Thursday 30 April 2015

Legislating isn't governing

Much of what has been and is being said about the situation which will arise after the election is predicated on the assumption that governments must command a majority in the House of Commons, and if no party has such a majority in its own right, then it has to take steps to guarantee the support of one or more other parties.  It isn’t entirely true, though.
For sure, there are one or two key votes where a majority is necessary for the continuation of a government.  Passing the budget and fending off votes of no confidence are the two obvious examples.  But these are far from being everyday occurrences.  As a general rule, the executive can govern without much need to refer anything to the legislature.
Power to ‘govern’ isn’t – and never has been – vested in the House of Commons.  It is, instead, passed by the sovereign directly to ‘her’ (not ‘our’) ministers, and is generally exercised in Whitehall, not Westminster.  Governments and Ministers have to work within any rules or constraints set down by legislation, of course; and a government without a majority might find it challenging to introduce new legislation or amend existing legislation without being certain of a majority. 
Having said that, most clauses of most bills are singularly uncontentious.  Whilst the impression which the parliamentarians like to give us is of a fierce line by line fight on each and every act of parliament, that picture bears little relation to reality.  A government without a majority would and could still get a lot of non-contentious legislation through parliament; it’s only the most politically contentious issues which would cause a problem.
This was precisely the position facing Alex Salmond and the SNP between 2007 and 2011.  They managed it on an issue by issue basis; and by avoiding proposing any legislation that they knew could never pass (which is why they had to wait until 2014 for the referendum).  But it worked.  In fact it worked very well, and the Scots clearly believed that they had a competent and effective government.
The problem which the pundits and politicians are getting so exercised about isn’t that a minority government can’t work – it’s that it’s something that they’ve never given enough thought to, because they’re hung up on the macho image of a ‘strong’ government steamrollering its programme through parliament.   The idea that a government could quietly get on with governing, and tone down its legislative programme to that which they can get through, is a strange concept to them even though it’s long been the norm in many other countries.
Governing isn’t legislating; and legislating isn’t governing.  It will do the UK no harm at all to develop a better understanding of that distinction.  It might even provoke people into giving a bit more thought to what parliament is for.  Although, on reflection, that might be at least a part of what’s worrying them.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Silly promises

One of the less attractive features of the New Labour years was the Blair approach of ‘solving’ everything by passing new laws.  Passing laws is something which governments can do at little cost.  It is easier than enforcing them, and easier than dealing with the root causes of problems.  It also grabs headlines.  But it doesn’t always achieve very much else.  And sometimes the new laws, passed in haste to suit the presentational needs of the government, can end up causing more problems than they solve.
It may have been a characteristic of New Labour, but it wasn’t and isn’t limited to them, as the latest promise from Cameron shows.  In an attempt to outbid some of the sillier promises on taxation being made by Miliband, he’s now promised to pass a law outlawing increases in certain taxes.  Quite apart from the minor little issue that any parliament can pass or repeal any laws it likes, making the promise rather worthless, the bidding war between the two main parties to give firm and binding commitments that they will not increase taxes is economic madness, as well as utterly dishonest.
I don’t know what the economic situation will be next year, let alone three or four years from now.  And, whatever they may say, neither do any of the politicians.  They can guess.  They can indulge in wishful thinking, donning their customary rose-tinted electoral spectacles.  But they can’t know.  And if they don’t know what the position will be three years from now, tying their hands now over what actions they can take in response is at the very least foolhardy.
More importantly, it shows, once again, their contempt for the intelligence of the electorate.  Do they really believe that the electorate cannot and will not understand a simple honest statement such as “we have no plans to increase tax A, B, or C at this stage, but of course any government must retain the freedom to change its taxation plans in the light of circumstances”?   And, given the obviousness of that statement, and the general low opinion of politicians and their promises, do they really think that anyone will believe what they say?
The Tories are keen to present Labour as financially irresponsible – yet the irresponsible commitments which they themselves are making fatally undermine their case.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Who really wants failure?

