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Archives for April 2011


Betsan Powys | 08:41 UK time, Friday, 29 April 2011

The two candidates were talking tactics - two candidates who are fighting for their political lives - and I couldn't help but eavesdrop.

What do you do when you're desperate to reach those last, possibly crucial voters but it's royal wedding day and those voters have - most of them - become viewers. Do you push leaflets through their doors then make a sharp exit? Do you dare knock on the door, hope to be invited in for a glass of something and win them over while you're at it? Or do you give up, stay at home and watch telly?

They came to the conclusion that they'd probably stuff some leaflets through doors and leave it at that. It wasn't quite the sort of pairing arrangement agreed by MPs in the House of Commons but still, rather a nice, informal moment of tactic-swapsies.

I've not mentioned Karl for a while. Karl was a bookie and still is at heart. He certainly retains the title of "Bookie most interested in Welsh politics". As he points out himself, it's a pretty small field. Two national bookies are giving odds on Thursday's election and Karl's already spotted that they know less than he does about the Aberconwys and Preseli Pembrokeshires of this world - and made the most of it. The drinks will be on him come Friday evening, whoever wins.

For what it's worth the latest odds being offered on the final number of Labour seats are these:

27-29 11-10 favourite
30-32 11-8
33-35 5-2
24-26 9-2
36 or over 14-1
23 or lower 16-1

Let's be clear about this: it would be no mean feat for Labour to win 29 seats but you can well imagine them cringing if the headline come Friday afternoon turns out to be this: "Labour kept out of power by SNP in Scotland .. and fail to win a majority in Wales."

Karl has had a go at giving odds on the turnout. He reckons it'll be good - more than good:

49%-50% 3-1
47%-48% 2-1 favourite Record Turnout
45%-46% 5-2
43%-44% 7-2
41%-42% 5-1

I'll leave you with that happy thought and start listening out for tip-toeing party workers at the door.

"Uncompetitive, politically moribund subsidy junkies"?

Betsan Powys | 11:46 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011


The view of the election campaign from just about every quarter - potential voters fed up that there've been no decisive moments that have helped them make up their mind, or change their mind, that there's been little movement in the opinion polls that might make them question whether they've made up their mind too soon.

Party workers roll their eyes and talk about knocking doors on sunny afternoons and finding whole estates that are like ghost towns. Everyone's out.

So: flat.

Is that just the way things have turned out? Or is that because frankly, for three of the four parties at least, flat is ok by them.

Take the Welsh Liberal Democrats. In national opinion polls, there's next to no good news for them. Labour have got their tactics right - they're out telling voters that this election is a chance to kick back against public spending cuts, aganst those weak-willed, opportunistic Lib Dems. Doesn't it suit Kirsty Williams and her team to hunker down in the constituencies where they can win and just get on with it?

If you were a Conservative strategist and David Cameron cornered you in North Wales today and asked you - again, no doubt - what the Tory vote is going to do on May 5th, what would you say? You'd say you fully expect it to hold up. Why wouldn't it? Why wouldn't Conservative voters turn out and vote in this election, especially given the added incentive of the chance to say a big, fat No to AV.

Labour? Yes, they've got it right in this campaign. They've been ahead in the polls for months. They worked out early that a pledge of "standing up for Wales" was hitting the right note and putting them even further ahead. They kept it simple, kept going as though saying you're "proud" of your record in government but would in future deliver something much better is ok - just as long as you say it often enough.

Isn't it, I've asked Carwyn Jones more than once over the past few weeks, astonishing to start making "delivery" a key priority after twelve years in government? It is but it lets him deal with all those questions about the many sticky bits of Labour's track record with one, simple answer and move on. Keep doing what you're doing and those polls don't move. Put a foot wrong and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

That leaves Plaid Cymru - the one party that didn't need a flat campaign. They needed momentum. They needed to strike a tone that made the most of their status as a party of government in the last Assembly but one that was still fresh, ready to push on further, with better ideas than Labour, more ambition than Labour to deliver them.

Build 4 Wales was meant to put them on the right road. The notion of an arm's length company raising money to plug the massive hole in the capital budget may well survive in some form or other. It might even end up being nicked by another party if it turns out to be viable, a good one after all. Perhaps it was in the presentation but it didn't give them a flying start, the boost they'd hoped for.

Then Labour started goading and Plaid responded. They hit out at those bits of government where a Labour Minister had been in charge and their campaign took a wrong turn. People are more angry with parties other than Labour at the moment, a point made over on WalesHome.

So flat? Yes but as you bemoan it once again, think design perhaps, not just accident.

By the way, take a look at this:

"In truth, it should outrage us that this referendum is taking place at all. The £80 million estimated cost of putting it on would be a shocking waste of money at any point, let alone when austerity is the order of the day. Valuable time has been wasted on an incomprehensible feud between political anoraks".

Ring any bells?

Read on:

"Next Thursday's result will confirm that England at least has no appetite for constitutional navel-gazing. Perhaps it is made that way. Or perhaps it has seen what interminable debates about powers and processes have done to Scotland and Wales, which devolution has turned into uncompetitive, politically moribund subsidy junkies".

This is Cameron v Clegg, not Lewis v Banner - and well worth a read if life has been feeling a bit, well, flat recently.

Stop ... start ...

Betsan Powys | 14:42 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Now we know.

Carwyn Jones will not be wearing tails to the royal wedding.

The Welsh Labour leader is going for a lounge suit, though Ed Miliband is wearing a morning suit, as is the Prime Minister and his deputy.

Why? He doesn't, apparently, "look good in tails" and anyway "the option is morning suit, lounge suit or uniform. I don't have a uniform, so it's a lounge suit."

If you've any ideas on what a First Ministerial uniform might look like, then you're welcome to send in your suggestions. I think.

And in case you were wondering, the Assembly's Presiding Officer, the "always impeccably dressed" Lord Elis-Thomas, will also be shunning tails in favour of a lounge suit. He doesn't, note, say which colour.

How much visible and colourful campaigning will there be on the day of the royal wedding? Very little, we're told. There'll be leaders and candidates searching out local street parties but beyond that? Not an awful lot. Bulletins and papers will be jam-packed full of the wedding. Voters are unlikely to welcome a knock on the door.

So start counting and after today, we're left with four working days of fully-fledged campaigning. Ok, so there'll be foot soldiers out all over Wales knocking on doors and candidates working their socks off, baking Bank Holidays, weddings and weekends or not but if anyone who's unhappy with the direction of travel was hoping for a game-changing moment on the road to May 5th, they're fast running out of road. Stop, start just one more time and we're pretty much there.

I spoke to a senior Conservative this morning, one who is now privately calculating that Labour will win a majority. They'll just about make it ... I think they've just about got it was the gist of the prediction, delivered not with resignation but with the realistic acceptance of a politician who knows the doorsteps very well and who now expects a narrow but clear Labour victory.

Then I heard from two psephologists - one happy to go on camera to say that Labour will get a majority, the other equally clear that there's little sign of a 'Labour surge.'

Labour continue to brief - and they'd be daft not to - that getting to 31 seats remains one heck of an ask. They're right. It would be but they have their eye on the finishing line and are clearly determined to bat off any questions about negotiations should they just fail to cross it.

A Liberal Democrat mentioned a few days ago they'd heard Labour had already lined up a negotiating team, ready to go should they need it. I asked a Labour source whether that was true and requested a pithy response. I got one. "No".

Have the Lib Dems got a team sorted? Yes, they have but they, too, are concentrating on campaigning, keeping up their numbers best they can, working streets within seats where they know they must get their vote out. You can be quite certain that there are streets in Ceredigion on that list.

Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives know where they must win - where they have their work cut out and where the early verification of postal votes is already giving them heart/sleepless nights. There are some pretty surprising early-indication stories doing the rounds, ones that point to cheeky wins and didn't-see-that-one coming losses but given they can't be checked, let's just use them to keep us on our toes.

The Greens meanwhile, who are out to win your second vote on May 5th, are convinced an awful lot of people aren't even aware they have two votes in this election. How do you get a tactical campaign going, they ask, when even fewer people are aware of the difference between their first and second vote. They've created a video explaining the system ... no, let's try again ... explaining how they'd like you to use the system.

Let's stick to a less partisan video from the people behind the glass windows of the National Assembly.

Healthy debate?

Betsan Powys | 18:13 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

It's getting a little down and dirty out on the campaign trail.

Labour and Plaid Cymru are at loggerheads over the future of district general hospitals like Llandudno and Prince Philip in Llanelli. In the Llanelli Asda car park today I spotted Plaid's advertising van warning people that only a vote for them would protect the local hospital. No idea whether Mr Miliband spotted it too.

In short, Plaid say the absence of any direct commitments to keep DGHs in the Labour manifesto means that they are secretly planning to close them. This Plaid supporter is fully signed up to that narrative.

Health spokesperson Helen Mary Jones also said as much as she unveiled that ad van harking back to the period before the 2007 election when the disastrous Brian Gibbons-inspired hospital reconfiguration plans cost Labour very dear on the doorsteps.

Plaid's position has not gone down well with Labour, it's fair to say. They've decided mockery is the best form of rebuttal, taking to social media to speculate on what Plaid would close, based on the lack of commitments in their manifesto. The café on the top of Snowdon? The Wales Millennium Centre?

Carwyn Jones' response? Pithier. Plaid's claims are untrue - and they know they're untrue.

What's really going on here? Here's what Helen Mary Jones had to say this morning:

"If they are protecting that network of hospitals then they would have said so in their manifesto as we have. The absence of any reference at all to that speaks absolute volumes and it's our responsibility to warn people about Labour's lack of commitment to our network of hospitals."

Referring to the 2007 plans, she adds, "If we let Labour go into government that's what they are going to do again".

The future of Llandudno hospital was one of the most high profile battles of the 2007 campaign and Plaid's candidate in Aberconwy is keen to resurrect the narrative:

"There is only one way of ensuring the future of our hospital - and that is by returning a Plaid Cymru AM for Aberconwy."

The former Plaid Cymru AM for the area, the highly respected Gareth Jones, however, had a somewhat different take on it. When he spoke in the Assembly chamber on March 23 this year, after the announcement by Labour's Health Minister Edwina Hart of a £49m investment plan in Llandudno hospital, this is what he had to say:

"It is a matter that is close to my heart, a victory for the people of Llandudno and the surrounding area and an extremely important investment in medical services. It will also create new jobs and boost the local economy."

We rang the Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board. What current reviews or consultations are actually underway? They issued the following statement.

"Following an extensive period of engagement with a wide range of interested parties, the Health Board has developed and agreed an ambitious development plan for Llandudno General Hospital. A series of business cases for these developments are being prepared. These will be submitted for approval from the Welsh Assembly Government, who have already indicated that funding will be made available to support these developments.

"No further reviews of Llandudno Hospital are planned at this time and none of the other service reviews being carried out by the Heath Board involve services provided at the Llandudno site."

Under threat? You decide.

Heading south to Prince Phillip hospital in Llanelli, voters could be forgiven for feeling even more confused than those up North. Here, too, Plaid are warning that facilities there would be under threat under a Labour government.

Another rebuttal swiftly follows from Labour about Plaid scaremongering.

But opening a copy of the Llanelli Star today reveals a half page advert from the local Labour candidate Keith Davies and MP Nia Griffith entitled "Hands off our hospital"

Mr Davies tells readers, "While the Labour led Assembly funds Prince Philip Hospital, the local Health Board actually runs it. That is why I have marched alongside Nia Griffith MP and other organisations and individuals in support of the hospital and organised a petition insisting that we keep ALL the existing services at Prince Philip Hospital."

Hang on. If Plaid Cymru stand accused by Labour of scaremongering about the future of local health services, then what exactly is Mr Davies up to with his newspaper advert? A case of 'keeping up the pressure' on the Local Health Board said Labour.

Anyway, as far as Mr Davies is concerned at least, the services at Prince Philip would be safe with Labour. Plaid, too, would keep all services there?

Well, maybe. Questioned about whether Plaid's policy would be to keep services in their entirety in all district general hospitals, Helen Mary Jones gave the following reply:

"It's absolutely affordable. We've worked it out carefully. We're not talking about freezing the services and keeping everything exactly the same. We know that some specialist services will need to be provided in one place and some in others.

"But basic services, like accident and emergency services, have got to be available in our communities when we need them and we will not tolerate having those services cut or reduced."

Hywel Dda LHB, who run Prince Philip, have decided not to put out a statement, citing political sensitivity, but point us to the consultation section of their website. So, as far as we know, there is a "Five Year Framework - Right care, right place, right time - every time" but it's not clear what impact it might have on services.

What are we to make of all this?

Hospitals, opened, closed, upgraded, downgraded, have been a political football in previous elections, as they'll be in future ones. Maybe the voters aren't really paying attention to this election knockabout - but believe me, the parties certainly are.

Go West

Betsan Powys | 10:03 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Heading West to try and catch up with Ed Miliband. The Labour leader's the first of two UK party leaders to visit Wales today - Nick Clegg makes his second campaign visit this afternoon ... not that anyone's tempted to believe this election is a referendum on the UK government of course.

Mr Miliband might not be prepared to share a platform with Nick Clegg to campaign for a Yes vote in the AV referendum but would he be happier - if not more than happy - to see his party in Wales strike some sort of deal with Mr Clegg's party should Labour fail to reach the 31 seat mark?

These were my thoughts a few weeks ago:

And what about that other partnership, Lab-Lib? Labour sources in Westminster reckon it would make sense. If the maths works out, Labour would have to give very little in return for kicking Plaid into touch. Bear in mind too, said a well-placed Liberal Democrat, that it would suit Ed Miliband down to the ground to forge an alliance of some kind with the Lib Dems in Wales. If it doesn't work out in Scotland, then he needs somehow to persuade the Lib Dems that there is an alternative, before the Tory/Lib Dem coalition at UK level "ossifies".

I'll let you know if we get more than a "that's entirely up to Carwyn" line.

On the Labour leader's itinerary today? Visits to seats held by Plaid and the Conservatives that some are calling for Labour. There's a wind-turbine-related visit too that reminds me that in Machynlleth on Monday night, just about everyone in the room was calling Montgomeryshire for the Conservatives. A "Tory landslide" is what more than one was predicting thanks, in part, to the way the party has harnessed strong feelings locally about the impact of wind farms.

Bad news for Nick Bourne, unless it's a real landslide and unless the bookies are right and Angela Burns struggles to hold on to Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. Swings and roundabouts would be enough to carry the Tory leader safely home.

Jake Griffiths, the Green party leader, was in Machynlleth too. His message is loud and clear in this campaign: we're not bothering with first-past-the-post seats. We're putting all our (free-range) eggs in one basket: give us your second vote in South Wales Central, don't "waste it" on Labour and give Wales its first Green Assembly Member. When he said precisely that on the Politics Show on Sunday the producer was half-expecting a complaint from Labour ... one that never came. Who'd lose a seat if the Greens gain their first? Not Labour, certainly. If you start spotting a rash of "Second vote Green" posters appearing just round the corner from Transport House, you'll know why.

Heading off West just as more rumbles from the jungle that is the timing of the North Wales count reach us.

Now what?

Betsan Powys | 16:27 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

"I never thought I'd say this" said a colleague yesterday "but I'm starting to miss the referendum campaign. At least there we had two sides with huge ideological differences taking lumps out of each other".

I can't say I agree with him on the 'missing the referendum campaign' bit but you take his point on the ideological differences. There aren't that many in this election. The manifestoes are interesting. Even the overlaps and the obvious consensus (see the Tory manifesto, published here today) on many issues are intriguing and if you were honest, were you really expecting radical policies and radical differences?

These are tough times and while there are more powers, there's a lot less money. It can't be a surprise to most that the parties are concentrating on battening down the hatches, making the most of what they have.

Will there be any great game changers over the next three weeks? Who knows. It doesn't feel like it but as I head off for a pre-Easter weekend break, I'll leave you with this to chew on: it feels to me as though we've been playing a game of 'what if Labour get a majority' over the past fortnight. They started it of course with the sort of "quiet confidence" that some Labour sources are now suggesting wasn't quiet enough.

So let's play a game of "what if Labour don't get a majority".

Let's be clear about this: party sources spin all the time. It's what some are there for and much of this blog entry is based on the sorts of conversations where the ratio of spin to sincerity is impossible to measure. Take that as read, then read on.

It's late afternoon on Friday, May 6th. Carwyn Jones is in his office in Transport House. He's had a reasonable result, with around 28 or 29 seats. The party are disappointed that the elusive 31 majority wasn't reached, but they feel they're still in the driving seat as the moral, if not literal winners of the election. Their strategy of attacking the Tories while dismissing Plaid Cymru as mere "passengers" in the previous Government came close to delivering them overall control.

Over in Ty Gwynfor, there's relief. Plaid Cymru have done better than many had expected given the polls during the campaign, and they're the second largest party in terms of seats.

At the Tory HQ in north Cardiff, the Tory leader Nick Bourne is quietly pleased at coming a close third - their vote held up in their key seats, as the polls had suggested.

And at Freedom Central, the Liberal Democrats headquarters, there's near euphoria that the strategy of fighting flat out to hold on to what they had has paid off, and they're only down one or two seats.

Now what?

Carwyn Jones picks up the phone. His first call is to Ieuan Wyn Jones. He gets a frosty reception. There's a thinly veiled quip about drivers and passengers. The bad blood from the campaign is still very fresh indeed. There's a short conversation, but no firm arrangement to meet at this stage.

Carwyn Jones then telephones Kirsty Williams. The two don't have a natural personal chemistry. Again, the agreement to meet is vague.

He replaces the receiver. Now what?

The room is quiet. One strategist starts to muse aloud on why the two other leaders might be so reluctant to talk. The "passenger" quip plays on their mind. If Plaid were passengers on the bus when Labour were on 26 seats, what are they when Labour are on 29? In the boot? Voting fodder for a super-majority?

