Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 25: Decision Time

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Boris Johnson Jeremy Corbyn

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

With less than a week to go until polling day, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins take stock of the situation.

The polls consistently show a consistent and substantial lead for the Conservative Party, but Marcus and Greg interpret the data in slightly different ways, and have reached different conclusions as to how the votes will translate into seats.

Is it the case that people are massively unimpressed with the entire election campaign, and that faced with the inevitability that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will be Prime Minister, people will vote for the ‘least worst’ option?

What should habitual Labour voters who feel uncomfortable with the direction in which Jeremy Corbyn has taken the party do on Thursday, especially those who can’t bring themselves to vote Conservative?

Marcus and Greg reflect on the appalling slurs from the once-respectable Channel 4 News during the election campaign, and the decline in trust in other media outlets, including the BBC.

They also discuss the gradual decline of proper investigative journalism in both the print and broadcast media over the course of the last 25 years.

The podcast is also available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 8, 2019 at 2:02 am

Posted in Opinion, Politics, Review

Devolution in Wales: Twenty years of failure

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By MARCUS STEAD

WALES is the country whose devolution settlement is talked about the least, for reasons that are understandable with all that’s happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But there are big problems emerging, and the case needs to be made loudly for the abolition of a failed institution the people of Wales never really wanted.

From the outset, Wales was never very enthusiastic about devolution. Fewer than one in four of the Welsh electorate voted for the creation of the Assembly in 1997. Fewer than one in five voted to increase its power in the referendum of 2011.

Social media is hardly an accurate snapshot of society, but it’s telling that First Minister Mark Drakeford has just over 62,000 followers across his two Twitter accounts, compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s more than one million.

As recently as 2014, data collected by BBC Wales showed that just 48% of respondents knew that the Welsh Government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. A similar number, 42%, wrongly thought policing is a devolved area.

In the 20 years since the Assembly first came into being, turnout at elections has been as low as 38% and has never exceeded 48%.

The very principle of devolution has created a constant tension between the governments at opposite ends of the M4. During the years when Carwyn Jones was First Minister and David Cameron was Prime Minister, a culture of ‘blame Westminster’ was coined every time shortcomings in the Welsh NHS or education system were exposed. Successive Welsh Government ministers have blamed the ‘Barnett Formula’ for supposed under-funding in Wales.

Yet the reality is that in July, figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed public spending in Wales was £13.7 billion more than the total amount collected in taxes, which works out at a deficit of £4,376 per person.

In other words, the English taxpayer is being compelled to subsidise the Welsh standard of living, but has no say in who makes the decisions on devolved areas of governance. This is taxation without representation, or an instruction to the English taxpayer to give Wales your money but mind your own business when it comes to policy formation.

The culture of the Assembly has been that of a ‘groupthink’ cartel in Cardiff with limited competition between Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Former Labour Welsh Office Minister Jon Owen Jones referred to a ‘great deal of cohesion around consensual views’. This infects not only the Assembly, but also the civil service and prominent lobbying bodies.

The cartel has manipulated public appointments. Between 1999 and 2015, 195 Welsh appointees had direct links to Labour (nine times the Conservative total) and 45 had direct links to Plaid Cymru.

Devolution was supposed to bring to an end the ‘quango culture’ in Wales, but, in the words of Cardiff University professor Kevin Morgan, Wales now has a ‘cowed culture’ of public bodies who are reluctant to speak out against the political status quo because they are dependent on funding.

There is no Welsh register of lobbyists, but the Cardiff Bay bubble is full of people who were once Assembly Members or worked for them.

One outfit alone boasts of four former Labour Special Advisers, along with a former Plaid Cymru Assembly Member and the party’s former chief executive.

The Welsh Labour group in the Assembly fares no better. Of their 29 Assembly Members, 24% used to work on the party payroll as advisers or staffers, 21% worked for third sector organisations, 21% worked in the media and 14% worked for trade unions or a union-affiliated law firm. Even Mark Drakeford himself was a predecessor First Minister’s special adviser.

A decade ago, the political editor of BBC Wales was Rhun ap Iorweth and his ITV Wales counterpart was Lee Waters. They are now Assembly members for Plaid Cymru and Labour respectively. During the intervening period Waters was vice chair of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2011 referendum on increasing the Assembly’s powers.

Many job advertisements among the Assembly apparatus state that the ability to speak Welsh is either a requirement or an ‘advantage’, despite the fact that the 2011 Census showed more than 80% of the people of Wales spoke little or no Welsh. Of the areas within reasonable commuting distance of the Assembly, 89% of the population of Cardiff and Swansea classed themselves as unable to speak Welsh, while in Newport the figure was 90%.

