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West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Archive for the category “Politics”

Common Dreams’ Reign of Idiots

This ‘End of Empire’ essay by Chris Hedges, on the Common Dreams website, is a powerful and very dark piece of work. It’s not about West Wales, or even Wales, but the unstable world we all live in.

All empires end. Trouble is, when a global empire ends, civilisation can collapse with it.

Reprinted from https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/05/01/reign-idiots

Reign of Idiots

Donald Trump. King of the horrifingly dumb and dangerously greedy

“Trump,” writes Hedges, “embodies the essence of this decayed, intellectually bankrupt and immoral world.”

The idiots take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless, unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor, and project economic growth on the basis of myth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil and the air, slash jobs and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrow of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. Idiot professors, “experts” and “specialists” busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttresses the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore and fantasy.

There is a familiar checklist for extinction. We are ticking off every item on it.

The idiots know only one word—“more.” They are unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers cannot make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Habsburg, Ottoman, Romanov, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.

Donald Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality—a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. He wields armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignores the catastrophic human misery caused by global warming, pillages on behalf of global oligarchs and at night sits slack-jawed in front of a television set before opening his “beautiful” Twitter account. He is our version of the Roman emperor Nero, who allocated vast state expenditures to attain magical powers, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, who funded repeated expeditions to a mythical island of immortals to bring back the potion that would give him eternal life, and a decayed Russian royalty that sat around reading tarot cards and attending séances as their nation was decimated by war and revolution brewed in the streets.

This moment in history marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races. It is inevitable that for the final show we vomited a grotesque figure like Trump. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone and anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources. They believed that this orgy of blood and gold would never end, and they still believe it. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalist and imperialist expansion is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited. But even as we stand on the cusp of extinction we lack the intelligence and imagination to break free from our evolutionary past.

The more the warning signs are palpable—rising temperatures, global financial meltdowns, mass human migrations, endless wars, poisoned ecosystems, rampant corruption among the ruling class—the more we turn to those who chant, either through idiocy or cynicism, the mantra that what worked in the past will work in the future, that progress is inevitable. Factual evidence, since it is an impediment to what we desire, is banished. The taxes of corporations and the rich, who have deindustrialized the country and turned many of our cities into wastelands, are cut, and regulations are slashed to bring back the supposed golden era of the 1950s for white American workers. Public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry as rising carbon emissions doom our species. Declining crop yields stemming from heat waves and droughts are ignored. War is the principal business of the kleptocratic state.

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 amid the rise of European fascism and looming world war:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Magical thinking is not limited to the beliefs and practices of pre-modern cultures. It defines the ideology of capitalism. Quotas and projected sales can always be met. Profits can always be raised. Growth is inevitable. The impossible is always possible. Human societies, if they bow before the dictates of the marketplace, will be ushered into capitalist paradise. It is only a question of having the right attitude and the right technique. When capitalism thrives, we are assured, we thrive. The merging of the self with the capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self-reflection and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character but by the material standards set by capitalism—personal wealth, brands, status and career advancement. We are molded into a compliant and repressed collective. This mass conformity is characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian states. It is the Disneyfication of America, the land of eternally happy thoughts and positive attitudes. And when magical thinking does not work, we are told, and often accept, that we are the problem. We must have more faith. We must envision what we want. We must try harder. The system is never to blame. We failed it. It did not fail us.

All of our systems of information, from self-help gurus and Hollywood to political monstrosities such as Trump, sell us this snake oil. We blind ourselves to impending collapse. Our retreat into self-delusion is a career opportunity for charlatans who tell us what we want to hear. The magical thinking they espouse is a form of infantilism. It discredits facts and realities that defy the glowing cant of slogans such as “Make America great again.” Reality is banished for relentless and baseless optimism.

Half the country may live in poverty, our civil liberties may be taken from us, militarized police may murder unarmed citizens in the streets and we may run the world’s largest prison system and murderous war machine, but all these truths are studiously ignored. Trump embodies the essence of this decayed, intellectually bankrupt and immoral world. He is its natural expression. He is the king of the idiots. We are his victims.

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Europe Referendum Cuts Across Welsh Election Campaign

by PDR

Have the coming elections for the Welsh Government captured the public’s imagination?

As dozens of people filed in to Llandeilo Rugby Club last night (April 14) to fire questions at the candidates for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, I thought “Great! More people than for the General Election hustings last year.”

It soon became clear, though, that Europe, not Wales, was uppermost in many people’s minds. To stay in or leave?

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Politics engaging the people: Welsh Government election hustings in Llandeilo Rugby Club, organised by Transition Tywi Trawsnewid.

Only one of the five candidates present, UKIP’s Neil Hamilton, campaigns for Britain’s exit from the European Union, and (in addition to loyal, redoubtable Mrs Christine H) he did have some support in the room. On balance, the stayers appeared to outnumber the Brexiters, but that’s just an impression. We’ll have to wait until June 23rd to find out.

Adam Price for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives’ Matthew Paul, Steve Jeacock for Labour and William Powell from the LibDems, all back staying in the EU, for different reasons, and they were not all united on much else. For Matthew Paul, the EU is the fourth pillar of UK national security after our nuclear arms, the USA and NATO (I think that was the order) but for Neil Hamilton the EU has nothing to do with peace, and a lot to do with German financial power impoverishing southern Europe.

Steve Jeacock, who manages a Swansea community library in his day job, was somewhat disadvantaged because of the absence of a Labour manifesto (to be published next week). The Conservative manifesto was not quite published either, but barrister Matthew Paul, a West Walian, had plenty to say about policy priorities. Neil Hamilton, Monmouthshire-born and Aberystwyth-educated, and Conservative MP for Tatton 1983-1997, is an entertaining speaker whether he has a sheaf of policies or not. William Powell, teacher and organic farmer, is well practised because he was an AM – Member of the National Assembly for Wales – from 2011 until the start of this election campaign. Adam Price, who was MP for the constituency between 2001 and 2010, achieved a national profile, and people remember that he tried to impeach Tony Blair for lying to Parliament before the Iraq War. Adam did not stand for election in 2010 – Jonathan Edwards was elected in his place – and went off to Harvard University. Now he’s back.

Steve Brown and John Gaffney from the local environmental group Transition Tywi Trawsnewid organised the hustings, and so candidates’ green credentials were probed. Given the group’s eco interests, it was a shame that Green Party candidate Freya Amsbury could not be present.

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The candidates face a full room. At the table, left to right, Matthew Paul (Conservative), Adam Price (Plaid Cymru), Neil Hamilton (UKIP), Neil Lewis (chair for the evening), Helen Adam (Transition Tywi Trawsnewid), Steve Jeacock (Labour) and William Powell (LibDem).

Wales has missed its climate change emissions targets, said one questioner, so what would candidates do about it? Nothing, said Neil Hamilton, on the basis that the UK’s (let alone Wales’s) emissions make no difference in the global context. Matthew Paul does not rate climate change, either, arguing for “jobs before climate”. “Enough has been done on climate change,” he said, “I’d rather see a Port Talbot blast furnace operating”. Renewable energy was OK, he ventured, provided the schemes were big, Nuclear power, too, is on Matthew Paul’s list of Good Things.

Steve Jeacock likes to take the long view and referred to the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015, which comes over as a Motherhood and Apple Pie law of good intentions but (in my inexpert view) very imprecise and open to interpretation.

For both William Powell and Adam Price, climate change is an accelerating danger. William and Adam would go for community renewable energy schemes and retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, and Adam would back a new power station at Port Talbot, using waste gases from the steel plant to generate electricity for the works.

