Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Billion Pound Budget Cut

Peter Black was probably right when he urged caution about the Western Mail’s ‘billion pound budget cuts’ in yesterday’s paper, after Alistair Darling announced an intended £15bn cut in public spending.

The devil is in the detail, suggested Peter – no doubt upset that the Lib Dems new narrative of attacking Plaid already looks wooden and clunky.

Fortunately, in the name of open government, the Westminster government has released their ‘Operational Efficiency Programme: final report’ in time for the Budget so that we can analyse in detail those £15bn cuts in public spending.

Darling’s £15bn is best explained as:

• £4bn saved in back office operations
• £3.2bn in IT
• £6.1bn saved in extended collaborative procurement
• £1.5bn on the public sector property estate

The report also investigates asset management and sales, and local incentives and empowerment.

The detail, though, is highly uninformative for what interests Peter and myself – some vaguely wafted figures based upon case studies and examples.

Wales does play a walk-on role in the report, which notes on page 8 that “the devolved administrations...are free to use the findings and recommendations of the Operational Efficiency Programme to inform their progress on efficiency.”

Which is lucky as repeating the whole exercise for Wales or Scotland alone would surely otherwise have gone against ‘extended collaborative procurement’, no?

The most important facet of the report in the short term for Wales is probably the decision to ‘vest’ the Royal Mint into a company, i.e. set it up as a corporate organisation, with the presumable end-game of privatisation.

In that management double-speak that makes no real-world sense, the case study (on p48 of the report) explains how a previous ‘vesting’ in 2004 had been ended in 2006 because of the need to tackle the performance business, but now that the business’ performance had improved significantly, this could go ahead.

So, keep the Royal Mint in public ownership when not performing well, but sell to the private sector when making a profit for the taxpayer?

With that sort of thinking, is it any surprise we’re in the economic mess that we are?

A happier Welsh case study is used in the section on procurement.

Value Wales frameworks are used as an example of how Welsh public sector organisations are delivering better arrangements through economies of scale across the entire Welsh public sector.
Examples noted include savings of 39 per cent on IT equipment and services, 30-35 per cent on stationery and paper and around 26 per cent on computer consumables, including printer cartridges.

But that success brings the whole project back into stark reality.

As a journalist put it quizzically, when discussing the alternative Plaid People’s Budget yesterday morning, doesn’t it all come back to the Barnett Formula?

Well, yes. The Welsh budget will be affected by cuts or savings (call them what you will!) in the budgets for UK departments that have devolved sectors.

The Welsh budget will be affected, irrespective of whether we have already implemented these savings or whether these savings cannot be delivered in Wales because of different structures.

It’s like being told that your salary and living conditions are dependent upon a friend’s well-being. If he (or she) gets a rise then you get a rise, irrespective of whether or not you deserve one. If they have to take a pay cut then you have to make cutbacks, even if you’ve already made them.

He might cut back voluntarily as he has enough food for a nice meal. We still have to make the same cut back, even if we have a bare larder.

The savings suggested in the report are cross-cutting savings with no specific target (like, say, Trident or ID cards which I would scrap at a moment’s notice) which means that there will be no major announcements, but a lot of backroom organisation that will probably go un-noticed by the public at large, and possibly most politicians.

It is likely that many of these savings will come in devolved areas like health and education and that they will affect Wales very strongly – as we already are by the English NHS capital spending changes already announced.

But even if they're not, as these are public service efficiency savings rather than a culling of major projects such as Trident or ID cards, then Wales may find itself in a worse situation - as with the closure of around 50 DWP offices under the Gershon Review and the proposed closure of HMRC offices throughout West Wales and the Valleys.

What’s worrying is that, as with Value Wales, an example in the area where the biggest savings are suggested, if we’ve already taken the chaff out of the system, then where will we cut?

The Lib Dems don’t have to worry about these sort of decisions – Kirsty and Peter took the ‘gutless’ route out of government two years ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Before the Budget...

