Tuesday 31 March 2015

Man or mouse?

I know that I really shouldn’t be surprised or shocked by anything our politicians do or say, but I was still taken aback by this report in Saturday’s Western Mail.
In essence, the outgoing MP for Neath has told us that, from the outset, he was convinced that the best person to lead Welsh Labour and become First Minister in 1999 was Rhodri Morgan and that nothing that happened in the following 16 years was enough to change his mind.  But in fact, he actively organized the campaign for Alun Michael instead … because Alistair Campbell told him to.
A key element of Labour’s pitch in Wales is that the party will “stand up for Wales”.  Yet here we have a man who claimed to be representing Wales at the highest level in the cabinet happily admitting that he did what he thought was the wrong thing for Wales, and did it with enthusiasm and energy, because a spin doctor told him to.
How to undermine a party’s campaign in one easy book launch.

Monday 30 March 2015

Riding the wave?

A strong and clear part of Plaid’s appeal for electoral support over the last week or so has been the fear hat Wales will get “left behind” if there is a large group of SNP MPs in the new parliament, and only a small group from Plaid.  The fear of getting left behind is entirely valid, and an electoral appeal based on truth ought to be a good starting point.
There are, however, two important factors to consider, and unless both of those apply, then the argument will only ever have any traction with those who are already minded to vote for Plaid.  There is a danger that it will be a case of preaching to the converted.
The first of those factors is this: are voters sufficiently convinced that being left behind is necessarily a bad idea?  Much as I’d like that to be the case, I’m not convinced that it is.  Yes, I know that opinion polls tell us regularly that there is a widespread feeling that Wales should have parity with Scotland, but they don’t tell us how strongly that view is felt.  In particular, they don’t tell us whether, or to what extent, that widespread view is one of the top factors in deciding how people will vote.
In the absence of hard data on that, we can only guess, based on our own prejudices and what people around us think and say.  And my personal view is that, much as I’d like to believe otherwise, it isn’t a top issue for most, and there’s some wishful thinking behind the assumption that it is.
The second factor is this: even supposing that the support for parity with Scotland is a strong motivating factor in deciding how to vote, is it sufficiently clear to people that there is one clear option on the ballot paper which delivers that result?  Again, I fear that this is being taken as read, when to those on the outside it is by no means as clear as they seem to be assuming.
Wales is not Scotland, as people are fond of reminding us.  We didn’t start in the same place, we haven’t got to the same place, and we haven’t followed the same processes in between.  Reading across from one country to the other is always dangerous.  But, having said that, there is one clear difference which needs to be highlighted, and which is, in my view, a significant factor in the very different electoral position in the two countries in the run-up to the UK General Election.
In Scotland, the voters have heard a clear and consistent message in support of independence over decades, and that simply isn’t true in Wales.  Particularly since the advent of the Assembly, the Welsh case has been put intermittently at best, and Plaid has often seemed to fear the issue.  And it’s only a year or two ago that the party told us that Wales was too poor to be independent at present.
It’s only possible to ride a wave if that wave exists; and the big question in adopting this strategy is whether enough has been done to create the wave.  Internal groupthink doesn’t necessarily come to the same conclusion as a more objective analysis.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Only watching the plebs

According to Peter Hain, it is “constitutionally an outrage” that Special Branch continued to keep files on him and 9 other MPs after they were elected to the House of Commons.  It seems to me that he’s outraged about the wrong thing here.
There will always be different opinions about whether, and to what extent, the security services should be keeping an eye on what political groups are doing.  Personally, I think it’s outrageous that they should ever do so unless they have clearly evidenced grounds for suspicion of criminal activity.  Others will disagree; and I accept that.  But using that definition, I really don’t see why anyone’s status as an MP should affect that.
If there’s suspicion that an MP is involved in criminal activity (and recent events over expenses etc. surely prove that MPs are no different to the rest of the population in this regard), then why should they be exempt from the attention of the security services? 
The real outrage here is that any MP should apparently think that it’s OK for the security services to keep files on anyone they like - except MPs.  One rule for them, and another rule for everyone else.  His call for the enquiry to look specifically at the surveillance of MPs misses the point entirely; it’s the fact of the surveillance being undertaken at all which needs review, not who was being watched.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Just keep digging

