The maths would work

I was surprised to see, as reported here and here, that talks about an electoral pact between the Greens, Plaid Cymru and LibDems for the Assembly elections in May had come to naught. There was a lot to be gained from such cooperation, although not as much as the 22 seats mentioned in the ITV report.

The reason for this is that the election system for our National Assembly is heavily weighted in favour of constituency seats. Two-thirds of the seats are decided on the first-past-the-post system, leaving only one-third of them to help correct that bias. Yes, these additional seats do correct it to some extent, by not to the same extent as in Scotland, where there is a 73/56 or 57%/43% split.

A quick look at the results from 2011 shows that there are five constituency seats that could be won from either Labour or the Tories if the Greens, Plaid and LibDems were able to work together. Ordered by the size of the margin they are:

Cardiff Central
won by Labour with 37.9%, combined three party vote 44.9%

Aberconwy
won by the Tories with 34.0%, combined three party vote 40.4%

Llanelli
won by Labour with 39.7%, combined three party vote 41.5%

Montgomery
won by the Tories with 43.7%, combined three party vote 44.9%

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire
won by the Tories with 35.8%, combined three party vote 33.6%

Of course a lot has changed since 2011. Opinion polls show that the LibDems have plummeted and that UKIP have risen. But UKIP are not likely to win any constituency seats, so whatever they get is irrelevant to winning seats from Labour and the Tories. The LibDem collapse is rather more pertinent. It means that Kirsty Williams will have to fight hard to hold Brecon and Radnor, and could do with all the help she can get. So negotiating an electoral pact could positively affect that seat too, making six constituency seats in total.

So why on earth did they fail to do it?

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There are two answers. Squabbles over which party was chosen to fight these seats, and the complicating effect of the regional lists.

As I see it, the LibDems are in prime position to win Cardiff Central and Montgomery, and Plaid in prime position to win Llanelli, Aberconwy and, as a long shot, Carmarthen West. Put bluntly, the Greens aren't in prime position to win any of these seats, so if Plaid Cymru and the LibDems wanted to reach a bi-lateral agreement without the Greens, they could do so and gain from it.

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Looking at the North Wales region first. The LibDems have no hope of winning any constituency seat and Plaid are certain to win two: Ynys Môn and Arfon. Both parties won a list seat in 2011, but the problem this time round is that UKIP are certain to win one list seat, and might well win two. As there are still only four list seats, the last thing Plaid wants is to be in the scrap to win one of them. The win-win situation would be for Plaid to gain Aberconwy with LibDem help, thereby dropping out of the running for a list seat. This would mean that the LibDems only have to fight the Tories and UKIP to hold their one list seat, although it's still a long shot because a Tory loss in Aberconwy would just result in them winning a list seat instead. If the LibDems were really clever they would encourage people to vote for a Tory win in Clwyd South ... but that might be a step too much for them.

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The next interesting region is Mid and West Wales. This is where the LibDems have most to gain from an electoral pact. Looked at from an "unambitious" perspective, Kirsty Williams probably feels quite safe. Provided she is first on the LibDem list, losing Brecon and Radnor would just mean that she got a list seat instead. But the general collapse in LibDem support means that the LibDems would find it all but impossible to win two list seats. So the only realistic way for the LibDems to keep two seats overall would be for them to hold Brecon and Radnor and gain Montgomery from the Tories.

Plaid, from the same unambitious perspective, probably think in a similar way. Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East were safe seats in 2011 and will remain safe this year. It didn't really matter to them that they narrowly lost Llanelli in 2011, because they made up for it by getting a list seat instead. However this time round they will almost certainly not get a list seat if they lose Llanelli, because of UKIP. I also think Plaid are far from certain of winning Llanelli this time, not least because Lee Waters is an exceptionally good choice of candidate for Labour. As a bonus, the pact would also give them an outside chance of gaining Carmarthen West from the Tories, a seat which they can have no serious prospect of winning without that help. Even if they didn't win it, they would have absolutely nothing to lose.

