Saturday, 16 October 2010

Liberal Democrats meet before cuts announced

Oh for the enthusiasm of a Liberal Democrat. The quote that comes to mind  when sitting through their conference is  that of Mr Micawber “Welcome poverty!..Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!” 
Well they certainly have ‘mutual confidence’ by the bucket load. And perhaps the fact that they're in government for the first time since the days of Lloyd George it does give them a feeling of confidence.
This was evident from the outset in their Autumn conference.The first debate of the conference under the catchy title “a radical manifesto in an age of austerity” speaker after speaker after the ritual blaming of Labour for the mess the country finds itself in , intone a mantra that all is being done for the national interest.  And with glazed eyes have a messianic belief that all will be right in the end.
Now with over four years until the likely date of the next general election it is possible that something will turn up but by next May! - scarcely believe. 
In a different age and a different country you could almost imagine them waving little red books and willing you to vote for them. Alas, if the polls are right whatever the colour of the book it looks as if it will all end in tears at the Assembly elections.

Roger Williams MP as deputy leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats did his level best to raise spirits. He had a vision of the proud nations joining together on the basis of common goals and values. Like in the days of Lloyd George he clamed that"this government takes forward Welsh Home Rule to give Wales more freedom and power than ever before, it is right that we review the arrangements [of MPs in Westminser]. So less MPs can be blamed on Lloyd George, Nice one Roger. Mmm Yes Peter Hain was once a Liberal but taking credit for the Government of Wales Act is pushing it a bit.

 He finished by urging delegates “to step up to the plate again and get the message across.” Well, they may or may not step to the plate but they failed to get on their feet to give him the ritual standing ovation that leaders usually get. Although there was one delegate who stood up looked around and promptly sat down. Clearly, his oratory not up to Lloyd George's standards.
Kirsty Williams their leader said she was going to stand up for Wales."The people of Wales have had thirteen years of a Labour government in Cardiff that wouldn't say boo to the Labour government in Westminster. They don't want a nodding dog. They want to elect a leader who will speak up for Wales" 
Show me a leader that will not. But the people of Wales would understand the need for the cuts. She intends going round Wales pushing the line that Labour did not help in their thirteen years of office.
Her most audacious line though was that "every cut that comes our way is a Labour cut and we shall not let the country forget it". If she can pull that one off she's a better magician than Tommy Cooper.
Now their fortunes as a party depend on the Welsh voter understanding the argument  and being a forgiving lot. As Lembit Opik found to his cost the milk of human kindness doesn’t often flow through the veins of the typical Welsh voter.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Bourne Doctrine

The Bourne Doctrine - this is a newly unveiled doctrine that is now to enter the political lexicon. Not surprising it was unveiled by the Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne.
But what is it, you may ask? It is the yardstick that the Conservative group in the Assembly will use to decide whether or not they will oppose the policies of the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.
And by what criteria do they decides whether to give a policy the thumbs up or down. Well, its whether or not Wales is been treated unfairly in comparison to the other countries of the United Kingdom.
 The Bourne doctrine in practice is seen by  the stand the Welsh Tories are taking in relationship to the threatened closure of the passport office in Newport. They  oppose  the closure, because none of the other countries are losing their office.
Again the doctrine comes into play in defence of S4C because they too are been threatened with cuts that only apply to Wales. So accordingly, the doctrine declares this to be unfair and directs that the Tory Group to oppose Jeremy Hunt's, the UK Culture Secretary, intended cuts.
Put simply, as long as all countries that form the United Kingdom are punished equally then the Tory group in Wales will not squawk. But oh, if only the world was that simple, but alas it is not.
All would be fine if the countries of the United Kingdom were the same, but they are not. England is a great deal richer and more prosperous than Wales.
Wales has a large number of jobs that are dependent on the public purse, England has a larger private sector than Wales. So a policy applied equally to all countries in these islands can have very unequal outcomes in the different countries.
The Bourne doctrine should be re-interpreted to read that the Welsh Conservative group will oppose all the unpopular decisions of the UK government this side of the Assembly elections. Its a bit like '1066 and all that', whatever we decide to do will be 'a good thing'.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Benefits who?

It's the small print that matters in agreements. Likewise it is often those passages in speeches that don't make the headlines that contain much the most interesting passages.
All the headlines of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech was on child benefit  being withdrawn from households paying tax at the  higher rate.  The Tory press went overboard on the matter. 'This was hitting the middle classes. It was unfair on stay at home mothers etc '
But George Osborne, in the very same speech,also announced a new £500 a week cap on welfare benefits.  In his words it was 'designed to ensure that work less households no longer receive thousands of pounds in benefits more than the average working family receives in pay.' 
Now because it has been a popular sport for some time to demonise those on benefits very little attention was paid to this aspect of his speech. 
The changes mean that household benefit payments will be capped at around £500 per week by the time of implementation in 2013.
This cap will apply to the combined income derived from benefits including Job seekers Allowance, Income Support, Employment Support Allowance, housing and council tax benefits, Child Benefit, and Carers Allowance. 
Now a cap of £500 may on the face of it seem quite high. But when one considers that often in some of our large cities, rents and therefore housing benefit payments  alone  may take the recipient above the £500 level. In such cases it will put many families into real difficulty and make it virtually impossible for them to stay in our biggest towns and cities.

So where will they go? At a guess they will be forced to look for areas with relatively cheap housing costs. 

In the eighties these were places like the North Wales coast and other parts of  rural Wales were renting houses were comparatively cheap.

At the time many Welsh politicians were angry at what they saw as the negative effect of these incomers. Often these politicians would be pressing for only local people to be housed. Such campaigns had limited success and went against the obligation of authorities to house those in greatest housing need.

