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Thursday, May 31, 2007


The Assembly is in recess for half term and will next be convening on Tuesday morning when the Queen arrives to carry out the official opening and presumably, hand Rhodri Morgan his seals of office or whatever they do nowadays. As a result I have been out of it for the last few days, catching up on work, sorting out the election expense return and trying to get my Assembly issued laptop to work.

This does not mean that I have not been paying attention, just that I have been disinclined to comment on what is going on in the wider political world until now. I should note therefore that the Tories have finally bitten the bullet and expelled Sir Eric Howells, a former Welsh party chairman who criticised the selection of a candidate prior to the assembly elections.

This appears to be the price that has to be paid for utilising the privilege of free speech within the Conservative Party nowadays, though for some strange reason Peter Davies, father of David Davies MP, seems to have survived his own spat with Nick Bourne and remains a Tory Party member. Thank goodness the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not operate the same rules.

I tried to watch the Labour Party Deputy Leadership debate on Newsnight but couldn't stomach more than a few minutes of it. In a number of ways it was rather comical, especially the way that they placed the vertically-challenged Hazel Blears next to a much taller Hilary Benn. I actually felt sorry for her as she struggled to be seen over her lectern so as to make her point.

I am indebted to Jonathan Calder for pointing out that the Labour Party Chair once appeared in kitchen sink classic, A Taste of Honey - "They filmed it at the bottom of our road" she recalled "And I was in one scene wearing bunches and a little kilt. My brother sang `The Big Ship Sails On The Ally Ally O'..." I can picture it now!

Meanwhile, Guido points out that desperate attempts were made by some candidates to ensure that the on-line poll being run by Newsnight after the debate did not sink their campaign. He records that a memo was sent out shortly afterwards from the Hain camp urging supporters to vote - "
This is very urgent indeed - please can everyone make sure we have as many votes as possible for Peter on the Newsnight website. We're currently getting squeezed to last. Please vote now before the poll closes...."

Alas, it was to no avail. According to the Western Mail, the poll scored Jon Cruddas as the winner with the Welsh Secretary trailing some distance behind the rest of the field. The paper puts the score as Jon Cruddas 36.52%; Harriet Harman 19.96%; Alan Johnson 14.98%; Hazel Blears 10.57%; Hilary Benn 8.99%; and Peter Hain 7.89%. Still, there is plenty of time to play catch-up.

Photo courtesy of James Cridland via Iain Dale

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Watching the watchers

This fascinating website appeared on one of the few forums I participate in. It is based on the premise that the FBI have introduced a 'non-intrusive method' of tracking internet surfing. They say you will not notice anything different.

Putting aside this attempt at satire, one must recognise that there is a very real problem with internet repression around the World. Amnesty International has just launched a site to try and tackle this issue. They are urging web users to take action on behalf of individuals persecuted and imprisoned for expressing their opinions online. They want governments to stop the unwarranted restiction of freedom of expression online and to challenge internet companies - such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft - who cooperate with internet censorship.

On 6th June Amnesty and The Observer newspaper will use the internet to link activists from around the world to discuss the struggle against internet repression and to celebrate the irrepressible desire of people towards freedom of expression. The meeting will include participation from internet gurus, cyber dissidents as well as net activists, writers and journalists. Everyone will be able to participate to the debate online through a webcast on the day.

Go to their site now and sign the irrepressible pledge.

Taking the Pepsi challenge

I have blogged in the past on the strange fascination of some politicians with McDonalds, no doubt eased by the fast chain restaurant's continued sponsorship of inter-Parliamentary charity football matches and associated hospitality.

Now it seems that Pepsi has joined the fray with the news that former health secretary and arch-Blairite Alan Milburn has taken up a new job as an adviser to the American company to help it fight the backlash against unhealthy snacks and build a more acceptable image and product range.

PepsiCo's best-selling brands include Walkers Crisps, Pepsi, PJ Smoothies, Quaker and Tropicana juices. The company's many paid-advocates in the past have included Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Madonna. Heady stuff indeed for a man who left the government to spend more time with his family. The Guardian comments:

The decision to set up a UK advisory board is in recognition of the challenges facing companies which make a huge profit from "unhealthy" food, with the threat of a battery of new regulations and restrictions on the way they advertise and sell their products. It follows the precedent taken by its US parent company.

In the UK all manufacturers of food high in fat, salt and sugar are facing new restrictions on the television advertising of these products to children, along with the challenges of changes to nutritional labelling, higher nutritional standards in school meals and a ban on fizzy drinks sold in school vending machines.

Rising concerns about childhood obesity are also contributing to a trend for healthier eating, and government figures published last week showed the largest rise in expenditure on fruit and vege-tables per household in the past 20 years. In the UK, PepsiCo has already reduced the saturated fat content of Walkers Crisps by 70% and salt by 25%, but wants to make further progress in making its products healthier.

Obviously, there is a desire to change if only because failure to do so could lead to commercial problems. This is just as well as Mr. Milburn has had a record in the past of being particularly harsh with such companies:

It is a record that has involved strident attacks on the junk food industry, including a claim that the worst health problem facing the world is not the Aids epidemic but chronic illness caused by processed food such as crisps and fizzy drinks. Shortly after he resigned, he called on ministers to ban snack-food vending machines from schools.

We shall be monitoring closely the impact he is able to make in this new role.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recommended reading

Whilst I was in Hay-on-Wye I did my usual trick of buying books, including Andrew Marr's 600 page 'A History of Modern Britain', that I do not have time to read. If I had known that in a matter of weeks Alastair Campbell will be publishing his Downing Street diaries, then I might have put those books back on the shelf and reserved what little reading time I have for the revelations that we all hope will contained therein.

Today's Guardian reports that the book has strong disapproval within the outgoing prime minister's inner circle - including his wife, Cherie. Mrs Blair is said to be "furious" about the ex-press spokesman's invasion of her family's privacy.

Northern Ireland is said to be the single most mentioned issue, with the Clinton presidency as prominent as Mr Bush's. This is because the book will run from 1994, when Mr Campbell joined the newly elected opposition leader, to 2003, when he resigned after the invasion of Iraq and his controversial partial-exoneration by Lord Hutton in the "dodgy dossiers" fight with the BBC.

Mr Campbell's former colleagues complain that his book is too media-orientated and too light on domestic policy to give a rounded picture. "Alastair occupied the world of headlines, not the boring stuff. He only became involved in health or education issues on the last day," recalls one. Others complain that the text is still "a bit manic".

As he heavily cut 2.5m words of nightly recollections - excising many of his daily battles with the media - the former Daily Mirror journalist admits asking himself, "Can I imagine David Cameron using that to damage a Labour prime minister?" when deciding what to cut.

As a result he applied "the same rule to Gordon as to Tony" and toned down their disputes. One consequence is that Peter Mandelson, often Mr Blair's champion in manoeuvres with the chancellor, is shown in a restricted light, though Mr Campbell insists that he has provided context where necessary without rewriting his opinions with the benefit of hindsight.

I suspect that this tome is nowhere near as sensational as some of the media would hope but it is likely to be indiscreet enough to be worthwhile reading.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Back in circulation

I have just returned home after spending the weekend at the Hay on Wye Festival. I went up there on Friday and, apart from a brief sojourn in Llandrindod Wells on Saturday for the Welsh Liberal Democrats Special Conference, spent the next three days enjoying talks and performances by number of artists and writers including Seth Lakeman, Ian Rankin, Marcus Brigstocke, Antonia Frasier and Nick Cohen.

During that time I found myself completely out of contact with the outside world, no mobile phone signal and no access to the internet. It was actually quite pleasant. I had better not get too used to it.

As I ease my way back into blogging I thought I might start with three memorable quotations from the weekend:

"My grandmother died at the age of 97 awaiting the second coming of David Lloyd George" Councillor Aled Roberts, Leader of Wrexham Council at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference.

"Rainbows only last as long as the sun shines", Mark Williams MP at the same conference.

"Gordon Brown's parents gave him a moral compass. David Cameron had a moral Sat Nav - 'drive to the end of the road and then see which way the wind is blowing'", Marcus Brigstocke at Hay.

Obviously, the vote in Llandrindod Wells has put the rainbow coalition back on the agenda. When that opportunity is taken up depends on a number of circumstances and I cannot say that I have any insight or inside information on a way forward. My guess is that it will not happen before the summer recess. That of course gives the Welsh Liberal Democrats an opportunity to sort out their own problems and issues.

Chief amongst those issues is the direction and purpose of our party. At a UK level we have a distinctive agenda based on civil liberties, freedom and the environment. Although we have tried to carry that agenda over into a Welsh context we have failed to make an impact. That is something we need to address. We also need to look at how we campaign and how we make ourselves more relevant to voters across Wales.

I do not believe that the debate we have had over coalition has left us divided. Within any democratic body frank and open discussion is both necessary and healthy. As democrats we must accept the outcome and work with it. That does not mean that people will come around automatically, there must be a distinct effort to include them and bring them along with the majority. Despite the vote in favour, nearly 40% of the representatives remained unconvinced and they will need nurturing and persuading.

We must take advantage of the time we have to bring people together and to re-examine our purpose and direction. That will take leadership and a willingness to be open and honest about what has gone wrong and what is going right.

I do not accept that the Welsh Liberal Democrats are in crisis. Irrespective of the result on 3rd May the party remains strong on the ground especially where we have a record of success. We lead four Councils where we have a good record of action and we remain the second largest parliamentary grouping in Wales. Although we fell back slightly in the Assembly elections and failed to increase our number of AMs, we still polled well in those areas of strength and fully expect to consolidate and improve on our position next May. The best way to guarantee that is to start the process of rebuilding now.

Friday, May 25, 2007

For the sake of clarity

Many people seem to think that I have organised some massive putsch both to rid the world of Mike German and to sabotage the rainbow coalition. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that I have taken a consistent line that the Welsh Liberal Democrats need to regroup and learn how to take the party's distinctive message out to voters within a Welsh context. We need to re-learn how to campaign at a national and local level. However, that does not make me opposed to coalitions of any sort. The issue is that the party must be capable of sustaining one.

It is also true that I am uneasy about the prospect of putting the Tories back into government in Wales, but I can see that if the package is right then it is time for me to grit my teeth and accept that this is the price we must pay. At the end of the day I am a democrat and if I lose the argument or the vote, I accept that I must work with whatever is the outcome for the good of my party and the good of Wales and I will do so enthusiastically.

At the meeting in Llandrindod Wells I voted in the group not to proceed with the Accord. I did so however in a bit of a comfort zone because I knew that there was a majority in the group for it. If it was likely that my vote would have meant that the group blocked the proposal going to a conference then it is likely that I would have relented, simply because I believe that it is right that members should have a say too.

On the Executive I did not have a vote. I was not therefore one of the nine who voted to abandon the Conference. As I have said elsewhere on this blog I was surprised that this vote turned out the way it did. There was no attempt on my part or others to organise for this result. There were some members who came to the meeting determined to vote against whatever, but others listened to the argument and made their minds up on the merits of the case. In a way the outcome was almost accidental because I believe that if some of those who voted against had realised that they had disenfranchised members then they would have voted differently.

Tomorrow's Conference may well define the direction the party is travelling in for some time to come. I will go there and put my point of view. However, at the end of the day we are all Liberal Democrats. I remain commited to this party, its principles and its policies. I hope that we can all accept that there are differences of opinion but that none of this is personal and that we all have a common purpose and will work together to achieve it come what may. I will accept the outcome and work with it. I will also do everything I can to try and put my party back onto the right track in Wales.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Radio silence

The fact that I have not blogged on the events of last night yet has nothing to do with me maintaining radio silence. In fact I have spent most of the morning talking to the media. It seems that I am the only Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly member giving interviews.

What happened last night was a surprise. I fully expected to see the National Executive endorse the package and refer it to Conference. That they did not do so was something that nobody foresaw. The reasons for their decision were many. Some were unhappy with the tone of the document itself, believing it to be very nationalistic. Others felt that the list of Plaid Cymru gimmicks we were proposing to sign up to were unaffordable and that the package was unsustainable. A number of members were uneasy about putting the Tories back into power in Wales whilst others did not want to prop up Plaid.

I think we should be clear that the decision to talk to Plaid and the Tories did not mean that we should automatically sign up to whatever emerged from that process. The Welsh Liberal Democrats did their duty to the people of Wales by entering into detailed talks with all parties in an effort to reach stable government. Nobody should be able to insist that such an agreement must be at any price.

Supporting PR does not automatically mean that we have to be the brokers. In fact I think we suffered in the election because people thought we believe that we had the right to be kingmakers all the time. We also lost support because many considered that our leadership was motivated by self-interest rather than the interests of the Country.

My consistent view in this is that the Welsh Liberal Democrats were not in a position to enter into a coalition deal. We failed to make any progress for a third time in an Assembly election, organisationally we are poor and we are failing to translate our values and principles into a Welsh context. Furthermore we have not been engaging with the Welsh electorate on issues of concern to them and demonstrating the relevance of our policies.

There is a huge job of work to do in putting that right and a need for a debate as to the direction of the party. That debate is most probably best carried out in a structured way as part of a leadership election. To have entered a coalition government would have not just have distracted us from that task but it would have meant that we failed to do it at all. We would then have gone into the next set of Assembly elections in the same poor condition and had an equally disastrous outcome. Once we have set the party onto a steadier path it might be possible to revisit how we work with other parties, if they are prepared to talk to us.

The path we chose makes that process more difficult but not impossible. It is now clear that the idea of forming a coalition with Plaid and the Tories deeply divided the party. Expectations were created which were not met and as a result we have some very bitter enemies on all sides of the political divides. The fact is that the leadership could not carry the support of the membership, something that needs to be reflected on.

The new First Minister will be elected tomorrow at 1pm. That has not stopped ordinary members of the Welsh Liberal Democrats calling a conference for Saturday with the objective of trying to revive the rainbow coalition. Whether they will succeed or not I do not know but it is right that members should now have their say and that a debate about the way forward for the Welsh Liberal Democrats should begin. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Fighting the BNP

Conservative MP, Charles Walker, has produced a report on the BNP in which he argues that the Conservative Party should treat them as a party of the left:

Politically the Conservative Party should not shy away from positioning the BNP as another Party of the left operating in an increasing crowded space populated by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Respect and the Greens. All of these parties favour high-levels of state intervention, big government and top down problem solving. As the allocation of its few council seats suggests, the BNP is not the natural home of Conservative-minded voters and the party must work and campaign to ensure that this remains the case.

His ultimate conclusion that the BNP must be tackled by out-campaigning them and finding acceptable solutions to the issues they are misrepresenting on a regular basis is quite sensible, but 'party of the left'....?

Hat Tip: Conservative Home

Le premier crunch

Although many journalists are pointing to Saturday as the crunch moment in talks to form a rainbow coalition, today may prove to be more important. To be frank, I am not expecting many problems from the Welsh Conservative's National Committee in Llandrindod Wells tonight, though I guess that their endorsement of a deal cannot be taken for granted. The crunch will come with the meeting of the Welsh Liberal Democrat NEC in the same town at 7pm.

If our National Executive does not endorse the deal then put simply, the Conference on Saturday does not happen. Tonight's meeting is a very significant obstacle that has to be overcome and opposition by a number of AMs and prominent party figures means that anything can happen.

The latest prominent Liberal Democrat to throw his weight behind those resisting a deal is the former Mongomeryshire MP, Alex Carlile. Lord Carlile will, I understand, be telling the BBC's Dragon Eye that unless there is a very strong incentive in terms of, for example, a significantly fairer voting system introduced for the next Assembly election together with STV for local elections, there is no sensible basis for doing a coalition or arrangement deal with Labour.

I believe that he will also be telling the BBC that the only legitimate and ethical approach to the election of a First Minister is at least not to oppose the election of the Leader of the largest Party, and possibly to support him and then allow him to run a minority government on either an issue basis or a limited agreed programme.

If Alex comes to Conference and says that then it may have some impact.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Birthday boys

I have just realised that Ieuan Wyn Jones and Sir Menzies Campbell share a birthday. Ming is 66 years young today, whilst Ieuan celebrates his 58th. Could this be auspicious? Let us hope not.


Although I am fundamentally opposed to the Welsh Liberal Democrats becoming embroiled in a coalition at this time, there has been a democratic vote of the National Executive Committee that says that we should explore this route. I have agreed therefore that for the time being I will serve on the negotiating team. My rationale is that if I lose the final vote and this coalition comes about then I want to make sure that we get the best possible deal for the party. After all I may end up defending it for the next four years.

The main problem it seems to me is the time we have in which to put this deal together. The last partnership agreement was negotiated over a period of about two months with full civil service support. This time we have three days. That period of time is sufficient to put together the main part of the document but it leaves precious little time to sort out the sticking points and to get the costings and legalities right.

I am sure that the final document, which will be put before the relevant party executives on Wednesday night will be fine but it will not be as good as it could be. It may also leave a number of issues unresolved to the dissatisfaction of one party or another. That in turn could provide a rallying point for opposition at the subsequent party conference, if the matter gets that far.

All-in-all it is a risky business that may well cause future problems for the three parties involved and their ministers. It is going to be a very challenging time and I still have no idea how it will all end up.

Update: Liberal Democrat Powys County Councillor, David Peter, is quite forthright in his views of a potential coalition.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rainbow or bust

The Western Mail reports that most grassroots members of Plaid Cymru appear to be swinging behind a possible coalition deal that would put Ieuan Wyn Jones into the First Minister’s office – so long as the terms are right. Their evidence for this assertion is that Plaid members in Caernarfon on Saturday overwhelmingly backed such a deal in principle.

The paper is careful to point out however that PLaid Cymru's biggest problem remains their membership in the South Wales Valleys. They are understood to be less happy at the prospect as is evidenced from this entry on Bethan Jenkins' blog.

I think it is only fair to record that this mixed reception is also evident within the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Whereas some areas where we lead the Council are comfortable with a rainbow coalition, other more traditional areas of Liberal Democrat support have major objections. Opposition is growing within our party and I expect that if the proposal gets past the joint National Executive/Group meeting on Wednesday, then there will be a real and meaningful debate at the Special Conference in Llandrindod Wells on Saturday with no guarantee of the outcome.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Clubbing in Newtown

According to Golwg, Lembit Őpik has one more thing to worry about. The 10th May edition of the magazine conducts an interview with stand-up comic Myfanwy Alexander, who also happens to be the sister of Plaid AM, Helen Mary Jones and lives in Montgomeryshire.

Ms. Alexander relies on local gossip to feed her act, so much so that she even sends her children out to get her anecdotes:

She has asked her eldest girls to bring back stories about the local celebrities.

"At the moment they are keeping an eye out for Lembit Őpik. I get to know what he is doing in the clubs in Newtown without having to go myself."

Is nowhere safe?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Techies' paradise

My favourite line of the week comes from the blog of Welsh exile, Annie Rhiannon. Describing a conversation with her mother about the latter's technical problems with her computer, Annie records:

I was able to feel smug and patronising again later on when a warning on my mum's screen told her she may need to re-install some damaged software.

"What was the last thing you installed, anyway?" I asked.

"Mozzarella," she replied, with absolute certainty.

As one of her commenters said, the mouse would have enjoyed it.

A bridge too far

Wales' 'National' paper has pages and pages on the proposed rainbow coalition this morning. So much so that Professor Peter Stead on Good Morning Wales described it as 'possibly the most interesting edition of the Western Mail ever.'

Alas, Britain's foremost newspaper of the left, the Guardian, cannot bring itself to print a single word on the subject, not that I can find anyway. Presumably, somebody has taken their atlas home for the weekend.

An Act of folly

A number of bloggers, failed Tory candidates (sorry Iain, couldn't resist it), and media outlets have commented on the fact that Lembit Őpik spent Thursday night recording an edition of 'Have I Got News For You' instead of attending the crucial joint meeting of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group and the National Executive on Thursday.

In fact, Lembit stayed in London to carry out important Parliamentary duties on the Friday morning. He took part in a vote to try and preserve the right of the public to scrutinise how their elected representatives spend their money.

The vote in the House of Commons, which he and other MPs opposed, effectively ended the compulsory legal requirement for MPs to disclose their expenses and introduced further curbs on the release of already protected MPs' correspondence.

The bill will take parliament outside the scope of the information commissioner or tribunals over the detailed release of MPs' expenses, spending on parliament and MPs' correspondence. It will halt a number of appeals for the more detailed release of information on MPs' expenses. It will also mean parliament will be treated differently from the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, the Scottish parliament and local councils.

That the Welsh Assembly may be exempt from this bill is welcome but that does not compensate us for the retrograde step it represents. The principle here is one of accountability. What elected politicians do in terms of their correspondence and expenses should be a matter of public record unless there is an overriding principle such as the privacy of a constituent at stake. Even then, that constituent should have access to their file if they wish.

Lembit and those Liberal Democrat MPs who stayed behind on Friday were quite right to do so. Their determination to stand up for the rights of ordinary people in this way may well prove decisive when this awful bill reaches the House of Lords.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Working with the Tories

For those of you who are keen to stick hostile comments on this blog about the Welsh Liberal Democrats getting into bed with the Tories, it might be worth reflecting on some even stranger alliances.

In Stockton-on-Tees Labour and the Tories have gone into coalition after the Council went No Overall Control at the election, with Tory leader Ken Lupton taking over from long serving Labour leader Bob Gibson. The Liberal Democrats and local independent groupings covering Thornaby and Ingleby Barwick will form the opposition after refusing to serve in a rainbow coalition.

In Derby Labour and the Conservatives are to continue their agreement to manage the city council. A fortnight after the local elections, in which the Conservatives gained a seat to take them to 14, while Labour remained with 24 seats, the leaders of both parties have said they will continue their agreement. It means the Conservatives will support the Labour group in exchange for three seats on the cabinet - in the same way they have done for the past 12 months.

We should not forget Swansea either, where Labour and the Tories are working together in opposition and supported each others nominations to key Council posts only this week. Politics does throw up some strange bedfellows. The main consideration however, has to be the interests of the electorate and the benefits that any coalition can deliver for them.

Hat Tip: Labour Watch

Somewhere over the rainbow

Despite my reservations the joint meeting of the Assembly Group and the National Executive Committee agreed to suspend talks with Labour and instead pursue a tripartite coalition with the Tories and Plaid Cymru.

We now face a weekend of intensive talks followed by a report back to another joint meeting on Tuesday night. If the Executive, the Assembly Group and the negotiating team all agree independently to proceed then any deal will be taken to a Special Party Conference on Saturday.

I just caught the end of Waterfront as I came home where I learnt for the first time that our Special Conference was due to be held in the same building and at the same time as Plaid Cymru's National Council meeting. I do not believe that anybody at tonight's meeting knew that either. No significance should therefore be read into the fact that we have decided to find another venue for the Conference, further east.

Whatever happens our Conference discussions will take place in public so everybody can see who is for, who is against and why we have made the choice we eventually make.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The next Prime Minister

Hat Tip: Iain Dale

A contract for Wales?

When I read in the paper about leaked documents I often wonder who has given them to the journalist in question and what their motives are. I suspect that in the case of this story, centring on the leak of the draft terms under which Labour would run the National Assembly as a minority government, neither Rhodri Morgan nor his advisors will be too unhappy to see it in the public domain.

The advantage to Labour of its publication is that it keeps them in the game and enables then to portray themselves as being reasonable in offering a wide ranging agreement to two of the other parties so as to provide stable government. It puts some of the behind-closed-doors talks into the public domain and gives the electorate some hope that we may be making progress.

Some more openness in this process would in fact be welcome, especially for those AMs not involved in talks. Jenny Randerson was on Radio Wales this morning to tell us that everything was going swimmingly. Good progress was being made she said and there were a lot of options on the table for all parties.

No doubt I will learn more at tonight's joint meeting of the Assembly Group and the National Executive. I cannot help but reflect however, that whereas both Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs have had a number of briefing meetings over the last week, where they were able to input into the process, Welsh Liberal Democrat AMs have been left in the dark, twiddling their thumbs.

This style of leadership is far from ideal. It makes the party look like a one-man band. It also makes it far more difficult to get any negotiated deal past the group. We do not like being taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A question of timing

New insider blog, Ministerial Briefs, reports that the deadline for recalling the Assembly in readiness for a Wednesday 30 May meeting to elect a First Minister is Friday 25 May. This is going to cause a few problems for those parties committed to consulting their members on any deal.

Welsh Liberal Democrats are due to convene a special conference on Saturday 26 May in Aberystwyth. I believe that Plaid Cymru's Council will be meeting on the same day. If either party has signed up to a deal subject to member endorsement then the pressure to back the leader will be immense. That does not facilitate open debate and good decision-making.

There is talk about holding the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference earlier in the week on an evening in mid-Wales. Such a decision would inevitably exclude many members and leave the whole process open to challenge. Party chiefs may just have to stick to plan 'A' and hope for the best.

In reality, leaving the Special Conference to the very last minute was always going to be risky. Even if the PO could have called the Plenary meeting on 28th May there would have been no time to go back, re-negotiate and then ask members to reconsider. Whatever we are being asked to vote for needs to have widespread support in advance of the Conference if a crisis is to be avoided.

The price of progress?

Today's Western Mail highlights the real cost of private finance schemes and their impact on the long term funding of public services in Wales. The paper features a report from the Public Accounts Committee, which lists 26 Welsh PFI schemes, ranging all the way from the Severn Crossing down to a hospital heating system.

The eventual total payments for each contract are shown to be about five times the original capital cost of each project or building:

Yesterday’s report found private profits had swollen by hundreds of millions of pounds through refinancing their PFI debts – usually after the risky construction phase – while the public sector’s gain from refinancing deals had fallen about £100m short of government predictions.

The committee warned that negotiations on PFI projects were left in the hands of local government officials who were “often painfully lacking in commercial experience” – and urged the Treasury to take final responsibility for approving sensitive refinancing deals.

Welsh PFI projects listed in the report include:

Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni and Lewis Boys’ School, Caerphilly, with a £25m capital cost and payments totalling £126m;

A £300,000 heating system at Prince Philip Hospital, Llanelli, with payments totalling about £1.5m over 15 years;

A £15m divisional HQ for North Wales Police in St Asaph, with repayments of £71m;
Lloyd George Avenue and Callaghan Square, Cardiff, with a cost of £45m and repayments of £174m;

A £12.1m office building for Denbighshire council, with repayments of £63m.

Like many politicians I believe that we should avoid PFI whenever possible. The problem is that Treasury rules put many public bodies, including the Welsh Assembly, in an impossible position. Borrowing restrictions mean that the only way that capital can be raised to finance a project is through this sort of private sector arrangement. The choice we often face is to build through PFI or abandon the project altogether.

There may well be a case that the naivety of officials adds to the cost of public private partnerships but the main argument is for a reform of the public sector comparator that applies in such cases and a more sensible approach to the public sector borrowing requirement so that capital investment is treated differently as it is on the continent.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Progress, what progress?

All of the media are reporting that the next 48 hours will be crucial in finding a way forward in terms of establishing the next Welsh Assembly Government. The BBC tell us that a series of party meetings is taking place to try to reach a deal.

Meanwhile the joint Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Group and National Executive Meeting, scheduled to take place at 7pm tonight in Llandrindod Wells, has been postponed until Thursday. It seems that there was nothing to discuss.

Update: Rhodri Morgan has emerged from the Labour group meeting this afternoon to say it is unlikely that Labour will reach a deal to form a coalition Welsh Assembly Government. He is now looking to continue talks with Plaid Cymru and us to try to form a "sustainable and stable" minority Labour administration.

In a conversation with a journalist this evening I was informed that Mike German had told Rhodri that a Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference would not approve a coalition with Labour. I do not know if that account is true, but it is a fair assessment of the mood of the party.

At one point today I was stopped in the corridor by a Labour AM. I was asked what was happening. When I explained that nobody was talking to me on this issue the AM expressed the view that Labour would be happy to talk to me. I said that this was not an option for me this time.

Wigley hits back

Dafydd Wigley has written to the Western Mail to disassociate himself from the scurrilous campaign to try and force Janet Ryder out of the Assembly. As he points out in his letter:

Janet Ryder was properly selected under Plaid’s rules and was properly elected by voters. She has my full confidence – and that of Plaid Cymru in the North – in representing the region in the Assembly.

I think the point is that those in Plaid Cymru who endorsed the rules need to accept them even when it does not work out as they wish.

Who Blairs wins

How Blair are you?

Thanks to Ben Davies from the New Statesman. Take the quiz and see how you measure up to our soon to be ex-Prime Minister.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Going for gold

We have already established that the cost of the London Olympics has quadrupled to £9.3 billion. In addition it has been claimed that charities and sports bodies in Wales could lose over £24 million as a result of money being top-sliced from the lottery to pay for the event.

In the circumstances one would look for some clear benefits from this expenditure, not just for London but for the rest of the country as well. Alas, it seems that this is not going to be the case. A report in this morning's Daily Telegraph tells us that the 2012 Olympics will struggle to bring the predicted boom in jobs, sport and housing:

The report for the Greater London Assembly is the latest setback for the Games, whose costs have quadrupled to £9.3 billion.

Researchers analysed the impact of events on Athens, Sydney, Atlanta and Barcelona. They found venues "struggled to make their mark" in improving employment and sports participation.

The authors of the report, Prof Gavin Poynter and Dr Iain MacRury, based at the University of East London, said Greece lost 70,000 jobs just after the 2004 Games.

Improvement in sports participation was "mixed, at best", with Sydney experiencing small increases in seven Olympic sports, but a decline in nine.

The report goes on to say that plans for urban renewal, including 40,000 new homes, must "reflect the needs" of residents and not replicate the "significant bad feeling" in Atlanta where some neighbourhoods lost housing to the Olympics development.

Even in Barcelona, the most successful of the four cities, infrastructure improvements mainly benefited international residents and property investors.

All the venues studied ran the risk of creating "white elephant" arenas which officials struggled to find a use for.

Much as we will enjoy the prestige of hosting the Olympics there is clearly a lot more work needed if London and the UK is to reap even half of the benefits predicted and if good causes are not to lose out as a consequence.

Hat Tip: Tim Worstall

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The way forward

In the Wales on Sunday Matt Withers speculates that my supposed call for Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly leader, Mike German, to stand down has 'failed'. He reports that 'insiders say Mr German has "accepted responsibility" in private meetings but retains the party's confidence'.

If Matt wants to accept the word of one or two individuals anxious to protect the leadership on this matter then that is his concern. The fact is though that nobody knows whether Mike German retains the party's confidence or not because that has not been tested in an election since 1998. It seems to me that for many people the issue is not whether Mike should be challenged but when.

The Party's constitution is quite clear that there needs to be a leadership contest within twelve months of an Assembly election. The timing of that contest lies in the hands of the National Executive Committee who quite rightly for the time being are focussed on more important issues, such as the party's immediate role in the Assembly.

What the NEC must not forget however is that our leadership forms a crucial part of that consideration and it is for that reason that I believe that it is in the party's interests to hold any contest earlier rather than later. We can then test what party members really think about our performance, debate the future role of the party and what image we need to project to the electorate.

I am already on record as saying that I believe that our performance on May 3rd was very poor and that the leadership needs to bear some responsibility for that. If we are to continue with the same Assembly Leader then there is a need for an active endorsement by party members, not just another unopposed re-election.

Our problem however is that we are one of four parties all led by senior 'grey-haired' men. I mean that metophorically rather than literally. We have no USP and being the smallest of the four parties suffer for that. It would be helpful therefore if members are offered a real choice once a leadership election has been called.

Another problem is our failure to connect with voters. We went into the election with a detailed manifesto containing hundreds of radical policies, many of which we shared with the other parties. I am partly responsible for that manifesto as I helped write the education section and submitted ideas such as the need for local councils to have a statutory duty to provide facilities for young people to keep them off the streets at night. That particular policy was unique to us but had virtually no airing during the campaign.

Although we pulled out three particular policy areas to major on in the election, they turned out to be the same issues that the other parties were promoting as well. We failed to make them relevant because we did not relate our positions to the day to day experience of ordinary voters. In other words we did not use our manifesto as a campaigning tool.

One of the reasons for that is that we have spent too long mistaking activity in the hallowed corridors of the Assembly for campaigning. In many cases we have failed to get out into communities to deliver our message to voters. That has not been universal because in those areas where we did work and where we did have a message that resonated with people our vote held up. It was the rest of Wales, the vast majority of communities, where that did not happen.

In this respect we could learn a lot from Plaid Cymru. Our elected Parliamentarians should be taking a lead, getting out onto the streets with other activists over a four year period to talk and listen to people about their concerns and ideas. Instead of relying on inadequate opinion polls and focus groups to hone our message, we should be using the real experience of our constituents and framing our policies in a way that they can identify with.

These are just some of the changes that I believe need to be discussed during a leadership election. If they are to be implemented then they need the full commitment of all of the Assembly Group and our MPs, as well as Councillors and activists and that requires a level of leadership and team working that has hitherto been absent. Whether we can do it I do not know but we need to try. We can not be distracted from that course by our involvement in Assembly power politics at this time.

Update: It does not assist debate if senior party figures continue to remain in denial. On the Politics Show just now Jenny Willott MP insisted that our overall vote in Wales was slightly up. It was not, it was slightly down. She also said that we came close to winning more AMs and that in some areas we doubled our vote. That may be the case in isolated pockets but the fact is that we have six AMs for a third time. We have not moved forward at all. That is not a success by any definition I am aware of and it is time that we stopped trying to spin it as otherwise.

Further update: Jenny Willott has e-mailed me to point out that the Welsh Liberal Democrat vote went up by 0.6% in the constituencies and down 1% in the regions. The link is here. I am happy to correct my previous comments and apologise to Jenny if it seems that I was accusing her of lying. I was not. My essential point however, that the party did not do very well and that we should not try to pretend otherwise, remains unchanged.

And then there were two

Because of the confidentiality of the meetings I have been involved in over the last week I have been unable to report on the attitude of other Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Members to coalition and in particular to doing a formal deal with Labour. However, Mick Bates has come to my rescue this morning by illustrating that I am by no means a lone voice in the group on this issue.

He has told the Politics Show that a coalition with Labour would be "a non-starter". Mick believes that Labour should remain in a minority assembly government and that this arrangement should be bound by a policy agreement signed by all four main parties. Whether that proves to be possible we will have to see but the same report indicates that the Labour Party are moving down this road as well.

Having insulted all of their potential allies, Labour are now facing up to the prospect that they may have to go it alone. They have met a New Zealand minister to hear how parties there cooperate to bring about stable government. What is not clear is whether this option is still available to them. We will know in a few days time.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A chink of light

If Gordon Brown is going to establish clear red water between himself and Tony Blair then he needs more than an hitherto unknown sunny disposition and a few soundbites about playing it straight and reconnecting with the people. This story in the Guardian hints that the substance may be on its way as well.

The paper tells us that Jack Straw, who is widely expected to replace John Reid as home secretary, has signalled that the future of the £5.75bn national identity card scheme will be under review once regime change has been effected:

Mr Straw, who was Mr Blair's first home secretary, said yesterday the whole cabinet had publicly supported the policy on ID cards. When asked if Mr Brown still supported it, he replied:

"Yes, of course, but I am not going to get into a debate now about any reviews in the future ...

"There have been many, many occasions where we have stepped back and thought 'Is this working?' Should we maintain a particular approach."

While Mr Straw has been supportive in public, leaked papers have made clear that he has repeatedly opposed the idea in cabinet. In 2003 when he and the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, forced the postponement of the introduction of a compulsory scheme beyond the next election he warned it would be a "debacle".

"I will continue to urge strongly that this issue be shelved," he told cabinet colleagues on September 24 2003 when he was foreign secretary.

Mr Straw raised concerns about the lack of effective procedures to deal with those who refused to provide an electronic fingerprint or eye scan and about potential loopholes that could be exploited by economic migrants. The costs of the project were revealed this week to have risen by £840m in the last 6 months to £5.75bn.

Critics argued that a further £510m - the cost of registering Britons resident abroad - had been offloaded to the Foreign Office budget to avoid the official estimate going over £6bn. Treasury ministers confirmed this week that they have not yet approved the substantive budget for the ID card scheme. The Home Office only has Treasury approval for its initial development costs. This leaves the option open for Mr Brown to cancel the whole scheme when he becomes prime minister.

Another Brown ally, Alastair Darling, has also expressed unease about ID cards calling their very idea "objectionable" during a parliamentary debate.

This is all very encouraging but we will have to wait and see whether it amounts to anything after 27th June.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Missing link

This morning's media continues to heavily feature Tony Blair's resignation but there is hardly a word about John Prescott. This is despite the fact that in Wales at least, Peter Hain's bid to succeed him gets sympathetic coverage. Is the Deputy Prime Minister destined to be remembered only for landing that punch?

Things can only get better

Plaid Cymru's troubles in North Wales get a bit of an airing today with newspapers picking up on the story in Golwg that activists there are thoroughly unhappy at the failure of Dafydd Wigley to get elected.

They have turned their ire on Janet Ryder, whose only crime it seems was to use the rules as they existed to get herself re-elected. What I am having difficulty working out is whether this minor uprising is aimed at getting rid of Janet Ryder as a North Wales AM, replacing Ieuan Wyn Jones as leader or both.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A good day to bury bad news

Liberal Democrat Voice report that the Government have taken advantage of today's announcement by the Prime Minister to slip out some bad news about their ID card scheme. The report, which by law should have been published on 9 April, revealed that the cost of the project has gone up by £640m since October 2006.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg MP said: “This bad news has been illegally postponed, and is only now published a full month beyond the statutory deadline. That shows the depths of cynicism and media manipulation to which ministers are now resorting to ram this increasingly unpopular scheme through.

“To add insult to injury, the statement itself is a laughable cocktail of statistical sophistry and contradictory claims.

“But beyond the smoke and mirrors, one simple statistic remains: the total cost of the ID card project by the Government’s own admission has gone up by £640m since October. The costs are now spiralling out of control. On the grounds of expense alone, the Government should do us all a favour and abandon this great white elephant before it is too late.”


My Way Tony Blair

Hat tip to Guido:

The long goodbye

There are many people more qualified than I to comment on Tony Blair's legacy. As I write he has just announced that his last day as Prime Minister will be 27th June.

On Radio Wales this morning the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, said that the Prime Minister has grown to appreciate the value of devolution and to understand it better. It is certainly the case that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament were not his projects but a policy that he had inherited from his predecessor as Labour Leader.

His decision to treat Wales differently has had severe consequences for the development of our institution and for the Wales Labour Party. It has taken a second Government of Wales Act to try to correct that mistake. Even that Act is badly flawed.

David Cornock has a more comprehensive overview of Blair's relationship with Wales on the BBC website:

Blair initially struggled to understand that devolution did mean doing things differently in different parts of the UK.

Morgan's Welsh Assembly Government rejected much of the public service reform agenda Blair introduced in England. Longer hospital waiting times in Wales - the consequences he thought of an unreformed NHS - were said to be one reason why Blair pursued that agenda so vigorously.

Tony Blair is Labour's most electorally successful leader, but the Welsh displayed an independence of spirit during assembly elections. Lance Price, a former Downing Street spin doctor, reported "TB effing and blinding about the whole thing" during the first elections when Alun Michael failed to win a majority.

My view is that Blair's greatest legacy is the settlement in Northern Ireland, a matter that Peter Hain also must take some credit for. It should be noted however that this is a process that was started by John Major, who showed tremendous courage in seeking to bring the parties together in the first place. Blair also showed political courage but in all the celebrations earlier this week it seemed that Major's role was forgotten.

Blair's biggest mistake was of course Iraq. Whatever the merits and demerits of going to war, the way that he handled the issue was a key factor in destroying the trust that many voters had in him.

Watching him on television now, one has to admire his mastery of the occasion. He is clearly the most talented politician of his time and Labour will have a tough job replacing him, even with a heavyweight such as Gordon Brown waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Strangling them slowly

Another prominent Welsh Liberal Democrat has come out against a coalition with Labour today. Ed Townsend, who used to work as our Media Officer and who pushed Labour to within 875 votes in Newport East, has told the Western Mail that "it makes no sense at all for us to prop up what is widely perceived to be a failed group of people."

Meanwhile Rhodri Morgan has apparently put on his best pair of clod-hoppers so as to tread carefully through delicate negotiations with us. His cause is not helped by a Labour AM who is reported as saying that Labour "should try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Our philosophy towards them should be, ‘hug them close and strangle them slowly’. Another reason in favour of a deal with them is that it is difficult to remember any of the manifesto promises. What they were saying was so vague that it should be quite easy to reach agreement with them."

Nor will Rhodri find much favour with Welsh Liberal Democrat members when he tells them that we are an inedible option. Another Labour source has indicated that his or her party will have to 'hold their noses' to do a deal with us. Well we are not exactly enamoured of Labour either especially given the disgraceful way they have behaved in opposition in Swansea and Bridgend.

The final straw however has to be the report that Labour AMs have made it clear they would not countenance a deal with the Welsh Liberal Democrats that included a commitment to proportional representation in council elections. They say that if Mike German tries to insist on PR, the deal will be off and the Assembly will be in chaos.

If that is the case then I believe that I speak for the vast majority of members and activists when I say that Rhodri Morgan should not even bother picking up the phone.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


According to the BBC Sir Patrick Moore has said British TV standards are deteriorating because the BBC is "run by women".

The Sky at Night host also described female newsreaders as "jokey" and called for separate channels to cater for the needs of the different sexes:

"I think it may eventually happen", the 84-year-old told the Radio Times.

A BBC spokesman described Sir Patrick as being one of TV's best-loved figures and said his "forthright" views were "what we all love about him".

The presenter said: "The trouble is the BBC now is run by women and it shows soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn't have had that in the golden days."

I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching.

"I would like to see two independent wavelengths - one controlled by women, and one for us, controlled by men."

He claimed that interesting programmes were screened too late at night, and said he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than appear on Celebrity Big Brother.

I am with him on Celebrity Big Brother but on the rest he has obviously spent too long looking through his telescope.

Standing up for principle

In this morning's Western Mail, Jenny Randerson suggests that we might backtrack on demands for proportional representation in local government in any coalition deal. The paper records that when asked whether the Welsh Liberal Democrats are likely to insist on proportional representation in local government, she said, “PR is in our manifesto and it’s important to us, although the public are not that concerned about it.”

This is very similar to the line taken by Kirsty Williams over the weekend and it is deeply worrying. There is no doubt that the public care much more about the health service, education, transport and many other subjects far more than they do about constitutional issues such as how their Councillors are elected, but that should not diminish the importance of such a reform.

The fact is that changing the voting system for local authorities would fundamentally alter both their culture and the way that they interact with the public. In theory it should make them more responsive and more representative and this should lead to a corresponding improvement in services over a period of time.

The other reason to worry goes to the heart of the Welsh Liberal Democrats' present troubles. There is no doubt in my mind that one of the damaging factors for us in the election was the perception, rightly or wrongly, that our main concern was getting into power at any cost. No matter how vehemently we denied it, no matter how much we insisted that policy and principle took priority, people still believed that our prime concern was to get our backsides into ministerial limousines. This was especially so in respect of our group leader.

I have to say that this is both unfair and untrue but it existed nevertheless. It is one of the reasons why I believe that we need to stand aside from government this time and reaffirm our independence, our radicalism and our relevance. It is also one of the reasons why I believe that whoever leads us in the Assembly needs a fresh and early mandate from party members.

If we were to now go into coalition having effectively jettisoned or compromised on one of our core policies then I believe that we will be permanently damaged. No matter how unimportant PR in local government is to the person in the street, he or she will form the overwhelming impression that we are prepared to jettison our principles to get into the Cabinet. Such a move would underline the perception that we are self-seeking politicians who would sell our soul for power. It is why, of all our policies, we must not compromise on this one.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Another voice

Swansea Council leader Chris Holley has now publicly added his voice to those opposing a coalition with Labour. In tonight's South Wales Evening Post he has openly condemned the prospect of keeping Rhodri Morgan's party in power:

Councillor Holley said: "Wales has said it doesn't want a Labour Government. I don't think it's right, when we are fighting Labour locally and nationally, that we should hold them up."

Leaders of Liberal Democrat-led councils in Cardiff, Wrexham and Bridgend are all said to be against a Lib-Lab deal in the Assembly.

Councillor Holley, who heads a Liberal Democrat-led coalition on Swansea Council, which usurped Labour, said: "I think the Labour Party need to realise that nationally and locally they have not listened to the public.

"Throughout the UK they have taken a hiding.

"Their arrogance is unbounding and they are telling Wales that they want to stay in charge.

"If Plaid Cymru or the Conservatives want to have an election pact with them, fine, but I think all the other parties will find it difficult to support a Labour administration that is clearly the largest party in the Assembly, but the public don't want."

Bridgend Council Leader, Cheryl Green, spoke out against the deal on Saturday, whilst yesterday Cardiff Council Leader Rodney Berman, described a Lib-Lab coalition as he least favoured option. If there is a deal it will face very stiff opposition indeed at a special conference.

The curse of Lembit

On Radio Wales just now Lembit Őpik unreservedly backed Mike German to stay Assembly Group leader and to negotiate a coalition deal.

Despite Eleanor Burnham's remarks on Saturday, he also said that no other senior Liberal Democrat had doubts about Mike's leadership. Not in public at least. In reality for the majority of the Assembly group it is just a matter of timing. Their disagreement with me is that I have gone public at this time, not with what I have said.

Lembit added that nobody else is putting up for leader. That could be because the National Executive has not yet set out a timetable. When they do (and they should do so quickly), then I believe that there will be a challenger.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Compare and contrast

From the BBC on Saturday 5 May 2007:

Asked if she had confidence in Mr German, Ms Burnham replied: "We have to discuss that today".

Pressed on the issue, she said: "We have to do better than last time, when people like myself didn't have the opportunity to express a view".

From the BBC today:

Ms Burnham said Mr Black should not be raising the leadership issue.

"I think Peter Black is being irresponsible," she said. "He's in a minority, I assure you.

Speaking out inappropriately

This morning's Wales on Sunday carries a two page spread on my views on the Welsh Assembly Group leadership. It was not easy speaking out publicly like this but I felt that it was necessary when it became obvious in meetings on Saturday that Mike German was already manoeuvring to stay on as leader for most if not all of the next four years.

I have nothing against Mike personally, in fact I think that he has given exceptional service as leader and done an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances. However, it is in the best interests of the party in my view that we move on and have an early election for leader. This is required in our constitution anyway but can be dragged out for twelve months, a timetable that would impinge on local council elections.

I also have no problems with Mike standing in that election. After three Assembly elections in which we have made no progress whatsoever, he has a right to put his case and ask for a further mandate from the membership, but we need a leader with that fresh mandate if we are to change.

I also believe that entering a coalition now would do irreparable harm to the party. It would prevent us from developing a fresh image and refining our policies and principles. Indeed key players in that process would be tied up in the workings of Government and any chance of distinctiveness would be lost.

I was amused to read in the Wales on Sunday that I had been rebuked by Brecon and Radnor MP, Roger Williams, for speaking out. He did not say any of that to me yesterday when we discussed what I had said in the National Executive Meeting about the leadership issue. In the newspaper he said:

"I think it's inappropriate just after an election. We're considering the result of that election and the issue as to whether the party should take a role in opposition or a role in government and at that time I think it's inappropriate to start speaking about this."

The leadership of course forms a integral part of the process he describes and therefore needs to be discussed openly as well. Nevertheless, I could always have taken the other option of secretly and anonymously briefing the media so as to undermine Mike's position. After all that is how the MPs got rid of Charles Kennedy. That, though, is not my style.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Losing the air war

James Graham writes about the Welsh Assembly elections:

Partly because we are at the mercy of the electoral system, the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.

This was echoed by my own experience. I spent the last week being a footsoldier in a non-target constituency in Wales. We got a disappointing result, but our vote held up in our target polling districts. The national campaign didn’t just fail to boost us in the polls, it failed even to cushion the work we were doing locally.

Initial thoughts? All those ‘cheeky’ references in the media didn’t exactly help, however Lembit might like to dress it up. In and of themselves, I doubt they cost us votes, but they did make it tougher to get a coherent message across. They were an unnecessary distraction.

After three campaigns at the helm, Mike German can’t avoid responsibility. His performances on TV failed to impress. True, none of the Welsh Party leaders exactly set the world alight, but as the longest-serving leader, Mike really should have stood out.

Forming a government

And so it begins. I have had a bit more sleep and I am now preparing to drive into Cardiff for a group meeting followed by a joint session with the Welsh Liberal Democrat Executive. My result did not come through until 4.30pm yesterday so I did not have time to sign on. That is my first task today.

My instincts are that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have to be the deal-makers in this process. We have our own issues to sort out first around where we are going as a party and what sort of image we project to the Welsh public.

We obviously want to put Liberal Democrat policies into effect but there are other ways of doing that apart from being in government. The last thing we need is to enter a divisive and difficult process of negotiation with a Labour Party that has been rejected by the people of Wales when our own problems remain unresolved. We need to take our members with us on this not drive them away and surely the opposition of our four Council leaders to a deal with Labour must form a part of that process.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Just three hours sleep and an hour and a half to go before the Regional count resumes in South Wales West. I don't yet know whether I am back or not.

It looks like the Welsh Liberal Democrats will be unchanged from the six seats they have held since 1999. This is not healthy and it is clear that we now need a fresh approach and a radical re-think as to where we are going and how we sell ourselves, our policies and our philosophy to the Welsh electorate. More on this later.

In the meantime here are some photos from the campaign to keep you occupied. This one was taken in Beddau, Pontypridd by our very forthright candidate, Mike Powell. It expresses the disillusionment felt with Labour by a number of voters, which most probably contributed to Mike's excellent second place there.

Meanwhile, a very funny thing happened to me outside one of the Swansea polling stations. I parked up for a few minutes after having dropped off an elderly voter and due to the rather stifling heat left my car doors open. When I turned around the car had been occupied. Fortunately, it was not an attempt to steal the vehicle, just a cat who was wondering what all the fuss was about. I believe that the aforesaid animal made the most of the attention it got in the sun from a stream of visitors to the local community centre all day.

The BBC now want to talk to me at 6pm. Do you think they want to ask about coalitions?

N.B. I think I should use this opportunity to express my commiserations to fellow blogger Glyn Davies on losing his seat. There but for the grace of God go all regional candidates. He will be missed from the Assembly as will a number of others.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


The four way debate I participated in for 18 Doughty Street can be seen here. My blog for the New Statesman is here.

Line 29

I know I said that I was going away for 24 hours but it is still a bit early to start knocking on voters' doors and I could not resist this.

From an American blog, directions on Google Maps of how to get from San Francisco to Amsterdam. Line 29 is the crucial one.

The day today

The polls open in 15 minutes, my legs are aching, my feet are sore and there is at least another 23 hours before I find out if I am to be an AM for four more years. I have lost a stone in weight, I have a tan (of sorts) and if you think I am blogging again before Friday then you have another think coming. I will be far too busy.

As I set out to try and get our vote out I leave you with this final guide. It is the Press Association's estimated timings for declarations tomorrow courtesy of Joe Allen:

1 Aberavon 03:00
2 Aberconwy 03:00
3 Alyn & Deeside 02:00
4 Arfon 02:30
5 Blaenau Gwent 02:30
6 Brecon & Radnorshire 02:00
7 Bridgend 02:00
8 Caerphilly 01:30
9 Cardiff Central 04:00
10 Cardiff North 04:00
11 Cardiff South & Penarth 04:00
12 Cardiff West 04:00
13 Carmarthen East & Dinefwr 04:00
14 Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South 04:00
15 Ceredigion 03:00
16 Clwyd South 03:30
17 Clwyd West 03:00
18 Cynon Valley 03:00
19 Delyn 02:00
20 Dwyfor Meirionnydd 02:30
21 Gower 03:00
22 Islwyn 01:30
23 Llanelli 01:00
24 Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney 02:00
25 Monmouth 02:30
26 Montgomeryshire 01:00
27 Neath 03:00
28 Newport East 03:00
29 Newport West 03:00
30 Ogmore 02:00
31 Pontypridd 03:00
32 Preseli Pembrokeshire 04:00
33 Rhondda 03:00
34 Swansea East 03:00
35 Swansea West 03:00
36 Torfaen 03:00
37 Vale of Clwyd 03:30
38 Vale of Glamorgan 03:00
39 Wrexham 03:00
40 Ynys Mon 02:00

101 South Wales Central 05:00
102 South Wales East 04:00
103 South Wales West 04:30
104 Wales Mid & West 04:30
105 Wales North 04:30


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Labour candidate apologises for speaking his mind

The old joke about Labour politicians being told when to breath via a direct line to Peter Mandelson was always an outrageous exaggeration, but one does wonder sometimes especially when new examples of the party's control freakery surfaces.

The latest case of over-the-top manipulation is the row over Kenneth Skates, Labour’s lead North Wales regional candidate, who blogged on newstatesman.com that his party would lose two AMs tomorrow. Mr Skates has now emailed the magazine to ask if his contribution could be removed after he was contacted by party officials:

In a statement, he said, “What I’d hoped to be a rallying call against apathy and the dangers of low turnout was clearly misguided. I have spoken with many colleagues in the party here in North Wales and am deeply sorry for any upset I have caused them.

“Everybody with an interest in politics enjoys making predictions, but mine were wrong and this will be shown on Thursday.

“I fully deserve the ear bashing I’ve had from my friends in the party, with whom I’ve been working hard to secure Labour victories. Certainly, crystal-ball gazing is something I’ll be leaving to commentators from now on.”

If Labour lose enough constituency seats in North Wales of course, Mr. Skates could find himself in the Assembly. Let us hope that he finds his own voice by then and permits himself a degree of independence in how he uses it, without fear of Labour Central Office.

Meanwhile, I too have now submitted a blog entry to the New Statesman. I do not anticipate having to apologise for it or withdrawing any part of it.


The row about Brian Gibbons' grant of £2 million to the Cardiff Children's Hospital rolled on today with the revelation that not only did he not make the announcement when the decision was taken back in March, but he did not tell the Noah's Ark Appeal either.

In the Radio Wales' discussion on this issue this morning, Labour's Huw Lewis was adamant that the health minister was right to bring the decision into the public domain now so as to put the record straight. Incredibly, Huw claimed that the Western Mail had egg on its face and had made a clear error which needed to be corrected. It took Jenny Randerson to state the obvious, that the paper could not have made a mistake because the grant decision had been a secret and the Western Mail could not possibly have known any different.

Although the extra money to the hospital is very welcome, it remains the case that work cannot start on phase two until an additional £3 million of revenue funding is found. It would also be nice of course if a similar injection of cash was made into children's services in Swansea and West Wales. Nevertheless, the more information that comes out about this announcement the clearer it becomes that it was contrary to the Assembly rules. The ultimate arbiter in this row is the First Minister himself. I look forward to his ruling.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Breaking purdah

The one unbreakable rule of government is that whoever is in power should not abuse their position by making announcements in an election period that might give them some electoral advantage. It was with astonishment therefore that I heard on the radio this morning that the health minister had announced another £2m for the Children's Hospital for Wales.

Brian Gibbons tells us that the decision was taken at the end of March, as one of his last acts as health minister before Thursday's assembly poll was called. He said he had kept it secret to avoid charges of making political capital. I am not sure therefore how telling us about it two days before the election is somehow not 'making political capital.'

Jenny Randerson is quite right to complain to the Permanent Secretary about a potential breach of the ministerial code. There can be no justification for the way that the health minister has handled this issue. This is cynicism made into an art form.

It's all about money

With just days to go to the polls things are getting interesting as each party comes under more intense scrutiny. First up is the cost of Plaid Cymru's manifesto promises. All the other parties are convinced that Plaid have got their sums wrong and that the only way that the nationalist's figures will add up is if they budget for zero growth on other Assembly budgets.

To be fair that is exactly what Labour did in 2004. Their budget for that year effectively froze half of the Assembly budget lines imposing real-term cuts on some key services such as housing. Nevertheless it is not a situation anybody wants to put themselves in if they can help it.

Some Plaid bloggers are under the impression that because the Welsh Liberal Democrats have joined with Labour in attacking Plaid spending plans that we are lining ourselves up for another Lib-Lab coalition. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that when faced with an open goal we shoot just like anybody else. We are concentrating on the election at present, what happens afterwards is out of our hands.

Plaid's response the manifesto costings row was to try and divert attention from it by attacking the Labour Assembly Government for hoading money instead of spending it on key services. They exposed a supposedly secret Welsh Assembly Government Cabinet paper, which suggests keeping hundreds of millions of pounds of public money in reserve and unspent. They went onto accuse Labour of seeking to emulate John Redwood, the former Tory Welsh Secretary who infamously sent £100m of Welsh Office funds back to the Treasury in 1995.

As it happens all of this is a storm in a teacup. The Government's spending plans are set out in the budget that went through last December and the extra money which was put into reserves in years two and three is there for all to see. Ironically, it was Plaid's abstention which enabled this budget to be passed, so if there is dodgy practise as they allege then their prints are all over the crime scene. My inclination is that this is not the case. What we have is just sensible budgeting and the incoming government, of whatever political colour, will be glad of the manoeuvring room it affords them.

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