Monday, 19 December 2011

Two years of Carwyn Jones - little to celebrate, much to lament...

On December 10th the First Minister marked two years in office. Despite our pronounced political differences, I am not beyond congratulating him on the occasion. Reaching the leadership of a major political party is no mean feat, and with it he assumed the highest elected office in Wales; admittedly leading a minority Labour government in partnership with Plaid Cymru, but the senior partner in that nonetheless. The Assembly election results of 2011 may not have granted him a full majority, but Labour certainly has the numbers to pursue their agenda, if only with the co-operation of other parties at certain times. Given the position in which he finds himself then, it is all the more disappointing to observe the marked failures of the Welsh Labour government under the First Minister’s leadership.
It may be expected of me as Leader of the Opposition to find fault with Welsh Labour’s record in government, but the evidence alone does this well enough without any additional help from me. Starting with the economy, during the First Minister’s time in office the percentage of people economically inactive who want a job has risen from 23.5% to 25.2%; the employment rate for ethnic minorities from 16-64 years old has fallen by 1,700; business turnover of small and medium sized businesses (10-249 employees) dropped by 6.4%; there are 3% fewer small businesses (10-49 employees) currently operating, and Wales remains in second place in the league table for out-of-work benefits claimants. These figures simply scratch the surface of Wales’ current economic malaise and, alongside Labour’s foot-dragging over enterprise zones and failure to reduce business rates, reflect badly on a Labour government that supposedly prioritises jobs and the economy. The uncertain economic climate is buffeting the UK and Wales as much as anywhere else, but the First Minister and Labour are failing to do all they can to provide at least some protection from the storm.

The health figures for September 2011 as compared with January 2010 are equally, if not more damning. The number of patients waiting for treatment increased by nearly 42%, and the numbers waiting over 36 weeks for treatment (a Welsh Government target remember) increased from 35 to 7,389. There has been a 27% increase in the number of patients waiting for General Surgery, while those waiting over 36 weeks increased from zero to 620. There has been an increase of nearly 35% in patients waiting for Trauma and Orthopaedic treatment, and the number waiting over 36 weeks increased from 11 to 5,344. Labour has also failed to meet its target of 95% of new patients spending no longer than 4 hours in major A&E departments from arrival until admission, transfer or discharge in every single month since Carwyn Jones became First Minister. Staff morale in the Welsh NHS has also plummeted during the First Minister’s time in office. The Royal College of Nursing’s staff survey found that almost half of nurses have considered leaving their job in the last year and two-thirds said they were under stress; a third of members were seeking a change in employment, up from 29% in 2009, and just 37% now believe nursing is a secure career compared to 72% in 2009, with fewer see nursing as a rewarding career. While a flow of statistics such as these can risk clouding the human element of this issue, it must always be remembered that each one of those numbers represents either a patient who is potentially suffering or a disillusioned staff member, both being failed by the health system in Wales just when Labour have slashed health spending in their latest budget.

Meanwhile, educational attainment has fallen in some areas under Carwyn Jones’s rule, and at no point do we exceed England, especially in A-Level and GCSE A*-C grade results. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results released early in 2011, Wales ranked bottom of the four home nations of the UK for educational attainment and our performance in Science, Maths and Reading has declined alarmingly, to the extent that Wales now matches (or even falls below) the attainment levels of some under-developed Eastern European, Baltic and Mediterranean countries. Additionally, during the 2006-2010 period the number of full time equivalent qualified teachers working in primary and secondary schools dropped from 25,668 to 24,586; a decrease of 1,082, or just over 4%. Are declining standards and lower teacher numbers under Welsh Labour’s watch a coincidence? Somehow, I doubt it, and with Carwyn Jones having previously served for a time as Minister for Education, he too is not beyond blame.
The economy, health and education are three of the main devolved areas, but regarding transport Wales has a higher proportion of people using a car, van or minibus to travel to work (79% in 2010) than England (69%) or Scotland (71%), which likely speaks volumes about the efficiency of, or the public’s faith in, our public transport or cycle route provision, and environmentally there are only 25,251 people living in Air Quality Managements Areas in Wales in 2011, representing only 0.8% of the total population.

The list could go on, stretching into many other areas, but I think the picture painted is already bleak enough. Decline across the board is a clear and inexcusable mark against the record of Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, with our next generation seemingly destined to inherit poor educational provision, a stagnant economy and a broken health care system. I would end by saying that, if this is the state of Wales after two years of Labour under Carwyn Jones, then I am filled with trepidation as what damage will have been done after another full Assembly term of their rule.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Getting the regional economy back on track...

I wrote recently of the sad decline of Cardiff Airport. While there may be cause for optimism in the event that new and viable international routes are established, especially to the Americas, I also indicated that if we are aiming to attract visitors and business representatives from around the world, then we really should have a regional transportation system that matches our ambition.

