Friday, 30 September 2011

Oh, what a week that was

Blink, show any signs of hesitation and you’re in trouble. Yes, politics, is a bit of a blood sport, displays the least sign of vulnerability and opponents are like hounds ready to rip out your guts. Not recommended for the faint hearted
Poor Ed Miliband finds himself in this very situation after a conference week that he’d rather forget. Gaffes there were aplenty. Many that could be laid directly at young Ed’s feet.
Indeed Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards MP was quick to claim that the Labour Leader had followed a series of glaring errors in an interview about the Labour party in Scotland with similar mistakes in an interview to BBC Wales.
Edwards said that the Labour leader wrongly said, “Carwyn got elected with the largest ever majority that Labour had in the Welsh Assembly”. Well as gaffes go, small beer indeed.
But in the context of a week of own goals it just adds to the prevailing mood that the man’s not up to the job.
It was a bad Labour Party conference full of contradictions. Cameron was the real winner with Labour having failed to land a punch on such an easy target.
As this blog indicated just after the leaders speech, the younger Miliband doesn’t look like a Prime Minister. Nice guy, but prime minister, you’re having a laugh.
One has to go back to the quiet man speech of Ian Duncan Smith to find delivery and content as bad. And we all know what happened to him.
The week delivered many hostages to fortune. They even made a commitment to spend all the taxpayers’ money wisely. Gosh, indeed.Prizes if any reader can name a government that hasn’t entered office with that very same intention. 

But what happens, events, dear boy. There will be some event or some project that doesn’t work out and members of the fourth estate will have a field day pointing out the unwise use of money.
But, perhaps, the authoritarian lurch that conference took is its greatest worry. In the guise of the new morality journalist’s working under license, the deserving will jump the queue over the undeserving for access to housing, a judgment will be made as to what constitutes a good or a bad businesses and even a thumbs down was given to TV’s “Big brother.”
Just like John Major’s Back to Basics helped undo the Conservatives this too will be seen as a millstone round Labour’s neck. Voters always suspect politicians that get all moral over them. 
All, in all, the chances of the younger Milliband being Leader of the Opposition at the time of the next election is slim indeed. If not him, who?
Well, not the elder Miliband for sure. The Miliband brand will be seen as toxic. 

The time has come for Labour to shed its macho past and choose a woman leader, who better than Yvette Cooper. She could be seen as the candidate to unite the three wings of Labour, namely trade unions, MPs and party members.
The wife living in number ten and husband next door in eleven Downing Street. That really would be a first in British politics. Now there’s an interesting thought.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Ballot box politics

Let’s face it party conferences are tribal affairs. It’s almost obligatory for party bosses to throw a bit of meat to the rank and file. In that respect Peter Hain is no exception, how he just loves putting the boot in.

So his latest wheeze, the opportunity offered him at conference to write a piece for a Labour conference briefing paper as to “Why Labour needs First-Past-the Post in Wales”   

This is an old chestnut, but as the say, some of the old once are the best.

It was with their hands very much holding their collective nose that Welsh Labour endorsed an element of proportionality for the Assembly elections.

Labour’s Welsh Office team at the time, which included a certain Comrade Hain, had a real hard sell to get the Welsh Party to accept this small element of PR. It was sold on the basis they needed both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats on board to campaign in favour of Labour’s devolution proposals.

The narrowness of the result shows how right they were to entice the other two parties on board for the campaign.

But Mr. Hain now sees it as a massive mistake.

What has changed? The other two parties are past their sell by date. Labour don’t need to cwtch up to the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru for the devolution project anymore.

As far as Labour’s concerned the process has come to an end. The referendum has been won; Labour’s in the driving seat and looks likely to be there for a while yet. One party rule is alive and well in Wales, OK.

Why then has Mr. Hain reopened the debate about the election process now? A new opportunity presents itself to show he’s keeping the socialist flame alive by attempting to elbow out or seriously weaken the other parties representation in the Assembly.

