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Saturday, 31 August 2013

Senedd Watch - August 2013

  • Plaid Cymru comfortably held Ynys Môn following the August 1st Assembly by-election, with Rhun ap Iorwerth taking 58% of the vote off a 42% turn out. Labour finished second with 16%, and UKIP third with 14%.
  • Former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM (Lab, Rhondda), defended his intervention in English language GCSE marking in August 2012, after a former WJEC acting chair described it as “authoritarian and incompetent”. Leighton Andrews said criticism was “ludicrous”, and that the WJEC board were “hung up on....points of process” without considering “fairness for Welsh pupils”.
  • Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), confirmed Cardiff's Prosiect Gwyrdd incinerator will receive £100million of Welsh Government funding over 25 years (£4.3million per annum). Anti-incinerator campaigners were said to be “astonished” at the figures, having mounted a legal challenge against the project. It was revealed on August 30th that Welsh local authorities were on course to meet recycling targets, with 52% of waste recycled in the year to March 2013.
  • Welsh language commissioner, Meri Huws, published her first annual report. There were 468 complaints, the vast majority relating to public or crown bodies and a quarter relating to private companies. The commissioner also responded to the 2011 census figures, suggesting “strategic and radical” policies to ensure the Welsh language's future.
  • Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W. & S. Pembs.), proposed separate vocational and academic streams based on ability from age 14, as part of wider Welsh Conservative proposals to restore elements of the grammar school system. Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) was said to be “bemused”, saying he was “committed to excellent schools for all”.
  • The Children & Young People Committee report into Attendance and Behaviour recommended the Welsh Government's proposed truancy fines be dropped, and that more work be done to tackle bullying – cited as a main cause of poor attendance.
  • A joint Welsh Government, S4C and BBC study - released at the National Eisteddfod in Denbighshire - reported just 31% of young Welsh speakers used the language in their everyday lives compared to 61% of over-60s. The First Minister said it underlined the need for more Welsh-medium activities for young people.
  • A report from the UK Changing Union group revealed young voters (18-35 year olds) were more indifferent towards devolution, and unclear about the National Assembly's responsibilities, compared to older voters.
  • A separate poll for the Silk Commission found a majority supported further powers for the Assembly over criminal justice, policing, energy and broadcasting, with a slim majority in favour of devolving welfare. The National Assembly also had a higher approval rating (5.6/10) than Westminster (4.3/10).
  • A Vale of Glamorgan Council cabinet member called for a Welsh Government review into how the Football Association of Wales (FAW) runs the sport, after Barry Town United were reinstated to the Welsh League following a High Court ruling that their temporary expulsion was unlawful.
  • A second Assembly Bill was referred to the Supreme Court. The Agricultural Sector Bill – passed as emergency legislation in July – was deemed outside of the Assembly's competence by UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC. A hearing has been set for 5th December 2013.
  • The Assembly's Environment and Sustainability report into water services rejected UK Government proposals to increase competition between water companies through extending parts of the Water Bill to cover Wales. The committee said the success of the not-for-dividend business model of Dwr Cymru proved that commercial competition wasn't appropriate.
  • The number of top-grade (A* & A) passes at A-Level in Wales fell from 23.6% to 22.9% compared to 2012, and also fell compared to the England, Wales & Northern Ireland average of 26.3%. Welsh Baccalaureate passes, however, rose by 4% on 2012, while girls continue to out-perform boys - except at the highest A* grade.
  • The Assembly's Health Committee report into the 2012-13 measles epidemic warned against complacency, with 30,000 children remaining unvaccinated against measles across the country. Concerns were also raised about information sharing between health authorities.
  • Local health boards released figures to The Western Mail revealing 13,000 cancelled operations over the last three years, mainly due to bed and staff shortages. Shadow Health Minister Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West) blamed the Welsh Government for wasting funds. The Welsh Government said operations were routinely cancelled for clinical reasons, but they were "working to reduce the number”.
  • The first results from national literacy and numeracy tests for 6-14 year olds highlighted a drop in reading ability between primary and secondary schools. Numeracy performances remained relatively stable across all age groups. NUT Cymru questioned the value of the tests, while Angela Burns AM called for a new range of middle schools for 8-14 year olds.
  • The gap in top grade (A* & A) GCSE passes between Wales and England & Northern Ireland narrowed. A*- C pass rates were 65.7% compared to a Wales, England and Northern Ireland average of 68.1%. However, there were sharp falls in A*- C pass rates in science and maths, broadly mirroring similar falls in England and Northern Ireland.
  • The Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister called for Welsh Government action following hold-ups to the doubling of the Wrexham-Chester railway. Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales) said it was “clear north Wales doesn't receive its fair share of expenditure for capital projects.”
  • A row broke out between English Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles MP, and the Welsh Government over local authorities blocking recording of council meetings. The Welsh Government described it as “obsessive” and a “cheap political attack” against Labour. Despite this, Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) later encouraged Welsh local authorities to allow the use of social media and filming at council meetings, describing them as "excellent tools".
  • Rare Cancers Foundation research found Welsh patients are four times less likely to receive approval for new cancer treatments than patients in England. The Welsh Government rejected calls for a cancer drugs fund, saying it was neither supported by the medical profession or the public, and that it would “disadvantage patients with serious conditions other than cancer.”

Projects announced in August include : A £15million package for seven medical technology projects, a 20-year strategy for rail development in south east Wales, a £5million 16-bed ward at Tywyn Hospital and a merger between Trinity St David's University and Coleg Sir Gar to create a “radical new institution” serving 25,000 students.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The importance of intellectual property

The UK's Intellectual Property Office is on our doorstep in Newport.
Have Welsh universities and businesses been making enough of their own
intellectual property? Is it holding back the Welsh economy?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
When I first started surfing the Welsh political blogopshere, I noticed this topic popping up a disproportionate number of times in comments sections.

I noticed it cropping up again elsewhere, so I've decided to address it myself, underlining that it perhaps isn't an eccentric obsession it appears to be, but worthy of close attention by politicians if they're interested in the long-term future of the Welsh economy.

What is intellectual property (IP)?

Broadly speaking, it's a legal claim of ownership over rights relating to an item of work that's been created. IP takes several forms :
  • Patents – Legally protects an invention, its design and functions. Patent owners can take legal steps to prevent anyone else copying what's outlined in the patent itself. It applies mainly to things with industrial uses.
  • Trade marks – A legally-protected "sign/brand" for a company or product, assuring consumers that the product is what it says it is and from who it says it's from. Uses the symbols :™ and ®
  • Registered designs – IP protection for how a product "looks".
  • Copyright – Legal ownership over "original creative works" (books, plays, TV programmes, music etc.). It means they cannot be reproduced without permission from the copyright owner(s), depending on the terms and conditions by which it was produced/published (i.e. The Creative Commons License). Copyright doesn't have to be registered as it's automatic, simply by using the © symbol and a date.

IP in the UK – How it works

Apart from copyrights and trade marks, it's a lengthy, costly (£280 up front, up to £600 for patent renewals) and mind-numbing process. The reason being that it has to be legally watertight.

Patent law is a highly-specialised legal branch, and it's normal to get legal advice before pursuing a patent claim.

Trying to obtain a patent can be a time-consuming
and lengthy process that takes up to 4 years.
(Pic : Coventry University)
For patents and designs, you register with the local patent office. In a twist of irony, the UK's Intellectual Property Office (IPO) - an executive agency of the UK Department of Trade & Industry - has been based in Newport since 1991.

