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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Tories still in love with the quango state

Whatever one's view of the Welsh bonfire of the Quangos, there is no doubt that it tackled one particular malaise, namely the tendency of Tory Secretary of States for Wales to rule through unelected placemen and women, most of whom shared political views with those who appointed them.

Today's Times indicates that this particular malaise still infects the body politic in England at least, where democratic devolution has not yet been put in place.

The paper says that Conservative party donors, departing Tory MPs and journalists close to David Cameron have all been called upon to serve as part of a rush of public appointments to quangos and arts bodies before the election.

They add that key funding boards, which distribute government and lottery money, are now overseen by former Tory MPs while some of Britain’s finest museums have Tory donors on their boards:

Most of the appointments happened in one block last Friday, March 27, when the Commons was not sitting and Ed Miliband launched his campaign.

Sir Peter Luff, the former Tory defence minister who is standing down at this election, was appointed by Sajid Javid to be chairman of the board that runs the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The latter alone has £375 million to invest in projects each year.

Sir Peter Ainsworth, another former Tory MP, was also re-appointed chairman of the Big Lottery Fund.

This appointment was made by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, publicly signalling that he is expecting a seat in the House of Lords after the election.

Among his other appointments to the Big Lottery Fund was Rachael Robathan, a Tory councillor in Westminster and wife of Andrew Robathan, former defence minister.

On the same day, Mr Javid appointed four board members to the British Library.

One of them was the property magnate Sir John Ritblat, who was listed as being on the prime minister’s table at last July’s Tory fundraiser. Another was Jonathan Callaway, who overlapped with Mr Javid at Deutsche Bank.

The prime minister appointed three trustees to the Imperial War Museum. One was Matthew Westerham, who donated £5,500 to the Conservative party. There were also three appointments to the Geffrye Museum, including Alexandra Robson, a Conservative “A-lister” who took part in the infamous candidate “fast track” process to become a Tory MP before the 2010 election.

Nicholas Coleridge, an early Cameron cheerleader and the publisher of Condé Nast magazines, has been made chairman of the V&A museum.

Dame Mary Archer will be chairwoman of the Science Museum Group and will be joined by Matthew d’Ancona, the Tory inclined Guardian journalist, and David Willetts, the former science minister.

There has of course still been controversy about appointments in Wales but at least here the process of filling these positions is subject to clear rules and is far more transparent. It may not be perfect but it is a major improvement on what is going on over the border.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Labour under fire over advertisment

The Telegraph reports that Labour is facing embarrassment after businesses featured in a political advert about the risks of Britain leaving the EU distanced themselves from Labour.

They say that the party took out a full-page advert in the Financial Times featuring quotes from six of Britain's biggest business leaders warning about the risks of leaving the EU.The advert has the tag-line: "The biggest risk to British business is the threat of an EU exit. Labour will put the national interest first. We will deliver reform, not exit.”However, the quotes used in the advert were up to two years old and several of the companies quoted have raised concerns:

A spokeswoman for Siemens UK, whose chief executive is quoted in the advert, said that the Labour Party has "overstepped the line".

The spokeswoman said that the company had not been informed that a quote made by Juergen Maier, the chief executive, would be used in the advert.

She said: "They did speak to us about the quote, which is absolutely fine. The content is something he has spoken about many times.

"But we were not told it would be used in an advert. We were not given any warning. We are apolitical, we don't endorse political parties, we wouldn't have agreed to be in an advert for the Labour Party. The feeling is that they have overstepped the line."

The advert includes a quote from Jonathan Myers, the head of Kellogg's UK and EU operations, made in March last year: "The biggest short term rick to Manchester's competitiveness in the EU is a simple one. It is the risk the UK could leave it."

A source close to Kellogg's said that the company had only been contacted on Sunday as a "courtesy" by the Labour Party, and was not given the option of removing its name from the advert.

The source said "eyebrows were raised" by the advert: "Clearly we have concern with anything that goes into the public domain that would lean us to a political party. We are politically neutral.

Clearly, it is not the content that is the problem but the timing and association. You can never be too careful.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Labour borrowing under scrutiny

Labour plans to run the economy have come under scrutiny today with the revelation by the neutral Institute for Fiscal Studies that the party could still be borrowing £30 billion a year at the end of the next parliament if they were to form the next Government.

According to the Times, Paul Johnson, who is the director of the IFS, has said that Labour's plans could mean they would still be borrowing as much as £30 billion a year by 2020:

Ed Balls has vowed to stop borrowing to finance day-to-day spending, but would continue to borrow for infrastructure and other investment spending if he became chancellor.

The Conservatives have promised to end borrowing for both day-to-day spending and investment spending by 2018 and could — according to the Office for Budget Responsibility — be running a £7 billion surplus by 2020.

Mr Johnson told the BBC: “They [Labour] don’t want to get rid of the deficit altogether, they are happy to borrow to invest. They would be happy with a deficit of £25-£30 billion, whereas the Conservatives don’t want a deficit at all.”

