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Saturday, August 30, 2003

The end of spin?

So, Alastair Campbell has resigned. Is this the end of spin? I doubt it. Even the resignation was spun. This Government is as ensnared in the world of spin in the same way as the previous Conservative Administration was riddled with sleaze. Possibly the spin will be less effective but presentation will remain the key to New Labour and won't we know it?

Friday, August 29, 2003

Ella the Cat

Back on the American politics kick, check out the website of the library and archive of great Democrat President - Lyndon Baines Johnson. He would have been 95 last Wednesday. Acknowledgements to Tom Watson MP for West Bromwich East om whose site I found this. The US President I most admire however is Franklin D Roosevelt and it is not because we share a birthday.

It is amazing what you find when exploring the world of weblogs. My personal favourite is a site that carries weblog entries from the author's pet cats. This extract from Ella the cat is typical -

"this past week or so i have not been doing much thinking. i can actually just sit there for days and not think a single thought. it's kind of amazing. very zen. relaxes my frayed nerves. but today my reverie of nothingness came to an end. why? who can say. maybe the moon, maybe the starts, maybe my itchy butt."

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Election Expenses

The Electoral Commission who, in my experience, actually know very little about elections, published the amounts of money spent by each of the political parties during the Assembly elections. Two were missing, the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Labour, as both have spent more than £250,000. The press made a great deal out of the amount of money that the Welsh Liberal Democrats had spent and how despite all that largesse we had still only got six seats. Some of them were hinting at a big time donor lurking in the background - if only! However, for me the surprise was how little had been spent by Plaid Cymru and the Tories.

The declared expenses are meant to be all campaign expenditure since the beginning of the year. The one thing that people do not realise is how expensive elections actually are and how much money needs to be raised just to fight a constituency properly never mind the cost of advertising (if that can be afforded), party political broadcasts, campaign staff etc. In the South Wales West region we raised £25,000 locally largely through fundraising events and individual donations. On top of that we had about another £21,000 from the Welsh Party. We must have spent £6,000 in each of the seven constituencies on printing the full colour leaflets that are delivered free by the Post Office for both the constituency and the regional list and having them overprinted with names and addresses. We also produced other literature, posters and poster boards. I have been told that the Green Party spent about £10,000 on producing their party political broadcast which gives some idea of how much one of these can cost. I believe that the four main parties produced about three or four election broadcasts each. Money was also spent in the run up to the contest and we have included quite a bit of expenditure from that period including the cost of part of our conference.

The question then is given the cost of printing, broadcasting, staff and other expenditure how did the Tories manage only to spend £80,788 and Plaid Cymru £72,976 and what did the UKIP buy for £62,631? These figures do not add up for me and if the Electoral Commission and the press had a better idea of what they are talking about they would be asking more detailed questions rather than accepting them at face value. Not that anybody gains anything by hiding things, just that if this declaration has to be done then it might as well be done properly.

I suppose it is fair comment to snipe at the Welsh Liberal Democrats expenditure and compare it to our result. However, we are in a four party contest, we need to work harder to make an impact and we need to use the latest techniques to get our message across. Our problem was that our tactics were misplaced and so our expensive literature did not have the impact we had envisaged. That is something we will have to address next time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Polly Toynbee

Back into the Assembly today to clear up my correspondence. Still no sign of anything substantial on the new building site though there was a lot of activity. The milling area and the main entrance to Crickhowell House now closed off completely and workmen are fully engaged in redesigning it. The Guardian published my letter responding to Polly Toynbee's article on the Scarweather Wind farm from last Thursday. She was arguing that the development is necessary as part of the move towards renewables. She highlighted the role of the pro-nuclear lobby in opposing it and lamented the difficulties posed by the planning process to the introduction of wind turbines. She also criticised me directly in opposing my own party's policy by speaking out against Scarweather Sands. The whole drift of her article was that wind farms are good and that they should be allowed at any cost provided that they are built in Wales.

