Sunday, November 30, 2003
The big Con?
It is possible that because I am a politician I am too cynical. We all make noises about wanting to listen more and to take account of other people's views when making decisions. Most of us mean it. I am sure therefore that the Big Conversation
is perfectly sincere and legitimate. The fact that the Prime Minister only seems to be talking to his own party may well be significant but then so might the fact that most of the questions are loaded and do not in any way lead the Government to even think about back-tracking on policies such as top-up fees. However, what did it for me was the website.
The idea that this is some sort of Government consultation, which is encouraged though never claimed explicitly, is blown apart by the fact that if you look carefully the website is in fact a Labour Party one. You do have to look for it though and pay some attention to what is said on it. Furthermore, if you decide that you want to pass on the three big issues that you think Britain faces, you are invited to do so only after giving vast amounts of information about yourself. Admittedly, most of this information is not compulsory but in most cases that will escape the average browser. E-mail addresses, party loyalties, previous voting records, telephone numbers and propensity to vote, if passed on via this website will all be spun into the great Labour Central Office computer and used as part of their re-election campaign.
In modern elections the amount of information that a party holds on the electorate can be crucial to winning or losing. It enables them to target messages, identify supporters and get out the vote. The big idea then is clearly not just one of consultation, it is to add to that store of knowledge about each and everyone of us held in Labour's databanks. Now why didn't I think of it first?
Friday, November 28, 2003
My friend David Ford
has been re-elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly
. David is the leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. He was defending the sixth and last seat in South Antrim. He was under intense pressure from Sinn Fein to hold this seat, which is why my colleagues and I travelled over there on Monday to help out. In the end David held on by 180 votes and was elected on the eleventh count after two days of counting - this is an STV election after all! Could he not have found a more marginal seat?
The Alliance Party seem to have held onto all of their six seats despite a strong squeeze from both the DUP and Sinn Fein. The bad news in terms of establishing a stable government in Northern Ireland is that these two parties have now secured more seats than their more moderate equivalents. Whereas it was possible to see the UUP and the SDLP working together in a power sharing executive, it is not so likely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will follow suit. Unless there is fundamental reform of the Northern Ireland Assembly to remove the institutional sectarianism that it is built on then we may well look back on these elections as a blind alley for the peace process and devolution.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
I have been holding back posting this until the record of proceedings for yesterday's Plenary in the National Assembly was published. This is because I did not want to get it wrong and because to capture the atmosphere of unreality that pervaded questions to the Health Minister I needed to quote extensively and I cannot write that fast.
Listening to Jane Hutt yesterday was a surreal experience. It was as if we had all slipped into an alternative universe where the growing waiting times for operations in the Welsh Health service do not exist, people do not get ill and all the problems of financial deficits, staff shortages, over-loaded casualty departments, closing maternity units, the shortage of beds and bed-blocking are a figment of our imagination. Here is an example:
Nick Bourne: You will be aware that we have had more disastrous
news on hospital waiting lists today-they went up again. I gather that, at today's meeting of the Health and Social Services Committee, you made an undertaking that no patient, from April 2004, will wait over 18 months for treatment. I hope that that promise will be worth more than the similar promise made in Labour's 1999 manifesto. Given that 14,000 people are currently waiting 18 months and more for in-patient and out-patient care, will you make greater use of the independent sector, with public money, to ensure that we can get waiting lists down? Otherwise, you will not, will you, Minister?
Jane Hutt: We certainly have not had disastrous news today, Nick, in relation to waiting times. To the end of October, waiting times figures show that there has been steady progress across all areas. I know that you do not like to recognise progress, but the number waiting 6 months for a first out-patient appointment is down over the month, and there were 10,000 fewer people waiting at the end of October this year than at the same time last year. The figures also show that our drive to carry out tonsillectomy operations as quickly as possible is having real effect-I put £3 million into that. Significant progress has also been made in reducing cardiac waiting times, with no-one waiting over 12 months; the figure will be reducing to 10 and 9 months. Therefore, we have made progress.
And it went on:
Rhodri Glyn Thomas: The Minister's ability to turn bad news into good is amazing. She believes that she can persuade us all that this is good news if she speaks at sufficient length. The truth is that waiting lists have doubled during her time as Minister with responsibility for those lists. Will she accept that the Wanless report states that one step that must be taken to deal with the problem of waiting lists is to ensure that we consider those hospital patients who do not need to be in hospital? We must consider the need for care sector beds, and transfer patients from hospital to the care of social services. That is the Minister's responsibility in dealing with waiting lists.Jane Hutt: That is why I took action in July, in announcing £4 million to tackle delayed transfers of care, and giving the responsibility to local health boards. On the basis of plans that the local health boards would present to me, an allocation was made as to the targets by which they could reduce delayed transfers of care. Over the past two years, we have provided £17 million to local authorities to discharge their responsibility in this regard, and we are monitoring that carefully. Already, over 100 beds have been released as a result of the first tranche, which is an additional £4 million in funding.
And then it got really surreal.
Ieuan Wyn Jones: One way to measure success in the future is to look at past performance. The Minister has suggested-and the figures show this-that there has been a very small drop in the number of people who are waiting for hospital treatment and for out-patient treatment. During the first four years of the Assembly, the waiting list for hospital treatment rose by 204 per cent, and the waiting list for out-patient treatment rose by over 1,000 per cent. Who was responsible for that?
Jane Hutt: You always insist on referring back to issues around treatment and waiting times. They are vital, and I have already addressed them in answer to questions today, but are we going to measure the success of Government on the basis of improved health? If cancer survival rates are improving, which they are, and heart disease rates are falling, which they are, and our mental health services are improving, then we know that we are making progress. If you want to judge us on delivery, we have increased the numbers of staff by 12,800, increased medical education places by 89 per cent, and doubled the numbers of nurse training places. The people of Wales will judge us on that basis. I hope that you will take note of the targets and indicators for older people, which include targets to reduce hip fractures and stroke mortality, and that you will judge us on that basis also.
Ieuan Wyn Jones: It is interesting that you should accuse opposition Members of using waiting lists to measure your success, when your colleague, Gareth Thomas, a Welsh Labour Member of Parliament-[Interruption.] Directly elected, of course.
Nick Bourne: At the moment.
Ieuan Wyn Jones: For the moment, yes. He used a House of Commons debate to attack you for failing to reduce waiting lists. This matter is not just being raised by opposition parties, but by your party in Westminster. In addition, those Labour MPs went to see the First Minister, because they were not confident that you could tackle the issue. Against that background, how can we be confident that the situation will improve over the next four years?
Jane Hutt: It is a question of striking a balance between short-term measures and the long-term measures that we are taking to improve health. That is the strong message from Derek Wanless's review of health and social care. We need to be monitored, measured and scrutinised against our target waiting times. We have made progress. In July 2001 over 100 people were waiting more than a year for heart surgery. That wait has reduced to less than a year, at 10 or nine months. In July 2001, over 2,000 people were waiting for orthopaedic treatment; that is now down to 34 people. The Assembly is aware of the targets and we are making progress. There are 10,000 fewer people waiting over six months for an out-patient appointment now, compared with the number waiting this time last year. I recognise the short-term priorities. That is why I announced a new initiative, which was widely welcomed here, to ensure that patients had a second offer guarantee. I know that you will test me on the delivery of that guarantee, but let us also look to the long-term agenda of health gain.
By the time the Tory health spokesperson stood up we were all looking around for to check that we were indeed in the correct time space continuum.
Jonathan Morgan: According to today's figures, over 5,000 people are waiting over 18 months for in-patient treatment and over 9,000 people are waiting over 18 months for out-patient treatment. That is 14,000 people in total. Are you telling the Assembly, further to your comments in the Health and Social Services Committee this morning, that all those people will be treated by April 2004? If that is the case, how much will it cost and when will you start to consider the time that it takes to see the consultant?
Jane Hutt: You know from the statement that I made last week that the new initiative, on the second offer guarantee, relates to people who have been waiting over 18 months for in-patient and daycase treatment. We are looking to extend the responsibilities of local health boards to reduce the wait for out-patient appointments. I have already given the figures on the drop of 10,000 in the number of people waiting since this time last year.
No wonder people don't believe politicians anymore.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Plato, Socrates and all that
I suppose that it was inevitable that the 30,000th Assembly Question should be asked in Plenary by the very erudite and well-respected Tory devolutionist, David Melding
. Typically his question was on the teaching of classics in secondary schools. When the question is asked in the pub, "What did the Romans do for us?" then our young people should be able to provide an adequate answer, he asserted. I agree. Later in a debate on the reform of the Common Agriculture Policy a Labour AM referred to a "sheep monoculture". I didn't actually know that sheep had a culture. If they do will it be based on a classical education?
Another one runs for cover
Council Tax revolt
The debate on rebanding of properties for Council Tax in the National Assembly yesterday was another stage in a wider discussion on how we fund local government in the future. Welsh Liberal Democrats argued that this exercise was just tinkering with an inadequate tax, that it would just exacerbate inequities and that the real debate should be about replacing Council Tax altogether with a local income tax based on the ability to pay. This argument was rejected by Labour and the Tories who want to perpetuate the status quo it seems. However, there are real issues with regards to affordability as Council Tax levels look to rise substantially next year in Wales due to an inadequate local government settlement. The Western Mail
reports this morning that taxpayers in Neath Port Talbot are threatening a revolt if their band D Council tax reaches £1000 a year, as it is threatening to do. I am sure that they will be joined by others. Pensioners are particularly badly hit by this policy. There needs to be real reform not tinkering and as soon as the Labour Government recognise that then the better.
Interesting report from the Institute of Welsh Affairs on how the Welsh Assembly is funded. At least two of the opposition parties in the Assembly, the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, have been arguing from the beginning that the Barnett formula, by which the devolved settlement in Wales is funded, is unfair as it does not reflect our needs. An article in the IWA publication, "Second Term Challenge"
by Professor Iain McLean, who is a fellow of Nuffield College in Oxford, argues that London gets more government spending per head of population over devolved issues like education and health than Wales, despite the fact that the UK Capital City is richer. A "Needs Assessment" for the Treasury in 1979 showed that while Welsh spending per head was 6% above the English level, Welsh "needs" for spending on domestic services were 9% ahead. As Wales has got poorer since then in relation to England then this "needs" gap has got worse. Professor McLean has updated these figures. He has found that public spending on devolved services in Greater London was £3,431 per head in 2001 against £3,289 in Wales. But while Greater London had a GDP per head of £16,859, the equivalent figure in Wales was just £10,449. Because the Barnett formula is designed to secure a convergence of spend per head between Wales and England then this gap will widen still further as public spending increases.
This article is a devastating indictment of the inertia of successive governments and underlines more than any other work I have seen how much the 1998 devolution settlement was cobbled together by New Labour without any real thought as to how it would work. The fact is that despite increases in expenditure under successive Comprehensive Spending Reviews, Wales is already feeling the pinch. We are trying to pursue a distinct agenda to meet very real needs but do not have the resources to do that. Whether it is free bus travel for pensioners, the NHS, school class sizes, student support or housing, all of the budgets are being squeezed and are proving inadequate to the task. It is time that New Labour in the UK and Wales woke up and started to deal with this funding issue.
Tuesday, November 25, 2003
I picked up a wonderful piece of innocent gossip today but even I am not indiscreet enough to repeat it here. Suffice to say that there is an hitherto unknown link between England's World Cup winning Rugby Union Team and the Assembly. I really don't think the media is mature enough to cope with any more. :-))
Fame at last
It seems that news about this blog is spreading far and wide. I have now been asked to talk to some academics from Salford who are researching e-democracy. They want to come and interview me about how the internet can open up the political process and specifically about this blog. Meanwhile, proof that these weighty pronouncements are required reading for the Welsh media comes in yesterday's South Wales Echo. Alas there is no electronic link to the article but they have picked up on my little rant about House Committee on Thursday 20 November
. Under the headline "Media Mauled" they report that "politicians have attacked the media's 'immature' coverage of the National Assembly. Oops!
I spent the whole of yesterday in Northern Ireland helping Alliance Party candidates in their Assembly Elections, which take place on Wednesday. This was an enjoyable experience, though the seven hours or so I spent leafletting in the cold and the rain seems to have left me with a small cold this morning. The interesting part of the trip for a sad political hack like me was the opportunity to campaign in an election being fought under the single transferable vote system of election. This is the most proportional method of fair voting. Essentially, six MLAs are elected from each Westminster constituency, by people voting in order of preference. The winning candidates need to secure a certain proportion of the vote (or quota) before they are elected and this is achieved by transferring surplus votes until a result has been achieved. This can lead to long counts. In East Antrim for example there is something like 40 candidates. All the ballot papers are counted manually, although there are faster computerised ways of carrying out the necessary transfers and calculations, and as this constituency is likely to be close then a result might take up to 48 hours to be reached. The tactics that are deployed in these elections are not as sophisticated as in the south but nevertheless are effective. Parties promote different candidates for the first preference vote in different parts of the constituency, whilst tactical voting is alos prevalent, especially as majorities are much smaller due to the method of voting.
