west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Revelations at Kick Off Hustings

Llandovery College sixth-former Gwion Jones highlighted a UKIP policy fog when he probed candidate Norma Woodward’s views during the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency’s first hustings of the general election campaign, held in the college yesterday.  Gwion eloquently made the point that West Wales, as a relatively poor region, benefits substantially from European Union funds – and so stands to be a big loser if, as UKIP proposes, the UK exits from the EU.

Norma, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, could answer only in the most general terms, that the UK paid more into Europe than came back the other way.  Maybe UKIP has an alternative funding source for West Wales? None was mentioned. In fact, Norma even hinted at ending the Barnett Formula which modestly increases public spending per head in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The Barnett Formula compensates, to some extent, the smaller nations of the UK for the fact that they are a long way from the capital city and are less prosperous overall than England. The formula gives more, per head of population, to both Scotland and Northern Ireland than to Wales, but all three receive more per head than England. The formula lacks finesse and needs remodelling, but without it the economic disadvantages of regions like West Wales would be even more severe.

There is still plenty of time in the campaign for Norma to clarify UKIP’s policy on the Barnett Formula, but for the moment I’m not at all certain (a) if it exists or (b) if it does exist, how it would impact on West Wales in general and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in particular.

Five of the apparent six parliamentary candidates for the constituency were in Llandovery College to answer questions from sixth-formers – taking their politics very seriously — and the general public, in an event genially and efficiently chaired by journalist Gaina Morgan. Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards was there. He is the current, hard-working Member of Parliament, standing for re-election. Here, as a member of Plaid Cymru, I need to declare an interest.

Jonathan was joined by barrister Matthew Paul, standing for the Conservatives; Labour’s trainee barrister and county councillor Calum Higgins; Ben Rice for the Green Party, and UKIP’s Norma Woodward, who had been deselected by UKIP in Wales because of an allegation of financial irregularity in the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency, where her husband is party treasurer. In short order, though, Norma was reinstated as candidate by the UK national party chairman, overruling the Welsh decision.[i]

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Parliamentary candidates at Llandovery College’s hustings: left to right, Norma Woodward (UKIP), Matthew Paul (Conservative), Calum Higgins (Labour), Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid Cymru, standing for re-election), and Ben Rice (Green Party).

The Liberal Democrats were absent. Their current candidate, according to their website, is Sara Lloyd Williams, a former chair of Liberal Youth Wales and currently studying for a master’s degree in archive administration at Aberystwyth University.

As well as probing the implications of leaving the EU, questioners asked for candidates’ views on the campaign to re-open the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway, on how to enthuse young people about politics, and about funding for the National Health Service, repaying the national debt, cutting regulations for small businesses, and reducing expenditure on defence. Views were pretty much as expected. Virtually everyone supported re-opening the railway, in principle at least. Naturally, everyone professed to love the NHS but differed over how they would fund it. Calum Higgins favoured lobbing in the proceeds of a mansion tax (which would not alienate many voters in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where few if any homes are worth as much as £2 million, the proposed threshold for the tax). Matthew Paul thought tax receipts would rise if the percentages levied fell, at least I think that was the message. He also criticised Labour for cutting funding to the NHS in Wales, omitting to say that there has been more of an effort in Wales to protect funding for social services. In England spending on social services fell 11.5% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-11, but in Wales the reduction was far less at 0.8%. [ii]

Matthew Paul and Calum Higgins disagreed over the time frame for eliminating the deficit, which is the gap between the amount government spends and the amount it raises, mainly through taxation, and which has to be bridged by new borrowing. The deficit for the first 11 months of 2014-15 totalled £81.8 billion – all added to the ever-expanding National Debt. Matthew Paul, who has faith that the deficit will have been eliminated by the end of the next Parliament, favours public spending cuts over tax rises. Calum Higgins wants to eliminate the deficit but over a longer time. Norma Woodward thought that coming out of the EU would solve the debt problem. Ben Rice proposes a clampdown on tax avoidance and evasion, and argues that the better-off must pay more tax. Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards looks to investment in sustainable industries and infrastructure, which the Green Party also supports. Jonathan advocates abolishing higher-rate tax relief on pension contributions and raising the upper limit for National Insurance contributions, which together could raise about £20 billion a year, a combined total of £100 billion over a five-year Parliament.

As for defence, no surprises. Matthew Paul wants to see larger armed forces (although this does not square too well with the Conservatives’ low tax, low public expenditure stance). Norma Woodward came up with a proposition to employ veterans in the police and prison services and in a force to control the UK’s borders (which would have as yet unknown cost implications). Neither Jonathan Edwards for Plaid Cymru nor Ben Rice for the Green Party would replace the Trident nuclear submarine ‘deterrent’.  What would Labour do? Remain in NATO, said Calum Higgins. On Trident itself, Labour has become vague, fuzzy, and the party’s national website does not help. Better left unsaid, maybe.

One of the most interesting questions, put by a college sixth-former, asked if the candidates had a personal policy which was not in their party’s manifesto. Here Calum was more definite than his party. He would prefer not to renew Trident, he said.

Matthew Paul had two personal policies to offer, to allow fox hunting again and to bring ‘free schools’ into Wales. The schools idea is not in the Westminster parliament’s gift, because education policy is devolved to the Welsh Government, but it is hard to disagree with Matthew’s point that Labour/Independent-controlled Carmarthenshire County Council’s diktat to close the Llandovery’s state secondary school was wrong-headed and is creating major, long-term economic problems. Norma Woodward would bring back grammar schools, something else that is not within the power of the UK government because of devolution. Ben Rice would give the Welsh Government the power to ban fracking.

I came away thinking:

  • Where are the LibDems?
  • UKIP is still essentially a single-issue party.
  • The Conservatives in Wales surmise that they are “standing up for the little guy”, in the words of Matthew Paul, but over the last five years the UK party has favoured financial big-hitters over the ‘hard-working families’ they profess to support.
  • The Green Party’s Ben Rice (who has only just turned 30) has potential to become a strong voice for ethical ecological policies in the future.

As for Labour, if it is to retain the status of official Opposition party for the UK, its Welsh MPs are important primarily to serve that purpose – especially given the party’s slide into endangered minority in Scotland. Labour could well be too focused on retaining clout in London to pay much attention to Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, or to anywhere else in Wales.

Jonathan Edwards made the decisive point for me when he said he would be – continue to be — “Carmarthenshire’s voice in Westminster”, rather than Westminster’s voice relayed westwards.

Pat Dodd Racher, March 21st 2015

[i] ‘UKIP candidate in Carmarthenshire has not been suspended’, South Wales Evening Post. 19th March 2015

[ii] ‘Health spending protected by more in England, but social services spending protected more in Wales’, Institute for Fiscal Studies, 18th February 2015

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