Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The ‘Black’ Route: a black day for Wales

by Nick Davies

In July 2014, the Welsh Government, which claims that sustainability is the central organising principle of everything it does, decided to build a motorway relief-road across a wetland containing four Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Anyone who cares about sustainability, who regards it as more than a pious aspiration or just something one says – anyone, in fact, who still believes, in this cynical age, that what a  government or a politician says should some connection with what they actually do – needs to mull over every word in that sentence.

This is a truly appalling decision, which leaves the Welsh Government’s sustainability credentials in tatters. It represents a lurch back from the lofty aspirations in the Government of Wales Act and the nobly-named Future Generations Bill to the post-war by-pass mania, now largely discredited in the eyes of anyone who takes sustainable transport seriously – although very much favoured by what can loosely be called the ‘roads lobby’, namely the construction industry, motoring organisations and various well-funded free-market thinktanks.

Why a Relief Road at all?

An M4 relief road is necessary, so it is argued, to relieve congestion between junctions 23 and 29 of the M4 outside Newport, where the motorway narrows from six lanes to four. The stretch includes the Brynglas tunnels, regarded as a notorious pinch point, as incidents there have resulted in lengthy road closures.  The argument, put forward by some (but not all) business organisations – principally the CBI – and some politicians, and  which has been accepted by the Welsh Government, is that the congestion, on a major route close to the English border, discourages inward investment and thus puts a blight on the Welsh economy.

There is congestion. The original Newport distributor road was a local road that was later incorporated into the M4 and in places it does not have a hard shoulder.  It is still used as a local road for short journeys, as well as a motorway linking the south and west of England to south and west Wales.  There are geographical or topographical reasons why simply widening the road is not an option. If one accepts an economic development paradigm for Wales that sees Wales as a peripheral satellite to England’s metropolis, or that relies on inward investment from English-based firms, rather than developing the Welsh economy with locally-based firms and supply-chains, then there is a problem there to be solved.

So is a relief road the answer? There seems to be little solid evidence of the economic benefits of building new roads. Friends of the Earth, for example, argue that new roads actually promote further traffic growth and increase congestion, defeating the original reason for the new road. As far back as 1998, the Westminster Government’s Standing Committee on Trunk Road Assessment warned that the ‘pervasive often implicit assumption that the benefit of improved accessibility will always accrue to the target area may often be misplaced. The possibility of the net impact running counter to regeneration objectives cannot be ruled out’. 

In other words, improved access can result in the benefit going outwards as well as inwards.  There are also the negative externalities of road building, not included as a ‘cost’, principally the public health and environmental implications of increased traffic: road traffic accidents, noise, the emission of diesel particulates, and the increase in CO2 emissions. The other argument against road building is that that there is an alternative: the development of an enhanced and integrated public transport system. This ticks the ‘job creation’ and ‘economic activity’ boxes, only more so, spreading the accrued benefits of accessibility and connectivity to more people in more communities, but also moving more people around more efficiently, at a lower cost to the environment.

As it happens, the Welsh Government  intends to build a metro system in south-east Wales, described as ‘transformative’ by Welsh finance minister Jane Hutt, the implications of which, in relation to the proposed relief road, will be considered in more detail below.

As well as there being a case against relief roads in general, there is a substantial case against this specific proposal, namely the inconvenient presence in its path of the Gwent Levels, one of the largest remaining areas of ancient grazing marshland in Britain, home to a number of threatened bird, plant, insect and mammal species and site of four sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Campaign Against the Levels Motorway (CALM), consisting of the RSPB, Friends of the Earth Cymru and community councils, is building opposition to the project. CALM highlights the impact on wildlife of the construction of the motorway and the pollution from traffic, arguing that the road would create a ‘Berlin wall’ cutting the habitat in two. Farmers are concerned at the threat of flooding: they believe that the presence of the road will raise the water table.  Tourism would also be harmed, as the Levels are popular with cyclists.

The Welsh Government has conceded that this project runs contrary to its aim of bringing about a cultural shift away from the car towards more sustainable forms of transport. Nevertheless, it pressed ahead with its consultation, which itself was vulnerable to a potential legal challenge in that all the ‘options’ were essentially the same thing: a motorway running south of Newport through the Gwent levels.

