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.