west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Lost in Transition: Election Candidates Can’t All Find Limits to Growth

A question about economic growth. What level of economic growth would candidates like to see? The occasion: Carmarthen East and Dinefwr hustings, Llandeilo Rugby Club, Wednesday evening, organised by Transition Tywi Trawsnewid, part of the international Transition Towns movement.

The candidates:

  • Jonathan Edwards, for the past five years one of three Plaid Cymru MPs in the House of Commons and standing for re-election. Carmarthenshire born and bred, with a record of hard work on behalf of constituents and the constituency.
  • Calum Higgins, young barrister and a member of Kevin Madge’s Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council. Carmarthenshire is run, some would say cheer-led, by a Labour-Independent coalition.
  • Matthew Paul, the Conservative candidate, a barrister who urges “don’t vote Plaid to keep Labour out”. Matthew is an evangelist for the Conservative programme of public spending cuts and renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, but he also favours better infrastructure in rural areas.
  • Ben Rice, young and local like Calum, working in Carmarthen and standing for the Green Party. Transition Tywi, part of the international Transition Towns movement, encourages green lifestyles, and so the audience included several who were green-leaning.
  • Sara Lloyd Williams, the Liberal Democrat, who hails from Snowdonia and is a postgraduate student at the University of Aberystwyth (which is also the alma mater of Jonathan Edwards).
  • Norma Woodward for UKIP, who revealed she lives near Ammanford and has a background in science and education.

In the chair, Neil Lewis, chairman of the social enterprise Carmarthenshire Energy Ynni Sir Gâr.

Ben Rice and the Greens favour a no-growth economy. In my view, we are pushing against resource limits and damaging our environments so severely that faster growth means quicker demise – a Transition Town viewpoint as well as a Green Party one (although Transition Towns are not party political).

At the other end of the spectrum – no, not UKIP but the Conservatives — Matthew Paul would chase the maximum possible growth rate. “A zero growth economy is an insult to everyone who works hard,” he said, calling the Green approach “snobbish”. The others favoured economic growth rates mainly between 1% and 2% a year, with Jonathan supporting a more localised economy with aspects such as a ‘Carmarthenshire £’ for local trade and much more local procurement by the public sector.

Llandeilo brewing boss Simon Buckley had kicked off the questions asking “Why should we trust Labour?” He referred to the ‘unlawful payment’ goings-on at Carmarthenshire County Council which drew sharp criticism from the Wales Audit Office, as well as to super-salaries for senior employees. Labour candidate Calum Higgins deflected the question and turned it on the LibDems, reminding Sara Lloyd Williams and everyone else of the Liberal Democrat pledge, before the 2010 election, not to increase university tuition fees – a pledge they abandoned once in government with the Conservatives. Sara responded somewhat uneasily that of course there is a difference between government and opposition (in which case, any political promise can quickly turn toxic).

What about the last five years? Matthew Paul said the UK has been “wisely and well governed” and the Conservatives had the interests of working people at heart. More people are in work, he said. LibDem Sara said her party had made the last five years more bearable. Labour’s Calum reckoned the Westminster Coalition didn’t realise the damage it had done.  Jonathan Edwards pointed out that Labour and Conservatives had voting together on spending cuts and had almost identical plans for public finances. Conservatives would allocate 36% of GDP to public spending, Labour 37%, he said. Same ball park. Jonathan also drew attention to the dangers of an economy based on house prices and consumer debt.

No big policy surprises from the candidates, although UKIP’s Norma – not entirely happy with the liveliness of the 100 or so people in the audience — was clear about opposing the bedroom tax (or ‘spare room subsidy’ as the Coalition christened it). LibDems halfway between Lab and Con. Conservatives critical of a “cultural norm to rely on benefits”.  Labour critical of “catastrophic” levels of in-work poverty.  Greens seeking more ethics in politics. Plaid’s Jonathan highlighting the similarity of vision between Labour and Conservatives at Westminster.

The slivers of difference between Labour and Conservative at national level offer little real choice. Do you want Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or Nestlé Shreddies?  You can select the brand, but you have to have cereal. Both parties have similar plans for public spending, both want to renew the Trident nuclear missile system. A close relationship between the Conservatives and big business would not surprise anyone, but Labour likes big too.  Calum Higgins suggested, for example, that it could be efficient to buy all police uniforms from a single supplier. That would have to be a super-size supplier, not a small to medium-sized local firm.

Calum, personally, is against the renewal of Trident, but his view is counter to Labour policy. The likely loss of Labour MPs in Scotland means that Labour members from Wales will be even more important to the national party if it is to stand any chance of forming a government, because of the Conservative dominance over the shires of England. For the Labour Party in Westminster, Wales is above all a means to an end.

PDR (declaring an interest – member of Transition Tywi and of Plaid Cymru) 

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