Ed Jacobs rounds up the week’s news from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the week’s local council by-election results.
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Plaid Cymru leadership election
Leanne Wood was elected the new leader of Plaid Cymru on Thursday, defeating Elin Jones and Lord Elis-Thomas.
Speaking after the result was announced in Cardiff, she promised to be an “open, forward looking, positive and constructive” leader, praising her vanquished opponents for a leadership contest that was “positive, respectful, constructive, and in parts a good laugh”.
Looking ahead, she said:
“We may be a small party and a small country but we can stand tall if we stand together and if we stand up for our principles. Real independence means collectively lifting our people out of poverty leaving no-one behind, building a future based on hope not on fear…
“Together we can build a Wales that is fair, a new Wales that will flourish and a new Wales that will one day be free.”
Analysing Leanne’s victory, BBC Wales political reporter Daniel Davies wrote:
As a Welsh learner from the Rhondda, some observers might have thought Leanne Wood an unlikely candidate to lead Plaid Cymru, whose traditional heartlands are in the Welsh-speaking west and north of Wales. But she has tried to use her background to her advantage.
If Plaid is ever going to dislodge Labour as the biggest party in the assembly, she says, it must first dislodge Labour as the dominant party in places like the south Wales valleys. “I think I’m able to speak to people in order to do that,” she said.
And looking at “where next for Plaid under its new leader?”, Davies concludes:
The party has successes to shout about after going into coalition with Labour in 2007. The coalition built the case for reforming the way the Welsh assembly is funded, secured primary law-making powers and passed legislation to protect the Welsh language – all key aims of Plaid Cymru.
But it failed to capitalise on them at last year’s election. In her analysis of why Plaid lost seats, Ms Wood said that after ticking off so many of its short-term goals while in government, Plaid failed to offer voters a unique selling point.
Last year she gave an indication of where she thought the party should be heading when she published proposals to revitalise the former coalfields.
It is a vision that prioritises economic renewal and the creation of jobs as the basis for an independent Wales – what she calls “real independence for Wales so we can finally break the system that’s keeping us down”.
• Vote 2012: An introduction to the various elections on May 3rd Tom Harris, Britain Votes
• Will Bristol cross the bridge to an elected Mayor? Amanda Ramsay
Earlier this week, Welsh ministers were accused of a u-turn as the devolved government came out in support of nuclear power.
Publishing its vision for energy in Wales, the government stated (pdf, page 21):
The development of the Horizon nuclear new build (Wylfa B) is a vital component of not just the Anglesey Energy Island programme but of our wider energy future in providing a constant energy source to complement the intermittency of renewable sources.
There are undoubtedly risks associated with nuclear power but the risks posed by climate change are now so serious that we cannot dispense with a key proven low-carbon technology.
Arguing that responding to climate changed posed a “golden opportunity” for Wales, first minister Carwyn Jones added:
“Energy is a defining issue for our generation and an issue on which, as a government, I am determined that Wales will lead. Our ambition is to create a low carbon economy that delivers a wealthy future for Wales.
“At every step along the way, we must make sure Wales takes full advantage of the potential for jobs and long term economic development, an aim which is especially important in the current economic climate.
“There is no escaping the challenges of climate change and energy security. However, these challenges are also a golden opportunity for Wales to lead the way in creating a low carbon economy and lay the foundations for a better future and maximise the long term benefits to Wales at every stage along the way.”
Friends of the Earth, however, were not so certain; FoE Wales director, Gareth Clubb, argued:
“Yet again the fairytale economics of nuclear has persuaded politicians that it’s the right way to go. The fact of the matter is that not one light has ever been powered by a nuclear power station that hasn’t been in receipt of phenomenal taxpayer subsidy.
“This new policy mortgages future Welsh taxpayers to decades of massive costs associated with radioactive waste and decommissioning. And to believe that nuclear power can help build a prosperous Wales is misguided – renewable energy provides far more jobs than nuclear power per unit of energy generated.
“It’s also appallingly ironic that this announcement comes hard on the heels of the one year anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Countries around the world are pulling out of the nuclear race, but here the Welsh government is ploughing a lonely furrow of support.
“We don’t need expensive nuclear power. It’s unnecessary, it’s dangerous, and it squeezes out money that would be better spent on developing renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
Harriet Harman, meanwhile, used Prime Minister’s Questions to attack the coalition for spiralling unemployment – though there was room for optimism in Wales as figures pointed to an increase in the number of people in work.
Providing his analysis, BBC Wales business correspondent Nick Servini wrote:
This is a pretty decent set of unemployment figures for Wales. The main headline figure is broadly flat, and has been for the past three months.
The most notable feature is the reduction in the number of people who are economically inactive. It appears that many of these people are taking up many of the 21,000 new jobs that were created over the quarter.
The public sector figures are also interesting. Over the past two years the numbers employed by the state have reduced by just under five per cent, a total of 17,000 people. I think that reduction is lower than many of the predictions that were being made two years ago.
The rate at which public sector jobs are being lost in Wales is around half the rate in England.
A week after the decision by Tom Elliott to relinquish the reins as leader of the Ulster Unionists, the contest to succeed him began to hot up as three candidates put their name forward to take the job.
As the party’s former communication director, Alex Kane, called on the party to leave the executive and head for opposition, the Belfast Telegraph used its editorial to outline the scale of the challenge faced by whoever wins.
The Bel Tel argued:
Jim Molyneaux lasted for 16 years, David Trimble for 10, Reg Empey for five, and Tom Elliott for just 18 months. That fact alone tells you something about the present state of the UUP: namely, the fewer votes it gets, the shorter the period of office for the leader.
It also raises a question: why would anyone in their right mind want to lead the UUP? Tom Elliott’s resignation statement referred to “relentless” internal opposition from some party members, including lying to the media and briefing against him. That’s nothing new for the UUP.
