Saturday, 10 June 2017

Reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic

As the dust settles on what amounted to almost three months of uninterrupted campaigning which began with the run-up to the county council elections while the daffodils were still out, it's time for a few reflections.

Cneifiwr managed to fit in a few days of canvassing and leafleting, and several memories stand out. First was a day spent out visiting remote houses and farms on a truly glorious day in May with Hazel Evans, our county councillor.

It is easy to forget what a beautiful place Carmarthenshire is; standing for a few moments in the sunshine watching a tiny wren flitting in and out of the lush green vegetation on the edge of a stream in Cwm Morgan and the sound of the water - it was worth it just for that. Or chatting outside a house in Tanglwst and gazing across miles and miles of uninterrupted open country, with the owner pointing out that there, shimmering in the distance, you could see a little bit of the Ceredigion coast.

Few of us realise how hard most councillors work. Like many rural wards, Cenarth is huge with hundreds of miles of single track lanes and farms and houses at the end of long, often rough tracks. Hazel knows almost everyone, and one of the challenges of canvassing with her is keeping moving and resisting the temptation to chat for half an hour. That and the incessant incoming phone calls on council business.

Then there was the little old lady on a large council estate near Carmarthen who came to the door in her curlers. She had always voted Labour but was willing to give Plaid a go. Just at that moment, Jonathan Edwards came bounding up.

"I won't let you down", he said. "You'd better not, or I'll be after you", she replied.

Or watching the Prifardd Mererid Hopwood sprint over to talk to a group of young men holding a very noisy party in a back garden. "All right, darling?" She leaned on the fence and chatted to them for a few minutes, and came away beaming. "We'll put them down as 'don't know'; I think they were probably off their heads", she said.

The issues which came up on the doorstep were as varied as the people we met. Broadband, mobile phone coverage, the lack of employment prospects for young people, pensions, fears about Brexit, agriculture, social care, business regulation, defence and alarm at the nastiness and growing intolerance of politics in England - all of these and more were raised, and no single issue dominated.

Campaigning for Jonathan Edwards makes things a lot easier. He is hugely popular, and his appeal crosses all the divides. Plaid Cymru positioned itself in this election as a shield to protect the Welsh national interest, and that is how many voters see Jonathan - as someone who will fight our corner and is not afraid to take on the powers that be.

Elections have nothing to do with fairness; many very good candidates from all parties went down to defeat. As often as not in the case of the Tories and Labour, mediocrity triumphs thanks only to the colour of their rosette.

In Llanelli Mari Arthur would have been an exceptionally good MP, but the cards were stacked heavily against her. She had very little time to get her campaign off the ground, and lost out to Nia Griffith who ironically swept to victory on the coat tails of Jeremy Corbyn and tactical voting. Slightly further afield, one of the stand-out candidates was Daniel Williams for Plaid in Neath.

Let's hope that they both agree to stand again.

In Ceredigion Ben Lake won by the narrowest of margins; like Mari and Daniel he is testament to the incredibly high calibre of candidates Plaid was able to field, and like Jonathan Edwards, he succeeded by building bridges rather than playing divisive politics.

In Carmarthen East and Dinefwr Jonathan Edwards increased both the number of votes and his share of the overall vote against a very strong tide.

Labour and the Tories both increased their votes by sucking up most of the 4,363 votes which went to UKIP back in 2015.

The Labour candidate, Dave Darkin, put up a slightly more energetic fight than his predecessor in the closing stages of the campaign, but was both inexperienced and out of his depth. Labour never expected to regain the constituency, and it showed.

For the Tories, Havard Hughes' campaign was every bit as disastrous and nasty as Theresa May's. Divisive, arrogant and completely unconvincing, local Tories must be furious at having Hughes imposed on them at the last minute. He could have knocked Labour into third place, but relied instead on empty slogans and the Tory press to get his message across.

We are supposed to be gracious in victory, but saying anything other than good riddance would be insincere.

Good riddance too to Neil Hamilton who lost his deposit and failed to visit the constituency even once. All the more stomach churning was the decision by BBC Wales to put both him and Christine on its panel of "experts" at the beginning of their election night coverage.

The nice LibDem lady admitted during the campaign that she was only standing out of loyalty to her lost cause, and can now get back to gardening.

Pundits....

Experience has taught Cneifiwr never to predict election results. Just about everyone got this one wrong, but by the last week of the campaign it was becoming clear that the momentum was with Corbyn.

Labour posters began appearing in places where they have never been seen before, and some idiot in Ceredigion spent the last few days illegally plastering Labour posters on bus stops, road signs and other public property all the way from Cenarth to Cardigan.

In his entertaining and sometimes quite sensible column in the Carmarthenshire Herald, Tory barrister Matthew Paul (who stood for the Conservatives in the 2015 general election) was confidently predicting a majority of 85 for Theresa May and disaster for Corbyn - and that in a piece which was presumably written days before we went to the polls.

On the other side of the political fence, one or two of Plaid's senior figures got it equally wrong, even if their predictions were radically different.

The outcome for Plaid can be spun either way - as a triumph on a par with the party's previous best ever result in a general election, or as intensely disappointing.

In reality the result was a bit of both, with luck playing a role in securing narrow victories in Arfon and Ceredigion.

In truth, all of the smaller parties were severely squeezed in the final two weeks of the campaign. That is nothing new - remember how the LibDems were squeezed in 2010 - but the squeeze was more intense this time round with the mainstream media relentlessly portraying this as a presidential race between May and Corbyn, probably because for the first time in decades the two big parties stood on radically different platforms.

Getting out of the rut

Whether a change of political direction for Plaid, taking the party towards the centre-right, a change of leader or "re-branding" would have helped is doubtful.

Perhaps there will be a debate about the future direction of Plaid, but the most important thing now is for the four Plaid MPs to concentrate on exploiting the opportunities which a hung parliament is likely to present.

The Plaid parliamentary group has always punched way above its weight, and those four MPs will certainly achieve more than 28 Stephen Kinnocks, Nia Griffiths or Chris Bryants.

Labour ran a very good campaign, but it remains to be seen whether the unity which held together during the campaign will last. And by the same token if past performance is anything to go by, the 'Welsh' Labour intake will screw up the opportunities the new situation presents. Absenteeism, voting with the Tories, abstaining in crucial votes and forgetting that they represent Welsh constituencies are all old habits which will be hard to break.

Without an independent and successful Welsh media to report on and explain what is happening in Westminster and Cardiff Bay from a Welsh point of view, it is hard to see how awareness of the wider world of Welsh politics can be changed.

But maybe, just maybe, there is reason to hope that the stranglehold of the English right-wing press may be weakening. Fewer and fewer young people rely on the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media for their news, and it seems that at last many more young people woke up and realised that they have got to start voting if they want their future to be decided by someone other than the sort of angry old men we saw calling for a first strike nuclear holocaust on one of the Question Time election specials.

If you have not seen it yet, take a look at the recently launched Nation.Cymru. Mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns, and if Ifan Morgan Jones's new news and analysis vehicle can maintain its momentum, who knows where it may lead.

So although we now have a minority Tory government propped up by the bigoted fundamentalists of the DUP, there are for the first time in years some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. A hung parliament, a very hard-working and fleet of foot Plaid contingent in Westminster, growing political awareness among young voters and the growing popularity of movements such as Yes Cymru all mean that we can together push Wales out of the rut it has been stuck in for so long.

The next couple of years will be crucial in deciding what sort of future our children and grandchildren will have. Let's make it a good one.






Friday, 2 June 2017

Havard Hughes and the Nasty Party

The Tories, LibDems and UKIP have finally got round to sending out election communications - too late for many postal voters.

We can safely ignore the LibDem and UKIP efforts because saving their deposits is about the most they can hope for, but right from the word go the Tories have treated the public and the democratic process with utter contempt.

There are still old-fashioned voters out there who like to talk to candidates and read their literature before casting a vote. For most of the campaign, Theresa May has avoided rubbing shoulders with unvetted voters, refused to engage with the press, refused to take part in televised debates, refused even to talk to Woman's Hour on Radio 4, opting instead to feed the electorate with endlessly repeated, meaningless slogans.


Locally Havard Hughes has adopted much the same tactics.

His large and glossy leaflet is for the most part a re-hash of his profile in the Western Mail, reviewed by this blog here.