The Lib Dems are most people's second choice of partner in any coalition in Transport House. They may be happy over in Freedom Central, but they're still the clearest losers of the election. Plus Labour have built their campaign around attacks on the UK coalition government. If they intend to continue in anything like the same vein after taking office in Cardiff Bay, then it's fairly difficult to see how Kirsty Williams and her colleagues could take collective responsibility as a junior partner in the next Assembly Government.

Silence descends. Ah.

In the other three headquarters, there's a flurry of activity. The parties have been in touch via back channels for some time. Nick Bourne and Kirsty Williams developed a warm relationship in adversity following the general election in May 2010 and both have foreseen the scenario they find themselves in. Ieuan Wyn Jones is weighing up his options. He can be First Minister of Wales, leading a rainbow coalition. Or he can be Deputy First Minister again under a Labour party which has systematically belittled him and his party. Or, of course, he can be Leader of the Opposition.

The three leaders agree to meet. The Tories give some ground on NHS spending and student fees. Plaid Cymru give some ground on private financing, albeit linked to an extension of their Build for Wales scheme. The Liberal Democrats find they don't actually have to give a great deal of ground on anything as a programme of government begins to come together. The phone lines between Cardiff and London are buzzing with talk of Treasury-backed reviews of Wales' funding.

Back in Transport House, the largest party by far are wondering what's going on. Messages for the other leaders aren't being returned. A senior figure briefs that Wales is on the verge of being taken over by a "coalition of losers". After that, messages aren't even taken.

A lot of what ifs there, granted.

And here's one more - what if a couple of seats go Tory instead of Plaid, leaving the Conservatives as the second largest party in the Assembly?

Ieuan Wyn Jones has publicly and categorically ruled out serving under a Tory-led administration. Many within his party simply wouldn't wear it. Even if he wanted to, he would risk a historic split within Plaid, and be unable to deliver his backbenchers' votes, rendering a Conservative-led rainbow hopelessly unstable.

At the same time, all his reservations about Labour are still exactly the same, and the voices in his party which were opposed to any deal with them before the election are now deafening.

Kirsty Williams does her best to broker a deal between the two, but even out-of-the-box ideas like a dual premiership between Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones don't gain any traction. Her talks with Labour don't go well either, stalling on areas like a non-aggression pact with Westminster and voting reform for local government.

Now what?

P'd Off

Betsan Powys | 14:07 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Presiding Officer has not given up.

Dafydd Elis Thomas isn't the only one incandescent that the Returning Officer for North Wales, Mohammed Mehmet, has stuck to his guns and is insisting that votes cast on May 5th in North Wales will be counted - not overnight like in the the other four electoral regions - but the next morning.

There were senior Labour sources this morning insistent that something has to be done to change his position. It's "disastrous" said one. "We'll be consigned to an after-thought by the media". Their view? That it is absolutely not too late for Mr Mehmet to back down.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas has sent a letter to the Electoral Commission quoting from their own report on the 2007 Assembly elections which concluded that the timing of counts "should not be viewed as a relatively private, local matter".

He accuses both the Commission and North Wales Returning Officers of doing just that and of having "chosen to deal with the election as a "private, local matter" and in doing so have failed to act in the interests of the voters, who will wish to know the result of the election as soon as is physically practical after the polls have closed".

Over to you Mr Mehmet.

Plane speaking

Betsan Powys | 13:08 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

Is it a bird ... is it a plane ... is is a single seater plane or does it take passengers?

Labour launched their manifesto this morning at the International Centre for Aerospace Training. Metaphors are welcome, said the leader as he arrived, just as long as you steer clear of "crash and burn".

If you were to create a 'wordle' of Labour's manifesto - a visual representation of the words used, in other words what Labour say they're going to do - then I suspect the word "delivery" would be the biggest and boldest of all. This is, after all, as Carwyn Jones first made clear at the party's conference in Llandudno, the decade of delivery. After a decade of what exactly then I asked Mr Jones? Back came the answer first outlined to journalists on the eve of that speech in Llandudno. We're not knocking what the previous leader achieved. His reign was inevitably about establishing devolution and the Assembly.

Newsnight's Michael Crick was in Barry to ask how Labour had the temerity to ask Welsh voters for their support when education, health, the economy were all worse here than in England. I paraphrase but you get his drift.

Carwyn Jones went into smooth-yet-solid mode, one of the reasons most Labour supporters made him leader. One of his challengers and you know which one, was giving Mr Crick a red-hot 'looks could kill' stare and shaking her head vigorously. There had been challenges, said Mr Jones and where there were fresh challenges, Labour were offering fresh priorities. You can read Labour's pledges in full here One key pledge is to establish a commission a la Holtham to look at Public Service delivery and to create a 'delivery unit' directly acountable to the First Minister.

Fresh priorities? Where? - say Plaid. Nothing on reforming Barnett, no detail on how Labour would deal with the huge funding challenges facing Wales. Plaid too claim they got first to the idea of creating a not-for-distributable-profit company to run trains in Wales as their own. Rubbish, say Labour. We thought of it, oh, back in October 2009. Any advances anyone?

And yes, there are some howlers in this manifesto too. Plaid misspelled 'illiteracy', the Lib Dems got "General Election" wrong. Labour? They've got their own party name wrong .. Llanfur Cymru ... on every other page of the Welsh version. These manifestoes have created jobs already, said Jonathan Deacon of Newport Business School on his visit to Manifesto Corner on Good Morning Wales earlier today. Jobs for proof readers and sub-editors.

So come on then, I asked Carwyn Jones, is that a single seater plane or not? He'd seen it coming a mile off. Oh it's a two seater he said. But you can fly it solo.

Out of the box

Betsan Powys | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Wednesday - it must be Aberaeron and the launch by the Welsh Liberal Democrats of their manifesto. A boxful arrived in our office last night: no mistaking the message contained underneath all that red tape.

I'm starting to get the feeling that most parties have chosen to trail their key pledges well in advance. The date of the referendum meant this campaign was bound to be a short, sharp one - the parties didn't want their prized pledges to be squeezed. So as with Plaid yesterday, no great surprises from the Lib Dems.