Rapid, integrated and efficient transit systems are the arteries through which the lifeblood of modern, dynamic economies flows. Between 1998 and 2008, 40% of all private sector employment growth for the whole of Wales was in Cardiff and 100,000 people travel into the city and to Newport from within a 20 mile (32km) radius every day. Cardiff has transformed within a relatively short time to become a vibrant base for commerce, sport, history and culture, higher education and politics. The surrounding Vale of Glamorgan and coastal region are great for natural beauty and outdoor activities. Yet for a modern economy to take full advantage of these qualities, and in turn benefit smaller communities and the Valleys, a revolution in local transportation infrastructure is needed. In January 2011, the Cardiff Business Partnership, in partnership with the Institute of Welsh Affairs, published a report calling for a Metro system for the Capital City Region, encompassing Newport to the East, Bridgend to the West and Valley’s communities such as Merthyr and Ebbw Vale to the North. The full report can be viewed here .

Cardiff’s ability to act as a driver for the regional economy is highlighted by the planned £60m+ Central Business District. A modern transit system as envisioned by the report – including an enhanced and electrified heavy rail system, complemented by a new Light Rail/Tram and Bus rapid transit network - would be necessary to take full advantage of Cardiff’s economic potential and encourage investors that long-term growth prospects were positive. After all, many major cities outside London operate and benefit from integrated transit systems with a heavy reliance on tramways/light rail. These include Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool. Expansion is underway in Manchester to treble its size and a brand new 8.5-mile network is due to begin operating in Edinburgh in 2012. A similar system in Cardiff and the region would elevate it into the top-tier of UK cities.

The potential cost of such a scheme is, of course, an issue worthy of the highest scrutiny; as well it should be. The total costs for the establishment of a Cardiff metro system are estimated to reach between £2-2.5 billion over a 10-year period, which would equate to around £300 million a year. However, the economic benefits in the long-term would more than outweigh the short-term spending commitments. It would be a capital investment, and that is the key word: investment. By building for the future we would guarantee the region’s competitiveness, not only against other areas around the UK, but across Europe too. As part of the Single Market we cannot underestimate the challenges posed by other regions, especially in Eastern Europe, as they attempt to attract business their way. Besides, subsidies for Arriva Trains Wales and the North-South air-link alone total £171.2 million per year which could be put to far better use and, while it is no small figure, £2.5 billion is low in comparison to other rail-based infrastructure investments around the UK, such as Crossrail (£16 billion) and HS2 (£32 billion). Even Edinburgh’s new tramway is expected to cost £776 million for an 8.5 mile route.

Not only is Cardiff our capital, it is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. Once a positive tipping point is reached in a city and a region’s development, then expectations by outsiders need to correspond with the reality. For us to remain with the rail links we have which, at their worst, can be dirty and overcrowded, with services not as frequent as they should be and poor links to our nearest airport, would be unacceptable for the long-term. We are moving ever further into the Twenty-First Century, not the Twentieth.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The South’s economy risks being grounded

The importance of airports is increasingly in the news, most obviously the current debate concerning the establishment of a major new hub in the Thames Estuary. However there is an issue of concern far closer to home in the form of Cardiff International Airport, a facility with great economic potential but, like so much under Wales’ long-serving Labour governments, one that is undergoing notable decline and risks becoming a lost opportunity.

Statistics can often be interpreted in different ways, but it is hard not to conclude that figures associated with Cardiff Airport paint an increasingly gloomy picture. In the middle of the last decade, passenger numbers were 2 million; by 2010 they had fallen to 1.4 million. Between 2009 and 2010 alone the total freight handled at Cardiff Airport decreased by a staggering 84%. Bmibaby, one of the principal low-cost airlines, ceased operations in 2011, and Cardiff Airport’s direct routes are principally short-haul flights to Europe, with Paris and Amsterdam being the only European capitals visited. If we compare all this to Bristol Airport, the contrast (and Cardiff’s competitive disadvantage) is all the more glaring. Over the 2000-2010 period passenger numbers at Bristol grew from 2.1 million to 5.7 million, and its share of the UK passenger market grew from 1.2% to 2.7%. Bristol offers direct flights to Florida and Mexico and almost every European capital city and most major ones.
1.4 million people live within a 20-mile radius of Cardiff airport, and it is extremely disappointing to think that many would consider it easier to travel to Bristol or even to a London airport to catch a flight. Of course, a Catch-22 situation exists here: a limited choice of routes at Cardiff will deter increased passenger numbers, but low passenger levels will discourage airlines from opening new routes: a perpetual downward spiral. It is therefore tempting for the airport’s management to prefer tried-and-tested routes, many of which are to holiday destinations. Indeed, during 2010, Spain and the Canary Islands together accounted for 43% of all international air passenger traffic to and from Cardiff Airport. Of course there is nothing wrong with providing such routes, but the risk of relying on primarily recreationally focused air-traffic is that it likely to decrease during difficult economic times, as was Bmibaby’s reason for quitting Cardiff. We need to generate as many inbound passengers as outbound.
The First Minister has said that Wales should not simply expect foreign visitors and investment to come to us, but that we should reach out to them and encourage commercial relationships. No one would disagree with this aspiration, but we need to ask how exactly such foreign investment will get to Cardiff in the absence of suitable direct routes, and also what impression visitors will have of us when they arrive, especially the efficiency of any transport network that serves Cardiff and the wider region. Ultimately the airport’s management are responsible for relations with airlines, landing fees, and so on, but the Welsh Government can still play a role by making marketing money available to showcase Wales as an attractive business destination for foreign markets and airlines. Arguments may also exist for the provision of financial commitments from the Welsh Government to help underwrite any potential losses in the first few years while new direct routes seek to build up passenger numbers. However this would only be acceptable for routes with realistic long-term prospects and positive economic and investment impact for the region.
Discussions are apparently underway regarding a direct route between Cardiff and the municipality of Chongqing in China. China is predicted to become the world’s leading economy by 2050, perhaps even sooner, and so is a key growth economy and major foreign investor. However we should not completely focus our attention eastward.  By 2050, the US will be the next most prosperous world economy, with a healthier population demographic than China and a per capita income three times greater. With Bristol having lost its New York service in 2010, an opportunity exists for Cardiff to step in and attract two-way passenger traffic and commerce between Wales and North America, laying the foundations for a prosperous long-term air-link, as called for in our manifesto. Likewise, with Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina and Venezuela currently or soon to experience significant growth levels, the possibility exists for Cardiff to become a natural UK gateway to North, Central and South America. With new routes to our East and West, and improved commercial relationships as a result, so too can our local, regional and national economies take flight.