The pending changes to Parliamentary boundaries give him the ideal excuse to peddle his partisan proposals. At the next Westminster elections MPs will be elected in new constituencies with new boundaries. Why? Mr. Cameron is reducing the number of Welsh Members of Parliament from the current 40 to 30.  So we’ll be voting in new seats at the next general election.

Now there is no need to change the Assembly seats as their numbers are not changing. The Assembly could continue with the existing boundaries, Mr. Hain thinks that having two different constituencies for the Assembly and Westminster would be far to confusing.

As he says “Everyone is agreed on the need to avoid decoupling in Wales, and maintain the same boundaries for Assembly and Parliamentary constituencies.”

Although how he quite knows that “everyone agrees” is a bit of a mystery, most ordinary voters have never been asked.

His argument against decoupling is that it caused problems in Scotland it “lead for confusion for voters, and organisational chaos for political parties.”

Oh, there we have it, we mustn’t inconvenience our political parties. Our democracy has to reflect what they want, not what the voters want.

So the answer, don’t decouple, have the same constituencies for both Parliamentary and Assembly elections. Simple. But here’s the rub, he would see the regional list scrapped. Instead his proposals would see two Assembly members elected for each constituency. An idea that’s been floating around Labour circles since devolution came back on the agenda.

And how would they be elected? By introducing the first-past-the-post election system.  It’s simple, easy to arrange and surprise, surprise, guarantees an Assembly packed to the brim with Labour Members.

Even under the current system Labour has a distinct advantage. At the last election they got 41.87 per cent of the votes cast but the system gives Labour fifty per cent of the seats. If their vote was to be fairly represented in seats they should have twenty-five, five less than the thirty the now hold.

But that’s not good enough for Mr. Hain he wants even more.

Not only would his proposals guarantee perpetual Labour rule with a large majority, a bit like the old USSR but it would seriously reduce representation by the opposition parties. There would be few around to question the ruling clique.

Yes, reducing the representation of the smaller parties would seriously weaken the capacity for opposition and challenge. Perhaps that’s what Labour want, but is it wise.

Unlike Westminster where first-past-the post can not only deliver a government but also sufficient numbers to form an effective opposition, this would not be the case in the Assembly. The combination of FPTP and a sixty member Assembly would almost certainly reduce opposition members to a rump. Good for Labour, but bad for democracy.

So what’s to be done? Well, the decision is that of the Westminster government and rests with Cheryl Gillan the Secretary of State. For Wales.

Peter Hain’s intervention has almost certainly guaranteed that dear Cheryl will simply increase the regional list from the current twenty to thirty.  But that would be a mistake.

The clever political thing to do would be to devolve responsibility to the National Assembly to decide on its own election system. However in so doing she would need to ensure that no one party could imposes a system that advantages them.  So the Secretary of State would need to ensure that no change could happen, without a consensus. No new system without at least a two-thirds majority being in favour of the change.

Hopefully that will concentrate the minds of the parties to revisit the conclusion of Labour Peer Lord Richard’s Commission which concluded that much the best system for the Assembly was the single transferrable vote in multi member constituencies based on the boundaries of our local councils.

Yes, decouple from Westminster Peter, and couple up with our local communities.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Two leaders, one party

Two leaders of one party were on show today.

And both the Welsh leader and the UK leader of the Labour party had something to prove today. The one thing they both had in common apart, from being allegedly from the same party, the need to demonstrate that they knew where they were going.

Ed Milliband had the more difficult task as Leader of the Opposition. It is often described as the most difficult job in politics, you can’t do anything but you do have to demonstrate that given the chance you could.

So he has to show that his has alternative ideas are the way forward and his vision captures the imagination and more crucially the votes of the public.

So today he had to convince that he’s got what it takes. In other words he’s got to look like a Prime Minister in waiting with the personality and authority to do the job.

Did he succeed? Well, one speech won’t do it for him, but today he had to lay the foundation.  It was a valiant attempt. There was plenty in it for the party members who were in the hall and even the ritual bashing of the undeserving poor for those middle Englanders who were outside the hall.

