Thursday, 11 February 2016

Coalitions and arrangements

Simon Thomas seems to have ignited something of a hostile reaction within Plaid yesterday, when he declined to rule out an arrangement with the Tories which falls short of a coalition.  I suspect that, in semantic terms, he was correct to argue that what Plaid’s leader had said only rules out one particular type of arrangement, namely a formal coalition.  But I think most people had interpreted what Leanne said – and were intended to interpret it – as ruling out any arrangement which would put the Tories in power in Wales.
But on the principle, I agree with Simon, and have posted on that before.  It’s not that I particularly want to see the Tories in power in Wales, or see Plaid supporting such a government.  And when the issue was under discussion in 2007, when there was a possibility of including the Tories in the so-called ‘rainbow alliance’, I was even more opposed to a coalition with the Tories than with Labour.  But I was happy to talk to both, because that was the only way of ascertaining what, if any, real progress could be made.  I had two main reasons for not being quite so definitive in ruling out some arrangements in advance.
The first is largely pragmatic, and is to do with negotiating leverage.  In the context of the current voting system for the National Assembly, where coalitions or less formal arrangements are more likely than not, any party claiming to be putting the interests of Wales first needs to get the best deal that it possibly can.  And telling everyone in advance that there’s only one party with which you’re prepared to do any sort of deal doesn’t actually incentivise that party to give a lot of ground.  Quite the reverse – it actually strengthens the Labour Party’s hand in any discussions.
The second is more about the aims and objectives of a party.  I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Tories in Wales would offer more concessions to the nationalist position than the Labour Party, but I don’t find it totally inconceivable that it could happen.  Events are inherently unpredictable.  Ruling out, absolutely, any such possibility in advance looks like the action of a party more concerned with its own short-term advantage than with the constitutional progress of Wales.
Of course, the reason given for that would be that the long term future of Wales depends on the strength of the nationalist party, and that any deal with the Tories would weaken that party.  But is that reasoned argument, or merely rationalisation of pre-existing prejudice?  I’m convinced that any deal with the Labour Party is equally likely to weaken Plaid – that certainly seems to be the experience of One Wales.  But if the main aim is making progress towards independence, then bringing about change, and then entrenching that change, is surely more important than the results of one or two elections.
I accept that this is largely hypothetical – any discussion before the election can only ever be speculative.  I entirely understand why all parties would sooner concentrate at this stage on fighting and winning the election than on speculating about what might happen afterwards.  Perhaps there really will be a political earthquake which propels either Plaid or the Tories into a position where they have enough AMs to be in a position to lead a government, however unlikely that may look at present.  But in a context where all the polls show how unlikely it is that any party will win the majority about which they are all so keen to talk, speculation will inevitably continue to be part of the narrative of the campaign.  That’s entirely natural, and in many other countries in Europe, people and politicians would be struggling to understand why there is such a reluctance in Wales to accept the fact, and debate the possibilities more openly.
Talking about arrangements and compromises is an inevitable part of what it takes to create a different type of politics in Wales, and break away from the UK’s obsession with absolute majorities.  It’s about building a more European style of multi-party coalitions and arrangements.  There’s something very ‘British’ about simply wanting to avoid the question.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Changing the arguments

