.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The North Rhine-Westphalia effect

The most fascinating part of my visit to Brussels last week was hearing the different perspectives about the future of the European project. By the time I left the French referendum had still not taken place but everybody, without exception, was expecting a 'No' vote. They were not wrong.

Interestingly, I did not come across anybody who believed that a 'Non' will make any difference whatsoever to Europe and the way that it operates. As far as the Eurocrats are concerned it will be business as usual and they will muddle along with the present structures.

The event that they were most fearful of was the outcome of the elections in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia. One European Civil Servant told us that culturally and politically, the fact that Gerhard Schröder lost this election was as if Tony Blair and Labour had lost a first past the post election in Wales. That Schröder might now react by turning his back on Brussels or worse campaigning against it, was considered to be potentially disastrous. This belief summed up the dynamics of the European Union and the pivotal position of Germany and France within it.

It is easy to see how a politician or a civil servant can 'go native' in Brussels. British Labour MEPs have voted against the policy of their own Government to remove Britain's opt-out clause on the Working Time Directive. Other British MEPs have described their countries resolute refusal to back down on Britain's budget rebate as unsustainable. It is the fact that progress is made (or not) through a series of negotiating positions in the National interest rather than through consensus around common interests that makes Brussels so fascinating. It is as if there were a series of armed camps circling the Commission building. Once you are inside the institution itself you become inured to the conflict outside.

I do not know what impact Schröder's little local difficulty and France's 'Non' will have on the dynamics of Europe. What does seem apparent however is that both are losing influence. The European Union may have been forged in their National interests but enlargement and the increasingly fluidic state of opinion amongst their respective electorates is undermining that model.

When Tony Blair challenges Jacques Chirac to declare whether the EU constitution is dead or alive, he is not just doing it to get himself out of a difficult referendum, he is also driving home an advantage that could see the European project re-structured in a far more radical way than anything the new constitution envisages.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The myth of the graduate premium

The Times reports on a study that finds that as many as one in four teenagers from single-parent families are deterred from thoughts of university by the prospect of getting into debt. White working-class boys are worst affected.

The study is based on interviews with 2,700 schoolchildren aged 11 to 16 from London to Wales and the West Midlands. It illustrates the challenge the Government faces in widening access and how their own policies are actively working against the most disadvantaged members of our society and reinforcing higher education as a middle class reserve.

The overall proportion of young people who said that they were unlikely to go into higher education because they were worried about getting into debt remained relatively low at 17 per cent. That figure dropped to 15 per cent in a two-parent household but rose to 25 per cent for those in a single-parent household. At the same time, while 48 per cent of young people declared that they wanted to “start earning money as soon as possible”, that figure climbed to 59 per cent among children from one-parent families.

These figures have been backed up by the Higher Education Council for England. In January they disclosed that despite a rapid expansion of university places the class divide remained “deep and persistent”. Youngsters from the wealthiest 20 per cent of homes were six times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest 20 per cent.

Another interesting and useful article by Tom Halpin on The Times website underlines the impact of Labour's top-up fees agenda on the education system and in particular the fact that the so-called graduate premium, by which the party justifies its deferred fee regime, is rapidly disappearing without trace.

Liberal Democrats have long argued that one of the consequences of fees is to create a market economy in education. We have already seen the impact of that with the decline and subsequent closure of traditional science courses such as chemistry and physics. Tom Halpin, however, has other examples:

Courses aimed at specific professions, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, naturally have the highest proportions in work.

Elsewhere there can be large variations. Despite its popularity among students, communication and media studies proves to have one of the poorest employment records. More than half of graduates are in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after leaving university, demonstrating that the message about this medium is still not getting through. Just a third of graduates go straight into graduate careers.

Similarly, half of graduates in hospitality, leisure and tourism are either working in non-graduate jobs or unemployed six months after completing their courses. Psychology, another boom subject, also fares poorly: just 27 per cent of graduates are entering graduate employment from university. Applications for building rose by 30 per cent this year and the employment figures help to explain why. Nearly three quarters enter graduate jobs. Food science also has a good record.

Schools and universities have long expressed concern about declining levels of interest in sciences and modern languages. But Hesa’s employment figures bear out the pragmatic attitude of students, worried about the cost of their degrees. A third of physics and astronomy graduates were in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 37 per cent of those in biological sciences and a quarter of those with chemistry degrees.

Linguists struggle similarly. A third of graduates in Russian, German and French were either in non-graduate jobs or unemployed, as were 43 per cent of those with degrees in Italian or Iberian languages.

Universities generally struggle to recruit enough students for engineering courses. Electrical engineering has the highest unemployment rate at 14 per cent, marginally more than art and design and computer science.

Mr. Halpin concludes that Graduate unemployment remains low overall and virtually non-existent if you have a good class of degree. Many take low-level positions initially as a means of getting a foot in the door of their chosen careers, and move quickly over time into posts more suited to their qualifications. However, he casts a long shadow of the Labour Government's policy by questioning whether this will continue and if so, how graduates are to pay back the huge mountain of debt that they will emerge into the 'real' world with:

Controversy still rages in academia about the long-term value of a degree in an era when half of all young people are expected to have one. The Government justified its decision to raise tuition fees by pointing to the salary premium enjoyed by graduates. It argued that the huge expansion of higher education over the past 15 years had produced no evidence of an erosion in the value of graduates to employers, and that more jobs in the future would require a degree. But some recent studies claim to have detected the first signs of a “graduate glut”, leading to concern that a degree may be about to decline in value just as it becomes more expensive to acquire one.


Sunday, May 29, 2005

What price justice?

The Observer this morning reports that the cost of an ID card could be as much as £300. This is inflation of Weimar proportions.

The figure has been calculated by experts at the London School of Economics, who have spent months producing one of the most authoritative analyses of the scheme.

Last week the Home Office issued a report which estimated that, over the next decade, the cost of running the scheme, in conjunction with a new biometric passport system, would be £5.8bn. Because the Treasury has insisted the scheme must be self-financing, this works out at an average cost of £93 to each card holder.

But, according to the LSE's analysis, a draft section of which has been obtained by The Observer, the true cost of implementing and running the scheme, will be between £12bn and £18bn. This could make the average cost of a card as high as £300 to every adult, unless government departments are prepared to shoulder some of the financial burden.

The LSE believes the government has grossly underestimated the cost of the technology involved in making the system work. Last week the government estimated the biometric card readers needed to scan the cards would cost £250-£750. 'A more likely figure ... would be in the range of £3,000 to £4,000 per unit,' the report suggests.

The report also raises doubts about whether the government is right to assume a 10-year life span for each card. 'All technical and scientific literature indicates that biometric certainty diminishes over time, and it is therefore likely that a biometric - particularly fingerprints and facial features - will have to be re-scanned at least every five years. This cost must be taken into account.'

A further problem, which the government appears not to have factored in, is 'refuseniks' - people who will not co-operate. 'There is evidence that this population could create a substantial additional cost burden. The administrative costs of handling this group will be substantial,' the report states.

The LSE also questions the strain placed on the system by individuals notifying a change in their personal circumstances, as they will be required to do so by law.

'This requirement may result in [between] 300 million and 1.2 billion contacts with the register over 10 years,' the report says. 'This additional cost must be taken into account. If human management is necessary to ensure changes are verified, this facet will add between £1bn and £4 bn to the 10-year rollout of the scheme.'

The cost of the ID card of course, will be the key to public acceptability. However, this is also a social justice issue. The Government is talking about the making the ID card a requirement to access public services. Many of the poorest and most economically deprived people in our society will not be able to afford a card. They could find themselves being barred from using GPs, hospitals, educational establishments or even from receiving benefits.

It is for this reason that the opposition parties in the National Assembly for Wales have chosen ID cards as the next challenge to WAG. In Scotland the First Minister has ruled out any idea that the card will be needed to access services funded by the Scottish Parliament. We are seeking a similar commitment from the Labour Assembly Government. If it is not forthcoming then we plan to force it to the vote on a Welsh Liberal Democrats motion.


The nuclear option

My absence in Brussels meant that I have not been able to comment on Wednesday's Plenary debates until now. The session was dominated by the debate on the report of the committee to investigate smoking in public places, of which I was a member.

