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!