Thursday, 24 February 2011

A damp squid

In the first free election in South Africa there were news footage of massive but orderly queue’s of voters casting there vote for the very first time. Cry freedom, at last had become a reality.
Turmoil reigns throughout the Arab world with swathes of the population wanting the vote they cast to have real meaning. The cry throughout the lands  of the near East is for democracy. 
How different all these events are to the little parochial exercise that takes place in Wales next Thursday - the referendum.
Now this referendum is not about establishing a new democracy. It is not even about law making, for that principle has already been established. So what is it about? It’s about whether the National Assembly should be the sole body involved in making laws in Wales. 
 Alternatively, things could stay the same if the no vote won the day. So the Westminster parliament’s ‘John Cobbley and all’ would continue with their fingers in the Welsh legislative pie.
Next Thursday’s referendum could be described as many things but earth shattering it is not.  And there in lies the rub. It is difficult for anyone that is not a political anorak to have any enthusiasm for it. There is no ‘hwyl’ about it.

The ‘yes’ side have had a go at trying to get a national campaign going. Producing a million leaflets and trying to get groups to campign throughout the land. 
The ‘no’ side apart from a couple of launch meetings has confined itself almost exclusively to a media campaign. A few television and radio appearances here and the odd phone call to the local press there. A campaign it has not been.
The truth is, that neither side has broken out of their own sect’s bubble. Many voters who have a postal vote have already put their cross on the ballot paper. Most of these votes will have been cast without access to any campaign material.
If, God forbid, there is to be another referendum, let it be on a ‘real’ issue. Independence or not, Federalism or not. Not on a minor technical tidying up issue like this one.
Ane let parliament change the Electoral Commission’s rules of engagement so that the voter gets enough information to make an informed choice. Even if one side of the argument chooses not to engage.
A couple of predictions for next Thursday. The police will not need to be deployed for crowd control outside ballot stations. Neither will the Army have to leave their barracks. For  there will be no protesters in the street. No Welsh square will be occupied with mobs chanting ‘law making powers on issues already devolved to the National Assembly.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Less politicians says Westminster

SSo at the next general election the number of Welsh Members of Parliament will be cut down from the current forty to thirty. 
Less politicians always goes down well with voters. Whether the same voters will be as pleased when they try to access their new Members of Parliament remains to be seen.
Westminster constituencies and Assembly constituencies have at the moment the same boundaries. The vote to change Westminster’s boundaries has an effect on the Assembly.
There will have to be an uncoupling of National Assembly constituencies from these newly created Westminster  seats. If this doesn’t happened there will be ten less  members also in the National Assembly. 
Some might say hooray to that too. The less politicians some would argue the better. 
But hold on, what would happen if there were less AMs. There would be less scrutiny of laws and less people to hold the Welsh Assembly Government to account.
Hughes’s law says, poor law making, makes for big fat lawyers. 

Would those that want less politicians be happy to pay lawyers enormous wads of cash to drive a horse and coaches through the defects of Assembly made laws? Unlikely.
No, the Assembly needs a certain number of politicians to do it’s job properly. Fifty is just to small a number. As scientist would put it, you need a critical mass and fifty, just doesn't do it.

It is debatable that even with sixty members that the Assembly can cope. For certain any reduction from this number would have a detrimental effect on the institution. 
In Lord Richards opinion eighty would be required. But that number is barely talked about in the current referendum campaign, just in case it frightens not the horses, but the voters. Why is it that in Wales issues are never properly addressed? Are people afraid to argue the case for a properly functioning democracy. 
Last nights vote is significant because it not only changes Westminster but it raises fundamental questions about the National Assembly. 

With less MPs in London representing Wales in the law making process it strengthen the case for the power over Welsh laws resting with the Assembly. It even poses the question should more functions not be devolved down from Westminster - perhaps that's a question for another day
But it does certainly raise the question of how are these law makers to be elected? And how many of them are needed? 

Just as Richard put the number of Assembly Members at eighty, in the same report he suggested a change in the voting system. He recommended the single transferable vote system(STV). He thought the system would be fairer and more representative.

Now, whether there is agreement with the dear Lord or not, surely now is the time to debate such issues. For a referendum without such a debate opens up the prospect of another one, if such changes are later to be found necessary. And be assured they undoubtedly will be. For mercy sake, surely no one wants to yawn through yet, another referendum campaign

So, lets not pussyfoot about and try to introduce democracy by stealth. The people of Wales deserve a proper debate. 

 A fledgling Welsh parliament needs the backing of the people. That backing will only be given if voters understand all the issues.

Railroad to Growth

Well, as Cilla Black once said ‘surprise, surprise’, the Bank of England has downgraded its growth forecast for the UK.

Having held down the interest rate at 0.5 per cent a 315-year low at its last meeting an interest rate hike is now more than likely. Although they are not predicting a double-dip recession there is a great scepticism amongst economists that this can be avoided. The public expenditure cutbacks will certainly make this more rather than less likely.
The prediction is of a high rate of inflation of 5 per cent by the end of the year . The Bank predicts that the inflation rate will again come down to 2 per cent in 2012. The Governor, like Mr Macawber expects something to turn up. 
In King’s case he hopes that what he sees as temporary inflation hikes, these will go down later next year where he can attain his inflation target. Many think that this is a forlorn hope. There are considerable doubts over the timing of how far inflation will drop back.
So whilst interest rates are likely to go up later and even at the current low interest rate the economy is in the doldrums. What is to be done? It is at times like these that John Maynard Keynes said that governments should intervene. 
Well, what should be the nature of the intervention, Expenditure on capital projects. Such projects help grow the economy and this is what the economy needs.
That is why  Plaid Cymru’s  proposals for the rail network in Wales are interesting. What they want is for the rail network in Wales to be electrified.

It is indeed a scandal that, apart from Albania, Wales is the only country in Europe without a mile of electrified track.
Not only do they want a commitment to the electrification of the Great Western mainline, they have the ambition that the Valleys lines should be electrified as well as the North Wales Coast line. They did not quite go the whole hog of asking for a Bullet train to unite North with South.
OK, these are the kind of things that all parties aspire to do just before an election. After all, it was laptops to all schoolchildren that Plaid announced before the last Assembly election. 

But the proposals should not be dismissed because it is a pre-election period and Plaid Cymru are clearly preparing their manifesto. It is the very kind of project that any government worth its salt should be pushing in these dire economic times.
No, it is the very kind of capital investment programme that not only does the Welsh economy require but it would help stimulate manufacturing in the UK economy as a whole. 

So let Mr Osborne take note.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Hostilities resumed-breaking news

High level members of Labour have produced an astonishing attack on Ieuan Wyn Jones the Plaid Cymru leader and Deputy First Minister.  
It is believed that some senior elected members of the Parliamentary Labour party aided and supported by an Assembly member and spun by a parliamentary aide  have produced this withering attack on the competence of Mr Jones in running his Department  of Transport and the Economy.
When contacted Plaid Cymru  rebutted the charges and went on the offensive. They pointed out that Mr Jones  needed to completely reorganise the departments that he inherited from the Labour Minister Andrew Davies. This restructuring is only now showing dividends they added.
It is not thought that Carwyn Jones, First Minister, had any knowledge of the report but some Plaid Cymru members are raising questions about the control he has of his party if such a criticism can be made by senior members of his own party without him knowing about it.
The timing of the attack is intriguing. The latest story which has all the hallmarks of Westminster on it, is the kind of attack one would expect in the election campaign. 
But to produce such a personal attack in the middle of the referendum campaign seems inept. Unless of course the aim is to sabotage the  'yes' campaign.
Those campaigning for a 'yes' vote will not be helped by the latest row. This follows what many thought was an own goal when Peter Hain the shadow Welsh Secretary pointedly said that the referendum would not be held now but for the insistence of Plaid Cymru. He later played down his remarks. But many thought that his initial remarks were 'not helpful' to the yes side. 
There has always been a rump within the party that have never embraced the devolution project and this might be their attempt to derail the united front between the two parties. 
All this will put an enormous strain on the coalition.  It might also be seen as an attempt to force Carwyn Jones to go it alone in government after the May general election. For there are many in the Labour party that believe that Rhodri Morgan should never have gone into bed with Plaid Cymru and are determined to prevent such an event happening again. This could be the first strike in that campaign.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Diplomatic returns!

Welsh politicians are desperately trying to remember what they said to members of the US Embassy staff. Meetings between them are a regular occurrence. The new element of course is Wiki Leaks or in Wales's case Wiki 'leeks'. 
Now that no conversation is a secret for long, they had better get ready with their rebuttals. Blaming it on the diplomat/spook’s shorthand can only work once.
Having for over ten years earned my bread on the tittle tattle [Editor: surely political analysis] of Welsh politics until ITVWales brought it to an undignified halt, I have clearly missed out on a business opportunity. 
The American Embassy could have got it straight from the ‘man in the know.’ It would have been a great deal cheaper than entertaining the politicians and in the end getting bum information.
Anyone with even the barest  and most primitive knowledge of Welsh Labour would know that to organise an internal coup would be way beyond it’s ken. Piss-up and brewery come to mind.
The thought that either Peter Hain or Eluned Morgan could be parachuted in to replace Rhodri Morgan as leader of Welsh Labour  would cause a belly laugh in Labour Clubs up and down this fair land of Wales. 
These saloon bar pundits would recall the fate of the last parachutist. The guy pushed out of the plane by Prime Minister Blair - the much lamented Alun Michael.
It stretches the imagination  that Edwina Hart, Huw Lewis and Carwyn Jones would have rolled over for Hain or Morgan. All three have their flaws but pussy cats they are certainly not. 
No, at the time the story first appeared most commentators dismissed it as a story arising out of the machination of those at Westminster. Politicians that had spent to much time at the Strangers bar crying into their beer. 
True, Westminster has an over abundance of Members of Parliament that have one thing in common, a profound dislike of the National Assembly for Wales. 
These forty political giants that represent Wales over Offa's Dyke have nothing but contempt towards Assembly Members. The Welsh Parliamentary Labour Party would naturally presume that not one of ‘that lot’ would be worthy successors to Rhodri Morgan.  He after all was one of them - once. But any connection that this bar room gossip had to reality, would as they say in the movies,  be purely co-incidental.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this amusing tale is - what happens to the reports back at base. What are they to make of them back in the land of the free. 

Does what is collected by the diplomat/spooks from such sources form the background of America’s world view? If so, it would explain a lot about the somewhat bizarre decisions they have taken abroad.  The US like the UK has a long history of  foreign policy miscalculations. Could it be a case of garbage in, garbage out.
But if this is what our diplomats do, it raises the question do we need them.  Perhaps the Foreign Office in these hard economic times should take a bigger hit in its budget. Or as my friend Vaughan Roderick  suggested, the money would be better spent on backing the BBC World service. Such a transfer of resources would do more for the UK image than paying for duff information from abroad
But back to the Americans. If they want to continue collecting this kind of information and who am I to oppose it.  And just in case Wales creeps up the league of most favoured nations back in Washington and should Hilary Clinton want to investigate further the country of her roots. I make this special plea.  As a freelancer with his finger on the pulse of the Welsh body political, all reasonable offers will be considered! So anyone with ears at the Embassy and of course a budget,  just get in touch. 

Monday, 7 February 2011

What lies behind a vote

“I’m voting ‘No’ ‘cos I don’t want to give them ministers any more powers to muck things up.” How often has this been said since this referendum campaign has kicked off.

It is a common enough reaction to politicians, but why single out politicians in the Bay for the treatment. 
Westminster abounds with ministers that have ‘mucked things up’ but no one seems to be advocating that they be stripped of their law making powers as a consequence. 
Surely it is wrong on two levels, first it mistakes the purpose of the referendum and secondly, mistakes law making with government.
The referendum is about the powers the institution itself should have. It is about simplifying the process of law making. Although quite why a referendum is required for such a purpose has never been adequately explained. 
If a referendum was needed it should have been held in 2006 when Westminster allowed the Assembly to make its own laws for the first time. OK, it was a very convoluted way of making a law, but it was law making never the less. For the first time the Assembly could initiate the law making process despite Westminster having their fingers still in the pie.
Indeed a compelling case could be made to say that they mucked it up when they devised the system. But not many raised any objections at the time. No one cried out “off with their heads.”
Yet, when it comes to this referendum an argument is being put forward that a vote for the ‘no’ side is a way of giving a good slapping to Assembly politicians.They must be punished for their past misdeeds. 
Although their misdeeds when weighed against those of the Westminster politicians were insignificant indeed.   There many MPs were exposed as having their noses very much in the trough. Many were found to be feathering their own nests with tax payers money when the expenses scandal was bought to light by the Daily Telegraph last Spring.
But why let the facts get in the way of a good line. It would seem to be a winning formula, to make a successful ‘no’ result a vote on the performance of the Assembly government.  
But is this referendum the appropriate time and place to kick Assembly politicians? Surely not. Most fair minded people looking at the laws that Assembly have passed to date would say that they have been for the best. 
Who could reasonably object to safety belts on school buses, fire sprinklers in new homes, measures to increase the supply of affordable homes and of course helping those with mental illness. 
Most of the voters would approve of most if not all of these measures. If criticism there was, it was with the time the whole process took.  Yes, it is the speed of their enactment that has been the bone of contention, which is of course what the referendum is trying to put right. 
So if its not the laws that people object to, what is it?  The issues that cause political controversy are what Ministers do or don’t do.  That is the meat of our political system both here in Wales and in Westminster. 

Welsh Assembly Government ministers have vast powers over devolved matters. 
The Health service reorganisation(s) is a case and point. It is not law that is dictated the constant changes but the various Ministers’ whim.  It is not law that decides the way the cash is divided up but the Finance Minister. 
Now all these areas are far more controversial than law making. When laws are passed there is an opportunity to influence and change the legislation as it slowly meanders through the various stages before the Queen puts pen to paper and signs off the process.
In contrast, there is little opportunity to change the mind of a minister hell bent on a certain outcome.  These matters can only be changed at the ballot box.  Yes, not the ballot of March but that held in May.
For it is  on the fifth day of May that the Bay politicians are to be held to account for their stewardship these last four years. For that is the day of the Welsh General Assembly elections. 
A campaign to use the referendum as a device to kick politicians is misplaced. It will not touch them. But as certain as night follows day, it will weaken the National Assembly itself. 
Many suspect that this is the real intention behind the ‘no’ campaign. The reasoning is that a successful ‘no’ vote would so discredit the institution that Westminster would decide to scrap it. 
It is highly unlikely that any government will roll back devolution and even more doubtful that the Assembly now that it’s established will be scrapped, it’s not the Ark Royal.  But, a ‘no’ vote will considerably weaken the hand of Wales in its dealings with Whitehall. 

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Question?

When political hacks get together over a meal some interesting and not so interesting topics come up. Last night was a classic example. The occasion a farewell dinner to a beloved colleague and amongst all the merriment the vexed question of the West Lothian question raised its head.
Now quite how the topic came up is a mystery but come up it did. And undoubtedly, before the end of this referendum campaign it would be a brave man not to wager on someone raising the issue.
The question was first raised before the 1979 referenda in Scotland and Wales. The referendum that was narrowly won in Scotland but failed on a turnout test. And the proposition was heavily defeated in Wales. 
At the time there was a large rump of Labour Members of Parliament that were opposed to devolution. One such was Tam Dalyell MP, who was a member for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian.
During the campaign he posed the question was it right that a Scottish MP at Westminster after devolution could vote upon matters such as education affecting English seats - but that same MP could not vote on such matters affecting his own constituency because they would have been devolved to a Scottish Parliament.
Now it is true that Dalyell and his ilk in Scotland and in Wales Kinnock, Abse and others in the Parliamentary Labour party were more concerned about their position in Westminster than the ‘English’ question as such.
The question keeps coming back as if the English are in some ways disadvantaged by the devolution settlement. The problem is that if you repeat an assertion often enough it becomes conventional wisdom.
The die hard Unionists in our two largest parties trot out West Lothian as a kind of mantra that the poor English voter is profoundly disadvantaged. Somehow those people living in Wales with their limited law making powers are doing their nice English neighbours down. But is it true?
In raw terms, England  still hold the best cards. First might is right. The Parliament in Westminster is controlled by 533 MPs elected to represent English constituents. A figure that dwarfs the numbers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which total a mere 117.  A ratio of over 4 to 1. A ratio that is about to go up if the government get their way on reducing the number of MPs. Indeed, it could be argued that the concomitant cut in Welsh and Scottish MPs at Westminster brings a relative strengthening of England's position.
Secondly, the UK government hold the purse strings. Those 533 English MPs decide how much money goes to Wales, Scotland  and Northern Ireland. Put another way they decide on the the pocket money but the offspring can spend it as they want. 
What seems always to be forgotten by those that push the Dalyell case that it is the English majority that decide on the priorities of expenditure in England and no amount of interference from the rest can interfere with these priorities. 
Of course, there will always be  tensions between central and devolved governments. These tensions will be particularly acute when there are different parties running the show in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. 
But to argue the case that in some ways the poor English are disadvantaged is pure fiction and is laughable. So for heaven’s sake, let’s strike the West Lothian question from our constitutional debates. And hacks on their night out can discuss more important questions, like the off-side rule.