For the Greens, the advantage of a pact is that if the LibDems and Plaid were to win these constituency seats, they would then be completely out of the running for any list seats. The four available seats would instead be contested between Labour, the Tories, UKIP and the Greens. So even though a three party pact would not benefit the Greens in constituency seats, it could make all the difference in terms of them gaining a list seat. They might well be able to win the seat anyway, without a pact, but the pact would turn possibility into probability.

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I don't think an electoral pact will make any difference to the outcomes in South Wales West and South Wales East, which leaves South Wales Central.

Despite all the optimism in the world Plaid and the Greens are not going to win any constituency seats on their own, and especially not Rhondda. Leanne Wood never stood a chance. In constituency terms, the only one of the three parties that could win on their own is the LibDems in Cardiff Central. Yet it would be far from easy because they have slipped a very long way.

There are two ways of looking at things, both dependent on the strength of the Green vote. In 2011, the Greens got a higher percentage of the list vote in Cardiff Central (9.1%) than in any other constituency in Wales.

In the first scenario, if the Greens had wanted the other two parties to stand down in one of the five constituency seats I listed above (leaving the others to Plaid and the LibDems) it would be this one. I wasn't involved in the negotiations, so I don't know whether the Greens made a stand on this. But from a LibDem perspective, they made up for losing Cardiff Central by gaining a list seat in 2011, and they would certainly win a list seat this time round if they stood down in favour of the Greens. So the LibDems had nothing to lose; one way or the other, they could only win one of the twelve seats in SWC ... and couldn't possibly win two.

The second way of looking at it is that if the LibDems won with Green and Plaid support in Cardiff Central they would then not win a list seat, and this would make it more likely for Plaid to win two list seats rather than one, or for the Greens to win one list seat.

The first option is better than the second, but either way, the overall result for the three parties is increased by an electoral pact. However the main factor will be how well the Tories do in the two SWC constituencies in which they stand a chance: if they win Cardiff North and/or the Vale of Glamorgan it will mean that they are that much less likely to win a list seat. With a pact (and Tory luck) the three parties could win four seats out of twelve if the Greens won Cardiff Central, or three if the Lib Dems won it. Without a pact they might end up with only two.

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In short, an electoral pact was a no-brainer which would give the three parties a fair chance of winning five more seats than they are likely to win on their own. That's a lot to throw away.

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Carpe DiEM

So far as I can see, there has been nothing in the mainstream media (except RT) about the launch last night in Berlin of a new political movement to democratize the EU, the Democracy in Europe Movement, DiEM ... or DiEM25, as they reckon we must achieve this by 2025 or see the EU disintegrate.

If you have the time for it, there's a six hour long live stream available here. But I don't, so here's the glossy launch video instead.

     

The thinking behind the movement is outlined in their manifesto, which comes in both a long and short version. Here are some quotes from it:

     

For all their concerns with global competitiveness, migration and terrorism, only one prospect truly terrifies the Powers of Europe: Democracy!

They speak in democracy’s name but only to deny, exorcise and suppress it in practice. They seek to co-opt, evade, corrupt, mystify, usurp and manipulate democracy in order to break its energy and arrest its possibilities. For rule by Europe’s peoples, government by the demos, is their nightmare.

At the heart of our disintegrating EU there lies a guilty deceit: A highly political, top-down, opaque decision-making process is presented as ‘apolitical’, ‘technical’, ‘procedural’ and ‘neutral’. Its purpose is to prevent Europeans from exercising democratic control over their money, communities, working conditions and environment.

The price of this deceit is not merely the end of democracy but also the dream of shared prosperity:

• The Eurozone economies are being marched off the cliff of competitive austerity, resulting in permanent recession in the weaker countries and low investment in the core countries

• EU member-states outside the Eurozone are alienated, seeking inspiration and partners in suspect quarters

• Unprecedented inequality, declining hope and misanthropy flourish throughout Europe

The more they asphyxiate democracy, the less legitimate their political authority becomes, the stronger the forces of economic recession, and the greater their need for further authoritarianism. Thus democracy’s enemies gather renewed power while losing legitimacy and confining hope and prosperity to the very few (who may only enjoy it behind the gates and the fences needed to shield them from the rest of society).