Monday, 26 September 2011

On the need for transparency

For much of the last year we have tried everything possible to get the Welsh Government to release the details of consultation work carried out again on their behalf into efficiencies within the Welsh NHS: letter after letter, Written Questions, plenary contributions and Freedom of Information requests – then, finally, a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
Last week I asked the First Minister why his government felt it appropriate to withhold this information, despite a legal obligation to do so. Ultimately it took direction from the Information Commissioner, following our complaint, to force his hand on this.
I don’t think we have to stretch the imagination too far to understand why… The documents were a damning indictment of his Government’s management of the NHS in Wales.
When we finally received the information, some 7 months late, the email trail revealed that McKinsey consultants had met with NHS officials to discuss potential ‘efficiency savings’ in the Hilton Hotel of all places; which rather brings to mind a G8 summit on food shortages, where delegates (including Gordon Brown) thought it appropriate to take a 6 course lunch followed by an 8 course dinner.
At this meeting, in the Hilton, several items were put on the agenda:
·         Cutting 1200 nurses;
·         Cutting the number of hospital beds and wards;
·         Closing NHS facilities – and delaying opening new facilities;
·         Freezing promotions for NHS staff;
·         Reducing the number of training places;
·         Leaving NHS vacancies unfilled.
That’s why we need to know whether it is labour’s policy now, or indeed in the future, to cut the number of nurses and hospital beds.
One of the more revealing issues which emerged from the files, and was identified by McKinsey, was a breakdown in trust between the Welsh Government and local health boards. The documents painted a picture of an NHS dictated to from the centre, with health boards afraid to speak out against the financial challenges they were being forced to endure.
A transcript with NHS Directors warned:
LHBs cannot “state the extent of the financial challenges they face or the extent of the cuts necessary… without receiving an unfavourable response from the centre”.
At the very least, if it must be Labour’s policy to cut health spending in Wales, surely this should be done in consultation with, not isolation from, healthcare professionals?
This breakdown in trust between the Welsh Government and health professionals has had wider ramifications too, leading to mixed messages over the provision of frontline NHS care; with patients getting caught in the middle.
The First Minister repeatedly claims to have eliminated the use of private sector hospitals, whilst at least one LHB has been busy drawing up provisional plans for the use of the local independent sector.
That’s why we need clarity from Carwyn over Welsh Government policy on the use of the independent sector in the Welsh NHS. We need clarity from Carwyn over possible cuts to nurses and hospital beds. And most of all we need to see a culture of transparency and trust restored to the heart of the Welsh Government.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Enterprise Zones - just what exactly are we waiting for?

