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Monday, September 26, 2016

Welsh Labour Ministers lose the plot on Brexit

As if it were bad enough having to put up with Theresa May's Government's prevarication over their position after we leave the EU, the Welsh Labour Economy Minister chipped in over the weekend with his own version of Brexit that does not seem too far away from the vision of Nigel Farage and UKIP.

According to the BBC, Ken Skates said that the Welsh Government wanted to maintain access to the single market but regain control over immigration, thus preventing the free movement of labour. He said:

"In the absence of any other indication from the UK Government... we are saying we are filling that void at the moment with a compelling argument for ensuring that Britain retains unfettered access to the single market while also recognising that in the referendum immigration was a major issue so we cannot maintain free movement of people."

How exactly he is going to achieve this feat is unclear given that all the European leaders insist that you cannot have access to the single market without retaining the free movement of people. They are doing so, not because they are being awkward but because the two go together naturally. You simply cannot have free trade if you restrict your labour market.

If Welsh Labour now want to prevent EU nationals coming to Wales, then how are they going to staff the health service, meet their new obligations to achieve better nursing levels, ensure that we have the right mix of labour for the needs of the Welsh economy and what are they going to do with the European nationals already here, many of whom are working in our public services?

This is not a thought-through position, it is a sound-bite designed to win back Labour voters from UKIP. It does Welsh Labour no credit whatsoever to follow the Brexiteers into this sort of identity politics.

Theresa May might want a bespoke solution but even she is going to be faced with the stark reality that if the UK is to remain in the single market then they will need to retain freedom of movement. What makes Welsh Labour think they can achieve a different outcome?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Boris skewered

For those who still question the portrayal of Boris Johnson as a national embarrassment in his role as Foreign Secretary, this article on the Reuters' website should put doubts to rest.

They report that Germany and France have brushed aside comments from Johnson suggesting there is no link between the EU's principle of free movement and access to its single market, saying they could send Johnson a copy of the Lisbon Treaty and even travel to London to explain it to him in English.

Apparently, Boris told Sky News television on Thursday that the EU's position that there was an automatic trade-off between access to the single market and free movement was "complete baloney." This has not gone down well amongst the powers-to-be on he continent:

Asked about the remarks at a news conference in Berlin, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his French counterpart Michel Sapin shot glances at each other before the German host responded.

"We just looked at each other because we're used to respecting foreign ministers a lot," Schaeuble said.

"If we need to do more, we will gladly send her majesty's foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon Treaty. Then he can read that there is a certain link between the single market and the four core principles in Europe," he added.

"I can also say it in English. So if clarification is necessary we can pay a visit and explain this to him in good English," Schaeuble said.

Was Theresa May perpetrating a massive joke on the United Kingdom when she made Boris Foreign Minister? If so, it has ceased to be funny.

Boris needs to learn that he can not get away with the sort of loose talk and dodgy promises he used to such good effect during the EU referendum when representing the UK as a Minister.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to leave Labour

The Independent reveals that “How to leave the Labour party” is currently the most searched for question about the party on Google on the eve of the leadership election result.

They say that the party faces a potential exodus of its more moderate supporters who have become disillusioned with the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is expected to beat Owen Smith to stay as Labour leader:

The revolt by the PLP has exposed tensions between the majority of Labour MPs, who occupy the centre ground and have dominated the party for the past 20 years, and a small group of hard-left activists surrounding Mr Corbyn which has the overwhelming support of the membership.

MPs, many of whom fear losing their seats if Theresa May calls an early election, said this overwhelming support from the party membership has blinded Mr Corbyn and his team to the reality of their unpopularity with the general public.

A recent poll suggested the Labour party faced its largest poll rating in opposition in its history after it slipped to an average of 11 points behind the Conservatives.

Former leader Lord Neil Kinnock said the party is facing its “greatest crisis” since at least the 1930s.

He told BBC Panorama: “Not just in my lifetime but stretching back to the 1930s, by any examination this is the greatest crisis that the Labour Party has faced.”

Meanwhile, ITV political correspondent, Carl Dinnen has revealed on Twitter that the Liberal Democrats are setting up a stall outside Labour's Conference to recruit new members.