In response I argued that she had fallen into the trap that the battle to promote alternative energy is a black and white, them and us struggle. It is true that there are entrenched interests on both sides but she should remember that each development is a planning application in its own right and needs to be determined on its own merits. She must also know that party whips do not apply to planning applications and that in such cases policy forms one consideration amongst many in considering the merits and demerits of the application.

It is true, as she said, that my party supports wind power. It also supports Social Housing but I would not advocate building a Council estate on Scarweather Sands. I am on record as having voted for wind turbine developments as well as opposing them. Porthcawl is not North Hoyle. The 30 turbines that are proposed for this area will dominate the town and significantly damage the tourism industry there. Perhaps Polly Toynbee should come and see for herself rather than relying on the propaganda of bodies such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to dismiss very sound arguments against this particular proposal.

The fact is that United Utilities stands to make a lot of money out of Scarweather Sands. They came to the town to supposedly consult local people having already legally committed themselves to the site where the turbines would be. If they had been prepared to really listen and to sacrifice some of their profits in the interests of green power and located the wind farm further out to sea, as is proposed for future developments, then they would have seen objections dissipate. It is very easy to label objectors as NIMBYs and to associate them with undesirable groups but that sort of yah-boo politics does nothing to advance debate nor does it recognise that a particular application may actually have serious flaws.

I concluded by trying to picture the Scarweather Sands development being built on Hampstead Heath. Would Polly Toynbee label the middle class Guardian readers who would object to that proposal NIMBYs too? I think not.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Brent East

Anybody who believes that New Labour is not in trouble or that the Tories are not being seen as irrelevant, should go to Brent East. I spent the whole of yesterday there campaigning for Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat Candidate. There is a definite mood for change in the constituency and a common acknowledgement that if they want it, then the Liberal Democrats are the only alternative who can offer it.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Councillor Jeff Jones

It seems that even when trying to make a serious point there are opportunists that will try and turn it on its head, misinterpret it completely and then attack you on the basis of the distortion they have concocted. Hence there was a letter in the Western Mail this morning from the Leader of Bridgend County Borough Council claiming that my quoting of the NACRO Cymru report on this website concerning substance misuse in Rhondda Cynon Taff, was an attempt to discredit Welsh Rugby. It seems that Councillor Jeff Jones deals with everything on a personal level. he labelled opponents of the Island Farm development in Bridgend "vermin", and he launched into a personal slanging match on camera with the author of a website on the history of Hut 9 on that site. He dislikes me and the Welsh Liberal Democrats so much that sometimes it appears that he would argue that black was white purely because I had asserted the opposite. Still nice to know he reads my website.

As for the letter, Jeff Jones is fond of attacking the messenger but in doing so he turned his point on cheap drink into cheap politicking and given the impression that he does not care about the domestic violence emanating from alcohol abuse. The linking of domestic violence to international rugby matches was not of course made by me. The report I quoted on my website was not mine nor did I have any input into it. I did not attack Welsh Rugby nor does the article on the website constitute such an attack. Indeed I was careful to try and not to quote out of context, writing about the increasing cultural problem facing some South Wales Valleys in terms of bingeing on both alcohol and drugs.

Councillor Jones is right about one of the causes of binge drinking being the availability of cheap alcohol. However, it goes deeper than that, it is deeply ingrained in the British culture. Rhondda Cynon Taff Police used the rugby analogy to make a point but, as I have said to reporters and others who have asked me about this report, rugby does not stand alone in this and in fact there was an element of unfairness in singling out this game alone. Binge drinking is associated with Friday and Saturday nights, most sporting events and many other occasions including hen and stag nights. It is not the event that is the problem it is the mentality that "getting off your face" is both hard and the cool thing to do. If we are to tackle alcohol abuse and reduce the level of violent crime accordingly then we have to deal with that culture and educate people away from the idea that prowess in holding ones alcohol (or not) is a suitable goal in life. It is not.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

Pogo Stick

Called into the Assembly today to clear up my correspondence. The Wales Millennium Centre is coming along well and no longer looks like the roof is made of corrugated plastic sheeting. I made a point of searching out any progress on the new Assembly building but the hole is still there apparently unchanged. The only difference is that there are now JCBs rushing around moving chunks of soil aimlessly from one part of the site to another. Maybe there will be something to see next month.