This is a much better argument for a ‘yes’ vote in the EU referendum than most of what I’ve seen so far.  A “decentralised partnership of equals” where Wales is one of those “equals”, and a rejection of the idea that the decision can be made by “punching numbers into a calculator” is the sort of vision for a future for Wales as an independent member of a restructured European Union which is about more than mere economics.  Syniadau has also drawn attention today to a new cross-Europe movement seeking to democratize the continent, and re-invent the EU on a different basis.  Both are hopeful signs of a new approach to what it means to be part of a multi-national project for peace and progress.
Much of the rest of the debate about the EU, however, continues to revolve around the idea that it’s all about economics, and nothing more.  One of the problems with that approach is that the economic effects of departure are largely unknowable – for all the apparent ‘certainty’ that they display, both sides are essentially guessing.  And inviting people to judge who might be making the best guesses doesn’t look like a very good basis for making a fundamental decision about the future.
There was a report a few days ago, for instance, which suggested that leaving the EU would be like taking a leap into the unknown.  I agree – but I’m not convinced that the economic future within the EU is as certain as that implies.  There is a natural human tendency to assume, almost subconsciously, that ‘what is’ is somehow safer and more certain than the alternative.  But in this case, continuing as a member of the EU carries its own range of possible outcomes, depending on events which are at this stage unforeseeable.
I believe that the UK could and would survive economically outside the EU, albeit with a period of adjustment, in the same way that I believe that Wales could and would survive outside the UK – again with a period of adjustment.  Adjusting to circumstances is what economies do – and there are plenty of recent examples of economies adapting well to new circumstances.  The question is not whether we could or would thrive economically whether in or out; it’s about what sort of world we want to see.  And I welcome the fact that at least one of Wales’ politicians is arguing from that viewpoint.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Following England

Ever since the UK Government introduced the cancer drugs fund for England, the Tories in Wales have been banging on about the need for Wales to follow suit.  I’ve always had my doubts about the question – if the underlying problem is that the NHS does not have adequate funding to be using new and innovative drugs, then the answer is to provide more funding, not for politicians to start over-riding clinical decisions by diverting resources from one type of treatment or disease to another.  It’s a gimmick – a populist one, to be sure amongst those who see family and friends suffering from the disease – but a gimmick nevertheless.
Last week, a House of Commons committee reported on the way that the fund is working in England.  The report covers a lot of detail, but crucially it says that there is no evidence that the fund is benefiting patients, extending lives or a good use of taxpayers' money.  I suspect that the first two parts of that conclusion are a little harsh; I’m sure that some of the individual patients and families would argue that they have benefited, and would oppose any move to wind up the fund. 
But any true assessment of the efficacy of the approach has to look not just at those patients and families who do see some benefit but at all of them – including those with other diseases and illnesses who may be losing out; the report specifically notes that extra cash has had to be diverted from elsewhere in the NHS to pay for the fund.  In the round, it’s clear that whatever the political advantages of establishing the fund, in medical terms it hasn’t proved to be quite as brilliant an idea as it was painted. 

I don’t expect the Tories in Wales to stop demanding that Wales follows England on this; following England is their natural default position.  I’m sure that, like the UK Government, they’ll claim that it’s just about changing the way the fund works and is administered.  Hopefully, the Welsh Government will continue to resist such calls and leave the decisions on medical priorities to those who know better than politicians.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Wishful thinking

The reported attempts by the Conservatives in Wales to turn the Assembly election into something of a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn rather than a vote about policies and programmes as such is an interesting approach.  Perhaps they have some private polling data which is not available to the rest of us suggesting widespread antipathy towards Corbyn in Wales, but from the outside it looks like an approach based on an assumption that something which is ‘obvious’ to them will be equally obvious to everyone else.
I don’t doubt that it will appeal to their core voters.  Readers of the Daily Mail are likely to be already convinced that Corbyn is the devil incarnate, and reminding that particular sector of the electorate that Carwyn and Corbyn are members of the same party might work to shore up that vote.  But assuming that internal groupthink is typical of the wider electorate is the sort of mistake which is all too easy for politicians and parties to make.  Playing the Corbyn card repeatedly and relentlessly doesn’t seem to me to be likely to have a huge appeal in terms of winning over opposing parties’ supporters.  It’s a bit like Labour always playing the Thatcher card – it seems to help to keep their own supporters loyal, but I doubt that it ever won many people over to Labour.
And that’s the point.  Whether some of us like it or not, there is a fairly solid and consistent Tory vote in Wales, and it seems to be growing, but I suspect that to be more a result of demographic changes (such as migration and age profile) than of any real shift of individual voters from Labour to Tory.  I don’t immediately observe the sort of personal antipathy to Corbyn which this strategy depends on amongst non Tory voters, although I do observe an increasing antipathy towards the over-personalisation of politics, and to a negative approach which is based mainly on slagging off the opponents. 

Whatever Labour might like, they will not be able to avoid the UK media seeing the Assembly election as delivering a verdict of some sort on Corbyn; but that’s about the media interpreting what they want to see happening.  It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily much of an issue for the electors themselves,  Assuming that coverage in their favoured media actually represents public opinion in Wales as a whole looks more like wishful thinking by the Tories than serious analysis. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Opening the borders

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has been strongly attacked by his own side for suggesting that the world is moving inexorably towards open borders.  It’s another sad reflection, considering the internationalist idealism of the founders of the Labour Party, that those arguing for open borders are regarded as aberrant, whilst those arguing for controls over the free movement of people are regarded as mainstream.  It’s perfectly possible, of course, that those supporting strong borders are merely reflecting what they see as being the opinion of the electorate – but that’s an even sadder reflection on the state of the modern Labour Party and how far it has strayed from its early ideals.  And pandering to conventional opinion rather than being willing to challenge it serves only to strengthen it.
In the circumstances, suggesting that open borders are the way of the future was a brave statement by John McDonnell.  I think he’s actually right.  The world is changing around us in ways which not everyone will like; but not liking something doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  In particular, modern communications technology makes it easier for people to compare and contrast their own way of life with that elsewhere.  It’s too easy to see the refugee crisis as a product of war or famine alone.  Whilst those are certainly factors, concentrating too heavily on those ignores the wider economic issues leading to large scale migration.
‘Economic migrants’, as governments like to refer to them, are ‘merely’ escaping poverty, rather than death through famine or war; but poverty causes death too.  It can be slower and less dramatic, but poverty – even relative poverty – affects longevity as well.  And there can be no doubting the disparity in the quality of life between the rich countries and the poor.  It is surely entirely understandable that people seeing a better quality of life elsewhere will attempt to seek it out, rather than accept their current state.
Of course, whilst modern communications make the disparities more visible, and the comparative ease of travel (compared to the situation just a few decades ago) facilitates greater mobility, neither of those is the underlying cause of the disparity.  That comes down to centuries of differential rates of economic development; and we should never forget that the greater pace of development in the richer parts of the world was for a very long time underpinned by exploiting the resources of the rest.  The whole history of colonialism and capitalism is about the transfer of wealth from some areas to others.  In this case, I’m talking about the richer and poorer countries across the world, but similar processes have also operated internally within the richer countries.
Add in the likely effects of a changing climate, and we are going to see even more mass migration in the future, and people ignoring borders in the process.  There are two potential responses to the situation.  The first is the stance taken by conventional politicians, which is all about building fences and obstacles, pulling up the drawbridge as it were, to stop people moving around.  That’s proving hard enough now.  If the numbers continue to grow, it is likely to become unsustainable without resorting to the increasing use of force.  The other is the stance taken by McDonnell, which is that we need to start thinking about the consequences and how we prepare for them.
It’s not an easy or a comfortable question to be asking ourselves.  How do we protect and sustain accepted cultures and customs if the population demographic is changing?  How do we deal with the economic and social consequences?  Being afraid, for whatever reason, to even ask such questions is part of the problem, but the result – trying to pretend that we can continue to hoard wealth in some parts of the world whilst denying it to others – simply won’t work for very long.  If the critics of McDonnell succeed in silencing debate on the question, we’ll all be the losers in the longer term.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Wriggling out of promises

The introduction of free TV licences for the over 75s was a good political gimmick, just like the winter fuel allowance.  Both were classic examples of governments seeking to appeal to a particular section of the population for electoral purposes.  I tend to the view that it would be better to simply increase the state pension, let people manage their own finances, and provide targeted practical assistance to those struggling to budget for irregular expenditure.  It would also be easier and less costly to administer.  However, as the saying goes, we are where we are.
When the BBC agreed to take on the ‘hit’ for licences for the over 75s, I thought at the time that they’d given in rather easily to a proposal which was clearly going to have serious financial consequences for the corporation.  Perhaps, even then, they had already started planning ways of clawing at least some of the money back.  Maybe the government even gave them some sort of a nod and a wink at the time that there would be no objection if the BBC wanted to be a bit ‘creative’ over the issue.  I’d be very surprised indeed if what starts out as a ‘voluntary’ payment remains as such for very long. 

