Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Ministers cool the political temperature

Those eco-warriors at the Wales Office have managed to cut their carbon emissions by an impressive 85 per cent during the last decade.

It sounds dramatic, and is not due, apparently, to the fact that the department handed over all its executive powers to the Welsh Assembly in 1999.

My mole in Gwydyr House, its Whitehall home, tells me: "I've been told that because we are such a small office, little things that we can do to reduce our footprint have a disproportionate impact."

It's true that the Wales Office didn't even have a state-subsidised airline to cancel. Secretary of State Peter Hain has long-believed in a red-green agenda, although the impact of his rooftop solar panels is rather undermined by his preference for cooking on an Aga and a fondness for Formula1.

Perhaps junior Minister Wayne David got a warm hand-knitted sweater for Christmas that allowed him to turn down the office thermostat?

Possibly, although this photograph suggests Mr Hain got there first. The Wales Office says:  "We've done two things: moved to the Whitehall Distribution System for our heating (a centralised heating system for buildings in Whitehall), and turned off the heating at weekends and other periods when the office was closed."

You may wonder why the building was heated while empty anyway, but I'm not bright enough to answer that one.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

No room for complacency?

Political statements risk appearing meaingless unless you can imagine the direct opposite being spouted with conviction.

A One Wales Government may make sense as a political slogan but I've yet to discover a Two or Three Wales Government alternative on offer to the voters.

The All Wales Convention may have done what it said on the tin, but there wouldn't really be many votes in a Half Wales Convention.

So when a politician seeks your vote on the basis of there being no room for complacency, do look hard for another insisting there's plenty of room for the same.

The Welsh Conservatives have the phrase on their function keys as surely as Plaid Cymru use "slap in the face" and "snub to Wales".

So what did the party's leader in the Welsh Assembly make of their latest electoral success? Nick Bourne was delighted, but there was "no room for complacency".

His considered verdict a week later remained the same.

What did Professor Bourne make of a recent opinion poll? You can find the answer here - and, yes, the c-word does feature (although of course there is no room for it).

The shadow Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, was singing from the same hymn sheet when she received yesterday's jobless figures. Funnily enough, she gave an identical reaction to last August's figures.

And this afternoon, the party's Assembly Member Angela Burns has warned that, you've guessed it, there's "no room for complacency" over jobs in her constituency.

Wouldn't it be re-assuring, just the once, if a politician reacted to some news with a defiant message to camera along the lines of "there's plenty of room for complacency here, I'm off down the pub".

Think different: think slavery

The House of Commons chamber has virtually emptied as MPs open a debate on competitiveness in the food industry - the power of supermarkets and so on.

Perhaps some the 600 or so MPs absent are heading for the Queen Elizabeth conference Centre to watch Jack Straw give evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

While we wait for Mr Straw to explain his role in the war, it's time once again to dip into the Plaid Cymru handbook.

The fundraising chapter is illuminating. Here are a few highlights:

"A new member not only means a potential new activist but also a new source of income, especially if you recruit them on direct debit."

If you want a personal visit from a Plaid candidate, make sure you cough up bigtime. "Send a personalised thank you letter from the candidate as soon as the donation is received. If it is a substantial donation the candidates should make contact via a phone call or a personal visit."

The handbook offers useful advice to Plaid candidates on how to organise a raffle.

There is also the softly-softly approach: "The next time you are lying the garden enjoying the summer sunshine - remember this is the perfect time for a Plaid Cymru BBQ! Ask all your friends, neighbours and Plaid Cymru members to come around with a bottle of their favourite tipple and charge them £5 to enjoy the products of your culinary expertise."

Or: "An alternative way of raising funds might be to hold a cheese and wine themed well as selling tickets at £3 you can charge £1 for every glass of wine."

Then there's "exotic food evenings" - "a group of around six people take it in turns to cook an exotic meal for each other (Spanish, Mexican etc)". As if cheese and wine evenings were not exotic enough (!), Plaid candidates are told this is "cheaper than a posh restaurant".

There is an alternative - the "slave auction" with members putting themselves up for auction. "The 'slave' will have stated in advance what they are willing to do (such as cut the grass, or paint a room etc) and the other members bit for them."

Worth remembering next time you're faced with a full nappy and wonder whether Elfyn Llwyd's time is within your bidding range.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Question Time

Based at Westminster, I tend to steer clear of the All Wales Convention and referendums on the Welsh Assembly's powers as they are so well covered elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Indeed, some of the posts I read on the convention's recent report were longer than the report itself.

But today the issue arrived in the House of Lords. Its Constitution Committee has been conducting an inquiry into referendums.

Daran Hill, lobbyist/political consultant/commentator from Postif Politics raised the issue of the question that would be put in any referendum on Welsh Assembly powers.

"In 1997 there was a substantial constitutional issue that could be easily expressed ...I'm rather nervous about how the question will be phrased. Essentially, what you will be asking is do you want to go from part 3 to part 4 of the Government of Wales Act - how might you ask that?

" I think that improving a referendum can be done by offering more context , rather than placing a simple question before the public. If, for example, in the 1997 experience there had been a paragraph that said 'if you vote yes it will mean this , it will not mean independence but it will mean establishing an Assembly'.

"I say this knowing that the form of words would need to negotiated, involving the Electoral Commission and maybe both sides of the campaign too.

"But, I think that an explanatory paragraph can add real value and I say this particularly from the context of the future Welsh referendum which is likely to happen in the next 18 months , where it is about moving from one part of Act to another and I think that just posing one question on its own without context that seeks to explain what powers are already held by the Assembly and what the net effect would undermine the asking of the question, I think".

Mr Hill didn't suggest a precise question, but he is right that the wording can influence the result. A ballot paper that asked voters: "Do you want laws for Wales made by patriotic Welshmen and women of goodwill in Cardiff or by a bunch of toffs in London, yes the same ones who rip you off through the Barnett formula?" would, I dare to suggest, be likely to produce only one answer.

On the other hand, "Do you want to give the political establishment a kicking without risking a change of government or great personal hardship" might secure another verdict.

Alternative suggestions welcome.

Think Different: the plot thickens

The hunt for the origins of Plaid Cymru's election slogan has taken a new twist.

Welsh Assembly Member Nerys Evans told that the party had not stolen it from megarich loadsalawyers corporation Apple but from Plaid's sister party, the SNP.

Or, as she put it the SNP have been using something similar and Plaid got their idea from them.

A search of the SNP's website reveals no trace of the said slogan. Can anyone help clear up the mystery?

Hand-in-hand or foot-in-mouth?

An update from Peter Black AM on the Liberal Democrats' plans to axe 30 per cent of Welsh MPs:

Mr Black has just told the BBC's Phil Parry on "This goes hand-in-hand with a full Parliament for Wales."

If that is the case, it's slightly strange that the Lib Dems have been trying to amend legislation before the Commons now - long before any "full Parliament for Wales" will be up and running.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Lib Dems sharpen their axe for MPs

If you've ever wondered where the axe would fall under Lib Dem plans to slash the number of MPs - and which of us has not lost sleep over it? - then help is at hand.

The party has published details of its plans to cut the House of Commons by 133 or 21 per cent (slightly fewer than their policy of a cut of 150). The cuts are rather more severe in Wales, where the number of MPs would be cut by 30 per cent, from 40 to 28.

These 28 would sit for eight multi-member constituencies and be elected under the single transferable vote system.
The new constiuencies are named after the old (1974) county council boundaries. Gwynedd (to include Anglesey) would have two seats, Clwyd would have four, Powys would keep its existing two seats (can't think why the Lib Dems thought of that).

Dyfed would have four seats, West Glamorgan three, Mid Glamorgan four, and South Glamorgan four. Gwent would have five MPs.
The details are found in amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill - amendments tabled by three English Lib Dem MPs. No news yet on what their Welsh colleagues think of them - or whether they were consulted.

The Bill is being debated by MPs today, so would pre-date any Lib Dem plans to give the Welsh Assembly more powers and link a cut in MPs to that.

Plaid Cymru, who highlighted the amendments at a Westminster news conference this morning, say they would only sign up to cuts in the number of Welsh MPs if they are accompanied by a transfer of powers to Cardiff Bay.

UPDATE 1624: Roger Williams MP, "Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Wales":

“The Liberal Democrats believe that there should be fewer MPs across the UK, and some of the numbers cut will obviously have to come from Wales.
“The amendment would explicitly allow the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats allotted to Wales if this was appropriate, and the amendment is intended to set out our initial plans on where to distribute seats across the UK.

"The Bill is at an early stage, and we will clearly be looking to achieve a settlement that gives Wales the best possible voice in Westminster. We have sat down as a party and worked out what we think is a fair distribution of seats across the UK, but if anyone disagrees then they should take part in the Parliamentary debate on this matter.

“If the number of seats in Wales was cut in line with seats across the UK we would introduce a consequential amendment to remove the link between Parliamentary and Assembly seats in the Government of Wales Act.

“The Liberal Democrats want to see a Welsh Assembly with full legislative powers, and these proposals should be viewed as a step closer to a Wales that doesn’t have to go cap in hand to Westminster. A Liberal Democrat Government would seek to transfer powers to the Welsh Assembly as soon as possible while ensuring that the overall number of MPs is cut.”

Monday, 18 January 2010

Home from home(s)

The selection of a Surrey councillor as Conservative parliamentary candidate in Ynys Mon has ruffled a few feathers.

Anthony Ridge-Newman says he is passionate about his Welsh heritage (his Mum came from Pontycymmer): "I have always believed that I owe my classical singing voice to my Welsh genetics."

Mr Ridge-Newman says he will move to Anglesey immediately and has already started learning Welsh.

Declaring himself to be "virtually a full-time candidate" may not go down to well with his current constituents 270 miles away. He was elected to the council only last June.

There is no shortage of advice for the new candidate from Tory activists on the conservativehome website.

One suggestion comes from a Quentin Langley: "One campaign idea which might have merit would be trying to persuade second home owners to vote in Ynys Mon rather than in their other constituency, though that might alienate other voters and might be difficult to organise in the timescale available."

An interesting campaign strategy - perhaps someone will start up to get the debate going.

Think different: sue Plaid?

There are only a finite number of political slogans in this world so you can forgive political parties for "borrowing" phrases from other sources.

Plaid Cymru's "Think Different" campaign has made its mark, with the party's various leaders now parroting the phrase in speeches and press releases.

Outside the party, the slogan has been noticed for two reasons - its approach to grammar (who needs an adverb when an adjective will do?) and its former use by Apple.

The Apple campaign is credited with reviving the company's fortunes from 1997 to 2002. There are even rumours that the slogan itself may be revived.

Plaid hope the slogan will have a similar impact on their fortunes at that time in the political cycle when, as is traditional, they are predicting their "best ever" Westminster election result.

They will also hope Apple's lawyers are not watching. Here's some helpful trademark advice:

8. Slogans and Taglines:

You may not use or imitate an Apple slogan or tagline.

For example: “Think different.”

Ah. My Plaid source says: "Apple who?! We actually developed ours totally independently, and then later realised Apple had used the think different part as well, honest! Great minds think alike."

They'll be claiming next to have invented a personal music player - the iPlaid? - but the great minds argument might struggle to convince Apple's learned friends. Perhaps, imitating Apple is just a core vote strategy.

As for grammar, Plaid say: "The 'Different' is not meant as an adverb - more of a statement, so the grammar is fine." That's all right then. Presumably Plaid won't be "borrowing" the full Apple script too. Here's to the crazy ones......

Class war: the ciabatta csar

He's not exactly promising free sun-dried tomatoes on the NHS but Gordon Brown's weekend appeal to the middle classes was pretty brazen.

So there were lots of references to "New Labour" (which is 15 years old now) and talk of aspiration, one of those words that politicians use but voters don't.

"And this is the next project for New Labour, our next generation project," he told his audience. "The coming decade will provide the UK with more middle class jobs than ever before."

But what is a middle-class job? Is the £60-an-hour plumber middle class? The £100,000-a-week footballer with no GCSEs middle class? Neither is part of what New Labour would call the knowledge economy.

Suspicions that Labour has until now been running a core vote strategy mean the Prime Minister is having to bend over backwards in the least subtle of ways to appeal to the middle classes.

Perhaps the middle classes feel neglected by the special policies targeted at the more vulnerable. Perhaps Mr Brown should offer a Commissioner for Middle Class People who could deliver fundamental middle class rights such as parking spaces at Waitrose, a freshly-baked ciabatta guarantee and lattes for all. Stand by for the ciabatta csar.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Some present and correct

Readers of the Western Mail will have digested something of a spat in its letters column over the role of the main Welsh committee at Westminster.

The select committee on Welsh affairs chairman, Hywel Francis, has been defending his crew from criticism over its role in the devolved world.

The MPs say their committee has just completed "the busiest year in its history". Dr Francis has certainly been busy, attending 43 out of 44 meetings during the year.

The former Welsh Secretary, Alun Michael, managed 40 of the 44 meetings. Tory frontbencher David Jones made it to three quarters of committee gatherings.

Tory backbenchers were less regular attenders at the main Welsh forum for holding the Government to account. Monmouth MP David Davies made it to just five of the 44, an attendance record explained by diary clashes with his membership of the more prestigious Home Affairs Committee.

Mark Pritchard made it to 12 meetings. Labour MP Martyn Jones was present at nine gatherings.

The overall attendance record was 54.1 per cent, although it drops to below half if you take out Dr Francis and Mr Michael.

You can check out the scores for yourself here.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Plaid call in their fashion police

You know there's an election looming when Plaid Cymru put quails' eggs on the menu at their New Year "bring-a-candidate" party.

Several of Plaid's wannabe MPs spent yesterday in Westminster catching up on lines to take, being photographed with their political heroes in front of sloganeering backdrops and getting tips on how to handle the media (never say "no comment", apparently).

The candidates were handed a copyof Plaid's Campaign Handbook (£10 from its National Campaigns Unit). This includes election tips supplied by some of the party's leading lights past and present.

For media interviews, candidates are told: "Decide in advance what you want to say. If you have any questions about lines to take, contact the National Campaigns Unit before any interview.

"Stick to what you want to say and don't allow the interviewer to deviate you from your key messages. Repeat yourself using different language if necessary.

"Relax - You will almost certainly know more about your subject than the interviewer." (Hmmm....)

And if you've ever wondered what to wear when a BBC TV crew comes calling, here is the official Plaid line:

"Look smart - wear something appropriate for the occasion, don't wear something too trendy. If you are a man do not wear a tie that is much lighter in colour than your shirt. Don't wear shirts of blouses with elaborate patterns or with close lines."

To make the point, the front of the handbook features party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones wearing an open-necked shirt and denim jeans, jacket draped over right shoulder.

Definitely not too trendy, although my own fashion guru advises that men over 40 should be careful before wearing denim - something to do with Jeremy Clarkson and Tony Blair, apparently.

My own photograph shows the deputy First Minister wearing his Sunday best but if any of you do have photographs of Plaid figures wearing "something too trendy", do feel free to e-mail them to me.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Is it 'cos I is Welsh?

A questionnaire arrives after a visit to the doctor (much better now, thanks). The GP Patient Survey, over 8 pages, invites me to rate my experience during my visit to the doc.

Intriguingly it invites me to complete the survey in Arabic, Bengali, Czech, French, Gujurati, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Slovak, Somali, Turkish and Urdu. Oh, and English.

It is difficult to assess the number of speakers of the non-indigenous languages above who would need surveys in their mother tongue. On some measures, for example, London is one of the largest French towns. Most of the 200,000 Turkish speakers in the UK are said to live in London.

Some estimates suggest there are 100,000 Welsh speakers in London - more than there are in Cardiff. Even on my adopted manor, it is impossible to escape the language of heaven. Aled Jones lives round the corner; a neighbour's house is named Swn Yr Adar. Tomos Livingstone is four stops away on South West Trains.

