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.


Plaid Panteg said...

"I’d sooner see less attention-grabbing and more real differences."

I accept what you are saying, but the problem isn't necessarily the lack of ideas (although I do think that is present), it's the lack of powers and crucially the block grant make up of the Assembly.

There is no incentive, left or right wing, to really be radical.

I know that sounds defeatist, but the challenge for us all who do have concerns at the overly hive mind mentality in the Senedd (look at how many proposed laws are linked to small lobbying circles) is to propose what we would do so radically different?

John Dixon said...

The question, Marcus, is why people allow their thinking and proposals to be so completely constrained by the lack of powers and the block grant. The budget is just a symptom of that wider malaise. People who were in politics to bring about substantial change wouldn't need any 'incentive' to be radical.

Anonymous said...

This blog posting reminds me of an argument which broke out in the boardroom of a small business I once worked for in Merthyr. All products, sold mainly to the building trade, had a fixed gross percentage mark up. It was about whether a product should have a sales price of £10.00 (the percentage mark up) or £9.99 (an edge to go for the retail trade). The answer now, seems obvious. The reality is the vast majority of the cost goes on manufacture and establishment and the odd penny doesn't really make a difference, however, the penny and what is presented can make the difference between success and failure.

Of course 99% of the Welsh budget goes on the NHS, education and general public sector cost. Bloody obvious. However, it its a million pounds of so that builds the by-pass round your local town, or some books for the infants school, those are the 'issues' which the public have their eyes on. It's also true that when your kids go through school or your nan goes to hospital to get the hip done it's not necessarily attributed to whether it was Carwyn, Kirsty, or Ieuan. But the A465 duelling, teacher assistant in the local classroom, or grant for a new machine in the cheese parlour is. It's what people care about, not what is just taken for granted.

It's the small things that indicate what the direction and political priorities our politicians have. Whilst it's true that Withybush hospital is the most expensive item in Pembrokeshire, most do not know the intricacies of it's financing and management. Putting a blood donation or cancer screening van in the car park is what people see, and it's upon that which people make a judgement on how well it's doing. It's also how voters judge politicians, political parties and political orientation. If you want less attention-grabbing and more real differences you need to join a political party. You will spend ten minutes on the education budget and the rest of the day on a pothole at the end of the street, because if you want to make a real difference, John, you have to be there when the education budget is being decided.

Nothing personal. Just an observation.

Unknown said...

John - some things, like the Build for Wales program would have had zero cost to the budget, so I don't think your % comparison is quite fair.

I do agree, though, that there is amongst all the parties a failure to face up to the complete collapse of the neo-liberal capitalist model that has held sway sine Thatcher. 'The anglo-saxon model' as our European friends call it. There is not a lot that Wales on its own can do about that at the moment, but at least Plaid are exploring and encouraging different economic models, and this would have been a chance to further that agenda.

John Dixon said...


If the limit of one's aspirations is to make a few minor changes to the budget, then there is much in your comment with which I can only agree. But there are plenty of politicians - four whole parties' worth - working in that space already. I'd also entirely accept that making those sort of small differences does indeed mean being there when the decisions are being taken. I'd just mention, though, that since 99.5+% of the budget was decided internally to the Labour Party, the logic of that position would be that the best way to make such differences would be from within the Labour Party.

It isn't, though, an approach to politics which leads to any presentation of a real alternative to the model which currently operates.


I take the point about some differences in approach which would not necessarily have a direct impact on the revenue budget. Build4Wales was a good idea in principle, although the number of jobs it would have created has been hopelessly over-hyped, and it looks somewhat unambitious compared to the proposals which Gerry Holtham hasa been promoting.

However, the real issue for me is the one that you highlight about parties failing to face up to the failure of the current model. And that's part of the point that I was trying to make in this post - there is an underlying assumption, shared by all the parties, that the current model can be fixed and that we can get back to business as usual. It isn't always stated quite as explicitly as that, but it is implicit in the way that debate about alternatives between the parties is constrained to a very narrow band, with those very minor differences being grossly exaggerated to give the impression that there is more to them than is actually the case.