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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Made in Wales - but all about England

There used to be a TV commercial in which a Welsh choir sang about all the things that are "made in Wales", to demonstrate the impressive diversity of the Welsh economy. Not the Nine O'Clock News' memorable spoof was the same song, but about all the things that are "made from whales - all these things are made from whales". The midnight news just informed me of a speech by Ed Miliband that was made in Wales - but was all about England. This Parliament's first Labour Leader was today speaking at Labour's Welsh Spring Conference, a mere two months before voters go to the polls in the Welsh Assembly elections - and he chose to speak about NHS reforms that only apply in England, not in Wales, because he presumably cared more about radio listeners in London than he did about the audience that was in the hall.

Is that really the best that he can do so soon before Labour asks voters to give them control of the Welsh Assembly Government? I await with interest his eventual speech launching Labour's 2012 London mayoral election campaign, which will, by this logic, be all about Norfolk. Oh, and every time Mr Miliband mentions the forests, as he did today, he reminds the public of this government's refreshing tendency to admit when it is wrong and listen to its critics, so I hope he keeps bringing it up. It's like when Labour attacked the Government for changing its mind about cutting funding to a particular charity that provides books to children, as if this change of mind was somehow a bad thing.

Meanwhile, the tragic news from Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, reminds me of something that President Clinton once said about Vietnam. I paraphrase, but when Mr Clinton went to Vietnam, he said that one reason for his going was that he wanted to remind Americans that "Vietnam" is not a war - it's a country. In the same vein, these latest, awful events will hopefully remind people that "the Middle East" is not a conflict, or a political problem, it's a region, comprising hundreds of millions of people living in many different countries. Israel/Palestine is roughly the size of Wales and is a tiny fraction of the Middle East's landmass; its population is, if memory serves me right, a mere 1.8% of the people who live in the region. Nick Cohen is right to argue that a disproportionate amount of reporting from the Middle East is usually devoted to Israel/Palestine.

I can hardly complain about people banging on about issues relating to Israel, given that I am often one of the bangers-on-in-chief, but there's still something unsettling about the way in which the dictatorial nature of most of the Middle East's regimes has been ignored for so long by so many people who should have known better. And this won't end in the Middle East. When the same democratic revolutions eventually happen in Venezuela and Cuba, the foreign policy media establishment's reaction will be: "Oh, didn't we ever get round to telling you? Yes, those countries are ruled by vicious dictatorships who imprison their opponents," even though this is something that everyone's known for years.

Also on the radio news was a story about Chuku Umunna, who I had thought was among the brightest of the 2010 Labour intake. He has complained that, in the last financial year in which Labour was still in power, Barclays apparently paid "only" £113m in corporation tax. Well, that may be true, and the Chancellor has indeed already said that Mr Umunna's right - the banks were paying too little tax under Labour, hence the tax changes that the Coalition has since introduced. But the main point is that Mr Umunna focuses only on corporation tax and ignores payroll taxes, including the huge sums that Barclays will have paid in employer's National Insurance Contributions, not to mention the Capital Gains Tax that the bank will have paid when it sold certain types of asset. Also, I'm sorry, but if a business is not breaking the law, then who cares how much tax it pays? Labour has made no proposals for taxation reform - so what is Mr Umunna proposing to actually do to bring in more tax from Barclays and the others?

And finally, the News also informed me that The Observer has a story about Baroness (Margaret ) Eaton, Chair of the Local Government Association, having warned that employees wil opt out en masse from the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) if required to make higher pension contributions. My first thought upon hearing that was to say: "Go on then - leave the scheme." And I say that as someone who used to pay into the scheme and will eventually get a tiny pension from it. Perhaps some people could actually do better making the same payments into private sector pension schemes? It's their choice. A glance at the story (which elevates Margaret Eaton to a "top Tory" to make the story sound exciting) shows that the reality is much more complicated than that and I'm sure the Government will negotiate sensibly to ensure an agreed solution for the future of the scheme - and we do need a viable LGPS that is fair (with particular protection for the lowest paid) and lasts for the long term, which, yes, could mean higher contributions from some employees.

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