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Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year resolutions

I may have said on this blog in the past that I am not in the habit of making New Year resolutions. Indeed the last one I made was that I would make no more and that vow has remained unbroken until now.

The problem was that in my role as a member of the Assembly's Shadow Commission I have been charged with working with the Electoral Commission on their get out the vote operation for May 2007's Assembly Elections. So, when I was rung up and asked on the spur of the moment to give a New Year Resolution that might be tied into the 'register to vote' part of that campaign I was a bit stumped. Consequently, I blurted out the one thing that will be on my mind most for the first four months of 2007, my attempt to get re-elected to the Assembly.

Now that the results of that little ring-round have been published it is difficult to say how my ambition looks when compared to that of other members. Rhodri Morgan wants to do more jogging, Ieuan Wyn Jones, more recycling, whilst Nick Bourne aims to walk more. Commendably, Jenny Randerson, Trish Law and Lorraine Barrett all want to encourage young people to vote, whilst Jocelyn Davies wants to read more fiction. When is the Plaid Cymru manifesto being published? :-)

Against all those worthy aspirations my own resolution to get re-elected seems a bit stark and selfish. Then again, nobody could accuse me of not being open and honest!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam Executed

I am not a supporter of the death penalty. It was therefore with a dark sense of foreboding and distaste that I read this morning of the execution of Saddam Hussein. The man was an evil tyrant who persecuted and murdered thousands and for that he should have been locked away for the rest of his life. I do not believe though that we or the Iraqi government had a moral right to take revenge on him in this way.

The rush to execution after a less than satisfactory trial process will enhance Saddam's status as a martyr around whose memory terrorists and insurgents will gather. The biggest regret though is that he was not made to answer for other crimes before he was killed, such as the Kurdish genocide. Perhaps there were other interests and former allies who prefer this barbarism to remain unexamined in this way.

This is not a good day for peace or democracy.

The Welsh Experience

Today's Western Mail asks whether a dusty old eight-track tape found after the sale of a former recording studio is a recording of Jimi Hendrix playing the Welsh national anthem.

It is rumoured that Hendrix was there when a band called New Flames recorded some tracks at the old Crouch Hill recording studios in London's Stroud Green in September 1970. At the end of the tape of that session is what is described as 'a wild and emotional arrangement of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, played on a distorted electric guitar'.

Efforts are now being made to trace the New Flames bass player to authenticate the recording. Make you own mind up by listening to the track here.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Cheeky Girls in Newtown

Driving back to Swansea from my mother's today we stopped in Newtown for a quick snack. As I browsed for something suitable in one of the convenience stores on the A483 my eyes were drawn inexorably to the Montgomeryshire edition of the County Times and Express. At first it was the strapline above the title - 'Proud to be local' - that made me check myself to ensure that I was indeed in Newtown, Powys and not Royston Vaisey, but then I realised that the paper contained far more exciting fare.

Tucked away on page four is a regular local feature called 'Nelson's Column' and today it contained details of the first sighting of the Cheeky Girls in Montgomeryshire under the heading "Cheeky Girls, autograph hunters, something's not quite right, is it?" I will let the columnist take up the story:

"While out searching for a last-minute gift for Mrs Nelson last Saturday in Newtown, I happened to spot someone who looked even more panicked than me.

Fighting his way through crowds of well-wishers was our very own Cheeky Boy MP, Lembit Őpik, complete with his Transylvanian pop pals on each arm.

Trying to please everyone who came his way, while also struggling to make a hasty exit, I couldn't help but chuckle as Lembit helped someone put their crutches in a car, and then buy some chocolate coins in aid of the Air Ambulance. Gabriela and Monica did their bit too as they signed autographs and posed for pictures with the youngsters.

When the crowds seemingly got too much for the cheeky threesome they excused themselves and ran up the road, hiding behind the Elephant and Castle until things had died down."

You have to hand it to Lembit, he certainly knows how to milk publicity.

The year ahead

Stephen Tall does a very good job of analysing yesterday's Guardian editorial entitled 'Liberal Democrats: In search of adventure’, however there are two points in his dissertation where I would take issue with him and where I believe he has allowed an element of complacency to creep in.

Stephen identifies the essential criticisms in the Guardian piece, namely that the party's poll ratings are stagnating, that Sir Menzies has failed to find the authority and gravitas he had as foreign affairs spokesperson, that the Liberal Democrats have not yet found a defining issue in this Parliament to make their own, and that having put the party's internal campaigning and policy processes in order, the Leader's main challenge in 2007 is to stamp his own authority and electability onto the consciousness of potential Liberal Democrat voters.

All of these criticisms are valid, however I do not think it helps the party face up to the reality of the situation ahead of us when we continue to dismiss polling trends, as Stephen does, as being taken out of context. We can introduce all the analysis we like in an attempt to bring 'perspective' to this polling data, but we must not be complacent nor should we ignore clear trends over a number of polls (not just one or two) that need to be arrested and turned around. That is the job of the Party leader and the team he has gathered around him, and all of us must expect him to redouble his efforts in 2007 to achieve that aim.

Secondly, I have to take issue with Stephen in his trashing of the Guardian's suggestion that we missed an opportunity over Afghanistan and Trident so as to stake out some distinctive ground. Guardian leader writers do, of course, operate from a comfort zone where they do not have to account for their views in the same way as political parties and their leaders, but that does not undermine the basic truths contained in their analysis. Personally, I thought that their summing up of Ming's character was spot-on:

Part of the problem is Sir Menzies' caution - a characteristic which in past roles has served him as a strength. A statesmanlike man, Sir Menzies is one of the wisest and most respected politicians at Westminster: but leading a political party takes luck and nerve as well as wisdom, and it is these qualities he needs to display. He cannot magic political advantage for his party out of thin air. But he could and should be able to carve out an identity by responding forcefully to issues that come his way unexpectedly

In my view Sir Menzies Campbell has started to grow into his role as Liberal Democrat leader over the past year. His Common's performances, although in no way startling in their brilliance, have improved; he has taken the party's internal organisation by the scruff of the neck and shaken it up until it started to show some shape; and he has started to make use of a very talented team of MPs to stake out clear policy positions that will serve us well in future election campaigns.

In all of this he has very astutely kept the party on the centre left of British politics whilst showing an open-mindedness about policy that refuses to allow such labels to dictate the direction we are taking. The party's green but fair taxation policy and our strategy to empower royal mail workers whilst investing in the Post Office network are two good examples of that approach.

Despite all of this however, we continue to stagnate in the polls and we do so, in my opinion, because we have failed to sufficiently re-define ourselves within a rapidly changing political climate. It is not enough to say that we have done a lot to change and that it is just a matter of keeping our nerve. That will maybe get us 15% at the next General Election and a smaller Parliamentary Party. What is needed is the X factor that can only come from bold and distinctive leadership.

There is no doubt in my mind that Trident was an issue that could have allowed us to start to find that X factor. Bold opposition, questioning the cost and purpose of a new generation of nuclear weapons, could have found us support from those who agreed with us and who respected our principled stance. Such a position would also have found a lot of support within the Party and would have fitted in well with our liberalism. Instead, we fudged the issue, sat on the fence and found ourselves outflanked by the Prime Minister.

There is still time to turn that around of course, just as there is time to find other issues that will help to define us as a party. However, if we are to do that then Ming needs to overcome his natural caution and start to seize the day a bit more.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

End of the honeymoon?

In the Western Mail Plaid Cymru's Deputy Leader has demanded that Labour tell us which party they are going into coalition with after the Assembly elections:

Rhodri Glyn Thomas said: 'It is ridiculous for Rhodri Morgan to cling to the fiction he is going to win a majority. The people of Wales have a right to know what Labour will do after the election.'

This is a surprise to everybody else. We had assumed that after their little budget deal a Plaid-Labour pact was an inevitability. Could things have gone so sour, so soon? Has it got to the stage that senior members of Plaid now have to beg Labour to talk to them?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Dinner in the Commons

I note that the Conservative Party and its MPs have now been referred to the parliamentary standards commissioner for allegedly abusing abuse House of Commons and Lords dining rooms to raise cash to fight marginal seats at the next election. No doubt Sir Philip Mawer will report in due course on this complaint. The Guardian reports:

The inquiry is likely to concentrate on whether MPs and peers have made profits from the dinners or whether people who join patrons' clubs have to pay a large membership fee to get access to the House of Commons dinners.

A dossier seen by the Guardian shows that Mr Cameron and his predecessor, Michael Howard, are among the MPs facing complaints. They include George Osborne, shadow chancellor; Alan Duncan, shadow trade and industry industry; Grant Shapps, the party vice-chairman in charge of campaigning; Oliver Letwin, policy chief, and a long list of backbenchers.

