Friday, December 19, 2008

An Unfortunate Echo

Yesterday's Full Council meeting raised an important question of journalistic ethics; namely, should a journalist publish words that were spoken in a meeting but then struck from the record? Unfortunately for David James of the South Wales Echo, the answer is not if the reason they were struck from the record is as watertight as a mermaid's brassiere.

Perhaps inevitably there was something of an end of term feel to the meeting, with plenty of entertainment for the layman between two walkouts (one by the Labour and Conservatives en masse, the other by the Labour Group Leader in a bizarre fit of pique) an assortment of malapropisms and a devastatingly embarrassing performance from one Tory councillor as he tried to deny that a petition he'd submitted to the Welsh Assembly asked for what it said on the tin, namely concreting over part of an allotment.

The main order of business, however, was a Conservative motion calling for a zero Council Tax increase in 2009/10. The debate was lengthy and of a high standard, covering many of the technical issues surrounding local government financing and delving into the philosophical basis of property taxes. The mainstay of it all was the fundamental truth that actually, the Conservatives have been asking for this for years and every time they do, the alternative budget they come up with means cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Naturally, the Leader of the Conservative Group, David Walker, denied that this was the case (falling, much like his petitionally-challenged colleague, into the trap of of trying to deny the contents of publicly available documents). But as they went on, his relatively rent-a-Tory comments headed off on a tangent into bizarre (as in “I'll show you the proof, but not right now”) allegations of corrupt overtime practices in refuse collection. But instead of letting the ante-upping rest at corrupt, Cllr Walker decided to find a more powerful adjective.


Cllr McEvoy rightly complained to the Lord Mayor and, to his credit, Cllr Walker withdrew the comment immediately. Unfortunately, this didn't stop the slur being repeated in the first line of the coverage of the debate in today's Echo.

I don't for a second believe that anyone involved meant any ill will by any of this. I do, however, think that the record should show that the slur did not pass unchallenged and that we took a firm stance on comments that, however traditional they may be, are clearly no longer acceptable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nice Rhetoric, Shame You're Such A Berk

With the year drawing to a close it's time to get off the fence and finally announce the recipient of the 2008 Scunner Broon Award for Stupidest Political Quote Of The Year. As has been discussed previously, it's been a difficult one to judge, what with the number of exceptional individual candidates, the broad body of work of Sarah Palin and, ultimately, a winner whose reason for opening his big trap in the first place was an issue I fielded complaints about.

Investment in the library service has been one of the Liberal Democrats' proudest accomplishments during our time running Cardiff, with two new libraries built, one under construction and three planned, in addition to four refurbishments. The crowning glory of that investment will be the new Central Library, a replacement for the old library whose site now forms part of the St Davids 2 development.

As plans for the move, first to a temporary facility and then to the new building were developed, the status of the library's various special collections had to be considered. These collections, amounting to a total of some 18,000 items, were largely uncatalogued and unsuitable either for general use or for housing in general library facilities. Retaining the whole of the special collections would cost £2-3million (or to put it another way, 2-3% on Council Tax), approximately the same as their commercial value.

The commercial value matters because the powers that central government in its usual patronising fashion deigns to bestow on the council are quite unsentimental. As far as the law is concerned, these collections are an asset and as such, the council is required to achieve the best value if that asset is to be disposed of. As a result, in January 2007 the Executive (in a public meeting, no less) decided to seek a specialist auctioneer to sell those elements of the special collections that were not of specific local or national interest or in the Welsh language. The Minister For Smoking In The Eli Jenkins was fully appraised of the plan and raised no concerns.

Eighteen months later the first tranche of items was sent to Bonham's and duly appeared in a sales catalogue, at which point all hell broke loose. Academics protested to each other and to the council, the opposition groups on the council claimed they were duped, Private Eye got on its high horse and the now conveniently Minister For Not Smoking In The Eli Jenkins announced that he was in fact concerned and that discussions should take place between interested parties. Which is where we are now, with a group of interested parties from academia and heritage organisations working to identify those items that should be retained.