The Welsh Government cannot dictate to the climate, but does have control over education. William Powell and Matthew Paul struck a chord with their criticism of Welsh Labour’s urbanising agenda – centralising education and leaving rural areas without schools. They both highlighted the closure of Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, Llandovery, as a tragic consequence of this agenda. For Steve Jeacock, as a loyal Labourite, educational progress is manifest in new buildings and in teaching everyone how to write computer software, for example. Adam Price would encourage innovation, imagination and diversity, while William Powell would raise the profile of vocational education, and Neil Hamilton would abandon the target for half of school leavers to go to university.

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Adam Price, Plaid Cymru candidate for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, answering a question. Visible sitting on the right of the picture are Neil Hamilton (UKIP), hustings chairman Neil Lewis, and Steve Jeacock (Labour).

Matthew Paul wants to take funding away from local authorities and pass it directly to schools, which sounds rather like the Conservative policy in England to force all schools to become academies (quasi private, rather than owned and run on behalf of the public).

Are hustings useful? More for personalities than policies, the manifestos are better for those. More than one of the candidates could be elected next month, because two of them, William Powell and Neil Hamilton, are also included in their parties’ regional lists for Mid and West Wales. Bit of a pity, though, that in 2016 the audience had no women candidates to question.

Personal choice? I’m a member of Plaid Cymru and will support the talented Adam Price, but I’d also like to see a seat for William Powell, who really understands sustainable rural regeneration. And as Adam said, running Wales well will require ideas and commitment from all of us, regardless of political party or affiliation.

Whether in or out of the EU, Wales will still need inspired government.

Impoverishing the Self-Employed

In Cynwyl Gaeo where I live, in rural north Carmarthenshire, 27.2% of the working-age population are self-employed.* That’s nearly three in ten. The major employers are Carmarthenshire County Council, and the National Health Service. If you don’t work for either of them — and they both have financial problems — there’s not much else on offer. So we have our farmers, builders, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, artists and artisans, who are self-employed.

Chancellor George Osborne’s proposed bonfire of tax credit entitlements will hit the self-employed very hard indeed. The introduction of the ‘national living wage’ next April, by way of supposed compensation, is irrelevant to them because they have no employer to pay it.  And often their total income is already too low to benefit from the higher personal tax allowance of £11,000, scheduled for April 2016.

Working tax credits and child tax credits have become essential to bolster low incomes to the point at which recipients can just about support their families. With no employer to pay them a higher wage, the self-employed face cuts on their own.

Surely a progressive taxation system should be redistributive, from the very affluent to those at the other end of the income scale? This Conservative government seems set on just the opposite, although in May’s General Election only 24% of the electorate actually backed the party. Agreed, this was a higher level of support than for any other party, but hardly an invitation to collapse welfare benefits until they have crumbled away. Slicing off tax credits will leave millions of lower-earning self-employed workers vulnerable to financial disaster and further impoverishment.

More here about  the self-employed and their incomes

PDR

* Data from the 2011 Census

Uncertainties Bedevil the Future of Small Nations — like Wales

Oh dear, the waves are bigger and I feel seasick. I can’t see land on the horizon any more as the boat tumbles into a trough. Up the other side, I still can’t see the land which I thought was there, because I am drenched with spray. Disoriented, the matter of the moment is to avoid being swept overboard.

Here in West Wales the fast-changing behaviours of the sea are part of the daily environment, but the experience of being tossed about on the surface of a vast political ocean is not so familiar to me. We cannot work out where we are headed because there are too many unknowns.

We face a referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union:

  • What will the UK ask for as part of pre-referendum re-negotiation?
  • How successful will re-negotiation be?
  • To what extent would re-negotiation affect the referendum vote?
  • Suppose England votes to exit but all or some of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland vote to remain in?

If England wants to leave but Scotland doesn’t, how quickly would another independence referendum be held?

Would the EU insist on an independent Scotland going through the whole process of applying to join the EU?

