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Sunday, March 31, 2013

An occasional round-up of Welsh blogposts Part Eight

I have been away for a week so I thought I would get back into blogging with another of my occasional round-ups of Welsh blogposts over the last month.

My first choice is a Glyn Davies post on the West Lothian question. The question to which many are seeking the answer of course is "How long will English constituencies and English hon. members tolerate hon. members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important decisive effect on English politics, while they have no say on the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?" As far as Glyn is concerned we should not even attempt to answer it.

Glyn says that there is no doubt that the current position is a constitutional anomaly, but his opinion is that all the possible answers to the West Lothian Question create new constitutional anomalies, like flattening a bump in a water bed:

Lets consider some of the various answers. First up an 'English Parliament'. Now do we really need to create another 'parliament'? Is this what the people of Britain want? I have heard it suggested that current MPs sitting for English seats could meet as an 'English Parliament' each Friday at the House of Commons. Well, I would not want these English MPs deciding on health and transport policies in Shropshire without my being there, or air transport policy just because the actual airports are in England. Increasingly specialist services are going to be in England. Lots of mid Wales services are in Shropshire. Some form of an English Parliament is supported by those who want a 'federal' UK. Personally I do not thing a 'federal system is sustainable when one of the 'federal partners' is around 85% of the whole. Think Cyprus and the Eurozone!! Many sensible people like this idea. I don't.

So what about 'English votes for English laws'. Personally I think this is rather better, but would be horrendously complex and difficult to operate. Every bill would have aspects which affected England only. House of Commons would be like a non-stop Hokey Kokey. But this would be good for job creation - the million civil servants needed to make it work. This is not for me either - unless we unwisely decide 'Something must be done'

A Change of Personnel has identified a real story in the Welsh media and believes that we should be asking question about it when the Assembly reconvenes. He may not be disappointed.

The issue concerns the Discretionary Assistance Fund, which was formerly the Social fund and is now under the control of the Welsh Government. Those on low incomes and who are reliant on benefits can apply to this fund in emergencies. However, the Welsh Government has decided that it is now to be managed by a US hedge fund:

Concerns have been raised and some concessions have been won such as a free phone number rather than a 0845 no, but the 18 page application form remains and it raises questions about the Welsh Government’s procurement process and who exactly is making the decisions to award contracts to companies like Northgate Information Services who are in it to make a profit at the expense of the most vulnerable in Welsh society.

It also makes a mockery of the stated aim of the Welsh Government to use procurement to help the Welsh economy when the outlook remains difficult for families and business.

John Dixon has got a bee in his bonnet, it is nuisance callers. He also has a solution:

No – if Alun Cairns (or any other politician) wants to stop this widespread and persistent nuisance (I reckon to get 5 to 10 calls per week), they have to do better than a code of practice on withheld numbers. It surely can't be that difficult for the police and telecoms operators to trace the people behind these scams and mount a few more prosecutions. The Telecoms companies don’t help much either – they’re happy to sell the lines and the calls to what are little short of criminal gangs, effectively acting with the complicity of the regulatory authorities.

Criminalising calls which breach the TPS guidelines, prosecuting the perpetrators – that might be a good start, not just in preventing nuisance, but in protecting the vulnerable and the gullible. It would certainly be better than doing as some have done in the past, namely feting the people behind these calls as "successful entrepreneurs".

Plaid Wrecsam are quite scathing about Carwyn Jones' statement last week on neonatal care in North Wales suggesting that he is trying to have his cake and eat it/. More to the point they simply do not believe that once this service has gone to Arrowe Park Hospital, it will ever be restored within North Wales:

Last weekend, the First Minister had the bare-faced cheek to made reference to personally needing an incubator as a new-born baby. He was fortunate to have such a service locally as a child. It’s a disgrace that he is not allowing other vulnerable new-born babies the same opportunity.

He also condemned Tory privatisation plans in England and yet is happy to send our most vulnerable babies into the arms of George Osborne and David Cameron.

The mantra that "we need a change" only works if it's change for the better. Moving a service out of Wales that we currently deliver well is not change for the better, like many of Betsi Cadwaladr's plans. We need an urgent rethink on the health board's changes because they are putting lives at risk needlessly in an effort to save money.

Aneurin Bevan would be turning in his grave if he were to see what his party has become.

Labour's credentials as the "party of the NHS" are shot to pieces, with local AM Lesley Griffiths as guilty as anyone for failing to defend Wrecsam's Special Care Baby Unit, as she promised to do so when re-elected in 2011.

Jayne Lutwyche presents an interesting little piece on women bishops in the Church of England:

Just a few days before the Synod vote, Swaziland consecrated its first female Anglican bishop – the Right Reverend Ellinah Wamukoya.

Her appointment was seen as a significant move for women’s rights in a country which has often been accused of having a patriarchal philosophy.

“I am going to try to represent the mother attribute of God,” Bishop Wamukoya told reporters.

The 61-year-old added: “A mother is a caring person but at the same time, a mother can be firm in doing whatever she is doing.”

The first female bishop ordained in the Anglican Communion was Barbara Harris in 1989. Her ordination as Suffragan Bishop for Massachusetts, in the USA, caused outrage among conservative Episcopalians (another name for Anglicans) but since then over a dozen women have been elected to the episcopate in America.

Finally, David Cornock finds that one Welsh constituency has a strange attraction for Wales Office Ministers. He says that official figures released in a parliamentary written answer say more than half the official visits made by David Jones, Stephen Crabb and Baroness Randerson have been to the key marginal constituency of Cardiff Central:

A government source suggests the figures are skewed by the location of the Wales Office's Cardiff base in Caspian Point, and the statistics include ministerial visits there.

Except, Caspian Point isn't in Cardiff Central; it's in Cardiff South and Penarth.

Stephen Crabb has now given a fuller breakdown of the figures. If they do include visits to Caspian Point, then it appears the secretary of state for Wales has yet to visit on official business either his own office or the National Assembly for Wales.

Alternatively, it's just possible the Wales Office doesn't realise which constituency its own office is in. A spokesperson tells me: "We are reviewing the figures."

Maybe we should table the same question to Welsh Government Ministers.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spiders in Cardiff

We live in interesting times. North East Wales is under several inches of snow and there is a Chilean Rose Tarantula spider allegedly loose in Cardiff. Only the discarded skin of the spider has been found so far but that has not prevented it acquiring a life of its own. It even has its own Twitter account.

I once had friends who kept pet Tarantula spiders, snakes and lizards. They misplaced one of the spiders, which are harmless by the way, and had forgotten all about it months later until they were packing up to move house and discovered the missing arachnid calmly clinging to the back of a suitcase. The people moving into that house could have had quite a shock if it had not been for that chance discovery.

The chances are that the missing Cardiff spider is still in the house where workmen discovered its skin but that has not stopped much speculation. I have to say that if I found it I would not be in a hurry to handle it, even though my friends used to do so at every opportunity. I am going to stick to cats as my pet of choice.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nick Clegg, - the most impressive of the party leaders

Over at Labour Uncut, Peter Watt the former General Secretary of the Labour Party has come to some pretty interesting conclusions about Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats:

Clegg has courted his party assiduously by meeting weekly with his MPs and ministers. And out in the constituencies Lib Dem activists have been loyal despite the losses of council seats and a fractious reception from voters on the doorsteps.

What a contrast with the ungovernable Tories and Cameron’s approach with his MPs and minsters! It is the Tories not the Lib Dems who seem to be struggling with government.

But Clegg’s real success has been on his influence on the governmental agenda. Far from being the passive partner, simply rubber stamping Tory policy, the Lib Dems have quietly secured large swathes of their own manifesto. It may not all be to Labour’s satisfaction but the pupil premium, retaining the governmental goal of ending child poverty, the banking levy, increasing capital gains tax for higher rate earners, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, delaying the replacement of Trident, pushing on with renewable energy, creating a green investment bank, stopping the closure of local post offices and increasing the numbers of apprenticeships were all Lib Dem manifesto commitments.

And the budget saw George Osborne announce that the key Lib Dem commitment of a £10,000 tax free allowance will be achieved in 2014. But whilst the tax commitment is getting the headlines Osborne also announced that there will be no further savings in welfare spending in the 2015/16 spending round which is also a significant Lib Dem victory in the face of Tory calls for further cuts.

So calamity Clegg is in fact leading a united party that is quietly getting on with securing its manifesto while their partners in government rip themselves apart over Europe and stalking horse challengers to Cameron. Certainly Tory backbenchers are pretty sure that the Lib Dems are punching well above their weight! If you are in any doubt about it just mention the boundary review to a Tory in a marginal seat and then duck.

It is little wonder that Mr. Watt concludes that Labour need to re-appraise Clegg:

He is in fact turning out to be a pretty impressive deputy prime minister and is likely to be a formidable opponent at the next election. It may be fun painting him as a lightweight and a fool.

But he is clearly neither.

In fact Nick Clegg has in many ways been the most impressive of the party leaders, and Labour may very well need his support in the weekend after the poll in May 2015.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A tax by any other name?

