Whither Plaid Cymru: Can Plaid be a 15+ force?

Craig McAngus says this is an existential question facing whoever becomes the new leader


The experience of governing for the first time doesn’t just end when that party ceases to be a governing party. On the contrary, the experience of government carries on, fundamentally shaping and altering the course of that party’s destiny. This is exactly what Plaid Cymru has experienced after its historic first ever term in office as part of the One Wales Government.

Plaid’s destiny is being shaped in the context of a sizeable amount of renewal and uncertainty. Not only is the party about to elect a new leader, but also it is undergoing a process of internal examination and review in order to make itself more effective for the next Welsh election. Even more importantly, it needs to do so to keep abreast of the rapidly changing constitutional context in the UK, driven largely by the SNP’s dramatic election victory in Scotland.

The Party of Wales

This is the third of a week-long series. Tomorrow Gwion Owain presents the argument for the centrist position within Plaid Cymru.

And to some extent it certainly helped. This was because for the first time Plaid Cymru could f

Understandably Plaid has been looking to the SNP as a source of inspiration. Of course, the SNP’s achievement of a majority in the Scottish parliament in May 2011 was extraordinary. At the same time it masked a fundamental underlying principle that Plaid Cymru will do well to understand if it desires to emulate the SNP success.  This is the idea of being at ease with power.

Both the SNP and Plaid have moved along the road from ‘niche’ to ‘normal’ politics, thickening up the ideology of nationalism as they have gone along. Devolution has provided an arena within which they could more meaningfully compete with the UK-wide parties. More importantly, devolution opened up the possibility of going into government. In turn this provided a real possibility of driving the devolved settlement in the desired direction.

At least this has been the case for the SNP.  Plaid’s decision to go into government in 2007 was far from unequivocal, with some of its key figures keen to stay in opposition. This is not to say that government was not a success for Plaid. On the contrary, the achievement of the Welsh language Measure, the setting up of the Holtham commissions looking at devolved funding, and of course the historic referendum win in March 2011, were all notable accomplishments.  One could even go as far as saying that, in terms of raw policy output, Plaid had a more successful first period in government than the SNP.

Welsh devolution has taken massive strides forward that wouldn’t have happened without Plaid’s influence. Despite this, there is still internal criticism, with significant figures accusing the party of not being politically serious while at the same time lacking the guile and the ruthlessness to go out there and win elections. Perhaps Plaid’s muddled 2011 election campaign is a symptom of this underlying condition. As a party Plaid was unsure about where it wanted to be after the election.  In stark contrast, the SNP were extremely sure.

The SNP went into the 2011 election campaign with the simple mantra of ‘Team, Record, Vision’. By highlighting popular things that had been done in government, providing future images of a re-industrialised Scotland based on green technology, and constantly forcing the electorate to compare potential front-bench teams across parties, the SNP built their success on the fact that the public saw them as, quite simply, better than the rest. It was classic valence voting. The SNP were seen as more competent than the other parties in terms of their ability to govern Scotland and the electorate duly voted for them.

The SNP are rabid office-seekers. They understand that the key to achieving independence is being seen as competent and that even if you are dealing with a ‘No’ voter, they can still be an SNP voter.

The SNP exist to win, whether it is a devolved election or an independence referendum. With Plaid, it isn’t as clear cut. Some in the party do think like the SNP and genuinely strive to be Wales’ largest party, ultimately replacing Labour in the process. However, others are happy simply being the conscience of Labour, quietly guiding and funnelling but not stealing the reigns. According to some, such thinking is underlined by a need to stay clean and not damage Plaid’s purity by having to take the difficult decisions all too commonly associated with being in government.

Yet Plaid has been in government and has experienced the shades of grey that are too often considered black or white. The real purpose of the party’s internal review and leadership contest lies here and should thus ask a fundamental question: what should Plaid’s status in Welsh politics be?

Is Plaid Cymru a 10 to 15 seat party which will perhaps form a coalition every other Assembly term, teasing out gradual yet not insignificant constitutional advancements on the way? Or, is Plaid Cymru the 15-plus seat party which will take the fight to Labour and aim to replace them, forcing the constitutional agenda in the process?

The former option is the easy one. If this is the answer, then the current internal review will largely mirror the 1979 commission which failed to outline exactly what Plaid Cymru’s status was. The latter option is the tricky one as it may involve upsetting some within the party who may feel that underlying party values are being eroded for the sake of power-seeking.

Of course, the SNP underwent substantial reform back in 2004 which wasn’t, and still isn’t, universally adored from within. Indeed, some within the party have lamented the intimate conferences of previous times when there were fewer men in suits. However, despite today’s rampant professionalism, coupled with the inevitable curb on individual freedom, one is hard pressed to find voices within the party that would openly condemn the changes and wish to go back to the old days. Electoral success has a habit of putting such alternative options in the shade.

This is, potentially, a choice that Plaid may face. Changes like this can open fissures between the selective and collective interest seekers within parties who, by their very nature, seek different things. However, the SNP have shown that by having the holy grail of an independence referendum as a point in space and time the wider party can comfortably move in the same direction despite more rigid disciple and oligarchic tendencies.

There are some in Plaid who recognise this, claiming that the party is too democratic to the extent that it hampers electoral progress and political flexibility. Equally, many in the party deeply value these attributes and associate them with the collective spirit which makes ‘their’ Plaid Cymru.

Where does the new leader fit into all of this? If Plaid is to become that consistent 15+ seat party, then the new leader is going to have to expect to oversee some organisational reforms that might not be universally popular. Furthermore, the charismatic shadow of Adam Price will constantly loom over the eventual winner of this contest. Price is popular, not only with the grassroots but with members of Plaid’s Assembly Group as well. He is widely regarded as someone who can transcend Plaid’s publicity problem due to the chronic weakness of independent Welsh media.

Like the SNP’s John Swinney, the new leader may end up overseeing a few years of internal growing pains that have to be alleviated before a more charismatic, though no less able alternative is found. If this is not to be the case, the new leader will be judged on how successful s/he is electorally. Here it is noteworthy that to become a 15+ seat party, Plaid must make gains in the Valleys.

But first it has to decide which kind of party it wishes to be – one that can exceed 15 seats or one that is stuck in a rut somewhere between ten and 15. With the National Assembly now in possession of law-making powers and the UK constitutional debate moving ahead as never before, to a great extent driven by Scotland, the time to make that choice is now.

Craig McAngus is a PhD student at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde.