June 10 2008


Sweet reason

According to a recent survey, British maths teachers come some way down the international league when it comes to knowledge of their own subject.
For instance, when asked to calculate the minimum number of sweets to be taken from a bag containing five varieties to be certain of having three of the same kind, only 21% of British teachers got the right answer, compared to 97% of Russians.
Of course, there are those who argue that, with the advent of calculators, numeracy is unimportant and that, if you have a preference for treacle toffees, the easy way is to look inside the bag.
But, in addition to its rigorous logic, mathematics is important in coping with everyday life, especially where statistics peddled by politicians are concerned.
Unfortunately, it is not only teachers who have difficulties with hard sums.
Newspaper reporters, who we rely on for the flow of information that oils the democratic wheels, are also troubled by numbers.
This week under the headline " 'Positive' council spending last year" (what is negative council spending?) I read that 'positive' was the word used by Leader, Cllr John Davies, to describe the fact that "The council's outturn monitoring report showed a net cost of services £162,879,000 compared to a revised estimate of £163,201,000 with net expenditure on education of £80,293,000 against the revised estimate of £80,298,000".
Now, to bring in an £80 million budget within £5,000 of target would be a remarkable achievement.
But that isn't what actually happened.
What the monitoring report shows is that net expenditure in the revised budget was £79.6 million and the outturn £78.5 million - an underspend of £1.1 million.
And, in order to balance the books, an extra £1.1 million had been transferred from the education budget into reserves.
If there had been an overspend money, could have been transferred in the other direction.
It always amuses Old Grumpy to hear the Leader congratulating himself and his party for delivering a balanced budget, when, clearly, if money can be moved in and out of reserves to compensate for any surplus/shortfall, a balanced budget is an arithmetical certainty.
I expect you all got the right answer to the problem about the sweets, but, just in case any members of the IPG have logged on, I had better tell you it is 11.

Wishful thinking

Unusually, last week's Western Telegraph contained several interesting items to serve as grist for Old Grumpy's mill.
Foremost among them was a letter from the Leader Cllr John Davies in which he sings the praises of the Independent Political Group.
According to Cllr Davies, the IPG is "a coalition of individuals who have established a group to allow the county council to be administered by the majority of the membership of the council. This clearly reflects the wishes of the voters of our county".
I detect a logical flaw in this argument because the first sentence is a tautology and the second a non sequitur.
On the basis of Cllr Davies' reasoning, any coalition containing 31, or more, of the 60 members would pass "the wishes of the voters" test.
And, as there is an almost unlimited number of possible coalitions, (Labour (5), Tories (5), Plaid (5), Lib Dem (3) + 13 Independents would be one such) there must be an almost unlimited number of ways to reflect the wishes of the voters.
In fact, one of the strongest arguments against proportional representation is that no coalition, unless it is clearly spelled out before the election, can ever fulfill the wishes of the voters simply because, when they put their crosses on the ballot paper, they have no idea which of several possible outcomes they might be voting for.
For instance, it is perfectly possible that, following the next general election, the Conservatives will be the largest party, but without an overall majority.
That raises the possibility of government by a Lib/Lab coalition.
That would fulfill the wishes of the voters test, but not as well as a Con/Lab coalition.
And why not go the whole hog and have a Con/Lab/Lib/SNP/PC coalition because "clearly" the voters, collectively, wish for a one-party state.
The chief difficulty with the Leader's analysis, if it can be so described, is that people were never told that, if elected, the "independents" they were being asked to vote for intended to join the IPG.
Indeed, had this been made clear, I would bet that several of those whose votes maintain Cllr Davies in power would never have been elected.
Finally, I would point out that I stood in Hakin on an unashamedly anti-IPG ticket and won comfortably, despite the party's former Leader Eric Harries being persuaded out of retirement in an attempt to unseat me.

One and an other

The Leader also claims there is nothing unusual in the political situation in Pembrokeshire because "In nearly all local authorities in Wales there are groups of independent councillors who operate no differently to Pembrokeshire."
While this may well be true, I can't think that the fact that everyone else is doing can ever, of itself, provide ethical justification for anything.
After all, in 1939 half of Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Romania) was under some sort of fascist rule, but few people outside Oswald Moseley's immediate circle suggested that we should follow suit.
Cllr Davies says that this situation is not liked by "political parties and a minority of 'others' ".
The 'others' are the four independent independents who are not members of his political group.
As one of these, I can't see why I should warrant punctuation marks just because I happen to own a dictionary.
He goes on to say: "There are more independent-grouped councillors in Wales than any one political party."
This rather clumsy construction would be much improved if "other" was substituted for "one".
And, it would be much nearer the truth.