It looks as if the Westminster coalition are about to repeat past mistakes. What was said in the speech would be better if  it was not acted upon.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

'Yes' campaign moving towards the starting grid

It’s ‘Back to the Future’ in the approach to be adopted by those pushing for a positive vote in the referendum on greater law making powers for the National Assembly. It looks as if the campaign coordinator will be cabinet minister Leighton Andrews - who was secretary of the ‘yes’ campaign in the successful 1997 referendum.

Labour will play a lead role in the campaign with Rhodri Morgan being prominent in the activities.
When he retired as First Minister his popularity amongst the Welsh public was exceptionally high. Clearly, the hope is that  this high regard will transfer seamlessly to a 'yes' cross on the ballot paper.
It is understood that some of the other parties feel that by putting Labour in a lead role it will force them to get their own supporters to engage in the campaign. There is a feeling, especially in Plaid Cymru circles, that Labour were conspicuous by their absence in the 1997 campaign and are worried that history could repeat itself this time round.
Darren Hill a full time worker in the last campaign was seen huddled with Labour advisers this week discussing draft campaign material. It is uncertain whether these drafts will  be used in the campaign itself, but it does show that preparations are at an advanced stage.
The intention is that next week  all four parties will unveil the campaign strategy. But as to when the actual campaign itself will kick off is still up in the air. Why? Well, it’s all a matter of cash, your cash.
The Electoral Commission who are charged with using tax payers money to fund both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns are unwilling to release public money until January. This has caused considerable annoyance and frustration to those eager to get the show on the road.
The latest ITV Wales and You GOV tracking poll showed two out of ten voters are still to make their minds up.It is likely that all four Assembly party leaders will press the Electoral Commission for a change of heart, so that campaigning can start sooner rather than later.There is a belief that a campaign of more than two months will be necessary to get the message across to the Welsh public. Consequently, all four  party leaders will press the Electoral Commission for a change of heart, so that campaigning can start sooner rather than later.

Getting all four parties to sing from the same hymn sheet is no mean task. But this unity of purpose may still not be enough to persuade voters to go to the polling stations. The voters are likely to feel that they’ve been clobbered by politicians following the pubic expenditure cuts and may take the attitude 'a plague on all their houses.'
Politicians leading a campaign in such circumstances will be a definite - no, no.
So beware if you've got that ‘X’ factor and are Welsh. The chances are that you'll be wheeled out with other celebs to push for a 'yes' vote.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Cuts and the Welsh Conservatives

The most thankless job in politics is to be a Leader of the Opposition. This is true at any level of government. Be it local government, national government or in the case of Wales's Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly. At its best it’s a job that may sometime in the future lead you to government, at its worst it’s a spectator sport. You’re an onlooker as someone else is getting on with the real deal of government. Governments set the agenda and  oppositions are shaped by this.
To be an opposition leader in Wales whilst your party holds the reigns of power in Westminster could in good times be a bonus. But these are not good times. So the opposition in Wales face a double whammy, they have to respond not only to the agenda of the government in Wales but are also affected by the agenda of the government in Westminster.
As David Cameron so bluntly but succinctly said to the Welsh conservatives at his party conference ‘don’t expect a good result in the polls in the Assembly elections.’ Why? Because of Mr Cameron’s own actions.
Putting on a brave face, poor Nick Bourne, Conservative leader and Leader of HM Opposition in the Welsh Assembly muttered that it was all in the national interest. Referring as he was to the public expenditure cuts that will shortly be visited upon Wales.
Cuts may or may not be in the UK national interest, economists are still debating the issue and the jury is still out. Clearly, even Kenneth Clarke has his doubts about the Chancellor’s policy when he expressed concern about a double dip recession in the Observer newspaper. Be that as it may, for certain the ‘national’ interest does not equate with the Welsh ‘national’ interest.
The Welsh economy requires a different approach to that required to deal with the often overheated economy of London and the South East. So when the Chancellor pursues a policy of public expenditure cuts his policy will have a disproportionate effect on Wales. The Welsh economy is highly dependent on the public sector for work because of the weak state of the private sector. Put another way, if thousands of civil servants, council workers, health workers etc loose their jobs they are unlikely to find the private sector offer them a life line. Cuts in Wales will mean high unemployment and sceptre of the brightest and best leaving in search of work, weakening further the fragile economy of the country.
Politically, it’s a no brainer.  Both of the opposition parties in the Assembly are likely be punished in next May’s election.  Ironically, they become scapegoats for decisions taken by their colleagues elsewhere down the M4; decisions on which they will have had little influence. So they are the fall guys and face the wrath of the electorate for the policy of others. C’est la vie, as the French would say.
However, they do have a safety net, the Welsh Assembly’s electoral system. The full anger of the voters is ameliorated by the regional list system which may compensate them in part for the seats that they are likely to loose in the constituency elections. Consequently, it is unlikely that either of the opposition parties in the Assembly will suffer a wipe out. But they will be weakened.
And there in lies the rub. If the Conservative party does loose ground and it would be a brave man that would not bet on that outcome. It won’t be Mr Cameron that will be blamed but Mr Bourne.
If Labour do particularly well they may even have a majority so that they can rule alone. Ieuan Wyn Jones may yet again become the Leader of the Opposition.  So where does that leave Nick Bourne, well theoretically where he has been for most of the life of the Assembly as leader of the Conservative group in Wales and the Welsh Conservative leader. But that is unlikely to happen. Why? The young Turks that surround him in the Conservative group in the Assembly will not hesitate to use their knifes and trigger an election. Unfair, yes, but who ever said that politics was ever fair?