But are there really more Londoners who speak Portuguese or Somali than Welsh?

So is there someone who can get offended on behalf of Welsh speakers in London? Who will rush to claim a snub to Wales or even a slap in the face?

Perhaps Welsh language legislation needs to be tightened on behalf of Welsh speakers within the UK. Any volunteers for a mass picket of the GPs' surgery?

The Lib Dems do their sums

The Liberal Democrats, their leader told us yesterday, are going to treat the voters as grown-ups.

"All our figures," said the man in charge of their manifesto, "add up to the nearest penny".

Er, up to a point. I type hotfoot from a Lib Dem news conference at which the man who wants to be Secretary of State for Wales after the general election admitted he doesn't know what his party's policies mean for Welsh pounds, let alone pennies.

Roger Williams told us: "The politics of plenty have gone. We have got to be responsible."

So what, I wondered, would be the financial consequences of the Lib Dems' decision to scrap or delay several of their cherished policies in England?

"We are going to have to work that through, we haven't worked that out yet."

Would a Lib Dem government go ahead with the defence training academy at St Athan or scrap it, as suggested by deputy leader Vince Cable?

Roger Williams: "It isn't clear from what the Government has said whether the St Athan money is new money or money used for training. If it is new money, that is challenging."

Would a Lib Dem government go ahead with the electrification of the rail line between London and Swansea?

"We haven't got any plans to either postpone it or reject it."

Things will become clearer, possibly, later this week when Mr Williams meets Danny Alexander to discuss "Barnett consequentials" and other spending issues.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Never Say Dai

The Guardian newspaper is obviously struggling to tell the difference between the two Dais in Parlaiment. Either that, or Dai Havard's new disguise makes him look uncannily like Dai Davies, who isn't Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

An easy enough mistake, really.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Ministry of Delay

The Conservatives' in-tray, should they win the general election, just got fuller.

(Labour) Armed Forces Minister Bill Rammell has told MPs that a decision on whether to go ahead with a military training academy at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan has been delayed yet again.

He said in a written statement: "Plans have advanced considerably, but the work has exceeded the assumptions made in 2008 and hence the change to when the investment decision will be taken...the project is on track for an investment decision in the Summer."

The current Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, told MPs in July 2008 - almost 18 months ago - that he hoped the contracts would be signed by the end of that year. The MoD now talks of contracts being signed in the autumn of 2010.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain saw a silver lining from the latest delay: "This Government has always shown 100 per cent support for the St Athan project, which will be the single biggest UK Government investment Wales has ever received and will bring thousands of jobs to the Vale of Glamorgan.

"Regular reviews of projects of this scale are always necessary to ensure value for money, but I look forward to work commencing on site at St Athan following a positive announcement in the summer."
Summer begins officially on June 21. So we will enter the general election campaign with no potential party of (UK) Government 100 per cent committed to a project said to be worth billions of pounds and thousands of jobs to the South Wales economy.

The Tories say they support it, yet refuse to commit to it ahead of a defence review; the Liberal Democrats' deputy leader and Treasury spokesman has suggested scrapping it.

Perhaps the prospect of some campaign photo-ops will draw a firm copper-bottomed commitment out of one of the above parties, although you wouldn't put your mortgage on it.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Keeping Calm and Carrying on?

Is the snow plot melting? Although it's true that Ministers have not been rushing to sing Gordon Brown's praises, it's been difficult to discover much support for the Hewitt/Hoon plot among even the usual suspects on Labour benches.

Among the MPs we've spoken to, verdicts include "completely bloody daft", "completely bonkers", "nonsense" and "insane".

Former Minister Don Touhig has e-mailed both Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon angrily to let them know what he thinks - the word "unforgiveable" just about sums up his view.

Wales Office Ministers Peter Hain and Wayne David are turning down interviews rather than risk fuelling what they say is an annoying distraction. Of course, they could be plotting but on this occasion I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

There is a genuine sense of bewilderment at the timing of a coup attempt that follows improved Labour poll ratings, better public performances by the Prime Minister, and confusion in Conservative ranks over their policies.