It certainly happened to both Reg Empey and David Trimble and it will happen to whoever succeeds Tom Elliott. And it happens because the UUP remains a collection of cabals and factions. Indeed, some MLAs have accused Elliott of entrusting his own cabal to negotiate with the DUP, while the rest of the Assembly group and most of the party officers were none the wiser.
The factions remain much as they were in 2010, when Elliott defeated Basil McCrea.
Some want closer co-operation with the DUP; some want the party to push closer to David Cameron, fearful that a relaunch of the Northern Ireland Conservatives (due in the next few weeks) will cost them even more votes; some want the party to abandon the Executive and designate itself as the official Opposition; some want the party to stay in the Executive, arguing that a non-unionist would take their seat; and some don’t really care what policy is adopted – they just want the leadership to stick with it.
All of these factions are represented in the Assembly group and in the party’s executive committee: and they will still be there irrespective of who the nominal leader may be at the end of the month.
Elsewhere, after it emerged that an elderly patient had died alone on a hospital trolley in the A&E Department of Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital, the Royal College of Nursing outlined its concerns that Northern Ireland’s health service was simply letting down patients.
Outlining her concerns in the Belfast Telegraph, RCN Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth wrote:
“Health service reform, increasing pressures and not enough nursing staff are all issues that have been facing the health service here for the past few years. In spite of promises to support frontline staff and well-intentioned measures to change the system, patients are still not getting the quality of care they deserve – or, indeed, that nurses want to provide.
“The RCN has already said it supports health minister Edwin Poots’s vision of shifting the focus of care-provision from acute hospitals towards greater reliance on treating people in their homes and communities. And nurses must be right at the centre of this process.
“Several of our emergency departments are at breaking-point, with patients waiting on trolleys to get hospital beds and nurses left facing the public and apologising for a system that is not working.
“Nurses’ voices are either not being heard or are being ignored. Directors making decisions around a boardroom table need to listen and act when nurses raise concerns about patient care, as they are professionally required to do. Nurses are operating within a financially-driven system that appears to care little about the impact upon frontline services, patient care or patient experience.
“It is a system that de-humanises care, is preoccupied by targets, trolley waits, delayed discharges, waiting lists, length of stay and breaches; a culture that describes cuts in staffing as staff productivity.”
Finance secretary John Swinney once again called on George Osborne to implement a new Plan MacB in next week’s budget as the number of people out of work in Scotland rose by 6,000.
Pressing for a new path, Swinney argued:
“It is clear from these figures that we need sustained action in next week’s UK budget to support economic recovery.
“Last month, the Scottish government delivered a budget for growth – which boosts public sector capital investment, takes action to tackle unemployment and in particular youth unemployment, and enhances economic security.
“The Scottish government is using every lever currently available to us to secure new investment and create and safeguard jobs, in the face of severe cuts from Westminster.
“The chancellor needs to change course in next week’s budget, and deliver a ‘Plan MacB’ approach for the economy.”
Scottish Labour, meanwhile, sought to pinpoint the blame at both governments, with shadow youth employment minister Kezia Dugdale responding:
“With over 100,000 young Scots now jobless, we are in the grips of a youth unemployment crisis yet there is a worrying lack of urgency from the SNP government to tackle it. Behind these figures there are stories of young people who picked up seasonal work over Christmas, but at the start of 2012 find themselves back on the dole looking to the government for help.
“Iain Duncan Smith and John Swinney will share a platform in Dundee tomorrow to talk about youth unemployment – they shouldn’t be allowed to leave until they have a serious programme agreed to address this national crisis.”
Finally, as MSPs voted to give initial approval to the SNP’s plans for a minimum price for alcohol, the Daily Record argued it was a powerful first step towards tackling Scotland’s battle with booze.
In an editorial it concluded:
The scheme isn’t perfect. In fact, as the Record has noted in the past, it is flawed in some respects.
Studies have shown that most drinkers classed as “harmful” will cut consumption by just two-and-a-half pints per week. That’s not even enough to take them out of the “harmful” category.
What’s more, it’s the supermarkets who stand to gain most from higher prices. Retailers are in line for a £100 million windfall while the government won’t get a penny to invest in harm reduction.
But, despite all that, it is now time to get behind a policy that sends a powerful message by banning ultra-cheap booze. The impact may be small but there will at least be SOME impact.
Minimum pricing has become the only option now the ConDem government have retreated from possible tax reforms that would have tackled alcohol abuse. So for all its faults, minimum pricing is the best chance we have of making a difference in the near future.
There were seven by-elections this week:
• Toton and Chilwell Meadows, Broxtowe Borough Council: Con hold.
– Con 831; Lab 285; LD 300; UKIP 288. Swing of 3.2% from Lab to Con since 2011.
• Braintree East, Braintree District Council: Lab gain.
– Lab 554; Con 388; UKIP 131; Green 76; Ind 32. Swing of 6.6% from Con to Lab since 2011.
• Braintree South, Braintree District Council: Lab gain.
– Lab 596; Con 476; Green 116. Swing of 6.4% from Con to Lab since 2011.
• Great Notley and Braintree West, Braintree District Council: Con hold.
– Con 532; Lab 232; UKIP 155; Green 61. Swing of 9% from Con to Lab since 2011.
• Chilwell and Toton, Nottinghamshire County Council: Con hold.
– Con 1958; LD 1375; UKIP 682. Swing of 7.4% from Con to LD.
• Porchester East, Fareham: LD hold.
– LD 1216; Con 840; Lab 323; Green 90; Ind 77. Swing of 5.7% from LD to Con since 2010.
• Hertford, Scarborough District Council: Con gain.
– Con 663; Lab 208; UKIP 126; LD 99. Swing n/a.