Although he succeeded in a thoroughly competant performance, it didn’t have the X factor.

He came over as a thoroughly nice guy, but nice guys don’t get prizes. Was it the speech of a future Prime Minister? That's doubtful.

So what next. He will be given the next year or so, by his party to try to work some magic with the voters. But unless the public starts to see him in a more positive light his own party will kick him out of the leadership. Labour MPs learnt their lesson with Brown, they failed to plunge the knife in the lame-duck leader with dire consequences for the party. There won't be the same hesitantion again.

Now Carwyn Jones is in the job of being the Welsh Labour leader and also the highest Labour holder of a public office in the land.  

Today he announced his programme for government. 

It contained many worthy aspirations, but the one major area that might determine whether his programme sinks or swims was missing. In Labour's manifesto they had the intention 
“to review and seek realignment of the governance and performance of the Assembly civil service, better to reflect the developing requirements of devolution whilst remaining part of the Home Civil Service.”

Now it wasn’t by chance that this appeared in the manifesto. It wasn’t one of these meaningless commitments thrown into bulk out the document. It was heartfelt. 

It appeared because many ministers in the last government felt that the civil service was “not fit for purpose.”

Not up to the job, but Ministers weren’t able to do anything about it. Hence, their determination to change things. They really thought that if it went into the manifesto it would happen. 

But today, nothing, not a whisper. Oh, never underestimate the basic conservative instinct of civil servants.

Sir Humphrey has ensured that his comfortable little number will not be scrunanized by the Hackers of this world.

How confident can Carwyn Jones be that his “Progamme for Government” will be met if it’s left to an unreformed civil service to carry out.

It has been pointed out to me that although the reference to civil service reform is not in the report, it is in the annex. 

This blog will not be holding it's breath that reform will happen soonest.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Rippon tips

Last week was not the best of weeks for our venture with only three places out of the card. Although those who took the advice and backed each way would have made a modest return as the odds of the three were quite high.
This week we’ll return North to Rippon to the “Garden” racecourse as it’s nicknamed because it’s in very picturesque settings.
Now they’ve been racing thoroughbreds in Rippon for well over three hundred years.
It’s a right-handed oval of approximately 1m5f with a 5f finishing straight. Ripon used to be known for the manufacturing of spurs but it is doubtful if these will be on display at the meeting. There are some strange rules nowadays against using them, our nags last Saturday could have benefitted from there use.
Old John Wesley preached in Ripon and built up a minority community there, he might have had better success if he hadn’t preached about the evils of gambling.
This will be the last fixture of the year in Ripon so let’s hope it gives us enough winnings to last us through a long winter.
2.10         Its Mark Anthony or Meandmyshadow as an each way bet. The former gets my money
2.40         Dark Don gets all the tipsters excited but this one is going for Ashken
3.15         Spirit of the Law it looks like the one to beat
3.45         Rio’s Rosanna or Solar Spirit
4.15         Murbeh or Kanaf
4.50         Having spent much of my working life listening to Select Committee I’ll have to go with this
5.25         Tricks of the Trade is the only one that can beat Yasir who is the tipsters favourite
6.00         Just crossed the Crimea to Llandudno today and gets my vote

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Conference hall politics

Oh, dear did she have to be so nasty to dear Cheryl.  I’m referring of course to Kirsty Williams in her speech to the Liberal Democrat conference.

And what did she say you may ask.
“I am already working with the leaders of all parties in Wales to build a coalition of support that demands the respect of politicians in Westminster. 
 The coalition agreement included a firm commitment to develop a Scottish Calman-style process to devolve financial powers to the Welsh Government.
 But conference, do you think we can rely on a Conservative Secretary of State to deliver?
 The Conservative understanding of devolution is too shallow.
 The Secretary of State’s accountability to the people of Wales too tenuous.
 The Wales Office’s belief in giving away power too – well it’s non-existent.
 That is why we need Liberal Democrats in Government to really push forward radical reform.
 And I know that at every stage Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander are pushing the case for Wales.
 Well,  Cheryl, somebody’s got to do it.


Now, of course, there’s always a temptation when addressing your own members to get carried away but this wasn’t a spontaneous remark or two but part of a well thought out speech. Of course, it presses the right button with the delegates in the hall. The Pavlovian response of delegates to such remarks got her the customary standing ovation, but outside the hall, what?

Is it good politics to set about to do over so publicly our dear Secretary of State, especially when there doesn’t seem to be any tangible political advantage in doing so?

Now there was almost an indecent attempt in this conference by some Liberal Democrat Ministers to parade themselves as there own men and women. Indeed not a speech was delivered that didn’t try to convince how they were acting as a break to the Genghis Khan tendency of their coalition partners.

How they just loved portraying themselves as the Liberal Democrat tail that was wagging the Tory dog.  But as Ministers they do have some influence on government policy within their own portfolios.

But in the Welsh Office there are no Liberal Democrat Ministers to influence decision-making. If Kirsty Williams had been a more mature politician she would have seen this as an opportunity to get close to Cheryl Gillan and provide that authentic Liberal Democrat view on the Welsh world. And Cheryl Gillan’s response - without doubt she would have welcomed such an ally.

Kirsty Williams, if she’d chosen to play that particular card,  the influence surely might have been greater than the clout she has leading a group of five in the Assembly.

By playing to the Conference gallery and waging a very personal attack on Gillan she has traded possible long-term advantage and influence for the very temporary adulation of her own.

Stateswomanship it’s certainly not. It’s not even good politics ‘cos where’s the gain.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Take control

“We believe that external challenge and support can best be provided through a Ministerial Board with an independent chair with a legal background and other members with the necessary expertise to challenge the Council in the core areas for improvement. I will announce the membership shortly. I have spoken to the Leader of the Council this morning.” So said deputy Minister Gwenda Thomas in dealing with Pembrokeshire County Council’s failure to protect children and young people.
Now this government has form in putting their own team in to sort out our local councils. They currently have teams in Ynys Mon and Blaenau Gwent.
A pattern is developing. If a local authority errs, the Welsh Government ride in wearing their white hats and then put their own folk in to sort things out.
The Minister with responsibility for local government Carl Sergeant sees councils as lacking “performance leadership, critical mass, specialist expertise and efficiency.”

His answer is to have six regional bodies that will deliver some of the major services that are currently delivered by local councils.

And it’s not only Sergeant that has a low opinion, but many others in the cabinet share the view that local councils don’t cut the mustard.

All this begs the question, why don’t they cut the middle man out and do it themselves.

After all if the idea is to have six regional authorites to deliver education, social services and some aspects of environment and sustainable development. Why not save the money and just have one – namely the government itself.

Yes, scrap the county councils and let the Welsh government take on the role.  They can then decentralise responsibilities to other organisations such as the schools themselves or of course to those democratically elected bodies – namely the community councils if they see fit.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Statement on the Gleision tragedy

