Saturday, 7 May 2016

Small earthquake

Well, that's it. After weeks of campaigning, some lively debate, a marginally better voter turnout and what would anywhere else be significant shifts in the popular vote, the hybrid first-past-the-post, semi-proportional electoral system decreed for Wales has left things pretty much as they were. It's five more years of Labour, minus the over-inflated ego of Leighton Andrews.


Writing in this morning's Guardian Professor Richard Wyn Jones notes, "the operation of this system meant that a drop in Labour’s constituency level support from 42% in 2011 to 35% in 2016, and in regional list support from 36.9% to 29%, resulted in the loss of only a single seat".

In another piece written ahead of the election, he described the voting system as "sticky" and perverse, giving Labour a big in-built advantage. "Huge shifts in the patterns of party support at the ballot box have very little impact in terms of the make-up of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay", and yet the operation of the regional list system also manages to be unfair to Labour voters, and this time round, for example, those who put a cross in the Labour box on the regional list in the North unwittingly secured the election of the appalling Nathan Gill and a non-entity called Michelle Brown for Ukip.

Rotten apples

Ironically, and more by accident than design, the system delivered seven regional seats for Ukip, reflecting the 13% of the popular vote they achieved across Wales. The winners include Gareth Bennett who thinks that migrants are "unhygienic", Neil Cash-for Questions Hamilton and this idiotic woman reading very badly from a script who thinks that the EU is preventing the police from getting out on the beat, and that her job as an AM is to secure more powers for Westminster.

Two of the Ukip crop do not even live in Wales. If you want to be a community councillor, effectively an unpaid volunteer prepared to mow grass, pick up litter and deal with dog mess, you must by law live in or within a few miles of the small town or village you represent. The Senedd must be one of the few legislatures in the world where you can become a member without bothering to live in the country whose laws you help shape. If you bother turning up, of course.

Neil Hamilton's response to questions about his home address was to say that he lives "near the M4".

If that was not perverse enough, we have lost the services of two of the most able and widely respected former AMs in the shape of William Powell and Aled Roberts (both LibDem).

It was a disastrous night for the LibDems, deservedly so in Ceredigion where their candidate Elizabeth Evans ran one of the most dishonest and negative campaigns anywhere in the country.

Room 101

The Tories also had a pretty dire time of it, and have thankfully been relegated to third place. In Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Matthew Paul saw his party's share of the vote drop from 20% to 15%. Writing in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald he spends a lot of time talking about Hitler's astrologer before going on to compare Adam Price to the bonkers David Icke. Er, no.

Matthew notes that his own Daily Mail horoscope predicted that "doors that have been firmly shut will spring open this week".

The only thing that opened for Matthew was a trap door.

Plaid had a mixed night. The fantastic outcome in the Rhondda and stonking victories in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and Ceredigion were balanced by disappointing results in Aberwconwy (close), Llanelli (even closer) and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (a poor third).

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire must surely qualify as one of the most unnatural constituencies in Wales, bringing together places as diverse as Tenby and Carmarthen, Saundersfoot and Llanboidy, and the result is that most of its voters are effectively disenfranchised, no matter which party wins.

The C Factor

Llanelli is a special case all on its own. Helen Mary Jones and her team worked incredibly hard and nearly pulled it off. Her quiet dignity and good humour were characteristic after what must have been for her a bitterly disappointing defeat.

There were a number of factors at play here. First, Helen Mary was unlucky to be up against a strong Labour opponent. Lee Waters is young, bright and has strong local roots. In a party dominated by the likes of Kevin Madge, Tegwen Devichand and Kerry Thomas, Lee cuts a lonely figure.

On his blog he tells us that he has "an intolerance for mediocrity". If he is true to his word, he is likely to burst more than a few blood vessels as he settles down to life with Llanelli Labour.

A second factor which won't have helped Helen Mary is Carmarthenshire County Council, until recently led by Labour in coalition with the evergreen poison ivy Independents who have managed to maintain their stranglehold on the new Plaid-led administration.

It seems like only yesterday that Kevin Madge was robustly defending decisions on sports pitches and parks in the south of the county, only for Lee Waters to blame the mess on Plaid.

Last but not least, Plaid's prospects were probably sunk once again by the presence on the ballot paper of Siân Caiach.

Siân is a brave, principled and obstinate force of nature, and unlike any other county councillor in Carmarthenshire, she has a large personal following. The tragedy for her and for Plaid in Llanelli is that what began largely as a personality clash has been allowed to fester for so long and cause so much damage.

Almost for sure, that is not how Siân would see things, but she is one of those people it was always going to be better having in the tent. At which point the analogy breaks down for biological reasons and the law of gravity.