Two Labour MPs have sent evidence to Sir Philip, including a list of "suspect" dinners and extracts from Conservative MPs' websites which disclose details of elite donors' clubs that advertise dinners in the Commons and admit that these events are part of a fundraising campaign. They also include private tours of parliament.

Among the many examples of patrons' clubs are platinum membership of Chester Conservatives - a constituency where Labour has a majority of 915 - which promises for £500 a year "chances to meet leading party figures in a select environment, plus dinner at the House of Commons with a senior Conservative MP".

Many of the dinners are addressed by leading members of the shadow cabinet and the party leader, while other leading Tories, such as Michael Ancram and Alan Duncan, run their own patrons' clubs. Peers accused of breaching rules include Lord Heseltine, the former deputy PM, and Lord Hunt of Wirral, a former cabinet minister. Complaints about them have been passed to Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, who handles members' interests matters in the Lords.

The way that public money is used by MPs has long been of concern to me. Evident amongst the recent publication of parliamentarian's expenses is large sums of money spent on postage. Often this involves posting unsolicited newsletters and calendars to constituents so as to bolster support for a particular MP. As far as I know this is entirely within the rules, though I may try out a complaint to see how far it gets me next time one drops through my letterbox.

What is most galling is how non-transparent this process is. Requests to the Commons' authorities for details of expenditure on this sort of activity under the Freedom of Information legislation are met with a blank refusal. I have an appeal pending, though for some reason that is now coming up to its first anniversary.

If this activity is legal and above-board then why can MPs not be scrutinised on it? It is certainly banned in the Welsh Assembly because we do not think it is an appropriate use of public funds. Perhaps Parliament needs to review its own rules so as to stamp out abuse of process as well.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Getting into the Christmas Spirit

Yes, I know. The Christmas period can be very difficult. There are no newspapers, the television is appallingly bad (with the sole exception of Dr. Who of course), you are surrounded by bored children who have already got fed up with their gifts and you suffer anxiety pains right through Christmas dinner as you contemplate how you are going to work off all these extra calories in the New Year.

What better way to combat those festive blues than a nice dip in the sea? Surely things have not got that bad!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

This time last year, we had still not moved into the Senedd building and Charles Kennedy was leader of the Liberal Democrats. How things change over such a short period of time.

Have a good Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Getting back out there

Having finished all my Christmas shopping, wrapped my presents and put up my decorations I was feeling rather virtuous yesterday so I decided to go and deliver a few leaflets.

Just as I was finishing off I encountered what seemed like a friendly but rather excitable dog. It followed me into every one of the six houses on the Terrace it lived in, whilst at the same time one of its owner's neighbours tried to bring it to heel. Having finished I turned to walk down the hill towards the next street when the little bugger lunged at the back of my leg and sank its teeth into my calf muscle. It was at that point that I wished that I had Glyn Davies' way of dealing with dogs.

The upshot of all this was that I had to go to the nearest casualty unit to have my tetanus shots updated. It was only a flesh wound but it is very painful. I have also reported the incident to the police in the hope that they will instruct the owner on how to restrain their dog so that it does not attack somebody else.

Leafletting has now been put on hold until after Christmas and the New Year, but I am not going to let a little dog bite stop me getting out there again to work off the Christmas turkey.

ID cards on a slippery slope

This story in the Sunday Telegraph indicates to me that the Government are starting to backslide on their commitment to ID cards as they begin to realise the huge problems that need to be overcome to make the scheme work as envisaged. Not the least of their problems lies in the cost of the scheme and the amount that members of the public will be asked to pay to own one of these cards.

The system of fines that are being set up to enforce this 'voluntary' scheme has 'own goal' written all over it. The paper reports that people will be fined up to £1,000 for failing to return a dead relative's ID card, while women who marry will have to pay at least £30 for a new card if they want to use their married name, risking a £1,000 fine if they do not comply:

People would be charged at least £30 for lost or stolen cards. Based on the 930,000 driving licences lost or stolen each year, this would earn the Treasury more than £28 million a year, say the Tories.


In a separate plan that the Tories say could hit millions of students, Mr Reid admitted that applicants will be asked for "all current alternative addresses". Failure to update the register with details such as term-time halls of residence could result in a £1,000 fine.

There was also anger over the disclosure that all fees and fines will be paid directly into the Treasury's central funds for general spending and not go towards running the scheme.

Students of course, change their address every year and sometimes more frequently than that. Most of them have thousands of pounds worth of debt to their name and very little regard for the needs of government bureaucracy. This particular requirement, which smacks of big brother, could prove to be unenforceable.

As ever it is the cost of the cards that causes most concern. The government continue to insist that people will have to pay £30 for a simple ID card, or more than £90 for one with a passport. Experts, however, claim that the cost of a combined card could be as high as £300, pushing the implementation costs beyond £20 billion.

As the Telegraph points out, the Government claims that these cards will boost security, tackle identity fraud and prevent illegal working, but costs are soaring and the technology has failed in tests. Furthermore, the justification for ID cards has been discredited by Government Ministers and their advisors themselves, who have admitted that the scheme would not prevent terror attacks, could not stop fraud or the abuse of public services, and will not protect us from crime.

The forceful and moderate blog finds an interesting article in the Financial Times from last Tuesday. The paper speculates that the decision by the Home Secretary to axe a huge new computer system that would have held the biometric data, such as fingerprint records, that would have underpinned the new cards and to rely instead on existing systems for national insurance, asylum and passport databases for the scheme, offers the government an escape route.

“It doesn’t close off an ID card scheme,” one senior industry figure said. “But it lets the government proceed with two things it really cares about – e-border controls and an identity management system that will let citizens do e-business more easily with government – while allowing a successor to Tony Blair to drop or significantly amend the ID cards project if that’s what they want to do.”

Maybe the ID card scheme is all-but dead and buried already.


Lembit revisited

I can exclusively reveal that Liberal Democrat Party bosses were a bit nervous about what today's batch of Sunday newspapers might contain on the Lembit Őpik/Cheeky Girl saga. It is not that they were afraid that some new salacious details may emerge, as far as we are aware there are none, just that newspaper editors and their staff may find a different angle to keep a non-story alive, a further distraction from the party's key messages.

As it happens they need not have worried. A quick scan of the Sunday papers' websites reveals that the fuss is dying down as everybody moves on to deal with some real news. Unfortunately, for the Liberal Democrats that news includes our stagnating poll figures, an issue which I expect the party leadership to make a top priority in the New Year. Having spent 2006 restructuring the internal organisation of the party, Ming now needs to use 2007 to get out of the Westminster bubble and start to put our key messages across to people around the country, as well as to sell himself as an alternative Prime Minister.

I am told that both the Cheeky Girls were in Newtown this week but that may turn out to be just another of those urban myths. After all there is nothing to this effect in the Shropshire Star, whose main take on the story was that members of the public shouted “cheeky cheeky” at Mr Őpik as he walked up Broad Street in the town centre on Friday. This story may be of interest to the public but it is hardly one that impacts on the public interest.

One columnist who disagrees with that assessment is Angharad Mair in today's Wales on Sunday. She takes the view that Lembit's behaviour directly impacts on his position as an MP. She makes it clear that all her sympathies lie with Sian, who she describes as 'articulate, clever, intelligent, very attractive and great fun to be with', whereas Lembit is clearly suffering from 'Christmas madness'. At once we understand that this is an objective assessment in which Angharad's personal feelings towards either party are entrely superfluous to the argument.

Her reasoning though is bizarre in the extreme:

But the big question of course is: Should an MP's personal life really matter?

Is Lembit Opik's private life any business of ours? Does it matter one iota who he "sleeps with naked" and how he prefers to make love.

For me, the answer, undoubtedly and undeniably, is a resounding yes.

Because in this day and celebrity-obsessed age what was once a story for a gossip column in the tabloid press is now mainstream news. Think about it: Lembit hasn't actually done anything wrong.

He wasn't married, this was no sordid affair. He has no children whose lives will suffer as a result of his foolishness.

He certainly hasn't broken the law. But on Sunday night, after the story broke, even the BBC's Welsh news bulletin for S4C 'Newyddion' decided that this was of newsworthy value.

She goes on:

....there it was on the Newyddion - gossip dressed up as hard news.

Proving that an MP's life, public and personal is all important.

Lembit Opik is 41 years old. His new woman is 24. What does that say about him for starters? He is a representative of the people and his judgement should be without question.