Not only do Welsh language requirements drastically reduce the potential talent pool of Assembly staffers in a country of just three million people, it by definition attracts a certain type of person, one who is highly unlikely to say that Welsh language provision has already gone far enough, or that the Welsh Government’s target of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 is absurd.

For example, since 2016, there has been a policy of ‘Welsh first’ road signs being gradually rolled out across Wales, regardless of the fact that in most parts of the country, only a small minority of the population speak Welsh.

There was virtually no public consultation or debate about this. It did not appear in Labour’s manifesto at the last Assembly elections. It was just decided by the cosy cartel, and as a result, citizens and visitors alike face a potentially dangerous and confusing distraction while travelling at high speed on Welsh roads.

There are enormous perks to being part of the Assembly gravy train, keeping your mouth shut and not rocking the boat too much. Welsh Government SPADS can earn over £50,000 a year working in a culture Steve Jones, ex-adviser to Carwyn Jones, described as ‘toxic’ and ‘pure poison’.

Between 2017 and 2018, Welsh Government credit cards were used to spend more than £1.5 million on frivolities, including £203,645 on flights and £110,890 on luxury accommodation.

A favourite tactic of the Welsh political establishment is to muddy the waters, to make comparisons between other parts of the UK more difficult.

For example, the proportion of children in England and Wales achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C was very similar between 1995 and 2002. By 2011/12, 82% of children in England achieved this threshold compared with just 73% in Wales. The Welsh Government chose not to mirror Michael Gove’s reforms in England, and within a few years created a completely different grading system, so making comparisons has become much more difficult.

In September 2018, Wales’s Education Minister Kirsty Williams (the Assembly’s sole Liberal Democrat) decided that a taxpayer-funded trip to Los Angeles and New York at a cost of £32,123.12 would help matters. A further trip to Texas, Alabama and Georgia followed in September 2019.

The very principle of devolution inevitably sets one part of the UK against another. For example, thanks to the Welsh Government, people requiring residential care will stop paying care home fees when their assets have been whittled down to £50,000, more than double the figure in England. Now Plaid Cymru wants to abolish care home fees entirely.

It all sounds very noble, until we consider that this policy will encourage English retirees to move to Wales. At the same time, bright graduates are leaving Wales due to Welsh speakers being given preferential treatment in so many public sector jobs, along with the lack of a skilled private sector (just one of the FTSE top 100 companies is based in Wales).

Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom will need to take an urgent look at its constitutional arrangements, from the botched Blairite House of Lords reforms to the restoration of the devolved institutions in Stormont.

Wales needs to be honest with itself. Twenty years of devolution has led to the worst public services in Britain, and an unhealthy culture of groupthink has emerged around the Assembly, the civil service and lobbying institutions.

The people of Wales have always been lukewarm about the Assembly. They now deserve the opportunity to vote for its abolition.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 7, 2019 at 4:35 am

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 24: London Bridge terror attack – How should we respond?

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By MARCUS STEAD

Episode 24: London Bridge terror attack – How should we respond?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Friday, Usman Khan, an already-convicted terrorist out on licence, killed two innocent people on London Bridge.

In this week’s podcast, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins pay tribute to the extraordinarily brave people who helped disarm the terrorist, and discuss what steps can be taken to prevent similar attacks in the future.

Marcus and Greg also assess what effect the terror attack has had on the election, which is now less than two weeks away.

The podcast is available via the Talk Podcasts website, as well as on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 1, 2019 at 3:06 am

‘Period Poverty’ – Some Thoughts

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By MARCUS STEAD

THE MEANING of any word or phrase can be cheapened by inappropriate use. If you had to work through your lunch hour, and at 5pm tell your colleagues that you’re ‘starving’, they’ll probably take the remark in the spirit it’s intended, but there is no comparison to be made between your slight hunger and the plight of millions in Africa.

Similarly, George Orwell observed in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (essential reading for anyone with an interest in journalism or writing of any sort) that the word ‘fascism’ now has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. He wrote that in 1946, just one year after the defeat of ‘fascism’ in World War II.

The word ‘poverty’ is in danger of being devalued in a similar way. Very few people indeed are living in poverty in Britain. We almost all enjoy a considerably better standard of living to the one experienced by the working classes of 70 years ago.

The traditional family unit, the sense of community and standards of personal morality have all deteriorated since the 1950s, but in terms of health, diet, sanitation and household appliances, life in modern Britain is far better than it was even a generation ago.

