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.