We have become the cheeky party.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Corbyn in more trouble over fresh anti-semitism claims

The Labour leader has plunged his party into more controversy when his campaign released a video showing his supporters dismissing a number of attacks on him. In particular they have once more riled the British Board of Deputies, which represents many UK Jews with the claim that accusations of antisemitism are simply a result of his detractors 'losing the political argument’.

The President of the Board Jonathan Arkush said the Labour Leader must now make clear publically if he agrees with these comments:

He told The Independent: “I want to put over my bewilderment and deep concern at how Jeremy Corbyn’s own leadership campaign could possibly have thought this video appropriate given what has happened.

“It speaks volumes about the dismissive attitudes towards antisemitism in parts of the party.”

He added: “If people are so dismissive of racism in their own midst, how can they deserve the trust of their own members, let alone the electorate?”

It seems that this is an issue that will not go away for Corbyn despite a report by Shami Chakrabarti which was commissioned to explore if there was anti-Semitism in the party after numerous incidents, including those which led to the suspension of MP Naz Shah and ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone.

The Chakrabarti report said Labour was not overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism, but that there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere" and "too much clear evidence... of ignorant attitudes".

However, this week Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth told how she has received more than 25,000 incidents of abuse, much of it racial.

Ms Smeeth walked out of the launch of the Chakrabarti report after being challenged by an activist at the event.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The need for an effective Welsh anti-poverty programme

There has been some controversy recently over the future of the Welsh Government's flagship Communities First programme after it was omitted from the latest iteration of the Programme for Government and the First Minister refused to deny it was destined to be cut.

More than £300 million has been spent on this programme since 2001 and yet it is difficult to identify what it has achieved. Of course there are individual success stories but Wales has fallen back relative to the rest of the UK in economic terms and the absence of effective measurements means that we have not been able to ascertain if taxpayers are getting value for money or even what the impact of this expenditure is in terms of real outcomes.

When I was on the Assembly we carried out an inquiry into poverty. Unfortunately we ran out of time before we could scrutinise programmes like Community First in any detail. I hope that the new Assembly is picking that up.

However, the two things that were most obvious from the scrutiny we did carry out was that firstly, the Welsh Government's programmes are designed to alleviate poverty not to eliminate it.

That is fine providing they are upfront about it, after all the Welsh Government don't have all the tools needed for an effective anti-poverty drive. However, Ministers are operating under the pretence that they are spending money to eliminate poverty without any evidence to back that up or even that the programmes they are funding work.

Secondly, there appears to be a major failure within Welsh Government to align all its programmes into a coherent anti-poverty drive. Individual Ministers are doing important work with policies such as the pupil premium, healthy community initiatives, funding temporary jobs through Jobs Growth Wales and of course programmes like Flying Start and Communities First, but there is no overall strategy with clear objectives and a co-ordinated approach to tackling poverty.

So when the Western Mail reports that politicians and charity workers have warned about the impact of losing Communities First the story is a bit more complex than that.

In fact the majority of those quoted are not saying the Welsh Government should keep Communities First at all. They are arguing for clarity and a coherent anti-poverty programme that does what it says on the the tin.

The Welsh Government has had long enough to come up with such an entity so why are we still waiting for them to show that they have a way forward on this issue?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Liberal Democrats end conference with 17th by-election gain of the year

The Liberal Democrats rounded off their Brighton Conference yesterday with a rousing speech from Tim Farron and a by-election gain from Labour in the Plasnewydd ward of Cardiff. It was the party's seventeenth by-election gain of the year and the 60th council seat we have gained in total in 2016.

Cardiff Council, Plasnewydd ward - By election result

Robin Rea, Welsh Lib Dem 1258
Lab 910
Plaid 177
Con 115
Green 93

Welsh Lib Dem GAIN from Labour
23.09% turnout

As I argued yesterday these advances in local government are a sign that the party is starting to overcome its trust issue but that there is still a long way back. Tim Farron told conference that we are going to rebuild support from the grassroots up. That is what we have started to do.