An alternative solution has been set out by the transport economist, Professor Stuart Cole in The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 traffic congestion around Newport (published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs). The estimated cost of the blue route is only £380 million, as opposed to an estimated £936 for the projected motorway.  It avoids the Gwent Levels by rejoining the M4 at junction 28, not 29 and utilises the present A48 Newport South distributor road and a route through the old Llanwern steelworks, over land already purchased by the Welsh Government in 2010. It would be a four-lane dual carriageway, built to motorway standard, which could be widened to six lanes if necessary.
Professor Cole, who has previously advised both the Welsh and UK governments, has therefore told Welsh ministers that, if they really want a road, he can show them it could be built for a third of the price, on land they already own and avoiding the Gwent Levels.

Crucially, Cole also argues that in its own consultation paper, M4 Corridor around Newport, the Welsh government’s estimate of a 20 per cent increase in traffic volume by 2035 leaves out of account the effect of electrification of the South Wales mainline, which alone, he contends, could reduce M4 peak traffic flows by 15 per cent. The planned metro and the ‘blue route’ could reduce the traffic volume on the M4 by 20 per cent and thus, he argues, solve the problem.

But the Welsh Government, and in particular Edwina Hart, the minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science, in whose portfolio the project falls, appeared unmoved by these arguments, declining to include the blue route in the consultation and deciding in favour of  the ‘black route’,  an option which was longer, at 12 miles,  three times more expensive and more environmentally destructive, a decision which appears to be almost inexplicably perverse at every level.

Could it get any worse? Yes it could.

Gerald Holtham, the economist who has previously advised the Welsh Government, notably on how Wales has been short-changed by the Barnett formula, has argued that the Welsh Government cannot afford both the new road and the metro system under the current financial regime. The motorway would take up the bulk of the government’s newly acquired borrowing capacity, limited to £500m. The rest would have to come out of the capital budget of £1.5bn p.a.  Holtham argues that the government could only afford both the motorway and the metro by resorting to private finance mechanisms, which the government, and Edwina Hart in particular, have always, quite rightly, said they wish to avoid because of the debt accrued to the public purse. Tellingly, Holtham has also opined ‘I don’t think, at this stage, local authorities are sufficiently engaged with the metro to help fund it’ adding that revamped transport authorities would allow local authorities to feel ‘adequately represented.’

Could it be that the metro, given the financial constraints resulting from the building of the motorway and the lack of capacity, financial and otherwise, of the small local authorities in South East Wales, is being quietly put onto the back burner? This might explain the over-estimate of traffic volume pointed out by Stuart Cole (although that might also be a result of the Welsh Government getting its advice from those lobbying for the motorway who have an interest in maximising its benefit, or simply of simply inadequate modelling). However, a project like the metro requires not only the resources to deliver it but a certain amount of political will, and a preparedness to see off the well-organised and well-funded roads lobby in favour of public transport – none of which, on this evidence, the Welsh Government looks like being able to muster at the moment

The political costs are already mounting. The Welsh Government – its pretensions to sustainability in ruins – has picked a fight with significant  environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth has written to the Welsh Government asking it to restart what it regards as a flawed consultation process. If this does not happen, then the likely outcome is an application for judicial review of the consultation process, which will end up in court. Plaid Cymru has condemned the decision to build the road as ‘environmentally and financially reckless’, made ‘without proper scrutiny and with no business case’. Labour, without a majority in the Assembly, has relied in the recent past on an agreement with Plaid to get its budget passed, but Plaid has now pulled out of negotiations.

Even if the Welsh Government does not go ahead with the relief road as proposed, either because of a successful application for judicial review or for any other reason, the decision already made represents a defeat for the hopes that in Wales, there might be a better way of doing politics than in the Westminster consensus. Those who shared those hopes and argued and campaigned for the Welsh Government to be given borrowing powers, only for that government to effectively blow it on the ‘black route’ might, in their darker moments, wonder if it was worth their while. This does not represent the total defeat of the ‘clear red water’ project: for example: Welsh Labour, in contrast to the British party’s equivocation, still sets its face against the privatisation by stealth of education and health that is happening  in England – but it is a very serious setback.