Talking of the new building, I still can't get over its resemblance to an upmarket petrol station, but what is the twisted tube on the top all about? This tube opens up like an inverted funnel above the chamber. My first thought was that it was part of a device used by the Presiding Officer to keep control - one press of the button and the unruly AM is sucked up into the funnel and spat out of the roof. Perhaps that is a bit far-fetched but I can think of some candidates to try it out on.

Meanwhile, check-out this site - http://www.statesmanorskatesman.co.uk/ Politicians will never look the same again. Pogo-stick anybody?

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Website campaigning

The use of websites as a campaigning tool is more advanced in some areas than others. I have been involved in a number of campaigns in Bridgend including the fight to stop the development of a green field site at Island Farm and opposition to the off-shore wind farm on Scarweather Sands. In each case the websites of the respective campaign groups and the use of e-mail has been key in rallying support and keeping everybody rapidly informed of developments. It has been a common sight to see banners along the A48 containing website addresses as well as slogans and even businesses in this area advertise their website address prominently at the vergeside. These are the first signs that we are beginning to realise the potential of the internet for communication and campaigning and although we have not yet reached the saturation level of the USA where everybody seems to have their own website and blogs are a common way to spread a message, we are getting there. One of these websites is http://www.bridge.org.uk/. This site was originally set up to campaign against the reconstruction of the roundabout on the A48 at Ewenny. The Council got carried away and put lanes and traffic lights on what is essentially a local roundabout and have created a highway Frankenstein. This site has now evolved into a rallying point for a non-political grouping dedicated to effectively overthrow the current administration on Bridgend County Borough Council. This is not an anti-Labour alliance but anti-Jeff Jones, the Council's controversial leader. He has been particularly critical of some websites in the area, including that set up to promote the Island Farm Prisioner of war camp: 198 / Special Camp: XI The Democraic Forum as it calls itself is now holding meetings to organise candidates for the BCBC elections next May - an example of an active citizenship who rather than turn away from the political system in frustration are prepared to stand up and be counted and make it work for them.

Sunday's weblog entry made the lead article on page one of the Western Mail yesterday. As a result this website had over 1,300 hits in one day. Unintentional as this was, it made for a very effective relaunch.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Conspiracy Theories

For those who like conspiracy theories then check out http://www.truthout.org/docs_03/voting.shtml. This website describes an allegedly corrupt voting system which it says is the result of extensive research by computer programmers and journalists working around the globe. Principally it is the work of investigative Journalist Bev Harris, author of the soon to be published book " Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering In The 21st Century."

For those who are advocating moving towards making voting easier by the use of text, e-mail, postal and other methods this is sobering reading. Personally, I am happy to improve ease of access but there must be a much better security and if this cannot be guaranteed then the integrity of the process will be compromised. We have already seen abuses of all-postal elections in the North of England and the Midlands with large numbers of ballot papers being directed to single properties, with individual voters being intimidated or conned into signing over their vote and other abuses. That is unacceptable and must be addressed if these experiments are to continue.

Ultimately, the only way to increase turn-out is to give people faith that their vote will actually change something. That faith is missing in many communities at the moment. Many people feel that the system has let them down, that politicians do not listen and that we are all the same. They feel that their interests are no longer served by those they elect.