Two days ago, Cameron made the extraordinary claim that Scottish nationalists “don’t want the country to succeed”.  Obviously, he wasn’t talking about Scotland when he used the words “the country”, for it would be a very strange nationalist party that didn’t want its own country to succeed.  But if he was instead talking about the UK, it would still be a very strange form of nationalism which wanted the ‘country’ of which the Scots are still a part to do other than succeed.  And even if he was referring to the UK minus Scotland, there is still no evidence that the SNP actually want the country to ‘fail’.  Indeed, much of what Nicola Sturgeon has said throughout the election campaign seems to be saying quite the opposite.
If Scotland is to remain a part of the UK, it is very much in the interest of the Scots that the UK should be an economic success.  And if Scotland were to become independent, it is very much in the interest of the Scots that their largest trading partner should be an economic success.  Both of those things must surely be as obvious to Cameron as they are to me.
It’s easy to dismiss Cameron’s statement as electioneering nonsense, but I think that it tells us something very important about the unionist psyche, and underlines why the unionists will ultimately be defeated.  It tells us that he cannot really conceive of anyone pushing for a second referendum on independence for Scotland other than as a reaction to failure.  He doesn’t understand – can’t begin to understand, apparently – that the movement for Scottish independence exists regardless of the economic arguments, let alone that the certainty of economic success would only boost the nationalist cause. 
Particularly telling is his apparent failure to grasp that economic failure helps the ‘no’ camp more than the ‘yes’ camp.  Fear of economic failure was, after all, the basis of much of the ‘no’ argument during the referendum.  How to achieve economic success is an issue on which there is clearly a significant gulf between him and the SNP; but the goal of achieving it is a shared aspiration.
Panicking politicians don’t look for reasoned debate about alternative approaches to achieving the same goal; they only look for ways of scaring people into voting the ‘right’ way.  This time, though, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Is Ed really that stupid?

Labour’s current position seems to be that, if they get an opportunity to form a government after the election, they will negotiate nothing with the SNP-led group, and simply lay the Queen’s Speech before parliament and defy the SNP to vote against it.  We know, of course, that the Tories will vote against any government programme put forward by Labour, even if they agree with the entire content, and that Labour would return that ‘favour’.  But it’s not a very grown-up approach.  The expectation that the SNP-led group would behave in a more adult fashion is entirely reasonable, although it doesn’t exactly set the bar at a very high level.
But would they really include the whole of their programme, unaltered from the manifesto, which is what they are suggesting, even if they know that there are elements of it (such as Trident renewal) which would more or less compel the SNP to vote against?  As far as I’m aware, there is nothing preventing any government from introducing measures not mentioned in the Speech at a later date; just as there is nothing preventing them from not bringing forward measures which were included.  For all the fuss about the importance of agreeing the programme as a whole, it’s little more than a set-piece debate, with little real relevance to the day by day legislative programme which follows.  Why make it impossible to get through when it can so easily be a Speech which can be passed?
The SNP laid a good precedent for minority government from 2007 to 2011.  They avoided bringing forward any part of their programme on which they knew that they would fail to get a majority (which is why they had to wait until 2014, in the second term, for the referendum), and did deals on a case by case basis for the rest of their programme.  It constrained their legislation, but enabled them to govern effectively.
So, would Labour really be stupid enough to include a commitment to renew Trident (to pick the obvious example, but there are plenty of others) in the Speech, or would they be sensible enough to leave it out, and simply introduce it later in the parliament when they know that they can rely on the Tories to get it passed?  Including everything would avoid accusations from the Tories of trimming their programme in the light of the parliamentary arithmetic, but that's no different to what the Tories themselves did after 2010.  Or what any intelligent government would do.  And limiting the content of the Speech doesn't even require any negotiation with the SNP, merely the application of a little bit of common sense instead of machismo.  

I really don’t believe that Ed is that stupid (and if he is, then he shouldn’t be Prime Minister anyway).  Which leaves the other alternative – they really do believe that the electorate are stupid enough to fall for their bluff.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Watching the car crash