The patent application is very thorough, including : drawings, detailed technical specifications, an abstract (brief summary) of what the new innovation does and any specific rights/claims being made. The job of the patent office is to explore records – national and international – and determine if the innovation is "unique enough" to be patent protected.

Patents only apply in the territory they were protected in – so patents registered with the IPO are only protected within the UK. Separate applications have to be submitted with foreign patent offices to enable worldwide/international protection.

30 European countries signed the European Patent Convention, meaning a single application would cover all signatory nations at the same time. That's handled by the European Patent Office. If the Intellectual Property Bill is passed by Westminster, then a Unified Patent Court for Europe will be based in London, and it'll also mean granted UK patents will apply across the EU.

Patent protection can take up to four years. The legal term "patent pending" applies where an application has been submitted, but the patent is yet to be granted. It warns anyone thinking of copying it that they can be retrospectively sued once a patent is granted.

Why is IP economically important?

I'm focusing mainly on the patent side of things, but IP is equally important to artists for obvious reasons.

If you innovate - create something new or improved – you'll want a reward for your efforts. Protecting IP ensures the creator (i.e. university, company) benefits from their creation, whilst offloading production/sales work to someone else, simply because the creator doesn't have the means to do all that.

Those benefits include:
  • Protection from fraud and counterfeit versions.
  • Controlling where/how a new product is manufactured, including the creation of dedicated spin-out companies.
  • Generating income from licensing new products to other companies.
  • Generating more inward investment as a university/country becomes associated with greater innovation via lots of IP-protection activity.
  • Creating the motivation for further R&D off the back of successful IP protection and licensing.

Why is IP important to Wales?

It's good for a nation's (or university's) image to generate high numbers of patents and copyrights. It sends out the message, "These are smart people. Look at all the new ideas/products their developing. I want to invest there because they're doing good work."

It boosts global university rankings, attracting higher calibre international and domestic students. It also generates more opportunities to pursue higher qualifications like Masters and PhDs, especially if any patented innovation is successful enough to warrant further R&D.

At the moment, levels of IP-protection amongst Welsh universities make grim reading.

Patents published with the European Patent Office from
Welsh universities between August 2008-August 2013
(Click to enlarge)
There are only 87 patents from Welsh universities (or spin-out companies) published on the European patent register between August 2008 and August 2013. Nearly half of them are from Cardiff University and many are quite old.

For want of a comparison, the benchmark Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has 326 published patents for the same period. Trinity College Dublin has 77, as does Edinburgh University.

Cardiff University isn't doing too badly, remaining competitive with other Russell Group universities like Bristol. Cardiff's going to produce proportionally more IP as they attract the lion's share of research funding through being a research-focused university. They've also successfully commercialised their IP through the Fusion IP company.

Swansea University has joined Fusion IP, and once the Swansea innovation campus is built, we might see Swansea catch up on the engineering side of things.

Having briefly scanned through industrial patents, it look like Welsh companies are doing OK. For example, Bridgend companies had more published patents (45) than Cardiff University (38) over the same period – mostly bioengineering products. You would expect our universities to be doing better though.

What's IP worth to Wales currently?

The latest HEFCW press release (pdf) on the economic contribution of the Welsh university sector shows that Wales punches at its weight overall (at least 4.9% of all UK university activity).

In 2011-12, Welsh universities generated:
  • 7.5% of all UK income from collaborative research.
  • 18.9% of all UK income from regeneration and development programmes.
  • 5.2% of all software licence income (a fall from 10.6% in 2010-11)
  • 6.4% of all active spin-out companies that survived at least 3 years.
  • 21.7% of all non-university owned spin-outs that survived at least 3 years.
That makes pretty good reading, you'll agree. But there were pretty significant and important weaknesses.

Over the same period, Welsh universities attracted/generated just :
  • 2.3% of the UK's cumulative active patents (despite an 89% increase in patent applications on 2010-11).
  • 2.6% of income from intellectual property (despite a 12.7% increase in income on 2010-11).
  • 2.3% of income from contract research.
  • 1.0% of income from facilities and equipment.
Cardiff, and in future, Swansea universities aren't doing
too badly. However, it'll be a long time before Welsh
universities are doing MIT type work - shown above.
(Pic :

Based on the Higher Education Statistics Agency figures, if Wales punched "at its weight", Welsh universities would generate approximately an extra:
  • £1.6million in intellectual property income.
  • £28.9million in contract research.
  • £5.25million in facilities and equipment income.
Scottish and Northern Irish universities do significantly better than Wales on all counts.

The income from IP itself isn't that great, bordering on insignificant. That's not the point though, as IP usually attracts other things like contract and consultancy research, which generate greater incomes and allow universities to remain globally competitive.

On the whole, there's clearly been a failure by Welsh universities and companies to take advantage of IP-protection, possibly meaning :

  • Welsh innovations might be generating benefits somewhere else that should be benefiting us.
  • Wales isn't innovating enough, leaving the Welsh economy stuck in the mud.
  • There's a distinct lack of IP expertise within Welsh business development agencies.
  • Welsh companies and universities don't have the confidence to pursue IP protection, leaving it for larger universities and companies to pursue.
  • Welsh companies and universities are only patent protecting in a single territory (UK/EU) without thinking about global IP-protection.
I'm not exaggerating by suggesting it's a hidden weakness in the Welsh economy, and one clue in a long trail of clues as to why Offa's Gap is so large.

The Political Response

Back in 2008-2009, the Third Assembly's Enterprise & Learning Committee held an inquiry into the Economic Contribution of Higher Education. It generally accepted that there needed to be more specialist IP support, including holding seminars relating to IP at innovation conferences.

More recently, the Welsh Government launched a new Science for Wales strategy, along with the creation of a public-private life sciences fund and Sêr Cymru. However, the Science for Wales strategy only covers IP protection and exploitation briefly (p28), hinting at a forthcoming innovation strategy.

That innovation strategy - Innovation Wales - was launched last month by Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), though again IP is only mentioned in passing. Some outlined measures include : increased patent mentoring, IP being at the heart of things like the Cardiff life sciences hub, and parts of the public sector – like the NHS – taking ownership of their own IP and "maximising the economic and social impacts of their investments".

Clearly some of that's working as patent applications and income from IP have increased, but nowhere near fast enough to punch at our weight.

Problems with IP

To be frank, whatever's being protected could be a load of crap. You could patent a heating unit for milk chocolate teapots, it doesn't mean it's of any use. Patent lawyers will just smile and nod through the process – they're getting paid regardless.

People can get very passionate about their inventions, to the point of losing their senses of reason. Some could even hold a grudge against the Welsh Government, perhaps devolution itself, for not backing them properly. They watch them spend money on "other things", while their invention sits in a drawer, overtaken by others with more investor backing elsewhere in the world.

So, you have have all the cast-iron patents you want and it won't guarantee a commercial success, only a technological one. Sometimes not even that.

Any solutions?

It's people, connections and skills that are required really.

To get new technologies off the ground requires vasts amounts of capital. We need more networking with venture capitalists/investment funds and greater access IP expertise. Most of this could be done through the existing Finance Wales model, or even through more specialised investment funds like S
êr Cymru.

The universities and companies can be left to their own devices – hopefully coming up with new innovations we can take to the rest of the world – whilst being sensible enough to protect what they come up with, ensuring they - and the Welsh economy - benefit.

In the context of independence, there's likely to be little change to the current arrangements. As patent law is being harmonised across the EU, there's little scope for major legislative differences between EU member states, including Wales in the future.