Some time ago the UK Government announced decisive plans to try and boost economic growth in the UK through the creation of ‘Enterprise Zones’, where businesses will benefit from reduced business rates, faster broadband speeds and relaxed planning rules. I have, alongside Welsh Conservative colleagues in the National Assembly, been urging the Minister for Business , Enterprise & Technology to implement a similar scheme here in Wales that would put in place the necessary conditions to establish Wales as a place to set up and develop businesses.
Last week there appeared, at long last, to be some movement from the Welsh Government on this; with a back-bench AM indicating that these will be implemented ‘soon’ here in Wales. Far be it from me to complain, having called consistently for these to be implemented in recent months, but confusion does appear to be rife within the Welsh Government on this – with a Government spokesperson having said earlier this week that they were still awaiting a decision on capital funding from the UK Government…
But it also raises a broader point, which I discussed HERE last Thursday about the disclosure of major announcements during recess. This is not the way to run a government, with back-benchers announcing policy whilst giving evidence to a select committee. One can only assume that they were as frustrated by the WG’s slow movement on this as the rest of us?
In my own region, here in South Wales Central, there are a number of potential sites who will face direct competition from the zones set to be established just across the border – in Bristol, the West of England and even Birmingham. Which is why the inaction on the Welsh Government’s part has been so concerning. If we are going to have zones just across the border then we clearly need something similar here in Wales; even if they don’t operate according to an English model.
And the dithering from the Welsh Government on this cannot be put down to a lack of resources either – the Welsh Government has been the beneficiary of a Barnett Consequential following the investment in England of around £10,000,000. It rather begs the question, what have they they waiting for? Is Wales open for business or not?
One thing that is certain, as we seek to address the debt that was bequeathed to us by the Labour Government, is that we have to take decisive action to restore the balance that exists between the number of jobs that reside in both the public and private sectors here in Wales. The public sector plays a vital role in the provision of services – and jobs – however, given that around 70% of Welsh GDP output is from the public sector, there is a clear need to give consideration to creating a more balanced economy.
In the Vale of Glamorgan there isn’t currently a single Welsh Government sponsored body located with 10 or more employees. Despite the fact that they hold a brownfield land bank of over 10 acres which could act as a springboard for a localised recovery. Naturally across Wales there are any number of potential sites that would make a strong case to be considered for Enterprise Zone status, but closer to home – in my own constituency of SWC – there is a persuasive case to be made to look at Barry as a perfect location to forge ahead with a localised recovery.
As I said in a press release on the subject last week, Barry is after all the largest town in Wales and it would offer a large potential workforce with a broad skill base. It is disappointing that after 12 years of devolution it hasn’t received greater recognition from the Welsh Government with the location of some of its many sponsored bodies there (there are none). What’s more, at a value £40,000 an acre in brownfield land that is already owned by the government surely it would make financial sense to show a tangible commitment to the area - particularly given the exceptional value for money to the taxpayer.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Speaking From Experience...

In the coming weeks I shall be making the case for why I believe that I am the strongest candidate in the race to become Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group here in the Assembly.

My campaign poster, below, details three key strengths that I would bring to the role:

I have the communication skills and strength to take the fight to Labour in the Senedd and across Wales; it is vital for Welsh democracy that we have an effective opposition in the Assembly that can hold the Welsh Government to account.

I would encourage greater engagement with Conservatives at all levels of government in Wales, including the party membership, in policy development; the leader of the Assembly group is 'YOUR VOICE' in the Assembly.

The Welsh Assembly needs to reach out beyond the Cardiff Bay Bubble to the wider communities across the country; we have the tools to do the job now, it's time to focus on delivery - that has to mean results for the whole of Wales.

I shall be launching my campaign officially very soon - details to follow.

(Please click on the picture to see in full size)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Welsh Labour Government must bring greater balance to its economic strategy

It’s been a busy week back at the Assembly, during which I have been getting my teeth stuck in to my new brief as Shadow Minister for Business, Enterprise & Technology.
I am very pleased to have taken on this role. During the election campaign there appeared to be a clear consensus amongst the voters that I met on the doorstep that the Welsh economy needs to start making money!
I was rather disappointed that the First Minister chose, in announcing his cabinet, to spread the levers of business and the economy across different portfolios; in spite of the vocal protestations of many business leaders in their election manifestos. However, it will be my duty to work with the brief as it stands and provide constructive, albeit robust, scrutiny of the Minister’s performance.
I will be seeking to engage with all sectors in my endeavour to help build a prosperous Wales and ensure that during the 4th Assembly we do not see a continuation of previous years of Labour-led neglect.
In figures we released yesterday, I was particularly concerned to see that the Welsh Labour Government has been using the lion’s share of its European Funded Convergence grants to subsidise its own projects; giving just 1% of grants awarded to private sector sponsors. This reliance upon public sector projects in part explains the failure of the economy in Wales to grow.
Wales needs a balanced approach to delivering its economic strategies and this must include a greater involvement of business in developing projects such as these; at the expense of civil servants who, with the greatest will in the world, are the last people who will fully understand the needs of the private sector.
On a more positive not, it was excellent to see that the UK Government’s strategy is starting to pay dividends – with a drop in the number of unemployed people in Wales. A simultaneous decline in the number of economically inactive people is also encouraging, not least for those who have found employment. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who loses their job and it is heartening to observe this upward trend.
It is incumbent upon the Welsh Labour Government to make this area an absolute priority and to ensure that, in spite of having scattered the critical levers of economic growth across the cabinet table, they are able to work with efficiency.
They could start by publishing their manufacturing strategy at the earliest opportunity!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Reflecting on a fascinating campaign…