However, the most interesting part of that discussion was the insight offered by Leighton Andrews into the mindset of the average Labour backbencher. Leighton moved an amendment to the report in which he sought further work on the economic impact of a ban. This is not something he would usually be allowed to do as he made clear:

It is also an opportunity for us to consider our responsibility as, in this context, a legislative body. It is a useful opportunity to test the readiness of the Assembly to take legislative responsibility. Too often, our debates sound like party conference debates; we do not get into the subtleties of issues. Our system of devolution gives great powers, through orders, for Government to offer proposals on a take it or leave it basis. The opposition can oppose, but backbenchers on the Government side are too often faced with a nuclear option, which, unsurprisingly, we are loth to take.

Here, because we have an issue that is not whipped, there is a real opportunity for us all to engage in the detail of the issue.

Like Leighton I am part of a political party and find that this can constrain my freedom of action. It is a quid pro quo for the influence that you gain and the opportunity to do things for our constituents as a result. However, sometimes the system can restrict real debate and that is to be regretted.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

"I don't care what the weatherman says if..."

According to the Times the BBC is bowing to complaints over its £1 million new weather forecast. Viewers will see more of the North of England and Scotland in a “change of perspective” after they said that the South of England had been given too much prominence. The aerial view will be “straightened” to give the impression of equal representation to points north of Birmingham.

This is a start but there are other issues that need sorting out as well. One of these is the way that they portray South Wales. Cardiff has been emblazoned across the whole of South Wales, obscuring any other towns or cities. There is a concern that this portrayal of South Wales as Greater Cardiff will impact on efforts to bring more jobs and prosperity to our area. No other UK city would put up with this.

I have written to the BBC so we will see how they respond.

Useless fact of the day

I am back from Brussels full of useless facts from the in-flight magazine. My favourite was the one about the @ symbol. This has grown in usage in recent years due to the development of the internet. Swansea Council even has projects called Service @ Swansea and Top Performance @ Swansea. Now the @ symbol has its own morse code designation. It is dot-dash-dash-dot-dash-dot. This is the only addition to morse code since the First World War.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Top up Fees continued

The reaction of Professor Theresa Rees to the resolution of the Assembly to oppose top-up fees for Welsh domiciled students gets curiouser and curiouser. In this article she is quoted rather patronisingly as asking "I wonder how many AMs know the fees are deferred?".

Obviously she is upset that the nine months of work that she and her commission has put into their report seems to have gone down the swanney. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The report contains some valuable recommendations on part time students and a National Bursary Scheme that I am sure we will be anxious to take forward. It also identifies the fact that a separate fees regime can be applied for Welsh domiciled students. That shows that the motion we passed on Tuesday can work if we are prepared to fund it.

Her problem is that firstly, the report actually comes across as indecisive on the funding options, offering two proposals without really plumping for either of them, and secondly, her increasing stridency is giving a number of people the impression that she is speaking more on the side of the Education Minister than for the members of her commission, most of whom seem to be taking a very low profile.


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Blogging will be light....

I got home last night just in time to see Liverpool's third goal hit the back of the net. The remaining spectacle was both absorbing and very satisfying but somehow I felt as if I had missed all the real drama. This was entertainment par excellence and credit must go to the Liverpool team for the character they showed in fighting back like that. Congratulations too!

I now find myself in the Assembly a few minutes before chairing an Education and Lifelong Learning Committee, after which I am dashing off to Cardiff Wales Airport to catch a flight to the continent. I am spending the next few days in Brussels talking to Eurocrats about European funding so unless I can access a computer, blogging will be very light.

Hi-Tech Poll Tax

The Western Mail this morning reports that the expected cost of the Government's flagship ID cards has risen by 9% in six months. They are now expected to cost £93 with speculation that the anticipated price of an individual card will break the £100 barrier very soon and that is before they have got the technology to work.

It is a fact that opinion polls indicating support for ID cards are based on a very simplistic set of assumptions. People are not told for example that they will have to pay for them, never mind how much. It is not explained either how these cards will allow access to personal computerised records such as medical and bank files.

The Government have acknowledged that they will have to make concessions to get the measure through Parliament. If they succeed in this and introduce them as envisaged with a price tag like this then they may have a revolt of Poll-Tax proportions on their hands.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Career before principle

Despite a slow start the debate on Top-up Fees yesterday turned into an absorbing spectacle. By far the highlight was the speech by Blaenau Gwent Independent AM, Peter Law. All the bitterness and frustrations of the last year or so spilled out and were repaid in kind by Labour AMs seeking to intervene. Peter's treatment of Huw Lewis, who he accused of putting "career before principles" was especially vehement.

I have reproduced below the entire exchange so as to illustrate my point:

Peter Law: This is a disgrace as far as the Labour Party is concerned. We are having this debate because, in 2001, the Labour Party reneged on a promise. I do not know whether I should be surprised about that because Tony Blair has privatised the education system, and his vicar in Wales, Rhodri Morgan, is in the same category because he has not stood up and said that we will not have top-up fees. That is the mistake. Where is the principle from the Labour movement in allowing people to have the right to free education? That is the disgrace here.

Huw Lewis and Lynne Neagle rose—

Peter Law: Here it comes. This is going to be good.

The Presiding Officer: Order. Are you giving way?

Peter Law: Yes, I am giving way to Huw Lewis.

Huw Lewis: Let us talk about principles, Peter. You and I share the dubious distinction of having in our constituencies the lowest number of young people who are participating in higher education. Eight out of 10 of our constituents do not access higher education. For them, higher education is a privilege; it is not a right that they can access. That is the key issue in HE today. You are asking your constituents to finance a massive bung for the middle classes by underwriting HE.

Peter Law: I want a universal right of free education, which you ought to be supporting, as a one-time socialist; however, as someone who has always put his career before his principles, I understand why you are saying this today. You might like to tell the people of Merthyr why you spent £70 million on a debating chamber next door, when these young people are trying to get life chances. That is the difference between our principles. That is the point. You have to get your priorities right, if you believe in opportunities for these young people. We do not want to load them down with another £9,000 of debt; we want to enrich the whole nation—

Lynne Neagle rose—

The Presiding Officer: Order. I do not think that Peter Law is giving way.

Peter Law: Free education for these people will enrich our nation. Today, it is as simple as this—in the time that I have left—First Minister: you must get up and make a definitive statement that there will not be any top-up fees in Wales. Nothing less will do and that is what the people expect. That is what we must do for these young people who are our future.

Lynne Neagle, Denise Idris Jones and Irene James rose—

Peter Law: I cannot give way because I think that I have run out of time.

The Presiding Officer: Order. You have 30 seconds of injury time.

Peter Law: I will therefore give way to you, Denise; I would never say ‘no’ to you, you were always very nice.

Denise Idris Jones: I am grateful, Peter, that you would never say ‘no’ to me. I think that we have the same views and we have been sponsored by the same union, so I have always worked alongside you. I had hoped that you would also work alongside me.

As a member of the council of the University of Wales, Bangor, I know how worried my vice chancellor is about this matter and the future of Bangor university. Other people here are university council members; how do they think that their universities are going to finance themselves in order to compete?

Peter Law: That was a question for me and thank you, Denise, but if you are in Government, you take the liabilities with the assets. You have to wake up because you can run, but you cannot hide. If you cannot find the money—and there is a big block of money here—you get your priorities right, or you go up to London and speak to your great mentor and say, ‘We need more money down here’. That is what being in Government is all about. I do not need to give you these lessons because you know this better than I do. It is all about putting principles before careers; do not forget that.

Plaid in a panic?

Interesting letter in today's Western Mail from Labour AM and Deputy Minister, Huw Lewis. Written in his usual virulent style the letter picks up on the discussion within Plaid Cymru about how they are to move forward after the setbacks they suffered on 5th May.

Huw alleges that the views of Cynog Dafis sets out the political bankruptcy of Plaid Cymru more clearly than ever. He says "It seems that the 'choice' facing the Nationalists consists of either getting into bed with the Tories (Cynog's preferred option - and no surprise there, given his right wing credentials) or cobbling together some kind of (Adam Price style) wooing of the Lib Dems."

He goes on, "We may well be witnessing the death throes of Plaid. The idea that a party can bypass the electorate, flipping between left wing and right wing programmes for the purposes of political expediency, while Sellotaping together a coalition of all the other losing parties, is an idea born of panic."

I wonder whether he has mentioned these views to Tony Blair and Rhodri Morgan, especially in the light of speculation that the First Minister may be seeking to cobble together a coalition of his own.

Huw ends by referring to Plaid as the "quislings of the 'left'" for being prepared to abandon the left's traditional hatred of the Tories and betray the people of Wales by cuddling up to Michael Howard. I will be blogging again on Huw Lewis when yesterday's record of proceedings are published.