That sort of agenda certainly appeals to me, though we have yet to see exactly what those behind this launch actually plan on doing to achieve it. I believe it is not enough to say—as most political parties in Wales are saying—that the EU isn't perfect and needs reform, without having a clear idea of what we want to reform and what we want the EU to become. Yet when called on to give examples of what we want to reform we focus on tiny, almost petty, details that we don't like while ignoring the bigger picture. Do we want to focus on whether the deckchairs are arranged in rows or groups, or do we want to stop the EU sinking?

One of the main figures behind DiEM25 is Yanis Varoufakis, and he features in this hour-long discussion ... even quoting Tony Benn!

     

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Now we know that they know

By a happy coincidence, in view of my previous post, someone has leaked a copy of a letter from Tory Minister of State for Skills, Nick Boles, to Socialist Worker. The online version is here.

I don't think that Socialist Worker realized just how explosive the contents of the leaked letter are. They are obviously, and from their point of view rightly, concerned to prevent as much of the proposed new Trade Union Bill from getting through the UK parliament as they can ... but there is much more to it than that. The BBC version of the story gets closer to the point:

It [the letter] indicated that legal advice suggested that while the measures would apply to Scotland as a matter reserved to Westminster, there was a "very weak case" where Wales was concerned.

The letter added that some concessions could be made to "take some of the heat out of the DAs' [devolved administrations] opposition to the Bill".

BBC, 8 February 2016

To understand what is actually happening, it's best to look at that part of the leaked letter in full:

     

The obvious question is why the Westminster Government think they could probably get the Trade Union Bill through in Scotland, but not in Wales. The answer is first that Scotland has a reserved powers model of devolution, while Wales has a conferred powers model. But second, and more critically, because of the Supreme Court ruling in July 2014 on the Agricultural Wages (Wales) Bill, as reported here.

I set out the points at issue in that case in some detail in this post, before the Supreme Court delivered its verdict. I won't repeat everything from that post, but essentially the Supreme Court ruling means that because an area (in this particular case agriculture) is devolved to Wales, the Welsh Assembly is also able to legislate on matters that are incidental to and consequential on that devolved area, including employment. This is why the current devolution settlement for Wales gives our National Assembly more powers to legislate than Scotland ... at least in some areas.

The established convention (Sewell Convention) is that Westminster cannot legislate on matters that are already devolved without consent in the form of a Legislative Consent Motion. In respect of the UK Government's desire to place new restrictions on strikes in public services, it would apply to the health, education, fire and rescue and transport sectors in Wales because these are devolved to Wales. Or, conversely, if the Westminster Government ignores this and were to go ahead anyway, the Supreme Court ruling means that the Welsh Assembly could then pass its own legislation to modify or nullify that Westminster Act in so far as it applies to Wales.

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What will be particularly embarrassing to the Tories is that they have tried to make out in public that the Welsh Assembly does not have this power. For example, William Graham said:

"I think that's a spurious argument because everybody knows that employment legislation is not devolved – end of story."

BBC, 23 January 2016

And of course this also explains why Stephen Crabb is so anxious to replace the current conferred powers model of devolution for Wales with a new reserved powers model that is much more restrictive than the reserved powers models that apply to Scotland and the Six Counties, and tried to bully those who can see through this attempt to claw back devolution in Wales by calling their views "ill-informed or just plain wrong".

Stephen Crabb and William Graham were bluffing. The leaked letter from Nick Boles shows that the Tories know full well that the Welsh Government, by virtue of the precedent set with the Agricultural Wages Bill, has more extensive powers to legislate than are set out in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act.

Now that we know that they know this, I hope it will mean that the Tories go back to the drawing board and start over again on both the Trade Union Bill (as it applies to Wales) and the Wales Bill. If they don't then we must play hard ball and refuse to give consent to what they propose. We mustn't let ourselves be fobbed off by a few concessions.