Farron's speech was also significant for other reasons, not least the pledge to introduce a hypothecated tax to fund the health service and his passionate advocacy of our liberalism and internationalism.

The Liberal Democrats leader pitched his appeal at moderate, centre-left Labour supporters both in his praise of Tony Blair's successes (and condemnations of failures such as the Iraq war) and in his championing of key public services.

Although the Plasnewydd by-election was already underway as he spoke, it is a sign that this message is getting through.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bankrupt media still don't get the Liberal Democrats

Before I embark on this rant I should make it clear that I am not deluded enough to ignore the fact that the Liberal Democrats are in trouble.

We have just eight MPs, one MEP, one GLAM, one AM and five MSPs. We are at 8% in the opinion polls and are apparently grounded at that level.

For all their splits, arguments and eccentricities (and they have more than most) UKIP remain ahead of us in the view of the public and are still being touted as a rising force. Whether that is proved right has yet to be seen.

Despite that the green shoots of recovery are evident. We have gained 16 council seats in by-elections this year, more than all the other parties put together. Is that a sign that people are starting to trust us again?

We are at record membership levels, having recruited nearly 20,000 since 23rd June and we are currently in the middle of the biggest conference we have ever staged in terms of member attendance, albeit that the number of outside exhibitors seem to be at a record low number.

There is a long way to go if we are to claw our way back, but we are far from dead and buried. Liberalism has a place in this post-Brexit society, not just because of our solo championing of the European cause, but because of our determination to stand against the erosion of civil liberties, our focus on education and health and because we continue to fight for the most disadvantaged in our society at a time when other politicians find it easier to go with the media flow of prejudice and sensationalism.

Of course we have to convince the British people of that and the media who feed them with their news. Which is why it is so frustrating to find journalists at this conference with the agenda of doing us down and so-called grandees who are keen to throw them morsels.

Thus, this Guardian piece talks about the party's death rattle echoing around an empty conference hall and focuses on Paddy Ashdown's latest obsession with a new on-line cross-party movement which appears to have the sole objective of ousting the Tories. His declaration that “Political parties are finished; the Liberal Democrats are intellectually dead,” and that from now on, all policy could be crowd-sourced and crowd-funded is not just unhelpful it is delusional.

People are always looking for something new, that is why UKIP have done so well. It is why the Alliance soared in the 1980s. It is when those phoenixes seek to add substance to their fire that they burn out. After the disaster of the Liberal Democrats election campaign, which he ran, one would have thought that a period of monastic silence might suit Paddy better.

This week's agenda has not exactly been packed. We are still, digesting the lessons of the 2015 election fiasco. But the debates we have had have been passionate, informed, relevant and substantial, the policy we have passed has been evidenced and radical. And during those key debates the hall has been full.

Despite the media rhetoric and the attention-seeking antics of one or two limelight-starved 'grandees' the Liberal Democrats are far from finished. It is a long way back, but we have identified the road we want to travel and we have taken the first steps on that journey.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The case for a second referendum

It is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats' Autumn Conference has been dominated by discussion of Brexit and in particular the very clear stance of Tim Farron and the party that there should be a second referendum on the final terms of Britain's departure from the EU.

This is by no means seeking a rerun of the referendum that was lost in June, instead it is saying that the British people should have the final say on what emerges from the process they set in chain when they voted to leave.

Tim Farron sets out the case as reported in the Independent: “We trusted the British people on departure, in the referendum in June,” he said. “We should now trust them with destination.

“The deal that will be settled for the future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe, freedom of movement, the single market and everything else is utterly unclear.

“You don’t know what it is, I don’t know, the British people don’t know. I doubt even Theresa May knows.

“There needs to be a referendum on that deal. That is the best option for us staying in. It is also the best option for the whole of our society gathering around whatever we do next.”

I totally support that stance. A great many people knew what they were voting against in June but there was nothing on the table as to what they were voting for. It is only right that once there is a final deal in place people are the given the choice of accepting that deal or remaining in the EU.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A conference horror show

I am at Liberal Democrats conference in Brighton. It is our best attended gathering ever and people are upbeat on the back of 15 local council by-election gains this year so far including some significant wins in Labour strongholds.

