Scottish Politics: 2011 in Review

 

David Radestock, editor of The Grapevine brings us a look at 2011 in Scottih Politics.

In a year of economic woes, historic elections and leadership battles, Scottish politics in 2011 were dominated by one man: Alex Salmond.

Such was the dominance of Salmond over the country’s politics that other parties were left to fight for the scraps of power, seeking to reposition and preparing for the biggest fight of Scotland’s recent history, that for independence.

But in what was undoubtedly a defining year for Holyrood and beyond, how did the main parties and personalities, and what may lie ahead in 2012 and beyond?

SNP

After their first spell of power as a minority government, the SNP approached 2011 with a degree of trepidation. Labour were ahead in the polls and the status quo of the early 20th Century looked certain to re-assert itself following Parliamentary elections.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Having been 20 points down in a YouGov poll in late March, the SNP rallied to claim the first outright majority since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The party won over 45% of the vote on the constituency ballot, almost 14 points ahead of Labour.

Not only did the result give the SNP a firm vote of confidence in their previous administration’s actions, it finally provided them a clear mandate to hold a referendum on independence.

It is almost impossible to over emphasise Salmond’s role in this remarkable rise to outright power. In a parliament lacking big names and personalities, he is a modern day giant, a man who knows how to manipulate the political scene and who soon may get to achieve his ultimate dream – to lead an independent Scotland.

The year may have been a triumph for Salmond and his party, but they face challenges ahead. They have got a significant head start in the fight for independence, financially and strategically, but much will depend on the new Government’s ability to insulate against the very worst of the coming economic storm and maintain some of the policies that sets the party, and the country, apart from the rest of the UK.

2011 was a defining year, a historic one even. But greater trials lie ahead, in 2012 and beyond.

Labour

If 2011 was the SNP’s annus mirabilis then it was by definition a harrowing year for the party who previously demonstrated similar political dominance north of the border.

Riding sky high in the opinion polls for most of the year, Labour’s disastrous showing at the polls led to a leadership election for the Scottish party, and mounting pressure on Ed Miliband in Westminster.

It is difficult to pinpoint a single defining reason for Labour’s electoral failure. Bad leadership, a poor campaign and a lack of vision certainly contributed, but it may have been a presumption of victory, and a confidence in support that was no longer guaranteed, that led to their eventual downfall. The SNP’s majority in a system which had been designed by the party to prevent such events means they face an uphill climb to credibility in Scotland, and the potential of electoral annihilation in Westminster elections.

The subsequent leadership contest did little to challenge the perception that a seemingly unshakeable malaise had set in. The rejection of Tom Harris, a charismatic, outspoken and fiercely patriotic MP, simply for the fact he was not an MSP, seemed to many as a short-sighted decision that the party may come to reject.

The eventual winner, Johann Lamont, openly admitted the scale of the challenge she and the party faced. A former deputy leader, she will bring stability and experience, although it is doubtful she possesses the charisma to compete with Alex Salmond, who has only strengthened his position as the opposition turn inward.

Labour’s year may be one they wish to forget, but they would be wise to learn valuable lessons before doing so. 2012 offers opportunities to take advantage of any slips from a Government battling an economy increasingly resistant to recovery. However, as with all the parties, it is Labour’s position on independence, and more specifically the so-called ‘devo-max’ option, that will define their future.

Conservatives

A somewhat disappointing election for the party (winning just 15 seats and picking up less than 14% of the vote at constituency level) was overshadowed by the tight leadership battle that followed.

The resignation of Annabel Goldie, a willing but uninspiring figure, triggered an election that promised to define the future of the party, both north and south of the border.

Murdo Fraser, who had served as Goldie’s deputy, declared his candidacy with the vow that if he were to win, he would abolish the party, disconnect from the UK Conservatives, and start a new centre-right organisation in an attempt to win over increasingly distrusting voters.

His grand idea was no doubt controversial, causing a mix of intrigue and concern in the corridors of Westminster and Holyrood. However, he was never granted the opportunity to implement it, losing to Ruth Davidson by just over 500 votes.

Whether Fraser’s plan would have proved a success is highly debatable, (and you can read my thoughts on it here) but his loss perhaps represents a lost political opportunity that may not re-appear for a generation.

The eventual winner, Ruth Davidson, faces a challenge equal to any of those in Scottish politics today. At just 32, and the first openly gay woman ever to lead a British political party, she has the potential to re-define the party and appeal to voters whose heads and hearts yearn for credible centre-right representation. Yet, as ever, she will face an initially hostile electorate who have forgotten how to trust a party that used the country as a policy laboratory during the Thatcher years.

Lib Dems

The Scottish elections of 2011 coincided with one of the Liberal Democrat’s worst moments in their short history.

Trounced in local elections and with electoral reform comprehensively rejected, they were reduced to just 5 seats in Holyrood and will now struggle to compete in crowded left-of-centre political marketplace.

Like the Conservatives and Labour parties, a disappointing result led to a leadership election, with Willie Rennie replacing Tavish Scott in an uncontested election.

With their reputation in tatters following a Westminster coalition with the Tories, the Scottish Lib Dems face a bleak future. The fact that the two most dominant electoral machines both occupy the centre left means that the party will rely solely on a Labour minority victory in 2016 to exercise power or influence north of the border again. Whilst others eye the competition, they can only survey the wreckage.

Conclusion

When those who choose to do so look back on 2011 with a great deal more hindsight than I have afforded myself, they may well see it as the beginning of the end of the union. The SNP’s unprecedented and largely unpredicted majority allows them a chance to accomplish their founding goal.

That they are led by a man whose political skill compares favourably with his counterparts in both in Holyrood and Westminster, and that they are currently competing against opposition parties that are desperately searching for an angle at which to approach the new political reality, makes this all the more likely.

2011 was a memorable year for Scottish politics in so many ways. But it is the sense that rather than represent a culmination of events, it signifies merely the beginning of a fascinating journey, which makes it truly historic.

Plaid Leadership Campaign Underway

The Plaid Cymru leadership battle has kicked off with a football match and a bang and it’s Leanne Wood’s campaign which is creating most of the early noise.

Undoubtedly the most left-wing of the candidates, Wood offers the fundamental shift for the party that I argued was needed in my review of 2011. She has been branded by the media and commentators as the outsider candidate, which has only stepped up the discussion surrounding her campaign. It’s fair to say in fact that as much of the discussion is being stimulated by those outside the campaign and even outside the party as her supporters.

Leanne Wood

One reason for this early buzz is the strong online presence Leanne enjoys and her active engagement with supporters via Twitter. Furthermore Twitter can be the source for some unlikely nominations such as the following from George Monibot:

She has also received backing from within the party, with AMs Bethan Jenkins and Lindsay Whittle joining Jonathan Edwards MP in endorsing her campaign.

Turning to the other contenders, Lord Elis-Thomas, the former presiding officer is arguably the most recognisable name of the four and is the candidate most likely to advocate a return to coalition with Labour.

Profiling him, Wales Online said:

His narrative is that there is little point in a political party not in power. He would gladly see One Wales Two happen tomorrow to see Plaid policies implemented in government again.

Elin Jones is the bookies favourite, with William Hill currently offering odds of 11/10. She has come out swinging in support of an independent Wales and is building her leadership campaign around it, hoping to mobilise the grassroots and force other candidates to take a stance on the issue, one way or the other.

Simon Thomas, is the final contender and having only been an AM for 8 months is still learning the ropes at the Senedd. However, having previously been an MP he brings a wealth of experience to the campaign and has shown a willingess to admit areas of weakness within the party, highlighting their failure to do more to improve education when in government

Whoever wins the nomination, they have a long road ahead of them in identifying what Plaid’s unique attributes are and what they can do . This will involve not only convincing the public, but the party activists as well. Like any party, Plaid hosts a range of opinions under one roof and the campaign reflects this with a clear contrast between the ‘steady as she goes’ message of Simon Thomas and Leanne Wood’s left-wing radicalism. The next leader must find a way to unify these different factions behind them, including the supporters of the candidates they have just beaten.

Plaid are also using the leadership campaign as a marketing tool to grow their membership base. People can now join the party online and party officers are hoping that the buzz surrounding the campaign will encourage people to sign up. They are promising an innovative approach to promoting the leadership battle, and as the final vote draws closer it will be interesting to see what the party machine has to offer.

Welsh politics: 2011 in review

2011 has seen more changes in life at the Senedd than any previous year.  A referendum and an election have both had profound influences on the government and the powers that it can wield. But how have the individual parties fared this year and did anyone actually care about the Referendum?

With the success off the Yes campaign in the referendum the Assembly is finally able to pass laws without them being referred to Westminster.

