Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Family bereavement

There will be no blog this week due to a family bereavement. Hopefully normal service will return next week.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

In, out or shake it all about.

Members of the Conservative party have made Europe a high priority for themselves for sometime. By high priority, read get the hell out of the club. 

This obsession has caused difficulties to a succession of conservative leaders.  David Cameron is the latest  whose had to pander to the euro-sceptics within his party. 

But he’s gone further than any of his predecessors in offering an in/out referendum. This of course will only happen if the Conservatives win the next election.

His strategy is to renegotiate the terms of the country’s relationship with  the European Union. If he gets his way he’ll offer the country a referendum with him campaigning to stay in.

According to the PM British people would have a "very simple choice" to accept the result of the talks or to leave the EU altogether.

Now of course in all of this there are an awful lot of ‘ifs.’ 

The first ‘if’. He has to win an overall majority at the 2015 general election. Unless the economy improves this is going to be a very hard call for his party. Indeed the uncertainty this speech has caused in the business community may make it even more difficult for the economy to be turned around.

The other ‘if’ is what does renegotiation mean and will the Europeans be interested in delivering a negotiated settlement in the time table laid down by Cameron. Why should they rush to help a party that’s blackmailing them with the exit door if they don’t concede to the UK’s unilateral demands.

In his speech Mr Cameron did not spell out what powers he would like to see the UK take back as part of a new settlement. He didn’t even say what would happen if the negotiations did not go his way.

His speech has given him brownie points with a large section of the Conservative MPs and his party in the country.  There’s no doubt he will be the darling of his party. 

But the threat to leave the EU will create a great deal of uncertainty. And the last thing the economy needs at the moment is uncertainty. It’s hard to see that his stance is in the UK’s economic interest. It certainly won’t help the Welsh Government in their efforts to attract inward investment. 

No foreign firm that wants to access the European market will consider Wales as their base if they think there’s a chance that the country will leave Europe. Other countries will gain at Wales’s loss.

Wales continue to get a great deal of help from Europe through structural funding to create jobs and build the economy. If we’re out there is little in the track record of Westminster to indicate that they’d help. If reform of Barnett  is an indication Wales  is far down the English governments agenda.

No, today’s speech may do Cameron some short term good  but the real winners are UKIP. Europe is now up the agenda and the prospect of a campaign to exit will put a fresh step in Farage’s stride.  

And of course Alex Salmon must be laughing all the way to his referendum. He’s now able to argue  for an independent Scotland seated at the European table in the seat shortly to be vacated by the UK. The anti-unionist cause has been greatly helped by today’s speech. Good one, Dave. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Stop the bullying

Nobody likes a bully. When someone uses his strength or position to threaten someone weaker, we're all outraged. And rightly so. 

But as an instrument of policy the government is prepared to reduce the living standards of the already downtrodden and there is little condemnation.

Many poor people who find it desperately difficult to live on existing benefits are becoming more and more desperate. A social crisis is happening and there is scarcely a peep from the rest. 

The growth of food banks is testimony enough that many are finding it difficult to meet their most basic need, the need for food for them and their families. Rent arrears are on the up. And just as night follows day evictions will also follow. Resulting in even more family breakdown and misery.

Yes, its hard out there. And the response. These are straightened times and all should share the burden. 

How facile. Its the equivalent of backing the bully and ignoring the victim. Both the left and right in politics are turning their back on the welfare state. The sharing of the burden between everyone in society is definitely not on any parties agenda.  

The wealthy get their tax reduced and the poor get their incomes cut.  This is not sharing the burden. It is adding to the riches of the one and adding to the misery of the other. 

There’s a propaganda war to demonise the poor and desensitise the rest of society to their plight. They’re feckless, they’re scroungers, work shy  and basically a drain on all. They’re not the ones that should benefit. They’re the undeserving poor.

The coalition government rhetoric says they’re going to concentrate on the deserving poor, those that are in “real’ need. They’ve a funny of showing it, cutting their benefits.

 Attlee and his government set up the welfare state on the model outlined by William Beveridge a Liberal.  The universal basis of the welfare state continued under Winston Churchill a Conservative.  

All three were of the view that universality of benefit was the best way to deal with the scourge of poverty. Be it poverty caused by unemployment, sickness or old age.
It was called the postwar consensus.

This consensus was of the view that the fairest way of reducing “want” and the most efficient too was for everyone to pay and everyone take out when they were in need. 

Selectivity and means testing not only stigmatise recipients but is also a very costly ways of tackling the problem. How many kids that are entitled to free school meals don’t get them? Its reckoned about a quarter.