Coalition and other myths

Commentators on Radio Wales this morning were speculating whether Labour's defeat on top-up fees will lead to Rhodri Morgan getting on the phone to Mike German in pursuit of a second coalition government. Both sides have ruled this out.

Certainly, such a proposition would be very difficult to sell to the party and to the public after the way that Labour have behaved over the last two years. They have acted with all the arrogance of an administration sitting on top of a huge majority rather than as one which might at some stage require the goodwill of others to govern and survive.

Nevertheless, it was suggested that journalists might wish to stake out some of the Cardiff Bay restaurants for signs of surreptitious talks between the two sides. This was a reference to the way that negotiations were conducted last time.

In 2000, it was felt that secrecy was paramount to stop the whole deal being stymied by opponents in both Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats. As a result, meetings were held with Government Ministers in the Sarn service station on the M4, a Gower pub, Ministers' offices in Cathays Park and a restaurant near to the UCI cinema in Cardiff Bay.

I recall one meeting that involved myself and the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Leader, Mike German. We travelled to the office of Gower AM, Edwina Hart, in Gorseinon. As we engaged in discussions in a first floor room, the Gower Labour Ladies' group arrived for a meeting downstairs.

Once the meeting ended, we faced the dilemma of how to leave without being discovered. We agreed that Edwina Hart would go and talk to the group whilst Mike and I left quietly down the stairs and out of the front door. All was going well, until about halfway down Mike missed his footing and virtually fell down the remaining stairs with an almighty crash. He was unhurt so we quickly went on our way but I have always wondered whether the ladies' group noticed and if so how Edwina explained the noise.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bonfire time`

As somebody who supported the establishment of the Welsh Assembly because I wished to see greater democratisation of government in Wales, I have a great deal of sympathy with the merging of Quangos such as the WDA, the Wales Tourist Board and ELWa with the Welsh Assembly Government. However, in his criticism of that move Professor Kevin Morgan has identified an important point.

His first point is most telling. He says that real accountability relies on real scrutiny. A narrow and self-referential scrutiny system based solely on accountability to ministers will create a democratic deficit. Insufficient time and competence to deal with scrutiny within the existing (Assembly) committee system will exacerbate this deficit.

I do not believe that Assembly Committees do not have the competence to scrutinise effectively, in fact I think we are getting better at this particular function every day. What is apparent however is that the three weekly Committee cycle we are operating at present does not offer sufficient time to go into the depth needed in questioning Ministers on the functions of these merged bodies once they are solely responsible for them.

We will no longer have the luxury of spending a day at the Quango's HQ asking questions and looking in detail at a particular aspect of their work nor of summoning the Chair and Chief Executive to a Committee meeting. We will have to do everything through the Minister in a very limited time. If the First Minister really does want to address the democratic deficit then he is going to have to relent and agree to a more realistic cycle of Committee meetings.

Berlin wall erected between Cardiff and Blaenau Gwent

Labour Party apologists who have commented to postings on this site have been at pains to stress that their party machine has no choice but to expel supporters of Peter Law MP AM. After all it is in the party rules. However, the purge seems to be spreading beyond this group of people.

Elena Evans, a Labour Party member in the Islwyn Constituency for 20 years now faces expulsion for writing a letter to the Western Mail. In her letter she complained about hypocrisy and double standards in the Party but at no point did she advocate voting for Peter Law. She has now compared the decision to throw her out with the actions of the Stasi, the former secret police force of East Germany. In her letter she states that she is "obviously being expelled for exercising my freedom of speech. That is not socialism, it is fascism."

Erich Honecker will be proud to know that his work lives on in the Wales Labour Party.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Aging gracefully

A suggestion by Adair Turner, the head of the government-commissioned Pensions Commission, that lower-paid workers should retire on a full pension at 65 to reflect their shorter life expectancy, are interesting to say the least. The question has to be asked however, is his proposal that those who study at university should work until they are 70, related to the fact that students may need this additional period of employment to pay off all the debt the Labour Government is saddling them with through variable top-up fees etc? Perhaps this is a question worth asking in tomorrow's Assembly debate on tuition fees.

Wales on the web

If there is one thing that I think all of us can unite around it is the sheer awfulness of the website of the National Assembly for Wales. The idea being mooted by Wales' National Librarian, Andrew Green for a Welsh 'virtual embassy', a place on the web where internet users abroad would congregate to find out about Wales, is welcome provided that it involves the complete revamp of that site. Oh yes, and I suggest that we don't have any internet polls either!

I have long argued that Wales loses out because of its inadequate web presence. If, for example, you are an American seeking out Dylan Thomas in the town he made his home, you will be hard-pushed to find any coherent or useful information on Laugharne on the internet.

The top google entry for the township is www.laugharne.co.uk which bears the message "Thanks to everyone who has stayed with us at the Castle House and the numerous kind messages left in our visitors book. We have really enjoyed the last 7 years, met lots of wonderful people. I have promised this site to Laugharne Corporation. I was going to carry on running it, but feel unable due to family committments. Better give them the keys to the door - so this will be my last posting." This is the tourist equivalent of "so long and thanks for all the fish". It has been up there since September 2003!

The Welsh Assembly site has the potential to be the virtual portal that Andrew Green envisages, especially when the WDA and the WTB are absorbed by the Government. The problem is that in its present state it is an embarrassment. One example is that despite the fact that the Assembly has a statutory duty to promote equal opportunities, its own website is not fully compliant with the DDA. I am told that it does not pass level WCAG level 2 guidlelines. This was particularly difficult when we tried to use it for an interactive consultative forum on Special Education Needs.

The Welsh Assembly Government have used the article to announce that their site is undergoing a revamp. It is about time. However, at the present rate of progress I am not holding my breath.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The art of letter writing

The Observer this morning reports on the extraordinary lengths that Labour went to so as to arrest the slide in their support around the Country. They tell of how party members and supporters were systematically used to create the impression of 'real people' passionately backing the government.

Model letters were drafted for them to 'write' to local papers, as if they had been spontaneously roused to complain about Michael Howard's tactics - while party staff were drafted in to represent 'local people' whom Tony Blair could meet on campaign visits. 'Spontaneous' demonstrations against rival politicians were also organised, with activists instructed to use handwritten homemade-looking placards.

The Channel 4 Dispatches reporter, Jenny Kleeman, worked in Labour's London regional press office in the run-up to the election, then in its Victoria Street national war room - before her services were abruptly dispensed with.

She was dispatched to a press conference addressed by Milburn to help 'fill out' the audience after embarrassingly few journalists turned up - and was filmed shaking hands with Tony Blair as an 'ordinary' person at a photocall. She also helped compile model letters for supporters to send to local papers, complaining that 'as someone who has worked for a number of years in the NHS', they found that Michael Howard's use of the case of pensioner Margaret Dixon - who had her shoulder operation repeatedly cancelled - had not 'accurately represented' the state of the health service. The letters later appeared virtually word for word in local newspapers, under the names of local party activists who did not declare their allegiances.

It seems that research has shown that more people trust the letters page of their local newspaper than any other page, a fact that Labour were keen to take advantage of. After this documentary, I think that they would be justified in not trusting anything that appears in their local paper ever again.

What is worrying about this programme is how it underlines the way that political parties seek to manipulate every piece of news that we receive, in whatever medium. Getting the message across has become a sophisticated 24 hour a day operation in which even trusted sources are subverted to the party line.


I have followed the example of Edis Bevan and put the Babelfish translation tool onto this site. You can now read my musings in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. As if the English was not bad enough! You should also be able translate the links.

Alas, Welsh is not an option, which is a shame as there are some Welsh language sites which I would like to read on a regular basis.

Music in the City

I have come to the conclusion that going out in Cardiff on FA Cup Final night is not the wisest choice I have ever made. The City, of course, rose magnificently to the challenges posed by this event, as it always does, but it can cause problems in terms of parking and getting a table in a restaurant. Nevertheless, we managed it and had a very enjoyable evening.

The idea was to have a meal and then go and see Hal in Barfly. We eventually got into one of the Italian restaurants in time to eat and get to Barfly for the support acts. One of the support artists was Baxter Drury, son of the late Ian, of Blockheads fame. Hal, themselves, were original and outstanding, whilst their keyboard player must be the most eccentric I have seen since Sparks.