If anybody doubts this then they should have been with me at a meeting in Hafod, Swansea last night. Residents gathered to quiz Council Officers and a Cabinet Member about changes to a Housing Renewal Scheme that meant that whereas those whose homes were improved in phase one and two had to pay a means-tested contribution to the work that was carried out on their houses, those in subsequent phases will now receive a 100% grant. Logical as this change may be, there was a natural and reasonable feeling of injustice amongst residents. I have a huge amount of sympathy for the view that the rules should not have been changed in the middle of the scheme without some form of compensation for those in the earlier phases. After an hour and a half of questioning many felt that they had got nowhere. Comments to me afterwards that "no wonder people vote for the BNP" encapsulated the feeling of frustration rather than any inherent racism.

Personally, I do not believe that there are any easy solutions but it is incumbent on all of us as politicians to be aware of these feelings and to try harder. We must try and take people with us more and we must listen and communicate better or the whole basis of our democracy could be undermined.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Drugs and Alcohol

The issue of drugs is one that is going to come back to the forefront of the National Assembly's agenda when we return in September. That is because the Minister for Social Justice will be presenting the Committee with her report on what treatment, rehabilitation and education is available across Wales and how she is going to spend the £18 million she has put aside for tackling substance misuse over the next three years. There is a lot that needs to be done if we are to even begin to get on top of the problem. Drugs are of course a major issue and the problem should not be under-estimated, however alcohol-abuse can be as bad and it is only the macho-drinking culture of much of Wales that masks this. I know Police Officers who have told me that they would rather face somebody high on drugs than a person fuelled up with alcohol. Drug abuse tends to lead to theft so as to feed the habit of addicts. The crime most associated with alcohol is violence. That is not to accord a greater status or priority to one above the other but it is worth thinking about nevertheless.

These thoughts have been prompted by the receipt of two reports commissioned by the Rhondda Cynon Taff Substance Misuse Action Team and produced under the NACRO Cymru banner. The reports are full of sobering facts and it is impossible to convey the full flavour of them here, however I have set out some of the headlines that will make us all stop and think. The one that made me pause for thought was to do with alcohol. The report states that a recent 'quick and dirty' survey done by RCT police showed that whenever there is a Welsh International Rugby match, violence towards women doubled, whenever Wales lost it quadrupled and when Wales lost to England it was multiplied by eight. The report identified a statistical increase in drug-related deaths from 4 per 100,000 population in RCT to 10 per 100,000 and from 2.4 per 100,000 for the whole of Wales to 4 per 100,000. Heroin or methadone is thought to be the principal drug in around 90% of drug-related deaths in RCT, many of these are due to the substances mixed in with drug by dealers and suppliers rather than a straight overdose.

Identified drug patterns include polydrug use; amphetamine, cocaine and other stimulant use; alcohol with heroin, alcohol with anti-depressants, alcohol with amphetamine; solvent use by young men under 19; and a large population of low level users of a variety of substances. There is an increase in the use of crack cocaine and a significant culture of binge use of alcohol and a variety of other drugs. The Minister's report has never been so needed!

Saturday, August 16, 2003


At last I have finally got my website up-to-date. The backlog of articles, press releases and speeches dating back to the Assembly elections are now on. The site also has a new look with a revamped front page and home page, including a record of the last time the site was updated. The diary has gone due to the restrictions of format and the time required to write and post an entry each week. Instead, I have installed this weblog for a more informal and occasional record of my thoughts, the thoughts of others, occasional links and events. I have got rid of the "What's New" page on the grounds that it was cumbersome and that I can record any significant developments here. Finally, although the Press Releases are still recorded by subject so as to enable somebody to research issues they have a specific interest in, I have also added to the "News" page a current view offering chronological access to releases for the present calendar month.