The tragedy of course is that after this display of intense democratic activity the Northern Ireland Assembly may never get to meet. The sectarianism that has plagued the province for so many years has been institutionalised in the constitution of the Assembly. With the likelihood of gains for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, the chances of a cross party executive being agreed is unlikely. Furthermore, even if one could be brokered the fact that a First Minister needs to secure a majority of both Unionists and Nationalists means that with the first group at least that is not likely to happen. The last time this deadlock was reached it was only broken after some Alliance Party MLAs agreed to reclassify themselves as Unionists just for the vote, switching back to their neutral stance straight afterwards. They have said that they will not do that again and that the solution must lie in a reform of the Assembly so that it deals with issues and not divisions. They are right. There is so much that needs to be done in the Province. Surely, if they are to have legislative devolution then it must be used to govern Northern Ireland, not as a political football to promote sectarian divisions. The short term fixes that have got the peace process so far will shortly hit a brick wall. It is at that point that the real talking must begin, the posturing must stop and the compromises made. If that does not happen then I fear that the Province will slip back into violence. That would be very very sad.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
Welsh Freemasons consider that because the Welsh Assembly has singled them out as an organisation, the membership of which is declarable by AMs, that we are pursuing a class war
against them. What nonsense. It would be interesting to ask them what class they might belong to. Personally, I had never thought of the Freemasons in those terms. I would not wish to belong to a closed and secretive organisation. I am opposed to members of such organisations using their membership to secure influence in a non-accountable way. That is why I believe that it is right that if an AM is a Freemason then he should declare it openly for all to see. I would apply the same criteria to AMs whose partners are Freemasons and also to Civil Servants. What I do acknowledge is that Freemasonry is not the only such organisation. That is why it is right that we change our standing orders early next year to remove the discriminatory provision and apply it to all bodies that AMs may be a member of. After all I would also want to know if my political representative is a member of the Cardiff and County Club, Greenpeace and the Mumbles Yacht Club even though completely different criteria apply to all of these. That sort of information enables the electorate to draw their own conclusions about the allegiances and loyalties of politicians. It also protects the politician from accusations that they are trying to hide something.
Saturday, November 22, 2003
Wales' First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, must be breathing a small sigh of relief today. After two defeats on key votes last week due to the illness of a Labour AM and the possibility of more of the same next week, he now has the prospect of some relief for his slim majority in the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, Kirsty Williams is expecting her second child. This means that she is likely to be on maternity leave for the second part of the spring term. Rhodri should not take too much for granted however, Kirsty may well still turn up unexpectedly for major votes. Furthermore, the position in his own party is far from settled. The selection of an all-women shortlist in Blaenau Gwent
last night has left that local party in open revolt. The local AM, Peter Law, is threatening to stand as an independent, a prospect that could see Labour lose that seat in Westminster whilst also losing their majority in the Assembly.
In addition, there is also a major schism developing within Welsh Labour over the Richard Commission. This body was set up by the previous Labour-Welsh Liberal Democrat Partnership Government to look at the powers of the National Assembly. The indications are that when it reports in February 2004 that it will recommend primary law making powers and an increase in the size of the Welsh Assembly to 80 members. That will provoke an all-mighty row within Welsh Labour. Rhodri is already starting to backtrack on this report, even though the likely outcome may well reflect his own personal views. He is indicating that the conclusions of the Richard Commission will be buried in an internal Welsh Labour Party consultation exercise
. Once more the interests of the party are being put above those of the nation. Welsh Labour's arrogance and belief in its own destiny to rule Wales is blocking fundamental reforms that do not work in their favour. That form of political corruption has been prevalent in Welsh Local Government for decades, perhaps it was too much to expect that given the opportunity Welsh Labour would embrace inclusiveness and put its own interests and internal divisions to one side so as to work for the greater good.
Bush in the North East
Pictures this morning of the President of United States
in an English pub, tentatively grasping a beer pump, underlined how shallow politics can get sometimes. Presumably, the great pub lunch was meant to portray these two leaders of the Western World as men of the people. It is a shame that real people could not get within miles of the actual event.
Mmm! 13 Councils against, 8 for and one to vote
. The golden egg is made of fool's gold for the Labour Assembly Government.
Thursday, November 20, 2003
I referred on Sunday 16th November
to the Assembly's House Committee, which is effectively the executive arm of the Presiding Office. We had a meeting today in which the subject of open meetings came up again. Once more I put the case that in the interests of transparency and openness most items discussed by this Committee should be dealt with in public. Once more my arguments were rejected. One of the reasons given was that the press are not mature enough to properly report on our proceedings. I wonder if that would have been said in a public meeting.
A nation mourns
So in the end we were not good enough and Russia progressed to the finals of the European Championship instead of us. I was there and like many fans across Wales left the Millennium Stadium disapointed and upset. There was no doubt that the players gave their all for their Country and for the fans. At the end of the day however, it was not good enough. There will be debates for days to come about whether Mark Hughes should have started Earnshaw and allowed him free rein in conjunction with Giggs and Hartson. Questions will be asked as to whether we have been too cautious over the last six games and allowed the successful formula from the early matches to slip through our fingers. Ultimately however, it seemed that whatever we did made no difference. C'est la vie! I was there too in 1993 (or was it 1994?) when we last missed out on a major championship against Roumania. It seems that we will have to wait a bit longer.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Who is voting?
The Electoral Commission published their official report on the Welsh Assembly elections today
. Predictably it identified voter turnout as the key issue of concern. Only 38% of the electorate turned out to vote in these elections. Their analysis was perhaps a bit simplistic. Specifically, they criticised the media who, they said, treated the campaign as a "second-order election". This is a bit unfair as by and large the media did their best in difficult circumstances. They were often flogging a dead horse in trying to arouse interest in the process and in most instances were only talking to half of Wales anyway. The problem is that most of the east part of Wales watch English television and large numbers of the population only read English newspapers. There is no Welsh media as such and the closing down of the Welsh Mirror, as the Electoral Commission report points out, has been a further blow to attempts to create such a concept. This is not the case in Scotland.
I have not read the report in detail yet but I can not see at first glance any reference to the value for money of the Electoral Commissions own advertising campaign that sought to encourage people to vote. The fact that turnout went down must surely raise doubts as to the efficacy of this approach and I would not want to see such a huge waste of money in future. Equally, a feature for me in the campaign was the way that the Electoral Commission issued so much contradictory advice to returning officers and managed to confuse everybody.
The political response from Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group Leader, Mike German, was, I thought the right one. He identified three deep-rooted problems. Firstly, is the disengagement people have with their politicians. "We have a huge task," he said, "if we are to re-connect people's interest in political issues, with our democratic and political structures and if we are to restore their faith in politicians' ability to make changes for the better." He referred to the need to build a Welsh civic society - the media and institutions - that cover Wales in a meaningful way, so that people no longer look so much to England for comment, thought and leadership. Finally, he referred to the need to establish an Assembly with the powers of a proper Parliament, as in Scotland, so that people in Wales stand a better chance of understanding what devolution is about and can actually elect a body capable of making a difference.
Tuesday, November 18, 2003
A news item on the radio this morning revealed that 27% of all members of Male Voice Choirs in Wales are over 70. There is a huge problem attracting younger members and the age profile of these choirs fail to reflect their communities. Sound familiar? It should. This is the same issue faced by Welsh County Councils. My first thought was that maybe a Golden Goodbye scheme for the Male Voice Choirs in question might succeed in getting younger members for them. Then I realised how ridiculous that idea was. After all, if it won't work for Councils then why should it work for choirs?
The Assembly did finally pass a sensible policy on Councillors today. We agreed to introduce a contributory pension scheme for Councillors elected in 2004. This had all-party support because it actually addressed a real problem of compensating those who offer themselves for public service who subsequently lose out in terms of lost wages or promotion prospects because of their decision. As we are moving towards more professional Councillors then it is only right that we ensure that they have adequate conditions of employment. Somehow though the question as to whether we actually needed full time and professional Councillors was never addressed.
I reported earlier this month that 13 Councils have voted not to implement the Golden Goodbye scheme. This turns out to be 12, with 8 in favour. Cardiff and Gwynedd have still to make a decision but as the deadline for Councillors to register for the scheme is this Thursday then they will have to get their skates on.
The unfortunate illness of Carl Sergeant, the Labour Assembly Member for Flintshire, meant that Labour were facing some difficult times today. Their majority of 30 to 29 disapeared into a 29-29 tie. These voting figures of course depend on who is chairing Plenary. Whilst the Presiding Officer is in the chair his deputy, John Marek is able to speak and vote in the chamber. If John Marek chairs then normally the Presiding Officer takes no further part and Labour's majority rises to 30-28. It was arranged therefore that Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas take the chair for the two crucial debates of the day. The first of these was the Business Statement. The opposition parties were keen to force a debate on the report on children's services under Cardiff County Council. These have been slated in a recent report but all the Health Minister offered in terms of scrutiny was an urgent question. There has been no opportunity to debate the report despite the perceived risks to children in Cardiff. When it came to a vote on the Business Statement there was a 29-29 tie and the Presiding Officer cast his vote against so that there could be further discussion. The opposition forced the debate that they wanted.
The second debate was on the Government's response to the review by Derek Wanless of the Welsh National Service. This report recommended a radically different approach to the management of the health service. However, the opposition parties are deeply disapointed at what they see as the inadequate response of the minister to the report's proposals. Today's debate was an opportunity to express our anger and the lack of a government majority offered a further chance to give the administration a bloody nose on the issue as well. The vote was predictable. All contested amendments ended in a 29-29 tie with the Presiding Officer casting his vote against according to the guidance. When it came to the final motion there was a tie again and so as to facilitate further debate the chair used his vote to defeat this as well. Another shocking lesson for Labour of the reality of ruling with a wafer thin manufactured majority. Never mind, I am sure they will be able to breath more easily the next time an opposition AM gets pregnant or something.
I was amused this morning to see the collection of legislative orders scheduled for debate next week. There is the Cocoa and Chocolate Products (Wales) Regulations 2003, the Fruit Juices and Fruit Nectars (Wales) Regulations 2003, the Condensed Milk and Dried Milk (Wales) Regulations 2003, the Specified Sugar Products (Wales) Regulations 2003, the Honey (Wales) Regulations 2003, the Natural Water, Spring Water and Bottled Drinking Water (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2003 and the Shrimp Fishing Nets (Wales) Order 2003. There is virtually an entire meal in this collection of orders. I coined the collective term for them of the "Consolidated Breakfast Regulations 2003". I felt hungry just reading out the list.
Monday, November 17, 2003
On the scrap heap
A new angle on the Golden Goodbyes' controversy today. I was speaking to a senior officer in local government who was bemoaning the fact that the Welsh Assembly Government had dealt with the issue so badly. He suggested that if it had been given the same name as the Irish scheme then it would have been more easily sellable to Welsh public. The Irish scheme is called "scrappage", which name is apparently self-explanatory. Presumably, the idea of scrapping local Councillors may appeal to some people. Oh for a marketing bod in the Assembly Government.
Christmas comes early
It is reported that three companies are interested in developing a Leisure and Conference Centre in Swansea
. In addition it is mooted that one of the World's most expensive cars - the Zircon
- may well be built in South Wales. Much as I hope it is true I suspect that the jury is still out as to whether the interest of companies in replacing Swansea Leisure Centre comes to anything. As for the car, well politicians get to do all sorts of stunts for the cameras during elections, driving such a vehicle must rate as a good photo-opportunity. If it is established in my region I will certainly be around there to see it for myself.
Sunday, November 16, 2003
Bi-lingualism in the National Assembly for Wales
I have just been reading the agenda for Thursday's House Committee. This is the Committee that deals with the day to day running of the Presiding Office side of the Assembly (as opposed to the Cabinet and Government side). Despite my protestations the House Committee continues to meet in private with one sanitised public meeting each year. So much for transparency. Anyway, one of the reports deals with the service provided by Presiding Office staff to the Assembly's Committees. I was fascinated to read that in October the Assembly's translators translated over 1.2 million words into Welsh and that excluded the verbatim, bi-lingual record of proceedings. On average between 90,000 and 100,000 words are translated to produce that verbatim record for each three and a half hour Plenary session. That is the equivalent to a small novel, twice a week detailing the wit and wisdom of sixty politicians. This is not a point about bi-lingualism but about the volume of words that are thrown at the unsuspecting Welsh public from our centre of democracy each day. They can't accuse us of not speaking up now can they?
A report in the paper this morning that the trade in heroin and crack cocaine in South Wales is worth £130 million a year is very depressing. It underlines what we were told by the Chief Constable of North Wales a few weeks ago. He said that operations by the Police and Customs can only ever stop about 20% of all the drugs coming into Wales. On that basis this trade is set to increase unless some very drastic action is taken.
No score draw
The nil-nil draw that Wales achieved in Russia last night was hard fought and characterful. The behaviour of the Russian fans was a disgrace. I am looking forward to going to the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday for the return leg. Fortunately, we bought our tickets well in advance and were delighted when they turned up out of the blue early last week. As a Liberal Democrat I am used to false dawns of course, but this looks like an opportunity for the taking. I hope I don't have to eat those words later.
Friday, November 14, 2003
It seems that somebody has been quick off the mark to celebrate the rehabilitation of Michael Howard. You can now get him on boxer shorts and thongs here
. The mind boggles!
Protest against Bush
For those of you, like me, who are unable to get to London on Thursday 20 November to protest against President Bush and his war, there is an alternative. A virtual march is being organised. Click here
Goodbye Golden Goodbyes
An article by Steve Thomas, the head of strategic policy at the Welsh Local Government Association, in "Public Finance" reports that 13 Welsh Councils have now voted against the Golden Goodbye scheme for Councillors, with 8 in favour. Cardiff County Council is still to decide. He blames the Assembly election and the change in the balance of power in the Chamber as the reason why some politicians, previously in favour of the scheme, are now opposed. This argument conveniently ignores the unacceptable way that the proposals have been changed since then. And of course if it is all the Assembly's fault then why is it that Local Government don't want the scheme either? Perhaps the WLGA need to take the blinkers off and admit that they are wrong for once.
Local Income Tax
The same magazine has a fascinating article about the review of local government finance in Scotland. The piece examines local income tax as an alternative and puts up some very weak arguments in an attempt to knock down this particular option. The clinching argument is that because Scotland's Finance Directors don't want it then it isn't going to happen. When one considers that local Income Tax will dismantle the labrythine and difficult to understand Council Tax Benefit system and the empires that have been built up around that under the control of Finance Directors then it is hardly surprising that they do not want it. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. The role of politicians is to overcome special interest groups like this and do what is best for the people they represent. I hardly think therefore that the opposition of Scottish Finance Directors will be a deciding factor in any decision.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Anybody looking for a taxi in Swansea at 10am this morning wouldn't have had to look far. I arrived at County Hall at about 10.15am for a meeting only to find every black cab in the City lined up along the kerbs of all the access roads. It was a fairly spectacular sight and my snatched photograph with a pocket digital camera cannot even begin to do it justice. The Taxi drivers were lined up outside the entrance bearing placards demanding "No Doblo". This turned out to be a type of taxi which is cheap, readily available and wheelchair accessible. The Taxi Driver's Association however, believe that they are dangerous and that they will produce more competition in an unregulated market, thus undermining their livelihood. The Council deferred the item for further discussions.
Those breakfasts again
reminds me of one particular gem from the debate on Free School Breakfasts on Tuesday. I think that I was so open-mouthed when Christine Chapman
said it that I involuntarily eradicated the comment from my mind. The comment was:
"People have talked dismissively of gimmicks but these gimmicks are going down well in my constituency."
Presumably, space hoppers, Tracy Island and the Wombles have gone down well in her constituency in the past as well. But are they legitimate instruments of public policy?
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
A very heated debate took place in the Assembly Chamber today on the Labour policy of free school breakfasts for primary age children. The Tories were particularly virulent in their opposition, disputing even if breakfast offered any educational benefits. South Wales West AM, Alun Cairns quoted a survey from Ulster University that seemed to back up his argument. The survey, he said, showed that boys who went without breakfast had a hunger for success. This caused much puzzlement until a Liberal Democrat researcher identified the survey and e-mailed me. It appears that the research had a small sample group of 56 children. Half of them were fed toast and the other half fed beans on toast. It was sponsored by Heinz.
Meanwhile, Tory education spokesperson, David Davies, was in his usual confrontational form. He charged Labour with trying to introduce a nanny state and asked if Ministers wanted schools to tuck children up in their beds at night as well. This brought an indignant retort from soon-to-be-grandmother and Labour AM, Lorraine Barrett. "I am glad David Davies is not the father of my grandchild" she told the chamber. Who said debates were dull?
Nobody here but us....
North Wales Liberal Democrat AM, Eleanor Burnham, got hot under the collar today about Genetically Modified maize. She demanded to know if the First Minister was aware how dangerous Chardon LL really is. This maize is not produced for human consumption but is fed to animals. Apparently, new research has unveiled a "suspicious trend of it killing chickens".
The Port Talbot Guardian reported last week that retiring Councillors in Neath Port Talbot claiming up to £20,000 to stand down at the next election may be replaced by candidates who are just as old. Parties, including the ruling Labour Party are struggling to attract young blood to stand and there are now a host of OAPs waiting in the wings to replace the outgoing 70 and 80 year olds. Another blow to the assembly's Golden Goodbye's policy. Perhaps the suggestion I had passed to me a few weeks ago of "Golden hellos" may be necessary after all. Perhaps not!
Statistics and money
The South Wales Echo is obsessed with money. They have spent the last few years burrowing into the cost of everything in the Assembly including how much is spent by AMs on travel, maintaining staff and offices. They have published details again this year but not it seems on their website. Haven't they heard of electronic democracy? They have also revealed that AMs asked 23,000 questions during the four years of the first Assembly. We passed 685 pieces of legislation and 42% of us spoke in Welsh at least once (not me). We also spent 863 hours sitting in Plenary sessions in this period. Who said I can't sit still for more than ten minutes at a time?
The left rise again?
The Independent AM for Wrexham, John Marek, has finally launched his own party
. This one does not incorporate his name in its title. It is called Forward Wales, Cymru Ymlaen, which sounds suspiciously like the title of a previous Welsh Conservative manifesto. His first acts involve trying to get money off Trade Unions and seeking an electoral pact with the Green Party. He is aiming to have "sensible left wing" policies. This appears to involve borrowing the best bits off everybody else. Still at least open toed sandals with socks may well make a comeback.
Tory own goal
The Tories have scored another own goal. After years of baiting Labour about whether they will retain the Secretary of State for Wales in the Cabinet and then months attacking Peter Hain for doing the job on a part time basis, they have found that there is no room for this job in their A-team either
. Ribble Valley MP, former Swansea Councillor and newsagent, Nigel Evans, quit in the face of an embarrassing demotion and has been replaced by Leominster MP, Bill Wiggins. Mr Wiggins is a member of the All Party Group on endangered species, which will come in quite handy in his new role.
Very bad taste joke
I most probably shouldn't be posting this here but I am still smiling at it. I was told yesterday that the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant has a nickname. Positioned between the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend and the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, it has affectionately come to be known as the Camilla Parker Bowles Hospital.
My fellow Liberal Democrat Councillor and employee, Nick Tregoning, visited Germany recently to look at incinerators. Instead he found the missing Tory Party leader.
Monday, November 10, 2003
A day of two halves
Reading the papers this morning anybody would have thought that Wales had beaten England on Sunday. They didn't. However the talking point on Welsh radio is why Prince Harry of Wales was at the match wearing an England shirt and obviously supporting the English to win. If the Royal family wish to ditch Wales from their domain that is fine for me. The only caveat I would want to employ is that once we are free of them we can also ditch the media obsession with their sex lives and associated scandals. I have had a gutsful of Prince Charles and his denials of that we cannot be told. If I hear any more of this nonsensical innuendo and rumour I may have to abstain from reading and watching news for a month just to recover my sense of perspective.
I started off the day with a meeting with UNIFI, the banking union, to discuss the loss of 130 jobs from the HSBC service centre in Swansea to the Far East. There are concerns as to the future of the Bank's Swansea call centre as well, especially as the company have only offered assurances as to its operation to the end of 2004. There are also another 3,000 HSBC jobs in the UK that have been announced as going but as yet no details have emerged as to where they are going from. I undertook to join other AMs and MPs in bringing pressure to bear on management on these issues.
I finished off the day with a meeting at the Swansea Postgraduate School, currently situated in a demountable style building in Morriston Hospital. The Swansea NHS Trust has bid to the Assembly for money to rehouse this facility in a new building attached to the nearby Clinical School. I have already written to the Health Minister in support of this proposal but was fulfilling a long-standing promise today to see conditions first hand.
Tomorrow we are discussing the Labour Assembly Government's proposal to introduce free school breakfasts for Primary children. As the party's education spokesperson I will be speaking on this but I drew the line at one interview request I had. Radio Wales wanted me in a radio car outside Llanharan School at 7.10am tomorrow morning. As this would involve leaving home at 6.15am I declined. Even I need to sleep sometime!
Sunday, November 09, 2003
More Golden Goodbyes
It is useful to keep track of these things so as to assess the effectiveness and popularity of the Welsh Assembly Government's policy. I had a constituent who came to my surgery on Friday to specifically complain about the level of Council Tax for Neath Port Talbot. He was scornful of the Golden Goodbye scheme for Councillors and sceptical of the proposal to introduce a contributory pension scheme for them. I am in favour of the latter as the introduction of the hated Cabinet sysem has produced more full-time Councillors and even the backbenchers are in theory meant to do more though none of that involves real decision-making. As a consequence, those who do work will lose out. The problem is of course the small proportion of Welsh Councillors still of working age. Of the five Councils in my region, three have voted to adopt the Golden Goodbye scheme - Vale of Glamorgan, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea. Rhondda Cynon Taff and Bridgend have rejected the scheme overwhelmingly. The latest tally is 10 Councils against and 8 for. Hardly an overwhelming success.
I had broadband installed at home yesterday and spent hours on the phone to technical support trying to get it to work. I have now got it up and running and have bought a firewall. For some reason I am now getting worrying error messages when I boot up the computer so I suspect I will spend more time on the phone today. C'est la vie.
Friday, November 07, 2003
I don't believe it!
The Labour Assembly Member for Caerphilly, Jeff Cuthbert writes again to the Western Mail in defence of the Welsh Labour Government. I suppose it makes a change for that constituency to be represented by a Labour AM who is so enamoured of Rhodri Morgan's administration.
Mr. Cuthbert is perplexed because like Rhodri Morgan, he believes that the principle of past service awards for Councillors was given all-party support two years ago in the Local Government Committee. He is right. The difference however is in the detail. In those days the awards were perceived as a one-off payment to retiring Councillors over 65 or 70 in lieu of a contributory pension, which is being introduced but will not be in place by 2004. The scheme that Labour has now pushed through has no minimum age limit and does not stop somebody who receives the money standing for re-election later. A reasoned proposal has become a pay-off for all and sundry and will do nothing to attract younger Councillors.
Jeff also raises the old chestnut of regional AMs. I think he protests too much. I am a regional member elected under a system introduced by Jeff's Labour Party. The system was designed to be closed and under the control of the party machine because Labour do not trust voters. That does not stop my party (and the Tories) of selecting our lists by one-member-one vote postal selections.
I was declared elected by a returning officer in the same way as Jeff Cuthbert, after ballot papers with my name on them had been counted. I hold surgeries, do casework and treat my region as a constituency in the same way as Jeff and his "fellow travellers" in the first past the post seats. Like Jeff I do not much like the system I was elected under, particularly as it handed Labour half the seats on less than 37% of the vote. Unlike Jeff I want the system replaced by a form of proportional representation that will elect all AMs from constituencies on an equal basis and in a way that will see the result reflect the way people voted. That system is called the single transferable vote.
Perhaps if Jeff supported such genuine reform instead of grumbling from the sidelines like the backbench Victor Meldrew stereotype he is becoming then I would be less inclined to throw his accusation of hypocrisy and opportunism back at him.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
Funding crisis that needs to be resolved
There was a very useful article in the Education Supplement of today's Western Mail by the Labour Leader of Bridgend Council, Jeff Jones. Jeff is also the Welsh Local Government Association Spokesperson on Education. In the article Councillor Jones points out that the Welsh Assembly Government has given Councils in Wales a 5% increase in their revenue support grant. However, £33 million of this has been earmarked for the Teacher's Workload Agreement, which means that in reality the increase is only 4%. He says that local government needed at least a 5% increase to cover inflationary pressures but that when other growth areas are taken into account this rises to 13%. This means that there will be a funding crisis for local services next year, with education alone being shortchanged to the tune of £70 million. He refers to the £10 million cut in the funding of Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) and to the fact that there is no anticipated growth in capital investment for schools in the next two to three years. The WLGA were promised a budget of £71 million for school buldings in 2005-6 but instead the budget line says £52 million. Jeff asks the very reasonable question, how can local Councils plan over three years and discuss these plans in budget forums when the Assembly itself, as the main source of finance for education, cannot predict how much it will be spending in the same period? These are questions that the opposition have been asking already in the Assembly and we will continue to ask them. The crunch will come next February when the consequences of the Labour Assembly Government's underfunding of local Councils will be felt in higher Council tax bills, possibly in double figures. This will magnify the inequity and unjustness of this tax, the burden of which bears no relation to the ability to pay. It will also highlight Labour's distorted priorities of putting gimmicks before public services. Unfortunately, the people who will suffer the most from these fundamental misjudgements are pensioners and the poorest members of our society. Is that what Welsh Labour means by Social Justice?
Roll over Rocco Forte
The otherwise talented Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, brings into question his aesthetic preferences with the demand that the rather splendid St. David's Hotel in Cardiff Bay be blown up and buried in the now submerged sand dunes. His complaint that it is "just horrid" reaches new heights in architectural criticism, whilst his question - "What is that thing on the roof?" - proves that he is unfamiliar with giant Sky satellite dishes. I have stayed there and have always wondered why it is that despite this marvellous aid to TV reception I could not get E4 on the television and thus missed the "West Wing".
Golden Goodbyes again
Whilst Bridgend voted unanimously to reject the Golden Goodbye scheme earlier this week, Swansea Council formally adopted the scheme. They voted in favour by 15 votes to 14. All those who could have benefited from the money were excluded from voting. Whether I could or could not have taken part in the vote after 19 years of service was immaterial. I was on my way to Wrexham and was unable to attend.
Wanless or clueless?
The hapless Jane Hutt continues to make her mark on the NHS in Wales. At the Health and Social Services Committee yesterday she unveiled the Welsh Assembly Government's response to the Wanless report into the state of the Health Service in Wales. This report recommends radical and difficult changes to the way that the Health Service is run if we are to even begin to tackle the huge waiting lists that are building up all around the Country. The problem is that Jane cannot bring herself to make any decisions. Instead she unveiled a recycled £25 million and failed to give details on what she proposes to do. There were no targets and no action plan.
At the same time I was meeting with Bro Morgannwg Health Trust to discuss the impact of the Working Time Directive on GP out-of-hours services in the Llynfi Valley. Bro Morgannwg is one of the best managed Trusts in Wales. They have made difficult decisions to avoid the sort of deficits faced year on year by other Trusts such as the old Dyfed-Powys, and they have consistently planned and managed their way through fundamental external changes. Despite this they have seen the deficits of less-well run trusts written off by the Assembly, seemingly without question or criticism, whilst they get no extra resources. They would be perfectly justified in accusing the Assembly Government of rewarding failure in the NHS and penalising success. Even they admit that the challenge posed by the Working Time Directive will be a very stiff one. This is one of the challenges that Wanless says must be met head on and yet all we get from the Health Minister are glib assurances. In the meantime, as England heads for near-zero waiting lists, the Welsh NHS staggers from crisis to crisis. It was not Ieuan Wyn Jones who needed to reshuffle his team's portfolios yesterday, it was the First Minister.
Kindergarten or Debating Chamber?
That was the heading on an e-mail I received today regarding a Point of Order made by Labour's Blaenau Gwent AM, Peter Law. To be fair the silliness was started by Conservative, William Graham, in whose seat Peter Law is now sitting following the half-term reshuffle alluded to below. William, as sensitive as ever, was objecting to remarks by the First Minister on Tuesday that all the opposition parties had supported the Golden Goodbyes scheme for Councillors in the Local Government Committee last year. This ignored the fact that the scheme that was passed is now fundamentally different and instead of being a one-off substitute for a pension has become a glorified pay-off to encourage the "dead wood" on Councils to stand aside. William put it to the Presiding Officer that, "In the First Minister's remarks yesterday, he perhaps inadvertently suggested that I had fooled the Committee. That allegation cannot be true, as it would be impossible to fool people with such enormous political experience as Peter Law, Gwenda Thomas or the excellent Minister. Will the First Minister reflect upon his words?" The reply that William got is immaterial as Peter Law then stood up to ask " Further to that point of order, will you confirm that your officials sterilised this area after the Tories moved to the other side of the Chamber? Some of us are decidedly uncomfortable on this side, and I am sitting in William Graham's seat." Sometimes the question does have to be asked - "What is Peter Law for?"
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
Action is needed now
In the Assembly today the questions to the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration concentrated on anti-social behaviour. Inevitably, the misuse of fireworks formed part of that questioning. There have been two serious incidents locally in the last week or so. In one a firework was fired through an old lady's window in Llanelli and injured her. The second incident was last night in Port Talbot when a firework was used to set fire to a flat and several people had to be evacuated. There was extensive damage. As I write my house is reverberating with bangs and whizzs. That is because it is fireworks night of course, but this has been going on for weeks and will no doubt carry on in a less intensive manner until after New Year. I have a cat who we have been unable to let out of the house at night all week. It used to be just bonfire night when pets were confined to the home but that time is long gone. The Government is promising to enact the provisions of the Fireworks Act by Christmas, to restrict the sale of certain fireworks and impose a curfew on their use. The question has to be asked though, is this enough? I have long advocated that fireworks should only be sold by licensed vendors and that their private use should be severely curtailed. Watching firework displays is safer and they can be more spectacular than private parties. Fireworks have proved to be a weapon in the hands of anti-social youngsters. We have banned other such weapons. Perhaps it is time that the Government took that extra step and spared us all from the weeks of torture and hell that we have to put up with at this time of year.
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
I have updated my surgery timetable on this site. Click here
for more information.
Back from the half term recess and already I have a new perspective. The revised seating plan in the chamber has been put into effect and the Labour Party are now all closeted together at one end of the chamber whilst the opposition is grouped on the opposite wing. I am sitting on the extreme left as I look towards the Presiding Officer - next to the door. This is handy for getting in and out of the Chamber but it can also be distracting and a bit noisy. The accoustics are not brilliant and will take some getting used to. Everything is a bit distant from here but fortunately I am capable of making enough noise to avoid being marginalised. All the Party leaders are sitting uneasily together on the front row and the whole feel of the chamber is of one that is less inconclusive and more confrontational.
Together with the changed seating plan we also have a new division bell. We started off in 1999 with a recording of an old-fashioned school bell, we have now been brought into the twenty-first century with a more melodic and slightly muted sound. As it went off it occurred to me that it was a good time to make this change. The bell has an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. With Christmas less than two months away all we need now is for the Montgomeryshire AM, Mick Bates, to appear again in his Santa Claus outfit distributing mince pies and we will feel very seasonal indeed.
Something a bit more taxing! I have not been able to verify whether this letter really appeared in the Guardian on 27 September 2003 but when you read it you just want it to be genuine.
"Dear Mr Addison,
I am writing to you to express our thanks for your more than prompt reply to our latest communication, and also to answer some of the points you raise. I will address them, as ever, in order.
Firstly, I must take issue with your description of our last as a "begging letter". It might perhaps more properly be referred to as a "tax demand". This is how we, at the Inland Revenue have always, for reasons of accuracy; traditionally referred to such documents.
Secondly, your frustration at our adding to the "endless stream of crapulent whining and panhandling vomited daily through the letterbox on to the doormat" has been noted. However, whilst I have naturally not seen the other letters to which you refer I would cautiously suggest that their being from "pauper councils, Lombardy pirate banking houses and "pissant gas-mongerers" might indicate that your decision to "file them next to the toilet in case of emergencies is at best a little ill-advised. In common with my own organisation, it is unlikely that the senders of these letters do see you as a "lackwit bumpkin or, come to that, a "sodding charity". More likely they see you as a citizen of Great Britain, with a responsibility to contribute to the upkeep of the nation as a whole. Which brings me to my next point.
Whilst there may be some spirit of truth in your assertion that the taxes you pay "go to shore up the canker-blighted, toppling folly that is the Public Services", a moment's rudimentary calculation ought to disabuse you of the notion that the government in any way expects you to "stump up for the whole damned party" yourself. The estimates you provide for the Chancellor's disbursement of the funds levied by taxation, whilst colourful, are, in fairness, a little off the mark. Less than you seem to imagine is spent on "junkets for Bunterish lickspittles" and "dancing whores" whilst far more than you have accounted for is allocated to, for example, "that box-ticking facade of a university system."
A couple of technical points arising from direct queries: 1. The reason we don't simply write "Muggins" on the envelope has to do with the vagaries of the postal system; 2. You can rest assured that "sucking the very marrows of those with nothing else to give" has never been considered as a practice because even if the Personal Allowance didn't render it irrelevant, the sheer medical logistics involved would make it financially unviable. I trust this has helped. In the meantime, whilst I would not in any way wish to influence your decision one way or the other, I ought to point out that even if you did choose to "give the whole foul jamboree up and go and live in India" you would still owe us the money. Please forward it by Friday.
H J Lee Customer Relations"
Oh yes he did!
Good Grief! Pantomime or farce?
What is the verdict?
Sunday, November 02, 2003
Worst album covers ever
Thanks to Gene on the Hurry up Harry blog
for bringing my attention to this site
. I was so horrified that I thought it worth sharing.
Yesterday's Western Mail reports that the Democratic Party of Japan has distributed 20,000 copies of a 21 page pamphlet called "To Be An Even Smarter Politician" in a bid to make their members more appealing to the electorate. The tome gives tips on deportment and etiquette. There are also tips on essential grooming. Obviously, we all like to be smart and clean but do we really need to be turned into photo-fit models? There is not enough colour in modern politics. I agree with Tory AM, David Davies, we should all be as individual as possible. With my ties how could I say anything else?
Who is Oliver Kamm
? I only ask because he appears to have heard of me and apparently reads this blog. I have now had a chance to catch up with my on-line reading after coming back from my short sojourn and it seems that Ollie really has it in for me. Phrases such as "I will put this in simple terms because Mr Black is clearly a simple man." and "Peter Black is indeed a minor Lib Dem and clearly not a very bright one" indicates that he obviously knows me quite well and yet we have never met!
Reading through Mr. Kamm's blog it seems that he really does not like Liberal Democrats. He also considers himself to have a superior intellect, which he underlines at every point by the way he belittles his targets. What he actually has is a point of view that is no more legitimate than any other though I have no confidence that he will see this point.
Mr. Kamm is objecting to my posting on Thursday 23 October headed "Control Freakery." In that posting I wrote "The expulsion of George Galloway from the Labour Party for expressing his opinions about the Iraq war and his Party Leader is another example of over-the-top control freakery by that party. Is it now the case that dissent of any kind is not to be tolerated by New Labour? Have they not learnt their lessons from disasters in the past? It seems not. New Labour now appears more Stalinist than Old Labour and that is saying something." Now, I admit that fitting in writing this blog around everything else I do is not always easy and that sometimes I do not explain myself very well, so for the sake of Mr. Kamm I will try to be clearer about my views on George Galloway.
I have no brief for George Galloway. I do not agree with the vast majority of his publicly expressed views nor his politics, particularly in regards to Stalin, the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein. It matters not to me whether he stays in the Labour Party or fights as an independent. I really do not care whether he is expelled from the Labour Party or not, that is their business. However, it is worth noting that he was not expelled for his self-professed support of the Soviet Union nor for the fact that he allegedly defends Joseph Stalin as proposed by The Independent's Political Columnist, Johann Hari
on his blog. George Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party for 1) inciting Arabs to fight British troops 2) inciting British troops to defy orders 3) threatening to stand against Labour and 4) backing an anti-war candidate in Preston. We need therefore to deal with the facts rather than with Mr. Kamm's personal distaste for George Galloway.
Labour, like any mainstream political party is a broad church. It encompasses a wide range of views including communists, socialists and social democrats. Unlike Peter Marriner, whose story Mr. Kamm recounts, George Galloway fitted squarely within the tradition and principles of such a Labour Party. New Labour has sought to narrow that broadness in recent years by increasing intolerance towards dissenting and embarassing voices. A number of other MPs expressed views similar to Mr. Galloway but they have not been expelled, possibly because they have not had such a high profile or such a consistent record of dissent. It seems therefore that this particular expulsion is about more than the opinions of one individual. It is about suppressing debate within the Labour Party. That is something we have had experience of in Wales both locally and in relation to the leadership of the Welsh Labour Party.
It seems to me that the fact that, as Private Eye reports, the Labour NEC sent out letters detailing Galloway's expulsion so quickly that they must have been written and prepared before the final decision was taken, that the grounds for expulsion are largely spurious in that they have either been plausibly denied or they apply to other non-expelled Labour Party members and MPs, and that New Labour are now free of an embarassment who did not fit into the Millbank culture of spin and control, indicates that my charges of control freakery and the failure to tolerate dissent are legitimate. The use of Stalinist may have been unwise but in the context of a general understanding of that word as one that denotes a certain style of party management rather than the wider interpretation put on it by Mr. Kamm, it still seems a fair description. Labour in Wales have a long history of intolerant Party management, centralism and arrogance. New Labour in London are continuing that tradition.