They say that the first law of holes is that, when you’re in one, you should stop digging.  Faced with the impending SNP landslide in Scotland in the coming election, both Miliband and Cameron seem not only to be ignoring that law, but digging with gusto to see which one of them can get himself into the deepest hole.
The statements being made by the SNP - that they would veto a minority Conservative Government, and expect to have a degree of influence over the budget in exchange for supporting a minority Labour Government  - may not be to the taste of either of the two main UK parties.  But they are an accurate reflection of the reality of the Westminster system, in which any government is expected to be able to command a majority in the House of Commons for a small number of key votes, including the Queen’s Speech and the budget.
There have been times in the not-so-distant past when the Conservatives have actually done very well in Scottish elections, but in the light of a string of poor performances in more recent years, they have been reduced to a rump.  Their tactics to date suggest that they’ve completely abandoned all hope of recovery, and don’t really mind if they get completely wiped out in Scotland.  Their cartoon of Miliband dancing to Salmond’s tune was obviously designed to appeal only to voters outside Scotland – given that the most popular choice amongst Scots for the next government seems to be an SNP-influenced Labour minority government, the cartoon can only have helped the SNP.
Their latest statement, that a decision by the SNP to vote against the Queen’s Speech of any minority Tory Government would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people”, can only be interpreted as confusing British with English, and treating the Scots as outsiders with no business involving themselves in UK politics.  Again, it will do more good than harm to the SNP.
Meanwhile, over on the Labour side, Miliband is doing no better.  Suggesting that a minority Labour government would attempt to behave as though it had a majority and dare anyone other than the Tories to vote against its policies may play well in those parts of England where they are trying to out-Tory the Tories, but seems calculated to frustrate any efforts by his Scottish branch manager to recover the situation in Scotland.
There’s a hint in what some commentators have suggested that the SNP are somehow ‘cheating’ by only standing in Scottish constituencies, so that their representation in Westminster will be out of proportion to their vote across the UK as a whole.  Whilst Miliband and Cameron haven’t quite said that, their current approach seems to suggest that they at least half-believe something similar.
All the polls could be wrong; there could still be a massive swing back to the Labour-Tory parties in the next few weeks, however unlikely it looks at present.  But somehow, I don’t think that merely repeating the same mantra time and again is likely to do other than harden the resolve of Scots to reject both of them.  There’s been a change of paradigm in Scotland since last September, and neither Miliband nor Cameron seem to be able to comprehend that or adapt to it.  Still, as long as they have their spades…

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Two dubious truths, and one whopper

The Sunday Times treated us to an essay by David Cameron this week.  There’s much in it with which I’d disagree (so what’s new?), and I won’t attempt to go through the detail.  There was one passage though which particularly struck me as a classic example of the way in which a politician can select ‘truths’ which suit him, and by an apparently logical process arrive at a wholly unsubstantiated conclusion.
Talking of Ed Miliband’s wish to follow the example of the French president on economic policy, Cameron said, “Unemployment over the Channel is almost twice what it is in the UK.  Our economy is growing seven times faster than France’s.  Imagine if Miliband had been free to pursue his French dream: the fallout would be felt in catastrophic job losses, falling living standards, eye-watering debt, and fast-diminishing hope in our future”.
Now the first two statements of that passage are ‘true’, up to a point.  They depend on a snapshot comparison at a point in time, of course.  And whether that comparison is valid depends on a range of factors.  What we can say, with rather more certainty and validity, is that, over the long term, the growth trajectory of both economies bares a remarkable similarity.  However, I’m prepared to accept that, in the very limited short term context of a snap shot view at a point in time, both statements are true.
Whilst the third sentence appears to follow on from the other two, it simply doesn’t by any process of logic or rational argument.  It’s like an answer to a maths problem in an exam; without showing the workings, it’s impossible to see where exactly he went wrong.  There are though at least three unstated and almost certainly invalid assumptions being made, namely:
·         that the differences between France and the UK are the result of government policies,
·         that Miliband’s economic policies are more similar to those of the French president than to those of Cameron himself (especially bearing in mind Balls’ statement that there is nothing in the budget that he would change), and
·         that the consequences listed would have been replicated in the different circumstances of the UK had the same policies been followed.
Still, who needs truth or logic?

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Don't anybody move, or...