It’s certainly a relief to be back in the Assembly proper, and not solely in electoral terms – it’s only when you are out and about every day that you realise the value of reliable IT! It’s been a fascinating campaign that has thrown up some extraordinary results and has led to a fairly extensive reworking of the party groupings. It has also been great to meet people across the region on a daily basis.
Personally, I had the privilege to feed into eight constituency campaigns across my region; being a list candidate certainly gives one a unique perspective, as you are able to integrate into various local campaigns whilst getting a sense of the bigger picture. Indeed I was hugely enthused to be reminded just how dedicated and keen our activists and supporters are across the South Wales Central (SWC) region. What was really telling though was the changing age profile of activists; Just how dynamic, young and motivated they are…

Campaign Issues:
Despite Labour’s best efforts to turn the election into a referendum on the first 12 months of the Coalition at Westminster, I genuinely felt that it was issues firmly within the sphere of Assembly competence that led our campaign. However, it is certainly difficult to steer the agenda entirely away from Westminster given the sheer size of the ‘London’ media.
In my experience of door-knocking, concerns about education, heightened no doubt by the recent Pisa report, were raised with me on many occasions. On the economy, a huge number of constituents were concerned at the lack of progress made by the previous Assembly Government in fostering a more competitive economy here in Wales; not to mention Wales' continued deterioration vis a vis the other parts of the UK. What also astounded me at the time was the lack of any enthusiasm for a change to AV; with voters appearing to be pretty comprehensively informed, even if it wasn’t an issue of great significance during canvassing sessions. This was later confirmed by an overwhelming victory for the NO! campaign in the referendum, and I am delighted to have been able to play such an active part in the campaign, even launching its Cardiff leg.
Our policy to protect the NHS budget from Labour’s swingeing cuts resonated across the board, although voters were understandably keen to be reassured that the maths stacked up. People genuinely value the NHS in Wales and are rightly proud of what it stands for and what it does – but there seemed to be a trend of people wanting to see a more responsive health service; with a focus on improving the convenience of access to healthcare provision.

The Future:
One sobering aspect of the campaign was the fact that there still remains a large part of the Welsh population who are either disinterested in the workings of the Assembly, or who don’t fully understand how integral it is now in people’s everyday lives here. Whether people like it or not, the Assembly has a vital role in Wales, not only in terms of public service provision, but in the health and education of the populace and in developing the Welsh economy.
It is incumbent upon AM’s of every political hue to fully embrace this task and to communicate more effectively what our job involves. Just a week before polling day Peter Hain was predicting the highest turnout yet in an Assembly election – in the event turnout was just 42.2%. Compared to 65.1% at the UK General Election 12 months before, we really can see the scale of the challenge we all face to get voters to engage with this institution!  

Whilst being pleased personally to have been returned as an AM alongside my colleague David Melding, I was disappointed for Angela Jones-Evans in the Vale of Glamorgan, who fought a fantastic and positive campaign; she will make an excellent AM and I have no doubts that her time will come.
It was a huge blow to lose Jonathan Morgan in Cardiff North. Not only will he be missed amongst the group, we should acknowledge the wealth of political and legislative experience that is being lost to the institution. His achievements as an Assembly member will be remembered; not least in securing the power to legislate here in the field of mental health.
It was notable that Labour relied heavily on its Westminster ‘big-guns’ and shadow cabinet faces in Cardiff North, including the likes of Ed Balls and Jack Straw. Whilst this concerted strategy to impose a Westminster agenda in to a Welsh Assembly election may have paid dividends here in Wales it is interesting to see that it failed miserably in Scotland. Indeed, overall, this was a very disappointing election for Ed Milliband, whose personal contribution appeared to be to bring defeat to any constituency he personally visited!
On the other hand, here in Wales the Welsh Conservatives have every reason to be proud of our performance. It was a cruel twist of fate that saw Nick Bourne lose his seat; directly a victim of his own success. However, his legacy has been secured following a result that saw the Welsh Conservatives restored as the second party in Wales.
Our gains in both Mid and West Wales, and in North Wales, at both regional and constituency level, have demonstrated that we are a party that truly resonates across the country. Nick’s work in moulding the Welsh Conservative ‘brand’ as one that is pro-devolution has been instrumental in that. It is therefore vital that we continue on this course and make every effort to reach out beyond our core.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

On the campaign trail: Lest we forget...

It's been a busy day on the trail, with the launch of our 'Ad-Van' trailing across South Wales today spreading the message of Labour's disastrous economic mismanagement in recent years.

It's amazing how Dear Mr Prudence's reputation slipped as it became clear just what a mess Labour had made of the economy. This is something that we'll be hammering home throughout the campaign...

Labour are wallowing in denial and both Ed Millibland (sic) and Carwyn Jones are yet to explain how they will tackle the deficit. Until they do so they will remain bereft of any economic credibility!

(On Barry waterfront this morning @ the launch of the Ad campaign)

After 12 long years of Labour governments, at both Westminster and here in Wales, our country remains the poorest nation in the UK - with Labour's profligacy having brought the UK to the very brink of bankruptcy. We cannot let them get away with their attempts to distance themselves from the mess in which we find the economy, opposing the difficult decisions being taken to reduce the deficit with neither sensible alternative nor constructive suggestion...