More importantly the referendum offered a chance to gauge how the Welsh public felt about the Assembly and whether they felt it deserved similar powers to Holyrood. What we learnt was that by and large people didn’t care about the amount of power granted to the Assembly or the  convoluted process by which bills were passed prior to the referendum.

With a turnout of just 35% it was clear that the Yes campaign had failed to grasp the public’s imagination, although only one area, Monmouthshire rejected the proposals to give the Assembly increased powers. Across the rest of the country the cross-party yes campaign won comfortably, eventually emerging with 63% of the vote.

Meanwhile May’s election saw Labour emerge as the largest party, tantalisingly close to claiming an overall majority, but falling short at the final hurdle. Their decision to govern alone has dictated the year’s politics as Labour seek to establish their legitimacy and the other parties battle to be seen as the official opposition. The rest of this post will analyse each party’s election result in turn and what they have done in the 7 months since the election.

Labour

What should have been a triumphant year for Labour has instead turned out to be a very good one. Many pundits and party members alike expected the party to gain an overall majority in the Assembly elections and although they failed to do this, their total of 30 seats has allowed them to govern alone.

This choice to govern alone has not always been an easy one, with the prolonged budget negotiations showing what could happen if Labour pursue policies that none of the opposition parties can support. However the eventual budget deal with the Liberal Democrats is unlikely to have ruffled many feathers within the party, with few politicians or activists opposed to additional education funding.

Internal debates over the future of the Welsh electoral system should never have been made public and have slightly tarnished the party’s year. However they have barely registered with the public and the clashes have mostly been of interest to the media and other political commentators.

Plaid Cymru

If Labour can be said to have had a pretty good year, it has been mostly disastorous for Plaid. Losing 5 seats and being turfed out of the coalition government has left the party isolated and struggling to work out where they belong in the new order.

The yes vote in the referendum will have brought some solace to members, but the general apathy towards the whole process suggests that Welsh nationalism has a long way to go to capture the public’s imagination.

The wait for the leadership battle to kick off has hardly helped matters, with no figurehead to drive the party towards the next election and a sense that right now the party is just waiting until they have an new leader. When a new leader is elected, it will be little surprise if they turn their guns on Labour in earnest, attempting to carve out a distinctive socialist niche.

Liberal Democrats

2011 has been a mixed year for the Liberal Democrats, with the Welsh branch struggling to deal with the unpopularity of the party at a national level and as a consequence the party ended up losing one of their seats in May’s election.

Despite this, 2011 ended on a high with budget negotiations securing the Liberal Democrats a ‘pupil premium’ on education and an agreement that they will be consulted on how best to spend any additional funds granted to the Assembly by Westminster.

Conservatives

Winning 14 seats in May’s election will have been viewed as a success by Welsh Tories, with the party claiming an extra constituency and regional seat and overtaking Plaid to become the second largest party.

As the second largest party, the Conservatives should have formed the de-facto opposition. However, the party’s main campaign, against Labour’s refusal to ringfence the NHS has failed to generate a groundswell of public or political support, as highlighted by the failure to get Labour to pledge additional funding in next year’s budget.

Finally, a question to everyone reading this, which party do you think has had the most successful year and what should they each focus on in the year ahead?

Occupy Cardiff and Welsh Politics

“We are the 99%.” This may be the defining protest chant of the western world in 2011, but they are words which have barely registered with the Welsh political scene.

The Occupy Cardiff movement has been vocal online and on the streets, but has had little success in engaging with local or national government or the South Wales media. Their protests have failed to make an impact upon the public and the camps have only attracted attention when they have been evicted from a location.

In large part their failure to engage stems from initial clashes between Occupy Cardiff and Cardiff Council. The movement blames the council for their initial eviction from Cardiff Castle, alleging they were evicted for political reasons.

protester holding an Occupy Cardiff sign

An FOI request has been filed to South Wales Police requesting information about the eviction and in particular correspondence between South Wales Police and the council. At the time of writing, the Police were still considering the request, citing the section 31 exemption for issues concerning law enforcement.

Neil McEvoy, Deputy Leader of Cardiff Council has sympathised with the protest’s movements, but was less willing to support their initial occupation of the Castle.

He said:

“We have no problem with people protesting peacefully, but we are talking about the castle walls, the bottom of which is Roman. If you think it’s OK for people to be banging things into the wall then I don’t think the people of Cardiff will agree with you.”