He claims that being chosen (parachuted in would be more accurate) to represent the Tories in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is the greatest honour of his life. If that were so, you might think he would have been a bit more active during the campaign, but so far his few public outings, dressed in Sloane Ranger country weekend attire, have been confined to Llandeilo and the surrounding area.

Roughly half of the leaflet is given over to Brexit and Theresa May. He is "Theresa May's candidate", and she is, yes you got there first, "strong and stable". She will deliver a "good Brexit", but he does not tell us what a good Brexit will look like.

Preposterously he claims once again that he would join Theresa May round the negotiating table.

No, he won't, and he won't get within several hundred miles of it.


In this puerile and irresponsible fantasy, it is 1940 all over again, with plucky little Britain standing alone against the evil Juncker and his goose-stepping bureaucratic army who are determined to break the British economy, with Plaid cast as treasonous fifth columnists.

And that's it. No policies, just tired and empty slogans and ludicrous accusations.

The rest of the leaflet is devoted to claims that he is really a local, Welsh-speaking candidate. Yes, he grew up near Carmarthen, but his entire adult life has been spent in England, mostly in London which is where he actually lives. In another breath he tells us that he comes from a long line of farmers, but in the next he tells us that his father was a solicitor and that his grandparents were shopkeepers.

Beneath a picture of a slightly paunchy middle aged man in a smart office shirt and slacks posing with an axe, he tells us that he likes to keep fit by chopping firewood.



There may be people out there who vote for candidates on the basis of rubbish like this, but there can't be many.

The log chopping came up again at the beginning of a Q&A with an audience of young voters on S4C's Hacio programme (link here, 12 minutes in) last night.

Hughes sauntered in looking a bit like Michael Gove, carrying a large wad of papers. Bearing in mind that he is in the PR business, he should have known that the bundle of papers was going to be useless in front of a live audience. If you don't know the answer to a question, fumbling around in a pile of papers is not going to work.

What followed was 10 minutes of excruciating embarrassment as he mangled his way through his pitch, trying to work the words "cryf a sefydlog" (strong and stable) into every answer. The effect was like a Dalek that had been plugged into Google Translate.

Here he is on the subject of Jeremy Corbyn:

Mae Jeremy Corbyn yn person drwg yn fy meddwl i achos ei gwaith gyda'r IRA during the 1980s ("he's a bad person in my mind because of his work with the IRA during the 1980s").

At which point the young man who had asked why Theresa May was not prepared to debate with Corbyn politely interrupted to point out that Hughes was not answering his question.

Hughes huffed and puffed, before saying, "Rwy i ddim yn cytuno. Mae Llywodraeth gryf a sefydlog Theresa May yn un sy'n berffaith yn yr election hon." (I don't agree. Theresa May's strong and stable government is perfect in this election).

Ignoring the way he butchered the language, this was crude, puerile and dishonest, and reflects the tone of the rest of this car crash performance. Apart from anything else, Corbyn would have a strong case for suing Hughes for libel.

Little wonder that the audience, who were politically balanced, shifted uncomfortably in their seats, raised eyebrows and grimaced as Hughes lurched and ground his way through.

For someone whose career is all about communication, Havard Hughes is a remarkably poor communicator.

Hustings 

Hacio was pre-recorded, and last night Havard Hughes ventured back to Llandeilo to take part in a hustings along with the other candidates (except Neil Hamilton for UKIP who has boasted that he has not set foot in the constituency since the election was called).

The sort of people who go along to hustings are by definition interested in politics, intelligent and informed debate. Havard Hughes had other ideas.

Again he turned up with a huge wadge of papers and put on a performance which relied on endless repetition of "strong and stable" (audience groans) and smears.

Jonathan Edwards was nothing but "a troublemaker on the sidelines". An audience member with an English accent commented that he would rather be represented by a troublemaker than a lapdog. Just as in his leaflet and his Wales Online profile, Hughes told incredulous voters that he would be sitting round the EU negotiating table with Theresa May.

The audience bristled at being fobbed off with empty slogans and crude attacks on opponents in what is likely to be their only chance to hear from the Tory candidate before polling day. To make matters worse, several members of the public pulled him up on the pronunciation of Dinefwr, having assumed that a "local" candidate would at least be able to pronounce the name of the constituency.