Lest we forget. This is Labour's legacy to Wales, indeed to the whole of the United Kingdom.

£120 million a day on debt interest!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The 'Big Society' in action...

If the thought of cycling even short distances fills you with fear then look away now…
Local fundraising group, ‘Everything but the kitchen sink’, co-founded in 2009 by my researcher Vincent, are setting off on a mammoth four-hundred mile trek on bicycles from Cardiff to Amsterdam this summer.
Why, you may ask? It’s all in support of the MS Society Cymru’s ‘Short break strategy’; a scheme that provides much needed respite for people with Multiple Sclerosis and their carers.
While I still don’t fully understand the metaphor (it seems steeped in irony to me), I’m assured that it’s vital that I mention that they are carrying kitchen sinks with them once again?!
Either way… Please take a look and ‘like’ their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.
Help them to get the message out there to as many people as possible and if you can spare a few quid help them on their way to their target of £10,000!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Dr Doublespeak, or 'How the ERS learned to love the Alternative Vote'

Won over by the strength of an argument people often change their minds. It's a good thing and indicates an open mind... But scarcely can we have witnessed such an about-turn in recent political history.

You see, the Electoral Reform Society used to feel very differently about AV, or the Alternative Vote.

Whereas they now say that:

"AV represents a logical progression from first past the post. Preserving the traditional one member, one constituency, it ensures all MPs have a real mandate while delivering greater choice and eliminating the need for tactical voting."

... The Electoral Reform Society, the 'Yes2AV' campaign's number one single donor, has had a change of heart.

No doubt following orders from above, the IT team have made a few amendments to their page on AV, removing all criticisms and rewriting the entry completely to ensure that the proposed system comes across more positively. The beauty (or curse depending on your viewpoint) of the internet is that it's all preserved somewhere, hidden in the ether - or on the other side of a 'Print Screen' command.

So, with apologies in advance for being a little smug on this i'd like to share some of the ERS' original thoughts on AV - with which i wholeheartedly agree!

The key points:

(Electoral Reform Society Website 2008)

"AV is thus not a proportional system, and can in fact be more disproportional than FPTP." 

"The Electoral Reform Society regards AV as the best voting system when a single position is being elected. However, as AV is not a proportional system, the Society does not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament, council, committees, etc."

Not suitable? For a parliamentary election? Less proportional than FPTP?

So, all that remains is to speculate as to the reason for their volte-face...

Friday, 25 February 2011

In defence of concept ‘Team GB 2012’

A lot of ink has been spilt on this subject so I will keep it brief. Next year London hosts the Olympics, the largest sporting event to have been held on these shores since the World Cup in ’66. Events of this magnitude do not come around very often and that has led many, including myself, to call for the one-off participation of a football team made-up of players from across the UK.

I certainly understand that this is not simply a case of ‘pick a team and away we go’. There are associations within FIFA who may well be keen to challenge the ongoing independent status of the 4 home nations; particularly within CONCACAF. However, in his most recent comments on the subject Sepp Blatter has suggested that one-off participation would NOT jeapordise our independent status as a national association. But let’s explore that avenue first before writing the idea off because of fear.
It’s also worth noting that there is absolutely no will whatsoever within any of the home nations to see a permanent UK team that would compete in the European Championships or the World Cup. Supporters of the ‘Team GB’ concept are not anti-Wales. I would always support the Welsh national team first, but the Olympics are different. Athletes in hundreds of different fields competing under the British banner… I’m sure Colin Jackson didn’t feel any less Welsh simply because he also proudly competed as a Brit.
If anything, as the Six Nations proves, competition amongst the home nations (and France & Italy) is as fierce and competitive as any in the world. We all look forward to the England game each year with particular relish… Having an occasional touring British Lions side hasn’t undermined that. Don’t make the mistaken assumption that there is a hidden agenda behind every advocate of Football Team GB. In fact, many of its proponents are the most vociferous champions of a return to a Bi-Annual football ‘Home Nations’ format that would include our old enemy England.

The case is also made that no one cares about Olympic football. This is a bit of a cheap shot if you think about it. I’m not saying for a second that Olympic football is anywhere approaching as important as the World Cup, or even the European Championships… That would be nonsense. However, surely our interest as Brits has been fatally undermined until now by our own perennial non-participation?
Ask the Argentinians if they took it seriously last time around, with Messi, Mascherano and Riquelme all in the gold-winning squad. Or Brazil, whose team included Ronaldinho, Anderson and Pato.
Do you really think that British people wouldn’t be able to get excited by a team that might include exciting young stars from across the UK, like Ramsey, Bale and Wilshire? And what great experience for young players to play on the world stage at an event of this magnitude. (Certainly Gareth Bale has declared his interest, and i'm pretty confident that he’s not alone.) This would surely be of huge benefit to the Welsh national side…

The cameras of the world’s media are going to be turned on us next year. A unique occasion, where we get to host the party for once. I find the thought of a British football team exceptionally exciting and it is disappointing to find that the idea is being resisted on the grounds of fear and fear alone. We are right to be proud of our history as an independent football nation, and to be excited about the future given the depth of young emerging talent in the squad. But can we not just look into the idea with a bit of calm and dignity, instead of getting carried away by isolationist paranoia?