There would be question marks over the future of the IPO in Newport as a major employer in the area, but I see little reason to close it, and it's more cost-effective for it to remain a pan-Great Britain & NI patent office. Even if it did go, there would be a need for a Welsh Patent Office - the Republic of Ireland has its own.

The creation of a centralised, single European Patent Office based somewhere on mainland Europe is probably more of a long-term threat to the IPO than Welsh independence. In fact, there would likely be a solid case for the IPO to evolve to become that pan-European institution.

Friday, 16 August 2013

"Devo-wuh?" Young attitudes towards Welsh devolution

Last week, Changing Union published a short but sweet report authored by Prof. Roger Scully entitled "Attitudes of Young People towards devolution". You can read it in English here (pdf) and Welsh here (pdf).

There's a Click on Wales piece from one of Changing Union's co-ordinators, Lleu Williams, and a post on Cardiff University's Elections in Wales blog from Prof. Scully himself, challenging some of the headlines resulting from this. It's perhaps been overshadowed by the Silk Commission poll - more on that from Syniadau.

The Findings

The report compares data relating to two age groups across a few different surveys : 18-35 year olds ("young voters") and over-35s.
  • Both age groups broadly support more powers for the Assembly or the status quo, with the young more likely to support the status quo and older voters further powers.
  • Support for both abolishing devolution and independence fell sharply in both age groups since 1997. More over-35s prefer scrapping devolution (~17%) compared to 18-35s (12%).
  • A majority of older voters think the Assembly has the most influence over decisions in Wales (55%) compared to the young (41-42%). 20% of young voters "Don't Know", compared to less than 10% of over-35s.
  • A majority across both age groups believe the Assembly ought to have the most influence over health, education, policing and criminal justice, with stronger support amongst older voters.
  • Similar percentages across both age groups support tax powers for the Assembly (~37%).
  • There's greater support for more powers - and significantly greater support for independence - amongst both age groups in Scotland compared to Wales. The percentage of "Don't Knows" with regard constitutional choices is similar in both countries across both age groups.
The Conclusions

The report's obvious one is that there's "lower levels of engagement amongst the young", reflected in "lower rates of voter turnout" and "less certainty" in their views on devolution. We knew that anyway, it's a long-standing problem.

There are other conclusions too. Based on policy influence preferences - and backed by the Silk Commission poll this week - there's strong support for further Assembly powers across the board, falling short of independence, with little appetite to turn back the clock. That hints that the Assembly has "established itself" as an institution.

On the lack of enthusiasm for devolution amongst many young people, The Western Mail's reaction was slightly hysterical. Support for independence is softer amongst the young than you might expect, but clearly there in abundance in the case of further powers.

It makes sobering reading for both devo-abolitionists, and nationalists who support independence like myself. Both groups are significantly out of step with public opinion - but I guess we knew that anyway. Unlike devo-abolitionists though, I think those of us in the latter category can live with a more powerful Assembly. If nationalists play the long game, we'll win.

A lot's been said about "what" and "how" on youth apathy, so I think it's worth turning to the "why". For once, I speak with a little authority as I fall within that "young voter" category.

Getting to know "Generation Y"

To understand why "we" (18-35 year olds) aren't bothering with politics, it's worth understanding what Generation Y - roughly those born between 1980-1999 - are like as a whole.

Vain – We're often dubbed "narcissists" and "entitled". I don't think that's necessarily true, but we are image conscious and individualistic. We think we need to be seen to live a certain lifestyle. We like to brag, and feel smug about making surface-deep "right choices" in clothes, lifestyles, technology etc. In politics, this translates into backing popular and charismatic individuals over parties.

Insecure - Unless you're settled with a decent job or family, the vanity hides an insecurity. We've taken the biggest hits from the recession. We're not going to get the same levels of retirement support as our parents and grandparents. Also, as a whole, we're trying to find a sense of generational purpose, with many living an extended adolescence. We might feel let down by politicians/politics, considering we've been guinea pigs for many of their reforms to schools, universities, housing and the economy - especially from the Thatcher and Blair years.

Mobile – We lack real job security so tend to change employer often. We travel more, and are generally (but not always) more willing to live in rented accommodation for long periods. We still have "roots" as that's a Welsh characteristic, but we don't live by it. We like flexible working, doing things on the move, and we don't sit down to watch the news or read newspapers. Everything is instant, and we're – on the whole - uncertain decision-makers because we're constantly bombarded with information in our jobs and free time.

Tech-savvy"Nerd" and "geek" are more positive labels than they've been in the past. We live a lot of our lives through the internet, gadgets and mobile phones. It makes us think we're all connected and "social", but it hides a loneliness too. This doesn't mean we're good at science and engineering either, it just means most modern technology is user-friendly. Modern politics isn't.

Time rich, cash poor – One of the reasons I'm doing this blog is because it's free. People my age are rather boring, unlikely to produce any great counter-culture, adopt "retro" trends because we lack originality, all whilst focusing on someone else's idea of style over our own creativity. Politics is seen as highly-focused and intensive, and not something worth bothering with unless you have ambitions of actually becoming a politician. There are plenty of other things we can do with our time.

Politics without ideology – Perhaps by being the first post-Cold War generation we see politics as a series of "issues" and "causes" that need fixing rather than a clash between left and right. People still fighting the Cold War at this age – as I once did – stick out like a sore thumb. We're mainly socially liberal, so don't tolerate "bans" and "restrictions", but more ambiguous on economic policy - perhaps even slightly conservative. If we vote in larger numbers as we get older, we're going to be a politician's nightmare as we'll be impossible to please.

Why might some young voters blank devolution?

You can picture the youth of Wales getting as excited about a referendum
for the National Assembly to vary income taxes by 10p, can't you?
(Pic :
We've been let down too – Younger people are as likely to be dissatisfied with how Welsh devolution turned out as older people. Bungs like tuition fee changes, EMAs and apprenticeships will only go so far. We're concerned with bigger issues like health, education (if we want to have children of our own) as well as things like transport and the economy.  We just won't admit it, as we know we won't be listened to - which can be very embarrassing seeing as we're adults.

We didn't vote or campaign for devolution, it's just "there" – Today's 35 year old would've been 19 at the time of the 1997 referendum. Today's 18-24 year olds will barely remember the time before devolution. I'd only just turned 13, and I don't recall if I had an opinion on it. Today's Wales was born from 60s and 70s activism, so younger people won't share a similar "spiritual/emotional connection" to devolution as those who campaigned for or against it. To us, it's a national institution that we grew up with in the background. It's nothing special, sacred or unique. Nor is it an abomination that undermines traditions.

We don't understand it
This shows up in the report as a high percentage of "Don't Knows" on the question of the Assembly's levels of influence and constitutional preferences.

That might be because young people are - like some older folks - unclear on what the Assembly does and what its powers are. Those things are hard to explain to audiences who lack any pre-existing political interest or knowledge. It's still - despite the 2011 referendum - quite technical. The Assembly might not be considered powerful enough to get too interested or involved with, whilst there's also the problem of the Assembly not being "seen" full stop.

It's boring, and any coverage we do get is cynical - Politics is supposed to be boring as that's how mistakes get ironed out. With many distractions, it's hard to get passionate about law-making, committee reports and public service performances.

For example, the Assembly's integrated transport inquiry was excellent and I think I did an OK job of whittling 60-odd pages to under 2,000 words. I received ten times the focus for a non-story about hotels a few weeks later.

Consider yourselves "lucky" I still cover things like laws, policies and committee reports. If I were dependant on maintaining regular high levels of interest, I would've dropped them and concentrated on character assassinations, conspiracy theories and gossip. That's clearly where interest lies, except the problem is that none of that stuff is "politics" nor actually relevant to anything.

We're disenchanted with politics - It's more correct to say young people are "disenchanted" (disappointed with what it is) rather than "disengaged". We do get excited about "single-issue causes" and "grand issues",  just not traditional party and institutional politics. That's probably for the same reasons as older people, or we grew up with such a cloud of cynicism hanging over politics that we just absorbed it as we got older.

The only "grand issue" in Wales is never-ending constitutional masturbation surrounding the Assembly's powers. I've said it several times, but even I don't get excited about that. I consider it tedious, bordering on an insult to our intelligence. We will be back here again and again and again until we have parity with Scotland at least.

We didn't get that in 1997. We didn't get it from the Richard Commission. We didn't get that in 2006 or 2011. You can see that I don't have high hopes for Silk.

It could all be done in 3 years, but we'll be waiting 30.

That's one reason why I would describe myself as "disenchanted". Ask others my age, and you'll probably get hundreds of different reasons.

We're under-represented – This is our own fault for not voting in large numbers, not registering to vote and not standing in elections. However, that's mainly because of disenchantment, lack of interest and seeing it as something for aspiring "career politicians", not ordinary people. I hardly know anybody my age – internet aside - who's a member of a party, movement or an active member of a trade union. Based on Welsh demographics, the Assembly should have at least 9 AMs aged 35 or under. There's one.

What can be done?

 Generation Y's politicians will think of it as a career - not a public service - and will
be thin on the ground. We may as well accept it, as it's better than nothing.
(Pic : British Youth Council)
Not much if I'm completely honest. But there's hope.

It's unscientific, but my Facebook page reach (those who see the posts) hints that the majority (66%) of this blog's readers are – bucking the trend – aged between 18 and 44 (those aged 25-34 the biggest subgroup) with a roughly 55-45 split in favour of men. Page "likes" are similar in terms of demographics, but with an one-sided 80-20 split in favour of men.

I'm not surprised that it's mainly "the boys" who will openly admit to reading/liking this blog, and I suspect 90%+ of the people who leave comments are male too. However, I'm glad women do see/read it as I hope it's seen as relevant to everyone.

I suspect many are political anoraks, activists or party workers in some shape or form. So there is interest amongst young voters, the problem's that they're likely in the "political bubble" anyway.

We have our youth parliamentary organisation – Funky Dragon – and many local councils have youth councils and mayors. That's fine, but I don't think going out and "nagging" young people to be interested in politics and devolution "for their own good" is going to work.

The single biggest fix is more young candidates in "proper government", not farmed off into "yoof parliaments" and student councils. Bridgend, for example, elected at least three councillors aged 35 or under in 2012 : Luke Ellis (Lab, Pyle), Ross Thomas (Lab, Maesteg West) - who's since become Mayor of Maesteg - and Hailey Townsend (Lab, Brackla). So it can be done organically without any positive discrimination.

Of course, those of us interested/involved in politics are going to say it's the most important thing in the world. If politicians and outreach workers are struggling to make it sound relevant and interesting, then the simplest answer is that Welsh politics just isn't relevant and interesting full stop.

Welsh politics is, quite often, painful to follow for its grinding processes and limp outcomes - not the performance of politicians themselves, who I don't have a issue with and who have a tough enough job as it is. They can only work with what they've got and can't perform miracles.

One day, those currently aged 18-35 are going to inherit the country. You better be damned sure we're interested enough to care, or there'll be a vacuum and I dread to think what will fill it.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Whipperines & Class Clowns

I'm on a "break" of sorts, mainly because there's not much to write about. I still have big posts to come before Assembly returns from recess though.

I'm working on a "little something" for September. I think most reading this will be interested, you'll just have to be patient and hope I don't suffer a mental breakdown in the next few weeks. "Stay tuned" for that - hint, hint.

There's a bit of Assembly-related news from last week, with the Children & Young People's Committee publishing a report into their attendance and behaviour inquiry (pdf).

I would've normally glossed over that, but because of the "lull", I decided to take a closer look and it threw up some interesting evidence and conclusions.

There were 12 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should develop new frameworks and strategies relating to attendance and behaviour, and should investigate bullying's links to poor attendance.
  • Improvements to teacher training, with "evidence-based" behaviour management training as part of their ongoing professional development.
  • Explore the possibility of delivering services relating to educational welfare and behavioural support at a regional level.
  • A rejection of fines for parents of persistent truants, based on evidence presented against that measure which the committee received.
Whipperines : School Attendance
Although the stereotype is of feral youths who don't want to learn,
cited causes of truancy include bullying, home problems and
difficulties with lessons.
(Pic : Daily Post)
If pupils don't go to school regularly, they don't attend lessons, they don't get homework and so they don't learn anything, setting them up for failure.

Absenteeism in schools is described as "stable", with unauthorised absences running at roughly 0.6-1% since 2002-03. Absence rates are used to determine school bandings (My Local School), so rates have improved since banding was introduced.

During the inquiry's focus group, the main reason for unauthorised absence given by pupils themselves were bullying or a general "lack of desire to attend school". Boredom during lessons and difficulties with schoolwork were also cited, along with home life problems like caring for relatives and drugs. They called for more understanding about their individual needs instead of a "one size fits all" policy.

Specific problems with attendance were highlighted during the period between primary and secondary schools (ages 8-14) and it's said that this period is where pupil attainment "follows a downward trajectory".

One thing cited by Estyn as a successful way of reducing absenteeism amongst "difficult-to-reach families" are so-called "first day response" procedures, where schools contact a parent directly on the first day of any absence. The committee decided they want more evidence on the effectiveness of this approach.

There was evidence of a shortage of Education Welfare Officers (aka. whipperines) in Wales, or at the very least a "considerable variation in service between local authorities", hence the suggestion of a regional approach to use EWOs better.

The evidence presented against fixed-penalty notices for truancy introduced by Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) was brusque.

A school governors representative described the truancy fines proposal as "disastrous", for undermining the "good relationship between staff, parents and pupils." None of the witnesses are said to have supported it, and evidence presented to the committee pointed towards "reward systems" for good attendance rather than punishments.

The fines are set to be introduced from September 1st and could be between £60-120.

Class Clowns : School Behaviour
Although permanent exclusions are becoming less common,
extreme behaviour is said to be becoming more common amongst
primary-age pupils and those with special needs.
(Pic :
Good pupil behaviour is essential to ensure a decent learning environment for pupils, and enable teachers to get on with their jobs without having to deal with "distractions".

Pupils themselves agreed that : bullying, being disruptive in class, being disrespectful to staff, smoking and vandalism counted as "bad behaviour". They also agreed that bad behaviour from other pupils prevents them from learning. Suggestions to reduce bad behaviour included more outdoor and "fun" lessons, and more one-on-one time with teachers.

Fortunately, permanent exclusions are said to be decreasing, and currently run at a rate of around 0.7 pupils per 1000. The main reasons for exclusions are said to be assaults against staff or persistent "defiance of rules".

Less fortunately, "extreme behaviour" is said to be increasing in primary schools, with greater prevalence amongst boys and those with special needs (who made up to half of all exclusions in 2010-11).

With regard exclusions procedures themselves, there was worrying evidence that schools were "illegally excluding" pupils by simply telling them to stay away, without officially notifying parents/guardians of the exclusion (or presumably recording it). A 2007 report from the Children's Commissioner said that the practice was "widespread".