You can read their manifesto in full here but let me have a stab at the key pledges:

The Lib Dems want our money put to better use by rooting out government waste.

On the day it's announced that the number of people unemployed in Wales has gone up, they point to a plan to offer companies £2000 to companies for staff training if they give jobs to employed young people and there's a big emphasis on education. The Lib Dems would tackle the spending gap between the amount spent on pupils in Wales and in England and of course the pupil premium they've already trailed quite heavily is there too.

There's a pledge to cut waste in the NHS, to trial different approaches to delivering care and "end the damaging ban on using private money in the health service." It can't, say the Lib Dems, be justified.

The north south airlink would go and more power would be devolved to councils, so they can innovate and make the most of the money they have.

As for costings - in line with their previous budget announcements - the Lib Dems agree with the way the vast majority of the Welsh block grant is spent but by 2015, if in government, they'd be spending £218 million differently. Where would it come from? Most by far would come from dipping into the government's reserves, the money they keep in a separate pot for a rainy day. The Lib Dems say that pot is too full and they'd keep it at "recommended levels" - in other words, they would spend some of that cash on their plans.

Now I tread very carefully back up to the moral high ground, which - as some of you pointed out in your comments yesterday - isn't always safe territory. But in the interest of balance, it seems only fair to point out that in this manifesto, the words 'General Election' in Welsh (Etholiad Cyffreddinol) are misspelled, the election slogan (Gall Cymru yn wneud yn Well) on the front page is mangled and there are any number of errors in the section in English on 'better education' . Could do better, to steal the party's own phrase. I look forward to Peter Black's take on it. A case of Pot .. Kettle .. Peter .. Black perhaps!

It simply proves says Kirsty Williams, under questioning, that the education system in Wales does need urgent attention.

Touché. No - hold the 'meeeows.' I said touché, not touchy!

Rolling back the years

Betsan Powys | 15:17 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

It was a potent mix.

Cast your mind back to the last Assembly election in 2007. On the one hand there were those huge posters on lorries, driven relentlessly from one end of Wales to the other, declaring that now was the time to "kick Labour into touch." On the other hand the 7 for 07, policies designed to make Plaid Cymru stick in the voters' minds and persuade them that if they were fed up with Labour - and the polls suggested they were - then Plaid could be trusted in government.

In 2011?

This morning Plaid launched their manifesto pledging a blueprint that is "bold, workable, affordable and transformational". In other words their message is: Labour lack ambition for Wales and if you give them the chance to govern alone, simply because you're fed up with the Westminster coalition - and the polls suggest you are - then all Labour are capable of doing is managing Wales towards further decline.

On the other hand, they say, Plaid are thinking all the time about what can be done to improve 'Our Government, Our Economy, Our People and Our Environment". I won't list their policy pledges here. You can read their manifesto in full and to save you the bother, 'independence' is dealt with pretty swiftly on p.16.

Unfortunately for Plaid it turns out they misspelled the word "illiteracy" in Welsh in their press release and were wrong to attribute their key slogan and manifesto title, "Ambition is Critical" to Dylan Thomas. It was, in fact, penned by a retired social worker.

Who knew that the editor-cum-poet sitting in our morning meetings every day knew so much. Accuracy ... key and all that.

"Let's just see what Labour come up with" said one Plaid source this morning. The inference? Let's just see what that alleged dearth of ambition looks like on paper.

What Labour have come up with so far is an accusation that Plaid are "becoming a tad obsessional" with their former partners in government and this: "Actually, Plaid's manifesto contains many ideas that we broadly welcome, indeed who wouldn't support the idea that we want more jobs, quicker broadband and more effective healthcare".

By the way if you just can't get enough politics these days and fancy rolling back the years not just to 2007 but to 1999 - what were the parties promising back then, how do Alun, Dafydd, Rod and Mike differ from Carwyn, Ieuan, Nick and Kirsty - then take a look at 99 Rewind .

Tomorrow, it's the Lib Dems' turn to launch their manifesto. No sign of an advance copy yet - but then presumably it's being proof read by a professor of literature as we speak.

Tactics or strategy?

Betsan Powys | 13:01 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

A few weeks ago, as the Assembly term was drawing to a close, I was discussing the decoupling of Labour and Plaid Cymru on Dragon's Eye. So far, I said, there's no sign of real venom. The two groups in the Assembly were having a few pot shots at each other but truly poisonous? No, not yet.

A text arrived from a Labour source. "No real venom?" it asked. He seemed affronted.

He also turned out to be right. Before the end of term, what seemed very much like real vitriol had started to seep into the mechanism of the decoupling process.

When the Build for Wales row between Plaid Cymru and Labour blew up at the very end of the term, the Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams described it as part of a "sham divorce" - implying that it had somehow been manufactured between the two parties in order to highlight their decoupling ahead of the elections.

For what it's worth, by then, I'm not sure that analysis was right. Behind the scenes, we're told, the animosity was real. The look on Carwyn Jones's face in the chamber when Plaid backbencher Rhodri Glyn Thomas congratulated him on adopting a Plaid Cymru policy was public evidence of that. Privately, things were much, much worse. Several civil servants, incidentally, found themselves collateral damage in the crossfire.

Elements within Labour had been sniping at Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones through the media for some time but I think this was more a freelance operation than one directly orchestrated by those at the top of the party.

Since the Assembly was dissolved, relations between the parties have plummeted. For a Labour MP to use parliamentary privilege to allege the Plaid leader's office was behind an internet smear campaign on Peter Hain, for me, marked a decisive change in how far the parties were prepared to go in attacking each other.

Plaid's response was a news conference last Friday where they claimed "Labour lacks the ideas, the ambition and the motivation to govern Wales and they should not be rewarded for their poor record over the past 12 years." A slightly odd word was used to describe the party's alleged lack of ambition - "tragic".

Are Plaid Cymru in danger of falling into the same trap as they did during last year's General Election campaign? So furious were they about not being represented in the UK party leaders debates that they used up much of their their precious airtime in the early part of the battle complaining about a lack of fairness, rather than hammering home their core message at every opportunity. The more astute party strategists had accepted their error even before a disappointing polling day dawned.