Friday, 18 February 2011

...Good News From Westminster

Yes, this comes with the announcement by the Deputy PM yesterday that the timing for the next Welsh Assembly Elections will be a matter for the Assembly itself.
2015 is the next date on which General and Welsh Assembly elections would have been due to clash- which could have made for an interesting polling day!
Assuming there was a yes vote at the forthcoming AV referendum, in Wales this could have led to the rather absurd prospect of some voters having to navigate 3 voting systems and constituencies on the same day!
·         30 MPs by AV in the new parliamentary constituencies
·         40 AMs via First Past The Post in the old constituencies
·         20 regional AMs from the party lists, based on the regions established for European elections.
Naturally, I shall still be voting NO! in May…
Just say: #NO2AV

The Case Against AV

I should start by making it clear that I am in favour of retaining First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) for use at Westminster elections. It not only makes strong majority governments much more likely, the cyclical nature of politics itself allies well with FPTP to force parties to reach out to as much of the population as possible to regain power. This is as good for political discourse itself as it is for democracy…
In recent years under David Cameron the Conservatives have been forced to recognise that shouting, however passionately, at our core supporters wasn’t going to influence and enthuse Mr Undecided; never mind the downright sceptic. The same process of modernisation was undertaken by Labour in the late 1980s when they finally realised that the unemployed of the era were more interested in jobs than in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. If a system of PR had existed in that period then it is highly unlikely that this process of intellectual regeneration would have been necessary at all; more likely, a pre-election telephone call to the Liberals and the offer of a couple of choice Ministerial positions. That’s not the kind of democracy I’m after.
Whatever the merits of Alternative Vote, it is certainly not more ‘fair’ than the current system:
It breaks the fundamental principle of one person, one vote and accords undue significance to the preference votes of less popular candidates. This is because if you vote for a mainstream candidate who comes top of the ballot after the first round of counting, your other preferences will never be taken into consideration. However, for people who vote for a fringe party that gets eliminated, their preferences will be counted; effectively giving them two, sometimes three, bites at the cherry…
A perfect example of this is the recent Labour leadership contest. Here David Milliband led the early rounds of voting, before being defeated due to the transference of votes from the least popular candidates as they were eliminated. Eventually, after leading comfortably for three rounds, he was defeated his younger sibling (who limped home by virtue of being the least unpopular candidate in the race). Inspirational!
The introduction of AV would make tactical voting more likely, with parties issuing instructions on how best to prevent candidate X from winning. This grubby phenomenon is commonplace in elections run using AV and leads to exceptionally negative campaigning.
Under AV, those voters whose first choice is Labour or Lib Dem might well be expected, broadly speaking, to give their preference votes to each other; in this way it becomes eminently possible that tactical voting could lead to a situation where one party gets the most first choice votes, and yet gain a vastly inferior number of seats at Westminster. Surely it is not desirable to move to a system that encourages an emphasis on electing the ‘least-disliked’ candidate, and not the most popular?
Neither is AV necessarily more proportional than the current system:
It is capable of unpredictable results, occasionally exaggerating the popular mood, although it usually makes a hung parliament more likely. Having said that, AV is by no means proportional. At the Australian General Election last year the leading parties won far more seats in the House of Representatives under AV than justified by their share of the vote; Labor taking 48% of the seats with 37.9% of the vote, and the Greens 0.7% of the seats with 11.5% of the vote.
In any case, ‘proportionality’ in this context is a rather narrowly defined concept. Of course, under FPTP 10% of the vote doesn’t necessarily equate to 10% of the seats. It does, though, make it less likely that marginal parties can hold disproportionate power and influence in choosing our government during the negotiations that follow. With any move towards a system in the UK that makes coalitions probable, comes the likelihood that the leader of the Liberal Democrats becomes de-facto Kingmaker. That might not be so appealing to those who opted for the Liberals last year because of their pledge not to increase tuition fees. Unfortunately, the politics of coalition blur the lines of accountability somewhat; manifesto pledges are bound to be lost amidst the backroom compromises that constitutes negotiation.
Alternative Vote is not just unpopular, it is complicated and expensive:
It is often misleadingly argued that the introduction of AV would inevitably lead to increased turnout at General Elections; as if merely changing the way in which we vote for our politicians would undo the damage done by the expenses scandal and bridge the disconnection that has emerged between the electorate and a political class that they increasingly see as ‘out of touch’.
Of course we need to consider ways to improve public engagement with politics, particularly amongst the young, but this isn’t going to be achieved with the introduction of AV. In fact, voter turnout in Australia decreased so significantly following the introduction of AV that they had to make it illegal not to vote! This is an unloved system that is used by just three countries in the world.
AV is also exceptionally complicated, and the Australian experience has shown that the likelihood of a spoiled ballot 5 times more likely where it has been introduced following FPTP. If we think back to the fury of voters in Sheffield who were left unable to vote at last year’s general election, are we really sure that increasing the number of disenfranchised voters is the way to restore faith in the political system?
It will also lead to councils being required to spend more educating the electorate and introducing the equipment required to count the vote. Is spending £90 million and five months debating a system that no one actually wants the best way to engage public interest in politics- when councils are being forced to make bold savings due to the financial crisis.

