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.