attention from the real issue of how we develop a serious economic alternative.