As of yesterday, Ed Miliband has decisively ruled out something which was never likely to happen anyway, namely SNP participation in a formal coalition.  It’s easy to be decisive when the decision has already been taken by someone else.
But it was his apparent reasoning which struck me.  I had naively thought that when he finally got around to stating the obvious it would be to blunt the Tory attack and placate the tabloid frenzy about those dastardly Scots actually daring not only to vote for another party, but to play a role in the UK as well.  But no, it seems not.  In Milibandland, this is actually a cunning ploy to persuade the Scots to vote Labour after all, on the basis that he’ll allow the Tories to run the country if they don’t.
It reminded me, rather, of this scene from the film “Blazing Saddles” where the hero holds a gun to his own head and tells the townspeople who are about to lynch him “Don’t anybody move, or the black guy gets it”.  It works well in a comedy film; the townspeople all lay down their weapons and the sheriff pushes himself back into his office.  But then, it’s fiction, and comedy; and whilst Miliband knows that his line about the largest party getting to form the government is pure fiction, I don’t think he was intentionally being comedic.
But if “Vote for me in Scotland, or I’ll let the other guy run the country” isn’t an attempt at comedy, not to say farce, then what is it?  It sounds like a form of blackmail where the blackmailer is threatening to be his own main victim.  But it’s probably just the result of a thought process which is trapped in Westminster and a million miles removed from the real world. 
There’s a certain lack of understanding at the top of the Labour Party about how much has changed in Scotland since 18th September.  At one level, I can’t blame them for that; the scale of the change has obviously surprised even the SNP.  But while the SNP have adapted to it and are riding the wave, Labour seem to be still in denial, clinging to the core belief that normality will return soon, if only they can find the right combination of threat and menace.
It’s an approach which seems likelier to accelerate their fate than to avoid it.

Monday 16 March 2015

Setting expectations

The idea of political parties issuing ‘pledge cards’ at election time is not a new one.  The usual intention is to summarise in a short snappy way the key things which the party concerned would do if elected.  And the hardest part is usually getting it down to a short, clear list, since various people all want their pet issues included.
Looking at the Labour Party’s pledge card published over the weekend, it seems to me that they had the opposite problem.  Not so much ‘how do we get this lot down to five snappy pledges?’ as ‘how on earth do we make something worthwhile out of so little?’.  
It’s vague, imprecise, wishy-washy, generalised verbiage.  I’ve read it a few times, and I’m still struggling to see why they couldn’t have said it all in three points using five words:
1.    Motherhood
2.    Apple Pie
3.    Fewer Immigrants
I accept that I may be being a little generous to them on the third point – their actual pledge “Controls on Immigration” doesn’t necessarily mean fewer immigrants.  Actually it doesn’t mean anything at all, since there are controls at present; but I’ve read it the way that we’re obviously supposed to understand it without them having to spell it out.
Still, I suppose that setting low expectations minimises the chance that anyone will be surprised or disappointed.

Friday 13 March 2015

An outbreak of reality

There is, of course, still enough time before the election in May for the SNP surge to falter, or for the Tories to benefit from the ‘traditional’ recovery of government parties in the final period of a campaign.  But as poll after poll shows little or no movement, it is looking increasingly unlikely.  As things stand, the likeliest outcome is a very close result between Labour and the Tories, a large block of SNP MPs (with a few friends from Plaid and the Green Party) and a rump of Lib Dems licking their wounds.
In those circumstances, the SNP-led bloc has a choice of strategies which it can follow; the two most obvious being that it an either take a principled and uncompromising stand in favour of a radical alternative or else it can try to influence government policy in exchange for support in a few key votes.  There are pros and cons to both – neither is entirely without its problems.
Until this week, though, it has sometimes seemed that they were trying to do both.  The idea that a group of 50-odd MPs could ‘force’ a Labour government to abandon Trident was always just plain unrealistic.  On any foreseeable election result, there will be 500+ MPs committed to retaining Trident.  Making it a ‘red line’ issue would simply exclude the SNP-led bloc from any influence over the next government.  I very much wish that it were otherwise, but with Labour as committed to nuclear weapons as the Tories, it was never going to happen.  We’re stuck with overwhelming parliamentary support for Trident; our best hope for scrapping Trident at the moment is the second independence referendum in Scotland.
So the announcements this week by Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood that Trident would not be a red line issue for their parties in negotiating with Labour is nothing more than an acceptance of the sad reality.  And it shows that both parties have now come down firmly on the side of seeking to negotiate the best deal possible rather than taking an uncompromising stance after the election.
Whether it’s the ‘right’ decision is another question.  There are certainly those in the Green Party who are publicly questioning it.  And I suspect that there will be those inside both Plaid and the SNP who will be having less public doubts as well.  Personally, I believe that the influence that the parties will have on the policies of any future Labour government is rather less than they are claiming, and a good deal less than many of us might like.  And at the risk of repeating myself, the decision to negotiate with only one party is itself likely to reduce the extent to which that party feels the need to make concessions.
Given the very limited nature of what’s likely to be achievable, I’m more concerned about whether they’re asking for the ‘right’ things.  The agenda is inevitably being set by events in Scotland, and whilst I wish the SNP every success, I can’t help feeling that the needs of Wales are very much a secondary consideration.  Indeed, at times it seems as though changing economic policy at UK level is being given a higher priority than progressing the national project in Wales.
The SNP-led bloc is no more likely to ‘stop’ austerity than it was to stop Trident; all it can achieve is to add a little water to dilute the mix ever so slightly.  The test of ‘success’ from a Welsh perspective in those circumstances is about the more long term changes which are put in place.  And at the moment, it’s not at all clear to me that there’s a thought-out position on that.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Isn't this what they wanted?