So her argument is that because the story is considered to have news value therefore it must be in the public interest to use it. In other words if a story can sell newspapers and attract viewers then it becomes a matter of State and this allows newspaper columnists to pass judgement on issues that have nothing to do with a politician's professional life or their political judgement and on which the politician concerned has never spoken out publicly themselves.

This is an example of a journalist who is so caught up in her own little world that she cannot see the wood for the trees. It is no wonder that some newspapers give more weight to Big Brother than to the slightly less salacious deliberations as to whether Britain should replace its nuclear deterrent.

Of course it is natural that people and newspapers will gossip and even that some voters may allow events such as flirting with a Cheeky Girl to influence their vote one way or another, but that is a matter for them. By all means write about it and give personal views but, unless there are other factors at work, let us not pretend that this sort of tittle tattle is important in any way when it comes to how somebody does their job or how the nation is run.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dancing on

I am sure I am not the only person on this side of the world who had hoped that Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath would retire before the Ashes' series and not some time after. In making this consideration I have put to one side those disloyal voices who argue that the England and Wales cricket team would still have lost.

Nevertheless, once the duo do walk into the history books it seems that several lucrative careers beckon. Whether they will pair up and seek to out-do Mark Ramprakash in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing however, is another matter. Surely a couple of macho Australian lads will not allow stereotypical views about ballroom dancing prevent them from once more showing us Brits how it is done.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Licence to print money?

It is possible that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had just read the Christmas Radio Times before deciding to limit the BBC's licence fee to a below-inflation increase. With only one or two exceptions, the choice being offered to viewers by terrestial TV stations is absolutely dire.

Much as we would all like to cling onto the concept of a public service broadcaster, the time has come when we have to recognise that in television terms a great deal has changed. Long gone are the days of my childhood when we only had the choice of three channels. The excitement of the launch of Channel Four and the damp squib of Channel Five are in the past.

With the switch-over to digital due to be completed in a few years time, the vast majority of people will soon have the choice of between 20 and 500 channels. A lot of what will be shown on these channels will be dross, but the BBC no longer have the monopoly on quality programming. They now commission a lot of their work from independent companies rather than make them in-house. Other channels give commissions to the same companies.

In the circumstances can we any longer justify the existence of a publicly owned broadcaster paid for by a poll tax? In the past the BBC have argued that if they were forced to compete in the market with everybody else then the quality of their programming would suffer. Can we honestly look at the schedules, even over the period of a year or more, and say that this argument still stands up to scrutiny?

For me the only justification for the licence fee at the moment lies in the quality of the BBC's news operation. There is no doubt in my mind that the depth and range of their reporting is unrivalled. They are setting the standard on both TV and radio against which everybody else must be measured. Nevertheless, that should not preclude a debate about the licence fee nor the fact that it needs to have been had and resolved before the price reaches its predicted £150 per household. Was this at the back of Gordon Brown's mind when he scaled back the BBC's plans?

To Russia with love

Today's Guardian reports that Russia is proposing to meet its growing demand for housing by building its own version of Milton Keynes - a £5.5bn city for half a million people close to Moscow. Nothing about concrete cows though. Presumably, they will come later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mick's Cat

Mick's cat shows Rhodri Glyn Thomas how to use the Assembly Chamber voting system!

Sticking to the party line

Rather uncharacteristically, the Assembly's Presiding Officer is going to great lengths to argue that his latest pronouncement is absolutely on-message with that of his party:

DAFYDD ELIS-THOMAS last night denied he had spoken out against Plaid Cymru's objective of Welsh independence in an interview he gave to a political magazine.

The magazine Parliamentary Monitor suggested the National Assembly's Presiding Officer had deviated from the policy of the party he used to lead by saying that devolution in England would help deliver a "United Kingdom in a united Europe".

Lord Elis-Thomas was said to have argued that giving people in England a similar say in their domestic affairs would help achieve a more secure constitutional settlement.

The magazine piece continued, "Despite being a member of Plaid Cymru - which advocates the break-up of the United Kingdom to gain independence for Wales - the former MP said devolution could ensure the future of a politically unified Britain."

The mistake here is obviously that of the Parliamentary Monitor for thinking that Plaid Cymru have a clear message on this issue at all. Speak to any Plaid member and you will get a different interpretation of their independence message. Some want a Federal UK (I believe that was what Dafydd Elis Thomas was arguing for), others want an independent Wales within Europe (whatever that means), some want full separation, whatever the consequences, whilst the official line seems to be that they try not to talk about it at all for fear of scaring the voters.

If devolution is to work within the UK then something needs to happen in England as well. What that should be is surely a matter for the English.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Of mice and men

A story in the South Wales Evening Post grabs my attention. Factory worker, Mark Jones paid £500 to a local furniture superstore so as to replace his old couch, and had a plush burgundy leather sofa delivered to his Swansea flat. But shortly after its arrival, he discovered a hole in its bottom, surrounded by droppings. His suspicions were later confirmed when he caught sight of a mouse in his house.

Now the store has offered to replace the sofa. A spokesperson is quoted as saying: "We try to look at these things sympathetically." I should bloody well think so!

The art of celebrity

David Cornock is positively scathing about Lembit's and Sian's 'Sunday of Madness':

Lembit Opik has always strongly defended his right to a private life free from media interest, although most hacks would suggest that right is undermined once a politician sells details about his private life to celebrity magazines.

You can read the salacious stuff elsewhere, although it appears that readers of Hello! magazine will no longer be treated to pictures of Lembit Opik and Sian Lloyd inviting us to share their beautiful home, complete with washing machine from their good friend Richard Dyson.

The last feature on the couple, which may have left some readers feeling their own privacy was being invaded, included most rooms except the bathroom, presumably because readers had seen enough plugs already.

Ms Lloyd shared her latest feelings with readers of the Mail on Sunday. The star of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, the celebrity edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the celebrity special of the Weakest Link said of Mr Opik: "He's fond of soundbites and celebrity."

The past compere of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations' annual Excellence Awards said of Mr Opik's friendship with one of the Cheeky Girls: "They're really not part of my culture.

"I don't do the sort of things they'll do - turning up for the opening of an envelope."

The host of the Institute of Videography awards (2004) added: "But maybe Lembit really gets off on that."

Anybody would think that he did not approve. Is it me that he is referring to as auctioning off signed copies of 'Hello' magazine?

Rewriting history

The level of obfuscation, spin and downright deceit coming from Ministers about the reasons for going to war in Iraq is becoming unbearable. Now the Foreign Secretary is expecting us to believe that the possibility that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed against Britain within 45 minutes was a side issue, an 'irrelevance':

Ministers were facing questions tonight after Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to accept that a key claim over Iraq's weapons capability was in doubt before the 2003 invasion.

Mrs Beckett said the assertion that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order had not been repeated in Parliament because people were "not sure" it was true.

She said that the claim - originally included in Downing Street's controversial September 2002 dossier making the case for war - was considered "irrelevant".

The Foreign Secretary said: "That was a statement that was made once and it was thought to be of such little relevance - and perhaps people began quickly to think, 'I'm not sure about that' - it was never used once in all the debates in the House of Commons."

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the Government had not placed much emphasis on the claim, although it made headlines in many newspapers.

This is not my recollection nor that of many tens of thousands of people. It is one of the factors in the collapse of public trust in the Prime Minister. The reason it appeared in all the newspapers of course is because the Government made damned sure that it would. Whatever the reasons given now for the war, and irrespective of its outcome, there is no doubt that it was sold to the British public on the basis of an imminent threat to western civilisation.

We may have got rid of a nasty dictator but there are many more out there we are apparently not concerned with. Even the justification of regime change does not stand up to scrutiny when measured against objective criteria and the actions of the USA and Britain subsequently. The only possible explanation for Bush's actions is strategic self-interest. Margaret Beckett must think we were born yesterday.

Hat Tip: Dave Weeden

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Minding our language

There is no doubt that the Welsh Conservative's new policy aim of giving the Welsh language official status on an equal footing with English is a significant change in direction for them. However, the Western Mail is right to question what exactly this policy means:

Ms Francis, who represents Mid and West Wales in the Assembly, said, 'As it stands English is the de facto official language of Wales. Conservatives want to give Welsh that same status, enshrined in law.

'If we are seeking to review existing legislation, then giving Welsh official language status would be the starting point for strengthening both the law and future of the language.

'At present, the status of Welsh in the eyes of the law remains vague and limited.

'The way to get the Welsh language to thrive is through 75% education and 25% legislation.

'Reviewing and revising existing legislation effectively amounts to a new Welsh Language Act. Current legislation does not give clear information to the public about what language choices they have.'