I found time today to call into the Post Office to pick up a letter that had been directed to my regional office but had not been delivered as there was £1.50 to pay on it.

It turned out to be a letter from the UK Border Agency concerning a constituent, responding to a query I had directed their way. Although the envelope was stamped that it had been processed by the Parliamentary estate's contractors, they had not put any postage on it.

What is worse the letter told me that 'the Home Secretary takes the view that as immigration is a matter reserved for the Westminster Parliament, I should only engage with Westminster MPs in individual immigration cases.'

As it happens they did give me some information but I had to pay £1.50 for the privilege.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Waiting for Osborne

According to today's papers George Osborne is going to use the budget to fulfil an important coalition pledge a year early. The Guardian says that the chancellor is expected to announce that moves towards a tax-free allowance of £10,000 will be brought forward a year to 2014. A planned rise in fuel duty, due to take place in September, may be delayed or even scrapped altogether.

If that is the case then that is very good news. It means that people on low wages will be £700 better off from next year as a result of the changes driven forward by the Liberal Democrats in Government. In addition it is reported that £2.5 billion will be directed into capital schemes to help kick-start the economy.

That is less than many would like to see but it is a start and is at least affordable.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Paying for higher education

If the latest claims from Finance directors of Welsh universities that the Welsh government's student fees subsidies are leaving their sector with an uncertain financial future does not cause Ministers to change their policy, it should at least give them pause for thought.

The BBC report that Universities can not be sure there will be enough money left for them after the subsidising of Welsh students who study elsewhere in the UK.:

The Welsh Higher Education Finance Directors Group says that no-one knows from year to year how many Welsh students will choose to study in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

This has led to financial uncertainty and left universities in a "considerable period of flux".

Universities in Wales see some of their money come from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (Hefcw).

But the finance directors say there is considerable doubt there is enough money in the pot to pay for the policy of subsidising tuition fees from the Hefcw teaching budget.

They said its core annual funding had dropped 36% over two years from £367m in 2010/11 to £213m in 2012/13.

If the demand exceeds the current assumed budget then they say funding will have to found from one or all of the following:
The finance directors' group said: "It is far too early to determine if any of these measures will be required or to judge which, if any, of these may be applied.

"It is also uncertain as to whether Hefcw/Welsh government can legally apply them or has the appetite to do so.

"This leaves the sector with an uncertain financial future together with the dilemma of being required to control the number of Welsh-domiciled students entering higher education in Wales while no similar control is or can be required of English universities."

The impact of the new regime on university finances has yet to be seen but anything that causes uncertainty in this way cannot be a good thing. The Welsh Government needs to find a more sustainable way of funding this important policy.

But does Ed agree with Carwyn?

The extent with which Welsh Government Minister's adopt an oppositional role to the UK Government was highlighted once again yesterday with Carwyn Jones pontificating to the media about what he would do if he were Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In many ways these little lectures are the political equivalent of a journey with a particularly garrulous taxi driver, except that the taxi driver would most probably be better informed and have an understanding of fiscal responsibility.

In fact most of the little homilies from Welsh Government Ministers have the same features, they are often ill-informed rants, that have no sense or understanding or real world issues and for that reason mostly contradict Labour's own spokespeople at Westminster.

Thus the question has to be asked, is Ed Balls or Ed Miliband really going to stand up tomorrow and demand that the UK Government increase its borrowing by £8 billion a year just so that Carwyn Jones can get his capital spending back to pre-2010 levels?

I don't think so, especially as the plans set out by Alistair Darling in 2009 would have cut Welsh Government capital spending more deeply and faster than the current Government.

Perhaps Carwyn Jones and his Ministers would be better off concentrating on getting the Welsh economy, education and health service performing as well as England's, rather than trying to do the job of Shadow Minister's in Westminster who appear to be much better informed than they are.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Deal struck on Leveson?

Today's Independent reports that last minute talks have led to the on-off cross party deal on the regulation of newspapers being on again.  Will the deal hold together long enough for Parliament to actually vote it through?

The paper says that the dramatic twist has headed off the threat of an embarrassing Commons defeat for David Cameron tonight:

The Prime Minister ended the three-party negotiations last Thursday when he rejected Labour and Liberal Democrat demands for a Royal Charter setting up a new regulatory system to be underpinned by law, and said the issue would be resolved by MPs today.

But the talks were restarted over the weekend and the differences between Mr Cameron on the one hand and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on the other were gradually whittled away. The crucial breakthrough came in a marathon session in the Labour leader’s Commons office which ended at 2.30am today. It was attended by Mr Miliband, Mr Clegg and Oliver Letwin, the Conservatives’ policy chief who produced the Royal Charter option after Mr Cameron rejected the statutory underpinning recommended by Lord Justice Leveson in his report last November. The Prime Minister did not attend the talks but was kept informed throughout.