Giving benefits to all and then using a progressive tax system to claw back the cash from those well-off  is not only more efficient but also the best way of ensuring that aid gets to everyone. The UK needs to get back to these basics. 

Lets spend more on tax collectors rather than on benefit administrators. All  should pay their dues. 

Lets keep, child benefits, heating allowance and bus passes etc and lets even add to the list.

Then we’d all really be in it together. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Building jobs

A lot less people will find jobs in construction in Wales in the near future. According to the The Construction Skills Network the recession in the industry in Wales reflects the wider job losses in the sector across the UK.
In the UK as a whole the sector lost 60,000 jobs in 2012, while output fell 9%, in large part because of public spending cuts. Employment in sector is expected to continue to fall every year until 2016.
The construction industry is an important barometer to what’s happening to the economy.  No growth in construction, means no growth in the economy. 
But we’re constantly told that “jobs” in the economy are not going down. Employment figures don’t reflect the recession in the economy. A strange phenomena, recession without an increase unemployment.
Now an explanation. Those on government work programmes are also regarded as having a “job” although, of course they’re not paid.
Added to these are the half a million people working fewer than six hours a week.  Looking at these you begin to get the narrative. Unemployment figures become misleading.  
Such figures create the impression that the economy is in a better place than it is. It’s not. 
The net rise in employment these last two years has gone hand in hand with growth in underemployment, more than 3 million people in jobs (almost a tenth of the workforce) at present crying out for more hours. 
Dodgy figures lead to dodgy answers. Knowing you’r in the mire is a start to getting out of the mess. Unless the gravity of our economic predicament is acknowledged the country will continue to put its collective heads in the sand and policy will continue without change.
The government’s policy of austerity will continue, unchanged. Even though a realistic look at the statistics show that the policy is failing. 
Change is needed. More government borrowing is required. Yes, borrowing. 
Thrift is not good in a recession. It’s only a policy for the good times. 
Temporary borrowing at low interest rates is a sensible way forward.
Borrowing only becomes a problem when it underestimates the risks involved, and when the borrower may not be able to afford the repayments. None of these apply, although the government would want us to think otherwise. 
The financial crisis was caused in part by excessive borrowing by consumers who thought house prices could never fall, but mainly it was banks over-extending themselves. 
The recession caused high government borrowing, and not the other way around.The right time to cut government borrowing is when the economy is strong, and the cost of borrowing is high. Not now.
The government are right this is the time to build Wylfa B and electrify the railways. But more, much more investment needs to happen. Schools and hospitals need to be built.  The housing sector needs to be boosted. 

Borrowing for investment purposes is a correct policy. Most mortgage holders have worked this out, but it seems that the Chancellor hasn’t got it. 

The figures on construction jobs are a timely reminder the George Osborne has got it wrong. It’s his policies that are leading us to ruin.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

They're my laws.

Every new Assembly session is opened by the Queen. Its a big jamboree. But like every event it’s not without some controversy. 

Dedicated Republicans boycotted the event. Last time Leanne Wood, Bethan Jenkins and Lynsey Whittle  decided to hold a rival republican meeting. 

Ieuan Wyn Jones the then leader of Plaid Cymru decided after a bruising election campaign  to take a holiday. Oh, how his  holiday created a storm on the Welsh airwaves and in the press. Disrespectful to the monarch was the cry at the time.

It was a day of pomp and some considerable ceremony. 

Shortly, afterwards the new Labour government announced what its legislative programme was to be. Most of the bills proposed will become law, eventually. 

To make them legal, the Queen has to sign up to them by attaching her signature. Part of her duties as head of State. 

A formality. Just another throwback to the days when the Monarch had real powers. But still part of the constitution. A throwback to the old days. No question that the will of parliament will prevail and the Queen will put pen to  paper shortly afterwards.

Well, that’s what most of her “subjects” were led to believe.  The powers of the crown were now purely ceremonial. Oh, how naive a view that would seem to be.

The extent of the Queen and for that matter the Prince of Wales’s secretive powers have just been made public. Made public only after Downing Street had to be dragged kicking and screaming to publish after a  15 month long battle and a court order.

The papers show that at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals’ little-known power to consent to or block new laws. Ministers and civil servants are obliged to consult the Queen and Prince Charles in greater detail and over more areas of legislation than was previously understood. If the Royals don’t agree major bits of Bills “have to be removed.”

These powers have been used on Westminster bills. What is not know is what powers the Royals have over Welsh laws. Do they have the same powers? Do Welsh Government civil servants have to run past the royals, Welsh Bills? Does the same happen to amendments proposed to such bills, do they have to have the consent of the Royals? 