Despite this the party says there is no prospect of a Tory-led administration in the Assembly forcing private firms to adopt Welsh-language schemes. So what exactly will a new Welsh Language Act say and how are they going to persuade companies around Wales to treat English and Welsh on an equal basis?


One of the good things about independent think-tanks is when they add an air of authority to what everybody believes anyway and in doing so enable us to validate our beliefs. The conclusion by a Chatham House report that the "disaster" of Iraq and Tony Blair's failure to influence US policy will overshadow his time as prime minister is one that many people can sign up to. They argue that the 2003 invasion and the post-war "debacle" have damaged Britain's international influence.

Iraq would overshadow Mr Blair's record, said the report The "disaster" of Iraq and Tony Blair's failure to influence US policy will overshadow his time as prime minister, a leading UK think-tank has said.

The 2003 invasion and the post-war "debacle" have damaged Britain's international influence, said the Chatham House report.

Outgoing director Victor Bulmer-Thomas said Mr Blair's successor would have to build better relations with Europe.

But he said Mr Blair had some successes on climate change and Libya.

Despite military, political and financial sacrifices by the UK, Mr Blair had been unable to influence the Bush administration in "any significant way", the report found.

It said there was no evidence British pressure led to President Bush accepting a two-state solution in the Middle East.

"Blair has learned the hard way that loyalty in international politics counts for nothing," said Professor Bulmer-Thomas.

"And his successor will not make the same mistake of offering unconditional support for US initiatives in foreign policy at the expense of a more positive relationship with Europe."

The report, which assessed British foreign policy since 1997, says Mr Blair's successor would also have to rethink Britain's role within the European Union and distance it from the US.

The new prime minister would have to look again at opposition the euro and the Schengen agreement, which ends controls on international frontiers.

Very few people I speak to understand why Blair staked so much on supporting George W. Bush for so little return. This report seems to share that puzzlement.

Monday, December 18, 2006

How to chat up a Cheeky Girl

Like Tom Watson I particularly enjoyed these top ten Trotskyist chat up lines:

(10) You mean you share my critique of Mandel's interpretation of Kondratiev's long wave theory? Wow, we have so much in common!
(9) Let’s get out of here. I know a much cozier little Marxist bookstore downtown.
(8) I bet I can guess your party cadre name.
(7) Sorry, but I just wanted to tell you how stunning you look in that secondhand donkey jacket while carrying a bundle of Socialist Workers under your arm ...
(6) I used to read Trotsky ... but then I drifted.
(5) Is that the Transitional Programme in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?
(4) That secondhand donkey jacket of yours would look great on my bedroom floor.
(3) What's a nice girl like you doing in a lousy union fraction like this?
(2) Do you sell papers here often?
(1) So, babe ... just how degenerate would your ideal workers' state be?

I am told that the immortal line: 'Don't suppose there's any chance of seizing control of your means of production, love?' works particularly well when used by an MP.

Update: According to this article in the South Wales Echo, Lembit and Gabriela's first date was at a science museum. They also talked a lot about astronomy.

The crisis facing New Labour

Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian is quite damning in her judgement of the Prime Minister and the cash-for-peerages scandal that is engulfing his Government. Her conclusion that Blair is a lame duck is difficult to disagree with. Her view that the Prime Minister has devalued our democratic institutions also rings true:

For a serving prime minister to be interviewed by the police was a moment of humiliation for British parliamentary democracy. The suggestion that his top aide, Jonathan Powell, might be interviewed under caution is just as bad. If charges follow, it would be worse than anything that happened in the Tory years. It cannot be evaded, explained away or put in perspective. The argument that other parties were finding similar ways round the laws of the land does not hold up. If evidence is found that honours were offered by Lord Levy, with Blair's or Powell's knowledge, in return for loans to the party, that is real corruption. Yes, there are wider issues about the funding of political parties. There always are wider issues. But they should not obscure the central point.

An interesting aspect of this article is Ms. Ashley's analysis of the impact of these troubles on May's elections. She does not mention Wales but I think we get her drift:

MPs dread next May's local elections, yet admit that little effort is being put into winning them. "Blair doesn't really care about them, he's focusing on his legacy, and Brown is only worrying about Scotland," is how one minister put it to me. Well, Brown is right to worry about the Scottish elections - huge efforts are needed to defuse the nationalist threat between now and May - but the local elections in England should not be forgotten either.

The 10-year policy review process is spoken of as "la-la land" in which cabinet members talk "fairy stories" about the long-term future of hospitals or schools. Civil servants at the heart of government say Blair is being told he should go quickly but cannot quite bring himself to listen.

It is no wonder that Rhodri Morgan has been seeking to increase the pressure on Blair to hand over the premiership to his Chancellor in advance of these elections. Like Jackie Ashley he can see that British politics is in suspension and will not be revived until the handover of the Labour leadership:

We are living through a curiously pointless time, a dead season, when the pronouncements of the prime minister are provisional holding statements, and when the opposition parties are not yet sure quite what they will be opposing. The civil service is coasting.

There are some of course that have applied this judgement to Rhodri Morgan's Government as well.

Lembit and the mouth organ

Most Liberal Democrats continue to be bemused at the extent of the newspaper coverage of Lembit's Őpik's private life. My favourite line so far has to be in today's Times:

Ms Irimia, 23, said that her passion was inflamed after seeing Mr Öpik play the harmonica when they were both contestants on Five’s All Star Talent Show.

In my experience this is not a normal reaction to Lembit's harmonica playing.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Stand and deliver

In his Wales on Sunday column Matt Withers reminds us of one particular stunt initiated by the Welsh Tories at the last General Election. They had somebody dress up in a panda suit so as to draw attention to council tax re-banding in Wales. No, I never saw the connection either.

It turns out that the poor sap who spent the General Election campaign wandering around Wales as Rebanda Panda was Craig Williams, who is now standing as the Tory candidate against Rhodri Morgan in Cardiff West.

These sort of stunts are, of course, not new. In more than one General Election various parties have employed a person dressed up as a chicken to make a particular point about their rivals. In the 1997 General Election campaign which I helped to run in Wales, the Welsh Liberal Democrats also lapsed into stunts and gimmicks so as to make our point. And very effective they were too.

It would be remiss of me to name the Cardiff Council cabinet member who dressed up as Dick Turpin so as to illustrate the cost of independence. Plaidwayman, as he became known, was filmed at the Severn Toll Bridge demanding extra taxation for people wanting to enter Wales. This price was in addition to the toll of course. Plaidwayman also made an appearance in Aberystwyth. As for the Welsh Liberal Democrat Quango-busters, I think it might be best if we drew a discreet veil over them, though I still have the water gun.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Welsh MP and the pop star

Rumours abound of two newspaper exclusives tomorrow that may have some repercussions on Welsh politics. It seems that Lembit Őpik and Sian Lloyd have finally called it a day and that Sian will be spilling the beans to the Mail on Sunday.

Meanwhile, I have been told that the News of the World will contain details of an alleged relationship between a certain MP and one of the Cheeky Girls.

What a dull life I live!

Update: Sure enough the Mail on Sunday article includes the claim by Sian Lloyd that Lembit had been cheating on her with Cheeky Girl, Gabriela Irimia.

On the road to Timbuktu

An e-mail arrives seeking my signature on a statement of opinion to support a bid by Hay-on-Wye to be twinned with Timbuktu. Apparently, there is competition for this prestigious position from Glastonbury and York. These three places have arrived on the shortlist from a group of 50 applicants.

Who would have thought that a city in the West African nation of Mali situated on the trans-Saharan caravan route would have attracted so much interest from towns and Cities all over the UK? Next time I go to the Hay on Wye Book Festival I will be watching out for camels.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Debating the budget

Now that the dust is starting to settle over the budget debate I thought it was worth stirring it up again with a look at some of the highlights of that discussion. This is of course an entirely partial view and is designed to paint the Welsh Liberal Democrats in a good light.

By far the most effective intervention was that of Leanne Wood on Nick Bourne. The Tories are starting to learn the hard way that what they think is amusing in their blog entries comes across entirely differently to the outside world and may well be used against them:

I turn to Plaid Cymru—

Leanne Wood: Will you take an intervention?

Nick Bourne: Yes, of course.

Leanne Wood: Do you agree with your colleague, Glyn Davies, who gave the following reason for his disappointment with Plaid’s responsible stance on this budget in a recent post on his weblog? He said:

‘Bang goes my chance of being a Minister. No huge Ministerial salary. No Ministerial car. No huge staff to prepare my speeches’.

Does this not show that the Tories are not interested in putting Wales or its schools first, but interested only in themselves?