What is interesting is how this will apply to on-line content. One blogger over the weekend suggested that the new law will seek to regulate independent blogs, however this piece by Ian Burrell suggests differently. Mr. Burrell says that the failure to address on-line content will mean that the whole issue will need to be revisited within a fairly short time.

As always the devil will be in the detail and we will need to see what is proposed and how it will work before we can agree or disagree with that judgement.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Labour at sixes and sevens over devolution of police

Yesterday's Western Mail contains an interesting revelation about the continuing tensions within the Labour Party over devolution.

The paper says that Carwyn Jones was given a “roasting” by Welsh MPs during a meeting at Westminster over his plan to have policing powers devolved to Wales:

A senior Labour source said many Welsh Labour MPs were angry that the policy had been announced by the First Minister without it having gone through normal party processes and without them having been consulted. 

We have also been told it was made clear to Mr Jones that such a transfer of powers would not be a priority during the first term of an incoming Labour government if the party wins the next general election in 2015. 

The party source told us a message to that effect had been conveyed to Mr Jones with the authority of Ed Miliband, although last night the party leader’s spokesman denied that was the case.

As the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson said “This is very embarrassing for Carwyn Jones. While he may be First Minister in Wales, it is clear from the reaction of his MPs that he does not lead his party. 

“When the Welsh Labour Government published its submission to the Silk Commission, while Welsh Labour were talking about how they were standing up for Wales, the question on everyone else’s lips was 

‘Have these proposals been given the OK by the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and the leader, Ed Miliband?’ Nothing will happen on devolution in Westminster in the Labour party unless it gets the backing of the MPs. Carwyn Jones was very naive to think otherwise. 

“It seems there is a clear split in the Labour Party when it comes to devolution and the attitude of the Welsh Labour MPs reveals Carwyn Jones’ weakness as a leader. Labour’s attitude towards the most senior elected Labour politician in the country is akin to the previous UK Labour Government’s attitude towards Wales."

In other words it is the same-old schizophrenic Labour Party.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In the public interest

The Telegraph has a quite shocking story about an attempt by an NHS Trust in England to silence an MP, who was trying to do his job by raising concerns about the deaths of two patients.

The paper says that Steve Baker was given legal advice that Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust could be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter after an elderly patient who should not have been on solids died after being given the wrong food.

However, when the MP told the trust’s chief executive Anne Eden he intended to raise the prospect of charges in a radio interview, she told him that legal action would be sought to protect the trust's reputation:

"This is a matter of public interest being raised by a Member of Parliament in good faith,” he told the Commons. 

 “But I have had to rely on (Parliamentary) privilege to protect myself from being sued on this matter.

"It is not acceptable that such a matter should have to come to a Member of Parliament simply to rely upon privilege.

If that is the case then that is shocking. No public body should be allowed to resort to the courts to prevent the proper scrutiny of its actions. Equally, an MP should not have to resort to Parliamentary privilege to raise legitimate matters of concern on behalf of his constituents.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Night of the blunt knives

Carwyn Jones has a reputation as a First Minister who does not like making difficult decisions. His bloodless reshuffle yesterday evening lived up to that expectation.

As everybody had speculated, Lesley Griffiths was replaced by Professor Mark Drakeford AM, but she remained in the cabinet, in charge of local government and government business. The Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs was promoted to the cabinet but instead of anybody being removed to make room for him, the First Minister just squeezed him in and kept the correct quota of Ministers by having one less deputy.

The rest of the reshuffle was essentially a reordering of responsibilities amongst the existing ministers. The biggest impact will be on the printing of business cards.

I cannot help but think that we deserve better. Under Welsh Labour we now have a health service teetering on the brink, a poorly funded education system and an economy that is crawling behind the rest of the UK.

Perhaps Carwyn should have spilt some political blood after all.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Finding the new Pope on Google

Like many others last night I was left puzzled and bemused by the choice of the new Pope. To put it simply I had not heard of him and was left having to resort to search engines to discover more.

If Climate Change Minister' Greg Barker's account in today's Telegraph is to be believed however, I was not alone in this endeavour. Sometimes the Cardinals themselves know little or nothing about the candidates:

The Climate Change minister was seated beside Cardinal Peter Turkson at a dinner he attended last year as a member of the delegation that Baroness Varsi led to the Vatican to mark the 30th anniversary of full diplomatic links between Britain and the Holy See.

“I asked the cardinal if he had taken part in the vote for Benedict XVI and he said that he had, but, as a relatively new cardinal at the time from sub-Saharan Africa, he wasn’t altogether familiar with the form,” says Barker.

“It was explained to him that all the cardinals who were taking part in the vote would be given folders with information about the candidates to assist them as they made their choices. When he got his folders, he found, however, the barest biographical information in them, which wasn’t, really, a lot of help.”

So Barker wondered how Turkson, who has been talked about as a potential successor to Benedict XVI, managed to make his choice.

“Well, I digested what information I had, listened to the conversations that took place in the room at the Vatican the cardinals had, and then I got down on my knees in prayer to ask for guidance.

“And then I went online and looked up the main candidates to find out what I could about them.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Unexpected deal on Leveson close

Today's Independent reports that the three leading political parties are close to signing up to a historic Royal Charter to implement the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson on reforming regulation of the press.

They say that it is expected that the Royal Charter will be supported by statutory underpinning, with a clause inserted into existing government legislation in order to prevent future changes to the document without the authority of a substantial majority in Parliament.

Given where we where when the report first came out, with Clegg and Miliband ganging up on Cameron, that is quite a turn-around. It shows that agreement can be reached in politics on the most unlikeliest of issues.

Let us hope they pull it off.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

IDS fails to go far enough on housing benefit

Today's Guardian reports on an important but partial u-turn by Iain Duncan Smith on planned changes to housing benefit that will penalise under-occupation of properties by claimants.

The paper says that the Secretary of State has now exempted foster carers and armed forces personnel who live at home from changes, so that their families will no longer be penalised if they have a bedroom reserved for those groups:

The changes will mean that about 5,000 approved foster carers will be allowed an additional room as long as they have fostered a child or become a registered carer in the past 12 months.

Adult offspring in the armed forces who are away on operations will be counted as continuing to live at home, as long as they intend to return home.

Duncan Smith also said he had issued guidance to local authorities emphasising that discretionary payments would be available to support "other priority groups" affected, including "people whose homes have had significant disability adaptations and those with long-term medical conditions that create difficulties

I understand that a change was also made yesterday so that disabled children will no longer have to share a bedroom.

All of this is very welcome of course but it does not go far enough. In fact the changes have introduced more inconsistencies into the process. Why for example will co-habiting disabled adults who need their own room be penalised when disabled children are exempt? Why can a room be set aside without penalty for the carer of a disabled adult but not the carer of a disabled child?

The Government have shown that they are willing to listen on this issue. They need to keep on listening and make more changes until they get it right.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Councillors for hire

Today's Telegraph story that Councillors across England are offering themselves for hire to property developers is actually quite shocking. It is simply not good enough to say that Councillors cannot involve themselves in planning applications in which they have an interest. Lines can become blurred and as one councillor in the article admits,  although he has to follow rules on planning, there are ways around the formalities.

The paper says that these local government politicians are trading on their inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved. They say that one lobbying company is boasting to potential clients that it employs councillors who sit on local authority committees:

An undercover investigation by this newspaper also found that councillors who have set up their own consultancy services are offering to help push through planning applications.

One Tory councillor in East Devon, Graham Brown, boasted: “If I can’t get planning, nobody will.”

The councillor claimed he preferred to keep a low profile, but had “access to all the right people for the right clients”. He added: “[I] don’t come cheap. I mean, there are jobs that I do for £1,000, and there are jobs that I do for £20,000 … if I turn a greenfield into a housing estate and I’m earning the developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for peanuts.”

There are strict guidelines on how councillors deal with planning applications. It is my view that even though this activity is legal, it verges on an abuse of the spirit of those guidelines. By all means act as a consultant once you have ceased to be a councillor but to do so whilst still a member with all the privileges and access that entails just leaves too many unanswered questions about propriety and transparency as well as what clients think they are paying for.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Marching through gunfire

It is good that despite all the negative sniping and biased write-ups in the media that at least one national newspaper is prepared to recognise the achievements of the Liberal Democrats in Government. Today's Independent on Sunday has a blisteringly good editorial in which they praise the party's resilience and its achievements:

[The] party is gathered in Brighton for its spring conference this weekend in better heart than it has been at any time since that glad confident morning in the Downing Street garden. The immediate source of its good spirit was its success in holding Huhne's seat in Eastleigh in the by-election last month. Simply holding on is a huge achievement for a government party at a time of economic gloom and anti-politics mood. For the Liberal Democrats, after their travails and when their standing in national opinion polls is well below half their share of the vote at the general election, it seems miraculous.

Two lessons may be learnt from this. One is that the personal conduct of the party's leaders, acknowledged or alleged, has not detracted from voters' assessment of Lib Dem policies and values. The other is that the party will be a large presence in the House of Commons after the next general election, as it has proved that it can defend most of the 57 seats that it holds.

Yet the party is buoyant because it is more than just a vote-harvesting machine. Its members believe that they have shown maturity as a party of government, and that they have made a difference as a junior coalition partner, which the voters have recognised and for which they will be rewarded. Whereas for journalists, "coalition tensions" has been one of the easiest headlines to write every day for nearly three years, for the Lib Dems, those tensions are the point of pluralist government.

They have prevented the Conservatives from doing things which are not in the national interest, such as scrapping the Human Rights Act or wasting a tax break on marriage. And they have persuaded the Tories to do things that they might not have done, such as raising the income tax threshold.

The paper concludes:

Despite everything, Mr Clegg's party is still with us, and still fighting for many of the values shared by The Independent on Sunday. They are the greenest of the three main parties, the most pro-European and they are the party that, 10 years ago this month, opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Their record in government has been mixed. But, for a party that was last in office in 1945, to have a record in government at all is an achievement. A Liberal leader once urged the party to march towards the sound of gunfire. Now, as Liberal Democrats, they are going through the gunfire. And they are still standing.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Putting the media into perspective #ldconf

I am not at the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference in Brighton. I find that two spring conferences puts a strain on my time and in any case the Welsh Conference is far more important. It is also the case that after 32 years of attending Federal party conference I am bit bored with them. I am sure that I will recover my interest by the time that Glasgow comes around in September.

Despite all that I was tempted to make the effort if only to vote against the latest lunacy from the Lembit Opik camp. As the Daily Mail reported a month ago Lembit and his cronies tabled a constitutional amendment that would have meant that a leadership contest could be triggered by a vote of no confidence in the Leader passed by a two-thirds majority at a spring or autumn conference.

The Daily Mail and other papers of course made a big thing of this attempt to unseat Nick Clegg. At a time when all the media was gleefully seizing on anything and everything so as to undermine the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to the Eastleigh by-election, this was catnip to them.

Of course some of the other stories had more substance to them and posed serious questions for the leadership to answer, though in many instances the way that they were overplayed could be scarcely justified.  This attempt by Lembit and company to secure their 15 minutes in the sun however, was never really a goer and in no way justified the space the Daily Mail and the rest of the media devoted to it.

As a good example of journalists overplaying their hand it is worth noting that when the constitutoinal amendment came before conference this morning it not only failed to secure a two thirds majority, in fact it attracted less than ten votes. Not so much a coup as a damp squib. I bet the Daily Mail does not report it like that though.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Come dine with me?

Today's Independent reports that Rupert Murdoch courting UKIP leader, Nigel Farage or is it the other way around? In any case it seems that the two had dinner at the News Corp chief's London home on Tuesday, five days after Ukip pushed the Tories into third place.

Is this a sign that the Murdoch press is about to swing behind UKIP? Certainly Murdochs' twitter account indicates that he believes Farage is reflecting public opinion. We will have to see.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Holding out for a hero

It has been announced that Skewen girl, Bonnie Tyler is to represent the UK at the Eurovision song contest. A small part of Skewen will be represented in Sweden.

I have raised a Statement of Opinion at the National Assembly for Wales, so I will be urging all Assembly Members to show their support by congratulating and backing Bonnie.

I am sure she will do Wales proud as well as the whole of the UK at Eurovision this year.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Popularism and the Labour Party

This morning's Independent highlights the latest attempt by Ed Miliband to recover some traction after his party's disastrous showing in the Eastleigh by-election.  They say that the Labour Leader Ed Miliband is planning to toughen his party's policy on immigration today by promising that Labour will cut the number of people coming to this country to take low-skilled jobs:

In a party political broadcast devoted to the sensitive issue, Mr Miliband will admit that the previous Labour Government got it "wrong" on immigration and failed to understand people's concerns.

He will announce that, if Labour regains power, English language teaching for migrants would be given greater priority and all state workers in face-to-face contact with the public would have to be able to speak English. Labour would also bring in measures to reduce the UK's "pull factor" for people coming in to take up low-skilled jobs, following criticism that they squeeze out British workers.

What he does not say is how he will achieve that whilst staying within the European Union. More to the point this sort of popularism does not help make the case that immigration can be good for our economy and bring clear benefits to the country.

We have to get the balance right, ensuring wherever possible that immigration flows meet our economic and workforce needs, however having the opposition leader appealing to the lowest common denominator in this way will not help that objective.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Drawing lessons

There is an interesting article in today's Western Mail, which is based on research carried out by Labour's Shadow Welsh Secretary, Owen Smith. 

Mr. Smith has discovered official figures that show that living standards in Wales have gone down further than in almost every country in Europe over the last two years.

He has revealed that a comparison of salaries against inflation across the EU between the third quarter of 2010 and the third quarter of 2012 has shown that real value of pay in the UK declined by 3.2%. Only three of the 27 member states – Greece, -10.3%: Cyprus, -4.6% and Netherlands, -3.8% – did worse.

He argues that the fact that wages in Wales were on average £32.10 per week lower in 2012 in real terms than in 2010, the equivalent of a £1,699 fall in yearly pay means that we are relatively worse off than the rest of the UK.

Mr. Smith naturally blames the UK Coalition Government for this but that does not follow at all. If Wales is doing comparatively worse than the rest of the UK, then surely the place to look for an explanation is in the differences between the two. Fourteen years of Labour Government, over a billion pounds of European money and different micro-economic policies appear to have served Wales very badly indeed.

Labour have been operating the economic levers in Wales and have let us down. Owen Smith should be asking Carwyn Jones to change course, not George Osborne.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Tories in search of a USP

The shock of coming third behind Eastleigh has obviously affected the Conservatives badly. The weekend has seen a succession of Ministers throwing out initiatives and ideas to recapture their party's zeitgeist all, it has to be said with little affect.

The one constant amongst this flow of consciousness is the re-emergence of the Human Rights as the target of Tory hatred. Both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary have separately threatened to draw back from the European Court on Human Rights despite the fact that they know that their coalition partners and treaty obligations make this a non-starter.

Nevertheless, this sort of threat is not one that can be allowed to go unchallenged and, as the Independent reports, leading lawyers and human rights advocates have picked up the gauntlet. They have warned that ministers risk making the UK a pariah state alongside Belarus, which is the only European country that has not signed the European Convention on Human Rights:

In conflicting statements, Mr Grayling indicated the Tories would abolish the Human Rights Act in the UK while it was reported that Ms May wanted a pledge in the next Conservative manifesto to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “Churchill must be spinning in his grave as modern Tory Cabinet ministers trash his post-war legacy.

“They can’t even seem to agree on whether it’s the Human Rights Act or European Convention they want to scrap.” Both ideas are currently being blocked by the Liberal Democrats from becoming Government policy.

Only Belarus has not signed up to the landmark ECHR treaty, drawn up in the aftermath of the Second World War, largely at the behest of Winston Churchill.

The leading human rights barrister Ben Emmerson QC accused the two ministers of working in a political pincer movement: “The increasingly shrill rhetoric from Theresa May is beginning to sound decidedly unhinged. There is not the slightest prospect of the UK pulling out of the European Convention before the next election.”

“In Europe and the UN the UK is seen as having lost the plot. The UK’s international reputation as a leader on the rule of law and human rights is plummeting at an alarming rate and with it our ability to influence other states. I cannot recall a time since 2003 when the UK’s international reputation has fallen farther and faster.”

I think that sums it up nicely.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Restricting Executive Pay

Those Tories who took to the airwaves to condemn a new European Union law to cap bankers' bonuses sounded unconvincing at the time and look even sillier now, with Switzerland on the verge of voting in favour of the measure.

The problem faced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his attempt to modify the proposals is that he is being torpedoed by the bankers themselves, who have a knack of demonstrating a stunning lack of tact and self-awareness at the most inappropriate time.

This time it is the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is mostly state-owned, and who handed out £600m in bonuses last week despite making a loss of more than £5bn in 2012. Even the RBS chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, conceded that the bonuses were "tough to swallow" for a public that is seeing real incomes fall, benefits cut and taxes rise.  And yet they still did it!  

The argument being put about by Tories such as Boris Johnson is that the City of London is a major driver of the UK economy and that any restraint on bonuses will send all the talent scurrying off to Switzerland, New York and the Far East. Where does that argument stand now that Switzerland looks like toughening its own rules substantially?  

It is time we made a stand. At a time of austerity there is no excuse for allowing the excesses of the banking industry to continue. After all it is not as if they are lending to small businesses or helping to kick-start the manufacturing sector. Perhaps we should be more subtle and link bonuses to that sort of activity rather than the more esoteric bond markets. At least that would concentrate minds a bit more on what really matters.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Eastleigh: the recriminations continue

Afrter the fairly traumatic week and a half that the Liberal Democrats have had, I hope I can be forgiven for looking at the tribulations of the other mainstream parties stemming from the result of the Eastleigh by-election.

Without a doubt it seems that it is Cameron who is in the most trouble. His party came third of course in a seat they should have won and already we can hear the knives being sharpened.

The Independent reports that Conservative MPs have rounded on their leader to demand a dramatic change of direction in his leadership amid fears about the growing threat posed by the UK Independence Party:

Mr Cameron and senior ministers insisted they had suffered from a mid-term "protest vote" that had boosted Ukip support but would melt away when the country went to the polls in 2015. They firmly dismissed suggestions that the Prime Minister would alter direction. But Michael Fabricant, the Tory vice-chairman in charge of parliamentary campaigning, said Ukip had evolved and no longer only appealed to people hostile to the European Union.

He said: "It also speaks to voters concerned about issues such as law and order, immigration, benefits and so forth.

"This has traditionally been the Conservative blue-collar vote which we are at risk of losing. We need to become better at communicating the work we are doing in so many areas to reflect the heartfelt views of British voters.” Mr Fabricant, who has previously called for an electoral pact with Ukip, added: “The Conservative Party needs to find itself a new voice that speaks with clarity to a sceptical and tired electorate.

“Unless we do that, and if Ukip is able to attract the finance and logistical skills it currently lacks to fight an effective general election campaign, then the dynamic of British politics might be changed for decades to come.”

Right-wingers protested that, under Mr Cameron, the party had lost its rapport with its natural supporters over such issues as Europe, immigration and gay marriage.

Stewart Jackson, who resigned as a ministerial aide over Europe, said: “He is out of touch with the party. Both gay marriage and EU migration feed into a narrative that too much emphasis is going to the liberal metropolitan elite and not enough to the blue-collar working vote Margaret Thatcher had the support of.”

There is also a backlash against Ed Miliband, whose party frankly should have done much better if it is to live up to its claim to represent the whole nation. The Telegraph says that one Labour MP described the outcome in the by-election as a “disaster” for his party and called for a new approach by Mr Miliband:

Austin Mitchell, a Labour MP, posted a Twitter message expressing worries about the by-election and suggesting Labour needs a new “nationalist” approach. 

He wrote: “Eastleigh disaster. Labour needs a nationalist appeal. The nation is being betrayed, weakened and sold down river. We sd say so”. Paul Richards, a former Labour adviser, said the party should be worried about the Eastleigh result. 

“Doing as well as we did in our second-worst-ever election defeat is not much consolation,” he wrote for the Progress think-tank. 

 “At the 1994 Eastleigh by-election, on the road to the landslide, Labour came second in Eastleigh, and the governing party came third. We were never going to win this time, but that there were no signs at all of a switch to Labour is a huge cause for concern.” 

After nearly three years in Government it is nice to see other parties suffering for a change.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Liberal Democrats victory offers hope for future

The Liberal Democrats vivtory in the Eastleigh by-election was a huge relief for me and the thousands of activists who worked so hard to ensure that Mike Thornton succeeded Chris Huhne as the local MP. It was the most difficult by-election I have ever been involved in not least because of the circumstances that led to it being called, but also because of the dreadful headlines over the last week and the turmoil in the party they generated.

What is important about this victory is that it shows that the Liberal Democrats cannot be easily written off despite the best efforts of our opponents. We showed that we can still win difficult by-elections and that we can do so whilst in government. It will not be easy to prise us out of our strongholds in 2015 and if the economy shows signs of recovery at that time we may even do better than hold our own.

It was a good by-election for UKIP as well. They harvested the protest votes that have benefited the Liberal Democrats in the past, but they did not have the ground campaign to capitalise properly. That will prove their weakness as they seek to win in other elections outside of next year's Europeans.

For Labour and the Tories, it was a disaster. The Conservatives saw themselves beated into third place by UKIP in a seat that by rights they should have won. It was a verdict on Cameron but more so on the quality of their candidate. However, there are now huge doubts that the Tories can ever do enough to win an overall majority in 2015. The pressure on Cameron internally will increase and that will impact even more on his party's electability.

The real loser however was Ed Miliband and Labour. Excuses that this is not natural Labour territory will not wash. The fact is that Labour came a good second in1994 and given the economic situation and the problems faced by the two governing parties, they should have done much better.

Labour's poor performance suggests that the current polls flatter them. Do they have what it takes to win the next election? Is Ed Miliband seen as a potential Prime Minister? This result suggests that the answer is no. If Labour is going to win the next election they should have won Eastleigh. They were not even close. It really is all to play for in 2015.

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