Would an applicant Scotland be obliged to join the Euro? This was the official view I heard last week in Brussels, on a trip to the (lightly used) European Parliament complex.  (Strasbourg is the main base for the Parliament.)

If Scotland should vote for independence next time, how would people in Wales react?

There is an even more fundamental question than whether to stay in/ exit/ apply to join. What sort of organisation is the European Union? At the start, it was about removing trade barriers, and providing a degree of economic certainty for member populations, especially the farmers. Food security was important in the 1950s and 1960s, when memories of wartime hunger were acute. But the EU is not about the populations any longer. That is clear from the brutal treatment of the Greeks, and the emergence of a peripheral zone of hard-up countries – Spain, Portugal, Ireland, even Italy – where it is clear that welfare priorities have been drowned by the economic power of Germany. Germany is, of course, at the centre of the current EU of 28 nations, which compares with six less than 60 years ago — Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

So what is the mission of the EU? It is no longer clear to me. There are uneasy relationships between the elected EU Parliament, the appointed Commission, and the Council of Ministers representing national governments. The Commission is putting all its considerable weight behind TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which will privilege banks and corporations above populations and even national governments. Well, we know that democratic decisions no longer count for anything – the Greeks had a referendum on July 5th, and voted decisively to reject the austerity deal upon which their Eurozone paymasters were insisting. Yet a few days later their government accepted even harsher terms.

How to transform the EU into a more democratic body? Make the Parliament paramount?  National governments would resent ‘interference’. Yet in a world controlled by multinational organisations, banks and corporations, how much autonomy does any nation have? Small nations, especially, and particularly when they share a currency with more powerful states?

Whatever happened to the ideal of solidarity, and how can it be resurrected?

I think this is an important question for the future of Wales, a small nation near the edge of Europe.

PDR

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Still a long, long way off? Quotation seen at the European Parliament in Brussels

Back from the Land of Pringles

Good to be back in green West Wales after three weeks away in the suffering Communist country of Cuba, where the shops are largely empty (except for Pringles crisps), power and water cuts are everyday occurrences, and people with air conditioners (for when the power is on) say they can’t afford to run them any more. With temperatures up to 38 degrees C this month, and drought instead of the usual May rains, even strolling about outside is quite hard work.

Of course, if you are in a ***** hotel on an all-inclusive deal, the privations may pass you by because the hotel will have a generator and plenty of food, and a swimming pool with water in it. It’s different if you are Cuban.

You can rely on earning the equivalent of $20 to $25 a month. That was not quite so bad when the basic essentials of life were provided free or at minimal cost, but Cuba is shifting, sliding, towards Chinese-style market socialism, in which people have to fend for themselves.

The Pringles, which were everywhere, cost about $2.40 a tub, or nearly an eighth of typical monthly income. My son Pete suggested a likely reason for the Pringles glut. “Maybe they are left over from last year’s football World Cup in Brazil,” he said. “Pringles had huge promotions linked to the Cup.” So they probably dropped off the back of the Brazilian extravaganza.

For sure, when next I enter the Co-op in Lampeter, there will be more than Pringles, fruit juice, carbonated drinks, rice, powdered milk, and perhaps pasta. In Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba, even water was missing from the shelves, and you would hear people in the street asking each other if they knew where they could get water to drink. Here, we can drink tap water. There, you are likely to make yourself ill and a drain on the much-publicised free but resource-starved health service.

PDR

Votes at 16 to Make Politics Relevant to Young People — who are the Future

Yesterday I asked the friendly young woman cutting my hair in Llandovery if she would vote. Not how she would vote, but whether she would vote at all.

“No,” she said. “I don’t understand enough about it. I don’t know the difference between the parties so I wouldn’t know who to vote for.”

The reply did not exactly surprise me because we know the under-25s are less inclined than other age groups to make their cross (what an anachronism, that). But how can her generation have escaped the torrent of political broadcasting and social media?