But where you may ask is the moment of utter verbal lunacy? (And more importantly, would you mind hurrying it along, you've already wasted plenty of my time going on about the minutiae of library administration...)

The important detail in all of this is that the Minister For Not Smoking In The Eli Jenkins is a member of Plaid. And as part of the unique constitutional settlement that Plaid seem to have developed with One Wales (you know, the one that goes “this Plaid is fictitious and any resemblance to Plaids that are members of the government coalition is entirely coincidental”) any statement by a Plaid minister must be accompanied by one from a Plaid backbencher in order to ensure deniability.

In this case it fell to Chris Franks, AM for South Wales Central (The bits that Leanne Wood doesn't give a s**t about) to respond for the 1974 Committee with this little gem;

“Cardiff is the only European capital city without a National Library or National Archive”

And this is the nub of the matter, because a large proportion of the special collections were donated to the then town in the late 19th Century in order to bolster Cardiff's bid to house a National Library of Wales. After a long and bitter battle, Cardiff did not succeed.

Because Aberystwyth did.

As a quizzer, I am rather unforgiving of ignorance of fairly basic facts, particularly ones that have actually been the subject of questions on University Challenge this year! As a student of semantics in politics, therefore, I am especially unforgiving of statements like this that grasp the nettle in rhetoric, only to let go at the first sign of reality.

So Chris Franks, for boldly asserting in public that a major national institution should be uprooted from Plaid's top Westminster target seat and relocated to Cardiff, the Scunner Broon Award is yours.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Spotting The Difference The Llafur Way

Things have come to a pretty pass when you can't rely on parliamentary researchers to bunk off properly. I mean, I'm fairly sure iPlayer works on Welsh Assembly computers, which means the Labour Party have no excuse for not realising that the viewing public would have access to all three versions of their Queen's Speech PPB and would thus be able to play a little bit of spot the difference.

The master template is, I suppose, inevitable; images of a fast-paced global economy interspersed with near-subliminal flashes of one B.H. Obama and lots of statesmanlike shots of yon Scunner Broon. But even the template is susceptible to change; while “Britain” and Wales enjoy a fade over a clip of the Bank Of England, Scotland gets a Saltire in front of a moodily sunlit tenement.

Scotland's slogan is also different; while Labour is Standing Up For “Britain” and Llafur is Standing Up For Wales, Labarach (and let the record show I had to dig that up from the Scots Gaelic version of Wikipedia, as neither Scottish Labour nor any of their parliamentarians appear to have bothered to have a Gaelic website) merely offer A Fairer Scotland, lazy buggers.

Speaking of inevitability, it's Wabbroon, live and direct from, well, the caption says UN Headquarters, but if that's any room in a building completed in 1950 I'm a monkey's uncle. Mind you, describing it as a Webcameron rip-off is the charitable interpretation; crueller voices might suggest that they're doing the whole thing on the cheap, what with the credit crunch and the corrupt party finances (not necessarily in that order...)

More statesmanlikeness, then a strange difference; while the “British” version lingers on a shot of Brown networking in a posh hotel room, the Scottish and Welsh versions cut back to the Wabbroon monologue. A few moments later, Scotland and Wales zoom in on a somewhat less subliminal Obama moment, while “Britain” jump cuts to the close up after a brief shot of a Brown/Darling press conference.

For a moment, I'm wondering if this is just a function of the production process, that a final version was sent to the Celts to add their own bits, only for the Anglo-Saxons to do some fiddling of their own. Then a third shared visual appears, and it's the strangest of the lot; while “Britain” gets a few seconds of the London Stock Exchange, Scotland and Wales see their umpteenth busy shopping street pass by, except this one is very clearly identifiable because Buchanan Street Station on the Glasgow Subway is very obviously slap bang in the middle of it.

Do we now have Wales receiving Scotland's leftovers from the editing suite? No, it turns out that we have an extra section that only appears in the “British” version. Over more images of stock tickers and the Docklands, Brown's monologue gains this;

"There are those like the Conservatives who want to let the recession run its course. They are wrong. Failure to act in the past has increased both the length and depth of recessions."