If a repeat is to be avoided next time round, personal animosities and resentment need to be set aside, and an olive branch offered from inside the tent.


As far as the rest of us are concerned, a priority must now be to tackle the absurd voting system. Labour will for obvious reasons be uninclined to want change, but the looming reorganisation of Westminster constituencies which will see Wales reduced from 40 to 29 seats should be the catalyst. No political party in its right mind wants to end up fighting elections on constituency boundaries which differ wildly from year to year.

And looming over all of that is the NHS. After 17 years of Labour in control, the service is moving ever closer to meltdown.

It was obvious from the leaders' debates that health is by far the most important issue for most voters, and yet Labour is in denial. The NHS will be an even hotter topic at the next election, for sure.

The last word goes to Lyndon Rosser who had this to say on Twitter:

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A Norwegian Blue writes

Only four more sleeps until we get the results of what has to be one of the most extraordinary election campaigns any of us can remember. It sputtered into life under the shadow of the EU referendum, and seemed destined to be a low-key affair with an even lower turnout - the warm-up act for the main event.

The Tories were busy tearing themselves to pieces in what still promises to be a revival of the old Carry On franchise.

Carry On down the Khazi, starring Michael Gove as Kenneth Williams, Boris Johnson as Terry Scott, Chris Grayling as Bernard Bresslaw, Theresa May as battle-axe Joan Sims and a special guest appearance by Nigel Farage as Sid James will be returning to a TV screen near you soon.

Labour was clearly nervous at the start of the campaign, concentrating its canvassing efforts on what should be rock-solid constituencies in Cardiff and the Valleys. Places like Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, once Labour strongholds, were abandoned and activists packed off to shore up the likes of Leighton Andrews, Jane Hutt and Jenny Rathbone, supplemented by a busload of students from Birmingham.

Then came the steel crisis, which was undoubtedly a welcome distraction for Labour because the issue that is exercising voters the length and breadth of Wales more than anything else is the NHS and social care, with education coming not far behind.

The Tories dithered, and Labour seized on this golden PR opportunity to make all the right noises without actually doing anything. A concerned Carwyn went down to Port Talbot, while Stephen Kinnock flew around the world, TV cameras in tow, and was probably jetting off somewhere else when he missed a crucial meeting to discuss the proposed management buyout.

One of Jeremy Corbyn's policy advisers was accused of bragging that the steel crisis had "played well for Labour". Ukip blamed it all on the EU, forgetting to mention that it had voted against proposals in the European Parliament which would have enabled the EU to impose higher tariffs on Chinese steel. Although the measure was passed, it was then blocked by the Tory-LibDem coalition in London and their allies.

The sigh of relief from Labour was audible from Penmaenmawr to Pontypool, but then came the row about anti-semitism, with Ken Livingstone enacting a re-run of this North Minehead by-election.

Meanwhile, over in Ceredigion, voters are quaking in their boots at the prospect of answering a knock on the door only to find the bonkers Tory Dr Felix Aubel glowering at them. Dr Aubel was recently memorably described as the Donald Trump of Trelech, and he is an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons, yelling "Peace through Strength" on Pawb a'i Farn a few weeks back. Dr A's Congregationalist flock can look forward to the traditional fires of hell being replaced by a thermo-nuclear holocaust if their minister has his way.

Yes, all human life is in this campaign, and anyone looking for a little light relief could do worse than turn to Matthew Paul's weekly column in the Carmarthenshire Herald.

As a fox-hunting Oxbridge barrister, Matthew clearly knows what is on the minds of the people of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, where he is standing in the Boy's Own Conservative and Unionist interest.

This week he does a pretty good hatchet job on Labour's Ladybird Book manifesto, 24 pages of pretty pictures, few words and even fewer explanations about just how we will arrive in the Promised Land. He compares the party's optimistic 1999 vision with the drab 2016 reality before turning his blunderbuss on Adam Price for Plaid.

Matthew's main grouse with his rival is that Adam is not your average, run-of-the-mill non-entity, and has even been described as Y Mab Darogan, a man who wants to transform the fortunes of our nation. This all seems to have been started by the BBC's Vaughan Roderick who had this to say in a prophetic eponymous piece back in 2009:

Ychydig iawn o wleidyddion Cymru sy'n gallu denu newyddiadurwyr gwleidyddol i neuadd cynhadledd er mwyn gwrando ar araith.......Un o'r eithriadau prin yw Adam Price- un sy'n gwybod nid yn unig lle mae "g-spot" ei blaid ond un y wasg hefyd. Mae gan Adam y gallu i bleisio pob carfan o'i blaid gan gyfuno cyfeiraidau at Dryweryn, Streic y Glowyr, Merched Beca a Nye Bevan mewn ffordd sy'n swnio'n gwbwl naturiol.

