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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Searching for a role

One has to feel some sympathy for Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood. She is the subject of a shock horror expose in today's Western Mail but when you read the article in full it becomes apparent that the reporter has completely swallowed the Labour spin and slightly misrepresented the leaked document that has caused all the fuss.

This whole affair has played into the hands of the Labour campaign to discredit and undermine Regional AMs. In some ways Leanne's proposal, no matter how misguided, is a response to that. That is not to say that I support the proposals that Leanne has put forward, I do not, but we do need to view them in context.

I think that the main problem with Leanne's proposals, the media coverage and with Labour's spin is that it confuses the promotion of the party with the advocacy of the political aims of the party. It is of course illegal to use publicly-funded resources for party political purposes. However, all AMs and MPs are elected on a political platform and with an agenda that they have a mandate to promote. Public resources are provided to support them in that role. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to employ somebody to liase with the media on behalf of the elected representative or to research a particular issue that will benefit the MP or AM's constituents or enable him or her to make an effective contribution in a debate or campaign. Even constituency casework can have political overtones and benefits, though that is not the purpose of it and nor should it be.

As a Regional AM I hold regular surgeries all across the area I represent. I encourage and seek out casework on behalf of constituents and I get involved in campaigns on a range of issues. I will meet with and talk to interest groups, whether local or national, and I work within my education portfolio to scrutinise the Assembly Minister, help develop policy and also to promote my own party political views on these matters. I do not see the need to evaluate and prioritise my activities according to whether they "translate into enough votes". I am here to do a job and I will do it irrespective of whether the person I am helping votes for me or not. I treat my region as a giant constituency, which is no doubt why the constituency AMs feel threatened.

Labour have made a lot of fuss in recent years about Regional AMs. They have criticised and belittled us even though we are effectively their invention, being the consequence of the half-baked electoral system they thought up for the Assembly. Labour clearly do not want us to act as constituency AMs but they are not very forthcoming on the role they envisage us playing. So, when Leanne Wood advocates a different approach, albeit one that does not stand up to scrutiny, she is at least responding to that criticism. What she gets as a reward is an unashamedly partisan attack on her personally and on Regional AMs generally.

If we are to make a distinction between constituency and regional AMs as Labour advocate then perhaps the latter do need to take a more strategic approach and operate on a wider regional basis. Such an approach may actually require more resources for support purposes in terms of offices, staff and travel. However, it is a legitimate way forward, making the best of a bad job. More sensibly we should change the PR system so that we have multi-member constituencies elected on the basis of the single transferable vote. This would at least ensure that all AMs are seen as equal and treated as such.

What really irks me about the Western Mail article though is the response of Peter Hain:

Mr Hain said the leaked memo was "copper-bottom proof of precisely the abuses which have angered not just Labour Party members but people right across Wales and beyond".

"Leanne Wood has been caught in possession of a smoking gun," he added, "There should now be an investigation into the role of regional AMs and the way they use their allowances.

"Taxpayers' money is being manipulated for clear party advantage," he said. "Leanne Wood's comments bring into complete disrepute the role of elected regional representatives, who ought to be serving everyone, regardless of party affiliation."

He is right that taxpayers' money should not be 'manipulated for clear party advantage', he is right too that 'elected regional representatives...ought to be serving everyone, regardless of party affiliation." What he does not have is any 'copper-bottom proof' of abuses of the system because if he did he would have referred it to the Assembly's Standards Committee. These abuses, which are meant to have 'angered' Labour Party members and 'people right across Wales and beyond' do not exist. What is angering Labour Party members is an indefensible electoral system that their MPs voted for.

This disingenuous hyperbole gets worse - Mr. Hain wants an enquiry into the role of regional AMs and the way they use their allowances. He is Secretary of State for Wales, why doesn't he set one up? Perhaps he is afraid that such an enquiry will find that any abuses that do exist also apply to constituency AMs. Perhaps he is afraid of a comparison between Cardiff Bay and Westminster. Maybe he is worried that such an enquiry will mirror the Richard Commission in proposing a proper overhaul of the electoral system.

MPs have access to public funding for an annual report and the cost of mailing it to every elector in their constituency. They have access to public funds to pay for unsolicited individual mailshots advertising their surgeries and their other activities as an MP. Some MPs have run up huge postage bills in activity that will support their future re-election. None of these expenses are available to AMs, whether constituency or Regional representatives. We have very strict rules on what we can and cannot spend public money on. If anything needs enquiring into it is how MPs spend public money. Maybe we should open up the whole system for public scrutiny.
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