How many Welsh Assembly Members?

An Expert Panel has recommended that the number of Welsh Assembly Members should increase. The primary reason given is that the scrutiny of Welsh Government would be improved if Assembly Members sat on fewer scrutiny committees.

I am one of those increasingly rare people who is convinced that a civilised society benefits from active political processes and the presence of professional politicians. I have no opposition in principle to increasing the number of Welsh Assembly members; but I am not convinced that the case is well made in this report.

Almost everyone, excepting perhaps Trump and Putin, would agree that political systems benefit from the challenge to Governments that might be brought by high quality political scrutiny. However, most would also agree that political scrutiny which actually impacts on public policy and its implementation is very, very difficult to find.

The two houses in the Palace of Westminster preen themselves on their established status but finding the examples of effective scrutiny is a search for hen’s teeth. The Iraq War, PFI, introducing Universal Credit, the economics of Austerity, Brexit – where were the insightful critiques that made a Government stand back, reflect, change course?

I have just spent 5 years contributing assiduously to the scrutiny process of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council – commenting on school attainment, support for vulnerable adults, the financial management of £billion capital programmes. I cannot think of a single Council policy that was informed by my earnest contribution to scrutiny – even though I shifted mountains by building coalitions around actions in support of my local community.

I spent the best part of a decade advising, in a senior and special way, the Welsh Government. I cannot think of a spending plan, a manifesto commitment or a policy direction that was directed or deflected by Welsh Assembly scrutiny.

And yet we are told that the urgent need for effective scrutiny requires more Assembly Members so that no member sits on more than one or two scrutiny committees. No evidence is presented that members who sit on fewer committees are more effective. No analysis is given of what makes one scrutiny committee or member more effective than another. There is just a rather lazy assertion that more members lead to better scrutiny.

Given the expertise of the Panel, I would have liked to have seen a comparative analysis of parliaments across the world, finding those elusive examples where political scrutiny can be shown to have an impact. If impact can be shown to correlate with the number of committees upon which a member sits, then the case would be made.

I suspect that effective political scrutiny correlates more closely with the vibrancy of the civic society, the contribution of the media, the vitality of the political parties, the political engagement of universities, a political culture which is diverse and reflective, the diffusion of political power. We need to invest in professional politicians but we need to recognise that their contribution cannot be nurtured in a vacuum.



Wales led the way on PFI

In England the Labour Party is committing itself to not introducing any new PFI schemes and ending at least some of those in existence. A PFI scheme is one where a private organisation invests in its ownership of an asset, such as a school or hospital, and leases that asset to a public organisation such as a local authority or health board – usually on the condition that the private organisation can profit from all maintenance contracts.

In Wales, the Welsh Government decided to end the introduction of PFI schemes in 2001. At the time we were ridiculed and lambasted by New Labour who claimed that we were sacrificing the quality of public service to some outdated commitment to public ownership.

Looking back we can see that the new Welsh Government was turning its back on both the marketisation of public services and the centralised state bureaucracies of old. It was pioneering a model of decentralised public services which engaged citizens in creating and developing their own communities and networks of mutual support.

We understood that citizen centred public services could not be achieved when assets were owned by distant and detached global corporations. We understood also that PFI was passing on huge costs to future generations in an unsustainable manner.

As the debate on PFI re-emerges in 2017, it would be good if some acknowledgement was made of the record of innovation in Wales.

Why do I always vote Labour?

On 8 June I will be voting for my Labour candidate, Owen Smith, in the General Election in eager anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn being supported by the Westminster Parliament to lead the UK Government. This may not be ground breaking news; I have voted for Labour candidates in the twelve general elections since I was first able to vote in 1970.

Why am I so undiscerning, unable to respond to the merits of any particular candidate or campaign? It is because at all times the choice is between two unchanging philosophies.

There is the socialist philosophy which proclaims that we are social beings whose lives are always enhanced by the extent to which we cooperate in caring for each other particularly when we are at our most vulnerable, teaching and learning from other, building local communities alive with sociability, fostering economies which combine enterprise with security and equality. Socialist governments aim to nurture the support we freely give each other. It is an optimistic philosophy which offers hope and trust in each other. Socialists smile.

There is the alternative conservative philosophy which proclaims that we are competitive individuals hard wired to gain advantage over each other. For the conservative there is no such thing as society, only random collections of individuals seeking to maximise individual gain. A conservative economy is marked by ever increasing levels of gross inequality which must then be protected by a strong and repressive government. Conservatives are distrustful and fearful of their neighbours. They scowl.

Of course the Labour Party does not have a monopoly on socialist and progressive values. I am continuously challenging the Labour Party to be ever more imaginative in achieving its values. I have helped create coalitions with other parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. But, for me, the choice is always between Labour and the Tories, hope and fear, equality and inequality, cooperation and competition, support and repression.



On Monday 15 May Rhodri Morgan addressed around 80 members of Pontyclun U3A at its monthly meeting. It was entertaining. It was educative and thought provoking as Rhodri responded to many questions. We were enjoying the company of a friend.

We learned of Rhodri’s childhood in Radyr. He told us that his parents were a Welsh teacher and a Welsh professor who shared with Rhodri their concern for social justice in the communities of Wales. Rhodri and I had previously shared memories of our collier grandparents in the neighbouring villages of Ynystawe and Glais. Rhodri had studied politics at Oxford and Harvard before becoming an MP for Cardiff West in 1987.