Nick Bourne: I must say to the Member that I had not had her down previously as someone who had had a sense-of-humour bypass. Whatever our differences on policies, and they are considerable, I had always thought that irony was something that featured on her radar; if not, I feel deeply sorry for Leanne. We will have a discussion afterwards about what a sense of humour is; I think that she has one in reality and that that was tongue in cheek.

Meanwhile, Dai Lloyd demonstrated to all of us that having a good rant was not the most effective use of the new siambr:

Karen Sinclair: Forgive me if I am wrong, but I though that you were abstaining this afternoon. [Laughter.]

David Lloyd: I said that we will let the budget pass—it is Christmas, so I will be charitable.

I will say a word about the Tories. The past week has revealed the Tories’ complete inability to stick to any agreed line and their totally naked self-interest and banal posturing—they put themselves before the interests of Wales. The evidence comes from Glyn Davies’s blog—it is there.

Nick Bourne: Will the Member give way?

David Lloyd: No, you have had your say. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

David Lloyd: The third aspect is the intoxicating lure of power, ministerial cars and all the trappings. The Tories—

Nick Bourne: Will you give way?

David Lloyd: Go on, then—I will continue my rant later. [Laughter.]

Nick Bourne: I agree with your last point—it is certainly a rant. Let us be clear on one point that you made. Most of the extra money that you are heralding was already on the table in the negotiations. The only additional amount was the £9.3 million—[Interruption.]

David Lloyd: No.

Nick Bourne: Yes, it was; you were not in the negotiations. You did not bring anything extra—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. There is no need to shout.

David Lloyd: Indeed not.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I know that some Members are lay preachers, but they must not preach in here. The acoustics here are extremely good.

Dai's closing line, delivered at the top of his voice, had all the finesse and sophistication of a football chant:

As it is Christmas and the season of goodwill, and all that, my message to the Tories is: get used to permanent opposition, losers. [Laughter.]

Finally, Mark Isherwood rounded off with a characteristic analogy that still has many of us scratching our heads:

Regarding landfill sites, one protestor at Hafod quarry told me that this Assembly Government is treating them ‘like a gnat on an elephant’s bum’. Let me remind this Government that it is the people who are the elephant, and they who are the gnats on its bum. [Laughter.]

I believe that for a split second the Presiding Officer considered whether to rule that the word 'bum' was unparliamentary language but decided against it and quickly moved onto the next speaker. It was not a pretty debate but it was passionate and it was lively. How it plays out in the real world has yet to be seen.

Spending public money

The Western Mail goes into public scrutiny mode today with revelations that the cost of Government special advisors in Wales has risen from £110,067 in 1999 to £363,708 this year. By the end of the current Assembly term the total cost is expected to be £2,088,478. There are seven in all. They also highlight a lavish reception for 200 business people in Tower Bridge at a cost of £23,000.

To an extent this is the price of government but I think it is right that we question expenditure such as this and ask what we are getting from it. It is strange for example that during the Partnership Government we got by on four or five special advisors and now Rhodri Morgan needs seven. Is it the case that each Minister must have their own advisor?

Equally, although receptions have a value if the outcome is that the particpants are questioning why they were there then it cannot be money well-spent. These sort of revelations show the value of effective scrutiny.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The danger of spell checkers

I have just come back from a Council meeting in which an entirely English medium report amending the Council's constitution was being considered.

The report proposed to designate a person as the Chief Finance Office and gave the Welsh equivalent title.The only problem is that a spell checker had rendered Prif Swyddog Cyllid as 'prig seadog cylix'.

The officer concerned may be known as 'old seadog' for some time to come.

The price of collaboration

I see that Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones has earned a new respect amongst Labour AMs.

Update: Further evidence of the high regard Labour have for Ieuan Wyn Jones and Plaid Cymru. A coalition is inevitable after this.

Fighting for Post Offices

The UK Government will help to define one of the big issues for the 2007 Welsh Assembly elections today when it announces the imminent closure of 3,000 Post Offices across the UK. Many of these closures will be in Wales.

The Western Mail considers that the decision to postpone the outcome of the consultation on these closures until after the May elections will assist the Labour Party. I am not so sure. The uncertainty will enable the opposition to campaign to save every Post Office, whilst also highlighting the impact of the loss of the Post Office Card Account on urban branches.

This approach to the Post Office network is unacceptable and we will be fighting it tooth and nail.

An unhealthy pursuit

Fascinating report in today's Guardian about the latest innovation in computer gaming. They tell us that the Wii video games console is leaving a trail of destruction in its wake:

But the excitement of using the remote like a virtual tennis racket or boxing glove has gone to the heads of many players, who are now reporting a stream of injuries caused by mistakenly throwing the gizmos across the living room.

Several have documented their damage on YouTube, and websites have sprung up to track the wounds - dubbed "Wiinjuries" by online wags. "I decided to play the game for bowling," wrote Nicole, one bruised gamer on Wiihaveaproblem.com. "I guess I swung really hard to knock down the pins and all of a sudden I realised my head hurt . . . Instead of it flying wildly into the air, it stopped and swung back around and hit me in the head."

Another player showed off his girlfriend's swollen black eye, caused when he accidentally punched her while playing a game. "She approached me from the side, appearing from my blind spot whilst I was performing a slashing movement," he wrote. "I hit her with full force right in her eye."

Others report bruising or cutting their hands by slamming them into tables, doors and ceiling fans. Some have smashed TV screens and windows after losing grip of the remote and hurling it across the room. Even the addition of a wrist strap isn't helping much.

Nintendo's advice is to avoid over-exertion.

Despite a teenage addiction to Space Invaders and Asteroids, gaming is the one aspect of new technology I have so far avoided. I am trying very hard not to be too smug.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Goodwill to all persons!

It is the season of goodwill, though I suspect that it will not last much past the start of the budget debate. However, yesterday members were feeling so charitable that some even went above and beyond the call of duty and offered a hand of friendship where previously there had been none:

Carl Sargeant: It is the time for goodwill to all men, including regional Members—[Interruption.]—and women.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I believe the expression in the new translation of the New Testament is ‘goodwill to all people’.

Carl Sargeant: Including regional Members. [Laughter.]

The other member in a festive mood was Alun Cairns. He appears to have been catching up on his popular culture and has referred two or three times now to the programme "Deal or No Deal". A question was asked if this sudden interest might be as a result of the political leanings of the programme's presenter, however it turns out that Alun is using the phrase because he was asked to do so by a Welsh current affairs programme. Apparently, they have a use for the TV clip. What that use is we will have to see.

'Labour's little helpers'?

Martin Shipton in this morning's Western Mail speculates that the likely budget deal between Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones makes a Labour-Plaid coalition more likely after the next elections.

I can already hear Assembly Members such as Leighton Andrews and Catherine Thomas proclaiming that such an alliance will happen over their dead body, but that sort of opposition has never stopped Rhodri Morgan before, as was evidenced by a recent letter to the Western Mail from former Labour Minister, Tom Middlehurst.

What is clear from all of this is that the Conservatives have overplayed their hand. They allowed themselves to get carried away with the prospect of government and openly enthused about the idea of a rainbow coalition. In doing so they made such a creature less likely, if it were ever on the cards at all. They drove Plaid Cymru into the arms of New Labour and reinforced the opposition to a three-way coalition amongst both Liberal Democrat and nationalist AMs.

Labour however, need to be wary of recent history. In the first year of the Assembly there was a similar unwritten pact between the Government and Plaid Cymru when, in exchange for small concessions, the Party of Wales allowed Labour budgets to pass and generally oiled the mechanisms of government. There was never any formal arrangement but it was not for nothing that Plaid became known as Labour's little helpers.

The outcome of all of this was that past arrangements and any mutual trust were cast aside by Plaid Cymru as they led a successful no confidence motion against the then First Secretary. It was no wonder then that when Rhodri Morgan wanted some stability for his fledging government that he turned to the Welsh Liberal Democrats for partnership rather than the untrustworthy nationalists. Some Labour Ministers took great personal pleasure at having dashed Plaid Cymru hopes of government limosines in this way, whilst the Party of Wales itself acted like a spoilt child, deprived of its prize.

All of this history has apparently been put behind the two party leaders as they come to a new accomodation. But will it lead to a formal coalition? Nobody can say. It is certainly too early to say whether Labour and Plaid AMs will ever trust each other enough to serve in the same cabinet. What can be said is that if this coalition does not come about Plaid will find itself in opposition again. The events of that last few days have reminded both the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Tories how unreliable Plaid can be. They will not be in a hurry to involve them in a joint effort again.