It is vital that the debate on electoral reform rises above party politics, otherwise it not only undermines the arguments of all sides; it becomes a popularity contest. There is a case to be made to look at alternative voting systems and, while I don’t personally share the view, there are passionate and logical arguments put forward for genuinely proportional systems. AV is not one of them. This will be the last chance for a decade to make the case for electoral reform and anyone serious about changing would be unwise to waste it on this politicians’ fix.
Fundamentally, my main objection to the proposed new system is that, prior to the General Election in May of last year, not even the most passionate advocates of electoral reform had ever made the case for AV. It is an obscure, hugely complicated and largely unloved compromise – deemed fit for purpose in just three countries across the world. It is not the panacea, and it will not address the disconnection that currently exists between the public and the politicians.
Instead, at great cost, increased complication and with very little enthusiasm you are being asked to vote for what Nick Clegg called “a miserable little compromise”; a system that even Roy Jenkins declared to be “even more unfair and disproportionate” than the one currently in use.
For these reasons, and more, I would urge you (no, implore you) to vote NO!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Why devolution must prove itself

It has been an eventful week for anyone with half an eye on the upcoming Welsh Assembly powers referendum. There will be no officially designated lead campaigns, after the only applicant to form the official ‘No’ campaign failed to meet its statutory test. (Electoral law dictates that there must be campaigns to represent both sides, else none at all.)
Naturally for the parties, interest groups and individuals so inclined, the campaigning started in earnest some time ago. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the public will be sufficiently bombarded with propaganda from all quarters, and agendas, that the big day won’t pass them by unawares.
Of course, BBC Wales made an interesting observation last week within a piece about the National Assembly ‘on tour’. There is, apparently, serious concern across all political hues that the public doesn’t fully understand what’s at stake here – what it’s all about. I think that’s a bit patronising myself, although it’s probably fair to say that the debate is in danger of becoming over-simplified; lost in a perfect storm of emotive campaigning by the kind of Yes/No activists who like to view the debate only in black and white.
Elements of the ‘No’ camp, for example, may claim that a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum is yet another nail in the coffin for the Union; a ‘No’ vote, a step towards getting the removal vans (if not the bulldozers) out in the Bay… Of course the reality is a little more prosaic than that. And this leads to what I think is the rather more important point raised by discussions about the referendum, and indeed the impending Assembly elections…
It is a question of legitimacy.
Devolution, in its present guise, has existed for nearly 12 years and it must now deliver for the people of Wales. My personal view is that at the present moment in time the people of Wales would, if given the option, vote to retain devolution. I do believe that people quite like the fact that many decisions are now being taken closer to home and that, broadly speaking, they are in favour of the process and its institutions; even if they may not be keen on all of the characters embedded within!
It does of course follow that if you give someone the job of digging a ditch, it is only fair to give them a decent shovel with which to do the job. If the people of Wales, in their wisdom, see fit to put those tools in place on March 3rd then the key for the next decade will be for devolution to set about proving itself.
(Andrew @ Q&A, Plasmawr School)
A decade on, it is clear that in the three main planks of Welsh Assembly competency, the government are failing to make adequate improvements, whether measured in terms of economic development, educational performance or health outcomes. For evidence, one has only to look at the results of the recent PISA report, which showed that Wales is continuing to slip down the international educational scale.
Wales’ chief schools inspector blamed our relative poor performance against our counterparts across Europe on a “slow pace of improvement” – but the case could equally be made that we won’t see significant improvements until the deep-rooted poverty that exists in many Welsh communities is addressed. Indeed, last week The Times reported that two of Wales’ three major cities (Swansea and Newport) were among the UK’s 5 most ‘vulnerable’ cities, with only Sunderland worse-placed to stave off the effects of economic recession.
This is why it is so important for devolution to mature, and to start delivering on its potential. Many of these problems are a consequence of the failed political ideology of the left here in Wales and not necessarily the process itself- although the public may not be so kind as to make that distinction if results don’t improve.
I would argue that the key for the next decade, if powers are secured, is for WAG to start making use of the tools at its disposal; to get them working in earnest for the people of Wales. Because if this does not materialise in the next 5-10 years there is a danger that genuine questions of legitimacy will arise as to devolution’s future.
If Wales’ performance continues to reflect badly in comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom then the clamour won’t be for greater powers to the Senedd- it could well be the case that the public is starting to ask whether the place should be there at all.
That is something that politicians of all persuasions would do well to be mindful of, as we get ever closer to dissolution and, in turn, the birth of the 4th Assembly.