In retrospect, it can be argued that Welsh Labour’s sustainability agenda relied too much on the energy and ideas of one politician, Jane Davidson, sustainability minister from 2007 until she left the Assembly in 2011. Davidson’s successors have either failed to embrace sustainability properly – seeing it as some kind of optional extra when times are good – or else have been out-muscled in a Cabinet that is desperate to create jobs at any cost and vulnerable to the lobbying activities of big business. The result is an abomination like the ‘black route’.

Welsh Labour Party members and voters who took Welsh Labour at its word on sustainability need to join with those such as CALM to campaign, in the immediate term, to re-open the consultation process, but also to wage a broader campaign for a truly sustainable solution to all Wales transport problems, as part of a campaign to renew Wales’ economy based on the principles of sustainability and needs of the people of Wales, not those of big business.



Saturday, July 12, 2014

Local government reorganisation in Wales        

By Peter Rowlands 

The recent moves by the Welsh Government (WG) to promote mergers between local authorities in Wales, as advocated by the Williams Report, means that this is now accepted as the main way in which reorganisation will take place, alongside the growth of consortia for various functions.

I regard this as utterly wrong. Even if all the proposed mergers took place no new authority would have a population of over 300,000 except Cardiff and the Vale, with many at about 200,000 or below. This would necessitate the continued operation of unaccountable and confusing consortia for different functions, with inevitable, and justified, calls for further reorganisation. What is being called for therefore would be expensive, destabilising, and unsatisfactory and only have a brief and unwarranted life.

This is not to say that Williams is all wrong. It is in my view right on town and community councils, coterminosity and scrutiny and audit, although not on Powys. However, it is the local authority mergers that are its central feature.

Rather than go down this road it would be far better for WG to bite the bullet and initiate a major reorganisation now. If this does not happen the provision of front line services in Wales will remain hampered by the costs of an inefficient local government structure.

The outlines of a new structure appear fairly obvious, at least to me. They are based on some existing boundaries including those for health, fire and police and some of the consortia. Indeed, with one exception, they follow the WG’s ‘Regional Collaborative Footprint’, which is similar to the previous county structure except that in North and mid Wales four counties have become two regions.

My recommended structure would therefore be of five new counties, as follows:

1) North Wales. These are the six counties of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Flint, Denbigh and Wrexham. There is an exact fit with one health board, police authority, fire service and education consortium.The population of the new authority would be 675,000.
2) Mid and West Wales. This includes the four counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen, Ceredigion and Powys. There is an exact fit with one police authority and two health boards which need to be merged. The existing fire service includes Swansea and Neath/Port Talbot to which Bridgend could be transferred for fire.  New population: 510,000. (The Williams proposal to merge Powys council and health board should be rejected, as it would create a completely different structure here, which would cause all sorts of problems. If justified it should apply to all of rural Wales, as there is nothing unique about Powys in this regard, as Williams asserts.)
3) South West Wales. This includes the three counties of Swansea, Neath/Port Talbot and Bridgend. There is an exact fit with the health board. Fire would differ from current arrangements – see above. The police authority would remain shared with the rest of Glamorgan. New population: 500,000.
4) South Central Wales. This includes the four counties of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil. There is an exact fit with two health boards which need to be merged. Police would be as above, fire as now.  New population: 730,000.
5)South East Wales. This includes the counties of Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouthshire. There is an exact fit with one police authority and health board. Fire would be as now.  New population: 560,000.

All these new authorities would have viable populations of at least 500,000, with the biggest only half as much again as that. Three would have a major town at its centre. There would be five mergers of existing authorities, two of four and one each of six, five and three. There would also be two mergers of two health boards. All consortia would be abolished as they would be replaced by the new authorities, although only in North Wales was there an exact fit with the new authority. There would be no point in adding to the number of police or fire authorities, particularly as a single all Wales police service has been mooted.

Something along these lines is what is needed, and if that cannot be afforded now there is no point in mergers between two authorities, for reasons given above. The suggested reorganisation would be expensive but would generate substantial savings and better run services. It would also avoid a ‘democratic deficit’ caused by power being held by consortia which were not directly accountable to the electorate, while the increased size and remoteness of the new councils could be countered by a beefed up network of Community Councils that operated everywhere rather than just in rural or fringe suburban areas as at present. On this Williams is right, with proposals to reduce the number (amazingly, 736) of town and community councils
through mergers to create more effective bodies, and to generate new bodies to cover urban areas along the lines of the successful ’neighbourhood management’ initiative in Cardiff.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wales and the Euro-elections

by Nick Davies

It would be nice to report that on May 22nd, Wales, the only part of the UK with a Labour government, with a proud tradition of solidarity, hospitality and equality, which has benefited from European funding and which has previously been  less Eurosceptic than England, roundly rejected the small-state, anti-immigration, anti-devolution, little-Englanders of UKIP.  It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true.

