Thursday, 14 April 2011

"The women making the tea are voting for you"

Clwyd South TCC accountability meeting - impressions from the audience

It's just what you want to hear after a gruelling two hours of answering searching questions. One of the organisers sidles up and whispers "the women making the tea are voting for you".
And it's no surprise they're backing Plaid Cymru's candidate Mabon ap Gwynfor, who gave a polished and passionate performance against lacklustre opposition.
The crowd was more partisan than last night's Wrecsam meeting with Labour candidate Ken Skates bringing an entire back row of uncritical supporters. They clapped his every smile and vacuous soundbite.
Still, that was better than the frequent tumbleweed moments that followed most of Bruce Roberts's answers. The Lib Dems, perhaps conscious that they are about to get a beasting in three weeks, are adopting a damage limitation approach to their politics - covering their essential organs as they prepare for the voters' kick in the ballots.
The idea that someone who has stood in three successive elections is somehow "not political" didn't quite ring true and his nightmare performance at last year's meeting was obviously at the forefront of many of his comments, which he frequently preceded with "I know you're not going to like this".
The other candidate was Tory Paul Rogers, who made great play of his youth. Given that none of the candidates is older than 45, that wasn't really much of a vote winner. Despite speaking without notes for his initial introduction, Rogers reminded you of a sixth-form debating society novice struggling to remember that telling soundbite and eventually managing to half spit it out. Memo to his agent: buy the boy a Biro and paper for the next meeting so he can remember what he prepared.
Mabon started with the disadvantage of being a relative outsider but he managed to win people over with answers that linked the various concerns and questions together. Throughout the night a recurring theme was accountability and making politicians more answerable to the communities that elect them.
Perhaps because of the partisan crowd there was a more nit-picky edge to the answers than is usual at TCC events. Political point scoring often substituted for actually answering the question.

There were several hostages to fortune. Paul Rogers pledged that good small schools would not close, that he was personally opposed to the proposed new supermarket in Llangollen and that he would end child poverty by 2020. How this would be achieved by a Tory manifesto pledged to slash spending on social services, education, economic development and transport wasn't explained.

Perhaps the cheekiest answer was in response to the question about the £604 difference in spending per pupils between Wales and England. Remarkably Rogers trotted out an answer focussing on educational attainment rather than spending and how Vale of Glamorgan Council spends less but gets better results while Blaenau Gwent spends most but gets the worst results. Strange that a Tory would make the case that poverty and wealth are key determining factors in educational attainment, I thought. It was only after the meeting we discovered that Mabon had given that precise answer in an hustings at Ysgol Dinas Bran earlier that day and Rogers had merely regurgitated it like a parrot. I think the word is digywilydd.

The best word to describe Ken Skates performance was slick, in the same way that Tony Blair was slick. He smiled a lot too. It's hardly the best model to emulate is it, but Skates does seem to have opted for the Tony Blair approach to politics - keep telling the public that it's the big bad Tories to blame for everything and keep smiling. In discussing tuition fees, he also managed a Kinnockian "Why am I the only member of my family in generations to get GCSEs, A Levels and a degree?" which was slightly undermined by Mabon pointing out that it was Labour who introduced tuition fees in the first place.
Skates showed some real contrition over the mess Labour made over maternity services in Wrexham, but then he had to because he was answering Ruth Drake, who has spearheaded the campaign locally (she was called a "nuisance" by Edwina Hart). Other candidates rightly pointed out that the issue had been kicked into the long grass til after the election after the eruption of people power and it'll be interesting to see whether Edwina Hart (if she's still minister for health) listens more fully to local views after May 5.

Best answer of the night? In response to Rogers's support for a Living Wage for Assembly staff, Mabon quipped: "It's difficult to give them a Living Wage when you're planning to sack half of them".

Rogers also seemed to back a Living Wage for large private companies, despite the fact that his Tory chums in London are busy trying to undermine the Minimum Wage commitment. Still, at least he was in favour of it - Bruce Roberts was against it, demonstrating that the Lib Dems continue to be all over the place in terms of their politics. This was right-wing, free-market stuff that railed against the "statist" solutions being advocated by Plaid.

Least plausible comparison: "Llangollen can be the Bowness* of Wales, the Dee valley the Bavaria of Britain" (Ken Skates)

Master of the bleeding obvious: "Windfarms are reliant on wind" (Paul Rogers)

* Bowness on Windermere

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