As for the election, Plaid Cymru's route appears to be clear. They now seem intent on securing a deal with Labour post-May. We will not be slow in pointing that out to voters and making it clear that if they want to give Tony Blair a bloody nose, then a nationalist vote will not do it. All that they will get by voting for Plaid is another Labour Government in Cardiff Bay.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Decision time on the budget

With just over 24 hours to go before we vote on the Assembly budget it appears that the three opposition parties and the two independents are resolute in their determination to vote it down. What happens after that nobody knows. We are entering uncharted territory.

It has to be said that this determination was not reached without some wobbles on the part of Plaid Cymru. Rhodri Morgan has an additional £9.3m to spend as a result of Gordon Brown's statement last week and I understand that Plaid were asked if they would abstain on the budget if all of this money was put into education. Initially, they agreed but after meetings with the other party leaders they changed their mind and took the same view as us that it was not enough to do what needs to be done in our schools and universities.

I have been told that the Plaid Cymru group has now supported their leader in agreeing to oppose the budget so for now everything is hunky dory. We will see if that is still the case tomorrow when the vote is taken. Let us hope that every member is especially careful to ensure that they press their button at the right time and in the right order.

Update: Mike German has just issued a statement in which he hints that AMs should come back next week to get the budget through before Christmas:

“If Rhodri Morgan can find no extra money for education beyond the £9.3m announced in the pre-budget review, then his government’s budget remains unacceptable.

“In these circumstances the Welsh Liberal Democrats will have no option but to vote against the budget tomorrow. If, as we expect, the budget is lost we would expect him to return in a few days with a new budget for the Assembly to consider.

“We remain committed to getting a budget passed before Christmas and would encourage the First Minister to re-open negotiations, and to recall the Assembly next week to get the job done.”

I dont have any plans next week for my Christmas recess that cannot be changed but I wonder how many members will have to cancel holiday arrangements if this comes to pass.

Further update: Plaid Cymru have now announced that they are prepared to break with the other opposition parties and negotiate separately with the government to get the Labour budget through.

If Plaid are willing to accept less than the whole amount of money for schools, that is something they will have to justify to themselves and the electorate. The other opposition parties will continue to oppose any budget which fails to give a fair deal to our schools.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Assembly bloggers unlimited

I am now officially taking back any unkind things I may have said about student journalists. This article by Ciaran Jenkins (author of the excellent Blamerbell Briefs) is a well written, entertaining and balanced piece on the Welsh Assembly's bloggers and those we annoy the most - our fellow AMs.

When Mark Isherwood says that the more momentum the blogging movement gains, the more "principled politicians are being forced onto the bandwagon as a self-defence measure," my heart just goes out to him - not!

There now I have gone and committed the cardinal sin, as best summed up by Jocelyn Davies ("Blogs written by politicians with irony, anger or humour may, months later, have lost all relevant context and appear instead to be spiteful and thoughtless.") The thing is you do not have to write a blog to fall into that trap, you can make the same mistake on a radio or TV interview or just by answering questions from a dead tree press journalist.

John Marek is right, I am a headbanger with no life. Time to move on to the next blog post.

Save Fairwood Hospital

The campaign to keep Fairwood Hospital open has an on-line presence here.

Petitioning the Assembly

The proposal by the Assembly's Standing Order Sub Committee to provide a direct route for members of the public and other organisations to directly petition us with their ideas and causes after the May elections is definitely the right way forward. It already works well in Scotland where, as the Western Mail points out, it has led directly to changes in the law.

My concern is that we are not proposing a committee here in Wales but that the Presiding Officer should receive the petition and direct it accordingly. No matter how inclusive and open the Presiding Officer is, he or she could not replicate the transparency and accountability of a formal committee meeting in public. This is particularly so when it comes to monitoring and tracking the petition's progress. I hope that the Standing Orders Sub Committee re-think this suggestion.

Black eyed Bishops

You have to be fair, when the Guardian does gossip, it does it really well:

The Rt Rev Tom Butler, 66, one of the Church of England's most senior bishops and a pillar of Thought for the Day on the BBC Today programme, says he has no idea. Others say he was seen sitting in the back of a Mercedes chucking children's toys out of the window and announcing: "I'm the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do."

Last night the bishop - who earlier in the week told a congregation that he could not get his mitre on because of the lump on his head - told the Guardian he could not recollect what had happened. Police were informed the following day that his briefcase, spectacles, a mobile phone and papers were missing.

"The problem is, I don't remember anything. This has been a difficulty from the start," he said ruefully. "I told the police I arrived home without my briefcase and with bruising on my face and a gash on the back of my head. There was this story about me being in a car at London Bridge, which I can remember absolutely nothing about. I thought I was travelling home on public transport. I went to the doctor the next day and was told my injuries were consistent with a blow to the head, so I assumed I had been mugged, but that's a supposition. I am hoping the police will be able to be clearer."

What he can remember is attending the pre-Christmas reception at the Irish embassy near Buckingham Palace. These are events not noted for their abstemiousness. MPs have been known to leave on their hands and knees.

"I can remember the reception. It was one of those pre-Christmas receptions with drinks and nibbles, with interesting conversations and interesting people. I had a drink," said the bishop, with what may or may not be a degree of understatement. "There lies the difficulty. I am not in a position to say dogmatically anything more about it. I have no memory of what happened. I came home certainly with an injury and with a loss of property."

As Christmas approaches and others suffer similar lapses in memory they may be conforted to know that they have been in good company.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Back to basics

I have to admit that I am in two minds how to react to this latest initiative by Tory Shadow Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The Observer has taken the line that he is diametrically opposed to David Cameron's 'hug a hoodie' rhetoric, illustrating once more how a party hooked on quick headlines and image rather than substance can lose its way so easily.

However, I am more attracted by the comparison with John Major's 'Back to Basics' campaign that effectively declared open season on the private lives of Tory MPs and Ministers. Mr. Grieve is quoted as saying:

'You can argue that our Victorian forebears succeeded in achieving something very unusual between the 1850s and 1900 in changing public attitudes by - dare one use the word - instilling moral codes. I don't want to suggest this was an ideal society, but it was one where a sense of moral values and of the responsibility people owed to each other did seem to be pervasive. There was a much greater sense of shame in respect of transgressions.'

Is he now inviting the media to establish whether Tory MPs and candidates are living up to the strict standards he is setting for them?

LGA Faux Pas

I have to admit that I do not normally pay much attention to the Local Government Association Magazine 'First', which arrives on my doormat through the post every Saturday morning, however this week is different.

The magazine contains a regular feature profiling a local Councillor. This week it is the "Independent member of Sandwell Metropolitan Council", Simon Smith. Except that Simon Smith is not an independent at all. As this article makes clear, Councillor Smith was elected to Sandwell as a member of the BNP and continues to sit as one of that party's Councillors.

I suspect that all hell will break loose in LGA headquarters on Monday when they realise their mistake.

Labour go to the brink on Post Office network

This report in yesterday's Guardian is set to put the cat amongst the pigeons as the prospect of the closure of thousands of Post Offices all around the Country looms ever larger:

The Department for Trade and Industry said last night the current size of the network, with 14,000 post offices, was "unsustainable". Royal Mail has said about 4,000 post offices would be the optimum "commercial" level although chief executive Adam Crozier has accepted that the social benefits of the post offices, particularly in rural areas, must also be taken into account. There is speculation that between 2,500 and 7,000 post offices could face the axe, with any cuts likely to be phased in over a number of years.

A statement from the DTi is scheduled next week but although it looks likely that some subsidy will remain so as to keep socially necessary services that will not prevent a wholescale decimation of the network. The Government's problem is that decisions they have already taken in relation to the abolition of the Post Office card account and the removal of business from Post Office counters will add to the likelihood of closures. Postmasters in deprived areas in particular are threatened with financial ruin. Now Labour are proposing to seal their fate with an unprecedented closure programme that will impact on thousands of communities.

A recent New Economics Foundation Report has sought to quantify the impact of Post Office closures on the communities they serve. The report finds that the consequential closure of Post Office branches could take hundreds of thousands of pounds out of the local economy. For every £10 earned in income, a post office generates £16.20 for its local economy. They say that most local businesses suffer a 'significant' impact following a closure and traders noticed a loss of custom in areas affected.

The report notes that eight urban post offices have closed for every rural closure and that one in six urban postal closures have been in a deprived area. Groups affected by closures include schools, local universities, credit unions and community groups as well as the elderly and other local people. The NEF say that as a result of a Post Office closure many local people move their grocery shopping outside of their local community.