After the disaster of 2009 when Labour came second with 20.3%, the vote recovered to 28.1% and first place, still about 18,000 short of a second seat. The other three seats were won by the Tories, Plaid Cymru,  (scraping home in fourth place), and UKIP, which came second.  While the UKIP vote in Wales was lower than anywhere except London and Scotland, the swing in Wales to UKIP, its vote increasing from 12.8% to 27.6%, was the highest.  Where Labour won, in ten of the twenty-two authorities,  UKIP came second. Where Plaid won,  in four authorities, UKIP pushed Labour into third place. UKIP won six authorities, three of which, Wrexham, Flint and the Vale of Glamorgan, should have been won by Labour. The best news was that the far-right  vote (BNP and Britain First) was down to a combined 1.9% from 5.4%, tempered by the fact that many of its voters  may have migrated to UKIP. The  combined far left parties did little more than confuse a few people.

The reasons for UKIP’s success in Wales  are  broadly the same as elsewhere, albeit with Welsh peculiarities: dissatisfaction with the Westminster parties  (the Liberal-Democrats, collapsing from 10.7% to 3.9%),  weeks of virtually uncritical media coverage and the scapegoating atmosphere against immigrants whipped up by the Tories to try to neutralize the UKIP threat to their own vote.  UKIP was helped by an ignorance or indifference to many of its policies on public services and workers’ rights and its opposition to Welsh devolution. As was the  case elsewhere in the European Union,  voters gave the benefit of the doubt to parties claiming to be against ‘business as usual’ Many people who voted for UKIP must have done so in the belief that it was in some way anti-austerity.

Without a convincing, clear anti-austerity narrative,  and without an adequate challenge (or indeed any challenge at all) to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric and myth-peddling (Blaenau Gwent, where UKIP scored 30.2% has a population which is 99.1% white, for example), Labour was always vulnerable.

Labour’s  failure, over the course of the campaign, to challenge UKIP, on the assumption that it was merely a party of Thatcher-loving golf club bores which threatened only the Tories was as much  a failure of Welsh Labour as the UK party. A sign of  how wrong the party leadership got it was the result in Merthyr Tydfil where UKIP was a close second. The Tories are an irrelevance in Merthyr; those UKIP votes must have come from Labour supporters.

There are more serious and chronic failings to consider.  Many constituency parties in Wales, including  many where UKIP did well, are small, ageing and moribund. Labour may have large majorities but that vote is soft, and vulnerable to UKIP’s populism.

Wales lacks a robust and informative media in which the political reality of modern Wales can properly be analysed and debated. Wales’ only national newspaper, the Western Mail, has a small and declining circulation; otherwise, the people of Wales are at the mercy of the London press, or on the parish-pump local papers. Because of the topography many areas in east and central Wales receive television broadcasts from England; recent  editions of BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Wales have been reduced to a farce because  whoever  commissions panel members appears to be blissfully unaware that Wales has its own government.

Although that government has retained a publicly funded and provided NHS, in the tradition of Bevan, sparing Welsh from the nightmare of insolvency and fragmentation facing the NHS in England, it is shocking, though perhaps unsurprising given the above, that according to a recent opinion poll, 43% of  people in Wales thought the UK government ran the NHS and 31% thought it ran education. Given all these circumstances,  it is unsurprising that UKIP’s version of the truth remained largely unchallenged.

Some of UKIP’s vote will melt away in 2015, and the revelations now emerging  about the MEP may damage UKIP, but if Labour’s campaign  is as muddled and inept as this one, much of it is here to stay.

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Labour Policy-Making Needs Democracy

by Darren Williams

March saw the publication of eight documents from Labour’s policy commissions, which collectively represent a supposed initial draft of next year’s general election manifesto. They are subject to consultation until 13 June, with CLPs entitled to submit up to ten amendments in total and up to four on any one document. National Policy Forum reps from each region will then consider and prioritise the amendments received ahead of a meeting of the full NPF on 18-20 July.