At a national level engagement has been limited. The movement’s diversity is a disadvantage when it comes to formulating practical suggestions for government policy. Indeed the first policy that Edmund Schleussel, an unofficial spokesman for Occupy Cardiff, mentioned was the right for the public to recall their MP, a democratic measure, but one which will do little to address their fundamental concerns.

Labour members march on November 30

Labour members march on November 30

Despite their grassroots broadly supporting the November 30 strikes and individual constituency parties marching in support of Public Sector workers, Welsh Labour have been conspicuous in their failure to endorse or show public support for the Occupy Cardiff movement.

A party source confirmed they prefer not to comment on external protests groups which have no affiliation with the party or its supporters.

Plaid Cymru have adopted a similar line. Press officer Morgan Lloyd said the party does not have an official policy towards the movement, although individual politicians gone to show their support at the Cardiff camps.

This lack of engagement is reflected by debates in the Senedd. Using yoursenedd it appears that the movement has not been mentioned once in First Minister’s questions since the start of November, a reflection of its apparent failure to engage with AMs.

Occupy Cardiff: a timeline

Media Coverage:
Media coverage of Occupy Cardiff  has been varied. The movement themselves have been reluctant to engage with mainstream media sources. Media Wales were allowed inside their occupation of the old Inland Revenue building, but the occupants refused to give their names or allow photos to be taken. Unsurprisingly, the Echo took particular interest in the dispute between Councillor McAvoy and Occupy Cardiff. A recognisable name gave a hook to the story which this faceless movement is lacking.

In fact, Media Wales have been almost the only outlet to give the movement proper consideration. BBC Wales have only ran the occasional story. ITV Wales initially covered the group setting up camp at Transport House, but little since.

In part, as Edmund Schleussel acknowledges, this is due to the budget negotiations taking priority. Both political parties and media organisations have been focused on an issue which has a tangible effect on the voters.

National media organisations have taken almost no notice of the protest. Even the Guardian, who allowed their Comment is Free section to be taken over by the Occupy London movement for the day, have neglected to cover the Welsh branch of the movement.

Aside from a strong Facebook and Twitter presence, the movement’s ability to build a following amongst other forms of online media has proved similarly limited. Radical Wales has been broadly supportive but Wales Home, the other main political blog in Wales, has published no articles on the movement.

Dr Stephen Cushion, who teaches political communications at Cardiff University, agrees that this lack of mainstream media coverage has hindered the movement’s attempts to engage with the public.

“As any political movement has found in recent years, while they can have a public face online or promote their aims by social media such as Twitter, unless mainstream media provide sustained coverage it is hard to put across a message which will meaningfully impact on public opinion.”

In many ways this lack of external engagement has been the defining feature of the Occupy movement’s Welsh branch. Their relative lack of numbers in comparison to other movements means that they do not demand the attention of either the public or the media, allowing mainstream groups and parties to safely ignore them.

Update 19/12/11: The Occupy Cardiff camp outside Transport House has been dismantled after bad weather caused damage to a number of their tents. The group mounted protests in HSBC and a number of other buildings as a final demonstration.

Scottish voters support independence – if it pays

65% of Scottish voters would opt for independence if it meant they were £500 a year better off.

This stands in stark contrast to the 21% of voters who say they would support independence even if it left the country’s finances in a worse state. More worryingly for the SNP, when asked if they thought independence would bolster the country’s finances,  just 34% of those surveyed believed that it would.

The survey, carried out  by The Scottish Centre for Social Research, suggests that the majority of Scots view referendum in purely pragmatic terms. If it makes them better off then they will vote for it. However the low numbers who said they would support independence, even if it made them worse off suggest that there is no substantial base of romantic support for nationalism. If the SNP are to win a referendum, it will be on pragmatic, not patriotic terms.

Given the current fragile economic situation in Europe, it seems impossible at present for the SNP to base any campaign on such a pragmatic message. Until the euro zone crisis is resolved, it is hard to see how the SNP can convince the Scottish public that both they and Scotland have the economic credibility to survive alone. Alex Salmond’s refusal to commit to a specific referendum date indicates that he is well aware of the risks entailed in an early referendum.

image via The Scottish Government

Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader of the SNP welcomed the survey’s findings.