A good night all round.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Government fail at first hurdle

I am tempted to repeat my earlier refrain of "What is the Electoral Commission for?" but I appear to have found the answer. They exist so that Labour can ignore them.

That certainly appears to be the only possible conclusion from the Government's decision to cherry-pick a comprehensive and largely sensible raft of reforms proposed by the Commission in relation to postal voting.

The Guardian reports that the 45 proposals include the introduction of new offences to tackle mispractice, including making a fraudulent application for a postal or proxy vote, and clarification of the law on "undue influence". They are also suggesting individual registration on a form that includes the elector's date of birth and their signature. The Electoral Commission say that all-postal voting should not be pursued for use at future statutory elections or referendums in the UK, and the option of sending ballot papers automatically to every registered elector should not be pursued.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs however is not convinced on either individual registration or the abandonment of all-postal voting. There is every sign that they will only accept the recommendations they are comfortable with, putting Britain's democracy back on the critical list.

As a reminder of why reform is so important Labour Watch have an example of yet more problems in Birmingham, though not this time with postal votes:

Ballot box revelation sparks new votes row May 14 2005
By Paul Dale, Chief Reporter

The conduct of elections in Birmingham is under the spotlight again over allegations that a Labour party activist kept a ballot box and blank ballot papers in his home on the night before the General Election.

It is also claimed that Walyat Hussain personally took the box containing 800 completed votes to the General Election count at the National Indoor Arena after the close of polls on May 5, contravening official procedures.


Mr Hussain, a Labour member for more than 30 years, denies any wrong doing.His daughter, Shamim Akhtar, served as presiding officer at Broadway School on May 5.

Mr Hussain admits accompanying his daughter to collect the ballot box, blank ballot papers and electoral roll, but insists that the box remained in Ms Akhtar's house.

An investigation has been ordered by Lin Homer, Birmingham City Council chief executive and returning officer.A council spokeswoman said: "It is the responsibility of the presiding officer to deliver ballot boxes. We are investigating this case."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Labour lay down the law

It appears that the Labour Party are going to go-ahead and expel up to 20 Blaenau Gwent members for supporting Peter Law in the General Election. They are doing so at a time when Peter's vote could ensure that they face defeat in the Assembly on top-up fees and when he himself has indicated that he is prepared to consider coming back to the Labour Party. Even Ken Livingstone's supporters did not suffer this fate.

It is possible of course that Wales Labour are students of the Genghis Khan school of diplomacy or just that they are so arrogant that they are past caring about the consequences. Whatever the reason their actions suit the opposition parties in the Assembly, who may now be able to pick off the Government on issues of our choosing.

Top-up fees on the agenda

The Conservative Party's minority debate on tuition fees next Tuesday has caused a storm, coming as it does, two days before the publication of the Rees Commission report on the subject. Professor Rees has allegedly written to AMs to express her dismay and disappointment at the timing of the discussion, stating that it "seems our evidence-based recommendations may not even be deemed worthy of consideration." I have to say that I am still waiting to receive this letter.

I understand her point and at one stage even advised the Conservative Education Spokesperson to choose another topic. I did so on the basis that the Assembly has already taken a position against variable top-up fees and that we should keep our powder dry for the report itself. Nevertheless, it is the right of the Conservatives to bring forward this subject for debate and to take advantage of the new arithmetic in the Assembly to drive home the point of principle.

Obviously, there will be further debates on the Rees Commission report itself and the evidence and the options within it will need to be considered in detail, especially on bursaries and part-timers. But that consideration will need to be tempered by the principle that education is an investment in our future and should be paid for by the state out of public funds. The punitive taxation which variable top-up fees represent will put off talented young people from going into higher education and deprive our Country of much-needed home-grown talent. They must be resisted at every opportunity.

N.B. Much has been made on the media this morning of a Higher Education Wales e-mail that states that there is a £250 million funding gap in Universities between England and Wales. Commentators have taken this figure as the amount which will be raised from top-up fees. That is not the case.

The funding gap that exists now is about £90 million. This comes about from the present Assembly funding HE policy. Higher Education Wales' argument is in fact that if top-up fees are introduced in England but not Wales AND Welsh HEIs are not compensated, then that chasm will grow in size to £250 million.

In fact top-up fees will raise about £40 million in year one, rising to about £160 million in year three. To use them to close the funding gap as well could require a Welsh top-up fee of £5,000. Is that the hidden agenda of Higher Education Institutions in Wales? If so then they will massively increase student debt and drive talented people away from Welsh Universities. There is no better illustration as to why variable top-up fees are wrong.


Thursday, May 19, 2005

Pact or coalition

This article on the possibility of a pre-election pact between the parties of the centre left at the next Assembly elections is actually quite confusing. That is because the journalist seems to treat election pacts and coalitions as interchangeable terms. They are, of course, completely different animals.

Lembit Opik is quite right to rule out an election pact in 2007. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have a distinctive message and growing support across the Country and it is only right that we continue to build on that and allow people the opportunity to vote for us. There is no dishonesty either in taking an inconclusive result and turning it into a coalition as long as people are aware that this is a possibility if they do not give one party an overall majority. That is the reality of PR and even, in increasing frequency, first past the post nowadays.

The question I have about Adam Price's contention that a pact between Welsh Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru could win 32 seats, is how did he arrive at that figure? There is no evidence whatsoever that such an alliance could generate that much support other than that engendered by the instincts of Mr. Price. As the instincts of Plaid Cymru politicians vis-a-vis Ceredigion and Ynys Mon, have proved distinctly shaky as of late then I do not think we will be trusting them this time either.

Night out on the town

Continuing from yesterday's theme of how to get home after a night on the town it seems that the new tradition of using stretched Limos are under threat as well.

Police operation staged an operation in Swansea in which 12 limousines were stopped and examined. Only half passed safety and licensing checks. Four vehicles were found to have such serious defects they were immediately taken off the road and two others were issued with delayed prohibitions subject to work being carried out. The vehicles failed on various grounds, including sub-standard manoeuvrability and using non-approved tyres.

I always wondered about these vehicles. Let us hope that this operation will now ensure that they are safe as well as popular.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Question time at the Assembly

First Minister's Question Time yesterday was quieter than usual, especially since the two dual mandate AM/MPs were not present. However, there was a little bit of banter on the subject of trains - a very sore subject for those North Wales members who have to use them each week.

For Leighton Andrews the issue was how his constituents would get back to the Rhondda after a night out in Cardiff:

Leighton Andrews: While constituents of mine welcome the new investment by Arriva Trains, particularly in the two morning services to Cardiff from Treherbert, it is still the case that the so-called late night service from Cardiff to Treherbert actually leaves Cardiff pretty early, at around 10.30 p.m.. Will you, in the meetings that you and your Ministers have with Arriva Trains, examine the possibility of having a much later service from Cardiff on the Treherbert line so that constituents of mine who wish to spend the evening in Cardiff are able to spend a proper evening and get back rather later?

The First Minister: That depends on your definition of ‘a proper evening’. I think that it means closing time, but we will have to investigate that more closely with you, Leighton.

We never did get Rhodri Morgan's definition of what a good night out consists of but we did find out that he has problem with ramblers using his back garden as a right of way:

The First Minister: Yes, I will. I have occasionally had people walking through my garden, but given that I put an old pub sign up behind the house perhaps I was asking for trouble—I thought that it was invisible to the outside world but, unfortunately, it is not.

Speculation as to which pub sign it might be or even if he had installed the bar as well was rife. Some suggested "The Duck and Weave", others "The Prevaricators Arms", but somehow these names did not ring any bells.

Meanwhile on the north to south railway line the train was getting a little overcrowded:

The First Minister: I was going to say that I think that what Ieuan has in mind, perhaps, is the need for a railway service from north to south Wales that can carry, in one train, all the leaders and would-be leaders of Plaid Cymru in a single carriage. [Laughter.] I am not sure that that can be achieved with the transfer of powers that will come to us by virtue of the Railways Act 2005 and the Transport (Wales) Bill. I can assure Ieuan that, if he reads the 11 September resolution, he will find that the White Paper will reflect that.

Begging bowls in Westminster

Yesterday's Queen speech underlined precisely why it is that Wales needs to have the same primary law making powers enjoyed by Scotland. Government spin tells us that their legislative programme over the next 18 months will see a Commissioner for Older People created and more powers over transport devolved to the Assembly, as well as giving Cardiff Bay the power to ban smoking in public places. All of these are very welcome.