There was contradictory evidence regarding ongoing illegal exclusions, with the National Association of Headteachers saying they would be "surprised" if the practice was still happening in 2013. Meanwhile, SNAP Cymru – a children's charity - claimed they had worked on 92 cases of illegal exclusion, including one highlighted case where a pupil with Asperger's Syndrome was asked to take an "early holiday"  during an inspection period.

AMs themselves have come across similar cases through their constituency work, but there was little official evidence of the practice. That's perhaps for obvious reasons - schools want it hushed up, and it's off the official record.

For those who are excluded, or moved to out-of-school Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), Estyn said specialist teaching staff at these institutions were "well trained and confident" about working with troubled pupils. However, there were issues regarding the management of individual pupil's needs. Teaching unions called for a "properly resourced national network" of PRUs.

PRUs based within school sites are said to be too old in terms of facilities. Also, some pupils ending up in on-site PRUs for long periods instead of returning to normal classes.

In terms of the wider issue of education for excluded pupils, education is still compulsory for them, and they're entitled to 25 hours per week, starting within 15 days of exclusion. SNAP Cymru say this simply doesn't happen, and excluded pupils are "lucky to get 5 hours a week"- if that. It's usually then left to parents.

The introduction of trained school counsellors is said to be important, with a "positive impact on attainment, attendance and behaviour" amongst children who've received help.

One other big issue raised was that of parental attitudes towards punishments. There are varying levels of engagement and support, with some parents outright refusing to support any measures taken against their children, or unwilling to accept any wrong-doing. This usually results in lengthy compromises instead.


It's a basic duty of every parent to make sure their child behaves themselves at school and attends regularly. It's disappointing to read that some parents don't accept their little angels might not be the cherubs they think they are, but it's not a surprise unfortunately.

As you can tell by the tone of the language used in the report, this was unusually critical of some aspects of the Welsh Government's approach and policies here.

The headline-grabber was the rejection of truancy fines. It was clearly part of Leighton Andrews' more aggressive approach to driving up standards, but it remains to be seen if that's going to be Huw Lewis' style. With only a few weeks until the fines are set to be introduced and regulations drawn up, time's running out for the Education Minister to pull the plug if he's convinced by this report.

The warning is that several perfectly good things Leighton did during his tenure could end up being overturned if a u-turn here encourages teaching unions to press for more policy reversals.

I believe fines are appropriate with regard persistent truants, but only when all other options have been completely exhausted. I don't like reward schemes, as pupils shouldn't be "bribed" to go to school, as it could teach them that they should expect prizes for doing something they should be doing anyway.

On school behaviour, the "illegal exclusion" issue borders on scandalous. That could be in part because schools have become so wound up about inspections and bandings that they might feel the need to shunt misbehaving or difficult pupils out of sight. It could also be that headteachers and local authorities are just too damned lazy to sort out the core problems themselves. It's one area where the "Third Sector" should perhaps become more involved in if individual schools can't cope.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Formula One, Motorsports & Wales

Last summer, I focused on Welsh baseball and a Commonwealth Games bid in the 2020s. Earlier this year, I mentioned a Welsh national cricket team - apparantly there's going to be a vote on that when the Assembly returns from recess.

With discussions rumbling on about the future of motorsports in Wales - due to the proposal in Blaenau Gwent - I thought I'd take a look at the current situation, what we could focus on in terms of attracting new events and whether Wales could/should aspire to host major international track-based events like Formula One.

Don't get the impression that I'm a motorsports fan - I'm not. The following's just example of (hopefully satisfactory) research.

Motorsports – An overview

Formula Three is a similar "open wheel" competition
to the more famous and glamorous Formula One.
(Pic : The Guardian)

There are many different types of motorsport competitions, most falling under the umbrella of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) governing body, based in Paris.

The first major category are open wheel/single-seater races. The biggest competition is, obviously, Formula One. GP2 and GP3 competitions act as "feeder comptitions" to Formula One itself - for aspiring drivers - and are held as "support races" to the main event. However, there are also multiple Formula Three and Formula-E championships which have a different set of manufacturing rules, in addition to karting.

Touring cars are ordinary production cars that have been modified, and have their own World Championship. Endurance racing (like Le Mans) is similar, but usually involves modified high-performance cars,  with races lasting 24 hours. Truck racing is self-explanatory.

The other big one – where Wales plays a major role at present – is rallying. Rallying involved modified production cars, but races take place off-road on mixed-surface tracks. It isn't a "race" as such, more a timed sprint for each car.
The top competition is the FIA World Rally Championship.

In rallying's heyday, there was also the Group B category - a manly competition for real men (and women too), who basically drove their own hearses around unfenced mountain roads at 100mph.

MotoGP is the highest regarded motorcycle racing competition.
(Pic :

There are plenty major motorsports events outside of the FIA umbrella.

The biggest (in Europe anyway) are motorcycle racing events, the governing body being the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), headquartered in Switzerland. There are too many competitions and formats to go into, but the highest-profile competitions are the MotoGP series and Superbike World Championships. The highest-profile endurance motorcycle race is arguably the Isle of Man TT.

In the United States, you have NASCAR (similar to touring cars), where drivers gonna drive real fast for a while, den gonna turn left for a while. Also, the IndyCar Series is similar to Formula Three and is probably the most popular "open wheel" competition in North America.

For other non-car motorsports, you can point to aquatic racing (i.e. powerboats), air racing involving modified single engine planes and the "unconventional" – lawnmower racing, hill-climbs etc.

So there's lots of choice and lots of events.

Wales and motorsports : The past & present

Trac Mon has hosted many events down the years
for both cars and motorcycles.
(Pic :
Due to the landscape, numerous foresty roads and climate, Wales is home to several rally schools. Wales has produced several high-profile drivers and co-drivers, such as : Gwyndaf Evans, David Llewellin , Phil Mills and Nicky Grist. Tom Cave and Elfyn Evans are two current Welsh participants in the World Rally Championship.

Wales hosts the British leg of the World Rally Championship (Wales Rally GB), which will be based in Llandudno from this winter. It's estimated to be currently worth around £10million to the Welsh economy each year, and at least £40million since it started.

Hosting a major rally leg is great. However, I doubt it brings as much attention as track-based competitions, as it's usually just a couple of nutters fans standing at track side up in the forests. It's events around the main race that tend to attract people – like special stages.

Track-based events usually attract thousands of spectators, especially for the bigger championships. Wales doesn't host events at that scale (yet), but we do have three notable circuits :
  • Trac Môn, Aberffraw, Anglesey – Arguably Wales' top track venue at present, hosting a wide range of events for both motorbikes and cars, in addition to testing.
  • Pembrey Circuit, Carmarthenshire – Previously hosted Formula Three, Superbike Championships and Touring Car Championships. Currently used primarily for testing and smaller competitions.
  • Llandow Circuit, Vale of Glamorgan – Mainly used for private track events and track days to paying members of the public.

Four Welsh drivers have competed at the highest level in Formula One, but the only regular established Welsh F1 driver was Denbighshire's Tom Pryce, who was killed in an accident at the South African Grand Prix in 1977.

Wales has produced several drivers in other categories of racing - most notably karting, touring cars and Formula Three - with some competing at present. If the south produces more rugby players and footballers, it's definitely the north of Wales which produces more professional racing drivers per head.

Wales and motorsports : The future

Three main question marks surround : the future of Wales Rally GB, the future of existing track circuits and the proposed Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent.

As mentioned, Wales Rally GB has moved from the south to the north, being based out of Llandudno and Flintshire from this year. It currently receives funding from the Welsh Government – in 2012, £1.4million. That's generally offset by the short-term economic boost from tourism.