She said:

It was conducted following the SNP’s historic majority victory in May, and demonstrates conclusively that the people of Scotland want to continue the positive, optimistic journey our nation is on. Since the reality is that Scotland puts far more into the London exchequer than we get back in return, the Yes campaign can, and will, win the economic case for independence.”

Despite this headline figure, the rest of the polling data suggests that the SNP have a long way to go if they are to convince Scots to vote yes in any eventual referendum. Just 32% currently say they would vote yes in a referendum and this year’s failed electoral reform referendum would suggest that a far greater groundswell of public support is needed before the SNP have any chance of winning a referendum.

One of the major failures of the Yes to AV campaign was its inability to frame the debate in positive terms. If the SNP are to succeed in their campaign they have to present independence in positive term and this poll shows that the economy is likely to be the only message that matters.

Back in June, Alan Trench argued that the SNP’s position on full independence and its benefits was closer to that of the average Scottish voter than any of the unionist parties. . According to Trench, devolution max is closest to the preference of voters and this argument appears to have been accepted by Labour. Douglas Alexander has recently acknowledged that Labour need to do more work on policies that would give greater powers to Holyrood, marking a fundamental shift in the party’s stance.

Welsh budget deal: the reaction

A week’s a long time in politics, but for this blog, 3 days was more than enough for everything to change. What on Tuesday looked like a grand plan to examine in detail what concessions each of the opposition parties wanted from Labour was undermined by Friday when the Liberal Democrats announced that they would support the budget when it goes before the Senedd on December 6.

In return for their support the Lib Dems have got the government to agree to the ‘pupil premium’ fund they had been campaigning for. An additional £20 million will be set aside to bolster the Pupil Deprivation fund.  This fund provides the equivalent of an extra £450 for every child currently in receipt of free school meals in Wales. £280 of this is being trumpeted by the Lib Dems as new money gained as the result of negotiations.

Teaching Unions have welcomed the deal, which they say will help close the ‘notorious’ funding gap between Welsh and English schools. The Liberal Democrats will also have a say in how any extra money the Welsh Government is granted in George Osborne’s pre-budget report is spent.

Adrian Masters has noted that just 2 weeks ago Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams were at loggerheads over the insistence of the latter that a pupil premium was introduced in Wales. Jones was particularly critical of the notion that it represented additional spending on education, instead claiming that the money was just shifted from one part of the education budget to another. Williams was equally forthright in her critique of Labour’s reluctance to negotiate over the details.

First Minister, Wales cannot afford a politician’s short-term fix to get your budget through this afternoon. Do you not agree that what we need is a statesman’s budget that makes the right choices for our education system now and for the future?

Plaid Cymru have been vocal in their disapproval of the deal. Economy Spokesman  Alun Ffred Jones AM described the deal as “‘Extremely bad news for the Welsh economy.”

He said:

“This cheap deal between Labour and the Lib Dems is extremely bad news for Welsh workers and businesses and the wider economy. This irresponsible budget does not respond to the deepening economic crisis.

In part this criticism comes from the failure of the party to secure their own deal with Labour. Rumours had been floating that a seat in the cabinet may have formed a part of any deal with Plaid and the party had been agitating for Labour to devote a far larger share of the budget to growth and infrastructure projects. However their proposals were described by Carwyn Jones as  coming late and being too expensive.

As previously mentioned on this blog, the Conservatives had hoped to pressure Labour into increasing funding for the NHS in return for supporting the budget.Their failure to do so and the Lib Dem’s support for the budget has led Tory leader Andrew RT Davies to accuse the Lib Dem’s of endorsing“Welsh Labour’s savage cuts to the NHS.”

He said:

“What is regrettably clear is the Liberal Democrats’ endorsement of Labour’s savage cuts to the NHS. We already know this budget will rip hundreds of millions of pounds out of our health service, at a time when waiting time targets are already being missed, vacancies are not being filled and frontline staff are being cut.

Welsh budget: where should the government’s priorities lie?

Over the next 2 weeks this blog hopes to examine the different spending options the political parties are advocating and why they think their proposals represent the best option for Wales. Of particular interest is the £38 million windfall that comes from the Barnett consequential. It it this money that represents the only potential ‘wiggle room’ in the budget according to Labour.

This firm stance has not been welcomed by the other parties. The Liberal Democrats have called on Labour to be more willing to negotiate over other aspects of the budget and in particular introduce a pupil premium policy similar to the one the party introduced at Westminster.