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Who's being ridiculous?

Yesterday the UK government, and a large portion of the media, tried to portray the decision of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention's decision over Julian Assange as "ridiculous". I have now read through the report, which is available from this page, and would urge others to do the same. The report follows an extensive investigation, with which the UK and Swedish authorities had cooperated, and whose submissions are included in it; so it is a bit rich to at first take the investigation seriously, but then ridicule the WGAD because it finds against them.

I've embedded two videos. The first is the full version of Assange's speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, and the second is a reaction from John Pilger, another Australian whose journalism has consistently proved embarrassing to those in positions of power.

     

     

For me, the most obvious point to make is that the UK authorities have based their action on a European Arrest Warrant issued by Sweden, but that if that same warrant was presented now, the request for extradition would be rejected. Specifically, the UK changed the law applicable to EAWs in 2014 precisely in order to stop the abuse of, for example, an EAW being issued merely for questioning. This is an extract from the report:

The changes to UK extradition legislation following Mr. Assange’s case. In brief, the United Kingdom has now concluded:

(i) By virtue of a binding decision of the UK Supreme Court in 2013, that the UK will no longer, where a request is made under a European Arrest Warrant, permit the extradition of individuals where the warrant is not initiated by a judicial authority. It has determined that the requirement of a “judicial authority” cannot be interpreted as being fulfilled by a prosecutor as is the case in relation to Mr. Assange.

(ii) By virtue of legislation in force since July 2014, that the UK will no longer permit extradition on the basis of a bare accusation (as opposed to a formal completed decision to prosecute and charge) as is the case in relation to Mr. Assange.

(iii) By virtue of the same legislation now in force, that the United Kingdom will no longer permit extradition under a European Arrest Warrant without consideration by a court of its proportionality (Mr. Assange’s case was decided on the basis that such consideration was at that time not permitted).

The UK authorities are basing their position on sticking obstinately to a set of rules that used to apply to EAWs, even though they subsequently changed those rules because of this sort of abuse. Such an attitude is completely indefensible. Where the letter of an old law conflicts with the cause of justice, justice should prevail.

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A strong showing in Iowa ... 28.5%

Iowa is in the spotlight today, so it's time for pictures of barns.

     

But to save you waiting up, one important result is already in. Iowa generates a higher proportion of its electricity from wind than any other state in America ... 28.5%.

     

And, according to this report, this is set to rise to 40% by 2020. The industry also "employs around 7,000 people, has 12 turbine manufacturers, [and] has attracted $10 billion in capital investment" in Iowa alone.

It would be very easy for Wales, which also has a population of 3.1m, to do the same. Probably easier, because average household energy consumption in the US is about 11,700 kWh/yr compared with something like 4,600 kWh/yr here.

We are a long way behind them; in 2013, only 6.45% of our electricity was generated from wind.

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Cameron on benefits

I haven't written much before now on the upcoming EU referendum because the focus of debate—at least, as framed by the Tories—centres on matters which are of very little concern to me. Indeed, I think that by focusing on these things rather than matters which should be of much more fundamental concern about what the EU is doing, or shows every sign of doing in the near future, we are actually reducing the chances of getting the EU reforms we really need.

Here is a short clip from last night's news which shows the hypocrisy behind David Cameron's stance on immigrants receiving in-work benefits.

     

Anyone who gives the matter any thought at all will be able to see the fundamental flaw in his argument. Our system is set up in such a way that every single non-immigrant will, as he puts it, "get benefits out of the system" before we put a single penny into the system. A very great deal of benefits, in fact.

Everyone who has grown up in the UK will have benefitted from years of completely free education and health care provided by the state; and will almost certainly have made use of free social services and facilities provided by local authorities. On top of this, the government will have made direct cash payments for each child while they are growing up.