(Very few Welsh politicians can attract political journalists [out of their hotel rooms, Ed.] to the conference hall to listen to a speech. One of the rare exceptions is Adam Price, someone who knows not only where to find his party's 'g-spot', but that of the press as well. Adam has the ability to please every section of his party by combining references to Tryweryn, the Miners' Strike, Beca's Daughters and Nye Bevan in a way which sounds completely natural.)

Matthew, who must be contemplating whether he will be pushed into fourth or fifth place on Thursday, has this to say.

Matthew weighs in

But while some of us worry about the NHS, schools, whether our children will be able to afford higher education and their future prospects, Matthew has his mind set on the issues which really matter to the people of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, such as the fate of the bronze cock of Jesus College, Cambridge, a subject he covered at length in his column a few weeks back.

The cockerel was looted by the British along with thousands of other ceremonial pieces from what is now Nigeria just over a hundred years ago. 

The unfortunate independent kingdom of Benin had been unwise enough to resist attempts to subjugate it by the British. An armed force equipped with machine guns took on men armed with spears and bows and arrows. Palaces, temples and much of the rest of Benin City were torched, and uncontrolled looting by British troops ensued.

Or as Matthew Paul sees this most shameful episode, “a gunboat was sent to give the natives a bloody good hiding”.

The loot was shipped back to England, and a great deal of it was flogged off, much of it to the Kaiser in Germany, but the bronze cockerel ended up in Jesus College, Cambridge.  A large number of other items taken from Benin languish in storage in the British Museum.

To their credit, the students of Jesus College recently voted to return the cockerel to its rightful owners.

Matthew was outraged.

Perhaps Jesus College, Oxford might like to follow suit and return Llyfr Coch Hergest, one of the earliest and most important Welsh manuscripts, to the National Library of Wales. 

Toodle-pip and tally ho!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Mud slinging

A year ago the Cambrian News did a hatchet job on Mike Parker, Plaid's candidate in Ceredigion, with banner headlines which suggested that Mike, who spent his formative years in Kidderminster, was a swivel-eyed racist advocating the ethnic cleansing of the English from Wales.

In reality, someone had dug up a magazine article written years before in which he had described how members of extreme right-wing fringe groups were moving to parts of rural Wales and bringing their nasty ideas and friends with them.

Labour's candidate, Huw Thomas, certainly knew the truth behind the Cambrian's headlines, but chose to get on his rocking horse, feign shock and horror and call for Mike to step down.

It did not take long before someone else delved into Huw's more recent past to produce a whole series of unfortunate and infantile remarks he had made on an online forum, including advocating throwing Tippex on cars displaying the English flag.

This was gutter politics of the worst kind, and there is no doubt that some of the mud stuck. Who initiated this campaign of character assassination is not clear, but the Cambrian News bears most of the responsibility for its handling of the story.

Now there is more mud slinging in the election for North Wales Police Commissioner.

Someone has trawled through the Twitter account of the Plaid candidate, Arfon Jones, and come up with two tweets out of thousands to imply that Arfon is a friend of Jihadist extremists. You can read the BBC's account here.

Who initiated this latest round of smears is not clear, but one of the other candidates has a lot of form when it comes to cyber attacks and character assassination.

Making serious political points using humour on Twitter or any other forum can be dangerous because it is child's play to rip comments out of context. Twitter, with its 140 character limit, is also not an ideal place to engage in serious political debate on complex issues such as the Middle East.

The points Arfon Jones was making were firstly that the security forces in the UK already have a vast battery of sweeping powers at their disposal, and that proposals to extend the frontiers of the police and surveillance state even further by giving the authorities legal cover to store pretty much everything that anyone does online
are a serious threat to the liberties and civil rights which the Government and security services say they are protecting from terrorists and other extremists.

That is a legitimate point of view and one shared by lots of people across the political spectrum.

Arfon's second point was the the UK bears at least some of the responsibility for the existence of groups such as ISIS.

There are certainly a lot of people who think that if Tony Blair had not been so willing to throw in our lot with George W Bush and his 'War on Terror' that the Middle East might be a very different place to the what it is today.

Again, that is a perfectly legitimate view and one shared by people in all of the mainstream political parties, and it certainly does not make Arfon an extremist, as claimed by David Jones, Tory MP for Clwyd West.

Who has been muddying the waters here is not clear, but Labour's candidate for Police Commissioner in the north, David Taylor, has a lot of form.

Taylor made a name for himself a few years back by making some very tasteless remarks on Twitter about victims of the Hillsborough disaster while he was watching a game in a pub.