These papers raise wider questions about the extent to which it is worthwhile seeking to intervene in the policy process.

The introduction of Partnership in(to) Power (PiP) in 1997 was widely recognised as an attempt by the Blair leadership to limit democratic decision-making within the party, diverting policy debate away from annual conference through the labyrinthine processes of the NPF.  Defenders of PiP – by no means all of them stooges of the leadership – point out that the old system allowed for meaningful input into policy only once a year, excluded non-GMC delegates from any real influence, limited CLPs to a single motion annually and subjected those motions to the vagaries of compositing. In addition, there was no guarantee that the leadership would even act on conference policy (although this, like most of the other criticisms, is symptomatic of a dysfunctional democratic culture, more than a specific policy mechanism).

In contrast, we are told, PiP allows all members to have their say – collectively and individually – over the full range of policy and provides repeated opportunities for discussion and input over the course of a rolling four-year policy programme.  But, while discussions do undoubtedly take place, those party bodies that have taken the time and trouble to participate have frequently been left wondering what has happened to the comments and proposals that they have submitted.

The introduction, in 2010, of OMOV for the election of CLP delegates to the NPF resulted in the centre-left winning more seats than in the previous elections, conducted among conference delegates and subject to the illicit influence of right-wing party officials. In Wales, we swept the board and sought to engage positively with the NPF’s work – but this was not easy. At the first two full NPF meetings, six months apart, we were presented with documents full of flimsy New Labour ‘analysis’. The same complaints were made (and not just from the left) about issues like the lack of an audit trail for CLP submissions and the same assurances were given by Forum chair, Peter Hain, that things would be different in future. Moreover, our own input was limited as we did not automatically get to sit on a policy commission but had to face a further election, with seats available for only a minority of CLP reps.

Since Angela Eagle took over as chair in 2012, the NPF has become somewhat more transparent and responsive and its discussions more open and less stage-managed. All reps can now sit on a policy commission – although it is not easy to participate when meetings are held in London on weekdays, in working hours. The establishment of the ‘Your Britain’ website allows uncensored comments to be posted about all aspects of policy. The question remains, however: how much impact does the NPF actually have on party policy? In four full meetings since 2010, not a single vote has been taken on a matter of policy. No attempt is made to test the degree of support commanded by the proposals that have been submitted.

Meanwhile, a parallel ‘Policy Review’ has been taking place, involving groups of shadow ministers and co-opted advisers, under the direction of Jon Cruddas MP; in this process, NPF reps play no part. This has resulted in two lengthy booklets: One Nation Economy and One Nation Society. Along the way, shadow ministers have also felt free to announce publicly policy initiatives never discussed by the NPF.

Those NPF reps who have managed to take part in policy commission meetings have, in recent months, had some input into the eight policy papers that have now been published. But it is notable that the key statements in these documents reflect – sometimes to the letter – the relevant sections of the ‘One Nation’ booklets. It is clear that the parliamentary leadership is driving policy formation.  

This does not mean the left should abstain from promoting amendments to the documents – especially on key issues like Trident – as this is an opportunity to build wider support for socialist policies, even when we have little expectation of them being adopted. But all our experience with the NPF reinforces the need for us to fight for democratic reforms, including the restoration of conference sovereignty over party policy.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of Labour Briefing magazine.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: The New European Left: a Socialism for the Twenty-first Century? By  Kate Hudson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Reviewed by Peter Rowlands


Hudson’s ‘new European left’ (NEL) are those parties today mainly grouped under the banner of the ‘Party of the European Left’ (PEL), not formed until 2004, although most of the parties involved previously co-operated through the New European Left Forum (NELF, 1991), although another grouping, the  European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, 1994), are to be distinguished by their more oppositional attitude towards Europe in its present form than that of the PEL who are for European integration.

Hudson charts the growth of this ‘New Left’ in some detail, mainly from the pivotal years 1989-91 when the communist parties in both western and eastern Europe were thrown into crisis by the collapse of the system that they had hitherto, to a greater or lesser extent, supported,  although this was foreshadowed by differences within and between the west European communist parties over ’eurocommunism’ in the 1980s.