Liberal Democrats of course, also wish to eliminate the deficit by 2018 but will do so by cutting less and taxing the rich more.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Labour try to out-UKIP Farage

We all knew that Labour are unprincipled, opportunistic and popularist but even the cynics on the interweb last night were not expecting a gaffe so dreadful that it confimed all their prejudices in spades. However, as the New Statesman says, it wasnt really a gaffe. It was a calculated and cynical manouevre designed to counter UKIP, whilst undermining the Tory USP. And that makes it even worse:

Labour has come under fire from its own activists after releasing a branded mug that promises “Controls on immigration”. The troublesome cup is being condemned as unspeakably naff at best and outright racist at worst.  The worst part is, it isn’t a gaffe.

A Labour spinner tells ITV News, not unreasonably: "Labour has five election pledges. This is one of the election pledges." To which the only response is: yes. That’s exactly the problem. Five years after Ed Miliband was elected on a promise to take Britain to the left, and three years after that this was a “centre-left moment”, the only one of Labour’s pledges that excites anyone is a pledge to "control immigration".

The case for Labour’s defence is this: large majorities of the public think that immigration is out of control. Labour’s biggest mistake according to the average voter wasn’t the war in Iraq – it was the party’s failure to manage migration. That’s why, when asked to describe New Labour’s biggest mistakes during that first debate, Miliband settled on immigration. That’s why he promises to “bear down” on immigration, and his party’s latest fundraising wheeze is to sell mugs promising illusory controls” on migration.

That’s why, privately, Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter.

Just one teeny-tiny fly in the ointment: it doesn’t seem to be working. Increasingly rancorous language about migrants and benefits has done nothing to secure Labour’s increasingly alarming position in the polls. If anyone can be said to have “won” from the party’s vituperative rhetoric, it is the surging Greens.

The big problem for Labour is that the party obviously doesn’t believe what its saying; Miliband looks uncomfortable and unhappy whenever he attacks immigration, and its actual policy – a two-year wait before any new arrival can claim benefits – won’t do anything to turn migrants away.

This is the same old Labour Party, manipulative and unprincipled. As the New Statesman says though, the problem with copying UKIP is that Labour will end up with the UKIP solutions of promising ever greater barriers on migration, and even more punitive measures for the people who make it past those barriers.

If that is what they want to do then isn't it time they came clean and said it?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Plaid Cymru launch leaves them with no USP

Yesterday's Plaid Cymru election launch was splashed across all Welsh media with their message that voters need to seize the opportunity to take the future of Wales into their own hands. However, closer inspection indicates that what is actually on offer is just Labour-lite with a dragon attached.

The promise that the nationalists will unite with the SNP and the Greens to form a negotiating bloc in the event of a hung Parliament is fair enough, but it is unlilkely that such an unstable alliance will prove attractive to anybody.

What is most bizarre about Plaid's position though is that this loose coalition of competing interests will only talk to Labour. That certainly fits in with their leftist leanings but leaves them with no leverage in forcing Ed Miliband's party to accept their demands.

More importantly, the message it sends out to voters is that Plaid Cymru is just an alternative Labour Party. If that is the case then why vote nationalist when people can choose the real thing?  It leaves Plaid Cymru strategy in a muddle and with no unique selling point.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Greenhouse gas emissions fall but is it too late?

The fall in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions was 8.4% last year due to a slump in household energy consumption a fall in the use of coal for electricity generation and policies on climate change. It shows that the Liberal Democrats green influence on government is having an impact.

The Guardian says that carbon dioxide output fell by almost a tenth, as renewable energy generation rose to a new record high, accounting for nearly a fifth of electricity. This is the biggest fall in emissions since 1990.

Environmental campaigners say that more needs to be done and they are right. The big question though is whether this improvement is too late or not? There is a case to say that the effects of climate change are already irreversible.

That is something that only time can tell.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why Prince Charles' letters had to be published

I very much welcome the decision of the Supreme Court that letters written by Prince Charles to Ministers should be published.

In essence their ruling underlines the fact that because of his position the heir to the throne cannot act as if he were a private citizen. He is not and never has been a private citizen. That much is clear from the influence he is able to exercise in Government and beyond.

More importantly, the court has also re-established the principle that an unelected person should not have undue influence on elected Government Ministers without that influence being subject to public scrutiny. To do otherwise would have subverted the basis of our constitution and the democratic will of the people.

Nor can it be argued that Ministers and civil servants would not have been influenced by his view. Consider this passage from the Times:

One hearing in 2010 was told tha​t Prince Charles had expressed his views to Harold Wilson, then prime minister, on the plight of Atlantic salmon.

Paul Richards, a former adviser to Hazel Blears, the former communities secretary, claimed that when one “black spider” letter arrived, “it was treated with great reverence and went straight to the top of the pile in the red box containing the minister’s business for the day, over and above letters from other ministers and even cabinet papers”.
Mr Richards also claimed that Charles had written to Yvette Cooper about the design of eco-towns, and complained to Ed Balls, then education secretary, over changes to the primary school syllabus.