However, the reality is that all of these measures have been hard-fought for and may not take the form that we in the Assembly need to do the job. That is because we have to fight for priority with English bills and are dependent on "UK considerations" for what clauses and measures finally end up in each Bill.

Two Bills illustrate this phenomena. On smoking in public places, the UK Government agenda is to ban the weed in establishments selling food. The Assembly is seeking a complete ban on all enclosed public places where people work on health and safety grounds. We may get the powers to do this, we may not. That has still to be seen. But why must we bow to the English agenda when we have our own here in Wales?

The second Bill, which highlights differences is the one that will 'enhance' Assembly powers. It now appears likely that this will just allow us to fast-track Welsh legislation at Westminster rather than hand-over primary law-making powers to the Assembly. If that is the case then it is a massive retreat from even the untenable position previously taken by Rhodri Morgan. It effectively shelves the Richard Commission proposals and leaves us dependent on Westminster and the English agenda to deliver change and improvement to Wales.

That might be just tenable whilst Westminster and Cardiff are ruled by the same party, but the moment that one or the other changes hands then we will be in a whole different ball game. Labour has demonstrated in just one day that they cannot be trusted with the future of the devolution project.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

100 Welsh Heroes (the end or something close to it)

I have now had a comprehensive reply from the Wales Audit Office to my request that they investigate claims that the Culturenet Cymru, 100 Welsh Heroes poll was fixed to enable Aneurin Bevan to triumph over Owain Glendower and Tom Jones.

The letter is very detailed and I do not have much time so I will set out their main conclusions now and deal with the specific allegation later on. The letter states that in short the Wales Audit Office staff found:

Culturenet Cymru officials have acknowledged there were shortcomings in documentation and control. In mitigation they have said that the poll was an opinion survey not an election, and that it attracted a far greater number of votes than had been expected, which put significant pressure on them in terms of screening and processing votes.

Despite these shortcomings my staff found no reliable evidence to suggest that Culturenet Cymru systematically manipulated the voting figures to secure a particular result, or that external pressure was brought to bear on the company to do so. However, given the control environment in which the project team worked together largely on trust, it would have been quite possible, for example, for the former IT Manager himself to have manipulated the voting figures had he wished to do so.

Breakfast at Jane's place

The Western Mail reports this morning that the Assembly Government has finally admitted it cannot deliver on its promise of a free breakfast for every primary school child in Wales.

"Yet Education Minister Jane Davidson maintained that Labour had never made the promise in the first place......."

"It is the case that local education authorities and schools cannot be forced to provide breakfast free of charge under the current statutory framework, but that framework can be altered by an Act of Parliament.

"The Assembly has a major role in the preparation of Government Bills relating to education in Wales. The Assembly Government had the option of seeking Parliament's agreement to making participation compulsory by seeking provision in the Education Act 2005 which has just received Royal Assent. The Minister decided not to seek such provision because it was not needed to deliver the commitment made during the election 2003 campaign, which made clear that schools should have the option as to whether or not they participate."

It is at such moments that a Government squabbling over the precise wording of its manifesto starts to look shabby and evasive. As one of my colleagues has pointed out the Labour manifesto does not say where the 'primary school kid' has to be in order to receive the breakfast. They could stay at home and the parents send an invoice in.

What it actually said was "In our second term we will provide funding for all primary school children to have free breakfasts at school, giving kids a square meal in the morning and helping to tackle truancy." However it also said elsewhere "Next Steps: Free breakfasts for all primary school kids." Nothing there about schools opting out at all.

I believe that most people who listened to Labour politicians in 2003 believed that their child would receive a free school breakfast regardless of any other consideration. The fact that many may not not now get that meal will appear to those voters as another broken promise.

The irony is that the promise itself does not offer value for money. The £17 million plus that it will cost could have made some difference to class sizes or to avoiding teacher redundancies. Instead Labour have opted for a gimmick. If they are allowed to benefit from this promise then children will be better fed but what will be the cost for the rest of their education?

Monday, May 16, 2005

A fair wage regardless of gender

There is something disturbingly ironic about the fact that the new Minister for Women will be carrying out the role without a ministerial salary. Clearly, her first campaign has to be on the issue of equal pay.

A question of identity

Whilst Plaid Cymru struggle to find a role in British politics and their own identity, and whilst the Tories are caught up in their own leadership turmoil and the Liberal Democrats engrossed in a fundamental policy review, the Government plans to take advantage to fast track identity cards through the Houses of Parliament.

The Guardian this morning reports that Ministers privately believe they can overcome any renewed Labour rebellion over the legislation by relying on the backing or abstention of some Tory MPs to get it through its second reading vote within a fortnight. They have also made it clear that they will use the Parliament Act to force through the House of Lords their equally contentious plans for a new criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred.

We are back on the same battleground from before the election - a fundamentally illiberal and centralising Labour Government seeking to trample over people's rights with badly thought out proposals that will restict individual liberties for little or no benefit for the rest of society. Let us hope that the Government has miscalculated and that the early discussion of these proposals will unite the opposition against them.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


I just have one question about the decision of the Bluewater Shopping Centre to ban young people wearing hooded tops. Will the shops in that centre now stop selling them?

Walking down the street with banners

According to the Wales on Sunday the reponse of Plaid Cymru's President to his party's electoral disaster on 5th May is to "walk down the streets of Wales with banners". Apparently, that is what resonates with the public.

Whether Plaid's expensive consultants will agree with this has yet to be seen. It certainly does not appear to be the direction being taken by a new lobby group within the nationalist movement. They believe that Plaid Cymru should embrace policies which would make it more credible and electable. That rules out independence then, so what is left as a reason for Plaid Cymru to exist at all?

With an increasingly bitter Simon Thomas calling for an overhaul of the leadership, with consultants being employed by the party's executive committee to look in depth at their structure, the way they are campaigning and the way that they use resources and with the Party President hunting in his attic for some tamberines, banners and balloons, Plaid looks to be in a pretty sorry state indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

An acronym too far

In the Western Mail this morning Kirsty Buchanan tells us:

The eminently sensible Alan Johnson has put his foot down on Downing Street's proposed re-branding of the Department of Trade and Industry.

This is not just about the unnecessary expense, but also because the proposed new name has already become a titter-fest for the sort of grown men who still find rude words funny.

You see the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry could - at a real stretch - be reduced to the acronym "penis".

I have to admit that I had completely missed this rather obscure acronym. I really must get out more.

27 Lords a leaping

Stage three of the Blair project it seems is to compensate for a woeful lack of popular support in the Country by shoring up the Labour vote in the House of Lords.

The anachronism of a largely hereditary chamber stuffed full of Tory backwoodsmen has now been replaced with a mostly appointed House graced by many of Tony's cronies, Michael's minions and Charlie's chums. All of them are of course politicians and public figures of the highest quality and integrity, but without exception they lack the one qualification that should be required for the job they do. They have no popular mandate.

The unspoken rule that the present balance in the House of Lords will be maintained has been broken by the actions of the Prime Minister in creating 16 new Labour Peers, thus giving his party the status of largest grouping for the first time in the House of Lords' 800 year history. He still does not have a majority of course, but I am sure that is where he is heading. Certainly, the revising role of the House will not pose such an obstacle for the Prime Minister on contentious Bills as it has done in the past. That is just what Blair needs now that his Commons majority has been slashed to a third of what it was previously.

The so-called modernisation of the House of Lords has stalled to be overtaken by a shabby half-way-house compromise that leaves a vital part of our law-making process at the mercy of Prime Ministerial patronage. A fully elected second chamber must be a high priority for all those concerned about the future of democracy in this Country.

Can you see what it is yet?

The Guardian reports that the Queen has chosen Rolf Harris to paint her 80th birthday portrait. Putting aside all the jokes about wobble boards and didgeridoos I actually think this is a good choice. It has certainly outed all the snobs and the luvvies in the art world who spend huge amounts of time telling us what is good for us.

I do have one question though. Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters, alleges that the decision is "like choosing a cartoon strip character to write about Proust." On what evidence did she make this assessment of the intellectual qualities and importance of our current monarch?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Twitch of the thread

It now appears likely that Rhodri Morgan's lost majority in Cardiff Bay will be re-found following some very skilful mediation by the Welsh media.

Yesterday Peter Law was asked if there was any chance of him rejoining the Labour Party. He replied that he might consider doing so if there was an 'amnesty' for party members who backed him.