Could it be that too many schools try to hold themselves aloof from party politics, as though they give off an unpleasant smell? This attitude debases democracy. Time now to bring the voting age down to 16, and to bring a lot more political discussion into our schools – which will not happen unless secondary schools become more open and enmeshed in their communities.

Meanwhile, the Labour and Conservative Parties assume that

  • We all respond to bribes
  • Democracy is just about the economic system which we have allowed to be created
  • The population is composed of ‘hard-working families’, conjuring a vision of two adults and two children whose lives are dominated by the economic system

Labour had a vision once, a fair deal for the working man – in those days before the gender equality agenda (which remains just an agenda, as enduring pay differentials testify). The vision has withered to a mild form of financial redistribution, leaving the economic superstructure well alone.

Both Labour and Conservatives appear not to question the wisdom of unrestrained capital flows around the globe, or of unlimited corporate power. They differ only at the margins, in that Labour would tax a little more and redistribute a little more. Some choice! LibDems are the in-between party, setting course in between Labour and Conservative, trying to keep the UK in the ‘centre’, which is really the space between marginally lighter and darker shades of exploitation.

The UK-wide parties except the Greens – and here in Wales with the exception of Plaid Cymru – seem to assume that people are motivated primarily by promises of more money today, tomorrow or sometime in the future. That promise is false, though, and undeliverable except to a chosen few. We are polluting our planet and contributing to climate change at such a rate that we should be concerned primarily with environmental restitution and learning to live with lower levels of material consumption, but distributed more evenly than at present.

So how do we change politics to focus less on financial tinkering within the existing system, and a great deal more on creating a politics of human and environmental solidarity? Starting locally here in Carmarthenshire, as well as working to engage young people, how about supporting the work of Transition Tywi Trawsnewid? Transition Tywi and other transition ventures are part of a worldwide movement to develop low-carbon, more resilient communities, to produce more of what we need in sustainable ways (we are destroying our soils, a primary basis of civilisation). The transition movement is not party-political, but could probably do a lot more to influence party policies.

In the party political arena, I have already used my postal vote to back Plaid Cymru, but I admit that I’m still too caught up in the material world because I live in a house which has a moderately large carbon footprint and this week will be flying overseas to complete a piece of work. Yes, I am part of the problem.

Solutions to the problem are a work in progress to create more resilient systems, always provisional, but then all systems must be flexible because the context in which they operate changes continuously.

Yet we now have fixed-term parliaments. Is this wise in a world of perpetual change? Another question for another day.

Before then, there is one vital opportunity to vote!

PDR

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) 

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

Debating Democracy Short

Why confining ‘national’ debate to parties with MPs in England restricts variety and challenge in political ideas  

BBC1 London and BBC2 England are the default settings for our Freesat TV reception in north Carmarthenshire, Wales. To watch BBC1 Wales or BBC2 Wales you have to make an active choice to change channels.

So what? Well, in connection with the proposed pre-election party leader debates, it means that you miss programmes intended for Welsh viewers and instead see transmissions for England, unless you make a deliberate choice not to do so. This gives the parties standing in England an advantage over parties which have candidates only in other countries of the Union.

Let me state my position. I would like all twelve parties with MPs in Westminster to be invited to debate policies. All sorts of problems arise, such as to how much time to allocate to each representative, especially given the short sound-bite nature of political broadcasting, but given that we are a ‘United Kingdom’, parties with MPs representing electors in any part of that Kingdom should have the chance to debate policies with each other, not least because electors are likely to hear policy arguments which they would otherwise be denied.

The debates which the broadcasters want to stage highlight political views which accept the status quo and are not ‘radical’. Often there seems as much  difference between sections of the Labour and Conservative parties than between the parties themselves. The LibDems are, under Nick Clegg, more pale blue than orange. UKIP, which has somehow become a media darling, appears to me to be more about opposition – to the European Union and immigration – than about constructive ideas of its own.