There is now a week to go until the Budget is announced and, as always around this time, we are starting to see an increase in ‘advice’ being offered to the Chancellor.

The two most interesting publications, in my opinion, are the recent releases by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which updates January’s Green Budget predictions, and by the Sustainable Development Corporation, who are hawking their ‘Green New Deal’.

The IFS publication is short and to the point. The UK is not in a healthy financial position. Labour wrote some golden rules about the public finances when they first took over the public purse. Back in November they ripped them up and started again.

In the PBR they made £37bn of cuts to public spending between now and 2013, compared to that which had been earmarked for spending in the March 2008 Budget.

At the same time, they wrote some new financial rules.

The IFS estimate that, taking into consideration the greater than expected drop in revenue, the UK government will need to a further £39bn of fiscal tightening by 2015-16 in order to reach their new targets.

The Conservatives will say that this is a result of the fiscal stimulus package announced back in November.

They’re wrong, of course. The IFS say that the change in the UK’s PSBR debt is largely due to a massive hole in the UK economy, leaving IFS director, Robert Chote, to question whether a fiscal stimulus is a necessity to haul the UK out of recession or unaffordable because of the current debt.

That, of course, is a question of politics, not economics.

I don’t think there’s any doubt which side of the argument you find the Sustainable Development Corporation.

They recommend a £30bn a year for three years green new deal for a fiscal stimulus package that would include:
* upgrading existing housing stock
* scaling up renewable energy supply
* redesigning the national grid
* promoting sustainable mobility
* low-carbon investments in the public sector
* skills for a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

The SDC estimate that this would create in the region of 800,000 jobs and that around 50% of the investments would generate significant financial returns within a couple of years.

Their argument is that the current UK ‘green stimulus’ is marginal at only 0.1% of GDP, as opposed to, say, the 3% of South Korea’s GDP that is being invested into stimulating growth, and, as a result, any advantages gained from the green stimulus would be quickly swamped by further ‘high-carbon’ development as the ‘normal’ market re-asserts itself.

SDC claim that the triple crunch of financial crisis, recession and climate change is an opportunity to be grasped, with the possibility for positive results for those who take advantage of the current climate to make a real difference.

There will undoubtedly be much more ‘advice’ offered to the Chancellor over the next week – and Plaid will be offering our own solutions to the current situation from a distinctive Welsh position. The question is which way will he jump – an austerity package with swingeing cuts to public services or a bonanza in an effort to turn the economy around?

Money's Wales

I spent last Saturday night in the company of Welsh radio presenter, Owen Money.

It wasn’t just me – there were probably 100 there for a Saturday night game of bingo, Owen’s stand-up set and him and his band, the Soul Sharks, playing some classics for those that like a little dance to end their evenings.

It was a great night. I have seen Owen Money live before, and his quick-fire wit and interaction with the audience is genuinely funny.

But what is it that makes Money tick?

Nikolas Coupland of Cardiff University has written several articles examining the use of style by Welsh DJ’s such as Frank Hennessy and Chris Needs, specifically noting how they react to, and interact with, their audiences, which are usually English speaking south Walians.

Coupland points to ways in which they create their own agreeable personalities through the imagery and reference points which they use and an accent that changes by topic – from news reports and serious issues when a near PR accent is employed to chit-chat in phone-ins when they use easily recognised south Walian accent variables to sound more like the listener.

What, then, is Owen Money’s Wales, and why does it both attract and repel?

Money’s Wales is a folksy Wales, an imagined nation in which we all recognise the stereotypes that he draws upon.

When he asks ‘so, who’s from the Valleys?’ and follows-up with ‘where’s your tracksuit?’ we know he’s pulling the joke from the folk perception of Valleys dwellers as ‘chavs’.

When a woman says that she’s from Cardiff, the band strike up ‘Butetown Girl’, and we all know he ain’t referring to Cardiff Bay’s brand new high rise flats.