For those in genuine difficulty, the safety net of welfare payments are available, that are generous by both historic and international standards.

Very few people living in Britain today are entitled to describe their situation as one of ‘poverty’. I support a small charity that does a great deal of good work in Africa. They send me regular newsletters to tell me of progress being made in the communities they serve. I know of nobody in Britain who has to survive on as little as the people of that community.

The left loves a ‘victim’ and portraying ever-increasing sections of society as ‘victims’, regardless of the facts. Just five years ago, the phrase ‘period poverty’ was unheard of. Throughout my time at school, it was accepted as fact that girls had to prepare properly for the onset of their periods, and that their parents were responsible for ensuring they had sanitary products. Yes, the school kept a supply in the medical room for emergencies and to avoid embarrassing situations, but as a rule, the emphasis was on the pupil and her family to ensure she was prepared.

The menstrual cycle has been around since, erm, women have been around. So why did ‘period poverty’ mysteriously come into being five years ago?

In April this year, the Welsh Government announced plans for all primary and secondary schoolchildren to be given ‘free’ sanitary products. By ‘free’, they mean ‘taxpayer-subsidised’. Everything has to be paid for somewhere along the line. What the Welsh Government has actually done is pass the financial burden of sanitary products from the family unit to the taxpayer.

It appears that increasing numbers of girls are going to school unequipped with sanitary products, which says more about the increasing problem of social breakdown than it does about a mythical ‘period poverty’.

Similarly, the Welsh Government has introduced various ‘free school breakfast’ initiatives over the years. When I was at school from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, it was assumed that it was the responsibility of the parent, not the taxpayer, to ensure their child had a decent breakfast.

With all this in mind, it can be pointed out that a pack of 14 sanitary towels can be bought from Morrisons for just 65p, and have plenty of five star reviews on the website from satisfied women, while a 1kg bag of porridge can be bought for 75p. It can be given flavour with a handful of sultanas, a large 500g bag of which can be bought for 95p. If your child would rather have a piece of toast for breakfast, an 800g ‘toastie’ loaf can be bought for 55p, working out at less than 3p per slice.

In other words, there is no excuse for sending your child to school hungry, or without sanitary products if needed. If parents really are struggling to find the few pence for the combined cost each day, it suggests they have serious issues managing money and prioritising.

On 13 April, I tweeted, ‘Can we please stop all this nonsense about people not being able to ‘afford’ to give their children breakfast or sanitary products? A bag of porridge to feed a family for a week costs £1. 3 packs of sanitary towels cost £1 in Home Bargains.’

After a gap of a few hours, I was subjected to a massive Twitter ‘pile on’ from whiny (mainly young) leftists, along with a handful of minor celebrities and middle class comedians wanting to virtue signal and show off their ‘woke’ credentials. There was no rational argument from them – mainly foul-mouthed abuse and childish ‘school playground’ insults.

Quite a few of the messages decided I needed to hear their horror stories about heavy periods and a load responded to points I did not actually make. At no time did I say that children who came to school hungry should be made to starve, nor did I say that girls who experienced heavy or unexpected periods during the school day should not receive help.

The events of the last week around Jeremy Corbyn’s car-crash interview with Andrew Neil have proven beyond doubt that Twitter ‘pile-ons’ and ‘hashtag flooding’ is highly co-ordinated. There are huge groups on WhatsApp and Messenger of various cult movements, from the Corbynistas to the Welsh nationalists who engage in this sort of thing. I’ve suspected it was co-ordinated for some time – lots of accounts using pseudonyms but with very few followers is a giveaway, but the events of the last week prove it beyond doubt.

Back in April, several newspapers picked up on the ‘pile-on’ to my tweet, including the shell of what was once The Independent, though the comments section on The Sun’s website suggests rather a lot of people agreed with me!

I should also point out that my tweet got more than 2,700 likes, plus some supportive comments (many of them messaged me privately to avoid being subjected to abuse themselves), so I am clearly not alone in my thinking.

‘Poverty’ does not come into it. This is really all about parents neglecting their traditional responsibilities and handing them over to the taxpayer.

We have lost something important in this country during the last 70 years. I recall listening to a podcast with former Bridgend Council leader Jeff Jones, where he told a story about growing up in a close-knit working class community in South Wales.

His family didn’t have much by the way of material goods, but even as a teenager, if he told his mother he was catching a bus or train to meet his friends in Cardiff, she would always respond by saying ‘make sure you wear a tie’.