This morning Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, told the BBC that the door back into the Labour party had not been shut to Mr Law if he votes with them in Cardiff Bay and Westminster. He added that there was no "witchhunt" against Mr Law or "vendetta" against his ex-Labour supporters.

"Let's just see how he behaves. He holds the Welsh Assembly Government Labour majority in his hands in the national assembly."

What is clear is that the ground is being prepared for a Ken Livingstone-style raprochment in Wales. Since his election as an MP, Peter Law has already voted with Labour once on a crucial amendment regarding mineral extraction. I suspect that he will be doing so again on a number of occasions. It may be only a matter of time before the prodigal son is welcomed back into the New Labour fold.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A place to call home

I spent a fascinating morning at a Conference in Swansea organised by Homeless Link Cymru on homelessness and health care. I only had time to listen to the keynote speech by Social Justice Minister, Edwina Hart, and an absorbing presentation by Dr. Kay Saunders, a GP in Butetown, Cardiff who specialises in dealing with homeless people, before heading up the M4 for a Committee meeting.

What became clear from the presentation was that the provision of health services for the homeless is patchy in parts and non existent in the main across Wales. Dr. Saunders is the only doctor working with the homeless in this way that we are aware of. Both Edwina and I came away from the Conference determined to try and address this issue.

Tories in the First Division

The Western Mail reports today the Tory Assembly leader, Nick Bourne, has been accused of wasting taxpayers' money after it emerged he had tabled 135 written questions to Ministers in a week - at a cost of £22,545. Apparently, this is the equivalent to the weekly wage of a Premiership footballer. I think I am going to start work on my ball skills straight away.

Both parties seem to have a point in this row. Labour whip, Karen Sinclair, is right that some of the questions that have been asked by Mr. Bourne are purely factual and could have been dealt with by way of an enquiry in the members' research service. However, Nick Bourne is right too that he is there to scrutinise and to use the systems set up for him to do so.

It is worth noting that the estimate of £22,545 is based on an average cost for each question. Some would cost much less to answer, others more. Nevertheless this is the price of democracy and forms part of the overall cost of the Welsh Assembly. It is not all cost. A specific Welsh agenda is being forged with real benefits for the people of Wales. Part of that is the transparency and accountability of which Nick Bourne's questions form a part.

What we must not allow to happen is for that openness to be lost in the face of barracking from a scrutiny-adverse Labour Assembly Government on the basis of cost, especially when the model being used is one devised by them in the late 1990s.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Political blog of the year

Just before the election the Guardian ran an internet poll to find the Backbencher political blog of the year. Thousands of votes were cast, the deadline was reached and passed and then everything went quiet.

Now, Backbencher is back and has announced the results officially. This blog was voted best in the politician's category. Top for political commentary was the Guido Fawkes blog, whilst David Blunkett Is An Arse won the single issues campaign category.

I may put a press release out but somehow I cannot get excited about it anymore!

Update: The BBC report the outcome of the poll here.

Carpetbaggers and vultures

The debate on opencast and mineral extraction sites was nothing if not entertaining. Passions were aroused on both sides and as the debate got increasingly heated so the metaphors became more and more mangled.

Carwyn Jones started it off by mixing up quarrying with stone masonry:

In terms of buffer zones—[Interruption.] There is no point in whingeing; listen and learn. Let me explain the situation with regard to buffer zones. It is perfectly possible for buffer zones of whatever distance to be imposed; that is the current situation as long as they can be justified. It is perfectly possible for there to be buffer zones around opencast working, and that is what the planning guidance says.

Peter Black: Would it not be safer to impose a buffer zone and be sure that you would not be challenged on appeal if it were encapsulated in guidance?

Carwyn Jones: That is precisely what the review of the coal TAN is meant to do. I am perfectly cognisant of the situation in Scotland, but it is worth pointing out that the 500m separation distance in Scotland is not written in stone.

However, it was Huw Lewis who conjured up the most graphic image of the day:

Huw Lewis: I was about to describe Plaid Cymru as Johnnys-come-lately to this debate, but they are not even that—they are carpet baggers who have circled around my constituency like vultures, looking for a few votes. Look what good it did you all last Thursday.

Carpetbaggers with wings are something I want to see.

Being an effective MP

First day back yesterday in Plenary after the General Election and only one of our new dual mandate AMs showed up. Peter Law arrived near the end to take part in the debate on exclusion zones around opencast sites but there was no sign of Tory Monmouth MP, David Davies, even though the motion was relevant to his constituency. We were told that he was attending an induction session on "how to be an effective Tory MP". Ideas on a postcard please!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Fair Exchange?

It is reputed that St. David was one of Wales' most famous imports from Ireland. In return we have sent them Peter Hain and David Hanson.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A question of leadership

The days after a General Election are traditionally those that lend themselves to post-mortems. In recent years it seems that leadership crises are also in fashion during this part of the electoral cycle.

Michael Howard has already announced that he is going as soon as the method of electing a successor has been changed so that the Tories can avoid selecting somebody unsuitable for the fourth time of asking. Plaid Cymru are still debating whether they have a leader or not and if so, whether they want to continue in that vein. The only leader who seems to be staying put is Charles Kennedy. Oh, and Tony Blair of course.

The problem for the Tony Blair is that he has already announced that he will resign as soon as he has out-lasted Margaret Thatcher and as a result is considered by some to be a lame duck Prime Minister. Many of his own party cannot wait for that moment and are keen to get their own leadership race underway at once. Gordon Brown is flexing his muscles in anticipation of walking through the front door of No. 10 as PM but three years is a very long time in politics. That may well be why some Labour backbenchers are openly calling for a leadership contest now.

In the meantime I have just heard on the radio that the Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, is stepping down from both posts as soon as possible. He will also not be seeking re-election to Holyrood in 2007. That is all I know about this announcement but it is intriquing nevertheless. Are there any other leadership contests I do not know about?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tackling the BNP head on

The Observer reports this morning that Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, has called on the Prime Minister to take a 'moral lead' against anti-immigrant prejudice rather than try to outflank the Tories. This is a change in direction that is long overdue.

Mrs Hodge is absolutely right when she says that "Anger at the slow pace of change, fuelled by the unprincipled Tory campaign on immigration, has given a new legitimacy to intolerance. It's not simple racism that attracts them to the BNP. It's a more complex pattern of frustration and fear: it's about rundown housing, crime on estates, disorder in communities, The government can no longer respond by simply getting tough on immigration. Our multiracial communities are here to stay. Strong, bold leadership is essential to bring a halt to the exploitation of fear of change."

The growth in support for the BNP in certain areas is built on dissatisfaction with the political system and its failure to deal with issues such as poverty, poor housing, unemployment and anti-social behaviour. The BNP have focussed this disillusion onto the issue of asylum seekers and immigration by claiming that a particular group of people have privileges not available to those who were born and bred locally. They are wrong of course, but the failure to engage with their arguments directly and the simplistic way that we have opposed them thus far have allowed them to get away with it, whilst at the same time reinforcing their self-created image as the anti-establishment champions of the white underclasses.

It is for this reason that we must not be afraid of debating directly with the BNP so as to expose their fallacies, their lies and their racism. As Margaret Hodge says, we must take a moral lead, but above all we must focus the energies of Government on tackling the problems that fuel support for this odious party and which enables them to play on people's fears and anger.

As Mrs Hodge concludes: "if change does not come, people will continue to blame immigration - and politicians."

Google number ones

Nick Barlow reports that he is the number one result on Google when you search for 'evil liberals'. It seems that I am the number one result in a search for 'Slitheen'. There is something not quite right there!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Plaid in disarray

The Western Mail this morning reports that leading figures in Plaid Cymru are privately blaming each other for a disastrous election performance that saw the party reduced to just three MPs.

One party insider told the Western Mail, "The frightening thing is that those running the campaign didn't seem to see the loss of Ceredigion coming. You would think that a swing against Plaid in the seat would have been identified, with action taken to counter that.

"At the end of the day, Ceredigion was only lost by a couple of hundred votes. We're talking about people who obviously don't have their finger on the pulse. With proper organisation, the seat would still be ours.

Whether this is true or not, we were astonished at the failure of Plaid to respond to our campaign in Ceredigion. I certainly saw canvass returns a week and a half before the election that showed us neck and neck with the nationalists and the party responded by diverting resources out of Cardiff Central to Ceredigion.

A senior party figure said, "The Liberal Democrats are streets ahead of us in campaigning techniques. We need a lot of new resources. Currently we are operating on a shoestring. The Liberal Democrat campaign manual says you have to contact voters 15 times in the last four weeks."