This statement was delivered by Carwyn Jones to the Welsh Assembly 
"Members will be familiar with the key facts surrounding the tragedy at Gleision Colliery drift mine near Pontardawe at the end of last week.
We now know that 4 miners from a party of 7 were trapped by water in a ventilation shaft.  Three miners escaped.  We also know that efforts to rescue the remaining four trapped men were unsuccessful.  The four miners were Charles Breslin, David Powell, Garry Jenkins and Phillip Hill; all were local to the Swansea and Neath Valleys.  I know that all Members will join me in offering sincere condolences to the bereaved families.  Our thoughts are with them and the wider community that shares in their loss.
There was a time in our history when mining tragedies were sadly common.  We had hoped that these events were in the past.  The incident at Gleision is a tragic reminder of the dangers associated with the mining industry. 
South Wales Police are leading the investigation in accordance with the Work-Related Deaths Protocol agreed between the police, HSE, Local Authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service.  The Health and Safety Executive is providing technical support.  At a later stage it may be appropriate for the HSE to take the lead in the investigation, as has happened in other incidents.  I expect a full report into the causes of the investigation to be published in due course so that any lessons learnt can be applied elsewhere.          
  I would like to pay tribute to the emergency services and rescue teams who worked unstintingly, and at personal risk, to search for the miners.  These include the police, fire and ambulance services along with the mines and caves rescue services. 
Mining communities are traditionally close-knit and supportive to those in need.  We saw this through the immediate response of the community in setting up a base at Rhos Community Centre to support the families and loved ones of the miners.  No one can fail to have been impressed by the kindness shown by neighbours at a time of need.   
Llywydd, I’ve referred to the shared history of coal mining which still forms a powerful bond among communities in many parts of our country.  The tragedy at Gleision is a tragedy for Wales."
A response followed by each party leader. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

Liberal Democrats confer

Single figure ratings (9%) and 55% disapproval of the government’s record is not the best of starts for the Liberal Democrats annual conference in Birmingham.
Their slogan "in government on your side" captures the essence of their difficulty. Yes, of course they are junior partners in government. But their problem is the cognitive dissonance between their progressive voters and the shackles, of their own making, that tie them to a right wing political party.
Just like being part of “Labour led coalition” did little good for Plaid Cymru the same fate may befall the Liberal Democrats as part of a “Conservative led coalition.”
The hard times that many voters are experiencing makes “on your side" pretty meaningless. Liberal Democrats will use the conference to convince Joe public that they’re curbing the worst exesses of the Conservatives. But no matter how hard they push the message it is likely to fall on the deaf ears.
Ordinary party members will need to have a transfusion of optimism to find much to crow about. Apart from the few who find  their ample posteriors in the back of chauffeur driven government Jaguars, what have the rest of the party to show for their efforts?
Electoral reform, off the agenda for the foreseeable future; Liberal Democrat vote in Wales down to just over ten per cent in Assembly elections; 500 councillors losing their seats in the Spring local government elections. Not great returns for selling their political soul, me thinks.
However hard they try to talk up the influence they have on government policy.  Whether it be health reforms here or 50p tax rates there, it mounts up to little compared to - “it’s the economy, stupid.”
No, this is the one item that there is no pretence at a difference between the partners.  Both chant the mantra, no plan “B”. The cuts to public services are necessary and there won’t be a U turn.
After all it was on this prospectus that the partnership was formed and it is the issue on which the coalition government sinks or swims. It will be ‘the’ issue that voters decides where they put the cross at election time.
Liberal Democrats just won’t be able to distance themselves from the call they’ve made on the economy. 
Increasingly it looks like being the wrong call.
The truth is that the world economy is on the verge of unwinding and Britain is far from being immune from its consequence. The economy here is very weak - unemployment up, inflation up, exports down and investment down. No, it’s a sorry state of affairs and all the omens are that things are unlikely to improve yet awhile.
The Liberal Democrats have gambled their very existence as a party that the sunny economic grasslands will be reached in time for the next election. There are better odds on a Barry Island donkey winning the Derby than on this happening soonest.
Last week’s TUC conference showed that there is a lot of anger about and things are about to get quite nasty.
There will be polarizing in politics between the Right and the Left.
The Conservative led government will wrestle with industrial disputes; the Tory backbenchers will be pushing a right wing agenda on tax and Europe.
On the other hand Labour will push for a Keynesian approach of more investment to boost employment.  This approach will resonance more and more with the voters as unemployment increases.
As the two large parties slug it out for the hearts and minds of the voters there is a real danger that the Liberal Democrats will be marginalized.
By gum, it’s a rum and risky business to sup with the devil.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Return to Newmarket