If I understand the latest statements from ex-PM John Major correctly, compromising Tory policies in exchange for Lib Dem votes to secure a parliamentary majority, and having Lib Dem ministers in just about every department of government to keep an eagle eye on what their Conservative colleagues are doing, is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.  But if the Labour Party were to enter government committed to negotiating some compromises on a much looser basis (and taking it vote by vote) with the SNP, that would be tantamount to being held to ransom.  (And the sky might fall in as well.)  And that seems to be not far away from Labour’s own position – doing a deal of some sort with the Lib Dems is fine, but the SNP are regarded as being untouchable.
I struggle to see any logical difference - in both cases, it’s simply a question of recognising that any party which cannot command a parliamentary majority by itself will need the support – or at the very least, the considered abstention – of members of one or more other parties if it is to carry its legislative programme.  In most European countries, that is simply the accepted norm; it’s the way things work, as National Left discussed earlier today.
At this stage however, both parties are being driven more by electoral logic than by any real thought about what happens afterwards.  They’re reminding me of an attitude I came across in one of my many jobs over the years, where the sales team were prepared to make just about any wild claim in order to close the sale, and simply assumed that those of us charged with delivery would be able to talk our way out of the commitments later.  It’s not honest in business – and it’s not honest in politics either.
I don’t know if Major and the rest really believe what they’re saying, or have given any thought to the longer term consequences, but somehow I doubt both.  It hints at desperation – a last throw of the dice in an effort to convince all of us – and the Scots in particular – that we should vote for whichever of Labour-Tory we dislike least, rather than think more positively about the future that we want.
For them, and their cheerleaders in the press, it’s the only way of preserving the status quo of a political battle fought between two parties who agree on just about everything, but occasionally pretend to be slightly different for electoral purposes.  The Lib Dems are - from this perspective - part of the same cosy consensus.  The last thing that any of them want is a block of MPs who might actually believe that a different way forward is possible, let alone having to depend on their support.  In that sense, it’s nothing to do with that block being from Scotland or from a nationalist party; the ‘Scottishness’ of the SNP merely makes them easier to demonise as ‘outsiders’.
Labour suggests that the Tories are deliberately talking up the SNP to damage Labour.  It sounds almost credible, but assumes that the Tories are being driven by strategy rather than panic.  I suspect that the Tories are panicking as much as Labour; they both want to return to the cosy two party politics of old, but neither of them really understands how to achieve that.  The result is that they attack the symptom (the growth in support for the SNP) rather than the cause, which is that the Scots have seen through the two parties, and have been offered an alternative which they seem to rather like.  But by doing so, they merely reinforce the conclusions which the Scots have already drawn about the pair of them.
At the start of the election, I thought that it was at least possible that the SNP surge would start to dissipate, and that the suggestions of 50 plus seats would be shown to be an impossible dream.  Perhaps that will still happen; but everything that Labour and the Tories do seems almost calculated to persuade the Scots to turn in ever greater numbers to the SNP.  The Labour-Tory campaign feels like watching a car crash in slow motion, with the drivers unable to bring themselves to do anything to avoid the collision, not because they can’t but because they won’t.
And they haven’t even begun to think about how they talk themselves out of the hole after the election.

Monday 20 April 2015

Are they decentralists or not?

When the EnglandandWales Green Party manifesto was published, I saw it as something of a step forward in that party’s thinking about Wales.  The reference to a referendum on Welsh independence and the right of the people of Wales to choose that status if we wish was something I hadn’t heard as clearly from them before.
It didn’t tell us where they actually stand on the issue, though.  Are they for or against?  It has long surprised me that any party claiming to want more decentralised decision-making and a more localised economy wouldn’t automatically support any proposal for greater local autonomy.  The position taken by the Scottish Greens in the recent referendum was much more robust.  They not only supported the holding of a referendum, they actively worked to encourage people to vote yes.
But shortly after the EnglandandWales manifesto came the Welsh manifesto, which was a much weaker document as far as this issue goes.  No mention of independence or of any referendum, merely the wishy-washy sentence “We believe that the starting position should be that all powers are devolved from Westminster to the Welsh Government except for those that are best retained at a UK level”.
What on earth does that actually mean, other than that “we’re in favour of devolving everything except those things that we’re against devolving”?  Devoid of any explanation of the basis for deciding what things are “best retained at a UK level”, it tells us absolutely nothing about what they actually believe.  It can mean anything to anyone – and it’s a statement which it’s impossible for anyone to disagree with.  Supporters of independence and supporters of the abolition of the Assembly could both say the same thing.
It looks, from the outside, as though the Green Party in Wales is almost afraid of being too Welsh, or of supporting autonomy for Wales.  But I really don’t understand why.  And I think that they’re missing a trick as a result.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Logic Bypass