The long-term future of the event could be in doubt, and has been for some time, usually only being saved at the last minute. The FIA have considered dropping it from the WRC calendar on-off, but it was included for 2013. It's unclear if that'll continue from 2014. There's also the prospect that the event could move from Wales to another part of Britain & Ireland at some point in the future.

The big threat facing existing circuits is they they could – perhaps Trac Môn aside – be eyed up for development, as they tend to be large, flat brownfield sites. There are on-off plans for a new village at Llandow, while the owner of Pembrey Airport is keen to see it expand, and that might affect the circuit in the long-term.

Last but not least is the Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent. Jac o the North has his own take on that, as does Click on Wales.

The £280million proposal – led by Heads fo the Valleys Development Company - near Rassau Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Ebbw Vale, includes:
  • A 5.4km main circuit with temporary and permanent grandstands (70,000 capacity) – currently aimed at motorcycle racing, but could be used for other track races.
  • Pit buildings, medical centre etc. for teams.
  • Motorcross circuit to "world championship standards".
  • 1.2km karting circuit.
  • A driver training centre.
  • 180-bed 4 star hotel, 150-bed 3 star hotel, 27 "lodges" and a campsite.
  • A 14-unit business park, 17-unit industrial/storage park and 19 showrooms and "brand centres" for manufacturers.
  • A solar energy park.
Access will be improved via the duelling of the A465, the latest stage(s) of which are currently under construction. The proposed Ebbw Vale railway station would be around 4km away.

The proposed Circuit of Wales development
in Rassau, Blaenau Gwent.
(Pic :

The estimates are for up to 4,000 construction jobs and between 4,000 and 6,000 operational jobs. It's also estimated the development could attract 750,000 visitors per year.

The project as a whole seems very similar to the Circuit de Catalunya, located in a valley on the outskirts of Barcelona.

It's incredibly ambitious, and you have to wonder whether it really can be delivered instead of being another wild, undeliverable promise like Valleywood.

Parts of the development – like the business park – might be eligible for Objective One funding, and it's claimed the developers have the £150million finance needed for the track itself (rather than the add-ons). However, I think it's worth having a healthy scepticism about this one - we've heard it all before.

Some of the figures on jobs, for example, seem random and change each time they're mentioned. There's also the question of how events will be attracted to this new circuit in the face of competition from established circuits - and how much that might cost.
It would almost certainly require some sort of capital funding from the Welsh Government at some point.

Blaenau Gwent Council approved the outline plans last month. Due to the potential environmental impact (it borders the Brecon Beacons National Park), Natural Resources Wales and other environmental groups raised concerns.

The Welsh Government have subsequently put the project "on hold" – subject to a detailed inspection/due diligence - and are deciding whether or not to call the planning application in, which could put the project in jeapody.

What events could Wales realistically host?

Economic catalyst? Or white elephant?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
Firstly, there are all the events that Wales already hosts - like track days at the existing circuits, and the Wales Rally GB. Wales should try to retain the Wales Rally GB, as it's the highest-profile motorsports event in the country at present. It wouldn't send out the best message to lose it.

If the Circuit of Wales comes into being though, then Wales would have a genuinely world-class venue and could probably bid to host the likes of:
  • Formula Three & Formula E Championships
  • Moto GP
  • (British & World) Superbikes Championships
  • (British & World) Touring Car Championships
  • (British & World) Motorcross Championships
The cost of bidding to host these events will need to be offset by the potential economic boost from visitors etc. That probably puts MotoGP, Superbikes and Formula Three towards the top of the list because of their relative popularity..

Interestingly, the design and access statement for the Circuit of Wales (pdf page 7) suggests that because Wales is a self-governing state – citing examples like Catalonia, Monaco etc. - Wales would be entitled to separate World Championship race under our own name - a "Welsh Grand Prix" - not the "British" umbrella.

Could Wales host Formula One?

Hosting a Welsh Grand Prix - Don't get your hopes up.
Hosting a team/testing base - that's something to aim for.
(Pic : The Guardian)
It's wishful thinking, to be frank.

I don't think the Circuit of Wales has been mentioned in the same vein as F1 other than a throwaway headline in the Daily Mail.

There are several reasons why not, namely the crowded F1 calendar and the fact the British Grand Prix is firmly established at Silverstone. You've also got to factor in things like access, hospitality, hotels etc. the requirements of which are huge even for a single weekend. F1 races usually attract upwards of 120,000 spectators, almost double Moto GP's 60-80,000.

The FIA are unlikely to want an extra European leg (i.e. a "Welsh Grand Prix") when they're actively targeting a global market for expansion - in particular to the United States and Asia. So to host F1, the Circuit of Wales would have to replace Silverstone and that's unlikely to say the least.

However, if Wales is going to play a role in F1, I think the best way would be to host a team rather than a race.

All the design, engineering work and production work has to happen somewhere. With the prospect of a business park being attached to the Circuit of Wales site - as well as Ebbw Vale being declared an automotive enterprise zone by the Welsh Government - it could be marketed to motorsports teams as a potential base or test site.

Link that in with local universities and college courses - as hoped - and you would have the foundations for some very highly-skilled engineering jobs in the heads of the valleys, that could potentially have spin-offs running into the tens of millions, if not more.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Riches, leave! Detroit's cautionary tale for Wales?

What happens when all that which was built to replace
the ruins of post-industrial America is ruined itself?
(Pic :

Outside of the US, Detroit is probably famous for four things : cars, Motown, Eminem and Robocop (filmed in Dallas).

A few weeks ago, it became famous for another thing – the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. It's estimated the city carries debts to creditors in the region of $18.5billion (~£12.2billion).

It's unusual for an entire city to "go bankrupt", and the concept is perhaps alien to Europeans. American cities have a great deal of autonomy and can borrow by issuing bonds. They also have the ability to file for legal protections when restructuring their debts – called Chapter 9 bankruptcy – when creditors say, "We're cashing you out, Detroit."

What's the relevance, you ask?

Well, Detroit lies in the post-industrial region of the United States - dubbed the "Rust Belt" - which shares many characteristics with Wales. With talk of borrowing powers for Wales on the table, Detroit might serve as a warning of what could happen here if fiscal powers aren't properly matched with economic responsibility.

How does a city go bankrupt?

There were numerous direct and indirect contributing factors.

Decline of the US car industry – Three of the biggest American car companies are based in and around Detroit – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. US car companies manufactured cars for domestic consumption, including so-called "gas guzzlers", mainly because they had high profit margins – who cares if they worked or not? With oil gradually becoming more expensive, these models became less desirable even to Americans.

Were America's "Big Three" seduced by high-profit
margins from "gas guzzlers", without taking note
of long-term global trends?
(Pic :

Although global car production was hit by the 2008 financial crisis; in the "recovery", smaller, imported European and Asian cars became more attractive. This process had happened for several years beforehand too, with more production shifting overseas and factories being mothballed or closed.

Chrysler and General Motors were very nearly bankrupted until they were bailed out by the Bush administration to the tune of $17billion.

The car industry and the city itself aren't directly connected, but the wider economic impact will have had a knock on effect in other areas.

Race relations & "white flight" – Once solid, thriving working class communities home to many black people were ripped apart by the construction of new cross-city motorways in the 1950s and 60s. Detroit also saw major race riots during the 1940s and during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, so there's a history of distrust between different races.

Gentrified white middle and lower-middle classes moved from the inner city, to suburbs or cities surrounding Detroit itself, taking their tax dollars and purchasing power with them. The city population fell from 1.8million in 1950, to just 700,000 in 2010 - a fall of 60%.