Some of the leader writers and columnists in the London-based newspapers are getting increasingly worked up about the possibility that ‘Scottish MPs’ will determine which of the two major UK parties leads the next UK Government.  ‘Demonisation’ is an inadquate word to describe some of their output. Some prominent Tories are singing a similar tune, demanding that the Labour Party rules out any sort of deal with the SNP after the forthcoming election; with others going so far as to propose a ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties in order to prevent the Scots from having too much influence on the results.
There is, however, an element of dishonesty involved.  Looking at what they’re saying in detail, actually, few of those so busy getting themselves worked up really seems to object to the idea that Scottish MPs per se should determine which party leads the government.  They’d all be quite happy – and even the Tories seem to be happy with this – for an English Tory majority to be outvoted by a Labour Party whose seat total only exceeds that of the Tories as a result of Scottish Labour MPs.  It’s only if the MPs come from the SNP that the result would be, apparently, outrageous.
Whilst I can see why they’d prefer that the Scots were a bit better behaved (from their perspective at least), and did the decent thing by voting for one of the parties which ‘won’ the referendum, I cannot see whay 50 extra MPs supporting a Labour Government in key votes is acceptable if they’re members of the Labour Party but some sort of affront to democracy if they’re from the SNP.  The outcome is exactly the same.  As it would be if the extra 50 votes came from Green MPs in England.  Or, dare I say it, Lib Dems.
An even bigger assault on logic is that the people fulminating now are, in many cases, exactly the same people who wanted, pleaded with, threatened and begged the Scots to vote to remain a part of the UK, and send their MPs to be a ‘strong voice’ in the UK Parliament.  When they were saying that they wanted the Scots to continue to participate in the affairs of the UK, I don’t remember any of their entreaties including a caveat that the Scots should not be able to vote for a party of their choice, or that Scots MPs should only be allowed to participate in the Government of the UK if they came from a UK-wide party. 
The bed in which the complainers are now lying is the bed they chose to make; the fact that the result of their efforts isn’t quite as they planned is hardly a valid basis for complaint.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Back to the future

One of the characteristics of so-called ‘New Labour’ in government was that the solution to everything was always more legislation.  It was often poorly thought through legislation, and didn’t always achieve the claimed outcomes; but it usually achieved the desired political result, which was that the government was seen to be doing ‘something’.
Ed Miliband’s commitment to legislate for leaders’ debates in future elections seemed to me to have come from the same stable.  It’s perhaps even less well thought through than even some of Blair’s efforts, but it gives the impression of reacting decisively to a problem and promising to act.
The proposal is blatant nonsense, of course; but I doubt that Miliband will be over-worried about that.  He’s seen a problem, promised decisive action, and is now moving on.  All his focus groups probably told him that being decisive is a good thing in itself – the ‘about what’ and ‘in which way’ questions are secondary.
On the essence of the issue, I doubt that the public are demanding these debates in the way that the politicians and broadcasters seem to believe.  And I have a suspicion that 7 (or more) way debates are going to be televisual Mogadon, with too little time to explore any issue in depth, deteriorating into a swapping of pre-rehearsed sound bites and insults.  Plenty of artificial heat, and very little light.
None of that matters in the slightest to Miliband or his advisers, because his latest promise isn’t about debates or even about legislation; it’s all about image.  New Labour never really went away at all.