Hudson explains that a ‘new left’had been growing from the 1960s onwards, influenced by Trotskyism and Maoism, as well as by feminism and ecologism.This had already led to the growth of some ‘new left’ parties, in Denmark (1959) and Norway (1975), but the real forerunner of the NEL was the United Left in Spain, formed as a front in 1986, and including communists, left social democrats and other left groups. But it was the 1990s that saw the emergence of the NEL, bringing about major realignments, often involving mergers of communist and Trotskyist groupings that would have been inconceivable prior to 1990 and leading to entirely new groupings, the most successful of which has undoubtedly been Die Linke ( the Left) in Germany, which is mainly a fusion, although not until 2005, of the non-Stalinist successor to the GDR communist party and a left breakaway from the SDP, which gained 12% of the vote  in 2009. Elsewhere, fortunes have been mixed.

In France, the CP’s decline has brought about its participation in the Front de Gauche , founded in 2008 by the new left party, PG, although not including the new hard left anti-capitalist NPA. In Italy, however, the PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation), one of the successors to the PCI which effectively became a social democratic party in 1991, did quite well in the 1990s, but its participation in the 2006 Prodi government and its support for the war in Afghanistan saw its virtual elimination in 2008. In Spain, the United Left saw a decline in its support, and after having achieved 10% in 1996 it was reduced to less than 4% in 2008. Hudson is critical of the Greek and Portugese communist parties for having maintained, as they see it, doctrinal purity at the expense of  left unity in those countries, with Syriza emerging as the main left party in the current Greek crisis.

Hudson explains how, in the West, the opportunity for the NEL was created by the drift of social-democratic  parties to neo-liberalism,  and this opened up a political space for the NEL. In the East, most of the communist successor parties became social-democratic parties, although often retaining substantial support. The only exceptions were the PDS in Germany and the Communist Party of Bohemia Moravia (CPBM) in the Czech Republic, which has maintained good support, winning 11% in 2010. She also describes the NEL’s participation in the ‘global left’, charting the rise and decline of the ‘social forum’ movement.

Her ending is prescient, describing the NEL as anti-capitalist but, at the same time, as potential participants in coalition governments. She warns of the dangers of this and of the necessity of keeping abreast of new movements such as Occupy, but rightly sees this as the way forward.

Hudson’s book has its flaws. There is a need for a decent appendix to summarise the developments she describes. There is also an inexplicable failure to mention the Dutch Socialist Party, one of the most successful of the NEL parties in recent years.

There is no attempt to account for the absence of a NEL party in the UK, which in my view can be explained by the first-past-the-post electoral system, and which helps to account for the left’s failure in Italy.
Social-democratic parties are too easily written-off  as wedded to a neo-liberal agenda, but since the onset of the current crisis there are signs of change which may in the future pose a challenge for the NEL. Indeed, this is far more likely than any challenge from the European anti capitalist left, whose forces remain tiny, except to some degree in France, Denmark and Portugal.

There is also little mention of  the Green parties which in most north-west European countries have support which in many cases matches, and sometimes exceeds, that of their NEL counterparts. These are parties of the left, normally with agendas that go well beyond environmental questions, and it is inconceivable that they would not be part of  any future left coalition, as has to a limited degree already been the case.
Notwithstanding these observations Hudson has produced an important and timely book.The left in the UK should pay what it discusses much more attention than it does, because our future is inseparable from it.

[Written in 2013]

The  European elections  in  Wales,  2014

By Peter Rowlands      

These were bad for Labour. We failed to win a second seat, needing about 18,000 more votes to do so, while the swing to UKIP was greater than anywhere else in the UK, although the UKIP vote remains lower than anywhere else except London and Scotland. The corollary is that the swing to Labour was lower in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, except for the three regions in the South and East and Scotland.

The combined hard-left vote was a derisory 1.2%, down from 3.1% in 2010, with the combined  fascist vote down even more at 1.9% from 5.4% - one of the few welcome aspects of these elections. It must be assumed that much of the previous BNP vote went to UKIP. The Green vote, at 4.5%, remains low against a UK average of 7.9%. Labour won ten councils, with UKIP in second place in all and running Labour close in Newport, Torfaen and, worst of all, Merthyr, where there must have been a massive switch from Labour, as there are few Tory votes here. UKIP won in six councils, three of which (Flint, Wrexham and Vale of Glamorgan) should have been won by Labour. The Vale was the worst result, where we came third, behind the Tories.
       
