Thursday, April 16, 2009

Using The Silver Bullet While It's There

Ah, the joys of a Lib Dem conference agenda. Sid and Doris will know that it's been quite a while since I managed to get to any form of one (pretty much bang on two years, as it goes) and while things are being made fairly easy for me this time, it would be churlish not to go when it's pretty much as close to Cardiff West as it's possible to be without being in Cardiff West (and we'll gloss over the fact that both the Tories and Plaid actually did have their conferences in Cardiff West, splitters...)

Still, it's great to finally be able to get stuck in, if only to help put the lie to one of the more corrosive elements of Plaid's rhetoric. I have no problem with them banging on about how Tory and Labour policy is imposed by diktat from London; that happens to be true. But Welsh Lib Dem policy is made in Wales, by Wales and for Wales and no level of amateurish tubthumping on Plaid's part should distract anyone from that. Then again, I guess you can't expect much from a party whose ignorance of how the Liberal Democrats work (mixed with a soup├žon of cowardice) cost them a shot at running the show...

(Oh, and by the by, I wrote that paragraph before I saw Welsh Ramblings “independent” post outlining how they're sufficiently stupid not to understand what federalism is...)

It's a packed weekend of policy, covering topics ranging from repossession support and affordable housing to high-tech jobs and infrastructure. I'm also duty bound to give a trailer for the motion on retrospective planning application (given that my ward colleague Kirsty Davies is proposing it after we got a similar motion passed by Cardiff Council a few months ago) but I'm hoping that one won't reach any sort of level of controversy. There are undoubtedly some battles to be fought over the weekend, however, although none of the “I'm a new leader hear me roar” type (and let us reflect once more on how impressive Kirsty's comments on the policy making process during the leadership campaign were).

Wrexham and Clwyd South's motion on tackling alcohol abuse is very welcome, and it comes with an interesting amendment calling for the party to oppose minimum pricing of alcohol. It's an important debate and one that should get the philosophy buffs going at full tilt. I suspect I'll come down against the outright statement of opposition; while I have no doubt that the SNP would cock the whole thing up if they introduced it in Scotland (they being, after all, the SNP) I think there are ways to make it work (as I've previously stated with respect to the VAT system generally) and I'd probably prefer to give the Assembly group the discretion to look at it in that context.

IR Cymru (the youth and student wing formerly known as MIDR) have a pretty comprehensive motion calling for compulsory social and sex education in all schools, regardless of ownership or faith status. You'd hope from the constructive nature of the amendments offered that this important change would be backed, but compulsion in education, particularly in the faith sector, is always likely to be divisive.

And then there's the question of direct elections to police authorities. Now I can quite understand why Rhondda Cynon Taf have raised it; the recent shambles of the South Wales Police Authority's budget setting process is well documented and Labour's dominance of that authority was undoubtedly a prime factor in that debacle. Indeed, you may well say that the crippling of South Wales Police because of an edict from Transport House that the council tax precept must not go above five percent had rather a lot to do with the fact that Labour's lead Euro candidate sits on the authority and doesn't want to be branded as a council tax hiker; you may very well say that, I couldn't possibly comment...

It's also worth laying much of the blame for the shambolic nature of the process at the part-time chair of the authority, Russell Roberts. I say part-time, because Russell (who owes his position on the authority to the fact that, outside of the Lib Dem-controlled councils, a seat on the police authority is clearly regarded as being one of the perks of being leader of the council) is also Leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf and Chair of Cwn Taf NHS Trust; can anyone else say Three Jobs Bob?

That being the diagnosis, is direct election of all non-council appointed members the cure? As the motion points out, it's a better idea than the Conservative proposal for directly elected sheriffs (and if you need proof that a single elected official shouldn't be in charge of policing in an area, I'd refer you to a certain B. Johnson, Esq.)

But the existing independent members of the authority aren't the problem and direct election would entail a massive change in their role and function. Certainly, they could be more representative of the communities they represent and more formally in touch with the public (as the Swansea and Gower/Newport amendment suggests) but directly electing them does not necessarily deliver either of those changes.

As for the political side, in case we hadn't noticed we already have the solution; a little thing called PR. Heck, there's even a fringe on that very subject on Sunday lunchtime (and I suspect I'll give in to my inner geek and go to it myself). For all that our opponents may deride us for our commitment to it, we should never forget that it is the biggest single thing we can do to improve the way Britain is governed at every level.

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