Money’s humour comes directly from our shared experiences or, more often than not, imagined shared experiences.

It’s a very friendly Wales, a family Wales, one where everyone goes to school, to chapel, where everyone knows everyone’s business – one big, imagined Valleys community.

So why does it frustrate me so much?

It could be because I just don’t buy into Money’s Wales. I’m not satisfied with it. Despite the friendliness and warmth, there is an ingrained poverty, both in material terms and in improving oneself.

His Wales is insular – there is nothing outside the world he creates. Where south Wales has infinite variety, there is only one North Walian accent, England is somewhere only to be mentioned in a rugby joke and the ‘Ffrench’ and the ‘Jirmans’, if and when referenced, are utterly alien.

Mam is the absolute authority in Money’s Wales, giving advice or instructions. I’m not sure where fathers are, or where they should be – down the pit, in the pub, watching rugby.

Then there’s the committee, the bastion of Welsh life, a shadowy group of people who are responsible yet not really in charge, a self-satisfied bureaucracy. Everyone in the village knows who they are – they have a blazer.

Money’s Wales is simple and one-dimensional. It is a child’s view of the world. We are invited to join in with a picture postcard of Wales that fails to reflect the nuances of real adult life and the tough choices that are made.

It is a traditional and paternalistic description of Wales in which we are unable to decide for ourselves, in which we never explore the outside world and in which risks shouldn’t be taken.

It is a Wales which I reject because I believe in a Wales which is outward looking; that takes the strengths of those community traditions and marries them with external influences to improve our lives, and a Wales that does not accept what has been given to it, but fights to improve itself.

It’s the difference between looking to London for leadership and showing it yourself.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moldovan Elections


Like Bethan Jenkins, I’m very interested in what’s been taking place in Moldova in recent days, having visited the country a year ago.

I visited Chisinau for Moldovan independence day and made day trips to Comrat, the capital of the Gaugaz area in the south of the country, and across the ‘border’ to Tiraspol and Bendery in the contested Trans-Dniestr area.

Sadly, Moldova is a country which too few people can place on a map, never mind have actually visited – despite having some of the friendliest and most helpful people that I’ve met.

As I write this, I read that the president, Voronin, has asked the Supreme Court for a recount of Sunday’s ballots. Hopefully this will lead to an end to the violence and protests that have flowered since last weekend. Not a good Easter week.

But the election in general has concerned me, not least the press release that the OSCE, the independent observers, sent out, claiming to be happy with the conduct of the elections.

Their actual report says that the elections met ‘many of the OSCE and Council of Europe commitments’ but points to a series of electoral concerns that would very probably have people like me protesting in Cardiff Bay if they were to take place on such a wide-scale here in Wales.

Amongst concerns noted were the different procedures in compiling voters lists – with discrepancies of around 160,000 voters; media bias by the main television channel in favour of the ruling Communist Party; over-production of ballots for voters abroad – three times the numbers for voters registered; in nearly 1 in 10 cases there were no verification of ballots between numbers who had attended and those counted, while three-quarters of polling booths did not include lists of candidates.

Beyond this, the OSCE admit that some allegations of intimidation, including by the police, and allegations of misuse of administrative resources were verified.

I fear that with so much potential for disagreement over the results, a simple recount of the ballots may not be enough to pacify those who believe that the results are not correct, or persuade outside observers that the election was as fair and open as it should be.

Plaid Cymru and Europe

A few months ahead of the European elections in June, I was fascinated to stumble across an article by well-known Welsh political commentator, Richard Wyn Jones, giving an overview of Plaid’s changing historical and theoretical relationships with ‘Europe’.

His article, published in the Nations and Nationalism journal earlier this year, identifies different positions adopted by Plaid since the party’s formation, regarding Europe and Plaid’s ‘confusion’ regarding the constitutional end-goal.

It’s an article that makes for very interesting reading as, by adopting any of the three positions, pre-European integration, during European integration and post-European integration, it becomes easier to understand the various perspectives that you might find in Plaid writings over the years.