It is probably for the best that we leave Havard Hughes there, raging incoherently away in his bizarre fantasy world.




Thursday, 1 June 2017

Policing - Chris Bryant v. Jonathan Edwards

Back in February 2006 the then Labour Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, announced plans to reorganise policing in England and Wales, drastically cutting the number of police forces. In Wales he was determined to create a single force.

The Tories were unhappy, with Nick Herbert MP, Clarke's shadow, arguing that it would reduce local accountability. Incredibly, one of the options they were keen to pursue was merging North Wales Police with a neighbouring English force.

Because policing has not been devolved to Wales, the Welsh Government and the people of Wales were mere spectators in this debate between Clarke, who represented a constituency in Norwich, and Herbert, MP for Arundel and South Downs, as they argued over where the lines should be drawn on the map.

Fortunately for Wales, Clarke became embroiled in a scandal over foreign prisoners and had to resign. His plans were then quietly shelved.

Whether or not Welsh police forces should be reorganised should be a matter for Wales to decide, and not MPs representing Norfolk and Sussex or colonial nabobs in Whitehall.

"Welsh" Labour has long been divided on this issue with, broadly speaking, Carwyn Jones impotently calling for devolution of policing on one side, and Labour MPs in Westminster opposing any such change on the other.

In the general election campaign Labour in Wales is fighting on two manifestos: a UK manifesto, "For the many, not the few", and a second document entitled "Standing Up for Wales".

On page 3 of the Welsh manifesto Carwyn Jones writes, "And, working together, we’ll devolve policing to Wales – making our neighbourhoods safer after years of Tory cuts and neglect".

On page 96, we are told, "We will bring forward legislation to make the devolution settlement more sustainable as set out by the Welsh Labour Government in its Alternative Wales Bill, including the devolution of policing".

The same words appear on page 105 of Labour's UK manifesto.

Clear enough, you might think, and Labour assures us that the whole party has signed up to this and other commitments.

Or not. Here is an exchange which took place on Twitter yesterday:


Somewhat taken aback, Iwan Rhys double checks Bryant's answer:


Somewhat tersely, Bryant replies:

And that was it. Bryant disappeared into the ether.

Since Chris Bryant would have had some involvement in putting these manifestos together and has signed up to them, and since he has consistently opposed devolving policing, it's fair to assume that he knows something that the rest of us don't. Perhaps, buried deep in these two documents, is a clause which could negate what looks like a pretty clear commitment.

And if Chris Bryant is right that Labour is not actually proposing to devolve policing despite what the manifestos say in black and white, how much can we believe any of the other promises?

___________________

Devolving policing to Wales is not just about accountability and ensuring that the sort of policing we get reflects Welsh society, traditions and geography. Policing rural Wales is very different to policing Cardiff, and policing Cardiff is different to policing the large English urban centres of population.

In a recent programme on Radio Cymru looking back at the Meibion Glyndwr campaign, a retired Welsh policeman recalled how the English high command wanted the scope of investigations to be expanded to include various suspect organisations, including that notorious nest of arsonists and troublemakers Merched y Wawr, so little did they understand Wales.

That Welsh sensitivities are different was demonstrated at this week's Urdd Eisteddfod where police armed with loaded machine guns have been patrolling the maes, presumably in response to orders handed down from Whitehall and to the discomfort of many eisteddfod goers for whom the presence of weapons goes against everything that the Urdd and the eisteddfod tradition stand for.

A oes heddwch? ("is there peace?"). Hardly when children are mingling with machine gun toting police officers, even if those officers were wearing friendly smiles.

"If the armed police really wanted to protect eisteddfod goers instead of putting on a show, they would be available in a control room instead of taking pictures with guns"
There are also very important practical and financial implications to devolving policing, as Jonathan Edwards pointed out in this speech to the House of Commons on 22 February of this year, and it is worth reproducing his arguments in full.

I want to take the opportunity initially to raise some general points about the funding of Welsh police forces. Unlike in Scotland and Northern Ireland, policing is not yet devolved in Wales. Whereas in Scotland and Northern Ireland policing is funded via the usual Barnett allocations, Welsh police forces find themselves reliant upon a funding formula designed in Westminster for the 43 Welsh and English police forces. If policing were devolved to Wales and the usual Barnett allocations applied, Welsh police forces would benefit from an extra £25 million-worth of investment per annum in policing services in my country—if, of course, the money were ring-fenced by the Welsh Government. The Wales and England formula has not been historically kind to Welsh policing. 