Friday, August 15, 2003

West Wing

Although I try to avoid talking politics when I am socialising (after all who wants to talk about their job when they are having a drink with friends?) I do enjoy relaxing with a political book or a good political drama, "The West Wing" in particular. Considering this is a programme about a liberal President implementing radical policies its popularity in the USA is astonishing. Jed Bartlett is the sort of man who is supposedly unelectable as President of the United States in real life and yet the Americans managed to elect both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The growth of internet campaigning in America is another phenomenon to watch. It seems that there are thousands of small websites all cross-referencing to each other via links and message boards so that a concerted campaign of posting messages can reach a huge number of people. I am reminded of the web-campaign by American librarians that forced publishers to release Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" after they had shelved it following 9/11 and propelled it to the top of the bestsellers' chart. It is heartening therefore to see that one of the Democrats running for his party's nomination for President is using the web to raise more money than his rivals, to push himself ahead of the pack and to motivate and activate a new generation of voters. There is a lot we can learn about the former Governor of Vermont, but for me the fact that Howard Dean is being promoted as the real Jed Bartlett is enough to justify my passive support for his campaign to become the next President of the United States.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Silent Witness

Fascinating meeting today. Faced with increasing criticism and scrutiny over miscarriages of justice on murder convictions, South Wales Police have launched a charm offensive to convince the public and elected representatives that they have changed and are responding openly and positively to the issues raised with them. Myself and other AMs were invited to Police HQ at Bridgend were we received a presentation from the Chief Constable and senior officers on the way that murder investigations are continualy reviewed as they proceed. The methodology was explained and reassurances given that old cases are being reopened and reviewed also. The most interesting part was the detail about the use of forensics and DNA in solving some old murders. It certainly put TV programmes like CSI into context. The AMs of course, were at pains to stress the need to involve the local community in this process as well as to make better use of modern communications methods to maintain public confidence and keep us all informed as to what is going on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003


Returned from a short break to Ireland to find the Welsh newspapers full of talk of a great Socialist gathering in Wrexham. The group of 70 or so individuals has been brought together by the Deputy Presiding Officer and Wrexham AM, John Marek. The leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, Tommy Sheridan, was invited to provide a radical edge. I have to admit that when I first read of this event my reaction was that John Marek is the most unlikely "red under the bed" that anybody could meet. Martin Shipton in the Western Mail summed it up the best by describing our DPO as "comfortable, naturally cautious rather than tub-thumping". John Marek is unconventional in many ways, but the most outward manifestation of his rebelliousness is not through unorthodox protest but in wearing open sandals with socks instead of shoes. He is the Bagpuss of the left - warm and fuzzy rather than hard and confrontational. As for the gathering itself, it seems that old habits amongst the left die hard. Every time I follow one of their gatherings I am reminded of the shambolic People's Popular Front in "The Life of Brian", who lost sight of their cause due to squabbling over irrelevancies.

The Wales Green Party returned to form with another opportunist press release challenging Marek to say whether he would nationalise Tesco's or not. The answer surely has to be that it depends whether Dame Shirley Porter is included in the package. However, shortly afterwards the press release was withdrawn allegedly because it was issued by a press officer without consultation. Since when did the Green Party become a faceless corporation in which one side did not know what the other was doing? The reality is of course that the Greens prefer to play wait-and-see, just in case the new force in Welsh politics becomes one worth jumping into bed with.

One final thought - the latest craze of "flash-mobbing" has hit Britain. This involves the gathering together of a large number of disparate people with no connection to each other by e-mail at a set time and venue for a short piece of performance art. A shoe store in Dublin saw 30 such people drawn to it over the weekend. They all shouted "cheese" and then dispersed. I am tempted of course to consider that the "Socialists" in Wrexham were doing the same thing. If they had all shouted "cheese" and then left would people have taken them more seriously?

Friday, August 08, 2003


I am about to go off on a long weekend in Ireland and I am still updating my website. How sad is that? I was in the Assembly yesterday interviewing for the Chair of ELWa. Work is starting on security measures in Crickhowell House shortly. This is a legacy of the invasions of the Assembly chamber during the Iraq war. It includes redesigning the entrance to the building so as to make it more difficult to smuggle weapons in and putting up bars and a glass barrier between the audience and the AMs in the chamber. Nobody is really happy about this last measure but we have been forced to follow police advice. It will make us feel even more than usual that we are in a goldfish bowl or a zoo. Let us hope that behaviour does not deteriorate accordingly.

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