Horses never seem to live up to their billing. Last week at Bath the hit rate was 50% one winner, one-second and one third out of six races. Today, it’s Newmarket that gets our attention.
Henry 11 was on his way to Wales to deal with Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1163 when he stayed in Clifford Castle, near Hay on Wye. There he happened on Rosamund Gifford and they became lovers.
Their affair became public knowledge in 1174 a couple of years before she died. Now whether or not horseracing was a diversionary tactic to take minds off the great “affairs” of state we’ll never know but what we do know is that racing dates back in Newmarket to the very same year, namely 1174.
It became a popular venue for James V1 of Scotland and James 1 of England; yes the same guy but two titles. He made his base in England when he got the two jobs.
He probably liked Newmarket because it was cold enough to 
remind him of his other Kingdom.
King Charles 1 took over from his dad and inaugurating the first cup race in 1634. He should have stayed with racing; better to loose your shirt than wear two when they’re about to chop off your head for being stubborn.
If you live in Newmarket the chances are you're connected with racing in one way or another. After all it is the town’s industry. Frankie Dettori lives in Newmarket; it’s the equivalent of living above the shop for him.
 Again remember the mantra over 7/1 and you should back the horse in a two-way bet.
As I'm posting these tips on Friday make sure before you place your bets tomorrow that the horse is still a runner and not withdrawn.
1.45         Epoque Henry Cecil has 2 winners and 2nd in this race previously and that's where my money is going but Gathering might be rest of a risk to the cautious [Epoque came third at 4/1]
2.20         Eight tipsters are going for Kyanight but Gallery or Lemon Rock are more interesting to me [Lemon Rock third at 11/1]
2.55         Is it Mehdi or Coupe De Ville it's the latter for me it's given me a return already this summer so I'll stay with it.
3.30         Mohanad a good e.w. at 14/1 but hard work required to beat favourite Palazzo Bianco
4.05         On her Way is a quirky filly but 11/1 Twin Soul might give a better return [Twin Soul third]
4.40         Invincible Hero will take a lot of beating Arabian Spirit likes the course although has not met  potential yet perhaps this is the day to do it
5.15         Picabo she's in form but Oneladyowner is an improving sprinter and has more to offer
Best of luck!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Knaves and Liars

 “Out of six hundred and fifty-eight members,” said John Wade almost none could be found “who did not consider government a mere job, and the public a goose, out of which it was the business of every political knave to pluck a feather.”  No, he wasn’t writing about today’s politicians but those in the House before the great Reform Act of 1832

But it could equally sum up the attitude of many today. According to the Committee on Standards in Public Life the percentage of people in England who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public, dropped from 46% to 26%.
The main concern emerging from the survey was that MPs manifested “self serving” behavior and this overshadowed all other issues.
It doesn’t take a PhD in politics to workout why the public has such a low opinion of their Member of Parliament. It can be summed up in one word “expenses.”
The expenses scandal of 2009 shook the trust in politicians. Little wonder, with members of both Houses of Parliament going to prison, others awaiting trial and many others having to refund expenses dubiously claimed.
The watchdog's survey of 1,900 people was carried out in early 2011; 19 months after the MPs' expenses scandal broke.
Since 2004 there has been a decline in confidence by the public in those holding public confidence but the trend accelerated post 2008.
Not only do the public lack confidence in Westminster politicians but more believe that they are incompetent a drop from 36% in 2008 to 26% in 2010 and those that think they are liars down to a fifth from the quarter that held the view in 2008.
Surprise, surprise, those who supported one of the three main parties were more likely to believe standards were high among politicians.
This survey looked simply at Members of Parliament. It would be interesting to see what the attitude of the public would be to Assembly Members who have been more proactive on issues of pay and rations.

They took the decision to establish an independent remuneration board to set salaries and allowances. Thus taking the toxic issue away from the previous system when they decide these issues for themselves.

Despite this people do tend to have a low opinion of politicians - a strange phenomena in a democracy. After all it’s the voter who decides on the representative. If they’re not up to the mark, why choose them in the first place. 

Blame the voter not the politician, I say. It’s like kicking the cat when things go wrong in life.