He was working as a researcher for Leighton Andrews at the time, and his activities included setting up an anonymous website to launch personal attacks on political opponents.

Unlike Arfon Jones, who was a police inspector and spent 30 years with the police, Taylor's career has largely been spent working as a backroom boy in Labour's spin machine.

So which of these two would make a better police commissioner? A man who cares about civil liberties and thinks about the consequences of UK foreign policy, or a political attack dog?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

21,800 shades of grey

One of the juiciest perks enjoyed by council chief executives is the role of returning officer, and the untimely departure of Bryn Parry Jones in Pembrokeshire means that Mark James is now the doyen of the very exclusive club of local authority returning officers in the south-west.

Why extremely well-paid chief executives should be paid huge bonuses for overseeing elections is a mystery, and sadly Plaid Cymru's proposals to reform the system were stonewalled by Labour a couple of years ago.

The result is that 2016 will produce a bumper crop of fees for Mark James, what with the elections to the Assembly, the police commisisoner election and the upcoming EU referendum. We won't get much change out of £30,000, and if that was not generous enough, Mr James can also decide when it is most tax efficient to pay himself. How many council staff entitled to claim "expenses" can submit a claim and be paid in advance for the work to be carried out?

Mr James has had plenty of practice at organising elections over the years, so perhaps the bungling we have seen this year is down to the loss of Bryn Parry Jones's guiding hand.

First, Carmarthenshire County Council lost applications for postal votes. This was blamed on a technical issue at the printers.

If we are to believe that, a lot of personal information vanished into the ether, with the council not having kept any electronic files of the data. Perhaps it was inscribed on parchment with quill pens and posted to the printers who binned it as junk mail. But whatever happened, it was of course somebody else's fault.

Next, 28,000 postal ballots for the Welsh Assembly elections were sent out with a serious wording error, meaning that the council had to write to everyone and send out a new batch at almost the last minute.

Anyone who has used the incorrect papers to vote will find that their vote does not count. But don't panic. Here is the council's explanation.

Got that? Bin the grey version, and use the tan coloured papers. Here they are:

You may be forgiven for thinking that the new ballot papers look, um, grey.

A concerned old age pensioner contacted Y Cneifiwr to say, "the original mid and west Wales ballot paper was pale green, not grey. The new ballot paper is grey not tan . The instructions tell us to jettison the old "grey" ballot paper and replace it with the new "tan" ballot paper.  Presumably therefore if we send back the new ballot paper which is not tan, but grey, they will think it's the old grey, but actually green, ballot paper and it will be null and void."

And the bad news may not stop there. The regional voting system is complex and a very small number of votes could decide the fate of some candidates, opening up the possibility of legal challenge and, in the worst case scenario, a re-run of the election and yet more money for Mr James.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Goose stepping to victory

Twitter is like a city. There are pleasant leafy parks and gardens, interesting people and places. You may sometimes engage with people you disagree with, but because you disagree with them doesn't mean they don't sometimes have interesting things to say.

And then there are those parts of town which are best avoided, and on Twitter just as in real life, anyone with common sense knows the places not to go, and the sort of accounts it's best not to follow.

The account belonging to Nathan Gill, our Ukip MEP, is one of those places it is generally best not to go, but you can still take a peak at what he's broadcasting to the world without following him, and his timeline is full of stuff which tells you a lot about Gill's view of the world.

Last night his attention was caught by the presidential elections in Austria. The first round of voting was won by Norbert Hofer representing the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, and he now faces a run-off second ballot.

Hofer is, to put it mildly, a highly unsavoury character whose passions include weapons and a belief in pan-Germanic nationalism. At his behest, his party's official aims now include statements to the effect that Austria is a part of the "Deutsche Volksgemeinschaft", or German national community. This is a term with very strong Nazi overtones.

Hofer has also appeared in the Austrian parliament wearing a blue cornflower which was a symbol worn by Nazi sympathisers in Austria before Hitler's annexation of his former homeland. He has also complained bitterly that Austrian children are being "brain-washed" by the state when they are taught about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes.

28_20131029_Norbert Hofer(c)Martin Juen

Over in the European Parliament, Ukip and the FPO sit in different groups, but they have a lot in common. Anti-EU, anti-immigration policies are just a start, and the national parties and some of their MEPs to and fro between different groups with bewildering regularity. Gill's former colleague,the very undelightful Janice Atkinson, now sits with Hofer's troops, for example.

So when Nathan Gill pressed the retweet button on this from someone called David Jones ("UK government have abandoned Brits. We need to exit EU, ECHR, stop all immigration + look after British people. Like UKIP. Southampton/Isle of Wight"), I can't help feeling that like Mr Jones, Gill was quite pleased to see Herr Hofer doing so well, don't you?