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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Policy free Welsh Tories

The questions have been appearing on the blogs for some weeks, what has happened to the report by Lord Roberts of Conwy that was reputedly meant to settle Tory policy on devolution in Wales for some time to come?

According to Betsan Powys Lord Roberts' interim report was delivered in July but nobody seems in any hurry to publish it. Despite this Nick Bourne managed to announce in Birmingham that the Tories may reverse the ban on dual candidacy for the Assembly. Are the contents of Lord Roberts' report to be leaked out bit by bit in this way or are we going to have an opportunity to evaluate it as a whole, including how it manages to square the circle within the Welsh Conservatives between those who want more powers and those who want to abolish the Assembly altogether?

Today's Western Mail draws attention to the fact that the Conservatives are struggling to adopt a united front on devolution, with some activists still entirely opposed to the Assembly, and others – including Assembly group leader Nick Bourne – keen to see the institution take on more powers. They too draw attention to the non-appearance of Lord Roberts' report.

It is of course right that this is not a subject that comes up on doorsteps. People are far more concerned with the state of the economy, petrol and energy prices, education and health. Nevertheless it is a test of exactly how far the Tories have travelled. The fact that they have not yet published the report indicates that they are far more concerned with their own internal divisions on this issue than in offering leadership to the rest of Wales.

The wrong sort of leak


A meeting of a Welsh assembly committee has been abandoned after water leaked through the roof of the building.

AMs were taking evidence from teaching unions on education plans for 14-19-year-olds before giving up.

"Very, very embarrassed" chairman Jeff Cuthbert called it a "leak in the Welsh assembly of the wrong sort".

The £67m Senedd building in Cardiff Bay underwent repairs within days of its opening by the Queen in March 2006 because of leaks during heavy rain.
Mr Cuthbert initially interrupted the meeting to explain why an official was placing a mat behind his chair.

The Caerphilly AM apologised, describing the situation as "very very embarrassing", "a little ridiculous" and just "not acceptable".

The committee persevered for a few minutes but eventually had to give up.

Jeff Cuthbert explains why an official is placing a mat behind him"It's actually making more noise in my ear than anything else," said Mr Cuthbert.

Liberal Democrat AM Kirsty Williams complained that the dripping water was becoming worse and "getting really distracting".

Osborne Council Tax shambles

George Osborne's pledge to freeze Council Tax does not of course apply in Wales, though if there is new money involved then there may well be a Barnett consequential available to the Welsh Assembly Government, which it could use, if it wished, to do something similar here, but what exactly does this promise mean anyway?

The BBC tell us that Osborne does not want central government to force the freezing of bills, but any English council which limits spending rises to 2.5% will get that amount from Whitehall. The Shadow Chancellor says that the move will save the average Band D household £210 and he expects all English councils to want to take part at an estimated cost of £500m in the first year and £1 billion in the second.

In many ways this is a quick fix. It is an attempt to calm down protests about an unpopular and regressive tax, which the Conservatives introduced in the first place, without actually changing anything.

Most Councils will feel obliged to take part and in doing so will find their room for manoeuvre severely limited. Essentially they will need to cut back services to meet the 2.5% cap on spending. If they do not do so they will not get the extra money and will face the wrath of Council tax payers who will want to know why their bills are going up when neighbours in adjoining authorities are benefiting from a freeze.

The proposal is also a centralising one, effectively putting more national tax into local government, leaving Councillors with less discretion and local authorities at the mercy of central government for their income.

As a proposal it lacks imagination and offers no relief whatsoever to those on low incomes struggling to pay a Council tax bill out of all proportion to their means. If Osborne had really wanted to make a difference then he could have carried out a proper reform of local taxation, instead he has opted for a cheap headline and an easy gimmick. Is this the sign of things to come?

Presidential election stuff

The turnouts may not be too high but in America they treat their Presidential elections like a team sport. Badges, rosettes and mugs are not enough, instead they have a wide range of goods confirming their support for one candidate or another. And they do it with humour as well.

Over at Mighty Goods there is a full range of products ranging from Obama nesting dolls to McCain condoms. You can order candidate finger puppets and even Obama shaped soap.

As Maggie Mason reports on her main blog you can also get Palin voodoo dolls and some rather strange artwork that portrays the republican Vice Presidential candidate as a Triclops - unnecessarily vicious and personal in my view.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Vince Cable rules OK

Courtesy of Jenny Rigg (heck, I even stole her artwork) and Sara Bedford, I bring you Radio Four's Vince Cable fan club. The fun bit is here at 8.10am. If this is an example of how the Today programme will be treating the Tories I may have to reconsider listening to Radio Wales in the morning rather than Radio Four.

Sara Bedford has a transcript of the really interesting bits of Evan Davis' interview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Tory shadow. Apologies for reproducing her whole post but I just know how difficult it is for you all to click on the links:

Evan Davis gave both Alistair Darling and George Osbourne a dressing down over their economic failures, telling them:

“You both represent this part of the very same system of deregulated capitalism that has got us into this.”

But the best part came when he spoke directly with George Osbourne. Davis said:

“It sounds to me like I should vote for Vince Cable. Vince Cable was against demutualising the building societies back in the 1990s when your government was doing that. Vince Cable was sending me as an economics editor emails every three weeks, about the levels of debt through the last five years and he has been instrumental in saying that the taxpayer needs to be protected nationalising the banks and in having the upside risks as well as the downside ones are the way to go. Why if I am angry would I vote for you over him.”

Osbourne had no response, except to make snide remarks about looking forward to ince supporting a Conservative budget proposal. Evan Davis, sensing a back foot move when he saw one, went for the jugular.

“Do you know as much about economics as Vince Cable, George?”

The surprise and stuttering in Osbourne’s voice could not have been greater if Davis has produced his famed intimate jewelery and dropped if on the table at a family dinner party. He sounded as though the most unpleasant remark had been made by an outsider at an upper class dinner party (and having been to several Tory Conferences in the 1990s representing my employer, that’s exactly how you can be made to feel).

“Well, er, I, er, oh, er …”

“He was the Chief Economist at Shell!”

offered Davis, helpfully.

“I was not Chief Economist at Shell, but, er um I do spend a lot of time talking to people across the economy .”

said Osbourne. Even over the airwaves you could sense him looking around for his press aide, hoping to be told that the time was up and he needed to go and discuss fashion trends for Autumn with Lorraine Kelly.

No authority

Gordon Brown's attempt last week to reassert his authority as Prime Minister has had some success in reducing the Tories' lead in the opinion polls. However, all that work is under threat this week not as a result of the Conservative Party Conference but rather the internal shenanigans of the Labour Party.

Yesterday's Sunday Times reports that the PM's plans for a cabinet reshuffle on Friday are in disarray as it emerged that a string of ministers could resign if they are moved:

Downing Street sources say that Brown is likely to put off a reshuffle again amid fears that attempts to switch key figures could backfire dramatically.

His allies argue that it would be inappropriate to focus on the make-up of the cabinet at a time of economic crisis. But insiders say attempts to change the frontbench team have become even more fraught since the Labour party conference, leaving the prime minister desperate to buy time.

Among the figures who have made it known through friends that they do not want to change posts are Alistair Darling, the chancellor, David Mili-band, the foreign secretary, and Alan Johnson, the health secretary. James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, is said to have been stung by a whispering campaign that he could be demoted and has told allies that he would quit rather than accept a less powerful role.

Since the conference, it has also become clear that Brown risks a backlash if he demotes or sacks Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, who gave a stellar performance in Manchester and is emerging as one of the most popular figures with rank-and-file members.

Any idea that Gordon Brown is in full control of both the Country and his own party is clearly undermined by this story. If it is true then he may well be standing in a metaphorical corner with his back against the wall even as I type.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The 'nasty' party?

More on the Conservatives as the Wales on Sunday report on the 39 page dossier put together by their Welsh branch to mark First Minister's Rhodri Morgan, 69th birthday. According to Matt Withers the document amounts to a highly personal attack on every aspect of his leadership – right down to his dress sense and hairstyle.

Entitled ‘Rhodri Morgan: Leadership Without Purpose’ the paper rakes through the Labour leader’s career, laying into everything including: his stewardship of the economy; his “unique dress sense and hairstyle”; his “erratic and unusual behaviour”; claims he had “undermined the role of First Minister and embarrassed the National Assembly and Wales”; and the fact he once posed for a picture with TV presenter Timmy Mallett.

It also mocks all of the contenders to succeed Mr Morgan when he steps down this time next year and refers to “damaging” speculation following reports last week that he was considering staying on.

We are told that only four pages deal with policy matters, the other 35 amount to a character assasination on the First Minister. How very constructive. Do the Welsh Tories really believe that this sort of cheap shot advances political debate in this country? I hope not.

Who is financing the Tories?

This morning's Observer has the lowdown on how David Cameron's Conservative Party is caught up in the mire of City deals and short-selling that has brought the banking sector and the world-wide economy to its knees.

The paper tells us that the Tories are receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from hedge fund managers who have been making vast sums of money from plunging bank shares. This is in addition to the tens of thousands of pounds that has been poured into Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservative Association:

After the Financial Services Authority had, in effect, barred the controversial practice of short-selling bank stocks and the Treasury was forced to draw up a rescue package for Bradford and Bingley, it emerged that a small group of City financiers who have made fortunes from falling stock markets are paying at least £50,000 a year to the party.

Their donations entitle them to membership of an elite supporters club called the Leaders Group, which bestows invitations to functions attended by David Cameron, something that has prompted allegations that the Tory leader is supporting 'cash for access'. Last night, in an attempt to quell a mounting row over the party's finances ahead of this week's conference, the party put details of the Leaders Group on its website.

It has also emerged the Conservatives have continued to receive money from Lord Laidlaw, a Monaco-based tax exile who has given the party more than £3m. One donation came after the fact that he had taken part in orgies with prostitutes was exposed in the tabloids.

None of this is illegal of course but these revelations do raise the question once more as to whether the Tories really have changed? Sadly, it appears that beneath the slick PR of Tory leader David Cameron, they are the same old party of selfish hooray henrys who have no idea what it is like to be an ordinary person or family struggling to make ends meet. They are profiting from the misfortunes that fall on our economy and which are threatening the financial security of tens of thousands of ordinary people.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mistaken identity (again!)

This morning's Western Mail reports on a significant gaffe by Welsh Conservative Finance Spokesperson, Angela Burns and makes one of its own by illustrating its story with a picture of former Labour AM, Christine Gwyther, who Angela beat in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and who will not be amused at being mistaken for her successor by the paper's picture editor.

In an exclusive interview with Welsh Liberal Democrat blogger, Bob Innes, Angela Burns demands "more powers to keep money in Wales for Wales". She also says that she would like to "levy a small charge on some of the companies that use us as a gateway and I would re-invest that money in developing business", an additional Welsh tax on business if ever there was one.

Angela states that if she was Finance Minister she would "demand our fair share" of resources, hinting at support for a reform of the Barnett formula and that she would "give the less well off the opportunity to get help and money without being made to feel that they have to beg for it", a hint that she believes that social security benefits might be better administered from Cathays Park.

Credit is due to John Dixon, who picked up on the significance of these statements before anybody else and who is no doubt the source of Matt Wither's news story. Angela has of course denied it all. She has released a statement denying she had called for tax powers to be devolved and claiming her comments had been misinterpreted: “What I am suggesting is that we need to think smarter and work harder to make money being invested in Wales work better for Wales.”

Except that that is not what she said at all.

Friday, September 26, 2008


A couple of things that have amused me this morning:

The questioner on Radio Wales asking an interviewer if what he would say if he had George Bushes' ear? My first thought was "go to hospital and get that sewn back on." Other (more serious) answers in the comments.

The interview with the scientist working on the Cern Hadron Collider which revealed that one of the delays in resuming their work is the cost of electricity over the winter months. Yes, we know what you mean!

A poster advertising a lecture in the Assembly on Tuesday entittled 'Alcohol and Violence: Insights from behavioural science and particle physics'. The lecturer is from Cardiff University's School of Dentistry. I expect a big turnout from the Assembly Police force.

I will get my coat now and leave.

Mistaken identity

As one might expect Bethan Jenkins' new website has attracted the attention of her local newspaper, the weekly Neath Guardian. The paper glories in the bright shiny-ness of the site and the opportunities it offers for interaction with the Plaid Cymru Regional Assembly Member.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Bethan has a column later on in the same newspaper complete with portrait photo, the Neath Guardian's sub-editors still seem confused as to who exactly she is. I cannot say who the person in the photo illustrating the website story is but it is certainly not Bethan as the caption suggests.

This is of course a mite-unfortunate but more so as it is the second time this has happened to Bethan in the course of a few weeks. She recently featured at number 50 in a Western Mail poll of the most eligible Welsh females however the paper used an incorrect photograph to illustrate the achievement. Perhaps the respective picture editors need to sort out their files.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The search for Plaid's manifesto commitments

It was an interesting Assembly election last year. Plaid Cymru came up with a host of gimmicks such as free laptops for children and a £5,000 grant to help first time buyers get on the housing ladder and all the other parties condemned them for it. So what happened to these gimmicks now that they are in government?

The truth is that in the case of the first time house buyer grant they have fudged it. It seems that the reality of government has struck home and Plaid Ministers have realised that the idea was unaffordable, undeliverable, would distort the housing market and would not have the impact envisaged for it. Instead they are piloting a grant to help first time buyers put in energy efficiency measures. It is hardly the same thing, worse it is unfocussed and untargeted, another grant like the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme that does not reach the fuel poor in anything like sufficient numbers.

The pilot scheme will make £500,000 available to local authorities in certain areas to be offered as energy efficiency grants for first time buyers. The local authorities that will be allowed to bid to share in this cash during the trial are Cardiff, Ceredigion, Conwy, Denbighshire, Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire, Powys, Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham. People buying new build properties or properties under the right to buy will not be eligible to apply.

Plaid Cymru's 2007 Assembly election manifesto contained a promise "to help first time buyers get a foothold on the property ladder" and to "offer grants of up to £5,000, on a pound for pound match funded basis, to all first time buyers who save for three years in a government-supported scheme."

The scheme they have come up with will not help a single person onto the property ladder. It is a fudge to make Plaid's unaffordable and unworkable promise look viable and it even fails at that. If the Government is serious about helping young people onto the property ladder then they need to look seriously at schemes like HomeBuy, low cost ownership schemes and bringing empty homes back into use. Instead of spending money on assisting key workers and the low paid they are wasting it on badly targeted grants like this.

The dilemmas of power

I have suggested before that Plaid Cymru have not yet made the adjustment to a party comfortable with power however recent news items have caused me to revise that judgement. I am now convinced that they are not even trying. Instead the nationalist party are trying to redefine the role of a government party by having their cake and eating it.

This approach involves divorcing their backbench Assembly Members and MPs from their Ministers so as to enable each to pursue their own path. The moment that any inconsistencies are rumbled and Ministers put on the spot they run for cover behind the so-called responsibilities of government, either allowing the WAG press operation to respond through a bland statement or accusing those scrutinising them of not understanding the limitations of government or, worst still, not being prepared to take on the mantle of power.

In many ways this approach does keep Plaid Cymru in the news and enables them to play both sides of an argument. The downside is that sooner or later the Minister will have to make a decision and that could well isolate those in his or her party on the opposite side of the argument. The tactic is opportunistic and it creates the impression of a party interested in power for its own sake. It is also dishonest.

The only thing that has prevented the party getting into significant trouble with this approach so far is the lack of an effective Welsh media prepared to question them on it. I would think that that will not last for long. The One Wales Government is coming to the stage when Ministers are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. That is fine and I have no problem with that process, even if I end up on the opposite side to them, however where those decisions are contrary to clear policy positions and emphatic statements by Plaid spokespeople and elected representatives then they could find themselves in some difficulty.

There are two good examples of this approach from this week's events. In the first instance we have Adam Price MP once more throwing up policy ideas in his endless search for headlines. This time he is advocating the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) to manage revenue from the huge quantities of coal and methane gas that could be exploited in South Wales.

A reasonable idea perhaps but one that has been dismissed out of hand by the Minister for the Economy and Transport, who just happens to be Plaid Cymru's leader. Ieuan Wyn Jones does not even give his colleague the benefit of a personal response. Instead he gets a Spokesperson to tell the media that “The Assembly Government does not have the power to raise revenue in this way on non-Government-owned land and is unlikely to be able to do so at least during the term of this Assembly Government. The Government is interested however in how its current resources can be used in order to share the benefits from the exploitation of Wales’ natural resources, such as through the leasing of Forestry Commission land.”

Adam's response is predictable but only if he were attacking a Labour Administration. He says: "I am not at all impressed with the response of the Assembly Government. If Wales does not have the power to charge royalties for minerals extracted from under the ground, the Assembly Government should be making a case for such power to be granted.

“Instead of accepting the status quo, there is the need to be imaginative, to do some creative thinking so that every opportunity can be taken to improve the Welsh economy.

“The Assembly Government should draft and submit a Legislative Competence Order that would give it the power to get a share of the wealth that will be generated if these developments go ahead.”

“I shall be raising this matter with Ieuan. He is, after all, the leader of my party. In Scotland, the SNP Government is looking to establish a Scottish oil fund using similar principles.”

But does he not understand? Ieuan Wyn Jones has spoken already. The Minister is not a separate entity from the Government he forms a part of. The Assembly Government Spokesperson is not pontificating on behalf of some abstract entity. He or she is speaking on behalf of Ieuan Wyn Jones and the two Plaid politicians are clearly at odds with each other.

The second example involves Plaid Cymru Assembly Member and their environmental spokesperson, Leanne Wood. She joined a number of Welsh Liberal Democrat politicians on Tuesday outside the Senedd to protest at the planned M4 extension past Newport and through five SSSIs on the Gwent levels.

On her blog she writes: 'I have a lot of sympathy for the campaigners. If we are serious about climate change, and we take heed of the warnings over peak oil, we would not spend around £20million per mile on a motorway. Our public transport system is in urgent need of investment. More roads inevitably result in more traffic. This in addition to the fact that the proposed road would run through the Gwent Levels, five miles of which are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).'

This is fine and I agree with her but does Ieuan Wyn Jones who, as Transport Minister, has already committed to taking this new road through the relevant processes? Will Leanne publicly oppose her own leader on this road and where exactly do Plaid Cymru stand on this issue? It is time we were told.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A curious relationship

The first day back after summer recess yesterday led to a varied and rather long Plenary session. It was also the first opportunity to take stock of the changes that had taken place over the summer within the One Wales Government and to evaluate how both sides in the coalition are settling down with each other.

Sure enough the new Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones was soon on his feet making a statement about the Olympics and the Labour Spokesperson on the subject was there to greet him:

Alun Davies: I add my words of welcome and congratulations to the new Minister on his appointment. I hope that we will be able to continue working in this curious relationship between a party spokesperson and a Minister—not quite a shadow, but not quite a cheerleader—that we have developed over the last year.

It was not surprising that the Minister was slightly bemused:

Alun Ffred Jones: Thank you for your kind words, Alun, and may our curious relationship continue on its tortuous path. [Laughter.]

What can be going on?

One for the literati

Care of Jenny Rigg: McSweeney's Hamlet in Facebook news feed form:

Hamlet thinks Ophelia might be happier in a convent.

Ophelia removed "moody princes" from her interests.

The hidden code of politics

For those who like cheap shots as part of their daily political mix the Daily Telegraph aims not to disappoint. In the interests of plagarism I offer you their entire litany, an alternative view on Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party Conference yesterday:

“I am proud to be a husband.” It’s not only Tony Blair who can do the emotional stuff.

“I didn’t come into politics to be a celebrity or thinking I’d always be popular.”
I left that to Tony Blair who was more at home in the company of pop stars than Labour Party activists.

“So I’m not going to try to be something I’m not. If people say I’m too serious, quite honestly, there is a lot to be serious about.” I know you all think I’m a weirdo, and I try to show a more human face, but I’m simply no good at it.

“Some people have been asking why I haven’t served my children up full spreads in the paper. My answer is simple. My children aren’t props. They are people.” Unlike David Cameron who is absolutely shameless at wheeling his children out for every possible photo opportunity. And did you notice all the toys which were conveniently on show in David Miliband’s magazine interview the other day?

“The British people would not forgive us if at this time we looked inwards to the affairs of just our party when our duty is to the interests of the country.” Don’t even consider a leadership contest while the financial markets are in turmoil.

“I’m all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you, this is no time for novices.” You can’t still be contemplating David Miliband as my replacement after that awful speech when he fluffed his Heseltine moment. Are you really going to ditch a Labour Government led by me, the longest serving Chancellor since records began to allow baby-faced George Osborne to move into Number 11 Downing Street.

“What counts is not the pursuit of sectional interests but the advancement of the public interest.” So get back in your box all you trade union leaders like Tony Woodley. You might be paying for the Labour Party but I’m running the country.

“And I promise you I will work with other countries to bring a permanent settlement - a secure Israel and a viable Palestine - to deliver peace for the people of the Middle East.”

“When I talk to parents about schools I’m determined that every child should have a good school, because while I got my break in a great local secondary, not all my friends got the chance to get on.” The Shadow Cabinet has not had so many old Etonians for 40 years.

“Understand that all the attacks, all the polls, all the headlines, all the criticism, it’s worth it if, in doing this job, I make life better for one child, one family, one community.” I’m not going anywhere. And if you do try and get rid of me I won’t go down without a fight.

“What happened with 10p stunned me because it really hurt that suddenly people felt I wasn’t on the side of people on middle and modest incomes.” This is the closest I’m coming to an apology for screwing up over the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

End of the World postponed

The BBC report that the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva will be shut off until spring 2009 while engineers probe a magnet failure.

As a science fiction fan I am sure I can come up with many more ways that the World could end between now and next March if the media wish to continue the speculation.


A short footnote to yesterday's post about the US based hedge fund which is funding a Conservative Association in rural Wales.

Although it is a different company it is worth noting from this Financial Times article about John Paulson, the New York-based hedge fund manager who made billions of dollars predicting the subprime implosion, who has emerged as the biggest short seller of British banks. The paper tells us that Mr Paulson, the founder of Paulson & Co, has bet against four of the five biggest British banks, according to filings made under a new regulatory regime yesterday.

That is one reason why it is not good electoral politics to cuddle up too closely to such institutions.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Getting Angry

I am not normally a big fan of John Le Carré's political views but, speaking to the Telegraph today he has hit the nail on the head as to the way that this Labour Government have undermined our civil liberties over the past eleven years:

The writer, who admitted he has a reputation as "an angry old man", said he was furious that the Government had been allowed to get away with a sustained attack on civil liberties.

"Partly, I'm angry that there is so little anger around me at what is being done to our society, supposedly in order to protect it," said the 76-year-old in an interview in Waterstone's magazine.
"We have been taken to war under false pretences, and stripped of our civil rights in an atmosphere of panic. Our lawyers don't take to the streets as they have done in Pakistan.

"Our MPs allow themselves to be deluded by their own spin doctors, and end up believing their own propaganda."

He added: "We haul our Foreign Secretary back from a mission to the Middle East so he can vote for 42 days' detention.

"People call me an angry old man. Screw them. You don't have to be old to be angry about that. We've sacrificed our sovereignty to a so-called 'special relationship' which has nothing special about it except to ourselves."

I could not have put it better myself.

Hedging their bets

Plaid Cymru's John Dixon has been banging on about the funding of the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservative Party for some time, notably here and here. Now the Western Mail has caught up with the story, proof that blogging can have benefits in the dead tree press as well as other more conventional media.

Mr. Dixon writes on his blog: 'I still don't know why a New York based company would be so interested in what happens in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire that they would want to bung £40,000 into the local Tory coffers; but I do know a little more about the company. Christofferson, Robb and Co are what is known as a hedge fund.

Hedge funds are not well understood outside their own sphere – and there are plenty of people who believe that they're not terribly well understood within it either. They are usually secretive, and much of what they do is completely unregulated. Different funds behave in slightly different ways, and because they are so secretive about their precise business, it is hard to know what any individual company is up to. But there are some generalities which are known.

Hedge funds often borrow many times the value of their underlying assets to buy things that they don't want and can't afford, and they sell things that they don't own. They then buy back the things that they sold but never owned in order to return them to the rightful owner from whom they were borrowed in the first place, and they sell the things that they bought but didn't want before they have to pay for them. They turn future profits which haven't been made into bits of paper which they can buy and sell before they even exist.

These funds are, in effect, gambling; and they are doing so with huge sums of money which aren't theirs and don't really exist. Betting on the future price of currencies, betting on the future price of shares, betting on the future price of commodities. Some of them even bet on the future value of the bets that they and others have already placed. They add an enormous degree of instability to the market place, and their whole ability to make money depends on market volatility. Their profits, made by making risky and usually short term investments, come at the expense of those investors who have to be more careful and long term with their money – investors such as our pension schemes and insurance companies.

So, whilst the overwhelming majority of us have a vested interest in financial stability and security, these funds – acting on behalf of already wealthy investors – have a vested interest in instability and volatility. They deliberately create volatility in order to benefit from it. They are a siginficant part of what has led to the recent instability in the markets – something from which we all suffer.'

There is no suggestion that these payments are irregular in any way, however such donations do demonstrate the sort of link between the Tories and the City that they may not be so keen to boast about in the current climate.

Vince Cable in particular has been calling on the government to introduce new rules to protect depositors, prevent future excessive binge lending and stop damaging speculative activity by hedge funds. Everybody is blaming the City, whether they are guilty or not. How this link with the Tories will go down in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire has yet to be seen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Straw misfires on 'No win no fee' actions

I note from this morning's Guardian that the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw is to act against the 'No win no fee' industry at long last. However, Mr. Straw has only tackled part of the problem.

The Justice Secretary told the Labour Conference that he is considering capping the level of success fees charged by solicitors in such cases. At the same time he has no plans to increase the legal aid budget to help those who are seeking justice but are excluded from using the law because of their financial circumstances.

I first became aware of the real scandal behind the 'No win no fee' culture a couple of years ago after a meeting with my local Council and following discussions with some constituents who had fallen foul of the system.

At that time I wrote directly to the Westminster Government seeking urgent action to clamp down on the dubious practices of some 'claim farmers', who are persuading people into pursuing 'no win no fee' compensation claims only for the claimant to find themselves in financial difficulties.

My constituent had gone to court to make a public liability claim with the assistance of a 'no win no fee' deal with a firm of solicitors. When the case collapsed, the family were left having to meet the costs of the defendant.

In my discussions with Swansea Council it was made clear to me that it is fairly common for 'no win no fee' cases to lead to costs in excess of five to six thousand pounds being awarded against the person who brings the case. Although there will be insurance it is often the case that the insurers will not indemnify these costs especially if they consider that the case has collapsed as a result of the actions of the claimant.

One of the features of this sort of action that is not widely understood is that the claimant takes out insurance to cover any costs, but because of the risk involved the premium can be anything from £1,000 to £10,000. This is paid for by a loan arranged by the claim farmer and claimants are often given the impression that they do not need to worry about repaying it as if they win then the premium will be refunded to them.

If somebody enters into a 'no win no fee' claim and tries to drop out then their own solicitors will hit them for their costs and they will still have the premium to repay. Once somebody has signed on the dotted line then backing out will leave them in breach of contract. Even with the statutory 14 day period of grace many people fall foul of this as by the time they realise what they have got themselves into it is too late.

Obviously, given the high number of failed claims this can leave vulnerable people facing massive debt that they cannot afford to repay. Also as the claim farmers may well take commission on the sale of the insurance then they do not have an incentive to warn people about all the risks.

I am told that these claim farmers actively canvass people in the street or by knocking on doors in particular areas to persuade them to put in often fraudulent claims. It has been known for there to be a dozen claims from one street. They will arrange for photographic and medical evidence and anything else needed for a credible claim. They can get up to £500 for each claim that is accepted by a firm of solicitors and the Courts allow these solicitors to claim back the referral fee from the Council if they are successful. One firm put in 130 claims to Swansea Council.

In 2005-2006 there were 600 public liability claims to Swansea Council. Currently 70% to 80% of all highway claims are repudiated but the cost to the Council in doing this is in excess of half a million pounds a year. Claim farmers avoid using local solicitors if they can help it and because those solicitors who enter into this business can make £40,000 for each successful case it is worth their while championing loss-leaders in return for two or three successful claims. This encourages the practise of targeting vulnerable people in return for commission.

I do not want to discourage people who have a genuine claim but it is important that people understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 'No win, no fee' claims carry enormous financial risks to the claimant if there is even the slightest doubt that evidence may be fabricated or that they are trying it on. Claimants can find themselves thousands of pounds in debt.

At the time I asked the Department of Constitutional Affairs to look into the practice. I wanted a statutory code of conduct put in place for claim farmers to ensure that there is no sharp practice. I also asked that insurance companies and solicitors who pay out commission for business referred to them should be forced to carry out more stringent checks before accepting the business.

Finally, I asked the government to reduce the success fee payable to solicitors on indemnity claims as part of the awarded costs. At the moment these firms of solicitors can effectively double the amount of money they get in costs from a local authority by adding a 100% success fee. This enables them to off-set the cost of losing cases and offers a real incentive to take on cases without asking questions as to their validity. Council taxpayers are effectively paying a reward to solicitors for taking the action and boosting their profits. At least that part of my plea appears to have been listened to.

Perhaps I will write again and ask Jack Straw to reconsider the other measures.

Attitudes to the Assembly

The Assembly Commission has just published the results of the most comprehensive survey undertaken in Wales to gauge public understanding of the nation’s political landscape.

The survey was commissioned by the National Assembly for Wales and carried out by Aberystwyth University's Institute of Welsh Politics in collaboration with GfKNOP. It involved questioning over 2,500 people in June and July 2008.

When questioned, the majority of respondents (39%) wanted Wales to remain part of the UK but to have its own elected Parliament with full law-making and taxation powers. 31% of the people questioned wanted the Assembly to retain its current level of powers and 10% wanted Wales to become a fully independent nation.

Of the remaining respondents, 15% wanted to return to the pre-devolution status and 6% expressed a ‘don’t know’ opinion.

The survey indicated that this preferred constitutional status was based on a robust level of political understanding among respondents. When asked to identify the scope of the National Assembly for Wales’ law-making powers, 77% correctly identified that it “has powers to make laws in a number of areas, and these can be expanded with the agreement of the UK parliament’.

The survey also indicated that there is an increasing homogenisation of opinion and understanding across Wales. Previous surveys had seen variations in levels of support across various regions. However, the National Assembly for Wales survey indicated that there was more consistency in people’s aspirations towards devolution across the country, and aligned to this was a greater consistency in levels of understanding. (There was a modest regional difference in understanding across Wales on the Welsh Assembly’s law-making powers, with 72% of people in North Wales giving the correct answer, compared to 83% in South East Wales.)

However, the survey also indicated that many Welsh citizens are unclear about the distinction between the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, with 52% admitting that they know only “a little” about the National Assembly for Wales.

I was particularly intriqued by the question which sought to determine how people get their information about the Assembly and Welsh politics. In percentage terms this is summarised as follows:
Note the relatively high score for the internet. The breakdown of which daily newspapers the respondents rely on for news is also interesting:
The Western Mail confirms its position as the pre-dominant Welsh newspaper even if its circulation is lower than more local offerings such as the South Wales Echo and the Evening Post. Top of the heap though is the Daily Mail. What is that all about?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The value of opinion polls

From the point of view of a politician I tend to have a mixed view of opinion polls. It is always nice of course to see one that predicts the Liberal Democrats doing well and even reinforcing one's perceptions of public opinion. On the other hand they can record support going down as well as up and it is at these times that one tries to distance oneself from them. Given that we cannot have our cake and eat it then as a general rule I maintain a healthy scepticism of any poll, no matter how favourable it is.

It is on this basis that I approach the mega poll being touted by Politics Home, which reportedly sampled almost 35,000 people over 238 marginal constituencies. This is bigger than any poll I have ever seen and for that reason people are giving its conclusions some credence. The question is though whether the information is reliable enough to accurately predict the state of play in individual constituencies, not least those which are currently represented by Liberal Democrats, who tend to have a strong personal vote and record of campaigning, and those in which we are challenging.

Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice rightly cautions against drawing conclusions on the basis of uniform swings in polls and I believe that this applies to this mega poll in the same way as it would to any other, even though the sample is larger in this case and that YouGov has deliberately targeted the marginals. Forty four Liberal Democrat seats are certainly better than others have predicted but I believe that this poll indicates that we can do even better than that.

I say this for two reasons. Firstly, the margin of error in any poll does not statistically improve much above a sample of around 1,200, no matter how many people are asked. Secondly, this is not a series of individual constituency polls taking local circumstances into accounts rather it is a national poll based on a specific grouping of constituencies and predicts no more than general voting trends across those diverse areas. After all on average the polling company only approached 147 people in each constituency, a figure which will not be representative and does not have an acceptable margin of error built into it to determine local results.

Clwyd West MP, David Jones is nevertheless very excited about the poll. He points us to the section on Wales which predicts that the Tories could win anything between 15 and 18 seats at the next election, an improvement on their previous high tide mark under Margaret Thatcher. However there is no individual polling evidence in any of the seats concerned that statistically stacks up to support this.

As an example in Brecon and Radnor the idea that the Tories may take the seat back should energise Labour voters in the south of the constituency to come out and vote tactically as they have done for many years. Equally, the notion that Newport East might go Conservative when it is the Welsh Liberal Democrats who are the main challengers is absurd, and why no mention of Swansea West, which on this sort of swing against Labour would also fall into Welsh Liberal Democrat hands? Ceredigion has bucked trends before and I am confident that it will do so again and return Mark Williams to Westminster.

At the end of the day this poll is just a snapshot like any other. It is nice to look and and discuss with others but the poll that really counts is on election day and there is still some time to go before we reach there.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The F word

Today's Guardian contains extracts from a book by Sky News' Adam Boulton giving the inside story on Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister. As is to be expected everybody swears a lot, not least John Prescott who, according to one anecdote showed remarkable intolerance to his homeland:

On John Prescott cursing the Welsh language: "I had got on well with both Prescott and his wife [before Sky broke the 'Prescott punch' story] and missed his amusing contributions to our programme: Prescott swearing loudly and repeatedly during a taped interview because he was being put off by 'that fucking taff speaking fucking taff' - Labour spokesman Denzil Davies giving an interview in Welsh nearby. As he and Blair stepped down from government, we asked Prescott for his reaction to the new prime minister: he declined colourfully, expressing his hatred for me."

John Prescott is of course Welsh, though like Roy Jenkins before him, it is not something that seems to have impinged on his consciousness. There are remarkable parallels between this episode and another in which Tony Blair is alleged to sworn about the Welsh whilst watching the results of the 1999 Assembly elections.

As the BBC reports this led to a complaint by Welsh language pressure group Cymuned to North Wales Police and a subsequent police investigation costing thousands of pounds of public money. Plaid Cymru AM, Leanne Wood, also reported Blair to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

Will this latest report lead to a similar complaint against John Prescott and if so, will the authorities have the good sense to leave it alone this time?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Warming to Clegg

Liberal Democrat Voice highlights the very interesting focus group conducted by Frank Luntz on Newsnight last night. LDV highlights The Spectator's Coffee House blog which describes it thus:

Of more immediate relevance, however, was the further evidence that the focus group provided about what a risk the Tories are running with their tax policy. When Cameron talked about how the Tories can’t promise tax cuts the panel dialled him down, when Clegg talked about tax cuts they almost unanimously dialled him up.

If the Lib Dems can get their new tax cutting message across, they could eat into Tory support. The word on the street is that George Obsorne’s conference speech will contain two big policy announcements. It would be sensible for one of these to be tax relief for the middle classes. Going into the election with the only sizable Tory tax cut on offer being raising the threshold for inheritance tax to a million pounds would suggest that the Tories are dangerously out of touch with the zeitgeist.

The reality of fuel poverty

This outstanding post on the Dom Care Dragon blog underlines the reality of fuel poverty for many elderly people and the skewed values that still exist in our society:

She is not an easy woman, but then, she is not having the retirement she anticipated. Her husband has Parkinsons and their life revolves around caring for him, day hospital and carers, incontinence sheets and hospital beds. She is grieving the life she didn't get and the husband who is gone, replaced by a confused and sometimes aggressive man. I comment on the view and she turns blank eyes to the windows. "We thought we would be here for life" she says "We are putting it on the market this Month, we can't afford the fuel bills and the running costs"

He is a proud man, he fought in the War and he and his wife brought up a family in this tiny cottage. He got up at dawn or before each day and worked as a farm hand, walking the five miles to and from work. They never had a car or foreign holidays, they didn't have holidays at all but they had a simple life where you lived within your means and that was good enough for them. He is ninety now, his skin is paper thin, marked with purple stains where the steroids he takes for his breathing have thinned his blood. He lives in one room, the single bed in the corner with the family pictures still on the wall above it, a reminder that this used to be an ordinary sitting room. A portable gas heater is on constantly in front of the gaping fireplace - he doesn't have an open fire any more, he cant keep it in all day. The house has central heating but he doesn't switch it on, he can't there is no oil in the tank.

Twenty five thousand older people will die this Winter because they cannot afford to heat their homes properly. You know it, I know it, the Government know it, and yet it will still happen. I don't believe that help to insulate lofts will solve this problem, what's more, I think that the Energy Companies will put up their prices to cover the cost of providing it. There is real poverty going on in your street, in your village but the people who are dying cannot go on strike. It appears that they are expendable in our Society. Yesterday a friend of mine was in London and had a wander around Harrods. She saw a handbag on sale for £19,000. Something is very, very wrong with our values.


Rhodri Morgan fires the first shots for the defence in the run-up to the Labour Party Conference by telling the Western Mail that plotters hoping to remove Gordon Brown are “insane”. He said MPs who wanted a change of leadership should be focusing on riding out the economic storm and attacking David Cameron’s Conservatives.

Rhodri will not actually be in Manchester for his party's conference. Instead he will be representing Wales in Valhalla, Kentucky at the Ryder Cup. He may be relieved to have this little diversion from the realities of Labour internal politics because it is looking increasingly unlikely that his colleagues will be taking his advice.

The First Minister's only comfort is that of all the parts of the United Kingdom, Wales appears to be the most loyal to the party leader. There is no sign yet that any Welsh MPs have asked for nomination forms despite rumours to the contrary.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New words

From Steph Ashley:

Bansturbation by the other two parties seems to increase all the time and I can only imagine the climax they're aiming for is some kind of classical dystopia, where any hope of a happy society and any sense of empowerment of people is crushed by illiberal law after illiberal law, and increase after increase in police power, until we all live in enough fear to behave ourselves exactly as our government wants us to.

Bansturbation?! Wonderful.

The cost of money (Part Two)

With credit being so difficult to come by what with so many banks going under or struggling to survive it is little wonder that people are turning to alternative sources of borrowing.

This story in the Daily Post shows what can happen when things get out of hand. They tell us that Patrick Timothy Kiely exploited his customers by, charging annual percentage rates (APRs) of up to 149,000%. He lent money to more than 500 people in the Bangor, Caernarfon and Llangefni areas but broke regulations on a wholesale basis, charged 100% interest, and added illegal penalty charges for missed payments.

He made no checks on people’s addresses or identities or their ability to pay, and it emerged he even handed out loans in the names of children.ranging in ages from a year to 12. His loan agreements were meaningless. No copy was given to his customers and sometimes clients took out second loans to pay off the first.

Mr. Kiely was not of course licenced with the Office of Fair Trading and his activities would never be sanctioned by them. There are though some shocking stories out there about the rates charged by one or two licensed companies even if they are nowhere as bad as this. Perhaps the government would like to turn their attention to improving regulation on this matter next.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Welsh leader

At last there is some indication that there will be a contest for Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader. Both Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams have put their names down for a members' pool tournament in Swansea on October 25th.

Will this be the first head-to-head in the battle to succeed Mike German?

Segway man

The Times devotes a whole page this morning to the race for the Party Presidency and in particular, the irrepressible Lembit Öpik. According to their Chief Political Correspondent, Sam Coates, Nick Clegg’s closest allies have agreed to mount a high-risk “stop Lembit Öpik” campaign to prevent him from being elected to the Party Presidency this autumn:

A succession of senior figures around Mr Clegg, including Vince Cable, Danny Alexander and Chris Huhne, plan to come out after the conference in support of Mr Öpik’s main opponent, Baroness Scott of Needham Market, former leader of Suffolk County Council. Privately they say that they are determined to stop Mr Öpik.

Ed Davey, one of the masterminds of Mr Clegg’s leadership campaign, will help to run her campaign. There is already bitter briefing against Mr Öpik. One senior Lib Dem asked: “Do we want a joker as the party president? The message is no.”

Another said: “We don’t want him as president. He shouldn’t even have been given a frontbench role.”

A senior figure criticised Mr Öpik for not speaking in a conference debate on housing yesterday despite his brief as housing spokesman.

Although I am staying strictly neutral in this contest for the time being I cannot think of anything more likely to make armchair activists want to vote for the Montgomeryshire MP.

Further down the page Ann Treneman complains that she is being stalked by Lembit on his Segway. Frankly, given the quality of her previous contributions to the journalistic art whilst situated here, it is the least she deserves.

Black Wednesday

I can still clearly recall sitting in the Conference Centre in Harrogate on Wednesday 16th September 1992 as interest rates soared into double figures. I was a lowly civil servant and had just remortgaged to the extent that my finances were stretched to the very limit. I went into the hall to listen to the debate and pretended that it was not happening.

Sixteen years later we are facing another difficult financial situation though of an altogether different nature. Not only are thousands of people facing negative equity situations but large numbers are coming off fixed rate mortgages and facing up to significantly increased repayments. Repossesions are rising inexorably.

Despite falling house prices, getting onto the housing ladder is not an option for many simply because of the non-availability of credit and the risks associated with jumping into that market. At the same time there is a shortage of affordable homes to both rent and buy.

People are facing rising energy, food and fuel bills, whilst hopes of things getting better become more and more remote with the failure of each financial institution. The collapse of Lehman Brothers has led to a 40% fall in the share price of HBOS and London's FTSE 100 Index closed at its lowest in three days amid forecasts that the credit crunch could see more than 100,000 jobs shed by the UK's financial sector over the next year.

Meanwhile, insurer, AIG, is to be forced to raise $14bn in collateral after being downgraded by all three of America's ratings agencies. The insurer's share price fell by more than 30% in early New York trading today amid fears that it would be the latest casualty of the credit crunch. They need to find somebody to lend them as much as $75 billion to stay afloat.

This is much worse than Black Wednesday and there is no sign of any end to it. I am not aware of a comparable economic crisis to draw lessons from. Clearly there are global forces at work but there is still action that the UK Government can take to try and help those who are affected by it.

I am sure that the Labour government are doing their best but I, for one, do not have much confidence in their ability to help especially as they seem to be spending all of their time talking to themselves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Meanwhile..in other news.

The Times reports on an altercation between Torbay MP, Adrian Sanders and former Liberal Democrat press guru and chair of Liberal Vision, Mark Littlewood.

The paper tells us that: Mr Littlewood shouted an encouraging remark at Mr Sanders who, in the words of one startled witness, “just flipped”, launching himself at his psephological nemesis.

“It was extraordinary - a kind of Prescott moment, in a very Lib Dem sort of way,” said the onlooker.

Stewards have declined to take any further action, but a party spokesman said: “There was a bit of an argument and Mr Littlewood may have fallen over.”

Mr Sanders could not be reached for comment, but his MySpace playlist includes the prophetic I Predict a Riot.

I have only met Mr. Lttlewood once, when he appeared in front of a meeting of Welsh Liberal Democrat AMs and MPs to explain how he was going to help Lembit Őpik keep a low profile over his split with Sian Lloyd and subsequent infatuation with a Cheeky Girl.

He had equal success with this as he did in promoting Ming Campbell, right up to the moment when he overspun the leader's speech to conference and left for pastures new.

His latest venture, Liberal Vision has just published a report predicting that huge numbers of our MPs will be swept away by the Tories at the next election. Quite how this amounts to a Liberal vision is difficult to quantify. On the contrary this sort of activity appears to suffer from blinkered vision and does more to help David Cameron than the Liberal Democrats.

No doubt Mr. Littlewood will be avoiding the Torbay area when he next travels to promote his little grouping.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Making it happen

I have just come from a superb debate on the party's Make it Happen paper. As I stated in a previous post I have no problem with the proposed tax cuts once our public expenditure priorities have been met and voted accordingly.

It was difficult though watching all those establishment rebels stand up and make such high quality speeches for the rebel amendment when I would normally be voting with them. I think others felt the same way and Tim Farron MP captured a mood when he declared:

"I feel slightly awkward not being a part of the awkward squad."

It was a good line delivered as part of a brilliant contribution from a rising star in the party.

Glass ceilings

It all started on ITV Wales' Sharp End programme on Thursday or did it? Their political commentator was asked to talk about Kirsty Williams' candidature for the Welsh Liberal Democrat Leadership and reported that there was already a whispering campaign alleging that she could not do the job because she has three small children to look after.

Since then I have heard similar whispers alleging that Kirsty refuses to work weekends, that she puts her family before her party and more. I hope that these smears are not coming from within the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Nobody says anything of course about the fact that Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown all have small children. Nobody suggests that their young families prevent them doing their job properly, but then Wales is like that.

Our record in electing female MPs has been appalling and it was only the advent of the Assembly that broke the mould. If there is a glass ceiling for women in UK politics then it is doubly reinforced in Wales. The idea that a young woman can now lead a Welsh party is obviously upsetting some of the establishment. This sexism has no place in 21st century Welsh politics.

Kirsty Williams is one of the hardest working politicians I know. She needs to be because her constituency is vast and she works it assiduously. It can take over two hours to drive from one end of Brecon and Radnorshire to the other. I have not known her take a weekend off.

She juggles family and work brilliantly and there is no reason to think that she cannot do the same if she is leader. She will do the job her way as would be expected of any new leader and raise the profile of the Welsh Liberal Democrats higher than it has been for some time and for the right reasons.

Let nobody be in any doubt that Kirsty can do this job if she is elected to it. She is determined and single-minded in her resolve. The debate should revolve around what each of the candidates will bring to the table. Let us leave the rumour-mongering in the gutter where it belongs.

What does a Regional AM do?

An anonymous post coupled with similar comments on the South Wales Evening Post website from the usual suspects prompts me to use this blog once more to justify my own existence as a regional Assembly Member.

The poster, going under the name of 'a Welsh taxpayer' concludes his or her contribution by stating:

I dont expect you will allow this comment, such is the nature of political blogs. You can simply edit out reality and critical remarks. However as as a Lib Dem, I am sure, you will defend my right to question such matters and have my point of view.

Well if you had the guts to use your real name you may have a better chance of your comment being posted. Welsh taxpayer is right though, I do not intend to put his or her comment against the post concerned. Instead I will reproduce it here and answer his or her questions. I will do so because I believe in being accountable and because people generally have a right to know.

Oh and before anybody accuses me of only being able to do this because I have too much time on my hands, I should point out that I am at Party Conference, reading and dealing with my e-mails and writing this in bits between meetings. This is the comment:

Congratulations Peter on receiving yet another award for your blog.

Now, while when you come 'down' from your euphoric high after receiving such an accolade from your peers, would you be so kind as to answer me this.

Besides writing this blog, do you actually do any work?

As a Welsh taxpayer, can you tell me what you actually do with your time each day, other than write posts, allow comments and edit this highly biased piece of political propoganda?
Am I getting value for money from you? I guess not.

You don't represent a constituency do you? So, you have no constituents to look after and care for. So what do you actaully do other write this blog?

From my experience since moving to Wales, Constituency AMs work very hard - meeting constituents with genuine problems.
When they write, they do so on behalf of their constituents - sorting out their problems on a daily basis. They have no awards for doing that. It's their job. They just get on quietly and do it.

Regional AMs like yourself, on the other hand, seem a bit short of something to do - a real waste of money - do you agree?

At a time when we are all suffering with job losses and with finances being so tight, I am sure you will understand that voters look around the political landcape and think, "Why I am paying my hard-earned taxes to Peter Black, for him to write a blog each day?"

Is that value for money? I would contest not. Particularly when you don't have any constituents to look after like other AMs.

First and foremost, I should make it clear once more that I do not approve of the electoral system that is used to elect Assembly Members. It is not proportional and it creates two different classes of AM with all the public perception issues encapsulated by 'Welsh taxpayer' in his or her comment.

Nevertheless, the system exists and as such it is important that political parties use it. Regional members are elected from party lists and, irrespective of how they are chosen, they are essentially party nominees. They must face an election to get to the Assembly but voters are largely voting for the political party not the individuals concerned.

Secondly, as a Regional AM I am both the public face of the Assembly and of my party. I am elected, as are constituency AMs on a manifesto which it is my job to fight for in the Assembly. If in opposition or on the back benches I have a duty to scrutinise the government and hold it to account, whilst also promoting my own agenda and that of my party.

I also play a role in policy development either through the committee system or through my own efforts. Thus I have spent the last few months working with my staff to research and prepare a policy paper on affordable housing including an analysis of the individual policies and actions of all 22 local Councils. This was launched today and will now form the basis of my work on housing in the Assembly next term as well as a debate at the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference in the spring.

These roles require an on-line presence as one of many tools to get my message across to my constituents. As well as this blog I have a main website here at which constituents and others can find details of my speeches, articles, press releases, campaigns, surgeries and other work. Hopefully it demonstrates the vast amount of work that I do and the many many things I do on behalf of my constituents.

I have of course written in detail on many occasions on the uses and purpose of this blog and other on-line applications such as Facebook, most recently here and do not propose to repeat all of that again. However, suffice to say that it is a useful medium to get across my unedited views and those of my party, to engage in debate with others and to respond to criticisms as I am doing here. Under normal circumstances it takes no more than half an hour a day, though it is only possible to approve comments through the use of a Blackberry whilst on the move and between meetings.

I have also used this blog to generate news items and to add value to various campaigns. It is one small part of my work and yes it is partial and opinionated. If my anonymous commenter does not like that then they do not have to read it. As an Assembly Member I need to reach all sections of society and blogging helps with that. It is not about getting 'down with the kids' as one person alleged elsewhere but talking to people of all ages through a common medium.

None of this answers the basic question posed by 'Welsh taxpayer' but it does put what follows into context. My time as an Assembly Member is filled daily by a whole host of different tasks that amounts to about 70 hours of work a week spread over seven days. I am normally reading my e-mails from about 6.30am and often still working at 11pm on a normal day. It is not the sort of structured day I had when I was a civil servant but it is varied, interesting, engaging and purposeful.

For a start, the idea that I do not have a constituency is nonsense. I am the only Welsh Liberal Democrat AM in South Wales West, representing over 340,000 people spread over seven constituencies, and a large number of them come to me for help with a wide variety of problems. I hold fortnightly surgeries spread around my region and deal with e-mails, letters and visits in the same way as any constituency Assembly Member.

This involves writing to Ministers, liasing with the Child Benefit Agency, the Home Office, Works and Pensions and a whole host of other government agencies. It also means writing to any one of the four local councils in my regions on bread and butter issues that constituents have not managed to resolve in any other way. And yes, that is my job. I get on with it quietly and do not seek to publicise that work either through this blog or any other way unless I judge it will help my constituent.

I have staff to help with this work and other matters as do all Assembly Members. Without them none of us could cope. They help me prepare for debates, deal with constituents including representing them at appeal tribunals, manage my diary and accompany me to visits where it is necessary. I actively supervise that work and direct it.

So what is an average week like for an AM? Well there is no such thing as an average week. During term time I will spend Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in the Assembly attending formal meetings, meeting with various organisations particularly during lunch times and in the early evening. In this time I will also be dealing with correspondence from constituents asking for my help or seeking to meet me to discuss a particular issue. This will include many organisations who want to influence the Assembly's position on matters of concern to them.

On Mondays, Fridays and weekends I will normally be in my region talking to various local organisations, holding surgeries or meeting with constituents about their problems. This may include, as it did last week, meeting with my local councils for briefings on matters of concern, visiting local educational institutions to discuss their plans, attending church services or formal events and discussing with the local health trust or LHB their plans for hospital or community services. All of this work helps to inform the decisions I have to take as an Assembly Member and can lead to extensive work in writing to and meeting with Ministers on matters affecting my region.

During recess this activity will spread across the whole week though I will also go into Cardiff to catch up with correspondence and meet up with officials regarding my duties as a Commissioner. I work on policy matters, put out press releases commenting on my policy portfolio and local issues and liase with journalists and media organisations on news pieces they are working on. Communication is part of the job so it is ironic that I am being criticised for doing it effectively.

Of course none of this will satisfy those who want rid of me for their own reasons or just believe that the Assembly is a waste of money and should be abolished. Being a full time politician is not like any other job that I have done. It is challenging and it is hard work. I am often tired but that is something I have learnt to live with, because whenever I feel that I cannot go on something comes along to make it all worthwhile and that is normally news that a constituent I have been helping has won their appeal, got the house they have been trying for or just had their problem sorted out thanks to my intervention.

At the end of the day helping people is what I am there to do and nothing beats the feeling when it all works out for the best.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ditching Promises?

Personally, I have no problem with the party's new shiny policy paper 'Make it Happen'. On sale in all good bookshops (well Liberal Democrat Image anyway) for £4. Ordinary Conference Representatives have had to make do with a pdf.

It does not contain much that is new. In fact its value is the way that it seeks to bring together existing policy into a coherent whole. There is still a fair bit of work to go before we achieve that but we are getting there.

Taken at face value, even the tax cutting agenda it embraces does not give me much problem. That is because these tax changes are designed to be redistributive and environmentally friendly, reducing the tax burden on lower earners and taxing polluters. It is right that if a party is able to demonstrate that it can meet its public spending objectives and have some money left over then we should use that cash to lower the overall tax burden on hard-pressed individuals. The proof of the policy is in the costings and those are still to come. They will be in place by the General Election when the electorate can judge the policy on its own merits.

In the meantime we need to sort out another problem around the document, one that has been identified by others, that is how we communicate the messages in 'Make it Happen'. It must be said that the leadership has not been a shining beacon of consistency in this task.

And then just as we thought that Monday afternoon's debate on 'Make it Happen' was going to be the controversial centre of Conference debate, another parliamentarian comes along and tries to bounce the party into a u-turn that has not been discussed, is not on the Conference Agenda and which is guaranteed to send representatives and activists into a frenzy of indignation.

Word on the street is that Vince Cable was misquoted or taken out of context. Apparently, shortly after saying we are not going to make entering the Euro zone a priority he indicated that things might different if the economy changes. That does not lessen the impact of what he said one iota. It was calculated to cause a splash and it has done so.

As we enter the run-up to the European Elections we need to find ways to distinguish ourselves from the other parties so as to improve on our performance last time. The consensus amongst many activists is that the best way to do that is to re-emphasise our pro-European credentials and specifically target those who believe, as we do, that a reformed and refocussed Europe is a good thing.

Vince Cable's little coup de grace has achieved the opposite. By moving us away from Euro-zone entry he has thrown us back into the grey soup already occupied by the other parties. He is attempting to rebrand us as a Euro-sceptic party and that is unacceptable. What is more, the other parties do it better because they mean it whereas we do not.

There were many other ways that Vince could have got his message across without shifting the party's position so fundamentally. He could for example have said that the time is not right to have a referendum on the Euro but that it remained the party's primary objective. Instead he chose to undermine a fundamental principle held by the party and its predecessors for decades.

The debate on Europe on Tuesday does not refer to the the Euro at all, but I predict that it will become a focal point for more Euro-friendly members in this party to fight back. This party still belongs to its members and will resist being dictated to on such a fundamental matter by any Parliamentarian, even one as widely respected as Vince Cable.

Blog Awards

Five plus years of blogging and suddenly I am winning awards. I now have a very nice little statuette to commemorate my receipt of the Tim Garden Award for the best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office. I must have got something right at last.

The full awards are here. Especial congratulations to Alix Mortimer for deservedly winning best new Liberal Democrat blog, best posting on a Liberal Democrat blog and Liberal Democrat blog of the year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Minister dodges the question

Oh dear! It is still early in the tenure of the One Wales Government and already the Deputy Housing Minister believes herself to be cornered and forced to come out fighting with wild claims:

She responded to claims made earlier this week by Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black that Wales’ affordable housing stock was shrinking in size with demolitions and sales outstripping the addition of new homes by launching blistering criticism of his party.

Ms Davies said: “Don’t forget, they chose opposition – not once but twice – last year. With difficult financial times ahead they were too afraid to come into government with us or to go back into government with Labour. No, they want the comfort zone of opposition when difficult decisions must be made. That’s where they belong and what they were made for – whoever leads them.

“Plaid Cymru stepped up to the plate, and is prepared to take on the responsibility of government even when times are tough.”

So how exactly does this justify Plaid Cymru making promises it cannot keep? These were promises by the way that were not in the Rainbow Coalition Agreement because on this issue at least we were more realistic about what could be achieved and concentrated on putting proper measures in place without the distraction of impossible targets.

The fact is, and Jocelyn knows this because she was there, the Welsh Liberal Democrats chose to go into coalition but Plaid opted to work with Labour instead. They did so at a meeting at which both coalition documents were on the table and having made that choice they now have a responsibility to deliver on it.

It does not help Plaid by seeking to avoid the responsibilities they voluntarily took on through such diversionary tactics. This is their test as a party of government. Can they deliver? We will see.


It is always pleasant to wake up to the first day of Conference to find that it is a different party which is having a leadership crisis.

And the sun is shining too!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The uniqueness of the Welsh Liberal Democrats

Kirsty Williams' leadership bid launch has certainly got the blogosphere buzzing and no more so than in the musings of BBC Welsh Affairs Editor, Vaughan Roderick here. Sanddef has very kindly translated the post on his blog.

Vaughan identifies the Welsh Liberal Democrats essential problem as having no core vote: 'It is a party which has to struggle for each vote and each seat. The other parties have constituencies where any fool can be elected as long as he wears the right colours - the Liberal Democrats have to push hard to get their people in - be they fools or otherwise.'

It is certainly the case that we have to work harder than most other parties to get elected but actually what is wrong with that? The existence of so-called safe seats generates complacency and leads to voters being taken for granted. The fact that we fight for every vote has raised the standard of representation in many seats around Wales for thousands of voters. Surely that is a good thing. And trust me on this, it is not easy to get fools elected with this style of campaigning so often we do not even try.

However, I must also challenge the assumption that the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not have a core vote. For a start we are not a centre party, we sit to the left of centre as is evidenced by our emphasis on reducing the tax burden for the lower paid, our commitment to social justice and community and on empowering individuals.

The promotion of the pupil premium by Nick Clegg and by Welsh Education Spokesperson, Kirsty Williams, in which additional resources are targeted at educating children living in deprived areas, is the most radical education policy adopted by any UK political party and marks us out as a party commited to enabling disadvantaged communities and individuals. The same can be said for our green policies and our position on energy and taxation.

Secondly, it is a fact that our basic liberalism, a belief in individual rights and responsibilities, is shared by the vast majority of people in this country. Our problem is not that we do not have a core vote but that our natural constituency need to be convinced to break away from the old voting assumptions and believe that we can win.

In part this explains the tactics often adopted by Welsh Liberal Democrats in election campaigns much derided by Vaughan and our political opponents. We know that if people believe that we are a credible challenger then they will switch their vote to us, either because they instinctively agree with us or because they think we have the best candidate or offer a good practical alternative.

However, let us not be seduced into believing all the hype of our opponents about this campaigning style as Vaughan has done. The Liberal Democrats are no more 'dirty' in their campaigning than any other party.

It was not the Welsh Liberal Democrats for example who circulated a leaflet in a recent Swansea by-election urging people to vote for the Labour candidate so as to get rid of the gypsies. It was not the Liberal Democrats who had a Councillor evicted from their seat in London for winning a by-election by conducting a disgraceful smear campaign against her Liberal Democrat opponent. Nor was it us who have consistently misrepresented our opponents position on issues such neurosurgery in Swansea and who politicised a cross-party campaign for their own ends. That was Plaid Cymru.

There are countless examples of all parties adopting dubious tactics in elections that make the so-called 'unprincipled' Liberal Democrat campaigning handbooks look like a Fanny Craddock cookbook. The fact is that any objective study of Liberal Democrat literature will reveal an obsession with issues and with helping the community we are seeking to represent. It is the effectiveness of that literature our opponents object to not its contents because for the most part they have all adopted our tactics and are trying to use them against us. That is hardly the action of an outraged innocent.

Vaughan Roderick does not dispute that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have principles. In fact he says that we have 'a firm philosophy and easy to admire values concerning civil rights and freedom of the individual but the party does not base its campaigns on these things. Almost without exception the basis of the Liberal Democrats' campaigns is the claim that they are somehow more "local" than the other parties and that only they are able to beat Party A/Party B in that constituency or ward.'

And this is where he is mistaken. I have been involved in many campaigns up and down the country where the Liberal Democrats have argued against ID cards, for better community policing and for greener policies amongst many others. I cannot believe that a commentator as experienced as Vaughan can really believe that where we have had success we have done it on the basis of the sort of vacuous agenda he outlines. That would be an insult to the electorate, one that they would not stand for. It is sad that Vaughan has swallowed our opponents propaganda so completely.

Vaughan goes on to argue as I suggested above that the Welsh are a liberal nation, undermining his own point about the lack of a core vote. However, his suggestion that Plaid Cymru is 'to all intents and purposes a liberal party and liberalism is part of the DNA of a number of Welsh Labour members and some of the Conservatives as well.' is just ludicrous.

I am not going to dispute that there are in fact some genuine liberals in all parties or even that my own party contains a few members who are essentially illiberal, however the idea that any of the other three major Welsh parties are liberal is nonsense.

I think we can easily dispense with both Labour and the Conservatives in this argument. Both of them have records in government at both a central and local level in which they have patently proved themselves to be anti-democratic, centralising and inhumanly corporate.

Plaid Cymru have their moments. They have borrowed many of their policies from the Liberal Democrats, however when it comes to the crunch their solution to problems is always top down rather than enabling and liberating. In government they have supported further centralisation of the health service, the underfunding of local government and have talked about the Assembly Government taking control of school budgets and social services. Their instincts are managerial not liberal.

The Liberal Democrats are a pro-European internationalist party, it is part of our liberalism. Plaid Cymru portray themselves as the same, but their internationalism and their support for Europe is tempered by their nationalism. Plaid's world-view is blinkered by virtue of the fact that it is Wales-centric.

That is why it is possible for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to break the consensus in the Bay; by being true to their own liberal roots and looking for solutions to problems that empower individuals and communities rather then denude them. Yes, we want to defend public services, fight poverty and need and promote minority rights, but we need to work with people and with local bodies to achieve those aims, not impose solutions on them from on high. We need to give people the power to shape those services themselves, and allow them to have a real stake in their own future whilst creating opportunities that will allow individuals and communities to realise their full potential.

If there is a consensus in Wales it is not a liberal one. It is a paternalistic, state-knows-best, politically-correct blanket, smothering individuality and innovation. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have tolerated and co-operated with this view for too long and in doing so we have allowed our values to slip. It is for this reason that Vaughan Roderick is fundamentally wrong. By embracing our liberalism we can underline our distinctiveness and break that consensus once and for all.

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