If the Government allow these closures to go ahead they will be paying the price electorally for some time to come.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Klutz of the year

Even now, three days later, it is almost too painful to write about it. I have done so, however, because if I don't then inevitably, somebody else will. Within 24 hours of winning a very attractive glass trophy as the BBC Wales AM-PM Communicator of the year, I had done a Joe Calzaghe and broken it.

I had put it in its box into my bag and placed the bag on the back seat of my car. Unfortunately, in the stop-start conditions of the M4 in winter the bag fell off the seat. When I got home and proudly handed the box to my wife to show her the award the first thing she said was that it had broken in half. I was gutted.

I still have a certificate on my office wall and the Liberal Democrat Head of Media has asked the programme's producer if I can pay to have a new one made, but it is terribly embarrassing. I have always been clumsy but this is just too much.

St David's Day

I have just become the 3,000 signature to a petition for St. David's Day to be declared a national holiday in Wales. You can add you name on the 10 Downing Street petition site here. You have until 20 February 2007.

The Western Mail reports that a rival petition calling for St George's Day to be made a national holiday in England had, by comparison, only attracted 904 signatures.

Another blow for Cameron

According to Liberal Democrat Voice, the Tories have lost control of another local Council following the defection of one of their Councillors to the Liberal Democrats. This has been confirmed by our group leader on that Council, Councillor Gordon Seekings.

The defection means the Tories’ lose their majority on the Council which is now 18 Conservative, 16 Labour and 3 Liberal Democrat and becomes No Overall Control with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power. This comes just days after a defection by a Conservative on Dover District Council led to the Tories losing their majority on that Council which is now 22 Conservative, 17 Labour, 3 Liberal Democrats and 3 Independents.

Crawley is a key Tory target. Labour MP, Laura Moffatt held on by just 37 votes at the last General Election. It cannot bode well for David Cameron to suffer such setbacks so early in his leadership.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The cost of war

The BBC report that a breakdown of Ministry of Defence figures reveals that the cost of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be £1.4bn this year - more than £3.8m a day. The war in Iraq is taking up £2.36m a day, or £860m a year, while that in Afghanistan is costing £1.48m a day, coming to £540m during 2006. The figures do not include salaries, which would be paid to soldiers anyway:

Po versus DPO - the sequel.

For those who remember the spat between the Presiding Officer and his Deputy, John Marek, in the Chamber a few weeks ago, Wednesday's Plenary saw a sequel, albeit a less dramatic and more orderly exchange of views:

John Marek: Does the Minister remember giving ArvinMeritor money and it then transferring 200 jobs from north Wales to south Wales? Is he aware that he has given money to Seda UK and, with that generous amount of money, the company has now stolen a contract from F Bender Ltd of Wrexham and 50 more jobs are going to go from north Wales to south Wales? That is not inward investment; it is impoverishing north Wales. When will the Minister stop it?

Andrew Davies: Wrexham has done extremely well, historically, in terms of job creation and inward investment. In my reply to Karen Sinclair—and I am not sure whether you were in the Chamber when I said it—

John Marek: Of course I was in the Chamber.

The Presiding Officer: Order. John Marek is always in the Chamber. [Laughter.]

Nice to know that we can all laugh about it afterwards.

What other politicians think about blogging

For some reason journalists continue to be interested in blogging and are continuing to knock on my door for my views. The latest batch are all students at the Cardiff School of Journalism, most of which have an unrealistic view of the time available to politicians and the idea that we will drop everything to meet their deadlines. Much as I like to help it is not always possible so I often end up answering questions by e-mail or giving interviews on the move in the middle of rain storms.

The latest set of questions by e-mail intriqued me, especially this one:

This is what some of your fellow AMs have to say about blogging:
"too many principled politicians are being forced onto the bandwagon as a self-defence measure."
"they are an effective tool for misinforming voters, allowing Bloggers to misrepresent both themselves and their victims."
"Blogs appear to be used by a disproportionately large number of headbangers and people without a life."
"I think blogs add nothing to serious political debate."
"I think bloggers speak only to other bloggers."
You are the Assembly's most notorious blogger - how do you respond?

My answer is that the politicians in question should stop taking themselves, and this blog, so seriously.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Bemused of Plaid Cymru

Dragon's Eye has just done a piece on Plaid Cymru's stance on the armed forces. I have already noted on this blog the call by senior Plaid politicians for the army to stop recruiting in schools.

Now, it seems that Plaid President, Dafydd Iwan, has gone one step further and suggested that in an Independent Wales, the British Army would be banished to the other side of Offa's Dyke. He would only want enough troops to remain to defend Wales. Talk about having your cake and eating it.

There are 6,400 jobs in Wales related to the army and defence contracts. There is the possibility of another 5,000 jobs if the military academy is awarded to St Athan. Are the nationalists seriously going to the polls in May advocating the long term loss of this employment?

Some would say that they can do nothing right this week. They are certainly in disarray - performing u-turns, showing weak leadership, arguing amongst themselves about tactics on the budget,undermining the armed forces and reminding people of their deeply unpopular policy of independence and its consequences. These could be the five days that started a further political meltdown for Plaid Cymru.

A fair and foul day

The weather today was atrocious. Whilst driving back from Cardiff the whole of the M4 came to a halt as a rain squall reduced visibility to virtually zero.

Earlier in the Education Lifelong Learning and Skills Committee I was having difficulty hearing evidence from witnesses due to the noise from the wind as it roared through the spaces in the flat roof of the Senedd. Suddenly, there was a large crash. Either something had fallen off the new building or it had been hit by a large rock. I never found out.

Still this made a change from the problem in the Committee Rooms earlier in the week. A dead bird had become lodged in the roof space and was slowly rotting away. I was told that some maggots had fallen into a Committee Room onto somebody's papers, but no doubt that story is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, there were quite a lot of flies around in meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.


Newport MP, Paul Flynn is renowned for speaking his mind, but even those who know him best may be surprised by his description of Labour's unsuccessful Blaenau Gwent by-election candidate Owen Smith as a "drug pusher". As the Western Mail points out, Mr Smith is a top lobbyist with the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer.

Mr Flynn said, "The lobbyists are a curse, a cancer in the system. It's insidious. One of my main interests in politics is areas in which lobbyists used their wicked wiles to get access to government. One example is the pharmaceutical industry, who are the most greedy and deceitful organisations we have to deal with."

Interviewer Patrick McGuinness then said, "Some of their lobbyists end up as candidates in Welsh Labour. Blaenau Gwent for instance."

Mr Flynn responded, "Indeed - I wasn't too pleased by the fact that we had a drug pusher as a candidate."

Mr Flynn also said, "The thing that made me angriest [about the Blaenau Gwent by-election campaign] was when one of my colleagues said that [independent candidate] Dai Davies lacked validity. Well he's got a hell of a lot more validity than Baroness Maggie Jones [the seat's defeated Labour candidate in last year's general election] has got. She's got no validity at all, and it seemed to turn democracy on its head to have a candidate who's been rejected by the people in the safest constituency in Britain and send her to the House of Lords."

I doubt if Mr. Flynn would have been much impressed with the Labour spin-doctor charged with the task of responding to his comments. That anonymous apparatchik claimed that Owen Smith's strong message on crime, antisocial behaviour and jobs struck a chord with local people, and that this led to an 8% swing back to Labour in the parliamentary by-election.

Perhaps, a more honest assessment would be that they got their arse kicked and that they are still smarting over it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Great Expectations

Now that I have been awarded the BBC AM-PM Communicator of the Year I need to be conscious that it can create expectations as was illustrated by Janet Ryder's reference to the ITV Wales equivalent yesterday:

Janet Ryder: I thank the Business Minister for bringing forward a statement on the foundation phase tomorrow. At the beginning of this week, it appeared very much as though the Assembly would yet again read about a major change in education policy on the pages of the newspapers, and that AMs would not be told by the Assembly’s Minister for education what the roll-out of the foundation phase would be in Wales.

The Minister knows that she probably has all-party support for this, but it would be courteous of her to tell the Assembly what will happen before the information goes to the newspapers. As Communicator of the Year, I am sure that she would love to give the Assembly a demonstration of her beautiful skills, and I am sure that we are all looking forward to that statement tomorrow.

Clearly, the real art of communication is picking your audience.

More on the budget

This morning's Western Mail contains more details on yesterday's budget shenanigans including the fact that Rhodri Morgan's threat to resign if his budget was not passed rapidly evaporated when he realised that the opposition might call his bluff and information about Plaid Cymru's own vacilliations, which has undermined what credibility they might have as an opposition and a potential alternative government:

In an extraordinary day at the Senedd, the minority Labour administration tabled a new Budget after failing to reach agreement with the opposition. The opposition said they would vote it down and appeared to say they would form a coalition government of their own if Rhodri Morgan resigned as First Minister.