Later today our only government minister, Kirsty Williams will be answering questions and then giving a speech. It is easy to imagine that we are on a roll. And yet there is still a long way to go to claw our way back to national significance.

Although the media have turned up and are reporting the conference, it feels like those Liberal events of old, the number of outside exhibitors are down and we are an after-thought on the news programmes. More to the point the event all the commentators are itching to report on is not Tim Farron's speech but next week's Labour Conference.

Dan Hodges explains why. He describes a harrow show in which he says for many Labour MPs will be like walking into a nightmarish British version of The Gulag Archipelago.

He quotes on Labour MP as saying that ‘The dogs of war will be unleashed, there will be retribution, punishment beatings and threats of de-selection. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will be walking around preaching the politics of unity. And while they’re doing it the Momentum activists will be roaming around, looking for vengeance.’

He continues: Corbyn, well aware that victory is his, is already planning his response. As his opponents point out, on the surface he will be a model of magnanimity. ‘We must unite to fight the Tories’ will become the unofficial conference slogan.

But behind the scenes he and his commissars have already been plotting their retribution against those they deem guilty of crimes against his leadership.

Two weeks ago, Corbyn, McDonnell and senior aides decamped to the Unite union’s training centre in Esher, where I am told they drew up a political hit list.

First target is party General Secretary Iain McNicol, who dared take a stand against hard-Left infiltration of the leadership contest. Next will be senior national and regional party officials, who are viewed as insufficiently ideologically pure.

And, finally, Corbyn’s assassins plan to plunge an ice pick into the back of the man now regarded as enemy of the people No 1 – deputy leader Tom Watson. ‘A challenge to Tom over the next 12 months is inevitable,’ a Watson ally confirmed to me.

Against this backdrop, the process of purging rebellious MPs will commence. This will be conducted under cover of the boundary review, which will see the number of winnable Labour seats significantly reduced.

Corbyn and McDonnell plan to use their activist base to set MPs against one another, in a sort of Momentum-sponsored Hunger Games.

The first move from the Corbynites will come on Saturday morning, as soon as his victory is confirmed. Labour MPs will be invited to issue loyalty statements, with Corbynite delegates on hand to offer a ‘re-education course’ to those who decline.

‘All those lunatics who used to stand outside conference screaming and trying to shove leaflets into people hands will be on the inside now,’ said one former Labour Minister. ‘In fact, they’re the ones who’ll be running the conference.’

It is little wonder that journalists are wetting their lips at the prospect of reporting on this bloodletting.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Manoeuvring starts to succeed May already

Just when we thought that the Tory party had settled down after its leadership election a face from the past pops up and stakes out his claim to the future.

As the Guardian reports, George Osborne reappeared to give his first interview since Theresa May sacked him as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In doing so he warned the new Prime MInister that he plans to be the champion of “the liberal mainstream majority”, questioning her policies on grammar schools and her “wobble” on the “northern powerhouse” initiative:

Osborne said May had made a “strong start” as prime minister but offered her only lukewarm support and signalled that he would fight her from the backbenches on grammar schools and any moves towards a hard Brexit deal.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said he voted for May in the leadership race, but pointedly added: “I think she is the best person for the job of the candidates who put themselves forward.”

In the earlier interview, Osborne said he was not ready to follow David Cameron out of frontline politics. “I don’t want to write my memoirs because I don’t know how the story ends and I want to hang around and find out,” he said.

He suggested he would resist May’s plan for grammar schools from the backbenches. He said: “I have always thought with the debate about grammars that 80% of the political discussion is about where 20% of children go, when in fact we should be focusing on where 80% of the children go in a selective system. I think the real focus of education reform remains the academy programme, transforming the comprehensive schools that most people send their children to.”

He positioned himself as a pro-European centrist rival to May’s government, saying: “I will be championing ... the liberal mainstream majority of this country … who do not want to be governed from the extremes, who want Britain to be internationalists, outward-looking, free-trading, who want a socially just society. That is the cause that I believe in.”

Cameron has gone but Osborne is staying on and looks like he may be trouble. This could be interesting after all.

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