All that were left within the city of Detroit's borders were immobile white working classes and their predominantly poor, black neighbours. All of them were increasingly looking for the state to give them a hand.

Urban decay – The city gradually became a concentrated ghetto of deprivation, taking additional big hits due to de-industrialisation. Because of that, the city's tax base was decimated, so the government presumably had to keep borrowing more and more money to keep its head above water, building up its debt to unsustainable levels, with no subsequent improvement to cash flows.

Income from things like property taxes collapsed as so many people lived in homes worth so little that they were valued (for tax purposes) way way higher than people could afford to pay, leading to massive tax arrears.

You really can buy that for a dollar.
(Pic : Financial Times)

Land in large chunks of Detroit is practically worthless, and parts of the city look like they've been taken apart by shotgun-wielding criminals. This all created an image of Detroit as a no-hope case, perhaps putting off private investors, with the city government unable to make any significant investments themselves because of their cash problems.

City employee pensions - The public sector pension burden on Detroit wasn't onerous. However, the bankruptcy could be a cynical attempt for the city government to walk away from paying out pension entitlements to city employees, the liabilities of which run into billions of dollars. If Detroit manages to, it could encourage other urban areas to view Chapter 9 bankruptcies as desirable, failing to serve a public trust.

Political stagnation – Detroit has been run by the Democratic party for 50 years, and they've had Democratic mayors since 1962. Detroit City Council only has nine members for a city of ~700,000 people. With such a guarantee of success there's little motivation to innovate or change, thus leading to laziness, complacency and perhaps ultimately the situation the city now finds itself in.

They've made mistakes, but they were at least trying to erase those mistakes. They've tried to boost incomes by taking the traditional way out - liberalising and encouraging casinos and gambling. They also put forward a $300million development plan in 2008.

Michigan state is led by a Republican governor for the first time since 2003, and although there was an agreement that the state government would have more oversight in the city's finances, the Republicans are hardly renowned for their support for state intervention.

The warnings for Wales

As said earlier, Wales is quite firmly in the "Rust Belt" of the UK. The most obvious warning would be to compare the decline of the US car industry with the decline of coal and steel in Wales – inevitably having a similar impact, but never the recipient of a bail-out.

With regard the car industry, we've seen the effects closer to home with Visteon in Swansea, and although all things point to a bright medium-term, I'm worried that should something catastrophic happen to the Ford engine plant in the future, a little bit of Detroit could come to Bridgend.

The overall economy of Detroit isn't actually that bad either. They're a major centre of research for things like hydrogen fuel and the life sciences – the latter of which Wales is trying to pursue too.

Relative poverty levels in some parts of Wales – in particular Communities First areas – are worse or equal to those of Detroit (the low 30s percent wise). This has the same knock on effect on our own localised versions of urban decay – often dubbed the "decline of the high street".

Regardless of where you live in Wales, you'll notice our own version of the "white flight" problem too. There are pockets of deprived people – usually living centrally or shoved on an estate up a hill somewhere – with wealthier suburbs and villages surrounding them. Bridgend, for example, has its Pen-y-Fai, Broadlands and Litchard, but it also has its Wildmill and Meadows Estate.

We might like to think we live in a more egalitarian society in Wales, and that's true to a certain extent, but we have social stratification that can be as bad as parts of inner London.

Then there's political stagnation. Wales is effectively a "1.5 party state", with Labour as an entrenched dominant party (or indeed other parties depending on where you are in Wales) alongside two smaller bit-players (Tories and Plaid Cymru).

We also have our own public sector pension obligation time bomb. That's an issue across UK - perhaps Europe as a whole - thanks to shifting demographics. So it doesn't just affect Wales.

Having said that, there are plenty of reasons why Wales won't go down the same path.

Why Wales won't become a Detroit

A stronger welfare state – Westminster Governments of all colours have done their best to undermine it to keep Middle England happy. Needless to say though, the British welfare system is still significantly more comprehensive than that offered in the US. Although the might be pockets of high relative poverty in Wales, the national rate is significantly lower at 23% compared to Detroit (36.2%).

No significant race problems – As pointed out in the census, Wales is largely ethnically homogeneous outside of the major urban areas. We have the opposite problem to Detroit of "white flighters" moving to Wales. Some probably won't consider themselves such and are no problem. Others might bring their poisonous attitude towards minority groups with them, including antagonism towards Welsh-speakers or the Welsh language/culture in particular.

No big corporate "boom 'n bust" culture - The attitude of big American businesses is often portrayed as slightly Darwinian - good business is where you find it. There are big booms and rapid expansions, and that applied in the US car industry as elsewhere. That's how you do it in the big leagues, you see and opening, you go for it.

But when they get it wrong, the collapses can be spectacular. Wales doesn't really have this - and it's perhaps to our detriment in the economic development stakes – but there's more to life and keeping the population happy than company balance sheets and productivity figures.

No public sector taboo – Heathcare in the US is, of course, in the private sector while it's public sector here. A reliance on government jobs - even if significantly lower than European levels - is perhaps seen as a major economic weakness, betraying American free market principles. Although there are concerns from the right (maybe parts of the centre-left) too in Wales about our reliance on the public sector, working for the state or having a big state employer isn't seen as that much of an issue.

We still have potential – So does Detroit. Some sectors of the Welsh economy are showing signs of increasing importance, in particular energy, certain financial services like insurance and life sciences. I've addressed some of those things before. It's obviously also a very different dynamic when dealing with a whole country as opposed to a single city.

I think there's hope wherever you find it, but for Detroit, they're going to have to do something far more fundamental to turn things around. If they can't, then Detroit will likely become the first great ruin of the American Empire.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Cry 'Haggett', and let slip the blogs of war


I have to apologise first of all. On Monday, I incorrectly described the Ynys M
ôn by-election as a "contest" and a "two horse race".

It was, in fact, a "curbstomp". If it were a football score, the result would've had to have been given in brackets. There was only one horse, racing against some garden gnomes and cabbages. Rhun ap Iorwerth wins. Fatality.

It's a humiliating result for Welsh Labour, who sent several big guns from Cardiff over the last few weeks - including the First Minister. While Tal Michael is - on paper - as high-calibre a candidate as it gets Labour wise. They were very close to finishing third behind UKIP.

To put the cherry on top, Plaid also held two council seats in Caerphilly by comfortable margins.

Plaid's campaign was intensive and positive, coming across like a cheesy US presidential run and I found parts of it rather amusing (in a good way). Plaid should invest in Factor 50 next time (that's not a Wylfa joke).

Rhun has all the professional credentials to be an excellent successor to Ieuan Wyn Jones. I wish him the best and I'm pleased Plaid have spared us a Labour majority. I suspect I'll be covering many more positive stories involving Rhun from the Senedd over the coming years.

You know where I'm going next because of the blog title. If you've had enough I suggest you stop reading now. I'm posting this at a relatively early time because I want to help draw a line under things, but I'm not doing so without raising some concerns of my own.

Yes, it's time to turn to this week's big talking point on the blogopshere – highlighted by A Change of Personnel, Borthlas, Inside Out, indirectly by Blog Menai, Ifan Morgan Jones & Hogyn o Rachub - though I thought it best not to comment until after the by-election.

Bloggers usually only make the news when we've done something naughty.

I doubt Michael Haggett (MH) of Syniadau is flavour of the month within Plaid at the moment, finding himself up Shipton Creek. The Snitchfinder General grilled his more critical blogs for The Western Mail days before the by-election, drizzling it with the obligatory anonymous sauce.

