Monday 29 June 2015

Ghost of summers past—a tale of Welsh politics

‘Sorry Gwynoro you’re too lateIeuan has just left to meet with Rhodri.’

Just as in the novel a ‘Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens where there is a character called the Ghost of Christmas Past, we now have such a ‘Ghost’ appearing in the story of Welsh politics. The Ghost in Dickens’s novel is often portrayed in modern dramatic productions as a womanso also is today’s version in Welsh politics. The leader of Plaid Cymru said some three days ago that ‘there is no way that I would lead Plaid into coalition with the Conservatives’. She believed similarly some eight years to the week in 2007. Leanne Wood was not the leader then, but it is well known that together with Bethan Jenkins and one or two others, the very thought of a deal with the Tories stirred frenzied resistance.

Yes, eight years ago to the very weekJune 27th 2007was a turning point in Welsh politics. It was the day that Plaid, the main opposition party at the time in the Senedd, threw in its lot with Rhodri Morgan and Labour. It was the day the ‘One Wales’ agreement was finalised. It had taken a while to emerge because the Assembly elections had been 7 weeks earlier. This self- proclaimed ‘progressive agenda’ asserted that it was based on ‘shared values, common goals and joint aspirations for the people of Wales’. Well I leave Plaid members to judge the ‘common goals and joint aspirations’ bit ... but we were promised that Labour and Plaid, hand in hand, would transform Wales into ‘a self-confident nation, which is fair to all.’ Did it?

Now I have no idea why Leanne wanted to raise the issue of any deal with the Welsh Conservatives last week, other than that the experiences of eight years ago might still be deeply embedded in her psyche. There was certainly no need to raise the matter eleven months before the next Senedd elections and without doubt, it does rather unnecessarily tie a noose around her party’s neck. There are so many tactical blunders associated with the timing of the statement. Why say anything at all?  Presently there is a great deal of uncertainty over the likely outcome of next year’s election and indeed doubt as to whether Labour would be able to govern on its own after. In addition, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently, at best, in a state of flux, some would say disarray. Both will have to go through a period of rebuilding under new leadership. There is then the question of whether the Tory vote will hold in Wales once the fiscal cuts start to bite over the coming months, and whether the UKIP bubble has finally burst following the remarkable antics of Mr Farage and his senior colleagues. So, it seems to me that all is still there to play for.

Plaid has been so obsessed with hanging on to Labour’s coattails ever since the Assembly came into existence that its own growth and advancement has been stymied. Just consider what might have been...

Cast your mind back to exactly eight years ago. Labour had only 26 seats in the Senedd, with 1 floating independent AM, and the combined opposition had 33. For the first time an alternative administration was an option. To be fair, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Nick Bourne and Mike German saw the opportunity and entered into protracted negotiations resulting in the ‘All-Wales Accord’ which would have established a Rainbow coalition governing Wales. I was delightedat last there was a chance to end Labour’s dominance of Welsh politics! I kept in touch with the three leaders, but more specifically with Ieuan since his party was the largest of the three and he would have been the First Minister. I will not go into the details of what went wrong and why did they fail to reach agreement, but I have included three links to archive Western Mail articles at the end of this feature for reference. Nick Bourne saw the opportunity without doubt; as I believe did his party. I know Ieuan did as well, but he was faced with two problemsopposition within his party particularly by some of the AMs on the ‘left’ and uncertainty over the lasting commitment of Mike German. The Liberal Democrats prevaricated for too long in my opinion and carried on discussions with Rhodri Morgan until breaking point. There was a tied vote in an executive meeting at Llandrindod called to ratify the All Wales Accord, after which, as this article in the Daily Post shows, Mike German ultimately got support of the Welsh Liberal Democrats at a special conference of members. However, it was too late by then because the agreement between Labour and Plaid was well advanced. 

I feel that Plaid also made a major tactical error—it was the main opposition with 15 AMs at the time. It is not often in politics that the main opposition goes into coalition with the party that has won most seats. It does convey an element of insecurity. Without doubt it should have stayed in opposition and watched Labour and the Liberal Democrats form a Government as they had done some years previously, whilst taking on the main opposition role on behalf of the Welsh public.

Rhodri Morgan, being the experienced leader and strategist that he was, also kept the lines of communication open with Ieuan and Plaid. When it was becoming obvious that any chance of a Rainbow agreement was more or less vanishing, I recall ringing Ieuan’s office one last time to plead with him to stay the course. His secretary’s words have stayed with me until today ‘sorry Gwynoro, you’re too lateIeuan has gone to meet with Rhodri.’ An historic opportunity was missed not just for the people of Wales but for Plaid. With their leader as First Minister and a policy programme for government that was progressive, quite radical and free of old biasesWelsh politics would have been transformed.

No one will ever know how Senedd politics would have advanced by today. My view is that it would be considerably healthier and certainly more vibrant. Also it would have done Labour some good to be in opposition to help its development and modernisation. All I can point to is the experience of the SNP in 2007 and what they did subsequently. The SNP had a majority of only 1 over Labour in Holyrood and decided to form a minority government, governing with the tacit support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The rest they say is history. There is no question that that moment was the beginning of the transformation of Scottish politics. It illustrated clearly to the Scottish people that there was nothing to fear from the SNP, in fact, the SNP went on to govern successfully and proved even more attractive to the public. It is very true that great opportunities do not come calling too oftenthe SNP grasped its opportunity with both hands but Plaid faltered, showing a lack of confidence, political acumen and appreciation of the bigger picture. Following their coalition with Labour, Plaid lost 4 seats in 2011 and became the third party in the Senedd.

Given Leanne’s political background I am not surprised that ‘there is no way’ she could deal with the Tories. I can accept that, but it is a matter for Plaid as a party whether it is a good position to take or not. It portrays an image that Plaid is more or less content to exist under a Labour administration for years to come. But her argument has one major flawit is true that the people in Wales have ‘always rejected Tory politics’ but without doubt things are changing. All we have to do is look at the election results for 2011 and 2015—there is no need to gaze into a crystal ball.

Firstly, in the Assembly, the Conservatives have been increasing their share of the vote and number of seats election after election. In 2011 they received 24% of the vote. That is 6% more than Plaid and twice more than the Liberal Democrats.  Then UKIP got 5% of the votethe centre/right is clearly on the increase and poses a challenge.

Then briefly looking at Westminster elections ... In 2010, the Conservatives got 26% of the vote in Wales, winning 8 seats. In 2015, they received 27% and 11 seats respectively.  Plaid, on the other hand, has stayed static on some 11% with 3 seats. However one of the most significant developments of the 2015 election was the emergence of UKIP as a political force in Wales with 13% of the votepushing Plaid into fourth place.  So 40% of the electorate voted for right wing parties. All three centre-left parties had better wake up to what is happeningfor sure Wales is changing.

My advice to Plaid and the Liberal Democrats is to keep your powder dry! There is a lot to play for and the uncertainties are indeed many.

Rainbow coalition back on agenda: Western Mail 28/5/2007

Laws threat issued on Rainbow coalition: Western Mail 12/6/2007

Rainbow coalition most popular: Western Mail 25/6/2007 

Saturday 27 June 2015

Reflections on a chaotic and fragmented Union – and its survival prospects ...

On June 5th I attended a conference of politicians and academics at the British Academy, London on ‘Devolution and the Future of the Union’. The event explored the prospects for the UKs changing Union hosted by the Constitution Unit of University College London (UCL) and the Wales Governance Centre. This was the first serious public affairs event I had attended in over twenty years. It is hard to believe how all-time consuming the school inspections and quality standards world had been for eighteen of them. However I soon realised that I was back in the environment I enjoy the most and had missed so much.

The subject of UK governance has been close to my heart since the late 1960s when as the Research and PR officer for the Welsh Council of Labour (as the Labour Party was called then in Wales),   I chaired a working group—set up by the Executive—to consider the party’s approach to the then seriously divisive issue of devolution of power to Wales. Labour had lost Carmarthen to Gwynfor and had come very close to losing Rhondda and Caerphilly. Apprehension was in the air. In that working group were the young Alun Michael, Paul Flynn and Bruce George who all became, like me, Members of Parliament. Also, Wynne Thomas of HTV and Swansea Sound fame, along with Barry Jones, Cardiff University and Gareth Howell… What we proposed was eventually watered down by the Welsh Executive and especially by the Welsh Labour Group of MPs led by George Thomas, Jim Callaghan, Leo Abse, Alan Williams and the old guard from the mining valleys.   Nevertheless, the policy paper formed the basis of the party’s submission to the Crowther/Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution.

The driving force behind where the Union has arrived today has had more to do with political expediency, reaction to nationalistic events (certainly in the case of Scotland), a response to the turmoil in Northern Ireland and quite frankly, a general feeling that the establishment better do something about Wales to keep them ‘quiet and content’. The matter of what to do about England has gently crossed the minds of successive Westminster administrations, but has never been seriously addressed. To be fair, John Prescott did argue the case for devolving power to the regions, but it faltered due to the lack of public support—with the project eventually falling on stony ground. However, the London Assembly with its Mayor was established and the offer of similar Elected Mayor status given to other cities—some of which have now been progressed. A new idea has also emerged, namely the Northern Powerhouse centred on the Manchester region. The Westminster village has always perceived ‘The North’ to end at Manchester, but I recall a time when it was Oxford!

So, up until quite recently, everything seemed under control to the political establishment —the principle of divide and rule seemed to be paying off. Never mind the fact that a chaotic governance landscape was emerging in the UK. Additional proposals for Scotland and Wales did come into force, but nothing earth-shattering. In fact, the additional powers proposed for Wales were proving more contentious to the Senedd and the Welsh people than they did to the government in Westminster! So Westminster felt safe in the belief that everything had calmed down some two or so years ago. Scotland appeared reasonably content with its powers, the Welsh people seemed preoccupied with concerns over how the Welsh Assembly was performing (and when to hold a referendum on tax raising powers), whilst the Northern Ireland Assembly was still beset with the problems posed by its divisive factions.

No one ever dreamt of, bargained for or foresaw the two events in Scotland that most likely will change the Union forever and has put its very survival in doubt. The close result in the Scottish Independence referendum caused panic in the political establishment—even the European Union and President Obama were called to assist the Unionists cause. But the promises made in the heat of the No campaign subsequently tied Westminster in some especially large knots. The Smith Commission then reported and all seemed well in Westminster once more—until the English started becoming restless over what might be on offer to Scotland. So, understandably, the inevitable cry went out—what about us?  Hence ‘English votes for English laws’ became a Tory mantra at the General Election. But matters were not over yet; the real tsunami came with the total devastation of all Westminster political parties by the SNP at the election. This was a truly significant event. Today, the SNP is demanding ‘Smith plus’ with further powers on job creation, taxation, welfare and wages.

The day’s deliberations at the conference did mirror the current political scenario in the UK.  The centrepiece of the whole event revolved around the future of Scotland and the Union. Yes, Wales and Northern Ireland got their 30 minutes of fame and yes, eventually the English question began to dominate matters later on. So there is no question that the SNP is driving the constitutional battlewagon. Wales is in the back seat with elements of the Labour party and the Campaign for an English Parliament struggling to get on the road at all. In fairness, Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, was well received and his call for a Constitutional Convention resonated with the gathering. He also seemed to indicate that fiscal devolution will not happen until a new Barnett floor for Wales is created. He most certainly ruled out any interest in devolving welfare services. He also made a statement, with which I fully concur, that ‘the choice is between moves towards federalism, or Scotland becoming an independent entity’. However, what surprised me was that no other Welsh political party was represented.  It was strange that no-one was in attendance from Plaid Cymru in an official capacity…

John Denham, once Labour MP and Communities Secretary, was certainly willing to face head on the question of what the emergence of a stronger English political identity will mean for the Labour party and the governance of the Union. He referred to the various initiatives underway, stating that English Votes for English Laws was only the start. He pointed to the increasing trend in City devolution as leading to a significant shift in English politics before the end of the decade—suggesting that a clearer English identity could emerge in a federal structure. I particularly noted the following quote ‘We need an English Labour party which focuses on winning a Labour majority in England. Without it, we will not focus on a Labour majority overall. There is a window of opportunity to find a democratic solution before the Union goes.’  His words have been echoed by John Cruddas MP who was involved in reviewing Labour’s policy. In addition, a discussion document has appeared in Compass, a Labour aligned magazine, on the need to develop localism and devolution, and establish a constitutional convention as well as an all-party campaign for electoral reform.

The Tories, outside of the Northern Powerhouse idea, are strangely quiet in this debate, but the pressure is building on them too. On the sidelines, but contributing to the growing agitation, are the local structures of the Liberal Democrats in the North East, North West and South West of England, who look towards regional assemblies. Also existing is Mebyon Kernow, and other North East and Yorkshire parties. Meanwhile, The Campaign for an English Parliament is more loudly describing  its aspirations—so maybe England is about to get on the constitutional battle wagon!

A significant obstacle is the continued existence of the Barnett formula, which disproportionally benefits Scotland, as well as the Tory government’s indication that Wales and Scotland must meet the financial burden themselves before demanding further powers. That was the central message of Stephen Crabb, Welsh Secretary, to the Senedd this week. So it is obvious that no additional monies will come from Westminster for further devolution given George Osborne’s programme of fiscal consolidation and his determination to shrink the public sector. This fiscal tightening is already posing problems between Westminster and the Senedd, particularly over the ‘unfairness of Barnett’, and it has produced an anti-austerity rebellion at Stormont which is threatening the power sharing agreement.

Listening to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, at the conference, and observing David Cameron generally, the Tory government is likely to continue with its approach of muddling through. They refuse to prepare and plan a coherent way forward. Those of us who support the Federal solution persist in calling for a type of Constitutional Convention. Yes, it has not been ruled out by Cameron, but it appears that party politics, rather than a well- planned investigation into the UK Constitution, will determine the Union’s future.

Meanwhile, the muddling goes on. During his speech to the Senedd, the Welsh Secretary also stated that the devolution settlement contained in the new Welsh Bill will be ‘clear, robust and lasting’. It will also give the Welsh people ‘a stronger voice over their own affairs within a strong and successful United Kingdom.’ Oh, how many times have I heard such finality?  All in all, it is constitutional chaos.

In conclusion, one of the constitutional experts attending the conference on June 5th said ‘So long as Whitehall retains three territorial Secretaries of State, devolution policy remains doomed to be weak and fragmented. David Cameron has said that safeguarding the Union is a key priority. I believe the only way he can achieve that is by making a senior Cabinet Minister responsible for devolution and the Union. Until that happens, devolution policy will continue to be reactive, muddling through.’ Wise words indeed…

This article written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 27/6/2015

Wednesday 24 June 2015

From the vaults: Liberal conference in Feb 1988

I started my blogspot at a crucial time for the United Kingdom, indeed it was what motivated me to enter the fascinating world of tweeting and blogging—coming from a different generation. I cannot recall in my lifetime such a wide range of uncertainties visited upon the people simultaneously. To list a few, but by no means all—the seemingly endless impact of severe austerity; a doubt over whether the Union of four nations will survive; the UKs future in Europe and the pending Referendum; the Democratic deficit with a Tory Government that has no real mandate across the whole of these isles and lastly, are we increasingly experiencing the trend ‘for Wales see England’?

There are also uncertainties facing two political parties after last May’s election, namely Labour and the Liberal Democrats. For now I am only going to apply myself to the latter—even though I have had a political history in the former and still a deep interest in its response to the election outcome.

Since May, the Liberal Democrats have been involved in a membership participation exercise, focusing on what went wrong and of course, a leadership contest. Both have led to interesting opinions on where we go from here—including thoughts on the party’s name, its values and principles; what are ‘liberal’ values and where does ‘social democracy’ figure; and what is our future vision...

The outcome after five years of coalition with the Tories has been devastation for the party. On Newsnight last night (June 23) there was a feature on the Liberal Democrats in the South West of England where it was suggested that some people question whether the Liberal Democrats will even survive in the long term. I find that a naïve and whimsical observation. Its history as well as its values and principles are timeless.

In Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas writes 'To begin in the beginning’ which often is good advice! So, as an amateur political historian since the 1960s, I am going to run a series of weekly video recordings from the 1980s. Now the Liberal Democrats have 17,000 new members since the election— which is phenomenal. Also very few party members under the age of forty, if not forty five, will have much recollection of where the Liberal Democrats came from.

The first video is a programme presented by Vincent Kane who, in my opinion, was one of the best political broadcasters in my lifetime.  He goes to the Liberal Party conference in Blackpool in February 1988 on the weekend they were deciding whether to merge with the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This was a much debated and divisive topic in both parties for a couple of years previous. So here it is...

The SDP held its Conference in Sheffield the following week...

Friday 19 June 2015

Was it ever necessary to have 22 councils in such a small country?

Leighton Andrews’s announcement yesterday will be a severe test for the leadership and maturity of our Senedd. What were the reasons that the Remuneration Board gave for proposing an 18% increase to AMs pay? Wales needs good governance and good government with a strong and effective Assembly. I certainly agree with that. But, Wales also needs Members who are exceptional, motivated and of high ability. Well, here we are—the first exam! How do they measure-up to the criteria?

Do you remember the well- known nursery rhyme sung in primary school—at least in my time—‘Here we go round the mulberry bush, mulberry bush ..?’ Well, a load of local and national politicians across Wales must be singing it today.

The effective Minister Leighton Andrews has announced that there is going to be a shake-up to the 22 Councils in Wales and that they will be reduced to eight or nine.

That sounds good. There are certainly too many and they definitely need sorting; but then I realised we have been here before! I worked for 18 years in one such council—West Glamorgan, and it was a very good authority too. So I soon asked myself—what is going on and, as with so much else in Wales, wondered how did we get into this state of affairs?

Firstly, a quick history lesson! Remember the old historic counties that had been the corner stone of local administration for centuries going back as far as 1138, with others created in 1282 and 1535? In 1889, they became the main local government authorities in Wales with urban and rural district councils, boroughs and parish councils beneath.

In the sixties, rumblings began about modernising local government—some of the old counties were too small it was argued, and they did not have enough resources to provide a good effective service and that there was too much duplication between the lower tiers. Eventually a White Paper was published by the Labour Government in 1967 based on the findings of the 1962 Local Government Commission for Wales. As always, which is typical of Welsh politics, change was not imminent—oh no—we don’t do important things in a hurry! So nothing happened, and then the Redcliffe-Maud Commission was set up (we had to have another one, you see ..) and in March 1970, another Labour White Paper was published.

Immediately afterwards, a general election was held in June, and quite unexpectedly the Conservatives won with Ted Heath as Prime Minister and Peter Thomas as Secretary of State for Wales. So another cycle of consultations did the round in 1971 and finally, after Parliamentary debate in 1972, the Local Government (Wales) 1974 Act came into being, creating eight counties and thirty seven districts.

I was in Parliament when the bill was being discussed, amended and debated for about six months. There were many heated exchanges over Pembrokeshire’s inclusion in Dyfed, Monmouthshire’s in Gwent, and Anglesey’s in Gwynedd etc. The cities of Cardiff and Swansea were not happy and neither were the towns of Newport and Wrexham—what about our identity they asked? Also along with Barry, Penarth and ‘The Vale’, some of the South Wales valley towns were equally disgruntled. So just like today, the old local identity thing, so precious to us, figured prominently in the arguments of opponents to change at that time!

Space precludes me from going into an important and concurrent development that began to emerge. In response to the increasing tide of nationalist feelings in Wales and Scotland, as well as the incessant representation from about 8 Welsh Labour MPs and a similar number in Scotland, Harold Wilson established the Crowther/Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, no doubt in order to ‘cool the temperature’. I was heavily involved, at the time, in preparing the Labour Party in Wales’s evidence to the Commission. When I became a Member of Parliament, I continued to agitate amongst my colleagues, of course, with the active connivance of more experienced representatives. Acting as an under-cover whip we drafted a Commons Early Day motion—signed by more than sixteen of the Welsh Labour MPs—which called for the creation of an Elected Council for Wales to be incorporated into the local government reorganisation bill. This much-argued motion kicked off the big devolution debate in the Labour Party that lasted until the Blair Government.

The 1974 reforms were never happily accepted and for many years the self-same authorities mentioned above kept on campaigning and agitating on a number of fronts. Then, importantly in 1983, they realised they had new allies in the form of a stronger Tory party in Wales. So with Nicholas Edwards firstly at the helm and then David Hunt after, the current 22 councils came into being on April 1996.

I give that brief background just to illustrate, as the Good Book says, that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Leighton Andrews had hardly finished making his announcement when all the same arguments came to the fore and from the very same councils—be it council leaders or AMs. Be in no doubt, we will soon see Tory MPs and even many Labour MPs in on the act. The case for keeping things as they are revolve mainly around staff uncertainty for five years, perceived loss of local identity and community involvement, as well as the desire to avoid additional costs caused by a shake-up during a difficult financial time. In their way, all these have varying degrees of validity, but they miss the central arguments and I will soon return to them.

As usual, thrown into the mix are the usual last resort arguments of party politicians—its gerrymandering, dictat from the centre, where will the head offices be located for each authority, need for more conferences and, of course, that there has been a lack of consultation. As I have already illustrated, the form and shape of local government in Wales has been the subject of unending consultation, argument and debate for the past 50 years. Even the current proposed changes to local government have been heralded for some three years. The Williams Commission reported in January 2014 and the Welsh Government, following the introduction of a White Paper in July 2014, asked the 22 authorities in January 2015 to voluntarily bring forward merger plans—three proposals came forward but nothing else.

Voluntary merger plans were never going to happen across Wales. Any possibility of wide scale voluntary arrangements would have encompassed loss of local identity, need for fewer council members, shake-up of senior staff and conflict over the location of head offices. Far too much narrow self-interest would have been bubbling away in the cauldron for such an approach to succeed. It is inevitable that further discussions with interested ‘stakeholders’ will take place and the Williams Commission four options of between 10 and 12 Councils should form part of those discussions. This would test the seriousness and the sincerity of the opponents to the present proposal. However it would be extremely unwise for Leighton Andrews to let those discussions be deployed as delaying tactics—if anything, the process needs to be speeded-up by a year at the very least and avoid unnecessary uncertainties.

But there is an interesting political scenario unfolding—consider which areas the three Welsh Office Ministers represent and what the proposals mean for them? I am told that the Secretary of State was looking very glum when the announcement was made on Wednesday. But it is not just a developing political scenario; there is also an economic imperative. The Secretary of State is part of a cabinet that seriously is intent on implementing cutbacks in public spending and equally importantly, reducing the size of the public sector. Oh dear what a conundrum for Stephen Crabb and Alan Cairns, also for the Conservative party in Wales. Already Andrew R T Davies is not only just sitting on the fence but doing a ‘Pontius Pilate’ – so much for leadership and that argument for an 18% pay rise!

Anyway, back to why it is necessary to have this shake-up. In the first place, it was a major mistake to move away from the seven large counties—in general, they were performing well and had developed good working arrangements with most of the districts. Of course there were local tensions and power struggles. Examples that come to mind include Clwyd and Wrexham, West Glamorgan and Swansea, South Glamorgan and The Vale, Mid Glamorgan and one or two of its districts, and yes Dyfed and Pembrokeshire with, at times, Ceredigion. But most of the difficulties were fed by party politics and personal squabbles which ultimately impaired good officer relationships.

At a professional level the counties had developed very good reputations and expertise across many services that were even recognised beyond Wales. In many of the local government data tables on performance in England and Wales at the time, I recall Dyfed, Clwyd, West Glamorgan and South Glamorgan coming out very highly, especially on education and social services. Gwynedd could also be included. For the period I had considerable knowledge and experience of council service provision, I can vouch that the education, advisory and career services provided to schools were first rate, as were the social service and economic development support. The reason for that is obvious—their resources were big enough to provide the necessary professional input.

In the last ten years or so, headteachers, staff and governors often recounted to me—during schools inspections—the limited support received from the existing 22 counties. These authorities lacked the necessary resources and without doubt it affected school standards. The same has been true of social services. To be fair, some of the current authorities have moved towards developing local partnerships in recent years, but these are too few and, from what I understand, insufficient progress is being made in sharing resources and achieving effective outcomes.

I am now out of the system, but how many of the 22 councils have been placed in special measures, either for failing to provide the necessary education or social service support or, much more worryingly, for not providing the expected corporate and governance leadership? That was not the case under the seven counties or indeed their districts. However, as with everything else there are exceptions and Ceredigion is one of them.

Turning to the cost argument, Wales now has its Senedd along with all the other bodies and councils. Indeed, we are over-governed and over-represented. Wales has truthfully become, through uncoordinated decisions, a land of politicians and administrators. It is unwieldly and costly. Remember Wales has about 60% of the population of Scotland but we have more councillors and ten more local authorities. Those who wish to pursue the loss of community contact as an argument in this debate need to understand that Scotland’s land area is more than three times larger than Wales. But our costly public administration system does not end there—Wales has seven hospital boards, sixteen Welsh Government sponsored bodies and twenty four advisory committees. Everyone has to realise that Wales is a small country not much bigger in population than the Manchester Metropolitan area with ten authorities.

Recently a consultant’s report estimated that the 22 Councils could make approximately £150M savings a year—but again nothing serious is being done about it. So why are the current councils costly? We hear too often of outrageous salaries, redundancy and job release packages, dubious payments to senior officers, over staffing, poor administration and serious service failings? Generally, Welsh officialdom’s response to these issues in local government and elsewhere is that ‘lessons will be learnt’. Sorry not good enough.

One stark example is sufficient to prove the point on cost once and for all —in 1974 there were eight functions of Chief Executive and service Directors covering areas such as education and social services for the each authority. In one fell swoop from April 1996, twenty two of these functions per council appeared as if by magic—a three-fold increase. In addition, that three-fold increase was repeated from second to fifth and even sixth tier officer levels—absurd.

Then there are the enormous capital costs relating to council offices—so many of the districts built brand new, purpose built County Halls and Civic Centres in the 1980’s. I shudder to think what the costs were, but it was probably well over £100M at those days prices. Now we are stuck with them in the reorganisation planning, and yes I can see arguments emerging over where the new headquarters should be situated for each of the new authorities—but that is really a minor issue in the bigger picture.

Without labouring the point—no pun intended—yes, the actual reorganisation will cost and estimates have been produced in November 2014 by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy with a mid-range of some £200m.But there will be immediate savings from the reorganisation in the region of £70M and that is every year thereafter and the figure will increase over the years. In addition the £150m that should be saved every year now by local councils will come into play as well since they will be implemented as part of the whole settlement Therefore in cost/benefit terms a massive saving is involved and it is an investment in Wales’s future. So I urge the First Minister and his cabinet to see this through. If a little bit of compromise is required that is fine but nothing beyond one of the Williams Commission options.

One final point will merit consideration in the forthcoming consultations and discussions and that revolves around the system of voting to be used. To ensure genuine democracy where the opinions and voting patterns of all the Welsh people are reflected in party politics, in the new councils the system of proportional voting known as Single Transferable Vote should be introduced. This is already the case in Scotland. It will ensure fair representation for local communities, a real choice for voters and better scrutiny. Having worked for eighteen years in a local authority I know how local communities often feel marginalised in the Council Chamber if they are not represented by the ruling party. That by the way goes for small and larger councils. It will be a significant move towards the renewal of local democracy. Our Senedd should be elected along the same STV system to ensure an inclusive, democratic Wales.

Indeed this important issue for the effective administration of Wales will be a real test for the Senedd after some fifteen years. Has it matured into a body capable of making big decisions? There really is no point seeking additional powers over finance and income tax, for instance, if the Senedd members lack courage and leadership on this issue, and act only parochially rather than strategically with an ambitious and financially sustainable vision for our nation.

This post written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 19/6/2015

Tuesday 16 June 2015

One law for the masses another for the governing elite...

In the last month, two pay review bodies have announced inflation busting and unrealistic proposed increases to the salaries of our politicians in what are supposedly ‘austerity times’.

Do you remember the Cameron/Tory line over the past 5 years, which stressed that ‘we were all in this together,’ when tackling the country’s historical financial, banking and economic difficulties.  Even Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg repeated the same slogan—but at least emphasised that within the context of millionaire tax cuts and welfare cuts, the situation was anything but ‘all in it together’—which is true. So okay, the establishment people, academics and consultants that comprised the Independent Remuneration review bodies must have been aware of the grand picture and should therefore have arrived at proposals with fairness and equal treatment in mind.

But Surprise! Surprise! How wrong can one be? ‘In it together’ went out the window and Bonanza time arrived for our ‘betters’!  Difficult times? Well, they gave a cursory nod to that and quickly concluded that the general public didn’t appreciate nor understood matters. Of course, we should all realise how hard working and underpaid our politicians and leaders really are …

Hence the end result was an 18% pay increase for Senedd Members and 11% for Westminster MPs. Other public service workers, such as nurses and teachers, will just have to make do with a 1% rise until 2017/18. Now, they must have thought in some logical way but believed that our rulers should not suffer.

As ever, the attitude presented is that we won’t do ‘as we preach,’ but we’ll just ‘do as we want’. My experience over decades of establishment people and their acolytes has been always thus—and they subsequently spend an enormous amount of time and money on fact finding working groups etc in an attempt to find out the exact reasons why people are so disillusioned with them and politics.

So let me examine the proposals in greater depth. Setting aside the fairness argument for a moment—are these increases in any way justifiable or defensible?

The Remuneration Board and others argue that, in essence, Wales needs good governance with a strong and effective Assembly. Quite right—I have been saying that since 2002! Also, they argue that Wales urgently needs exceptional AMs who are motivated and are of a high ability. Again, I agree—been saying that also for at least 10 years.  But then they fall into the trap of suggesting that the only solution in 2016 is to give AMs a significant pay increase which, in reality, will mainly benefit the existing pool of AMs—the very ones, by definition, they are critical of and so dissatisfied with their performance.

On top of this, the Independent Remuneration Board claims that from 2016 our AMs will be doing a totally different job—due to them having more powers over borrowing and tax setting as well as the authority to determine the Senedd’s SIZE, ELECTIONS and NAME. The first point is a complete fallacy. The Senedd, even with increased powers, will still not be as strong as the Scottish Parliament encompassed in the Bill going through Parliament currently—let alone the additional greater powers now demanded by the SNP over national insurance, corporation tax, trade union law and welfare employment law. For comparison, the current Scottish Bill does propose granting powers over aspects of welfare services amounting to £2.5 Billion and rules over a range of benefits relating to carers, disabled people and the elderly. I listened to Carwyn Jones clearly state at a recent constitutional conference in London that, as things stand, he does not wish to have such powers for Wales, and I don’t blame him either.

So, are these much heralded ‘new and additional powers’ going to be implemented for 2016?

Answer, No! Because as matters stand, quite rightly after the general election, with the rapidly changing Scottish scene, the anticipated Wales Bill is being re-examined by the Government. Then there is the Labour administration’s prevarication over when or even whether to hold a referendum on new tax and borrowing powers before they take effect. So assuming that the support of the Welsh people is forthcoming (and it is by no means a foregone conclusion following the extent of dissatisfaction with the Assembly’s performance to date), these additional new powers, in whatever form they eventually take, will not be realised until 2017/18 at the earliest. In other words, there is a lot of uncertainty in the air which does not create a sound and justifiable context within which to propose such a massive 18% salary rise.

The other justification put forward is a complete farce! For a while I thought it was even an April fool’s joke! AMs deserve an 18% pay rise because they will have the authority to decide the Assembly’s NAME, the number of AMs, and the system of elections. Is this Board of the great and the good serious? Of course, as expected in true Welsh style, some people even envisage a Senedd of a 100 members! Are we real?  The population of Scotland is 5.35 Million  (Wales 3.1M), the land area of Scotland is 32% that of UK – more than three times that of Wales and it has 59 constituencies to Wales’s 40. But wait for it; we have 1,264 local government councillors to Scotland’s 1,223. Senedd of a 100? I don’t think so—we already have too many bureaucrats and politicians!

Oh, I forgot, the Board also argues that none of us appreciate that the AMs’ pension scheme has changed, resulting in AMs now having to make greater contributions themselves toward their pension. Hello! Firstly, the pension arrangements remain generous compared to many services, and other public servants too have had to make increased contributions to their scheme—but in the context of a 5 year pay freeze and 1% pay rise. On the pay freeze point, the First Minister recently reminded me that his salary had been frozen since 2009 to which I replied, yes I know, but compare your salary with the average in Wales … there was no response …

Finally, the argument goes ‘pay more and we’ll get better calibre candidates’.  Really? Have they ever looked at the history of how Labour, in particular, and the other parties choose candidates during the past 50 years or so? The key requirements are loyalty to party, whether a person is left/right in their policy views, or are a trade union member/local government councillor. These factors matter far more than whether the person is the best available to serve the people or whether he or she has significant professional experience to draw on outside politics and have achieved success in the wider world. What more, for every successful AM candidate, there are several others from the same party per constituency seeking nomination—salary has never been a barrier for good people to stand for election, the obstacles are party political.

Moving on, let us have a look at how hard the AMs work? The last set of statistics I saw stated that they work a 57 hour week on average—split almost evenly between debates in Chamber, committees, constituency casework and meetings. From my certain knowledge, people running their own small to medium sized businesses, headteachers/teachers, police and so on put in as many, if not more, hours than that a week. Interestingly, well over half of the AMs have said that the current salary level of £53,852 is either the SAME or MORE than they used to earn previous to becoming an AM. It is certainly not proven that ‘we continue to under pay our politicians’. On top of the salary, their allowances for office, staff, travel etc is more generous than what other public servants are entitled to.

In the case of Westminster MPs they claim to work on average a 70 hour week, split between 63% at Westminster and 37% in their constituencies. The vast majority of them don’t want to give up being an MP and see it as a long-term career. No wonder it is truly one of the best clubs to be a member of and the work environment, pay and conditions are to be envied. However, I have to state that around 60% of them claim to have taken a pay cut to become an MP.

In their deliberations, the Board was guided by the research of Hays Management Consultancy. But even its findings had several questionable parameters and value judgements referenced in arriving at their recommendations. Just like the Remuneration Board, they assumed that powers akin to Scotland will come to Wales in 2016—but this is not the case. I will not go on any more about that point …

What also surprises me, bearing in mind the significant differences in the two institutions’ powers, the proposed increase will mean that an AM in Wales will receive £64K but the Scottish counterpart only £59K. Carwyn Jones will receive £163K and Nicola Sturgeon £144K—in fact, Nicola has recently said that she will only accept £137K. The Welsh First Minister will be paid more than the UK Prime Minister! I could provide other examples but the length of this article prevents me.

These are staggering increases in difficult times—with more significant public service cutbacks on the horizon and pay rises restricted to 1% until 2017/18.  The ongoing minimum/living wage debate places the proposed 18% increase for AMs in a wider moral context. Okay, some 5 AMs have said they will give their proposed rise to charity—laudable as that is, it is missing the real point. Now is not the time to recommend staggering increases of this kind. Also, to be fair, a few AMs have said that they would oppose such a rise until the minimum/living wage debate is resolved. However, unless I am mistaken, the First Minister and the Conservative opposition Leader are silent on the issue. Maybe, they contemplate waiting for people to go on holidays in the summer before implementing the proposals—so often the tactic of wiley politicians.

In conclusion, taking everything into account, are the AMs in Wales worth this level of salary at the present time? The answer has to be NO. By all means, give them an annual rise along the same lines as other public servants and then, when the time is right, review the matter—possibly around 2018/19—if the Senedd has had its new powers.

This post written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 16/6/2015

Saturday 6 June 2015

Western Mail article on Charles Kennedy

This tribute to Charles based on the previous post appeared on Wales Online: 3/6/2015

Remembering Charles Kennedy

In this second contribution to Cambria Nostra I was going to consider the validity of the proposed 18% pay increase for AMs together with today’s announcement of a 10% increase in MPs’ salary. But the sudden, untimely and sad death of Charles Kennedy has overtaken all that and indeed puts much in life into perspective.

Both my parents passed away suddenly and without warning – one in her late 50s and the other in his mid 80s. Such sudden happenings can be overwhelming and makes one reflect on many things. When I hear of similar occurrences, I always turn to two passages from the Good Book –‘in the midst of life we are in death’ and then ‘in the hour you least expect the Son of Man shall come calling ….’

So it was for Charles – no one expected this news and indeed, according to reports from people who were close to him, he was looking forward to the European referendum campaign, possibly standing for the next Scottish Parliamentary elections and – would you believe – thinking of starting a new left of centre party in Scotland. ‘I’m not joking!’ he said to someone.

Sadly, I woke just before six o’clock on Tuesday morning to be told the unbelievable news. Staggered, my mind went into overdrive, the memories came flooding back of the 1980s and early 1990s. I first heard of the young Scotsman Charles in 1982 when he was only 23 years of age. At the time I was Chair of the SDP in Wales, Parliamentary candidate for Gower and, with Winston Roddick (now Sir), joint Chair of the Alliance Committee for Wales. Then just before the General Election of 1983 Charles was chosen as the SDP/Alliance candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He was still studying at Indiana University, USA when chosen as candidate but belonged to a well-known local family. So just a few short weeks before the election he returned home to campaign and won the seat.

We enjoyed each other’s company frequently at conferences, national executive meetings in Cowley Street – the SDP headquarters – and other events. This red haired and amiable young person was mature for his age. Both of us could visualise the future direction of the SDP and Alliance clearly – in a nutshell, to be a radical movement for reform and change. I coined a slogan, very much liked by Charles, that our role was ‘to replace Labour, defeat the Tories and be in Government’.  We were also close allies of Roy Jenkins in the ever increasing struggle within the SDP between Roy and David Owen regarding the SDP’s future direction, especially its relationship with the Liberals.  So during the merger debate after the 1987 General Election both of us were strongly in favour of the parties coming together, speaking passionately at the decision making conference in Sheffield 1988. Even in those days Charles was a good communicator and an impressive conference orator.

Now, by this time, Charles’s career was set on an inevitable course and in the early 1990s he became the Lib Dems party president and then the party leader after Paddy Ashdown. He was a success at both roles. The two General Elections of 2001 and 2005 were the best results in some 80 years for the third party.  People warmed to Charles, he was personable, warm, genuine and principled. Often unassuming and to some extent gentle with a large amount of humanity – in fact one could say quite unlike the traditional persona of a politician. The nearest comparison to which I can think is the young David Steel when leading the Liberal Party.

My last serious involvement with politics was in 1992 when standing for the Liberal Democrats in Hereford, so some year or so afterwards my contact with Charles lessened though I followed his developing career with great interest.

Inevitably these days, much will be written about his contributions to politics, the Liberal Democrats and the wider world. As too frequently happens, many of the plaudits come after a person’s death. The uplifting and generous things said of him today would have been of great comfort to Charles in the last few years when he was apparently desperately struggling with a powerful demon. He seemed to me a lonely figure after resigning as leader in 2006. ITN news threatened to expose the extent of his so called addiction. He faced his Parliamentary party immediately, lost their confidence and resigned. So often in politics there is nothing worse than being the ‘former’ anything and I have a feeling that even amongst his colleagues the drink issue overrode all else.  Pity because it was at that time he needed their friendship and support the most – but in politics and probably as in other spheres of life, if one is no longer of use or benefit then one’s soon cast aside. Often it is a cruel environment to survive in.

So what is my considered judgement of Charles Kennedy?   What will be my abiding memories as we bid him farewell? Well, as already mentioned, he was a principled, humble, gentle and fair person. But he was more, a man of the people, he understood the mood of the moment and never possessed a feeling of self-importance. More importantly, because he had a feel for the mood of the time, he was a visionary and was right on three key events.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but Charles judged political reality correctly. The first was the merger between the SDP and Liberals and the internal struggles with David Owen. Secondly, was his opposition to the Iraq war despite facing strong opposition in Parliament too. This gentle man showed he had the backbone and mettle to defend the causes he believed in. Seasoned observers recall today the speech he delivered against the War at a rally in Hyde Park as his finest moment – which says a lot! Earlier today I reflected upon how principled, strong and brave he was at that time. His conviction pulled him through. I then contrasted that with Michael Foot’s woeful capitulation to Maggie’s tune that Saturday morning in Parliament before the start of the invasion of that needless Falklands war. Neither the great left-winger and life long peace campaigner nor his party had the bottle, I am afraid to say.

Then finally there was his lone Parliamentary opposition to the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Tories.  I don’t know, but I suspect that the slogan we held together in the mid 80’s still stayed with him as it does with me today.

Now it is not possible to end without a word or two about his wit and humour. Many thought it unbecoming of a political leader to go on chat shows and  ‘Have I Got News for You’. Many politicians have tried it and failed lamentably – I could name a few but won’t! Charles however often proved funnier than the comedians!

Anyway just one or two quotes:-

‘Paddy Ashdown is the only party leader who’s a trained killer. Although to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught’.

Then someone sent him a letter in 2004 when he was party leader asking which Muppet character was his favourite? Answer – ‘Gonzo – even though he is blue he is a nice guy’.

Bearing in mind my description of him earlier there was a very revealing quote of his ‘Courage is a peculiar kind of fear’.

Over the last 3 years he had faced great adversity which must have intensified the struggle with his demon – the loss of his mother, then his older brother being paralysed and the death of his father just before the election this May. I am sure he has left us as he promised, going ‘out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket’. Farewell Charles Kennedy you were in your own words ‘a fully paid up member of the human race’. Your legacy will live on across the country and within the party despite its present difficulties – fighting for social/human justice, political reform and Europe.

This post written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 2/6/2015.