Plaid are seeking greater investment in the economy, arguing Labour should be prioritising infrastructure projects that would create jobs and encourage growth.

Critics have suggested that Labour are happy to maintain the current impasse until next week’s pre-budget report in the hope that an additional chunk of money will be given to the Welsh government.

Health spending is likely to come under particular scrutiny, as are the social services. Labour’s failure to ring-fence the health budget has been under the microscope after it was revealed that under-spending has led to scarce supplies of new drugs. The Welsh government is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020, but this commitment is likely to requite substantial investment.

The dispute has yet to really capture the public interest, although it is likely to define the government’s spending priorities for the next year, particularly when it comes to public -services.

Divides open in Welsh Labour over electoral reform.

Peter Hain has dominated the political debate in the Senedd over the past week, revealing cracks in the Labour party over the future of Wales’s electoral system.

The debate revolves around proposals to abandon the current system of electing Assembly members and instead electing 2 AM’s  in each of 30 constituencies under a First Past the Post system. Welsh Labour are currently divided in their support for the proposals, with no unified position on any future electoral system

Mr Hain’s support for FPTP double constituencies is not particularly new, he expressed similar views back in July, despite being a supporter of the AV referendum.His support for the adoption of 30 double constituencies, matching the proposal to reduce the number of Welsh constituencies at Westminster is in large part based on the teething troubles caused in Scotland by having different constituencies at Holyrood and Westminster.

image via The Telegraph

The Electoral Reform Society have analysed how the 2011 elections may have turned out if they had been held under Hain’s proposed system:

Welsh Labour would have won around 70% of the seats on 42% of the vote. The three main opposition parties, who together polled 55% of the vote would share only 19 seats between them.

Maria Pretzler, an electoral reform activist said:

“For all parties in Wales this will mean pretty drastic changes: losing a quarter of seats means fewer careers, less patronage, more campaign effort for less return. This won’t worry voters, but it’s clear that Labour at least is determined to make up for the shortfall. There are plenty of arguments why this is actually a bad idea for Labour (as the Welsh ERS explains), but if you are willing to be just a little cynical, you can probably see why Peter Hain and Carwyn Jones find this system attractive.”

Allan Renwick has tackled Peter Hain’s proposals head-on. He agrees with Hain that the current system creates a two-tier system of Assembley ministers, but disagrees with Hain’s solution. Instead of electing all members under the same system, Renwick argues in favour of moving from a closed to open list system, allowing voters to rank regional candidates in order of preference. Such a move would bring greater accountability to the system, as voters would be voting for an individual they could hold to account rather than the party machine.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that Hain’s remarks have driven the news agenda. At the start of November he expressed his opposition to ‘devolution-max’ for Wales, arguing that devolving full financial responsibility to the Senedd would destroy Wales.

He said:

“Let’s be clear, such a devo-max settlement would destroy Wales. We should celebrate both the successes of devolution and the economic, social, cultural and political ties that bind us together; they are probably stronger now than ever before.”

Such debates about the structure of Wales’s devolved future are only going to become more common over the course of this parliament, with parties and individuals attempting to influence the debate surrounding the Silk Commisson’s investigation into the further devolution of powers to Wales. What is less likely is the granting of any significant new powers in the short term, with Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan warning that preparing and passing any new bills would be “very, very difficult” due to an ‘unfeasibly short timescale’.

Plaid accuse Labour of economic failure

Tensions have ramped up in the Senedd in recent days, with Plaid Cymru going on the attack over Labour’s economic record as they seek to win budget concessions.

Ieuan Wyn Jones accused Labour of committing the “most heinous of political sell-outs” by failing to take action to boost growth in Wales and instead using sluggish growth as a stick with which to beat the Coalition at Westminster

He said:

“Labour has clearly decided to sit back, let the economic crisis do its worst here in Wales, just so that they can then point the finger at the UK Government.”

The series of attacks has forced Carwyn Jones to admit that there is no magic pot of money which can be dipped into to solve the problems Wales faced. However he was quick to defend his party, pointing to the additional £1.3 billion that has been allocated to Infrastructure projects since May, despite budget cuts. He went on to describe Plaid’s manifesto as the ‘shortest suicide note in history, lacking in any serious suggestions on how to encourage growth.

Plaid leaders have mocked these claims, alleging that there has not been a single new project started or piece of legislation put before the Senedd since May.