Yet hours later Plaid Cymru issued a statement ruling out the prospect of any such coalition, attracting allegations from the other opposition parties that their leader had 'bottled out'.

The sticking point remains the money being held back from schools by the Assembly Government and the growing funding gap in Welsh higher education in comparison to England. Although, the Government claim that they have done everything they can, the fact is that Labour did not talk until very late in the day and when it came to the crunch they allowed their obsession with exposing a mythical opposition coalition get in the way of what is best for Wales.

Plaid Cymru did not cover themselves in any glory on this issue either, as the paper makes clear:

Asked if they would form a coalition government of their own if Mr Morgan resigned following a Budget defeat, the three opposition leaders all appeared to suggest that they would.

Welsh Conservative Assembly leader Nick Bourne said, 'We would have no option, we would have a constitutional duty to do that. We are not going to blink on this. He [Mr Morgan] has got to come forward with money.'

Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones said, 'There's no way in the world we would allow the Assembly to be ungoverned and we want to make sure that the Assembly has a Budget.'

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Mike German said, 'All the balls in this case are within Labour's court. It is absolutely the case that the Government have now decided that they are not prepared to meet the demands of the National Assembly of Wales in these crucial areas of education.'

Shortly afterwards, Mr Morgan's spokeswoman said the First Minister would not quit if the Budget was voted down.

'There is no question of the First Minister resigning,' she said. 'It's for the opposition parties to decide their next course of action.'

Hours later a press release from Plaid Cymru angered the two other opposition parties because it explicitly ruled out a coalition.

A senior Tory source said, 'It looks as if Ieuan has been lent on by other members of his group and has bottled out. You have to be prepared to stand firm and not blink.

'Ieuan is making it look as if he isn't interested in getting the top job [of First Minister]. Doesn't Plaid want to be in government?'

A Liberal Democrat source said, 'Ieuan appears to have bottled it. But so far as the Budget is concerned, I believe the Government will budge further. Rhodri doesn't want to quit and Labour will come up with the money.'

What this illustrates above anything else is why a rainbow coalition of the opposition parties is such an unlikely prospect after the next election. Plaid Cymru are badly divided and their leadership is weak. They do not have the discipline to be an effective opposition let alone a government. The Tories have hardly set an example for the others on key votes either.

With Gordon Brown due to announce more money for Wales later today the solution to the budget crisis appears fairly simple. However, I suspect the fact the Government tabled their budget early means that they have other plans for the money. That is something they might have to compromise on.

Update: The Chancellor of the Exchequer's largesse means that an additional £9 million is coming to Wales. Meanwhile the Welsh Local Government Association has disparaged the Government's idea that other local authority services should be top-sliced so as to meet the shortfall in schools funding caused by WAG's own policies. They quite rightly point out that £15 million has been held back from schools by the Government and that local Councils should not be left to pick up the tab so as to get Labour out of a tight corner in Cardiff Bay.

Commenting on the Chancellor's statement, Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Leader, Mike German points out that the chancellor’s £9m is not enough to solve the problem, but it gives us some wriggle room.

“I hope that Labour will use this to re-open talks with all parties so we can agree a budget which ensures our teachers won’t see their jobs axed, and that students in our universities are not at a disadvantage compared with those in England. The ball is firmly in Labour’s court. Welsh Liberal Democrats remain committed to negotiating a budget which can be agreed by a majority in the National Assembly.”


From this morning's Guardian:

'Why all this fuss about the need for a new Trident? We haven't used the old ones yet.

David Collins
Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Communicator of the Year

BBC Wales are very nice people. At a ceremony last night they gave out a number of political awards including Communicator of the Year to myself for the contribution made by this blog. Peter Hain did the double by winning Politician of the Year from the BBC as well as HTV, Trish Law was local campaigner of the year and Dafydd Elis-Thomas was considered to be the most outspoken politician.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Breaking News

The Labour Assembly Government has laid the final budget without any agreement with the opposition. This is the joint statement the opposition parties have just put out:

“Last night’s budget discussions failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion. However, there is still time for a deal to be reached which can meet the demands of all parties, and which would be in the best interests of the people of Wales.

“Laying a budget without the agreement of the opposition would be an act of folly. Negotiations so far have succeeded in settling many of the original issues. We would wish to see them continue so that the budget can be approved by the whole Assembly.”

Indications at the moment are that all three parties and the two independents are fairly solid on this and will vote it down. I will report further when I have more information.

Update: The three opposition party leaders held a press conference this afternoon in which they all said that they would be prepared to form a coalition government should Labour resign over the defeat of their budget. At about the same time Rhodri Morgan made it clear he would give them that opportunity by quitting if he loses the key vote next Wednesday.

Since then both the First Minister and the Plaid Cymru leader have been back-pedalling like fury. The media still have a story but the prospect of a change of government and all that entails has been denied them. Some of them are rather disappointed. It has been a seven hour roller-coaster ride and there is still eight days to go before the debate. Expect a lot more drama.

Who pays the piper

I think I have a knack for upsetting my fellow AMs. After this article in today's Western Mail I am not expecting any favours:

Last night Peter Black, the Liberal Democrat chair of the Assembly's education committee who is also a member of the Shadow Commission that will oversee the legislative side of the body from next May, said, "My personal view is that the current AM salary is about right for the responsibilities that the Assembly currently has. I don't think there should be an automatic increase simply because we shall be increasing our powers next May.

"It is still uncertain how much more work will be involved when the new powers come in. I certainly don't think it is likely that the Assembly will be hitting the ground running with a lot of legislative proposals. The new standing orders are likely to require a fair bit of scrutiny before proposals are even sent to Westminster, and I would also expect Peter Hain to interpret the kind of proposals that would be acceptable quite narrowly.

"My view is that we should wait and see how the new powers work out in practice before there is any question of giving AMs a pay rise based on the acquisition of the new powers."

This has been my view for some time and it is what I told the Senior Salaries Review Board when they were collecting evidence for the last review. I know that it is not the view of a number of AMs, who are actually quite militant on the issue of their own pay and conditions.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM meets George Bush

It seems Mick Bates is in good company!

Hat Tip to Disillusioned and Bored for the picture

Monday, December 04, 2006

In the Army now!

With the Assembly elections so close I thought that this non-story from Plaid Cymru was politically very 'brave'. Army visits to schools happen when they are invited in by the headteacher and often form part of general careers sessions. If deprived areas have more visits than most then the chances are that this reflects a greater interest in an Army career in those schools.

However, the biggest danger for the Party of Wales is that their opponents will use this research and the slant that Leanne Wood has put on it to try and portray them as anti-armed forces. It could be a very interesting few months.

Banning the internet

Today's Guardian reports that Iran has joined China in restricting access to the internet for its citizens. Despite having a blogging President the Iranian Government yesterday shut down access to sites such as Amazon.com, Wikipedia, IMDB.com, YouTube and the New York Times.

The clampdown was ordered by senior judiciary officials in the latest phase of a campaign that has seen high-speed broadband facilities banned in an attempt to impede "corrupting" foreign films and music. It is in line with a campaign by Iran's Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to purge the country of western cultural influences.

Iran was among 13 countries branded "enemies of the internet" last month by the human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, which cited state-sanctioned blocking of websites and the widespread intimidation and jailing of bloggers.

Critics accuse Iran of using filtering technology to censor more sites than any country apart from China. Until now, targets have been mainly linked to opposition groups or those deemed "immoral" under Iran's Islamic legal code. Some news sites, such as the BBC's Farsi service, are also blocked.

The paper continues:

The ban on YouTube reflects a growing official sensitivity to private films on the internet, an issue highlighted by a recent online video which appears to show an Iranian soap opera star having sex.

With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely supressed, reformist press.

Last week Mohammed Tourang, head of the information bureau's cultural committee, warned Iranian websites of stricter rules by announcing steps to stamp out "immoral and illegal" content. He said site owners would be given official reminders to eliminate forbidden material. Special attention would be paid to content judged to be a threat to national unity or insulting to sacred religious texts and symbols. Students and academics say the move limits their ability to conduct research.

The purge mirrors a rising tide of censorship in Iranian publishing which has resulted in the banning of hundreds of books, including western classics. Illegal satellite dishes have also been seized.

Many regimes have sought to suppress freedom of thought and expression in the past but the internet offers a particular challenge to such tyrants. The quality of some of the banned sites may be questionable but the principle at stake here is fundamental. These restrictions are contrary to the democracy that Iran professes to practice, they will undermine academic progress and hold the Country back economically.

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