Let's pretend

But help is at hand.
Alongside Cllr Davies' letter is the paper's editorial headed: "Labour hoist by its own petard" which sets out to prove that, by forming itself into a political group in 1995, Labour "polarised the council, inevitably leading to the formation of opposition groups".
It is not easy to see what else Labour could do.
Having stood under the Labour banner, were the party's elected councillors then supposed to pretend they were independents?
Surely that would simply be a mirror image of the dishonesty of the IPG, whose members pretend to be independent during the election campaign and then form a political group once the votes are safely in the bag.
The writer of the editorial seems to understand the shakiness of his position because halfway through the fire is turned on the IPG which is described as "... a farcical 'independent' cabal or a cabinet of puppets presiding over the last supper of democracy".
Strong stuff!
The leader concludes: "What a sad state local government has slumped into: polarised by party politics and overshadowed by the 'independent' umbrella of the ruling oxymoron party".
What a pity this was written six week after the elections rather than six weeks before.
As for the 'oxymoron' word, I always prefer 'contradiction in terms' in case some dictionaryless member of the IPG takes it as a personal insult and reports me to the Ombudsman for failing to show respect as required by the Code of Conduct.

Not impressed

Another letter writer to the Telegraph, Richard Shepherd, also appears to have trouble with numbers.
Mr Shepherd writes extolling the virtues of Ken Rowlands whose "analytical problem solving skills" he says, will be an asset to the Cabinet.
I'm afraid this aspect of Cllr Rowlands' skill-set had, hitherto, eluded me (Misconceived).
As it happens, I bumped into Cllr Rowlands in county hall last week when, clearly infuriated by what I had written about him last week (Ken's revenge), (Ken's reward) he muttered through clenched teeth that "You should write about policies, not people".
Unfortunately he shot off towards the Cabinet room before I could ask which policy he had in mind when he told the Western Telegraph that Labour leader Sue Perkins was miffed about the defection of himself and two colleagues to the IPG only because it had cost her the £8,400 special responsibility allowance that comes with being the leader of the principal opposition group.
Had he hung around, I might also have asked him for a copy of the IPG's election manifesto so that I could write about his new party's policies.
But to return to Mr Shepherd.
He says that, instead of criticising Cllr Rowlands: "The Labour Party should be asking itself how the number of Labour county councillors has declined from 40 or so a few years ago to a handful now."
I don't know where he got this idea from because the most members Labour ever had was 14, or was it 15, immediately following the 1995 election.
He signs off: "The message of the voters in electing these rebels is that in local government it is the candidate who counts, not their politics."
Mr Shepherd should know because, if memory serves me right, he stood as the official Conservative candidate for Carew at the 1999 election and failed to impress the voters on either count.

Jumping to conclusions

It is always wise to avoid the trap of concluding that just because one event is followed by another the first must be the cause of the second - the so called propter hoc fallacy.
After all, it might be mere coincidence.
The question is: how many coincidences do you need to suggest a pattern that might lead to a working hypothesis?
Take the following string of events, for instance.
Ken Rowlands abandons Labour and joins the IPG. The leader appoints Cllr Rowlands to the Cabinet (£14,000)
Danny Fellows abandons Labour and joins the IPG. Despite being a new boy, Cllr Fellows is elevated to the chair of a scrutiny committee (£8,400).
Myles Pepper abandons Plaid Cymru and joins the IPG. Despite being a new boy, Cllr Pepper becomes vice-chairman of a scrutiny committee (£4,200)
There are rumours that the Conservatives are trying to persuade one of their card-carrying members in the IPG to defect in order to make them the biggest opposition party. The two candidates: Cllrs Mark Edwards and David Bryan, are promoted to the cabinet (£14,000) and scrutiny chair (£8,400) respectively.
The game of musical chairs with special responsibility allowances also has its losers.
As expected, Cllr Peter Stock has been ejected from the Cabinet - his fall softened with a scrutiny chair (£8,400) and, in order to make way for the above promotions, Cllr Lyn Davies has lost his scrutiny chair but, according to reports he has been found a comfortable, but less lucrative, billet on the National Park authority (£2,000).
Another to be unseated from a scrutiny chair is Cllr Tom Richards, but he has now been installed as chairman of planning.
That would have meant a cut in pay from £8,400 to £5,500, but for one of the constitutional changes brought in by the Leader at the AGM (Quick change artist) which put the chairman of planning on the same pay grade as scrutiny chairmen.
Interestingly, both Cllr Tom Richards, as chairman, and his new vice chairman, Cllr David Neale, were deeply involved in the abuse of the procedures of the planning delegation sub-committee (Bending the rules) which led to a monitoring officer's report indicating that such unsavoury practices should cease (Clipped wings).
Ideal candidates, then, for the leadership of this quasi-judicial committee.

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