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.