Having said that, we shouldn’t overreact to UKIP’s success in these elections. Supporters of UKIP are strongly opposed to the EU, and therefore highly motivated to vote, whereas there is no equivalent enthusiasm FOR the EU, except to a limited degree among what is left of the Lib-Dems. I am personally a keen supporter of a federal socialist EU, but know of few other Labour members who are. Many Tory and Labour voters switched to UKIP for these elections, but polls indicate that about half of these are likely to return next year. If this happens, UKIP are worth 15% of the vote in a low turnout election - say 10% in next year’s general election, not enough to win any seats, except possibly for Farage himself. The bulk of Tory and Labour voters felt no motivation to vote, and in Labour’s case were not given any, at least in terms of European policy, but most of them will vote next year.

By then, Labour must have developed a credible policy on Europe and related issues in order to see off UKIP and win the election.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Labour's Policy

By Peter Rowlands   

Although it has not been particularly commented on the publication of eight documents from Labour’s Policy Commissions marks a further step down the road to the manifesto. Amendments are invited, although the deadline for these of June 13th doesn't give much time, partly because of the EU and local elections on May 22nd.              

The documents should be read alongside the shadow cabinet documents, and it comes as no surprise to note that the key wording in each is identical. This is not to say that there has been no consultation, and the policy commission documents are full of quotes from submissions to them, but while this is certainly an improvement on the past, democracy over this and other matters would appear to have some way to go.

What then should the left propose by way of amendments? Or is it all signed and sealed? While the broad outlines of the manifesto would appear to be taking shape, it is important that the left fights for an expansionary budget and for other commitments, rather than say very little which is what the Blairites would prefer.

What is Labour offering, and what needs changing? To begin with, and most important of all, Labour has signed up to Con-Dem spending plans for 2015-16, which are likely to be more severe than any so far implemented and bring crisis to many hospitals and local authorities. As Polly Toynbee said in the Guardian on Feb 7th, it is doubtful whether Osborne himself could implement these.

So the most important change of policy needed is an emergency budget following the election. This should impose a moratorium on cuts for local authorities, education and health for a year and draw up a new budget based on significant tax increases for the better off and a renewed drive against tax avoidance.

At the same time, a huge investment should take place, mainly in green energy and housing, of the order of £50 bn. This is affordable. No-one suggested that HS2, at comparable cost, was not, although this should now be put on ice.

If the Con-Dem cuts in the March 2015 budget are maintained by Labour then all the other positive features of the manifesto will be nullified. Even if there is substantial investment in housing the cuts would loom large and would be highly perplexing – why are we sacking social workers but taking on bricklayers? It is vital that this change in policy is made, as  current Labour policy is far more draconian than the Darling policy which envisaged cuts at about half the level currently being imposed.

Having said that, the policies and commitments in the various reports differ in terms of what the left would see as priorities, but in some areas they are very positive. Below I have tried to summarise the main proposals along with key omissions, from a left viewpoint, which amendments should seek to cover.

On banking, to a British Investment Bank and a Green Investment Bank, with big banks to be broken up to promote competition and regional banking, limit overall market share and separate retail and investment banking, unless this has been done. (The commitment here is rather ambiguous, but of supreme importance.) Long termism will be supported, and a 25 year strategy implemented for improving infrastructure.

On workplace/employment rights, to reinforce the minimum wage and to give incentives to adopt the living wage, including tax rebates and procurement contracts. Action against zero hours contracts, protection for agency workers, but no commitment to restore TU rights lost under the Con-Dems, let alone Thatcher/Major.

On housing, 200,000 houses a year by 2020, with council houses, new towns and anti – land hoarding powers for LAs, the regulation of letting agents but only the encouragement of long term lets and reduced rents, rather than compulsion. The bedroom tax to be repealed.

On tax, action on tax havens and tax avoidance, the restoration of the 50p rate at £150k pa,
No further cutting of corporation tax, a reduction in pension tax relief, a mansion tax. However, no mention of the ‘Tobin’ tax or a general avoidance principle.

On benefits, a compulsory 25 hours pw guarantee, and the end of the ATOS contract, but nothing on safeguarding disability benefits.

