Vanilla ice cream or tax avoidance?

There were some developments on devolution (more on this later) but the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea was never going to be about big policy announcements - it was all about campaigning for the general election.

One way the party felt it could do that was by taking as much advantage as possible of the allegations of tax avoidance by Conservative Party donors in HSBC Swiss bank accounts.

Despite the fact that the list includes Labour-supporting names, and despite the fact that much of it went on when Ed Miliband was in the Treasury, the party feels it has much to gain from claims of aggressive tax avoidance by HSBC and wealthy individuals.

One Welsh Labour MP told me: "Ed needs this."

Election ammunition

The Labour narrative here is that this is a man who takes on vested interests - like Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking - and this is the latest manifestation of that.

The MP's comment is also a reflection of the Labour leader's poor personal poll ratings. So if it's going to be a presidential-style campaign then he needs this stance as ammunition.

Hence the announcement in Swansea of the independent review into HMRC by Labour if the party's elected.

Talk of Swiss bank accounts and Tory donors is always going to go down a storm at a Welsh Labour conference in Swansea, but there was something far more important than getting the cheers from the party faithful in the Brangwyn Hall on a Saturday afternoon. It was about making the most of it before the news caravan moves onto the next subject.

Lots of people were referring this weekend to the comments of the former Conservative Treasurer Lord Fink who said he had used "vanilla measures" to avoid tax and that the definition of tax avoidance was so broad that "everyone does it".

In a seaside city like Swansea, mention the word vanilla and it's not tax avoidance schemes that spring to mind but 99 cones. The Labour speech-writers knew this and duly filled their boots.

Coppers and cash

On devolution we did learn a few things. One is that under Labour it is now clear that policing is not going to be devolved, and as we know the Conservatives are not fans either it's safe to assume that, despite the wishes of the First Minister, policing is going to remain under the ultimate control of the Home Office in the foreseeable future.

But a Labour government would allow the assembly to have control over the structure of policing and crucially this would allow AMs scrap police and crime commissioners if they wanted to.

And then there's the vague term "fair funding". Labour has committed to it but when I tried to nail down some figures from Ed Miliband for the Sunday Politics Wales programme he refused to "pluck figures out of the air."

There are lots of variables here but I think the one thing we can say is that it would make it more difficult for Carwyn Jones to refuse to consider the devolution of income tax on the grounds that the Westminster funding settlement is not generous enough.

Does this mean income tax is more likely to be devolved? That's difficult to answer because we know there are deep concerns within Labour, including the First Minister, who could just refuse to consider it - even if the fair funding issue is settled - on the grounds that he can't see what's in it for Wales.

Political awakening

On the subject of Carwyn Jones, unusually for him his speech was dominated by attacks on the Tories.

He recalled the days of his political awakening during the miners' strike and said the current cutbacks were more severe than those felt in the 1980s.

He even likened the so-called bedroom tax to the poll tax.

There was some policy but basically this was a speech that acknowledged that the next few weeks is not about his government, although the Conservatives will have other ideas.

Just to pick up on one comment: he took a hard line on health boards saying he won't apologise if they fail.

This is a change of tone and I'm told is the result of deep frustration with Betsi Cadwaldr health board in particular over the way last week's decision to move to a midwifery-led unit at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd was handled.

I think we can expect more of this tone in future, as Welsh government ministers become more open in their views of health boards if they feel there are problems.

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