Monday 9 March 2015

Poorer dabs

When poor old Malcolm Rifkind recently suggested that he was struggling to survive on an MP’s salary, I pointed out that MPs are actually paid more than 94% of the population.  Using the same chart (available here), we can see that our AMs, on their current pittance of £54,390, are only in the 92nd percentile for salaries in the UK.  The proposals of the review board would raise them up to the 94th, making them more highly rewarded than 93% of the UK population.
I’ve been unable to find a comparable table for salaries in Wales alone.  But given that we know salaries in Wales are lower on average than those across the UK as a whole, I think we can conclude that they might actually be in about the 92nd or 93rd percentile now, and that the proposals put forward last week would take them up to the 95th or 96th, if we restrict our comparison to Wales.  The question which follows will be a very simple one for most people: do we believe that AMs need to be paid more than 95% of the population of Wales?
The reaction of the political parties and politicians has been cautious; another way of saying that they haven’t ruled it out.  There have been some statements prefaced with weasel words along the lines of “at a time of austerity, it’s a bad idea”.  That is of course just a coded way of saying “this is a jolly good idea, but the timing is all wrong”.
Two reasons in particular have been advanced in support of the proposed increase, neatly summed up by the Chair of the Remuneration Board in point 1 of his article for the IWA, where he described the decision as “Setting a salary which reflects the responsibilities on AMs in the Fifth Assembly and which encourages the best candidates to put themselves forward for selection (by the parties) and election (by the public)”.
Taking the first part of that, about reflecting the “responsibilities on AMs”, the implication of needing to pay them more than 95% of the rest of us is that they must be carrying more responsibility than 95% of the population.  Leaving aside the ministers (who are actually responsible for running things and taking decisions), what direct responsibility for anything do AMs actually carry?  And how has that responsibility been measured, assessed, and compared to others in order to get to such a result?
As for the second part, who decides who are the “best candidates”, and on what basis?  Is it really true that only those who won’t even apply unless they are paid more than 95% of the rest of us are of the necessary calibre to do the job?  And what is the quality control process which ensures that salaries paid to attract the best candidates don’t end up merely rewarding the indolent and greedy?  Only a tiny proportion of the electorate make any attempt to assess the ‘ability’ of the candidates placed before them when they’re deciding how to vote.  Most simply vote for the party label.  That isn’t going to change any time soon.
The words ‘responsibility’ and ‘ability’ are easy to bandy about, but a great deal harder to define, either in absolute terms or in relative terms.  But they’re used in ways which suggest that everyone knows and understands what is being discussed.  That avoids asking the difficult questions.
Ultimately, there are two ideological constructs at work here, which have been inadequately challenged or considered in arriving at a conclusion, even if we could define responsibility and ability to everyone’s satisfaction.  They are:
1.    That people ought to be paid according to the level of responsibility that they hold, and
2.    That people are driven in their choices by personal financial gain, and won’t apply their ability to any task unless the rewards are high enough.
But the first really isn’t the only possible way of organising rewards, and the second really isn’t the only conceivable motivation to drive people.  If we want a paradigm shift in the way our society is run (and I certainly do), then accepting the ideological constructs of the current paradigm and applying them to those charged with making legislative changes is a spectacularly poor way to set about it.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Competition and races to the bottom

One of the reasons which have been given for not devolving Corporation Tax to the Assembly is the fear that it could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ as the countries of the UK compete with each other to attract industry by lowering taxation.  And one of the arguments put forward by the Tories for devolving Income Tax to Wales is that it would allow Wales to compete with the other countries of the UK by lowering income tax rates.
I find it difficult to see much difference between a ‘race to the bottom’ and ‘competition’ in this context.  The potential effects certainly look very similar.  The point, however, is surely that for devolution of taxation to work, it has to include a sufficient range of taxes so that governments can raise money using taxes in different combinations to suit differing circumstances.  Picking on individual taxes seems almost guaranteed to limit the usefulness of the power, since reducing them simply reduces revenue, in the short term at least.
The Tories genuinely seem to believe that promising to reduce the level of income tax is a vote winner which will transform Wales from a country where the Tories have a respectable and fairly consistent level of minority support to one where they will somehow sweep the board.  I say ‘seem’; but I wonder.  If they were really confident that this approach was going to transform their fortunes, they would have had more sense than to make it dependent on a referendum which is unlikely to be called any time soon and unlikely to inspire much of a turnout if it does get called.
Perhaps it’s some sort of double bluff.  They know that the amount by which they could reduce income tax in isolation in Wales alone is very limited; they also know that the number of voters likely to be swayed by it is not large either, and they just want to sound like a party of lower taxes, knowing that they’ll never have to deliver on any promises.  But is talk of lower taxes really the vote winner that they believe?
The Tories’ pitch on taxation is based on the assumption beloved of economists which is that we are all, ultimately, selfish and will act in ways which maximise our own individual benefit.  Whether that’s a valid assumption is an open question; the evidence is mixed.  Opinion polls seem to suggest that many people would be prepared to see taxes increase if it meant that the money was spent on things dear to their hearts.  But there has also been some research suggesting that the way people talk when asked openly and the way that they vote in the privacy of the ballot box don’t always match.  Public altruism can sometimes hide private selfishness.
The Tories certainly believe that their take on the motivation of the electorate is valid.  Given the willingness of the Labour Party to accept the same assumption, much of the UK’s political debate is framed within the assumption that we are all motivated by selfish and competitive impulses.  It seems to me that that’s what some people mean when they refer to ‘post-ideology’ politics – but all it really means is that the main political parties now share the same ideology.