On education, very little, except a new vocational award (TechBac) with few details. Nothing on scrapping all selection, free schools, academies, reinstating EMAs,  local authorities as main administrators of education and guaranteeing nationwide pay and conditions of service for teachers.

On transport, an integrated network with elected transport authorities, bus regulation as in London, retaining the East Coast Main Line in public hands, capping fare increases, safer cycling. No mention of rail renationalisation.

On energy, a price freeze, dividing energy and supply, opening the companies’ books, cost effective green energy schemes.

On health, the repeal of the 2012 Act, the linking of physical mental and social care into one service, tackling the A and E crisis, seeking a consensus on residential care, tackling health inequalities and promoting public health. No mention of free personal care, abolition of prescription charges, dental and optical care.

On ‘better politics’, lowering the voting age to 16, democratic reform of the House of Lords, defending the Human Rights Act.

There isn't much time, so get amending right away!

Postcript: some suggested model amendments to Labour's eight Policy Commission documents 

This is intended as a brief guide to the sorts of amendments that those on the left might want to move, noting the most welcome features of each document as well as their main omissions. The individual comments/amendments were published on the Your Britain website on March 7th.

1) STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • Sustainable long term growth
  • Improved living standards
  • Breaking up the big banks if necessary
  • A British Investment Bank
  • A freeze on energy prices
  • The restoration of the 50p top rate of tax.


However, we oppose continuing with Con-Dem spending plans in 2015-16. We favour:

  • An emergency budget that will emphasise growth, the only way to generate the revenue needed to reduce the deficit.
  • A sustained crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion.
  • A more progressive tax system through reforms at personal and corporate levels.


2) STRONGER, SAFER, COMMUNITIES

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • Build 200,000 houses a year by 2020
  • Build council houses and new towns
  • Anti hoarding (by building firms) powers for councils.
  • More neighbourhood policing.


However, we favour further measures for housing:

In the public sector:

  • The suspension of the right to buy while waiting lists remain.
  • An increase in the housing target to 300,000.
In the private sector:
  • Rent controls and greater security for tenants.
  • The loss of tax relief for buy-to-let purchases.


3) LIVING STANDARDS AND SUSTAINABILITY

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • A freeze on energy prices
  • An integrated transport network
  • Greater energy efficiency
  • Maintaining carbon emission targets

However, we favour:

  • The complete renationalisation of the railways.


4) WORK AND BUSINESS

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • End the ATOS contract
  • Abolish the ‘Bedroom Tax’
  • End abuses via ‘zero hours’ contracts
  • The protection of agency workers
  • The reinforcement of the minimum wage
  • The extension of childcare provisions.

However, we favour:

  • The restoration of all trade union rights lost under this government.
  • A commission to establish a new framework for employment rights.
  • A campaign in conjunction with our affiliated unions to improve wages and conditions for low paid workers in the private sector.
  • The adoption of the living wage as a minimum wage by 2017.


5) HEALTH AND CARE

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • The repeal of the 2012 Act
  • The integration of social and mental care with health care
  • Tackling health inequality

However, we additionally favour:

  • Free personal care for all those in care homes
  • No private practice in the NHS
  • Free prescriptions for all
  • An end to PFI in the NHS
  • A commitment to free optical and dental care when resources permit


6) EDUCATION

This  (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • Extend free childcare from 15 to 25 hours.
  • Provide ‘wraparound’ care from 8am to 6pm

However we additionally favour:

  • The restoration of local authorities to their proper role of local co-ordinators of all school provision
  • The abolition of Academies and Free Schools
  • The abolition of selection at 11+
  • The restoration of EMAs.


7) BRITAIN’S GLOBAL ROLE

This (BLP/CLP etc.) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • Remaining in the EU and keeping the ‘Social Chapter’
  • Co-operating on fighting crime and controlling the arms trade
  • A political settlement in Palestine
  • A renewal of the 0.7% target for international aid.

However, we additionally favour:

  • No replacement of Trident.


8) BETTER POLITICS

This (BLP/CLP etc ) notes this document. We particularly welcome the commitments to:

  • Lowering the voting age to 16
  • Democratic reform of the House of Lords
  • A register of parliamentary lobbyists
  • An extension of the Freedom of Information Act
  • Further protection for LGBT, BAME and disabled minorities 
  • The abolition of the ‘Gagging Law’.

The first part of this article originally appeared on the Left Futures website.