The big question about Plaid Cymru of course is not about whether they are equipped to fight elections in the 21st Century as Martin Shipton's source assumes. It is about whether they are any longer relevant in modern Wales. Resources and people tend to be attracted to political movements and parties that are seen as being in touch and which have something to say about society. Is it just that Plaid Cymru's time has been and gone?

Friday, May 06, 2005

"The electoral system seriously sucks"

In commenting on this post, Australian Senator Andrew Bartlett, has a very valid point. He has expanded on it on his own blog. The fact is that Labour won 35.2% of the vote, amounting to just 21% of the 44 million people eligible to vote, and yet Tony Blair now commands 55% of the seats in the House of Commons.

The Tories, who are only 2.8% behind, have fewer seats than the number won in 1983 by Michael Foot and the Labour Party, in one of the most disastrous results ever experienced by modern Labour. They have failed to break through the 200 seat barrier.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats received just under two thirds of the vote share of Labour and the Tories and yet they have less than a third of the number of MPs won by the latter and 17.5% of Labour's total. As the Guardian says, "For the first time, a majority government in Britain has been elected by fewer people than those who could not be bothered to vote. Labour’s 36% share of the vote was lower than the 39% of the electorate who didn’t make it to the polling station." On last night’s results a Labour MP only needed 26,858 votes to get elected, compared with 44,241 votes for a Tory MP, and a staggering 98,484 for each Liberal Democrat MP.

It is because of the distorted nature of this winner-takes-all system that Blair was able to make the outrageous and untrue claim that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will let in the Tories. As was proved by the outcome, even a close run thing in terms of the popular vote, left Howard floundering way behind.

As Andrew says, it is astonishing that more people are not commenting and protesting about this travesty. The British electoral system is very poorly indeed.

N.B. If you think this post is an argument for proportional representation then you would be right. However, it is vital that any replacement system of voting is properly proportional and retains a constituency link. The Welsh Assembly system conspicuously fails to do this as is illustrated by the fact that Labour won half the seats with less than 40% of the vote in 2003.

A tasty snack

Lembit Opik has just been on TV where he described the electoral map of Wales as a giant jaffa cake, complete with a tasty orange centre. I know, but I had to share it with you anyway.

A very good morning in Wales

In the end it was a good night for the Liberal Democrats, though as usual there were disappointments as well as triumphs. In Wales it was just exceptional. Not only did the Welsh Liberal Democrats win their chief target seat of Cardiff Central with just under 50% of the vote and a majority of 5,593, but we also took Ceredigion off Plaid Cymru too, leaving us as the second largest Welsh political party at Westminster. We also achieved exceptional results elsewhere, not least Swansea West, where we secured a 9.6% swing and polled 28.9% of the vote to storm into second place, just 4,269 votes behind Labour.

The Tories achieved their expected breakthroughs in Monmouth, Preseli-Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West, but failed to capture the key marginals of Cardiff North and Vale of Glamorgan. The Morgan factor connects those last two results. Not only does Julie Morgan represent Cardiff North but she and her husband, the First Minister, live in the Vale.

As predicted by virtually everybody, Peter Law won Blaenau Gwent. The scale of his victory was unexpected however. A majority of 9,121 and a vote share of 58.2% in what was once Labour's safest seat. In contrast Wales newest party, the cuddly socialists of Forward Wales, secured just 2.4% of the vote and a lost deposit in Clwyd South, the only seat that I can find that they contested.

For Plaid Cymru it was a disaster. They failed to take their target seat of Ynys Mon, largely due to the intervention of Independent, Peter Rogers, and lost Ceredigion. Instead of the five seats they were dreaming of they ended up with just three.

It now looks as though the Liberal Democrats will be starting this Parliament with 62 MPs, 11 more than in 2001. Although we lost Newbury, Weston-Super-Mare, Guildford, Torridge and West Devon, Ludlow and the by-election gain of Leicester South, we held onto Brent East and took Dumbartonshire East, Hornsey and Wood Green, Cardiff Central, Ceredigion, Birmingham Yardley, Manchester Withington, Rochdale, Leeds North West, Inverness Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey, Bristol West, Taunton, Solihull, Westmoreland and Lonsdale, Falmouth and Cambourne and Cambridge.

Some campaign images

Despite all the name calling amongst politicians, for ordinary people the election remained a civilised affair in which differences within families were tolerated and freely expressed.

However, some unintended predictions proved to be premature. After last night's results I think that Charles Kennedy has a long way to go before he is ready for a retirement home.

Posted by Hello Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Pot, meet kettle!

In tonight's South Wales Evening Post, Swansea University's vice-chancellor is quoted as saying that students taking legal action over a suspended lecturer are damaging their department and the whole university. Philosophy students claim their education has suffered since one of their lecturers was suspended in March. But Mr Davies is denying the accusation and says the students actions are instead damaging the reputation of the university.

Given the cack-handed way with which the University authorities have gone about closing down key departments such as Philosophy and Chemistry and then sought to suppress dissent at every turn, it is a little surprising that the Vice-Chancellor thinks this way. After all, if you manage an educational establishment through conflict then you are going to get opposition and the more you seek to close down opposing views, the harder they will fight back. The damage has already been done.

Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!

Whether his colleagues are there or not, we can always look to South Wales Central Tory AM, David Melding, for a bit or erudition in the chamber. In concentrating on my own question earlier I had missed the thrust of David's contribution on the order paper. This is a shame as I would have liked to have asked a supplementary. Nevertheless, the Minister handled it admirably:

David Melding: Will the Minister make a statement on the place of the reformation on the history syllabus for secondary schools? OAQ0241(ELL)

Jane Davidson: The national curriculum in Wales requires all pupils in the first three years of secondary education to be taught about the major political and religious changes, including the reformation, which shaped the history of Wales and Britain from 1500 to 1760. It is for schools to determine how that requirement is met.

David Melding: I think that one of the principal reasons why I am a Conservative is that I have never really got over the shock of the reformation after being taught about it at school. [Laughter.] Do you agree that it is essential that all children at some point should be taught about the significance of this event, and that, if this does not happen, it is rather like the children of ancient Greece or Rome not knowing anything about the significance of the battle of Thermopylae?

Jane Davidson: It is true to say that the reformation was a cataclysmic event in early modern Europe. Although Protestantism originally emerged as a critique of medieval Catholicism, for the two centuries subsequent to the beginning of the reformation, it generated a different map of Europe for the future. It is important that people understand that and the pressures that the debate between Catholicism and the range of Protestantism that came forward places on the modern day.

I studied the reformation in detail, both for A-level and my degree. I think it is true to say that what I learned helped to form the basis of my liberalism. It is funny how an event or movement can affect people in different ways.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

As a public service I have decided to record this week the attendance records of the four Assembly Members who are standing for Parliament. On Tuesday both Jonathan Morgan and Alun Cairns appeared in the chamber looking sun-tanned and relaxed. Yesterday, it was the turn of David Davies, who according to my PA, looked absolutely knackered. Peter Law made an appearance on both days. All four candidates spend some considerable time in Plenary, though none of them managed to stay for the full session.

The appearance of the three Tories in particular always attracts some comment, so it was when David Davies rose to ask a question of the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning:

David Davies: Would you agree that encouraging older people who wish to do so to go back to university or to engage in the learning process is probably a better use of our precious resources than encouraging younger people who do not particularly wish to go to university to do so and to undertake inappropriate courses that often do not lead to any sort of job?

Jane Davidson: Your absence from this Chamber has clearly not ensured that you have learned any more about Assembly Government policy. We have always encouraged—

The Presiding Officer: Order. I have not noticed any absences from the Chamber.

Jane Davidson: I was referring to David’s absence in your absence, Presiding Officer.

We will have to see if David manages to sustain a full attendance if he is elected as an MP tonight.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Moshing in the chamber

Talking about reconnecting with popular culture the Labour Assembly Member for Alyn and Deeside, Carl Sargeant, tried to do just that in Plenary yesterday:

Carl Sargeant: At the weekend, a community safety officer and a Neighbourhood Watch community safety partnership, which includes Flintshire County Council and Connah’s Quay Town Council, helped to organise a music festival day in one of the old hangers at the RAF Sealand camp, which was attended by over 1,000 youngsters who engaged in moshing, rapping and mixing—it was also new to me. Engaging young people is the future. Will you join me in congratulating this partnership, and will you give an assurance that funding for these groups will be given priority in the future?