In essence, however, there is a breach of faith here, by the government.  They promised one thing to the elderly by telling them that the free licence wouldn’t be affected by the change, and are sitting back whilst someone else attempts to subvert the promise which they made.  I for one wouldn’t have been unsupportive if they’d honestly and openly abolished this particular freebie and added the extra cash to pensions.  I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been a popular move (and pensioners tend disproportionately to support the Tories), but it would have been an honest and sensible one.  Offloading the promise onto someone else to wriggle out of is neither of those things.  And I wonder how many of those affected will really be fooled.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Tax cuts aren't the same as devolution

Not for the first time, bosses at Cardiff Airport have called for the devolution of air passenger duty.  Now, as a question of principle, I’m not going to disagree.  Since my starting point is that all taxes should be levied by the Assembly, not by Westminster, and that as long as the UK exists, financial transfers should be from devolved administrations to the centre rather than the other way around, I’m never going to disagree with the devolution of any taxation powers.
But I’m not sure that devolution of the tax is really what Roger Lewis is calling for here.  What he’s calling for is a cut in the tax; devolution is merely the perceived means to an end.  He clearly believes that the Welsh Government would be more likely to cut the tax than the UK Government.  He may well be right on that – but putting specific taxes in the hands of whichever administration is most likely to set the rate to the advantage of the organisation you represent isn’t the same as supporting devolution, let alone a particularly rational way of sharing powers across the UK, or of planning the public finances.
Personally, I’m not at all sure that cutting air passenger duty is the right thing to do.  It is clearly intended to boost traffic and passenger numbers at Cardiff airport – but is encouraging more flying really what we want to do?  For those running an airport, it might well be, but I’m not at all sure that it’s a good fit with the environmental policies being put forward by the government.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Laws aren't the answer

I’ve thought all along that the Tories’ proposal for legislation mandating the elimination of the budget deficit was just a silly gimmick.  In the first place, no government can ever tie the hands of another – any law passed can equally easily be repealed - and in the second place, whether, when, and to what extent the deficit should be reduced depends on economic circumstances.  Making it an absolute priority regardless is poor economics.
I’m afraid that I don’t think that Plaid’s proposal for a law mandating fair funding for the north (as noted by Cai Larsen last week) is any more sensible.  The first objection still applies – no Welsh government can ever bind its successors.  And a variation on the second also applies – whether equality of funding is the right thing to do at any point in time depends on the circumstances at the time.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with the way the Welsh government is spending our money at present – there clearly is.  And it doesn’t only affect the north; there are those of us out here in the wild west who also feel that a Cardiff-centric government is replicating the centralist tendencies of the UK and concentrating spending in and around the capital.  It’s just that legislating for equality of spending isn’t the right answer.
In the first place, it might well be that in some years, depending on projects and priorities, it might actually be right to spend more per head in the north than in the south-east.  And what do we mean by the ‘north’ anyway?  If equality was achieved by spending all the north’s money in Wrecsam (nothing against Wrecsam, by the way), how does that help Ynys Môn?  And demanding equality of spending, carried to its logical conclusion on a village by village basis, might also mean that no large projects could ever be undertaken – anywhere.  Over what period would this ‘equality’ be mandated?  The shorter the period, the harder it would be to finance large projects; but the longer the period, the more meaningless the proposal becomes in practical terms.
No, I simply don’t think that the proposal for legislation to control the way money is spent in different parts of Wales is a sensible response to the problem.  It looks like a gimmick; just like Osborne’s deficit law. What we really need isn’t legislation, it’s an economic plan for Wales with a vision for improved infrastructure and for boosting the economy of all parts of the country.  It’s not exactly a new idea, of course (although the 1970 version might need more than a little dusting off).  But real, hard proposals will do more for the north and west than any amount of meaningless legislation.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Mythical centres