Some of the prince’s earlier letters have also been leaked, most notably a 2002 missive to Tony Blair in which he told the then prime minister, at the height of the debate over the fox-hunting ban, that he agreed with farmers who believed they were victimised more than “blacks or gays”.

The leak prompted St James’s Palace to take the unusual step of issuing a statement defending the prince’s letter writing, saying: “The Prince of Wales … believes part of his role must be to highlight views in danger of not being heard.

“This role can only be fulfilled properly if complete confidentiality is maintained. It is not about exerting undue pressure or campaigning privately.”

I think we need to take that last statement under advisement. After all Prince Charles is not the reigning monarch, nor is he expressing view to the Prime Minister in a private hearing once a week. Instead he has been actively seeking to influence Ministers and officials at all levels over a substantial period of time.

The damage that Prince Charles could do to the independence of the Monarchy through this activity is best summed up by one of his defenders, the previous Attorney General, Dominic Grieve:

Any perception that Charles had disagreed with the government of the day, Mr Grieve argued, “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.

The fact is that he consistently wrote disagreeing with the government of the day, an act that was both reckless and an abuse of his position in my view.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why should we expect fairness from an unfair system?

There has been a lot of publicity today of claims by a race equality campaigner that the lack of black and Asian MPs in Wales is a "huge problem" which political parties need to take seriously.

The BBC report that none of the 10 ethnic minority candidates standing in Wales for one of the four parties with MPs at Westminster is in a seat where their party came first or second in 2010 and that no black or Asian MP has ever been elected in Wales:

The candidates from a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) background include five Lib Dems, three Conservatives, two Plaid Cymru and none from Labour. UKIP refused to provide details.

The ratio of BAME candidates - one in 16 - is slightly better than the one in 20 of the Welsh population of BAME heritage recorded by the 2011 Census

But Mr Singh said BAME candidates should be given more winnable seats.

"Wales is a multicultural, multiracial country and we need inclusiveness," he said.

This is of course hugely concerning and there is much more that we can do including training and support. I am not though in favour of quotas of any kind as people need to be selected for seats on their own merits.

The question though is why should we be surprised? Putting aside the training and support issue, we are operating within a basically unfair system in which many MPs are elected with less than 50% of those voting and outcomes do not reflect the way people vote.

A proportional system can favour independents and minorities as well as ensuring that we get the Parliament we wanted at the ballot box. After all, why would anybody expect an unfair system to produce a fair outcome?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Does the Welsh Labour Government complain too much?

If you spend long enough in the chamber of the National Assembly for Wales then you will quickly come to the conclusion that everything is the fault of the coalition government in Westminster. Well that is the refrain from Welsh Labour AMs and Ministers, week in, week out.

This piece by David Cornock on the Barnett formula then is especially interesting. He reports on his conversation with Gerry Holtham around the report written by the Cardiff-based economist for the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Professor Holtham, who first categorically established that Wales would be treated more generously if we were funded on the basis of need rather than the population-based Barnett formula, was asked about his assessment of where Wales stands now, some years after his study was published:

He told me: "At the time we did the research it was £300 m to £400 m a year less than it would get if it were an English region getting needs-based grants. We don't know what that is now.

"Given the squeeze on public finances it's probably a smaller number, the shortfall is probably less than it was then. Even then, it was only a couple of per cent of the Welsh budget so we're probably down to one per cent of the Welsh budget."

In comments that may yet be worth recalling the next time you hear a politician use his figures, he added: "It's not going to change the world. Welsh government has to find a way forward apart from just complaining about the grant."

Given that the principle of a funding floor has now been conceded by the Treasury, perhaps it is time we established what the current situation is rather than complaining at every turn and then put in place a proper action plan to take advantage of the UK Government's revised position on this matter.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Has Alex Salmond sunk Ed Miliband in England?

It is already being billed as Alex Salmond's Sheffield rally moment, a reference to Neil Kinnock's fatal triumphalism during the 1992 General Election, but it is likely that the fallout from the former SNP Leader's speech at the weekend will damage his potential allies more than his own party.

The Times reports that the Scottish nationalists intend to fully exploit their power over a future Labour government by demanding billions in extra spending and the diversion of resources north of the border as well as another referendum on independence:

The former first minister, who is running for a Westminster seat and is set to play a key role in any power- sharing talks, suggested that even a very loose agreement to back Labour on a vote-by-vote basis would hand the SNP the chance to amend Mr Miliband’s spending plans. It means the Labour leader will come under pressure to explain how he would stop the SNP from ambushing the budget when he gives a speech in Clydebank today.

Already, the Tories have unveiled a cartoon showing Mr Salmond playing a pipe, while Mr Miliband dances. The accompanying video claims that a “deal with the SNP now seems to be Ed Miliband’s only route to power”, and that its popular former leader would be able to “call the tune”.

This is going to damage Labour in England, and possibly Wales as well. Having survived one constitutional crisis, voters outside Scotland will not want Labour to precipitate another through a confidence and supply deal with the SNP. The Tories are going to exploit this for all it is worth.

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