The powers they have come under the name of prerogative powers. Now most constitutional anoraks say that they are little used. Implying that they have the cobwebs of history all over them. Not so, what is clear is that the Royals wield great power and influence. And its all hidden. No transparency here. 

Wales has a relatively new democratic body. It won law making powers after the people had decided in a referendum. All should have an equal right to influence the law makers. But no one, apart from those elected by the people should be able to stop or amend Assembly laws.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A Federalist party?

“The Labour Party is now a de facto federal party recognised by party leadership across the UK.” so claims Leighton Andrews. He’s to say so in a speech to the Clwyd South Labour Party, tonight. 
His claim. Labour is already a British federal party. To be fair to him he does use the words "a de facto federal party."
His argument is based on the fact that “The leader of the Labour MSPs is formally the Leader of Scottish Labour. In Wales, Carwyn is the only person elected by the whole of the party in Wales, and is recognised as Welsh Labour leader. 
Ed Miliband as a contender for the Labour leadership in 2010 recognised that:
“It is time for London to lighten up and be more mature about our relationship with the Senedd and also the Scottish Parliament”.
There is no disputing the fact that devolution has changed many attitudes within the ranks of Welsh Labour. More and more of the ordinary rank and file members have learnt to live if not necessarily love the Welsh Assembly. 
The outright opposition of many to the institution has certainly declined over the years. The party in Wales is now less Unionist.
But what about the Labour party over Offa's Dyke?
There’s not much evidence that they understand or indeed sympathise with devolution.  And as for it being a Federal Party? Not so, not by a long chalk.
Leighton Andrews is a devoted devolutionist. He’s played a leading part in the last two referendum campaigns and his lecture tonight may well be a start of a new campaign, on his part, to return his party to its “Home Rule” roots. 
Home rule was the party’s policy from the days of Keir Hardy up until the landslide of 1945. Then Clem Attlee and his party turned their back on the commitments to Wales and Scotland and became Britain’s second unionist Party.   
Devolution only really took a hold again as a reaction to Thatcherism. The argument went that the two countries didn't vote for her, so why should they put up with her policies.
Wales and Scotland now have a measure of control over their own affairs. But within the British state, the Westminster Parliament is supreme.  It’s still top dog.  
Andrews is right, Labour does elect from all the constituent wings of the party in Wales its own leader. But that doesn't make it a Federal party. 
Its constitution is still very much based on it being a British party. The party in Wales has no separate status. Its general secretary is appointed  by the party centrally. All candidates for elected office have to be approved by the party’s national executive in London.  
The national executive is responsible for the party. With not one place for Wales on this, the party's ruling body. No, Labour is still very much a party controlled from the centre. And the centre is London, not Cardiff. 
However Leighton Andrews might wish it to be otherwise  the ultimate authority for Wales lies in  the party's national conference. National  in this instance being very much British. For British read English. 
In his speech he draws attention to Carwyn Jones’s plea to David Cameron for a constitutional convention. “The First Minister has rightly called for a UK Constitutional Convention to be set up before the Scottish referendum.”

But David Cameron isn’t going to do anything until after the Scottish referendum. No, nothing. A shame, but there you have it, they are after all 'the Conservative and Unionist party.' The conservative bit dedicated to the status quo and the unionist bit with an outright objection to Federalism.

But what of the de facto Federalist party leader, Miliband? Dear Ed hasn’t shown any marked enthusiasm either.  As Leader of the Opposition in Westminster he’s not harried the PM on the convention idea. Not one question.  His silence on the matter is deafening.  

Andrews”s view is that “a model based on one centre of power at Westminster is, bluntly, bust.”

A Federal constitution for Britain is surely the way forward.  But Ed Miliband and his team have yet to say so. And as for the Labour party’s own structure, it surely ain’t anywhere near being a Federal party yet. 

No. Mr Andrews has a real fight on his hands if he's to change his party's constitution. The gap between wanting  and getting it is very wide indeed. One speech does not a Federation make.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Economically speaking

Every Tuesday morning all three opposition parties lay out their stall for the week. This morning was no different.  But what was slightly different, the Plaid Cymru’s press conference. It was taken by their leader, Leanne Wood. An event that is as rare as a sunny day in Wales.

Her message. “As I said when I was elected as Plaid Cymru’s leader, the economy is my priority because without jobs people can have no security.” 

In other words “it’s the economy stupid.” 

But apart from advice as to how the government should spend the £227m capital boost announced in the Autumn Statement. Nothing yet of substance. 

On the £227m. This apparently “should be used to stimulate the Welsh economy, using local procurement to create jobs and invest in skills in Welsh communities.” 

But for Plaid’s definitive statement on the economy. Wait for it, we await for a Commission to report back on the matter. 

‘Manana’ would seems to be Plaid Cymru’s word for urgency on the economy. It reminds one of the those student protest slogans,  "We want  change, when? In the fullness of time."

Yet Plaid Cymru have acted with speed on the internal reorganisation of the party. They’ve been able to digest and produce for a February internal conference ideas for reorganising the party’s rules and constitution. Oh, yes this can be done, but nothing yet on the economy.

It’s just what gets politics a bad name. Navel gazing. Behaving like an inclusive sect, more concerned about boring internal rules and not about the issues that concern the voters. 

Of course, she leads a minority party in the Assembly and it’s her role “Through 2013, as in 2012, Plaid Cymru will be the only party challenging and scrutinising both Welsh and Westminster governments - without fear or favour.”

Quite right, government needs to be held to account. They have a lot to account for. But much more is required from her and her party, ideas.

What are they about? What are they proposing? What’s to be done? Unless parties offer relevant alternatives, they just don’t get the votes. 

If the party is to arrest its downward spiral it must produce policies in plenty of time to sell them to the voters. Plaid need to act with a greater sense of urgency.

On an other matter the party resolved the Bethan Jenkins issue.
They lifted their suspension of the assembly member for South West Wales. 
She was suspended when charged with drink driving. After pleading guilty and been convicted. 

In her first day back at work after the events she apologised to Plaid AMs for her behaviour. 

Consequently Alun Ffred Jones on behalf of the group said: "Her suspension from the assembly group has been lifted and she is a full member again. The group's disciplinary process has now ended."

Monday, 7 January 2013

Whose benefit

The season of goodwill is over. Most politicians are back at work. It’s a sure sign when the sniffer dogs do their check of the Assembly estate that our public representatives are shortly to be back in the fold.

But its not the Assembly that will be the centre of attention tomorrow but the Commons. And many Welsh voters will have cause for concern with the outcome of a Common’s debate. The real end of the seasonal cheer surely comes with tomorrow’s debate on welfare. 

More particularly the discussion will centre on the Chancellor’s proposals to put a 1% cap on increases state benefits these next three years.  The debate is about passing a law to this effect. 

A new law is not necessary. The Chancellor can vary benefits as he sees fit in his budgets. So why clog up parliament with an unnecessary act of Parliament, you may well ask. 

Well the answer is simple, he hopes to wrong foot Labour by this approach.

Osborne’s logic is straight forward. Welfare claimants have been demonised by the tabloids over the years and therefor are seen as feckless layabouts. They’re all scumbags. Any party seen helping them need to have their heads examined. 

So the Chancellor thinks that he’s in the happiest of political situations, win win. He cuts the deficit on the backs of the poor and at the same time makes Labour unpopular. 

Indeed the latest polls would seem to back the strategy.
More people on being asked had sympathy with the Conservative argument that it was unfair for benefits to rise by more than 1% when wages were rising at less than inflation (50%) than had sympathy with the Labour argument that increasing benefits by less than inflation was unfair on the many families in work that relied on benefits to make ends meet (34%). 

On attitudes towards benefits for those out of work, 28% thought the government was too harsh, but a massive 47% thought the government should be harsher and do more to force people to work. 

There you have it not much goodwill amongst those polled towards those out of work. But the government are sure it reflects the nations attitude.

Now in order to justify their partisan stand the coalition have wrapped themselves in the blanket of fairness. We’re all in this together, we’ve all got to tighten our belts. If those in work have seen their living standards go down. According to the government only right that those drawing benefits should also suffer. 

But hold on. Even those that have only a rudimentary grasp of sums will realise that a percentage rise of 1% on unemployment pay of £71 a week gives an increase of 71p. Average weekly earnings of nearly £500 would give an additional £5. Giving them 7 times more than those on unemployment. Where’s the fairness in that?

When Beveridge wrote his report it was in the war when the country was really in it together. Now despite austerity those fortunate enough to be in jobs have a resentment of claimants. But when they themselves are affected they may react differently. 

And that’s what Labour are banking on. The cuts in child benefit and other in work benefits will affect the “strivers”. 
And rather than looking for scapegoats they’ll point the finger of blame at the Chancellor. 

Whichever way you look at it the results will be bleak new Year to many a Welsh family.