In other words, they didn’t have much, but they did have their standards. The children were immaculately turned out for school and for Sunday chapel. Their diet may not have been very exciting, but they were fed, often with vegetables grown in gardens or allotments, plus meat given in return for the children helping out at the local farm during the school holidays. Divorce and fatherless homes were rare.

I am not calling for a return to the strict rigidity of the 1950s (I only wear ties when I have to), but it’s clear that something has gone badly wrong in terms of standards and personal responsibility. In material terms, today’s parents, even the worst off, have far more. Few feel the need to grow vegetables in allotments or send their children to the local farm to work during the holidays in return for meat. In real terms, the cost of food in supermarkets is considerably cheaper than it was 40 years ago.

A very large number of people who claim to be in difficulty could alleviate their problems by making simple lifestyle changes: Give up smoking and alcohol, do the weekly shop in Aldi or Lidl, take a packed lunch and a Thermos flask to work rather than going to a coffee shop, search for the best deals for gas and electricity, cut down on the takeaways etc.

In other words, learn the difference between ‘essentials’ and ‘luxuries’. There are too many people whose first instinct when their benefit payments arrive are to buy the latest smartphone or designer handbag, rather than to ensure that their rent is paid and their children have life’s essentials.

Some of my Twitter critics argued that, as a man, I should not comment on such issues at all. I comment not as a man, but as a taxpayer, and one who objects to seeing his taxes spent in this way, at a time when essential public services are being stretched.

But for a female perspective, journalist and talkRADIO breakfast show presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer clearly shares my views. In September 2018, seven months before I became involved in the debate, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that, on average, women spend £5,000 on sanitary products in their lives. Ms Hartley-Brewer replied: “Ok, let’s take a look at those numbers, Jezza. £5k spent over, say, 42 years is £119 a year. That’s £10 for each period. 32 Superdrug tampons cost £1.89. So these women are using 160+ tampons a period. So that’s 40 TAMPONS A DAY. Okaaaay. Yep, seems legit. #PeriodPoverty #Maths”

This week’s events during the election campaign have shown that maths is not Mr Corbyn’s strong point (what is his strong point?), but it’s evident that he has grossly exaggerated the figures so he can portray yet another section of society as ‘victims’.

More than a year earlier, Ms Hartley-Brewer ran rings around Labour MSP Monica Lennon during a radio interview about ‘period poverty’.

But there is a certain irony about my critics. As far as I can tell, most, if not all of my critics, are firm supporters of the European Union. EU law stipulates that VAT on sanitary products must be charged at a minimum of 5%. Campaigners in Britain have demanded the removal of the tax for many years (not unreasonably in my view), but the EU has stated that it will not do so until January 2022 at the earliest.

The same people who attack me and Ms Hartley-Brewer are reluctant to concede that the abolition of VAT on sanitary products would be a clear, morally-correct and unequivocal advantage of Brexit.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 30, 2019 at 3:19 am

Posted in Health, Opinion

BDO Darts Descends Into Farce

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By MARCUS STEAD

The British Darts Organisation is in a state of chaos with less than two months to go before its version of the World Championships is due to be staged.

The tournament had been hosted at the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green, Surrey since 1986 but in August the BDO announced it was abandoning the venue and taking the competition to the Indigo, a theatre-like complex in the O2 Arena that seats 2,350 people.

At the time of publication, just 9% of tickets have been sold for the nine-day long tournament, beginning on Saturday 4 January, and only 36 tickets have been snapped up for the Tuesday afternoon session. Only one person has thus far bought a week-long package.

The cheapest afternoon tickets cost £26 plus the booking fee, and the cheapest evening session tickets start at £36.

By comparison, tickets the breakaway rival Professional Darts Corporation version (which features most of the world’s best players), staged at Alexandra Palace over the Christmas period, are priced at £23, with cheapest evening session tickets £33 for tiered seating.

The BDO’s own website, and the promotional poster for the event, offers few clues as to how tickets for its version of the World Championships can be purchased.

Thousands of were sold in advance of last year’s BDO World Championships at the Lakeside, and a number were supplied free of charge to members of the organisation’s county pyramid system.

Fans have expressed irritation at the BDO’s choice of venue, which unlike the Lakeside and Alexandra Palace, does not offer free parking, while the flagship men’s tournament will not feature Glen Durrant, the champion for the last three years, who has defected to the PDC.

In August, BDO chairman Des Jacklin revealed the men’s prize fund will remain at £300,000 while the ladies will almost double to £54,000 with the winner’s share rising from £12,000 to £20,000, but with such a sharp decline in ticket sales and no title sponsor, the prize fund could yet be affected.

