Monday, May 18, 2009

More than Gavin & Stacey

Barry is a town which has a surprising place in the history of Welsh politics. Historically it was a major coal exporting town because of the docks, and was a stronghold of the trade unions. For reasons that are unknown, Barry has also produced a significant amount of Welsh nationalists, and not just Gwynfor either. More recently the town's entire identity and image has become associated with the TV programme Gavin & Stacey, an image which has also penetrated into local politics, with Dave Cameron visiting the town after last year's local elections to proclaim the show's slogans and punch lines with glee, even though the Tories had only won 2 new council seats in the town (the same as Labour). Politically, the two British parties (the Lib Dems don't exist in Barry) are setting out the town's future as being based on a military base to be delivered at St. Athan, where facilities for the aerospace sector and RAF already exist on a smaller scale than what is envisaged for the future.

Against this backdrop the reality of life in Barry often gets forgotten. It is a town that does not appear to have a viable future of its own and exists as a suburb of Cardiff. The reason this is a bad thing is because this process is leading to Barry losing its identity (beyond the coincidence and circumstance of a famous TV programme that could easily have been set elsewhere) and independence, and more importantly, a huge amount of people in Barry being unable to find work because there are simply very few jobs in the town. Public transport to Cardiff is better than average, but a sizeable amount of the town's population don't live near to a train station and are disincentivised from accessing services and jobs in the nearby capital.

The local economic and cultural situation is dire. There are virtually no facilities or services east of the town square. There has been succesful regeneration in the town centre, but this has been offset by the decline of the local private sector, with the iconic cinema being a prominent victim not of the recession (it was profitable until closure), but of the whims of the market. The developer could make more money selling the cinema for housing to serve the commuter stream than he could running a cinema. Campaigners have tried to buy the building back at the market rate, because they would make money, but have been turned down. It's housing or nothing.

These are the real local issues that were on the agenda alongside the European elections when Plaid's MEP Jill Evans visited Barry for a Public Meeting. She doesn't come to Barry often so I was very fortunate to hear her and Plaid's Vale candidate Ian Johnson who is extremely well known locally. I wasn't sure how the meeting would go. People in Barry are disillusioned with politics and not particularly motivated. I was concerned that St. Athan is a risky topic because of the 'jobs bonanza' that the main parties are promising. The Tory leader of the Vale has said that the military base will be as important to Barry as those historic docks were. Now I know 5,000 jobs are supposed to be created, but seriously...Nonetheless, my fears were dismissed by a positive meeting which reminded me of what the party stands for.

I have always associated Plaid Cymru with our communities in Wales, and as being the party for local people, serving the changing needs of communities through decentralist socialism rather than the monolithic centralist agendas of the British parties. But the claim to this tradition isn't Plaid's alone. The Lib Dems also call themselves 'the local party', but perhaps more so because they focus on local elections, rather than for ideological reasons. Where Plaid needs to step forward is in linking these local issues with the wider struggle for self-determination and social justice in Wales. The reason Barry is a town in decline is because developments in Barry (a town of 50,000 people) are based on the market- the property developers and out of town retailers, rather than on local needs and local priorities. The same factors are responsible for the pockets of long-term poverty and boarded up buildings in the town.

The other parties cannot challenge this system and the vested interests that support it. Indeed, the three main British parties are all funded by big business and have all done well out of the property boom that has been responsible for our identikit town centres and loss of heritage. The alternative is that we strengthen our communities from the bottom up, investing our time and energies in democracy at the grassroots level. This was the solution being advocated by Dr. Johnson, and it fitted in with what Jill was talking about at the European Parliament. She is not fighting to impose the EU's agenda on communities in Wales, but to impose Wales' needs on Europe. All of these struggles are bound together in the fight for Wales to have its own voice at every level. After all, we are a community of communities. The sun had come out as I left the meeting, and the potential for change in Barry was for once bigger than the boarded up shop down the road.

And I think the cinema campaigners will be voting for Plaid.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What just happened?

The fiscal influence of the London centre was once again demonstrated this week with the UK budget announcement. Those decisions of course represent the most obvious influence on the Welsh economy. There has already been alot of comment but I am deeply disappointed by the timid reaction from political parties in Wales and from the media.

A yearly budget reduction of more than £400m per year from the Welsh budget because of the UK's priorities will without a doubt lead to cuts. I do not follow the line that 'sometimes cuts are necessary'. For historic reasons our economy is hugely dependent on the public sector. This has been seen as a fundamental weakness of the Welsh economy but we should also remember that these jobs are generally more stable than those in the private sector, and that it was not the public sector that caused the economic crisis. It follows that anything beyond voluntary redundancies and natural wastage will be hugely detrimental for us.

I am concerned that this has been accepted as normal and inevitable. Plaid Cymru resisted the budget cuts loudly but the Welsh Labour component of the administration was less noisy, particularly when compared with the Scottish Government's reaction. Perhaps this was tactical, so that the impact of the cuts would be lessened. But Rhodri Morgan and Andrew Davies' response to the budget announcement has also been pale and lax. Indeed, it was all they could do to praise Gordon Brown's apparent 'leadership' in solving the world's problems. This attitude can be seen in the Welsh Assembly Government's official response.

Compare this to Mark Serwotka's call for a united front of the political parties and the trade unions to fight for an alternative to public expenditure cuts.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said the assembly government should not automatically accept budget reductions.

"It is a matter of political priorities and political will," said the union leader.

"There should be a united front with politicians in Wales and unions to argue in Westminster that the cuts should not be made."

The post-recession UK and post-recession Wales will still be fundamentally unsustainable countries marked by polarised levels of wealth between the rich and the poor. There was no bailout for manufacturing and industry, something incredibly important in Wales. A socially-inclined administration would have argued for bailouts and state aid to assist the poorest. Benefits could have been hiked so that the spending would be transferred into the real economy. But what happened was instead just a drop in the ocean.

They did however get their headline with the new tax rate. Again, I am skeptical. The G20 meeting failed to agree any concrete moves (except for warm words) against tax avoidance, and the Labour government has been just as likely to tax the poor to give to the rich (see last year).

The whole situation shows how little influence we unfortunately have in the current devolution settlement. As long as the UK Government knows that Welsh Labour will not rock the boat, Wales' interests will not win the day. In Scotland, where the government is very much rocking the boat, the budget cut has not been so severe. The full impact on Wales will not become obvious for some time. When it does, I think we might regret that Mark Serwotka's united front never happened.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Catching up with the Basque elections

I've been meaning to write about the outcome of the latest elections to the parliament in Euskadi*. Since I last checked the news the political parties in the Basque Parliament have gone ahead and formed their new government, and the result is historic but alarming for those who wish to see the advancement of progressive politics and self-determination in Euskal Herria.

A significant development is that the first non-nationalist government for three decades has been formed, despite the elections seeing 8 seats gained for the ruling PNV.

On the face of things, it would seem that the mainstream PNV had a good election, increasing its representation to 30 seats. However, it's coalition partners Eusko Alkartasuna (Plaid Cymru's political equivalent) and Esker Batua (left nationalists who ran alongside pro-nationalist Greens) lost ground, leaving the nationalist bloc without enough seats to govern. EA had a devastating election, losing six seats, and Esker Batua were down two seats. Of the other Basque parties, Aralar (a far-left nationalist party formed as a split from the banned Batasuna) picked up a total of 4 seats (up 3). The end result of this was that even if Aralar decided to join a grand Basque nationalist coalition, the Basque parties could only count 36 seats between them.

The Spanish parties had differing fortunes. The PSOE, Spain's governing party (centre-left), gained 8 percentage points and increased its seats by 6, taking them up to 25. The Popular Party (ex-fascists) continued their ongoing decline, down another 2 seats to 13 and shedding more than 60,000 votes.

Nonetheless, PSOE leader Patxi Lopez looks set to be invested as the next Lehendakari (President) by forming a coalition with the PP. Not quite the equivalent of Labour and the Tories working together in Wales, but still remarkable. Disappointingly, the BBC report suggests that the new coalition will deal with "supposed discrimination to non-Basque speakers". The paramilitary aspect to these elections results and their aftermath is also interesting, as some political parties linked to violence were banned from the elections, and the coalition is pledging to deal with Eta once and for all. The non-nationalist government also means that Aralar, the radicals who reject violence, are left out in the cold, have had their argument with the paramilitary movement weakened.

There are now signifcant concerns that a resurgence in violence might take place. Moderate and peaceful Basque nationalism has been rejected undemocratically twice now when Plan Ibarretxe (a plan for a constitutional referendum) was blocked by the Spanish courts, and with the exclusion of the largest party from the government. Eta have issued a statement claiming that the elections were 'anti-democratic', with the Spanish state deliberately excluding the radical parites that had traditionally held the balance of power. The recession might have an even worse dimension in Euskadi.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

15 days to stop the Severn Barrage?

Hands up if you respond to Government consultation papers....
Even on the blogosphere, probably not many of us do. And certainly, local people by and large do not generally write in to consultations in any large numbers. We are very good at campaigning and protesting in Wales, and you can expect a residents' group or campaign group to emerge during any major project, often without party politicians initiating it. The specialist organisations also always have a professional lobbying set-up and employ policy officers who can write their responses to consultations. But local people that don't generally campaign but are still well-informed, often do not realise that a consultation is taking place, and sometimes are not sure how to have their say.

Starting from tomorrow, the people of Wales have 15 days to stop the Severn Barrage, or Cardiff-Weston Barrage (precisely it is Lavernock point to Weston), from going ahead. If we can stop it we won't be displaying parochial NIMBYism, instead a voice against the Big Barrage is excitingly a voice in favour of one of the alternatives. These include two tidal lagoons (one in Wales and one in England), and the 'Shoots Barrage' which is smaller than the Severn Barrage, would cost less, would only take 4 years to build, and would not displace as many birds (it speaks volumes that the RSPB are willing to go for the Shoots Barrage, such is the destructive potential of the Severn one).

At a Plaid Public Meeting in Penarth someone made the crucial point for me, that if the Severn Barrage is ruled out, then the Estuary can eventually accomodate all kinds of renewable energy options. The Severn Barrage would 'impound' the tidal range, rendering other technologies useless. The 'Shoots' Barrage, near the second Severn crossing, would do no such thing.

Adam Price has written convincingly against a Barrage on his blog. I am not a nationalist of the 'Tryweryn' stripe. I was not born when that happened. But is this not the same situation? Would a Severn Barrage be fulfilling our needs or the targets of the prestige politicians in Westminster? Who gains? Is it the people of Wales or the profit margins of the companies that fund and lobby New Labour? Welsh taxpayers will be paying for this Barrage for 35 years, and after that the profits will go straight to London. It will take years to build, even longer than the tidal lagoons or the smaller Barrage. Outside of big business there is not an organisation that backs it.

The Vale of Glamorgan Labour MP John Smith backs the Barrage. For people of his ilk only prestige, big projects will do. Jobs at any cost, a strategy which knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Under this line of thinking the largest PFI in Western Europe (the St. Athan privatisation)- taxpayers giving private companies £14billion and letting them keep the profits- is instead 'the largest investment ever in Wales'. An investment in Wales but an investment for the London establishment. This line of thinking is redundant and it has failed us time and time again.

We must not allow the Severn Barrage to go ahead because it will mean the exploitation of our natural resources just like the coal and water that has been flushed away. The decision will be made outside Wales but we can still have an influence, and we should.

We have 15 days, and can visit the Department of Climate Change's consultation here to submit a response. Follow the link to register, it does not take long and is worth doing.

A strong opinion from South Wales will ensure that this unpopular and ecologically disastrous project does not go ahead. The same opinion will ensure that quicker measures to create renewable energy (that will have a more direct benefit for Wales), do go ahead.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The dragon faces to the left

Spring Conferences are well-known as set-piece, managed ways of reinvigorating the party membership and activists. In that sense it is obvious that nationalists are going to be feeling pleased with themselves after an event that showcased professional use of technology and the internet (with Plaid now being talked about as a party that 'gets' the internet, ahead of its opponents), a fresh and youthful image and a clear sense of purpose.

But it's not automatic for any party to be so enthused during a mid-term rally, as Plaid conferences in the past have rarely matched the same level of confidence that is now coming across in the media, and according to the few opinion polls the same sense of vibrancy is also having an impact on voters.

To be responsible for the Economic Development portfolio in government at a time of recession is a huge undertaking and not one you'd expect any politician in a capitalist country to be able to handle without taking a massive hit to their popularity and credibility. Consider the huge demonstrations in Ireland and London for example. Ieuan Wyn Jones, who has sometimes been not hugely popular with the left in Plaid Cymru, has managed to save Welsh jobs in a competent manner. While all the levers for the economy remain Westminster's responsibility, Jones has ensured that the Welsh response (such as it is) has at least been focused at workers rather than banks.

It's clear that Plaid is continuing to position itself as the credible party of the radical left in Wales. Even the party's more moderate figures (such as the aforementioned party leader) stressed that message in their speech. Plaid is pushing an economic message that is qualitatively and ideologically different to that of New Labour and the Tories, and although there is still alot of work to be done there were welcome words about sustainable development and co-operation, rather than privatising and undercutting. I am not saying that Plaid is moving any further away from the centre at this point, but that the party's appeal has always been based on being 'different' and having a passion and radicalism that the mainstream parties do not have.

Let us not have any illusions in Gordon Brown. He has not intervened in any socialist manner. He has concentrated on saving the financial institutions. Under his stewardship our welfare state has been undermined and eroded to the extent that we are going to be worse affected by the recession than most other Western countries (more so than France or Germany, for example). This is further compounded by New Labour's refusal to include a welfarist or socialist element in its bailout programme. Save the Children reported that only the far-right administration in Russia (out of all the most powerful states) included less support for children than the UK did in its bailouts for the economy.

With this in mind, I think that at a time when Labour is haemorhaging support all over the place, Plaid's vote at the coming elections will either hold up or increase. The polls suggest that Labour does best in Wales when it is "Welsh" Labour and when it is pushing left-leaning policies. Be that as it may, Plaid are consistently outflanking Welsh Labour by claiming credit for the progressive nature of the devolved administration. This is a fundamental characteristic of devolution- people want things done differently to Westminster, they don't want more of the same. The only way that Labour in Wales can outmuscle Plaid is by embracing Welshness and social democracy, and that is a path that will inevitably lead them into further conflict with the Ben Bradshaws and the Paul Murphys.

Whatever happens in Welsh politics, global history in the past 6 months suggests that now is a time for new ideas. The possibilities for Plaid Cymru to profit from this are manifold. They are our only hope if we want to see a 'different' Wales emerge from the recession. The UK is by far one of the most pro-market states in the European Union- and we will suffer most because of this. The UK's model is not one to follow and is one we need to break away from as we come out of the crisis.

Just a bit of analysis for a boring Monday!

Friday, March 27, 2009

What would Aneurin do?

I haven't checked other blogs yet but it's inevitable that a major topic of conversation will be the new Welsh Labour blog. In Peter Hain's words, Welsh Labour's "Obama moment". Of course, it will not be a topic of conversation whatsoever amongst normal people in Wales or anywhere else. Discussion of it will be confined to blogs and the internet. With this in mind, I will discuss the reality of Welsh Labour as well as the internet farce that has emerged through the "Aneurin Glyndwr" website.

The Welsh Labour party's stance since devolution was once described by a grassroots member as "left-wing policies without left-wingers". The social democratic leanings in Welsh Labour have held out to the extent that, i'm told, Labour party members in England look towards the Assembly with an attitude that says "they've got a real Labour government in Wales", rather than a New Labour one. Successive administrations in Wales led by Labour have chosen not to embrace most of the market-style reforms championed by Tony Blair. Even though I am not a Labour supporter, I am a socialist and can see the benefit of not having Polyclinics, Foundation Hospitals or elitist Academy Schools. The fundamental mantra of public services in Wales is based on a social/co-operative model, whereas in England (and also to an extent in Scotland under the then allegedly "Old" Labour administration there) New Labour has pursued the conservative "choice" dogma. This means that the Foundation Hospitals are designed to give patients a choice of where they want to be treated, for example.

In any case, the point I am making is that Welsh Labour has made some achievements that it could crow about. However, the problem is, the more they celebrate these achievements and push "Clear Red Water", the more it will become apparent that their political programme is fundamentally opposed to what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wanted to achieve.

It's with regret that I note that there seems to consistently be some kind of bizarre internet related story about the Labour party in Wales. It seems that every few weeks there has been a Labour party worker sacked for something on the internet, or that there are rumours about blogs, or that they have created this and that website. I cannot get my head around the current website they were promoting and must admit I did not believe it was genuine at first, or that it had been endorsed by professional politicians. I am not saying the website is shameful or particularly nasty, it is just horribly naff. Young activists will always do their thing and might try and create these sites for fun, it can be harmless. But the entire standard and professionalism, coupled with the bizarre mytho-nationalist imagery, is tacky and cringeworthy.

I am still trying to process the fact that the same party with a policy record that is amongst the most significant of any government in Western Europe, has officially endorsed a sub-standard web video done on MS Paint that could be bettered by any Year 10 IT pupil at a Comprehensive school in Wales. Bizarre.

Monday, March 9, 2009

If I was a council leader...

Chris Franks AM was in the local paper last week alleging that the Vale of Glamorgan Council has £70m in reserves- not Icelandic ones either! Obviously alot of this money has to be kept aside, especially as the economic downturn will get worse before it gets better.

So, let's say they decided to withdraw 20% of that fund. £14m would leave the vast bulk of the money intact and ready for future emergencies. If I was the council leader, I would take £7m and put it towards running costs and existing staffing costs so that local jobs don't have to be cut at such a difficult time. £7m would surely be a good 'insurance' payment towards keeping the existing workforce (note- there are no reports of the Vale threatening to cut staff at the moment that i'm aware of, I am just procrastinating). That would leave me with £7m which I would immediately use as a Keynesian-style (proper Keynesianism, not the Gordon Brown version of nationalising the debt and privatising the profit) injection into the local economy.

I would use the £7m to create 134 jobs, each of which paid £26,000 a year (a decent wage for parts of the Vale). £7m is enough to sustain these for 2 years, at which point a review would take place, and if necessary more of the reserves could be deployed to keep them going. These people would be employed in running a community cinema (Barry doesn't have one), growing food and running a local produce market (to promote land use, exercise and healthy eating), benefit take-up teams (many people do not claim the full benefit they are entitled to and money goes back unspent to the Treasury- i'd rather they spent it in local shops) and insulators to make houses energy efficient. The Council could also employ maybe a dozen people in some kind of low-price but healthy goods store similar to the system they have in Venezuela.

Just an example of what our Council could do with just a fraction of its reserves.

Living Wage and Local Government

Glasgow's leader Steven Purcell has announced a £7 per hour minimum wage for employees at Scotland's largest local authority. The move will benefit thousands of workers. It seems that the announcement is to do with Labour Party internal politics and trying to set up a future Scottish Labour leadership challenge to the anonymous Iain Gray. But that aside, genuine help for workers should not be scoffed at, even if it comes from New Labour. It's close (but not quite the same) to the demands of the left and the unions for a living wage in the public sector. Unfortunately, Labour's behaviour centrally is to annihilate the public sector over the next few years. Labour's trying to face both ways has brought us the bizarre spectacle of thousands of civil servants being laid off, followed by thousands of new positions being created and advertised for simultaneously. At Cardiff Central Train Station not long ago the DWP had advertising hoardings to recruit staff who could work late nights to process welfare claims. The same DWP has been cutting staff back including job centre staff all year!

The most striking thing about the Glasgow pay rise is the economics of it. Everyone must be wondering, how can Glasgow afford such a rise? I do not know enough about Scottish politics to say why, but I can speculate. The SNP has undertaken a mature relationship with local government, making a concordat with them and working to freeze the Council Tax. I'm not sure whether this has freed up extra resources for local authorities, but it may have had an impact.

One thing about local government is that it is often accused of being conservative. I think this is a mis-conception based on the south-east of England. Local governments have been responsible for many progressive initiatives and courageous stands. Think of Woking Borough's pioneering of renewable energy, Gwynedd's local housing policy and the socialist councillors in Liverpool who resisted Thatcher's cuts. Indeed, it was Thatcher who cut down local governments who were resisting her centralised agenda. They were refusing to do her bidding and massacre local services, and that's why we have the situation we're in today where local government has been depoliticised and weakened. I think that an opposite strategy might be needed, and that the Wales of the future should give local authorities freedom but also make them more democratically accountable. Eventually I believe that each local authority should be rebranded and reorganised as a kind of co-operative/community organisation where everyone has a stake, rather than being seen as an old man's club. Then we might see some more radical policies originating in our communities.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Independent Thinking

Chanticleer has blogged about a story that touches on the Welsh independence blog post I did last week.

Plaid Cymru are launching a website promoting a discussion of independence and what form it could take for Wales. The last opinion poll showed 13% support for independence, not earth-shaking but as I argued, not insignificant considering it is not an idea being pushed or campaigned for at present. Certainly, enough of a mandate to start testing the waters with a debate that needs to last a few years. I feel that reiterating my previous points about independence would be useful. The Assembly is only ten years old (near enough), to have a 13% polling for independence (admittedly based on only one poll) is fairly credible for the national movement but also highlights how Welsh independence has not been expanded upon by any of its current adherents. Perhaps this new initiative from the party will allow a solid case for independence to be built on facts and ideas, and could also help the party retain its identity during a period in coalition government.

I also note that the top-up fees row appears to have reached some kind of resolution today. Plaid Assembly Members will get a free vote which allows them to choose between party and government policy. This is probably the only way that things can be resolved. The party membership and student wing might be asked to accept that the playing field is against them on this issue, although it still might be worth inviting Plaid AMs to vote against the top-up fees reintroduction- again, it would seem prudent to hold on to a non-Labour perspective on many policies, without necessarily bringing down an administration that has been progressive and fair-minded to date. I would argue, from a blinkered position as a recent student, that the best result for Plaid would be for all their Assembly Members apart from the Ministers to abstain from voting. By not voting for Jane Hutt's plans they would be honouring party policy, but by not voting against the government they would be ensuring that the government and their party leader isn't defeated. What's best for students is unfortunately something entirely different, but there you go!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Selling out the students

I'm a Welsh-domiciled ex-student who graduated in the past 2 years from a Uni here. At the time I didn't qualify for the Assembly Government's policies such as the Assembly Learning Grant because my family was not that low-income (although we were not particularly wealthy either), although several of my friends benefited from this. I did access another Assembly-funded student support scheme which was the Student Hardship Fund, a kind of non-repayable emergency grant when the debt gets a bit out of control. That aside, the fact I did not have to pay the top-up fees was a huge help. It means my debt now going into a recession is alot less than it could have been. I would have gone to University in Wales anyway personally, but it is a financial incentive to stay (Adam Price quotes a 63% to 66% increase- small but over ten years has huge implications for education in Wales). The great benefit of universal help is that it includes everyone, so those that wouldn't seem like they typically need help will not be left out. Incidentally, during University and my Welsh politics course I read a good article by Mark Drakeford and Rhodri Morgan citing 'progressive universalism' as Welsh Labour's core ideology. It's a shame that this position seems to have been deserted by the disastrous course of action over top-up fees.

Student fees is one of the infrequent but striking areas where Welsh Labour has not been any different from New Labour. It took an opposition-led sabotage of their aims to put is in more debt, to get the fair and sensible Welsh approach to tuition fees. Now it's payback time, and the majority of the Plaid Assembly group are culpable in this. Difficult choices have to be made, but I think transferring debt onto students is the easy choice, not the difficult one. The obvious thing for the politicians (who all probably got grant-funded education) is to charge the students. I am a realist and I know that times have changed and that higher education has become marketised: but to further encourage University education down this road is an awful position to take. A £61m funding gap (even though I question the wisdom of comparing Wales to England every single time an issue comes up- we should not necessarily be chasing England all the time) is not the end of the world, and although narrowing it would be positive I think decisions should only be taken based on manifesto commitments and election results. It's a non-democratic stitch up.

The leadership of the student movement must also share the blame for this. The NUS Wales appeared to deliberately fail to advertise the consultation exercise, part of which happened, I am told during half-term. They could have asked students who benefited from this policy for their views, or recent graduates...Instead it was a fake consultation to whitewash Labour policy. The NUS Wales leaders are sell outs.

Plaid Cymru policy admirably remains clear and focused on this. Plaid led the Assembly victory against top-up fees. They, along with the other two parties, forced the Labour administration of the time into an historic u-turn. Their AMs must now be brought to book, but who can blame them for backing Labour if they don't know the full facts about the consultation? I hope Adam Price's revelations today can refocus a few minds in the Plaid Group. Time to email your AM! CymruX should also be asking these questions and lobbying the AMs. I think this might pick up, students didn't respond to the consultation because they didn't know about it. Plaid's Spring Conference could be interesting, isn't it themed around young people?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

People's Bank policy was floated on the blogs

It has been reported that the Welsh Government is looking at establishing a 'People's Bank', generally described as being a not-for-profit community/mutual bank based on Post Office branches. It's an idea that has been championed in the 2007 Plaid Manifesto, by Labour Left MP's (Jon Cruddas noted it in the Guardian) and lefties in Plaid & Welsh Labour in 2008 and by Adam Price last week.

I'm waiting to see some concrete proposals but if this idea does come to fruition, it has a number of important implications- that an idea highly touted on political blogs can eventually become Government policy (even if it wasn't the blogs that made it happen, it still shows how foresighted and relevant the online debate can be); that policy-making from the left is still on the menu; and that the Welsh Government is attempting to shore up social alternatives to the free market banking system, not only through the People's Bank but through the One Wales Government's widespread and consistent support for Credit Unions.

My only criticism is that it should not have taken a crisis to expose how corrupt and unsustainable the model of big business banking is: it has taken thousands of job losses and market stagnation to prove this. And ordinary people will still have to pay the price through the bailout billions.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Only 13% want independence: could this be good for Plaid?

It's a good time of year to talk about this kind of thing. There has been a very positive poll for the BBC which everyone has already blogged about. The pro-devolution camp should obviously focus on this and take steps towards the 'Yes' campaign and the referendum. But some points were raised on Marcus' blog about the apparently insignificant support for Welsh independence in the very same poll, with the inference that this is bad news for Plaid Cymru.

In the poll, two pro-independence options (within the EU and outside the EU) receive 8% and 5% respectively, with 13% of those polled wanting an independent Wales. I'm not sure if this is worth reading into (remember the poll that showed hardly any Plaid supporters wanted independence?), but if I was to read into it as a pro-devolution, pro-Wales person, my reading would come out as positive for Plaid's long-term aims.

Independence for Wales is at present an abstracted position to take (although an entirely honourable one, and one I subscribe to personally) because no political party in Wales is currently advocating it. Not even Plaid Cymru is campaigning for independence, because the realities of devolution mean that we need to nation-build Wales first. In recent years Plaid have instead sought to extend devolution. The extent to which they have been succesful is hugely significant, just 10 years after the first elections to the Assembly a pro-more powers consensus has already been formed across the Assembly, and a majority of people in Wales want to move further down the road of devolution (not the 'slippery slope'). When you think about it, this is quite an achievement, considering the mandate for creating the Assembly was extremely slim.

The remaining three mainstream parties are all British in their identity and approach, so the political weight is stacked against any pro-independence view (more so than in Scotland where smaller parties other than the SNP back independence- not tiny parties either, ones which have won MSPs in the past). And if independence is solely seen as Plaid's pet, but is not even being campaigned for by them, what chance does it have? Even 13% in an opinion poll is surprisingly good for such an obscure term, when posed during an economic recession which experts have predicted would diminish support for independence in Scotland for example (not convinced at all that those experts are right, but there you go).

It could be argued that abolishing the Assembly, an option that polls 21% in the latest survey, has a similar position to independence, that it's an abstract idea that no party is campaigning for. But the 'no devolution' cause, if it can be called such a thing, does have a history in recent living memory: in the vociferous 'no' campaign in 1997 when the outgoing ruling party in the UK officially backed such a campaign. It also has more of a grassroots following in the newspaper letters' pages in Wales, mainly in South-East Wales amongst conservative voters and supporters (inevitably older generations). Independence has no such impetus or recent history as an ideal in the political fabric of Wales (probably a good thing, the last thing the national movement needs is to resort to misty-eyed remembrancing).

For independence to progress as a national cause that people will support, there needs to be a strong fabric of Welsh life and identity already in place. As far as I can see, this is what the nationalists in Wales are trying to achieve. Wales has only become classified as a nation in living memory, only got a capital city in the 1950s and faced linguistic extinction not that long before then. Nationalists in Wales need to model a view of the kind of independence they want to achieve and the kind of society they want to create. Wales having it's own army and a seat at the UN isn't good enough. As James Connolly warned, changing the colour of the flag won't make a difference unless you also change society. I think this is the kind of independence we can campaign for and achieve, but nobody has set it out yet.

If you want to read further into the point I was trying to make about older generations, these recent stats about national identity amongst school children in Wales are very relevant. These kids are growing up under the Assembly, by the time they are older it will be their reference point to politics, such a huge change from my (young) generation who had the Assembly created as something new in their life times. The 13% for independence is going to be a growing pool. The 21% for abolishing the Assembly is going to shrink with age and eventually die out.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A green fix for the economy

Sorry for not blogging for a while, Progressive Comment is a busy dude. But when I do blog I promise it'll be worthwhile.

A number of environmentalists, economists and international trade unions are now arguing that a 'Green New Deal' is the way to beat the worldwide recession. This is not a fringe demand: a number of governments and environmentalists are grouping themselves around the UN's Environmental Programme advocating massive public expenditure programmes that are sustainable and green in colour (i.e renewable energy and housing insulation, not finance sector jobs and bombs). In the mainstream, President Obama has also paid lip service to this idea. He might not deliver it to the extent that Achim Steiner, the UN's chief environmental economist, envisages. Then again, with market forces as uncertain as they are, who knows?

If Wales had it's own place at the UN I am sure that we would be amongst those forward-thinking and generally left-leaning governments that are advocating a green solution to the global crisis. After all, climate change is part of the cause of the crisis. The global economy as it stands is unsustainable. The recession offers a perfect chance to transform the economy. We have never had the excuse to do it so far (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). We're pretty broke now so a sustainable solution is just what we need.

The Labour-Plaid government has it's own mini, scaled-down 'Green New Deal' based on the Green Jobs Strategy. I haven't seen it so can't comment, but the Welsh Government's biomass strategy is expected to create 'about 1,000 jobs'. There are huge risks with biomass, particularly the huge Prenergy plant at Port Talbot. Once a wood-burning plant comes on stream, it needs wood otherwise the lights go out. Smaller scale, decentralised and localised plants, getting their wood from within a certain geographical radius, are a much safer bet and should be promoted- as long as they do not overwhelm local communities. One such plant is planned in Barry, but locals are very disheartened. Their views should ultimately come first and we have to ensure that biomass plants are sensitive to the communities they are going to serve. Put them out of the way of the views of houses!

So with biomass being a start, what form could a Green New Deal take in Wales? I'm almost certain we don't have the powers or the budget to develop our own response as a society to the downturn. We will have to wait and see what Gordon Brown and his Environment Secretary Hilary Benn come up with. However it's clear that in Wales we have a huge potential for an expansion of renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling and building insulation. This could ultimately form a green employment nucleus of tens of thousands of jobs for the Welsh economy. On both a local, national and global scale it would ensure that the post-recession world is a different one to that of the unregulated free market economy that caused the crash. It's time for unchecked economic growth to be replaced by natural, sustainable and balanced development.

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Environment Minister, said: "there are moments in history when an idea's time has come."

Wales was at the forefront of the industrial revolution- the next one won't begin in any one country, but we have to make sure we don't miss the boat.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It could be alot worse

In my last post I criticised the way the Welsh Government has not properly narrated or promoted its response to the economic downturn.

But I am reassured, at least people like these are not running Wales. The public sector is not to blame for the economic crisis, they didn't cause it and they should not have to pay the price.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wise move to drop Welsh Medal idea

The Assembly Commission have made a good decision to postpone plans to introduce a Welsh honours/medal system, because of the economic climate. I do think we should have our own honours system, and that it should be run along civilian lines (rather than Empire or monarchy symbolism) that reflect devolution, but I also think that now isn't the right time for misty-eyed gestures, however well-meaning they may be. Launching a new honours system amidst the usual self-congratulating fanfare would send out the wrong kind of signals during the recession. It might work better that a system could raise national morale as we come out of the crisis, if it shows any signs of abating in the next few years.

Turning to the economy, it's become clear to me that the Assembly Government isn't shouting loud enough about it's actions in helping the people of Wales during these difficult times. I am well aware of all the concrete policies that are being implemented and the comments that Ieuan Wyn Jones is a safe pair of hands, but I am not really seeing the Welsh Government's response being given much time in the press. For example, on the Welsh Government's website there is a news item about the Pro Act scheme being deployed in Welshpool to safeguard hundreds of jobs. This really is an innovative scheme that is helping those workers, it reminds me of the system in Cuba where the state guarantees a wage if an enterprise is struggling but might still be able to get back on it's feet eventually. But it's buried on the WAG site that not many people read. Pro-devolutionists should be shouting about this and saying "we are saving jobs", especially if the scheme is used to help even more workers.

The Welsh Government's language also needs to change to give a clearer impression that the labour force and not the bankers are their priority, especially as they don't have powers to go anywhere near the banks- a good start would be condensing the Assembly Government's economic policies into a fag packet-sized narrative and labelling it 'bailout for the workers and families'. Just an idea.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A hope for the world: ten years of progress in Venezuela

We are now marking ten years since the Bolivarian Revolution began in Venezuela with the election of the progressive administration led by Hugo Chávez. Venezuela in 2009 is far from being a paradise. Violent crime is a major problem, the government's control over local police forces is inadequate (allowing local forces to destabilise the country and the Revolution), and corruption is a significant challenge, both within the popular movements that are taking part in change, and within the old state bureacracy that Chávez is seeking to either replace or co-opt.

However, it is very evident that over the past ten years a dramatic change has taken place in Venezuela, that has inspired millions of poor people across the world. The political face of Latin America has been transformed. That continent has always been polarised by a tragic battle between the left and the right, with civil wars, CIA subterfuge, organised crime and insurrections being a feature of much of the continent's development (or lack of) over the past fifty to sixty years. The left in the Americas had previously resisted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus through paramilitary groups and factions advocating armed struggle, in response to the mainly military regimes of the time. In recent years the playing field has shifted and the current swing to the left in the Americas is taking place at the ballot box. During it's ten year tenure, the Bolivarian process in Venezuela has gone to the polls 13 times, with victory in 12 of those.

There remains much to be done in Venezuela, to enable truly participatory democracy to spread, to unite the country and to diversify the economy beyond oil and natural gas. But the achievements of the past ten years should be noted:

* The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflationadjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually.
Most of this growth has been in the nonoil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.

* The poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does take into account increased access to health care or education.

* Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.

* From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than onethird. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.

* The labour market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.

* Over the decade, the government's total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.

* Venezuela has become illteracy free, with 1.6million people taught to read by the social missions.

* Subsidised food for the poorest people through the Mercal system.

* A new constitution for the people, enshrining their rights.

* A system of co-operatives alliances and mutual aid between the progressive regimes in the Americas.

The next elections in Venezuela are a referendum on February 15th over whether the President can continue to stand for office beyond 2012. The result will be interesting as the vote comes at a time of significant economic challenge for the democratic regime.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Talk about inspiring

Just got back in from the snow. I attended a public meeting in Cardiff tonight featuring Moazzam Begg, Omar (didn't get his surname) and Chris Arendt. Two of them are former Guantanamo Bay detainees and one of them is a former Guantanamo Bay guard, with the US Army's National Guard Reserve. Firstly, the eBlogger: Progressive Comment - Create Postvent was a huge success and the three men addressed a massive crowd about their experiences. The Great Hall was full with maybe a thousand in the seats and hundreds on the floor. The first time i've seen Assembly Members sat on the floor amongst the people! All free admission and non-profit.

Torture exists all around the world, in vile and stubborn defiance of international law and countless international agreements. Civilised and democratic people should oppose torture in whatever context it is being practiced, whether in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom or the United States. It is only through the vagaries of British military planning that we can claim that torture does not take place in Wales. That does not absolve us of our collective responsibility as humans to oppose the torture of other human beings.

This particular event talked about experiences from Guantanamo Bay. Chris Arendt, the ex-solider, spoke of his upbringing in a typical small rural town, with few employment prospects. The army was a stable job, a source of income, and for those stuck in small towns a chance to 'see the world' (the card they still play in our own communities in Wales). So join up he did, to one of the US army's reserve formations, who were eventually assigned to Guantanamo Bay. There he became disillusioned with his government's inhumane and illegal policies- and began to defy his training and see the detainees as human beings. After trying to be a positive and humane influence in the camp he later left the army and formed a Veterans Against the War group.

Omar spoke of the torture itself and the brutal and graphic nature of this concentration camp. He talked of Detainee 725 (all Guantanamo detainees are dehumanised and given numbers as names), who was so brutally beaten that interrogators removed one of his eyes. After his harrowing account it was revealed that Omar himself was Detainee 725. A completely innocent man who has never been charged for any crime.

The charismatic Moazzam Begg is no stranger to Wales, of course. He co-ordinated the speaking and gave his own account. He is an intelligent, humorous and astute man, showing no signs of anger or bitterness at his former captors, but instead exhibiting a desire simply to tell the world the truth of what went on at Guantanamo in our names. Moazzam spoke of the hopelessness and despair that he felt after being taken from his house in Pakistan at gunpoint, and flown via secret CIA flights to the torture camp. Moazzam said that one day, a former Vietnam veteran beckoned him over and said, knowing Moazzam was originally from Britain, that a million people had marched on the streets of the UK against the war. It was only from that moment that Moazzam knew there was hope and that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

I personally was one of those marchers, in London and then in Cardiff. They remain the biggest demonstrations I have ever been involved in. Knowing that we lifted the spirits of one innocent man behind bars is enough for me to think that it was all worth it. Let's use the same spirit to move towards a world without torture.

(Credit must go to Cardiff Stop the War for accomodating this speaking tour)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who will win the Vale at the next election?

I'm not involved in Westminster circles- i'm exclusively a local anorak- and don't know when a General Election will be called, but I do know that when it happens the battle in the Vale will be shaped by a number of major issues that have crept up over the past year or two. I will discuss these issues in my next blog post, after first considering the political terrain in the Vale.

It has long been expected that the Tories will take back the Vale of Glamorgan from Labour. At the last Assembly election Labour held on by the skin of their teeth. Commentators said that the announcement of the investment at St. Athan 'was what won it', although I am on the ground in the Vale and I know that the real reason was that the Tories chose an unknown candidate with no profile (Gordon Kemp, who now leads the Vale Council), and that the Tories did not campaign much in Barry, sticking instead to their rural heartlands. Fast forward to 2008, and the Tories had established South Wales West AM Alun Cairns as their Parliamentary spokesperson and future candidate. The Conservatives made some limited inroads in Barry in the latest local elections during May 2008. In the Dyfan ward they took 2 seats off Labour. Together with Alun Cairns' regular press work in the Vale papers, it seemed to me to be inevitable that the Vale would be turning blue by the time the next General Election came around, particularly considering the plummeting of the Labour government in the polls later in 2008.

However, Cairns' credibility has taken a battering since then. He spent a significant part of 2008 suspended from his position as Vale Parliamentary candidate after the 'greasy wops' incident. Later, he was damaged in an expenses row. The Conservatives are still in a strong position for the GE if they campaign in Barry, but Labour now have some ammunition to fire at Cairns, which they didn't have before. I would guess that Cairns is biding his time and waiting for the negative publicity around him to die down.

And what of the Labour party? They were set back by losing control of the council in May, but had a consolation prize in regaining some ground in Barry that they had lost to Plaid Cymru, who were seen to be on the rise in the town at the time. Since then Labour have tried to get back on their feet in Barry, and John Smith has focused all of his Parliamentary work (no exaggeration) on the St. Athan training academy, which is one of the issues I will discuss in my next post. He has taken a huge gamble on this, and has essentially become the Metrix MP. Smith has a long association with the aerospace and military industries based at St. Athan and is staking not only his reputation but his political future on a £12billion PFI. If the Academy and its attendant link road can be delivered, then Smith might rake in political capital based on the thousands of jobs that could be created. The Metrix Man has also come out in favour of the Severn Barrage (not tidal power in the estuary in general, or his own government's feasibility study, but specifically and exclusively the proposed Barrage) and a link road to the St. Athan Academy/Cardiff International Airport, attempting to outflank Plaid by holding Ieuan Wyn Jones responsible for any delayed decision on such a road. Smith knows that as a Labour candidate in an economic downturn he has to play the jobs card at all cost.

Plaid remain a threat to Labour and although they were defeated in the Castleland ward they took a town council seat in the Buttrills ward, solid Labour territory in the past. This seems to be enough of a lifeline for Plaid not to give up on Barry, where they are more or less the second party. They won't win but could be in a position to decide who does win. At General Elections in the past Plaid have finished behind the Lib Dems in the Vale (in Assembly elections it is reversed), but the Lib Dems have collapsed and disappeared locally, although they will still get their national coverage come election time. They will have a candidate parachuted in. Plaid will be aiming to dislodge the Lib Dems and to use the election to claim back ground in Barry that they lost during 2008. The crafty Dr. Ian Johnson appears to be standing for Plaid, an academic who has a profile in the local footballing community and the campaigns to try and save Barry Cinema. The nationalists will surely be an unwelcome distraction to Labour who will need every Barry vote they can get their hands on if they are to keep the seat.

More soon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nazis in Neath, Wales and the BNP

Peter Hain reacted strongly, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, to news that the BNP had done a street stall in the heart of his Neath constituency. There is a video on youtube posted by the BNP of their people giving out leaflets criticising Hain- but I won't dignify them by linking to it.

Hain said:
"They are a force that has to be confronted and defeated whenever they appear from beneath their stones. Their poisonous influence is disastrous for any community where they gain a foothold. We have seen where it has happened elsewhere. We have seen hatred spread and in every possible way. It's terrible news for any community - especially a God-fearing, respectable place such as Neath, which has a fine tradition of community caring, of respect for people whatever their background, whatever their beliefs and whatever the colour of their skin. I will be consulting party colleagues and others to make sure they are confronted wherever they appear next."

Very strong words, but Hain is discredited at the moment. The BNP seem to be focusing on building a presence in Wales with a view to obtaining a respectable vote in the Euro elections. The threat here is virtually absent compared to the real danger of them winning a European Parliamentary seat in parts of England. But civilised people should still be concerned about their attempts to build some kind of momentum in parts of West Wales. Online blogs appear to be the internet focus of their organisation and publicity in Wales- in particular they have 2 blogs based in South-West Wales and their activists frequently comment the online versions of the South Wales Evening Post, and the Llanelli and Carmarthenshire papers. Rather than being a strength, this does reveal some weaknesses, in that they are a pretty small band of people, and that people that focus mainly on political campaigning on the internet might have less social skills in appealing to people on the doorstep or at election times. In short, it's a waste of time taking them on over the internet, but campaigning against them on the streets gives a natural advantage to the more sane, credible political parties.

In a Welsh context, the BNP have never been succesful. Perhaps because Wales isn't perceived to have a race problem, they have never won a seat at the County Council level upwards, compared to scores of council seats in Englands. However, this article by Jon Cruddas warns that the BNP may find more resonance now that we're in a recession. Peter Hain might go a way towards redeeming himself if he suggests some ideas of how to take on the BNP in South-West Wales, and if he begins criticising Gordon Brown's economic policies, which have after all made some people vulnerable to picking up the BNP's fascist message.

The BNP can excite and inflame people on the left, in Wales and anywhere else, when really they do not achieve significant support on a national level in the UK. Especially as the vast majority of Wales has never seen a BNP leaflet, a point might be made that they shouldn't be given any comment at all in Wales, let alone be made the subject of blogging or political discourse.
But because it is Holocaust Memorial Day I think it is worth saying that for the sake of those who have died because of hatred and fascism, we cannot afford to take them lightly.

Scotland is the battleground for Purnell's welfare reforms

An interesting story from Scotland reports that New Labour's Work & Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, is accusing the SNP of deliberately blocking his welfare reforms with regards to drug users. Under Purnell's plans, drug addicts will lose their benefits unless they seek help. His charge then, is that the SNP are blocking ('sabotaging') the reforms by preventing Glasgow University from releasing the necessary data about the situation in Scotland.

I don't need to use this blog to describe how disastrous this policy could be. Taking benefits away from people dependent on drugs will surely make them more likely to commit crime.

Purnell's desire to get tough on all kinds of welfare claimants is well-documented. Long-term unemployed, incapacitiy benefit claimants and single mothers are all in his sights as he looks to force more people to work for their dole. The problem that he can't address is that the jobs simply aren't available for these people. The areas with the highest levels of claimants of various benefits are generally also the areas with the lowest amount of vacancies available through Job Centre Plus. To turn this around the Government needs to address the cause, not the effect. Purnell has got it wrong, and although i'm mainly criticising the mid to long-term implications of his reforms, he has already caused some problems in the present. He presided over significant DWP staff cuts, and now the DWP is on a costly recruitment drive because they have realised that they need far more staff to deal with the effects of the economic downturn.

The UK Government has full control over the benefits system, but the Scottish Government has its own policies with regards to drugs and the health service. It's a confusing picture that assumes that the SNP are ideologically opposed to the UK Government's welfare reforms. The SNP coming out against them on a national level would certainly be a welcome development. The UK Government could listen to the numerous drugs charities (people that deal with drug users on a day to day basis) and wouldn't need the Scottish Government's statistics.

I'm led to conclude that James Purnell is attacking the SNP deliberately to make it look like they are stopping him 'getting tough' with drug addicts. This is quite a vindictive and right-wing position. It shows the nature of the beast. And it's a gamble that might not pay off.