Lord Mandelson, one with the power to break Gordon Brown's Government, said: "No one should over-react to this initiative. "It is not led by members of the government. No one has resigned from the
government." (At least not yet, despite rumours yesterday that at least one was rushing for the exit)

"The Prime Minister," said the Business Secretary, "continues to has the support of his colleagues. We should carry on government business as usual."

The snow is starting to settle at Westminster but the plot may well be melting.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The peers' pageant?

How will you be celebrating the Queen's diamond jubilee? Lord Mandelson has announced an extra bank holiday, creating a four day weekend in early June 2012.

The Business Secretary dodged a call for an extra holiday on March 1, 2012 to mark St David's Day.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno told him it would be "a great opportunity for St David's Day to be recognised as an official bank holiday in celebration of the diamond jubilee."

Lord Mandelson neatly sidestepped the question: "I am sure that those who might want to take up your suggestion of making St David's Day a bank holiday will have heard the suggestion you have made."

Others will have begun to shout about snubs to Wales, if not slaps in the face. Making St David's Day a public holiday is one of those policies that some political parties adopt between elections only to junk as the prospect of victory on election day approaches.

But Lord Roberts had another, cheaper, idea to celebrate the diamond jubilee - a "historical pageant" in Parliament.

It's a little unfair on the rest of us, as Lord Roberts already has his own ermine-trimmed fancy dress costume suitable for any historical pageant.

Plaid's Best of British

One of the consolations of being ill over the festive season is a chance to sample more telly.

Not just my staple diet of Cribs on MTV or absolutely anything on BBC Parliament, but the wider options available in the multi-channel 360 degrees multi-platform world we now inhabit.

So it was that I happened to catch the contribution of a Plaid Cymru parliamentary candidate to the "Best of British" season on Discovery Real Time.

Heledd Fychan, for it is she, co-presents a programme called Waterworld with a promising unknown by the name of Timothy West.

Plaid must be grateful for the boost to her electoral chances the repeat showings may give her - not every broadcaster would be so relaxed about candidates presenting programmes during an election year.

Perhaps contributing to a "Best of British" season on TV is another way of downplaying independence as a Plaid policy.

I'm no expert but Heledd's co-presenter appeared a natural in front of the cameras and could possibly go far in television.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Reasons to be (more or less) cheerful

Twenty Ten may be only four days old, but there are already so many reasons to be cheerful. The magic of the FA Cup endures, the DFS sale is still on and there are only 119 editions of The Joy Of Crochet before you can boast a complete collection.

There may be ice on the ground but there is optimism in the air. On Corrie, Gail Potter/Tilsley/Platt/Hillman is about to tie the knot for the fourth time, although perhaps her fiance is the optimistic one.

And there's an election campaign on. It's compulsory in political reporting circles to predict at a safe distance from the election that this will be the longest/dirtiest/closest* (*delete as appropriate) campaign in history.

The cliche might even be true this time, with David Cameron openly talking of campaign launches yesterday and unveiling the first chapter of the draft Tory manifesto today.

After months of talking of cuts and pay freezes, Mr Cameron is trying to convince voters there's more to the Tories than doom and gloom, by offering to protect the NHS budget.

The draft manifesto may apply only in England but the financial consequences of today's pledge will be felt UK-wide. Mr Cameron is effectively offering to protect around one third of the Welsh Assembly Government's budget (unless he suddenly decides to tear up the Barnett formula).

But protecting some budgets mean cuts elsewhere, and less to spend on other services such as local government, transport and housing.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain has picked up on the theme after Kenneth Clarke's chat about VAT with the Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Hain said: "Where will the cuts fall? They cannot deliver what they are promising without putting up VAT or slashing investment in Wales' schools and hospitals, in Sure Start, in large projects like Defence Training at St Athan or launch aid for new Airbus planes at Deeside."
If this is your first day back at work after Christmas, as it is mine, you probably feel as if you haven't been away. Never mind, there's only four more months of this to come. Happy New Year.