In terms of post-election strategy, an increasing number of senior Plaid figures are prepared to brief that coalition with Labour, however the final votes stack up, is becoming less and less of an option for the party. One individual intimately involved with the campaign and strategy says a flat no to any deal with Labour, in any circumstances, adding they speak for "a majority of the party membership".

The only circumstance, we're told by the source, in which Plaid would enter Government after May is if they finish ahead the Tories and are in a position to dictate the terms of a rainbow coalition. Otherwise, opposition it is.

It's clear there's a growing body of opinion within the party to rule out One Wales II - most people's tip for the likely next Assembly Government over the past few months. It begs a number of serious questions, however.

Is this tactical? It it strategic? Is it wise?

How much of the hostility will remain after the polls close? And what will be the message to voters at tomorrow's manifesto launch based on that stream of opinion within the party? Here are the policies we believe are best for Wales - but we will only implement them in one particular set of electoral circumstances?

In his "state of the race" email this weekend to members and activists, Labour's Leighton Andrews writes, "One of the most striking things about the early days of this campaign is the fact that we are still weeks away from polling day, and Labour is left alone as the only party trying to win this election. Our stated aim of winning a majority was even branded 'arrogant' by our opponents!

"I wonder what they think political parties are for. Instead of making their argument to the voters, the Tories, Liberals and Plaid are already talking about post-election deals."

Mulling over Plaid's strategy as against theirs, another Labour source points out just how fundamentally different they are in this election. Labour are single-mindedly going after the Tories, as they're the main opposition in most of their key seats - plus the traction they feel they get from the UK coalition policies.

For Plaid, if they do want to get into Government, then it would make sense for their main electoral imperative to be to deny Labour an overall majority - hence where they're concentrating their fire.

At what point though, do the attacks get so aggressive that co-operation in government is in jeopardy after the election? We're probably not there yet, but polling day is still a ways away.

Coupled with the "No to Labour" sentiment growing in Plaid's ranks, any money already placed on the renewal of Red-Green in government is starting to look much less of a sure fire bet than just a couple of weeks ago.

Clarity? Maybe...

Betsan Powys | 11:34 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

What's the most significant finding of the RMG:Clarity opinion poll released today? Well, there's a feast of fascinating information there, so let's take a look through, with all the usual disclaimers about polls taken into account, of course.

First of all, the voting intention, based on those likely to vote and specifying a party. This has:

Labour: 50.8%
Conservative: 20.3%
Plaid Cymru: 16.7%
Liberal Democrat: 7.6%
Other: 1.5%
Green: 1.4%
UKIP: 1.2%
BNP: 0.4%

That is the largest recorded lead for Labour I can remember. Rogue poll? No, I don't think it is - far from it. What's most striking is that this poll is so consistent with with YouGov tracker polls carried out monthly for ITV Wales. Theirs is internet polling, this is almost entirely telephone polling - but the results for each of the four main parties are similar to within the margin of error, there or thereabouts. It's a hugely useful confirmation of what YouGov have been telling us for some time.

Does such a huge lead mean that Labour are "on course" to win a majority on May 5th? Not necessarily. It all depends where the votes stack up. There's absolutely no guarantee that the votes won't pile up in already safe seats like Merthyr, Rhondda, Torfaen and so on, while they see more modest increases in the seats they've targeted for gains, leaving them potentially trailing in a frustratingly close second - and thus depriving them of a majority. This is the biggest known unknown of this election.

Senior figures in the party are scratching their heads in exactly the same way that we are. Information filters back from some target seats where there's a more vigorous than expected local campaign from one of the challengers, in other places incumbents are "well dug in". Is the momentum with them, based on the polls? Yes, comes the answer, but we would rather have the momentum in a fortnight's time.

In passing on that, I get the feeling that this week of campaign launches, and next week, which will be full of manifesto launches, could be the critical time when seats - and possibly the election - will be won or lost. After that, we enter an incredibly bitty start-stop period of bank holiday weekends and the Royal Wedding, which is likely to mean that it will be difficult for anyone to get up a head of steam. Now is get the message out time.

What are the messages for the other parties? As with YouGov, RMG has identified that seemingly solid 20 per cent of Tory support, which should see them do ok. One of the advantages of being the only really right-leaning mainstream party in Welsh politics is that it's hard to see them being tempted away by another party between now and election day.

Plaid will be concerned that this poll puts them a noticeable margin below the Tories - in recent YouGov surveys they've been neck and neck. It's far too early - and this is only one poll - to call it for the Conservatives to do better than Plaid on election day, but there isn't much sign of momentum for them here. Again, as with the other parties, it'll be local campaigns which will deliver the results for them though.

And the Liberal Democrats? More pain. Their share of the vote seems to be as rock solid as the Tories - the problem is it's rock solid in single figures. That Clegg bounce seems a long time ago now. They won't be hiding the Deputy Prime Minister away in the campaign though - expect to see him on your television screens soon.

The numbers for the other parties don't tell us too much, to be honest - both the Greens and UKIP are fighting a pretty targeted election campaign aimed at getting a list seat in the regions where they're strongest. They're a wait and see, albeit an interesting one if the result is tight. Unlike YouGov, RMG haven't asked separate questions on voting intention for constituency and regional seats, which may under-record support for the smaller parties.

Today's poll isn't just about voting intention, though. RMG have asked a number of intriguing questions. When people were asked their preference for the next Government should no party win an overall majority, the results came back thus:

Labour minority: 16.7%
Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition: 28.5%
Labour-Lib Dem coalition: 8.4%
Labour-Conservative coalition: 7.4%
Plaid Cymru-Conservative-Lib Dem coalition 12.4%
Don't know: 26.6%

The don't knows is possibly unsurprising, and the Lab-Lib result may be a result of the latter's poll difficulties, but that's a substantial preference for One Wales 2 in comparison with the other options.

RMG went on to ask about the public's attitude to further devolution - again with intriguing results. When asked whether the Assembly should gain responsibility for police and the criminal justice system 56.2% said Yes, with 30.9% No and 12.9% Don't knows.