Talking about the political centre is easy, but defining where the ‘centre’ lies is far from being a straightforward task.  Looking back at UK politics over the past seventy years, it is obvious that the centre has been more or less continually moving, pulled either to the right or to the left by the political forces of the day.  Insofar as ‘centrism’ is a political philosophy at all, it is first and foremost about winning elections rather than about what politicians do after winning them.  It’s an oversimplification, but perhaps not much of one, to say that there are times when strong politicians from the left or the right shift politics in one direction (Thatcher comes to mind); the ‘centrists’ (and Blair comes to mind) simply accept the new settlement and attempt to work within it.
So it came as no surprise to see Blair last week stressing anew that ‘Centre-ground voters still hold the key to winning elections’ in a story that appeared in a range of papers.  It’s no different from what he’s been saying for years.  What was more interesting, though, were the comments later in the piece, where he argued that “…I think if the centre is not muscular then the extremes gain”.  This is close to being the opposite position to that with which the article started.  Standing things on their head is something else to which he is not a stranger, but he’s more or less gone from arguing that elections can only be won from the centre to arguing that they can be won from the left or right if the centre isn’t strong enough.
The centre has moved from being an essential place for anyone wanting to win an election to a bulwark against those who might otherwise win.  It’s an attempt to turn the centre from a pragmatic tactical position into some sort of coherent political philosophy – a version of his infamous ‘third way’, I suppose. 
But that bring us right back to where we started.  The problem with his third way, and with political centrism in general, is that it can only be defined in terms of what it isn’t – as a rejection of what lies to either side of it.  In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, the UK ‘centre’ moved decisively towards the left, led by a strong and committed Labour Party.  There was a consensus around the welfare state, for instance, which lasted for decades.  There was some toing and froing in the Heath/Wilson years, but the decisive break with that consensus came in the 1980s. 
The great shame of the Labour Party is that it allowed itself to be taken over by ‘centrist’ careerists who fell into a new consensus with the Tories.  It suits those concerned and their successors – largely in the parliamentary Labour Party – to argue that the party’s current internal debate is a diversion from the important business of winning elections, and to close off debate about possible alternatives.  But as Blair has effectively admitted – and as UK political history has shown - elections aren’t always won from the centre ground, wherever that may be at the time.  It’s just that wining them from elsewhere requires a party to have a strong and clear commitment to an alternative view.  The problem is that so many in Labour really don’t want the party to do that – they’re actually happy to allow the Tories to continue moving the ‘centre’ in their own direction.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Applying double standards

Last week, a report was published suggesting strongly that the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was ordered at the very highest level in the Kremlin, probably by Putin himself.  The response of the UK Government succeeded in exposing a classic application of double standards.
The Government of country A ordered the use of a deadly radioactive substance to eliminate one of its former citizens who was resident in country B because it regarded him as a traitor and a danger to the country’s security.  According to the Prime Minister of country B, one David Cameron, this is an outrage against international law requiring sanctions against country A.
However, not so very long ago, the Government of country B ordered the firing of a missile from a drone to eliminate one of its former citizens (and anyone standing too close to him at the time) who was resident in country C because it regarded him as a terrorist and a danger to the country’s security.  According to the Prime Minister of country B, the same David Cameron, this is an entirely justified act of self defence.
Now, of course, the two situations aren’t entirely identical, and of course I’ve simplified things to highlight the similarities.  But in both cases, governments have resorted to extra-judicial killing to dispose of people that they can’t get to otherwise, and no government which is prepared to resort to such measures can really have very good grounds to criticise another which behaves in the same way.
Cameron is always banging on about British values.  I’ve noted before that I really don’t understand exactly what those values are or what makes them specifically British; but insofar as I do understand the claimed values of the West, I don’t remember them ever including the use of extra-judicial killing, or of the application of double standards.  Sometimes, people’s real values are more obvious from their actions than their words.