Dyfed-Powys, my police force, has already faced cuts of £13 million over recent years. This was one of the primary reasons for the very controversial loss of our dedicated police helicopter. I will resist the temptation to raise those issues again here today.

The aborted funding formula review led by the previous Minister last year would have led to a cut of £32 million from Welsh police forces’ funding—a further £7.9 million from Dyfed-Powys, which is a staggering 16% of its budget. The aborted formula aimed to concentrate on socio-economic data and general crime figures as criteria for determining funding allocations. These crude determinations cannot possibly reflect the true cost of policing rural areas such as the ones I represent, and it is vital that the Minister takes a broader view before he publishes his new formula for consultation.
Traditionally, due to Westminster underfunding, local residents in Dyfed-Powys have had to make a greater contribution to police services via the annual precept. It is a typical accounting trick, whereby the burden for funding public services is moved from general taxation on to local taxation, and with the Tory manifesto pledging not to increase income tax during this Parliament, the UK Government obviously have to look at other forms of taxation to make up the numbers. This sort of fiscal strategy is, of course, completely regressive, a point made by several hon. Members.

There is no operational reason why policing should not be devolved to Wales, and it is hugely disappointing that the last Wales Bill lacked the ambition to equalise powers between Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—not to mention cities like Manchester, where policing powers are being devolved. With all four Welsh police commissioners supporting devolution of policing and with a clear financial dividend, it is clear that narrow ideology is driving Welsh policing policy in Westminster.

I should like to turn my attention to other points raised by police commissioners about the area cost adjustment. I pay tribute to Dafydd Llywelyn, the police and crime commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, and Arfon Jones, the police and crime commissioner for North Wales police for all their hard work since their election last year and the year before last.

The area cost adjustment factor that the police use for calculating the police main grant is skewed in favour of areas in the south-east of England where the cost of living and salaries are higher. Although this may be necessary, it does not consider the higher costs incurred by rural police forces for providing services in rural areas. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report in 2014 outlining how the cost of service delivery in rural areas is higher than average. The report mentions travel costs and travel downtime. Evidence shows that travel time for police forces in rural areas is 25 times longer than in metropolitan areas.

The issue concerns the size and shape of the areas that some forces are required to police, and particularly the distances they must travel to deal with public safety, welfare and transport incidents—a point made by Steve Double. Population in a small compact police force centred on a single city will make less demands on travel time than one in a large irregular police force area with multiple population foci. The City of London police serve a resident population of fewer than 8,000 people based in 290 hectares, while Dyfed-Powys police serve a resident population of over half a million people spread across more than a million hectares of largely dispersed towns and villages.

The UK Government report also outlines the difficulty of channel shift. As heard in countless speeches from Plaid Cymru Members, digital infrastructure is a major problem in our country. Too many of our communities are without broadband. Our police forces therefore need to rely on other ways to communicate with their service users that are more time-intensive. For example, a call handler can deal with only one voice caller at any one time, but may deal with several simultaneously using webchat. Another example is the issue of holding cells. Owing to its geographical territory, Dyfed–Powys needs three holding cell units, which must be manned simultaneously on a 24-hour basis. That is obviously more expensive than having a single central unit. I could go on and on giving examples of that kind.

The area cost adjustment factor for the City of London is 1.52, but the factor for Dyfed–Powys is less than 1. I urge the Minister to review the factors that determine the area cost adjustment to take into account the unique and often more difficult circumstances faced by rural police forces.

It is hard to conceive of a simple police grant formula that can encompass such a range of circumstances as the national and international capital city grant. The specific needs of the City of London and metropolitan police forces have long been recognised, primarily through that grant, but Cardiff, which is also a capital city, does not receive it. What consideration has the Minister given to awarding Wales a proportion of the national and international capital city grant so that the unique challenges faced by police forces in the capital city of my country can be adequately addressed?
When it comes to the funding of police services in my country, the devolution of policing to Wales is a political and financial no-brainer. Let me end by saying, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is probably the only time you will ever hear me say something positive about the Barnett formula.