Televised debates with only the leaders whose parties are classed by the broadcasters as ‘major’ could well be a step on the road towards a presidential system, vesting powers in individual leaders rather than in Parliament. How would that improve our democracy? Do we really want alternating spells of Conservatives and Labour, like the blunted system in the USA where Republicans and Democrats shuffle in and out of ‘power’.

‘Power’ in this guise is a misnomer. The real power lies elsewhere, and by confining debates to a few voices, that power reinforces itself.

Just for the record, and courtesy of http://www.parliament.uk, the state of the parties in the House of Commons is

  1. Conservative 303
  2. Labour 257
  3. Liberal Democrat 56
  4. Democratic Unionist 8
  5. Scottish National Party 6
  6. Sinn Fein 5
  7. Plaid Cymru 3
  8. Social Democratic & Labour Party 3
  9. United Kingdom Independence Party 2
  10. Alliance Party 1
  11. Green Party 1
  12. Respect Party 1

There are in addition 3 independents and the Speaker.

PDR

 

No Sense for Plaid and Greens to Compete for Votes in Wales

The fracturing of British politics sits unhappily with the ‘first past the post’ system, and calls for tactical voting choices although the best tactics to achieve an individual voter’s desired outcome are hidden in a web of variables. In Wales there are now six main parties at the time of writing, the Green Party and UKIP having joined the line-up of Labour, Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats.

Votes translate into seats only when one party achieves dominance within a constituency. Labour, for decades the default party in Wales, won 65% of seats in 2010, the Conservatives won 20% , and the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru won 7.5% each.

Voting intentions as measured by ICM/BBC Wales between September 19th and 22nd 2014 show that UKIP and the Greens both have supporters, although their chances of a seat depend on how concentrated they are. If they were clustered within specific constituencies, they could spring upsets, UKIP especially, because the poll showed that 16% of electors back the party, eight times more than the 2% who said they would vote Green.

Labour’s electoral performance is so good because support is concentrated in the South Wales Valleys and the North East, the former mining and industrial areas. With 39% support, come May 2015 Labour would achieve a heavier haul of seats than their degree of support would seem to warrant. The other parties are disadvantaged in the first past the post system because their support is more dispersed.

The Conservatives would probably come away with fewer seats than their support, 23% in the September poll, would suggest is likely, and so would Plaid Cymru, with 13% support at the time. Plaid’s ongoing efforts to broaden the party’s appeal throughout Wales are handicapped by first past the post, by the winner-takes-all system which we use for so many elections, including to the Westminster Parliament.

Support for the LibDems has ebbed away, to 5% in the September poll, and it will be tough for them to retain their three seats in Wales. The elephant in the polling booth is UKIP, which sprinted from nowhere to 16% of electors. Demographic changes in rural Wales, which attracts comfortably-off retirees from all over Great Britain, favour the UKIP offering of messages coated in cosy nostalgia.

‘Alternative’ communities attracting green-minded people are also well represented in rural Wales, although their residents are lower in number. The Green Party is less popular in Wales than in England, with voter support at about 2% compared with 5%-7%, but it is a competitor for Plaid Cymru particularly, because the majority of policies overlap, and already in Westminster Plaid Cymru and the Green Party work together with the SNP.

Until we have a more equitable electoral system, I cannot see the sense of Plaid and the Greens fighting each other for votes, when the result of voting Green is most unlikely to result in any seat won in Wales, but would make it more difficult for Plaid to retain its seats – purely because the eco-minded Greens tend to move into the rural areas which in the recent past have chosen Plaid MPs.

There is a strong precedent for co-operation. Cynog Dafis was the UK’s first ‘Green’ MP, elected on a joint Plaid Cymru-Green ticket in 1992, and he represented Ceredigion for eight years.  The two parties do not agree on everything, any more than each party’s members share the same policy priorities, but they are both left of centre parties focused on social justice and co-operative economics, and aware that policies must recognise the realities of finite resources and climate change.

Is it too much to hope for electoral co-operation before next May?

PDR

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