The First Minister: Yes. We are almost back to the point that David Melding and Lorraine Barrett were making earlier about diverting young people away from crime and breaking down the sharp social distinction between some of the lads, as it were, and the police, and their belief that the police are not people who they want to mix with and the police also regarding them with suspicion. It is good if you can break down that barrier by rapping—I am not sure what the other words that you used were, Carl, but they were certainly not around when I was a teenager. It is important that, by breaking down that barrier and ensuring constructive co-ordination between young people and the police, which is vital, young people are being diverted away from crime.

Clearly, both Carl and the First Minister have a long way to go before they are even speaking the same language as the young people they are referring to, but there is no doubt that their heart is in the right place.

As a public service I have listed below the dictionary definitions of the words that Carl confessed to encountering for the first time. I suspect that the First Minister might benefit more from this assistance.

mosh: verb [I] INFORMAL to dance energetically and violently at a rock concert
rap (MUSIC): noun [U] a type of popular music with a strong rhythm in which the words are spoken, not sung: a rap artist/star
mix (RECORD MUSIC): verb [T] SPECIALIZED to control the amounts of various sounds which are combined on a recording. (Note: in the context of the music festival, the mixing would have been live, using a record deck to mix the sound of two or more musical tracks).

In search of celebrity

Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, has got himself in trouble by publishing a photograph of himself with opera singer, Katherine Jenkins, on his campaign literature without her permission. The photo implies that she is supporting him for re-election when, in fact, she reportedly has "no political leanings whatsoever."

Why Mr. Hain felt the need to imply a celebrity endorsement in the first place is puzzling. After all it does nothing to enhance his arguments or to promote his policies. This obsession with celebrity is a New Labour thing and very much reflects the cult of personality that dominates much of American politics.

In many ways the desire to seek the support of well-known personalities underlines a deep insecurity amongst politicians. Many are uneasy in the company of popular culture, those who embrace it do so perhaps too enthusiastically. They are seeking answers as to why the great British public seem so detached from the political process, but instead of analysing themselves and their own behaviour, they look for palliatives, grabbing onto the coat-tails of popular celebrities in the hope of making a connection with ordinary people.

I may be wrong, after all I am an out-of-touch politician myself, but I get the impression that people prefer to keep their politicians at arms-length and do not like to see them demeaning themselves by chasing celebs. I think that people want to be engaged on issues and look upon the glamour-side of politics as a superficial distraction. The fact that politicians prefer to slag off each other whilst being photographed with personalities is a big turn-off for most of the public and actually contributes to the process of disengagement.

Sting in the tail

I was handed a Tory leaflet from Swansea West yesterday that really got me thinking. Headed "Liberal Democrats tax sting", it had a picture of a scorpion and listed 40 mostly fictional new taxes, which they allege we plan to introduce. Those that are not fictional are revenue-neutral replacements for an existing tax, such as local income tax. The only tax rise proposed by the Liberal Democrats in this General Election is the 50% rate on incomes earned over £100,000.

Anyway, amongst the list was something called a "speed camera tax". This is the first I have ever heard of such a levy but it struck me that it might be remarkably popular. I am sure that motorists everywhere would sympathise with some form of tax on each speed camera erected. Perhaps if we were to invent a tax on wind farms as well then we may have an election-winning platform!

N.B. Before somebody takes this seriously, I am just being ironic.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Other issues

An interesting item this morning on Radio Wales in which they discussed the issues that the politicians have so far resisted talking about.

Residents of Wrexham were interviewed and asked for their contribution to this debate. Amongst the issues raised were Europe, the Countryside, hunting (where have the Countryside Alliance and their threat to hound Ministers got to?) energy policy, nuclear power and Education.

Although not entirely fair the list was useful as a guide to the way that political parties approach elections. All of the main parties will have taken soundings, opinion polls and conducted focus groups to identify the issues that concern the vast majority of voters. Having done that they will then have matched them up to their own strengths and concentrated on that narrow range of issues in their campaigning. Thus the Tory Party's emphasis on immigration and the Liberal Democrats concentration on Tuition Fees, the Iraq war and civil liberties.

In all of this the views of minorities tend to get lost other than in individual constituency campaigns. The demands of the mass media and the increased pace brought about by the communications revolution means that if anything this trend will strengthen in the future. The concentration of all the parties on a few marginals also tends to work against the discussion of a plurality of issues in favour of campaigns on one or two key matters. It is not perfect but it is the only democracy we have.

School Transport

A useful but important distraction from the General Election campaign came this morning with the launch of the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Committee's report on School Transport. I had the privilege of launching it, the culmination of a year of taking evidence on the part of Committee members. The main recommendations are below:

· Safety is of paramount importance. The main reason for carrying out this review was to
improve the safety of school buses, and we believe much can be done to achieve this goal;
· Contractual arrangements for school transport should be more consistent and should
provide incentives for operators to invest in high quality vehicles and staff training. One
way of doing this is to adopt standard conditions across Wales and set them for periods of
between five and seven years, to allow operators to make a reasonable return on their
· Another way of making investment in new buses affordable is to encourage schools to
collaborate in staggering start and finish times, so as to facilitate the more efficient use of
school buses;
· School buses should be fitted with safety belts and pupils should be encouraged to use them;
· Double-decker buses should be phased out over the next five years and replaced with
single-decker coaches, or specialist vehicles - such as the one we examined this morning;
· More use should be made of closed circuit television and escorts, to discourage unruly
behaviour and bullying;
· Codes of conduct should be issued to all pupils and their parents, setting out the standards
expected and the penalties for failing to meet them. We consider that schools should
produce a clear policy for dealing with misconduct on school buses, with a graduated series
of penalties proportionate to the incident. Disciplinary procedures should be implemented
swiftly and consistently and should form part of a contract between school, pupil, parent and
bus company;
· Risk assessments should be carried out for the whole route, and these should be regularly
reviewed. There needs to be more clarity about who is responsible for safety and security
through all aspects of the school journey. We also consider that adult escorts may be
required on some routes and for all contracts involving children under 8 years old;
· Local authorities should review their internal administration of school transport provision,
and should set up a 'one stop shop' to provide information to schools, pupils and parents;
· The Assembly Government should issue guidance to better define roles and responsibilities
and to disseminate best practice;

The report will now be submitted to the Assembly's Education and Lifelong Learning Minister for a Government response within the next two months.

An office accessory to die for

For those of us who are partial to the odd piece of confectionery, this chocolatiere is the perfect accessory for the office. As the blurb says this device enables you to create chocolate covered strawberries, peanuts, raisins, coffee beans, or even cover your ice cream in chocolate for a homemade ice cream bar. Make truffles, or simply melt chocolate into a variety of shapes and sizes, including hearts, Christmas trees, stars, and more. The best antidote to campaigning!

Monday, May 02, 2005

A question of trust

As the debate moves firmly onto the question of whether voters can ever trust New Labour again after Iraq, the Western Mail highlights the fact that large numbers of soldiers who are risking their life abroad may be disenfranchised in Thursday's election.

They reveal that an information campaign informing overseas troops of their voting rights did not allow enough time to register to vote. The Representation of the People Act 2000 requires service personnel to register each year like civilian voters. Previously they were able to register once and remain on the rolls for the rest of their military career.

Under the new law, servicemen and women have to be registered two months before a general election, putting the deadline at March 10. Although the May 5 poll date has been an open secret for more than a year, the MoD and the Electoral Commission did not finalise their information campaign until December 9 and it was not launched until January 28.

More than 100,000 leaflets explaining the changes were sent to the British Forces Post Office in Mill Hill by February 4 but took three weeks to be sent out. A spokesman for the MoD said overseas units were given priority, but military sources say that some units did not get the leaflets until after the deadline had passed, while others received them on March 1. This would have given an un-registered serviceman or woman in Iraq just 10 days to write requesting a registration form, to receive it and send it back again or to print a form off the internet and return it.

Soldiers serving in Iraq say mail to and from the UK can take between seven and 15 days to arrive. Mail to and from Afghanistan can take even longer. In Wales, Scotland and England there were 168,000 service personnel registered to vote before the new law was introduced in 2000 but numbers had fallen to 33,000 by 2003.

As the article points out it is possible that some of these servicemen and women are registered as civilians at their home, but nevertheless it does seem to be an extraordinary gaff on the part of a Government struggling to justify its military involvement in Iraq.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?