Friday, 21 October 2011
Are Assembly members bored?
Some people think that tribal politicians are bad. But I think there is a worse kind. I call them ‘entrapment politicians’. They are those who design legislative motions that everyone feels compelled to agree with. Those motions usually have a strong moral undertone, and to reject them is tantamount to being heartless. In most cases, if these motions are passed into law, they linger on the statute book like a festering wound, undermining the notion of law since they often cannot be enforced, or no one really wants to enforce them. They are examples of gesture politics, contrived to ‘entrap’ your political enemy.
Peter Hain is a good example of an ‘entrapment’ politician. I remember when the Welsh Assembly seriously moved to force every house owner to install sprinklers in their homes, and some poor panel member on Question Time gently suggested that there may be more worthwhile issues the Assembly could deal with, Hain shouted: ‘So you want people to die in their homes, do you?’
Gesture politics is a corrosive disease in our politics, but it is usually held in check by the tough timetable of the members of parliament in Westminster. The list of pressing problems is long and that has a disciplining effect on all members. That’s different however for the Welsh Assembly. In the Assembly, gesture politics is a popular pastime for some political parties. The reasons for this are not quite clear. After all, the Assembly and the Welsh Government (Labour) has plenty of things it needs to do. Education is in a downward spiral with the gap between Welsh and English GCSE results opening up further by the year and the University of Wales practically closing down in the midst of the worst scandal in higher education in the country.
The NHS in Wales is heading for a perfect storm created by severe cuts to funding (courtesy of the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay) and a legacy of endless organisational tinkering by the former Health Minister Edwina Hart. Health care remains a festering legislative wound in Wales, mainly because of a lack of courage to drive through effective change that can address the challenges of a rapidly aging and more demanding population.
And so the list goes on. However, this week the Welsh Assembly has found a topic that is seemingly more important than health, education or the economy. It’s whether or not child smacking should be proscribed by law. Needless to say that this is a prime example of the ‘entrapment’ politics we identified above. Who on earth would want to stand up and reject legislative plans to outlaw such a cruel practice? Politicians may just as well rip up their re-election plans.
While there were a few brave members of the Assembly (amongst the Conservative and Labour ranks) who disagreed with the proposal, there is, believe it or not, cross-party support for such a motion. Even harder to believe is that, while the Welsh Assembly spends precious time on discussing this legislative nonsense, it may not even have the power to enact a law in this area. Constitutional scholars are split on the issue. If the Welsh Assembly does indeed adopt such a law against child smacking, it may find itself embroiled in a long legal battle with Westminster.
Yet, the worst aspect of this proposed legislation (which even a straw poll amongst Guardian readers rejected with an overwhelming majority of 75%) is the impression it gives of the Welsh Assembly and its Government. What started out in 1999 as a body with a collaborative spirit focussing on the things it can and should do for the people in Wales, has now become a talking shop at worst, at best a production site for gesture politics, haplessly tossed about by the waves of educational, economic and health crises with a Government that has lost any will to make a real change to the lives of the people in Wales. In the big void that has opened up at the heart of the Welsh Government’s agenda, legislative proposals of infinite irrelevance reflecting increasing tribalism are thrown. It leaves you wondering: Are Assembly members bored?