Wyn Jones begins by taking Saunders Lewis’ position on Europe as being a pre-nation-state ideal where Wales, as an independent region in the middle ages, possessed its own ‘freedom’ to develop culturally, something which was only threatened by the creation of the nation-state in England with the Acts of Union.

In this way, ‘Wales’ was part of a broader European mosaic which owed its fealty to the Roman Church.

According to Wyn Jones, the second phase of Plaid’s relationship with Europe came under Gwynfor Evans, where Plaid’s position moved from the ‘pre-sovereignty’ position adopted by Lewis to a ‘post-sovereignty’ position .where the party looked forward to the end of the nation-state during a period of European integration.

Plaid initially opposed the EEC and European integration as being a centralising, capitalist influence on Europe, rather than the coalition of small countries for which Plaid hoped.

However, following both the 1979 Referendum and the Miners’ Strike, Plaid became enthusiastic about the whole project, believing in a Europe of the Historic Regions.

Since then, though, Wyn Jones believes that Plaid have become frustrated with the reality of participating in the European institutions.

He comments that the experiences, first on the Committee of the Regions and then in the Parliament itself, have led the party to conclude that, in the face of what have become powerful and accepted ‘banal European’ institutions, the Europe of the Regions is a pipe-dream.

This is therefore what has led Plaid, in the past few years to the party’s newly-discovered Westphalian nation-state position, i.e. independence.

The irony, of course, is that most people in Wales thought that independence had always been Plaid’s default position anyway!

From a personal position, my concern has always been for people first, constitutional positions second and I want the best deal for the people of Wales.

I believe that the institutions of the United Kingdom have left Wales in a poor economic situation, and believe that we would be best suited if we were to have greater control of our daily lives.

As far as the European dimension goes, Wyn Jones is right to point to the banal Europeanisation of the EU institutions – they do exist and we must work within them.

However, I do not think that this precludes the glocalisation that was central to the power-sharing of the Europe of the Regions – that some powers are transferred upwards because they refer to issues that go beyond one or two regions or states but affect us all, while others should be transferred downwards so that they are closer to the populations which they serve.

But if we want Wales to be represented as effectively as possible in Europe, then, given the different agendas of the unionist parties, we’ll only achieve that through a strong Plaid showing on June 4th and aiming high for a second seat in the European Parliament.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tamil Protest in London

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and this morning watching the Tamils protesting outside the Houses of Parliament.

Yesterday, I sat and watched as thousands of people gathered between Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to protest against UK and international inaction of the situation in the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and thousands of innocent people killed in fighting in recent months according to the UN.

The mood of the protest was peaceful but showed their frustration with the international community, many waving Tamil Tigers flags or with slogans about the possible genocide taking place in north-east Sri Lanka.

I came to work this morning after hearing that the protests had been going on all night and that there were concerns that some of the protestors might jump into the Thames.

It was just as I arrived at Westminster Bridge this morning that the police came in to break up the protest, which had closed down the Bridge and Victoria Embankment overnight.

It was a painfully sad sight to watch families being broken up and peaceful protestors being dragged along the street and I spent around half an hour watching the police as they forced the protestors back along the street to Parliament Square, trying to comfort women and children who had lost their husbands or brothers in the crowd and helping those who had been injured (which seemed mercifully few) to get medical attention nearby.

As an internationalist party, we have been in regular contact with members of Tamil groups in the UK over the last few months, keeping me and the party up-to-date with what news is coming out from Sri Lanka, but today I just felt so horribly powerless as people gave me first hand testimony of how they'd lost contact with their families back home and begging me to help.

It was a humbling experience and a reminder of the role and responsibilities that the international community have to groups around the world - and the international community must act as one to prevent deaths of innocent people in Sri Lanka and to bring an end to the armed struggle there.

UPDATE: I've added some photos to my Facebook account for anyone interested.