No-one who thought that there was any chance that Labour under Miliband would be willing to even countenance the scrapping of Trident can still be under any delusions after the little spat last week.  His commitment to the retention and modernisation of the UK’s weapons of mass destruction is as strong and unwavering as that of the Tories.
It underlines the difficulty that the SNP/ Green/ Plaid group would face if they tried to make abandoning Trident an absolute demand before giving any support to Labour to form a government – it would be a certain way of diminishing, rather than maximising, their influence.  The clear statement from the SNP’s leader that, whilst it might not be a red line in terms of some sort of loose arrangement, there are no circumstances in which SNP MPs would vote for a renewal of Trident is probably as good as it gets at this stage. 
I’m still of the view that the best hope for scrapping Trident is the second Scottish independence referendum, whenever that comes, bringing with it a forced relocation cost for a state reduced in size.  At things stand, under any conceivable election outcome, there is certain to be an overwhelming majority in favour of Trident renewal in the next parliament.  Regardless of whether the PM is Cameron or Miliband, any vote on this issue will easily pass through parliament, despite opposition from the SNP, Plaid, and the Green Party.
The Lib Dems, ever keen not to be missed out of anything, seem to have suffered something of a logic bypass on the issue, with their claim that anyone wanting a de-escalation of the UK’s nuclear weaponry should vote for them, since they are proposing only to build three replacement submarines, rather than the Labour/Tory four.  In essence, they are trying to persuade those of us who oppose Trident that instead of voting for one of the parties which is absolutely opposed to Trident but which have been forced to recognise the reality that their influence on this issue will be zilch, we should vote for a party which wants to retain Trident despite the fact that its influence on this issue will also be zilch.  It’s a very strange argument.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Froth and soundbites

I’m not sure that last week’s exchange of exposés of what two candidates in Ceredigion have written in the past tells us much more than (a) that politicians can be much too quick off the mark in responding to headlines and tweets without bothering to check the detail, and (b) that some of them don’t really care about the truth; they just know that mud sticks.  Personally, I think that there’s far too much concentration on all sides on views held or expressed in the past, when what really matters is what the individuals really think now.
The underlying issue, about racism in Wales, is a serious one, and simply exchanging insults doesn’t help to address that issue.  From personal experience, I can say that I have certainly met with racist views on the doorstep over the years.  I can remember one gentleman from the English Midlands, living in a rural village where most of the residents spoke daily a language which was incomprehensible to him, telling me that they’d moved there “…to be amongst our own people”.  Not exactly an outright expression of racism but the meaning was clear, even if the irony was completely lost on him.  And I’m certain that anyone who claims not to have encountered such an attitude on the doorstep in rural Wales has either not done very much canvassing or else not listened to what was being said.
What’s harder to judge is how typical it is, and the extent to which one can generalise.  Whilst it’s certainly true that for every individual who expresses a particular view there will be many more who hold the same view and just don’t express it so openly, it’s also true that some doorstep conversations make a deeper impression than others.  It’s all too easy to extrapolate from a few egregious examples and leap to a conclusion that a view is more common amongst a particular section of the population than is actually the case.
So, for the sake of balance, let me add that, over the years, I also met many English in-migrants who held a much more liberal view on race, and who made huge efforts to integrate with the local Welsh-speaking communities – and I met more than a few racist Welsh voters as well.  Racism is a problem; and in tackling it, it would be a good idea not to start with an assumption that it’s restricted to, or particularly prevalent in, any particular demographic.
In discussing the issue, then of course there’s a need to choose words carefully; but there’s something very wrong with political discussion which focuses more on the words chosen to discuss the issue than on the issue itself.  It’s symptomatic of a sound bite and froth attitude to politics; an approach which the way in which some politicians use social media seems only to reinforce.