Looked at in broad terms, a person will only start "paying into the system" when they start work (apart from paying a little tax in the form of VAT on purchases) and it will probably take twenty years or so before the taxes they've paid into the UK system balance the benefits they took out of the system while they were growing up. On average, a person will probably "break even" in their forties; then for the next twenty years or so they will be net contributors to the benefits system; then they will retire and take money out of they system again in pension payments and increased health and social care. In round terms: 20 years of taking from the system, 20 years of paying it off, 20 years of being a net contributor to the system, 20 years to get it back again.

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Now consider the position of a newly-arrived immigrant working in the UK. From the very first day they will be a net contributor to the UK system because of the tax and national insurance they pay.

That is why it is utterly offensive for Cameron to suggest that we should stop immigrants receiving in-work benefits for any amount of time, let alone four years. An immigrant receiving in-work benefits is certainly not getting "something for nothing". In fact, they will be anything up to 20 years ahead of the average UK citizen in terms of paying into our system.

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Looking at the bigger picture, if there is any issue that should be addressed, it is the fact that the UK is benefitting from the education and expertise of immigrants at the expense of the country they have come from. It should be a very major source of concern that the UK encourages, for example, qualified doctors, nurses and other health professionals to work in our national health services. This holds true for all immigration, not just immigration from within the EU. Indeed, as has been said many times by many people, our NHSs wouldn't survive without them.

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Hinkley C is half-dead and on life support

There was a fairly good report and debate on Newsnight about the continuing delays to a final decision by EDF on the proposed Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset.

     

To a certain extent, I am as happy as Jenny Jones at this news. Nuclear power is not commercially viable, and the fact that EDF—even though it is 85% owned by the French Government—think that the uncertainties are so great that going ahead would risk bringing down the whole company is a sober reflection of economic reality.

The problem is that politics, or rather politicians, are involved; and the ones in power haven't quite got the same grip on economic reality. The events of the past year or so should have made it clear to everyone that the Tory Government at Westminster is determined to push ahead with nuclear power at the expense of what they call green crap ... and pig-headed enough to keep throwing money at nuclear until someone is foolish enough to commit to construction.

I don't want to see any new nuclear power stations built in Britain, because Britain can generate more electricity than we need on this island by developing renewables instead. However, if politicians are determined to go ahead with nuclear in spite of it not making commercial sense, it is obviously better for Wales that any nuclear power station that does get built is build somewhere other than in Wales. Paradoxically, the worse news would be for EDF to take the decision not to go ahead with Hinkley C, for it would mean that the government's focus of attention would switch to projects like Wylfa B, and similar ridiculous amounts of money would be thrown at it instead.

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The EDF/China deal, if it went ahead as planned, would result in three new nuclear power stations: Hinkley B, Sizewell C and a Chinese-designed reactor at Bradwell. We need to be clear that the Chinese have only agreed to finance the first two in return for getting the third. Building their own reactor in a Western country is what really matters to them. They will therefore put tremendous pressure on the UK and France to keep the deal alive.

So, for me, the best scenario would be for the Hinkley/Sizewell/Bradwell deal to be kept on "life support" for the time being because, while it remains half-alive, there is no way that the UK would commit to building a fourth nuclear power station. We can all see the mess that the Finns are in over Olkiluoto 3, and that the French are in over Flamanville 3. If these two governments have had so much trouble over building just one new nuclear power plant, does anyone in their right mind think the UK would commit to building four of them? Wales is safe for as long as the Hinkley/Sizewell/Bradwell deal is not killed off.

The UK government's decision to rapidly remove subsidies for wind and solar is, of course, a setback ... but only a temporary one. The big picture is that the price of renewable energy is continually coming down, and this will make wind and, especially, solar projects more commercially viable. It's only a question of when, not if. The current low oil and gas prices will almost certainly go back up, probably in two or three years, and when that happens we should expect to see an unstoppable rush towards renewables. At that point neither Chinese money, nor the largesse of a Tory government at the expense of taxpayers and electricity customers, will be able to keep the idea of new nuclear power in the UK alive any longer.

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