I guess you're expecting me to join the chorus of outrage against Michael for attempting to undermine a crucial by-election - and the sterling efforts of Plaid activists who travelled from across Wales to campaign for Rhun - which under a slightly different set of circumstances could've played a role in handing Welsh Labour a Senedd majority.


Syniadau : The (Nuclear) Free Radical

Far from being a Brutus, Syniadau's Michael Haggett has played Mark
Antony to the Cleopatra of idealised Plaid rules and core principles, ultimately
crushed by the party hierarchy's Octavian quest to win. And what a win it was.
(Pic :
I have to be a little bit critical of course, so I'll get that out of the way. I think some of Michael's language and timing was brazen. Even I was taken aback, and any anger from Plaid for that reason - but that reason alone - is justified.

Now that that's over with....

MH had two primary concerns.

Firstly, the issue of Rhun ap Iorwerth's selection. I didn't think there was anything wrong. Any party would jump at the chance for someone well known to run for them, especially journalists as they both walk the walk and talk the talk.

However, Michael had a point on IWJ's decision to resign immediately which changed the dynamic a lot.

I'm presuming that's because Rhun had to declare his intentions immediately - due to his former job - so the Plaid higher-ups thought, "A well known local journalist would like to run for us in a constituency where personality matters a lot. Let's start immediately to catch the other parties off guard! #ymlaen"

In political strategy terms, that's pragmatic, sensible and perfectly legitimate.

The trouble is that Heledd Fychan cancelled her candidacy bid in Arfon just beforehand in order to run in
Ynys Môn having been a long-standing member. Meanwhile, usual candidacy rules were suspended under "extraordinary circumstances" (being an impartial BBC journalist) to allow Rhun to stand.

It's that circumventing of usual selection procedures that wound MH up. He believed similar with regard Angharad Mair before, so MH is being consistent about "ringer" candidates, and I don't think this was ever about Rhun himself.

What's done is done, and this was a distraction from the bigger, more important issue of Plaid's energy policies.

MH is vehemently anti-nuclear and it's a blue touchpaper issue for him, having blogged in detail in favour of renewables. Plaid voted its "total opposition to the construction of any new nuclear power stations" in 2011 and MH strictly interprets that to mean none whatsoever.

Interpreting "new" as meaning "new sites" lets Plaid off the hook, as Wylfa B could be interpreted as expansion of an existing station. Plaid can therefore support Wylfa B, whilst appearing to oppose nuclear power in general – a politically dangerous position of trying to be all things to all people.

MH was fine with a position that opposes Wylfa B outright - in line with the agreed Plaid policy motion - but as long as it were to be built (in the absence of devolution of energy) then securing local jobs should be the top priority. Rhun ap Iorwerth said something similar on his campaign site in relation to the jobs.

MH seemed happy with that, but neither Rhun nor anyone else in Plaid were making their position clear on nuclear energy or Wylfa B itself, trying not to draw attention to it.

Then Rhun did – saying he supported it outright – the complete opposite of MH's interpretation of Plaid's own policies.

I can understand why MH would've been angry with that as a grassroots member holding his party to a democratically agreed policy. Add MH's antagonism towards the selection process and you're building up a (somewhat justified) head of steam.
Ynys Môn needs jobs and investment, so Plaid are going to do everything they can to support those efforts, the most eye-catching proposals being Wylfa B and the science park.

It's realpolitik. Plaid's job is to win elections as much as pushing their long-term political goals. But those long-term goals - including a coherent energy policy - have to be set in stone otherwise there's no point in having a party, it may as well be a collection of Independents.

Judging the behaviour of some Plaid politicians down the years, that's what they appear to be, dropping core policies whenever they feel like it, as has happened in other parties and even ministers. Michael had enough and saw red.

Plaid are, by some way, the best of a bad bunch. But there've been plenty of examples in the past (and more recently) of : ruthlessness, ambition trumping ability, lack of respect or loyalty for sitting leaders, anonymous passive-aggressive briefings against fellow party members, backbiting and muddled policy development.

For all the sunny logos and smiles, they're no angels.

The internet's double-edged sword

I don't bother politicians or activists directly, demanding retweets or whatever, because I believe they're busy enough without having to babysit me.

Whenever they retweet or repost a blog on social media under their own steam it's always appreciated and flattering. I go all bashful because they've acknowledged my existence and I hope I'm being helpful in some way - but I know not to expect more than that and it's the limit of my influence.

Online support can help publicise party initiatives, explain/promote new policies or promote candidates during internal and external elections etc. All that can be shared on social media to reach as wide an online audience as possible.

The same thing goes for criticism and internal arguments.

However, you won't get any acknowledgement if you're critical, no matter how well-reasoned you are. That's understandable as nobody likes to hear bad things about themselves, but as long as it's about policy, not personality, they should probably note it.

If a politician or activist notes concerns in the street or via e-mail, it probably feels more "real" so it's treated more seriously.

You publish it on the internet, it could be read by hundreds, sometimes thousands, before it even reaches the target - including opponents and journalists.

You would therefore expect parties to want to nip online criticism in the bud ASAP – especially from their own members and prominent bloggers like MH - by addressing concerns directly as they would any other member of the public.

However, whenever MH has been critical of party or policy he's been brushed off, or in the case of the selection process dubbed a pedant for trying to uphold his own party's rules.

Also, I'm sure if someone in Plaid outlined their official nuclear policy on Anglesey to MH, he would've re-published it on Syniadau for people to debate, knowing the party hierarchy were taking his concerns seriously. He probably would've still disagreed, but he might've toned things down.

MH started off neutral, even complimentary towards Rhun when he announced his candidacy. He praised his "ambition for Wales and to stand as a candidate". It was only after his concerns on the nuclear issue were being brushed aside, and as he was leaned on to keep quiet for "undermining the campaign etc.", that his polemic became angrier. You can see it progress in his posts.

Politicians wouldn't dare snub a committed activist, regardless of where they lived or who they are. However, Plaid blanked their highest-profile blog, which has a readership in the thousands.

Bloggers aren't "influential" but can stick the boot in where it hurts – ripping apart policies and airing dirty laundry – made doubly worse when picked up by the press.

Michael presumably did so because he believed policies pushed during the by-election ran contrary to what his party stands for, and what they agreed in good faith with the rank and file membership.

His tone was ill-judged, but the principle was sound. You could even say he was taking a noble stand, exposing – as John Dixon said – major problems with Plaid's energy policies and how they're drawn up.

In some respects, this victory might've cleared things up. There won't be any "civil war" - it's just ended. The pro-nuclear lobby have won.

Because of this campaign, Plaid Cymru can only be considered a pro-nuclear party, and Wylfa B will have cross-party support in the Senedd. Nobody in Plaid - regardless of where they are in Wales, or how they voted in the policy motions - can backtrack on that position now without rendering themselves and the party a laughing stock.

Plaid/Nationalists dominate the online political scene in Wales because they were the first to adopt it as an effective campaign tool.

I consider Syniadau my single biggest influence, and MH's posts have been consistently high-quality and enlightening. Syniadau often acts as an unofficial forum for the Welsh nationalist grassroots and it's where I found many other blogs.

Plaid have taken that online support for granted, perhaps viewing people like Michael, maybe myself and others too, as nothing more than "useful idiots" when we're positive, and as loose cannons if we're even slightly "off message".

No harm was done at all. However, despite winning the by-election comfortably, I think Plaid (perhaps all parties) should re-evaluate how they interact with and treat their grassroots online – not just blogs, but social media - especially as the internet garners increasing influence down the years.