These back and forths mark the opening of hostilities between the former coalition partners. What is most surprising is how long it took for conflict to emerge. Ever since Labour ditched Plaid to govern alone, there has been the expectation that Plaid would come out swinging and attack Labour for its decision and the policies they are pursuing. With Ieuan Wyn Jones coming to the end of his term as leader, there is little reason for him to hold back and his attacks provide a useful distraction from internal Plaid politics as they try to work out who will be their next leader.

Carwyn Jones has not attempted to disguise the scale of the challenge that Wales faces. In particular the First Minister focused on the challenges facing businesses and the mounting problems that they face.

He said:

“I think we can agree that conditions for businesses in the UK are tough and they’re getting worse.We’re seeing increasing levels of unemployment, lack of opportunities for young people, negligible economic growth, record high inflation, rising food bills and soaring energy costs, all of which are having a serious and adverse impact on businesses and consumer confidence.”

His comments also reflect the difficulty that Labour is facing in trying to get their budget through the Senedd. As a minority governing party, with only 30 of the 60 seats, they are reliant on the support of at least 1 opposition AM for the budget to be passed. Betsan Powys has reported that at present this is easier said than done, despite initial Labour optimism..

Labour had been relying on the additional £38.9 million in funding they had received to force the budget through, but Plaid, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all seeking changes to where these funds are allocated before they are willing to support the budget.

In the short term an immediate deal seems unlikely, but it seems inevitable that Labour will eventually gain the vote they need to push through the budget. The challenge for Carwyn Jones is to minimise what he has to give away to secure this, lest Labour be seen as a lame duck government less than 6 months in to their administration.

S4C funding, sell-out or saving grace?

The BBC and S4C’s agreement for funding went largely unreported last week, despite the potential for it to fundamentally redefine the relationship between the BBC and its regional offices.

The new deal confirms the funding structure for S4C until 2017 and gives the channel control over how it will spend the funding it receives. It will receive £76.3 million in 2013, £76 million in 2014, £75.25 million in 2015 and a final drop to £74.5 million in 2016.

As the figures demonstrate, S4C  faces a dramatic cut in funding, losing 36% of its annual income between now and 2015. The channel has insisted that cuts will be focused on back-end and administrative changes, with a planned increase in the amount spent on programming. As the BBC central office and government funding cuts have demonstrated such salami slicing is rarely sufficent and will not be enough to abate fears about a decline in the quality of programming.

These fears have been expressed by Madoc Roberts, of BECTU who believes that they may mark the beginning of the end for the channel:

They are heading for a long, slow death… I think what’s happened is we have been sold out by the people doing the negotiations, both by S4C and the BBC.

Despite union opposition, the senior management of both the BBC and S4C have welcomed the arrangement. BBC Trust Chairman, Lord Patten, said:

This is good news for the Welsh-speaking audience. Our agreement safeguards S4C’s editorial independence while ensuring effective oversight of licence fee funds. It will also forge a closer working relationship between BBC Wales and S4C, which will see savings reinvested in quality programming that viewers expect.

Crucially the deal states that the S4C management board will continue to consist entirely of S4C executives.  Prior to the deal, the main concerns regarding the new arrangement had concerned the editorial independence of S4C. Although this independence is largely guaranteed, the  S4C authority board will now include the BBC Trustee for Wales who will be given a say in executive appointments.

Image via the BBC

The arrangement has received a mixed reaction from the Welsh Language Society who have dropped their attempts to encourage welsh licence fee payers to refuse to pay up in opposition to the new deal. The group remain unhappy with how the deal with reached, calling it undemocratic and failing to account for the opinions of welsh speakers.

As the Guardian’s organ grinder blog observed, this is the first time the BBC has devolved strategic management of licence fee funds to a local authority.  If the partnership proves a success the BBC may face pressure from other regions to release control over regional programming to a local body. It is too soon to describe the process as the start of the federalisation of the BBC, with little pressure or need for the BBC to devolve control to regions within England.

However with the likelihood of a referendum on Scottish independence becoming ever more likely, the SNP may take advantage of the precedent set by the new deal to revive its campaign for an increased BBC management presence north of the border. BBC Scotland has recently celebrated its 50th birthday and its future in a potentially independent Scotland is likely to come under increased scrutiny. If the SNP succeed in bringing BBC Scotland greater independence, they will use it as further proof that an independent Scotland is a viable and attractive option.