Now excuse me while I geek; a Midland Mainline Class 222 Meridian sweeps through the countryside, then we cut to Gordon and Sarah (surprised it took over a minute to get her in there) inside a Virgin Trains Class 390 Pendolino... [/geek]

Then the sort of difference that actually really angers me. In “Britain”, the caption proudly proclaims that we're seeing Gordon touring the Jaguar factory at Castle Bromwich; the Scots and Welsh are not so informed. Note ye that there are precisely zero car assembly lines in Scotland and Wales; do Labour really think we're stupid enough not to notice that a factory must logically be in “Britain” if we're not told that it is?

And lo, the opt-out arrives, signalled by another train image, this time a Virgin Trains Class 221 Super Voyager at Sandwell and Dudley station. I'm almost willing to let them have that one; since there's no type of train operated by any company that could pass through any station on the way to both Scotland and Wales, I'll take them at least picking a train travelling on a route that could lead to either.

The opt-outs themselves raise an important technical question because what we get are the Murphy Boys talking to camera. This isn't a particularly smart political move; after all, I'm actively interested in Welsh politics and even I couldn't give a flying **** what Paul Murphy does, so the chances of anyone less prepared for it caring are fairly remote. If it's a matter of the legislation requiring only parliamentarians appear in a parliamentary broadcast, fair enough, but in that case why did the SNP broadcast appear on Thursday in Scotland instead of the Conservative one? It must be on the basis of their position in the Scottish Parliament, because if it was based on their Westminster representation, the Thursday broadcast in Wales would have been the Lib Dem one...

And then we have three monologues instead of one, albeit with a little bit of cross-referencing. In “Britain”, Brown blathers on, listing just about everything any government might be called upon to do and suggesting it might be an idea that they do it well, bookended extraordinarily by a brief bit of walk-and-talk that almost looked human until he decided that he only had one hand gesture and by gum he was sticking to it.

In Scotland, Jim Murphy might as well have “The SNP Are Nutters” tattooed to his forehead and once he's got through his platitudes on employment, Iain Gray appears (adding more mystery to my point about the Murphy Boys) to push specific policies on apprenticeships and schools PFIs. Iain tries the walk-and-talk too, but is criminally let down by a less mobile camera that exposes his rather unusual gait.

As for Wales, it's the well-worn line about two Labour governments, in Westminster and Butetown, working together. Setting aside the evidence that this is bollocks (if it were true we wouldn't be having rows about the 27 Ways To Ditch An LCO) it also strikes me as pretty poor politics. Looking ahead to 2011, even if they don't want to think it'll happen, Llafur must recognise that they might need to play the anti-Tory duopoly card; trumpeting the advantages of the partnership now makes that card all the harder to play. Equally, talking about the government as if it's yours and yours alone can only help Plaid's clear One Wales strategy of denying all knowledge of being involved in it. Then again, that analysis presumes that Llafur can find their butts with both hands and it's not as if we have a great deal of evidence of that being the case...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh No, This Is The Road... To Preston

Never let it be said that the British don't know how to milk an anniversary to within an inch of its life. Between the local authority and the combined forces of the road lobby, much is being made of the fiftieth anniversary of Britain's first motorway; not the M1, but the Preston Bypass (now M6 J29 to M55 J1).

To add to the joy, Britain's newest motorway also opens today. Or to think of it another way, Britain's oldest motorway gets finished today.

Laugh? I nearly cried.

It's a testament to the level of chaos that passes for administration in this country that the best record of how the motorway network got to where it is comes not from government but from the enthusiasts. It's a history that every politician at every level should acquaint themselves with, if only to understand just how ludicrously ambitious politicians can get; you haven't truly understood the political animal until you've considered the possibility of the M13 Southend Southern Bypass (give it a moment, you'll work it out...) or the extent to which the M25 is, in fact, two different motorways hastily cobbled together with the civil engineering equivalent of gaffer tape...