Monday 13 April 2015

Taking a step backwards

It was disappointing, although hardly surprising, to see that Plaid have watered down the party’s opposition to the building of new nuclear power stations in the election manifesto.  I don’t actually know whether Plaid has changed its policy on nuclear energy; I only know that the policy appearing in its General Election manifesto isn’t the one that the party held when I was involved.  Perhaps it has been formally changed with the consent and involvement of the members; perhaps those writing the manifesto have simply decided to ignore the formal policy in favour of a rather more honest statement of the party’s position.  But “We continue to oppose the building of nuclear power plants in new locations” is a step back from opposition to any new nuclear build, which was the party’s formal position until very recently.
It is, of course, more honest than claiming to oppose something which a number of the party’s candidates and elected members are actually campaigning for (although it’s still not as honest as stating the party’s actual de facto policy on energy, which is that individual elected members and candidates are free to take any stance they like).  Gareth Hughes was rather less than entirely kind to me in his report on the last Plaid conference which I attended in 2010, when he reported that I had suggested that Plaid was in danger of opposing nuclear power stations only on those sites where no-one wanted to build them.  My comment was intended as a criticism, not as a suggestion for future policy; but since, as far as I am aware, no-one is suggesting that any new nuclear power stations should be built in entirely new locations, it now seems to have become formal party policy.
Does it matter?  At one level, then of course, the question of how Wales meets its needs for electricity is a mere question of detail; it’s not a core nationalist issue.  And a party which first and foremost seeks support for independence could probably avoid having definitive policies on a whole range of issues.  (Although there is a question to be answered about its impact on the asset and liability balance sheet if independence is ever achieved.)
But that isn’t the stance which Plaid has taken.  And in an election where it has clearly been attempting to promulgate the message that there’s no need to vote for the Green Party in Wales because Plaid is already filling that slot, the absence of a coherent energy policy makes that claim untenable.  In addition, building a new nuclear station in Wales renders much of the renewable capacity which the party’s manifesto also claims to support irrelevant other than as a means of exporting electricity; it has nothing to do with meeting Wales’ needs.
And the biggest hole of all in the resulting policy is that on nuclear waste.  Nobody supporting the building of new nuclear power stations can, with any honesty or credibility, oppose the siting of the waste storage and treatment facilities which are an inevitable concomitant. 

Thursday 2 April 2015

Changing attitudes

On Tuesday, the Western Mail carried an article reporting an interview with Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff Business School which neatly – although perhaps unintentionally – encapsulated one of the main problems with the way in which UK politicians talk about the EU.  It talks about building a new relationship between the two partners – the EU and the UK – as though those two entities are in some way equivalent.
That is not the way the world looks from the point of view of the other members states of the EU.  From their perspective, this ‘them and us’ approach looks very strange, not to say semi-detached.
Around 40 years ago, I was one of a group of Plaid members who went on a fact-finding trip to Brussels and Luxembourg.  It was largely funded by the EEC itself, as part of a clear attempt to persuade various groups and parties in the UK to start liking the institution.  (It didn’t work at the time, but that’s another story.)
One of my abiding memories is of two visits made in quick succession; the first to the office of the UK Permanent Representative, and the second (after they’d obtained special permission from Dublin) to the Irish equivalent.  The contrast was striking.
We were welcomed to the first very formally by a man dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie with a very posh accent who politely offered us tea before asking “Now gentlemen, how can I help you?” and waiting for our questions.  At the second, an Irishman in a sports jacket and open collar said “Come on in boys.  Would you like a drop of whiskey?”, before expounding on the advantages of membership as seen from an Irish perspective.
That difference in approach was more than just superficial; it was clear that the UK saw the EEC (as it was then) as an external body with which we had a relationship; the Irish saw it as an association of which their country was a member.  That underlying UK attitude has changed little, if at all, over the past four decades.
Worse, it shows no sign of changing any time soon.  Wales is still being represented, badly, by people who seem not really to want to be there.  If the Tories remain in government, and if a referendum is subsequently held, the result will depend more on whether the people of the countries of these islands share that mindset towards the EU than on whether we get more out than we put in.  But all political debate seems to revolve around the latter rather than around the former.  Who's putting the positive case?

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Chaos, confusion, lies and enlightenment

On Monday, the first full day of formal electioneering, Miliband and Cameron each accused the other of promoting policies which would lead to chaos.  It didn’t add a lot of light to anything, but it did remind me of the old story about the engineer, the architect, and the politician debating which was the oldest profession.
The engineer pointed out that God had created the whole universe in just seven days, saying that “this was a marvellous feat of engineering – God is obviously an engineer.”
“No, no, no,” said the architect.  “The bible says that God created order out of chaos – that required design and planning – God is surely an architect.”
“Ah,” said the politician, “but who do you think created the chaos in the first place?”
I don’t believe that either Miliband or Cameron are capable of creating chaos on that scale, but what they clearly are capable of is deliberately lying about the implications of each other’s policies, creating confusion and avoiding sensible debate.  And there’s still five weeks to go.  Still, I suppose that all of that is marginally better than the total chaos of the story.