Asked whether the Assembly should have the power to raise and lower taxes, 55.8% said Yes, 36.2% said No and 8.0% were Don't knows.

Has the referendum whetted appetites for further devolution? Certainly devolution of policing is very much on the agenda - but the Labour manifesto, for example, will pledge that the party "will not seek powers to vary income tax" in the next Assembly. Other parties may well follow suit, but we'll have to see the details of their funding and finance pledges next week.

The manifestos are finished and probably on their way to the printers now - let's see whether anyone's come up with something capable of shifting the balance of these numbers between now and polling day.

*The opinion poll consisted of 1005 structured telephone interviews, conducted with Welsh voters between 4th April and 5th April 2011 and 44 surveys completed online within the same time-frame. This totals 1049 surveys.

A woman's touch

Betsan Powys | 18:50 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

An interesting essayon the IWA's Click on Wales site by Mark Drakeford, who was a special adviser to First Minister Rhodri Morgan during the first three terms of the National Assembly. He's also a Labour candidate in the election on May 5th.

The second of his "Seven Requirements for One Wales Mark 2" - and he was there first time, after all, is - how do I put this - women.

"I am regularly asked by students whether the gender-balanced nature of the membership of the National Assembly makes any real difference to policy outcomes. I think it does, and the example I always cite is the creation of the One Wales agreement in June 2007. Put simply that agreement would not have happened, had the process not been driven by women politicians".

"In my experience, when the going gets really tough, male politicians have a tendency to retreat to the testosterone-fuelled mountain tops, and shout at each other across the great divide. In contrast, women search relentlessly for the common ground, for the sometimes small piece of shared territory around which a wider jigsaw of agreement can be put together".

The image that accompanies the article?

Two men in suits, of course.

Freeze! Or should that be Πάγωμα?

Betsan Powys | 11:52 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Welsh Conservatives are going for the Gavin and Stacey vote.

No, I haven't created a new Welsh version of "Mondeo Man" or even "Sitcom Bloke" Remember the episode where Gavin and Smithy drive through the toll barrier on the Severn Bridge because they can't scrape together that last 10p? Well the Welsh Conservatives have tweeted "a pledge to freeze the Severn Bridge toll for cars over the next Assembly term - no more annual price hikes".

Back in December of last year, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Tory David Davies MP, warned that a freeze or reduction of the Severn Bridge tolls would mean incurring "significant costs".

They said, "Unfortunately, due to the inflexible provisions of the 1992 Severn Bridges Act, neither the Government nor Severn Crossing plc is able to freeze or reduce the toll without incurring significant costs."

However, the committee also recommended that tolling prices should be reduced and concessions for those who depend on the crossings for their livelihood could be introduced.

So could this be one of those (literally) cross border pledges that the Welsh Conservatives had to square with Whitehall before they dangled it in front of voters? We shall see.

The Tories have estimated the cost at £29m between now and 2015, paid for from consequentials to the Assembly Government from the 2011 UK Budget.

Since the select committee report would seem to indicate that changing the 1992 Act isn't an option, then it would seem the money would flow directly from the block grant to the bridge operators. A hmm on that from the other parties, perhaps?

And we've yet to hear from business groups who've been campaigning for toll reductions for lorries and vans - no cheer there from this proposal, it would seem.

Meanwhile, a colleague requests some details of the Tories tourism policies. The email, when it arrives from the press office, is more My Big Fat Greek Policy than Gavin and Stacey. Any translations welcome.


Maybe if more political issues were featured in wildly popular sitcoms, then they'd get the kind of instant reaction that the Tories bridge tolls announcement has.

First in was Plaid Cymru's reaction.

Freeze? Pah. Tolls down to £2 a car for us. It's not quite the dutch auction with the Tories that it seems however. The party would spend the period between now and public ownership in 2017 negotiating with the Department of Transport to bring responsibility for the bridges to the Assembly Government, which would then, and only then, be able to set the tolls at the much lower level. Yes, it may be jam tomorrow (or jam in 2017) but the party say this is better than pouring £30m or so of the Welsh block grant into the pockets of shareholders. You decide.

The Lib Dems were clearly taken with the Gavin and Stacey reference, if not with the Tory policy. A spokesman says, "Under these proposals, they may keep Smithy happy but Ness and the drivers of millions of trucks would still pay the tolls. The tax on doing business in Wales would remain."

Labour, too, are sniffy. A pittance, they say. Gesture politics.

A frosty reception for the freeze from the other parties but then again, they may not be representative of the voters out there.

Dirty tricks

Betsan Powys | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 5 April 2011

I blogged yesterday that the election campaign really felt like it was getting underway. Today - already - it's got very, very murky.

The story starts with a leaflet, attacking Labour and Peter Hain, which first appeared on the Blog Menai website here on March 31st. Pay attention to the dates, as they'll become very important later.

The leaflet, published on the blog as a JPEG image, complete with fold through the middle of it, accused Mr Hain of plotting behind his Welsh leader Carwyn Jones' back, complete with shadowy photograph of the shadow Secretary of State for Wales. It went on to suggest that Mr Hain was planning to "sabotage our new democracy".

According to the leaflet, it was promoted by United and Welsh an "alliance of concerned citizens" who "believe that the Labour Party is not ready to govern alone at this election".

There are a couple of odd things about it - for example, it refers to Labour leader "David Milliband" (sic) and it refers to "Carwyn" on first name terms.

On April 4th, the Western Mail ran a short story on the leaflet, referring to its appearance on the Blog Menai website. It focused on the leaflet's call for tactical voting against Labour in key battleground constituencies. Asked to respond, Labour said they would not comment on on anonymous allegations but they had no doubt that this was "a nationalist smear campaign".

The story quoted a spokesman for the group, whose members, it said, are "as yet unidentified", but whose intention was to take adverts in local papers in the target seats.

This afternoon, April 5th, Labour MP Chris Bryant stood up in the House of Commons and accused Plaid Cymru - and specifically the office of its leader Ieuan Wyn Jones - of being behind the "mystery" dirty tricks campaign.