The result, half a century on, is a classic Whitehall bodge job that spent so much of its time and political capital on London that it never managed to develop a coherent strategy for the rest of the country. There are roads that are almost motorways but not quite (A55), roads that were originally meant to be motorways but aren't (A50), roads that are motorways but don't need to be (M180) and the biggest category of the lot, motorways that give up before they get there (M4, M5, M42, M56, M62...)

Perhaps the most surprising element for those of us brought up on the idea that all new roads are evil a la Newbury and Twyford Down is that things are still progressing. With the Cumberland Gap now filled there's a continuous motorway from London to Glasgow and work is due to start soon on the last section of the motorway from London to Newcastle. As ever with these things, the Scottish Parliament is pushing on too (the M77 Kilmarnock extension is already open, soon to be followed by the M74 Central Glasgow extension and the completions of the M80 Glasgow-Stirling and M8 Glasgow-Edinburgh routes) and the Welsh Assembly, erm, well, yeah...

Still, it's not exactly the awe-inspiring future the pioneers of 1958 had in mind and neither is it likely to make much of a difference to the daily jams experienced by so many millions of people. Until the political will exists to actually tackle any mode of transport head on (third runways notwithstanding) the future of the motorways, and indeed everything else, looks increasingly congested.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Julian Lewis List

One of the problems of having a memory like mine, and indeed a propensity for atopicality like mine, is the extent to which things will crop up long after they were said. The whole house moving process has brought one such nugget back to the surface as it has now become rather more relevant to my own experience than it was before. That nugget is the Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly For Wales) Order 2008.

The John Lewis List's dominance of the nation's political discourse seems an age away now, but for a while it was the only story in town. True to form, Parliament leapt into action... to save their own skins. The result was an exemption protecting the home addresses of MPs, AMs and Lords from release under the Freedom of Information Act. The campaign to secure the exemption was spearheaded by Julian Lewis (no relation), MP for New Forest East, who spoke at length about the risk of an Al-Qaeda letter bomb-spamming campaign against MPs.

That's all very well and probably proper, although I don't share Dr Lewis's faith in the idea that his local militant cell will be unable to find the address information he and his colleagues are required to give at election time because it doesn't come up on Google. But while MPs were getting their knickers in a twist about a possible change to the status quo, it strikes me that they gave very little thought to the one area of government where disclosure of addresses already is the status quo; councillors.

It is true that councillors do not have to disclose their home addresses; indeed, of Cardiff's 75 councillors, five presently do not do so. Culturally, however, we are very much expected to do so and that cultural expectation does have a tangible effect on our work. I did not disclose my previous address as I was a lodger and did not feel it was fair to the permanent resident of the house to place their address on record; in that time, I definitely received less letters than my ward colleague whose address was and is disclosed.

Ultimately, not disclosing a home address does not make MPs or AMs appear to be less contactable; they have constituency offices and people are happy to write to the House Of Commons or the Senedd as they think of these places as the group of members. When writing to a councillor at County Hall, however, people think of it as The Council, a monolithic house of bureaucracy within which their letter will surely either be lost or “lost”. It isn't true by any means, a councillor's post is just as secure and just as sure to reach them via County Hall as it is to a home address, but the cultural perception is there.

Meanwhile, we councillors may be somewhat less subject to possible terrorist attack than our parliamentary colleagues (though in such matters it pays not to be presumptuous as to what Al-Qaeda may or may not consider getting up to) but we're no less likely to face identity fraud or physical or sexual harassment than them.

Unfortunately I don't have any clever idea for solving the problem; legislating against years of cultural expectation is rarely a fruitful task. What the whole sorry tale underlines, however, is the problem of Parliament's inflated sense of its own importance. The potential security implications for councillors weren't so much as mentioned; heck, I'm half surprised the Assembly even got a look in. As ever, until local government is considered part of the system rather than a separate adjunct to it, all of government will be the poorer for it.