We learned of Rhodri’s doggedness in putting aside Tony Blair’s opposition to his becoming First Minister in the new Welsh Assembly in 2000. He was determined to make Wales as proud of its own government as it was of its own rugby team – being seen to overcome challenges such as ‘foot and mouth’, as well as setting new directions for our economy and society. A Pontyclun U3A member told Rhodri that devolution to Wales had made her more confident of herself and her Welshness.

Rhodri’s talk in Pontyclun was his last public engagement. On Wednesday 17 May Rhodri suffered a fatal heart attack whilst riding the old bike he had recently rediscovered in his shed. He had told us of his new enthusiasm for his old bike. If any of us thought there might be risks in this enthusiasm, we would have recognised Rhodri’s life-long determination to make his own decisions and do it his own way.

I worked as Rhodri’s special adviser for the first eight years of his time as First Minister. He was a very special man, politician and friend. He was absolutely comfortable with his deep understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. Whereas other politicians can be worn down, become defensive, by the constant challenge and negativity of 24 hour political scrutiny; Rhodri’s open and genial personality was unshiftable. He was fascinated by every person he met: the initiator of a global corporation, the nurse at A&E or the coach of a junior rugby team. They would never forget Rhodri and, amazingly, he would never forget them. In a very rare sense for a modern politician, he was a father to our nation.


Shameful Fiasco for Welsh Planning

Last week Welsh planners wantonly wrote off the economies of the Ely and Rhondda valleys when Cardiff Council approved an application to develop 10,000 houses near Creigiau in north west Cardiff.

The planners have offered only restricted access to junction 33 of the M4 and so most of the new residents will drive to Junction 34 in Rhondda Cynon Taf to reach most of their destinations. They will cause total gridlock to a junction already working well beyond capacity. The result is that economic and housing development in the Ely and Rhondda valleys will be undermined by some stubborn determination to develop these disconnected fields of outer Cardiff.

It is so obviously bad planning, why did it happen?

Back in 2010 Cardiff Council’s draft Local Development Plan had been rejected by Welsh Government because it had not met the targets set for housing development. I attended meetings to pick up the pieces. A Welsh Government planning official laid down the law: no LDP would be approved without 40,000 extra homes within Cardiff’s boundaries. I questioned this, arguing that the projections for household formation were based on data from before the financial crash and, in any case, we should be looking for well-connected housing growth outside of Cardiff’s borders and not unconnected growth from within.

The civil servant, surprisingly brash and brazen, asserted that as a qualified planner he knew what was right: Wales needed a bigger Cardiff with bigger boundaries and a bigger population. Small countries, he said, needed big cities. I gave examples of successful city regions which had small, high quality cities with big, well connected, diverse and productive hinterlands. It was to no avail. The die was cast.

A new Cardiff LDP is now in place offering 40,000 new homes concentrated within the city boundaries but with no connectivity. Cardiff’s new residents will surge into transport corridors, outwith the city boundaries, originally designed to open up valley communities. Well connected sites for housing development outside of Cardiff will be shunned as developers cherry pick the green, green fields of Creigiau and St Fagans.

The emperor has no clothes but in the professional cabals of Welsh planning, there is barely a whisper.


Theatre of Politics

I went to a production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land this weekend. I wanted to see if the last forty years had made me more receptive to Pinter’s dialogues. The main actors were Ian Mc Kellan and Patrick Stewart.

I often read that Pinter is a north Londoner of high principle and fine social values.

At the interval, one theatre goer, who had travelled from Manchester to Cardiff, told me that she was finding the play self- indulgent gobbledygook. My only additional thought was to refer to its surprising misogyny.

The theatre audience was by far the youngest I had seen in decades. When I asked a person half my age what had drawn them to the play, it transpired that they had come to see Gandalf and Star Trek’s Picard.

I found their performances disappointing – lacking any emotional or intellectual impact. The show was almost rescued by a Welsh actor called Owen (Teale) who at least provided a bit of oomph.

The young audience had come to see a messiah and they were determined not to be disappointed. There were standing ovations and queues at the stage door for McKellen and Stewart. If this was Star Trek I would be lost in a parallel universe.


‘Independence’ for Wales within the Eurpean Union

We are looking for light at the end of the Brexit tunnel. Here it is!

Before the UK negotiates its departure from the EU, Scotland will vote in a referendum to leave the United Kingdom and stay in the European Union.

This will allow us in Wales to claim that our EU referendum took place on a false prospectus. We were offered a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as an alternative to membership of the European Union. Scotland leaving the UK changes the offer.

On this basis the Welsh Government should demand a new referendum in Wales in which we are asked to choose between a union with England or a separate Wales within the European Union.

An ‘independent’ Wales within the European Union would be uniquely placed to have access to markets in an otherwise isolated England and in the EU. In this context Wales would build on its current manufacturing base to be Northern Europe’s key location for steel, the automotive and aeronautic industries, new energy and bio-medical technologies. Former UK university research groups will relocate to Wales to maintain European networks. Key financial services will move from London to Cardiff to maintain a bridgehead into Europe.

Disaffected Welsh voters who have recently voted to leave the EU in a desperate desire for change would instead be persuaded to constitutionally detach themselves from England if the vision of a new future was clearly articulated.

Is this fantasy? Sceptics will point to the large gap between tax revenues and public expenditure in Wales, a gap that will widen so long as our economy is subservient to the needs of London as a beleaguered base for finance capital. If we have the vision to grow our economy through innovation, investment in skills, a march of the makers, a rich mix of small and large enterprises replicating the ownership and banking structures of Germany and Scandinavia, a more equal resource distribution, empowered and purposeful trades unions; our public finances will look after themselves. People of Wales, united with Europe, providing a bridge into England, we have nothing to lose but our chains.