His evidence? A website, United and Welsh, which links to an image of the leaflet.

That website, according to a domain search engine, is registered to 45, Stryd Y Bont, Llangefni LL77 7PN - or Ieuan Wyn Jones' constituency office. It was registered on April 1st.

Mr Bryant says this is evidence that Plaid Cymru is behind the campaign - and to take the decision to put that on the record in the House of Commons is a serious step to take. His words carry parliamentary privilege, remember.

He got short shrift from Speaker Bercow, who didn't accuse him of "grubby electioneering" but made sure he used exactly those words anyway.

Plaid Cymru issued an immediate blanket denial, within moment of Mr Bryant getting to his feet. "This has nothing to do with Ieuan Wyn Jones, his office, or the party".

As I said at the start, something very very murky indeed is going on here.

The chronology is important. The original leaflet appeared on the Blog Menai site on March 31. The United and Welsh domain was set up on April 1.

A simple copy and paste of the Blog Menai image would allow anyone, anywhere to set up a website registered to the office of the Plaid Cymru leader.

The question is who?

UPDATE 17.35

This from the Shadow Secretary of State:

"I of course accept Ieuan Wyn Jones's word that he was not personally involved in any of this.

"But it is clear there are people seeking to promote a Nationalist-Tory-Lib Dem coalition who are willing to engage in dirty tricks. Maybe they are Nationalists driven by their hatred of Labour and their opposition to the last four years of Labour-Plaid Cymru joint government. Whoever they are they are clearly cowardly and dishonest".

The Nightmare at Number 31

Betsan Powys | 12:29 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

And they're off. There's a real sense that today's the day the election got underway in earnest.

The cross party unity of the referendum campaign gave way to shadow boxing while the Assembly was still sitting. Now, the gloves are off.

Both party strategists and pundits are poring over maps of Wales trying to divine how a few thousand votes here and a few thousand there might affect the final outcome after May 5th.

The Labour leader Carwyn Jones made his contribution to that at this morning's press conference - in the new look snazzy Transport House in Cardiff - with some very interesting and pretty optimistic comments about their take on the outcome.

He believes that a "comfortable working majority" is possible for his party - that's the optimistic bit - but here's the interesting bit.

"If we have 31 AMs we will try to form a government," he said. "If we get a majority of one, a majority of two, a majority of three then that's government territory."

Note that word "try". If they are to get that majority, then it's more likely that it will be around the 31 seat mark - which could be the nightmare result for virtually everybody. Here's why.

If Labour wake up on May 6th with 31 seats, then based on current thinking within the party, all talk of coalitions will be off the table.

Mr Jones has known for some time that in those circumstances, his party will expect him to govern alone. Based on little other than the look on his face when he talks about the number 31, I think it's fair to say that it doesn't fill him personally with wild enthusiasm.

But there are siren voices within the party completely opposed to a deal with Plaid, some even if he finds himself in a minority. Any attempted deal after Labour had won a majority would spark virtual civil war within the party.

But why consider a coalition at all in those circumstances? Because day to day, and over a five year term, governing with 31 seats is a tough ask, a potential nightmare, even. With an organised opposition, it means ministers are stuck in Cardiff Bay, and a single snubbed, disgruntled or even poorly Labour backbencher would leave key votes on a knife edge. We've been there before.

This time, the opposition parties would be highly unlikely to offer a Presiding Officer and deputy from within their ranks just in order to boost Labour's majority to a more workable level.

There's a danger that the party could get bogged down in horse trading to get votes through the Senedd rather than focusing on what Mr Jones has said would be his overriding priority in government - public service delivery and reform.

But what of an alternative government? Barring defections from Labour, then a resurrected rainbow of Plaid, Tories and Liberals could only muster 29 seats between them. Does a minority rainbow sounds like a stable government to you? Me neither. Should UKIP or the Greens win a list seat this time round then that would add yet another factor into the mix.

Even if Carwyn Jones could persuade his party that 31 isn't actually a "workable" majority, it's far from clear whether he'd find Plaid Cymru willing coalition partners in order to deliver stable government in those circumstances. The questions "why" and "what's in it for us" will echo in the corridors of Plaid HQ as much as among the party's membership.

As for the Lib Dems, if they were "unpalatable" or was it "inedible" for Labour in 2007 (and no one was ever quite sure which was which), then the coalition deal in Westminster will surely mean they're even further off the menu now in 2011.

All of which leaves us where? Well, the nightmare at number 31 for Carwyn Jones is that he spends the next five years being forced to nurse that miniscule majority. A rainbow is off the agenda so there's no point in a confidence vote for the opposition parties, who would be more likely to alternate between guerilla tactics and taking goodies where they can get them.

The days of the massive One Wales majority will seem like a distant memory. Labour may be dreaming of sitting at the top table alone after May's election - but with 31 seats, might they find their fare, ooh, I don't know - a pretty unpalatable or even inedible prospect?

Brynle Williams

Betsan Powys | 08:44 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

A few weeks ago I asked a Conservative Assembly Member how Brynle Williams was. He was very, very ill.

Would he have to stand down before the election, I asked?

Brynle was a farmer at heart, he said and would die in the harness. He loved his job and had such pride in it that he would never, ever give it up willingly.

He didn't. Sadly, this morning, came the news that Brynle Williams has died.

I once worked on a programme about the fuel blockades that first brought Brynle to national, even international, prominence. In his shirt sleeves outside Stanlow he took on Tony Blair and as the then Prime Minister's adviser admitted on BBC2 just a few weeks ago, he very nearly won.

Brynle didn't like the programme in fact he hated it. He told me so bluntly, then with a huge smile told me equally bluntly that didn't mean he hated those who'd worked on it. He was kindness itself and is the only AM ever, I think, who used to wink at me if he spotted me in the public gallery.

Sad news, a Labour source texts. "He always made me chuckle with his singing and whistling in the Assembly. Like having a part of North Wales in Cardiff with you".

Nick Bourne has just spoken movingly of Brynle on Radio Wales. I'm sure David Cameron, who's in Wales later today, will want to pay his own tribute.

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