It hasn’t been the best of years for Jacklin or the BDO. Days before the announcement that the tournament was leaving the Lakeside, ‘Little’ Richard Ashdown, the master of ceremonies at BDO televised tournaments, and a familiar face to the millions who watch darts on TV, announced his resignation, and within 24 hours, he was followed by four senior BDO referees: Anthony Dundas, Marco Meijer, Nick Rolls and Charlie Corstorphine.

In October, its oldest and second most prestigious tournament, the BDO World Masters at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet, was beset with organisational problems.

A new three-year TV contract was agreed with subscription channel Eurosport, but the BDO scheduled the tournament at the same time free-to-air station ITV4 was broadcasting a PDC event featuring the game’s best players.

The iconic Circus Tavern was the home of the PDC World Championship from its inception in 1994 until its success meant it outgrew the venue in 2007, but the 1,100 capacity venue was far from full throughout the BDO World Masters, which resulted in a flat and dreary atmosphere.

The early stages were held at the Grays Civic Hall, where to begin with there were only minor quibbles – 32 boards for more than 200 players seemed too small.

But events quickly turned to farce when Jacklin took to the stage and announced that the advertised format was wrong, and that players had arrived from around the world unaware of a BDO rule change implemented several months earlier that required them to register and pay their fees online in advance of arrival.

It appeared the BDO failed to inform national governing bodies from other countries of the change, and accepting some responsibility for this error, Jacklin announced that they would be allowed to play.

Some players who had qualified failed to show up, including seeds Nick Kenny and Wayne Warren. Jacklin stated that where possible, places for players who had not shown up would be swapped with those who had arrived unaware of the changes to registration rules.

However, this became a problem as non-registered players outnumbered non-arrivals, at which point it became apparent that the BDO had put the names of fake players into the draw, with a view to replacing them with real players if too many turned up. Quite what would have happened if too few had turned up, meaning some players would have to take on somebody who did not even exist, is unclear.

This never came to pass, because just 25 minutes before the men’s tournament began, the BDO’s top 16 players were called into a meeting where they were informed that the draw had to be re-done, which caused great anger in the room.

The re-draw made a nonsense of the BDO’s own rule that the draw for every tournament should be published 48 hours in advance.

Many of the BDO’s top 16 planned to boycott the event before the draw fiasco, but this was averted at the last minute, though there was widespread irritation that players from outside the top 16 were not invited to the pre-tournament meeting, and information about prize money was withheld.

Veteran player Andy Hamilton published an open letter on social media where he vented his anger at many aspects of the BDO’s organisational skills, including the re-draw, which meant that his planned start time of 2pm was pushed to 4:50pm.

Jacklin announced to the angry room that he planned to step down after January’s BDO World Championships, though he has since rescinded that pledge.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 29, 2019 at 4:23 am

Posted in Sport

Talk Podcasts Pubcast Episode 2

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Talk Podcasts Pubcast logoMarcus Stead and James Easton return with the final pubcast of 2019, recorded at the Mount Stuart in Cardiff Bay.

There was a ‘no politics’ rule in place, which was only loosely enforced. Topics covered in this edition include:

 

 

  • Tattoos – tasteful or tacky? Are they OK provided they’re well-hidden? And are heavily-tattooed people doing it for attention?
  • Cymru Premier football – differences and similarities with the English semi-professional ranks.
  • Defunct beers and lagers. By the way, Hofmeister is back!
  • Brian Clough’s legacy.
  • Wrestling – British and American, past and present.
  • The rise of Black Friday and Halloween, and the decline of Guy Fawkes Night.
  • Proper Saturday morning telly – Ghost Train, Gimme 5, Going Live!, Live & Kicking.
  • Fred Dinenage and the Krays.

The podcast is also available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Pubcast Poster 2

Written by Marcus Stead

November 27, 2019 at 11:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 23: What’s in the manifestos?

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Boris Johnson Jeremy Corbyn

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

In the week the Conservative and Labour parties launched their manifestos, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins take a look at what’s inside them.

Are Boris Johnson’s plans for a huge wave of investment in infrastructure, apprenticeships and nursing realistic?

As for Labour, there are big elements of it that have not been widely reported in the mainstream media. There are lots of things in there that will appeal to the politically correct, virtue signalling ‘woke’ agenda, including ‘putting LGBT+ equality at the heart of government, ensuring our public services are LGBT+ inclusive and delivering on the national LGBT Action Plan’ along with a pledge to ‘conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule.’

Marcus and Greg ask: Is this REALLY a vote winner in Labour’s heartlands?

The podcast is also available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 26, 2019 at 2:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized