Whither Plaid Cymru: On the Left without a plan

Gwion Owain argues that Plaid has become trapped into positions that have little resonance with the real world of the electorate






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Amongst the recent navel gazing over future direction and strategy and the mulling over of the result of the 2011 Assembly election I believe that Plaid Cymru has potentially missed a key consideration that goes to the heart of it’s recent strategy and failure to win over the people of Wales to Plaid as a party.

In the latest edition of the IWA’s journal Agenda Roger Scully of Aberystwyth University’s International Politics Department reflected on Plaid’s success as a constitutional and linguistic pressure group in moving the middle ground of Welsh politics towards further devolved powers and a cross-party consensus in support of the language.

The Party of Wales

This is the fourth of a week-long series. Tomorrow John Dixon finds that last week’s internal report on the party’s future has a glaring omission

Similarly, Plaid Cymru’s recent beard-stroking under the chairmanship of Eurfyl ap Gwilym adresses the issue of Plaid’s failure to convert long term success in achieving constitutional change into electoral success. Eurfyl’s report Moving Forward: Renewing Plaid for Wales broadly places the blame for this failure in the nature of Plaid’s campaign’s in the non-traditional Plaid constituencies, particularly the omission to support campaigns in target seats, and a failure to fully explain the nature of decentralised socialism.

The report also laments the inability to develop a programme of ambitious and visionary policies that would have broad appeal to the Welsh electorate. However, for Plaid activists the most worrying graph in Scully’s piece in Agenda should have been the one showing the extent of the positive attitudes towards their party amongst the Welsh electorate compared to the other parties. Side-by-side with the depressing lack of buoyancy in Plaid’s vote this is a state of affairs that goes right to the heart of the party’s current predicament.

The inference is clear. The Welsh electorate clearly have a significant regard and fondness for Plaid. Furthermore, they have, tentatively at times, supported Plaid’s long term aims of devolution and in doing so have broadly rejected the unionist parties broader world views of centralisation.

Following the 1999 Assembly elections Plaid misinterpreted it’s successes not as a general disillusion with Blair’s inability to convince Labour’s traditional supporters with his modernising agenda but with a historically inevitable ‘tidal wave’ of change that was bound to happen in the wake of devolution. This misdiagnosis led to the over emphasis in the Assembly’s first two terms on a politics that placed the minutiae of policy above the imperative to hold the Lib-Lab coalition to account and to provide an effective counterbalance to the pathologically centralising urges of the Welsh Labour Party.

The nascent democratic institution required intelligent rather than intellectual politics in it’s first years. Plaid is to a large extent still only barely recovering from this mistake. Similarly, whilst there can be absolutely no doubt that the period of the Cymru’n Un coalition was a success on many levels, not least the 2011 Referendum on further powers for the Assembly and the new Welsh Language Act, the mantra of at last being a party of government no matter how oft repeated does not hide the naivety of the surprise at a relatively poor result despite the established pattern of smaller partners in coalition usually taking a hammering in the polls. Indeed, I believe that it is this naiveté is the greatest threat to Plaid Cymru in the current leadership election. It is leading to an inability to correctly identify, consider, and act upon the real challenges which the party faces and confront some of it’s most dearly held beliefs.

The undercurrent in the leadership battle, primarily between Elin Jones and Leanne Wood, is between two opposing views of how Plaid should proceed over the next couple of years and specifically about the strategy and positioning of the party. Paragraphs 34-40 of Moving Forward addresses the issue of Plaid’s positioning on the centre-left of the political spectrum and the social democratic origins of it’s policies. Whilst the report correctly states that there is no appetite within the membership to reposition the party it fails to address in anyway the failure of the party to appeal to a broader electorate despite it’s positioning being compatible with the mainstream of Welsh political thought. The report’s only conclusion on this matter is that it has failed to explain effectively to the electorate the nature of it’s decentralised socialist viewpoint and the northern European social model which it espouses.

I believe this is another misdiagnosis of the real issue which, if left unaddressed, threatens to constrain it’s broader appeal and to blight Plaid for a generation.  I believe that the failure to appeal to the mass of the Welsh electorate lies in the very nature of the socialist policies that Plaid have advocated and in the manner in which we have placed ourselves on the left on the political spectrum. Similarly, I believe that we have misunderstood the nature of the socialism of the mainstream of Welsh voters.

I believe that Plaid has rooted it’s socialism more in the intellectual rather than real issues that concern the everyday voter. This can be explained by the over-reliance on policies based on the community and environment rather than those that appeal on an individual level. Contrasted with Labour’s ability to gain the support of those dependent on public services and the welfare system Plaid has wrapped itself up in the Guardianesque politics of the intellectual left. Any textual analysis of Plaid policy documents will lead to this conclusion given the reliance on policies aimed at the community level and the preponderance of policies addressing sustainability and environmental issues.

To abandon these policies would be to turn our back on our ‘unique selling point’ which is to stand for what is best for Wales. However, we must also shed the naivety about the appeal to the self-interest of the individual in our policies. There are plenty of further examples of the manner in which Plaid haslocked itself into a certain type of socialist viewpoint which has very limited appeal. We could include the recent debate in the Assembly on smacking unruly children and the impassioned speeches from Plaid members, dismissed by Andrew R.T. Davies as “emotional nonsense”.  The nature of these leftist positions have very limited appeal outside the liberal political class.

The inference for Plaid is clear. Whilst the Welsh electorate have been persuaded towards devolution and the restoration of the language, the shorter horizons of Assembly, UK, and local elections means that the vast majority of the electorate tend to vote according to self-interest rather than principle. This would, of course, resonate with the view of the late Philip Gould, the Labour pollster and one of the architects of New Labour, who in his book The Unfinished Revolution described how, at the beginning of the Thatcher years, the British working class yearned for a politics that recognised their aspirations.

Similarly in a recent public speech Baroness Morgan lamented the inability of the Welsh Labour Party to understand, or indeed want to understand, the private sector. Plaid Cymru risks placing itself unneccessarily in a similar bind. Leanne Wood’s leadership election vision makes much play of community ownership of the means of employment. However, Plaid ought to consider very hard before succumbing to the superficial temptation of unrealisable abstractons at this point in it’s history.

To do so would not only betray the aims of ‘building the Welsh nation’ – the main aim to which Plaid are committed – but also potentially to miss a great historical opportunity. There are two major themes that will dominate British politics over the next few years and which could provide Plaid Cymru with the best opportunity in it’s history to advance it’s goals. To be diverted from fighting for the disciplined pluralism inherent in nation building would be a historical abrogation of it’s duty.

Firstly: whatever the outcome of the Scottish referendum in 2014, whether the result is independence or something short of independence, it is beyond doubt that the cause of devolution of powers to Scotland will be greatly advanced.  This will require addressing the ‘West Lothian’ question in some form or other which will probably result in lessening the representation of Scotland at Westminster. The real losers from this process will be the Labour Party which will face further difficulty in gaining a majority at Westminster. Whilst the political geometry of England may indeed change to accommodate further powers for Scotland it is clear who the political losers will be. The natural reaction within Welsh Labour will likely be to provide further impetus in favour of devolution or to lead to splitting of the ‘Welsh’ and ‘Unionist’ wings. In these circumstances, to fail to provide leadership or to box ourselves into a narrow position on the left would be a mistake.

Secondly: whilst Plaid is committed to joining the single currency, developments in the Eurozone could provide a boost to the party’s constitutional aims. Whilst being settled on ‘independence’ as the ultimate constitutional objective, there remains some confusion as to it’s exact meaning amongst the electorate. One of the outcomes of the Eurozone crisis will be a return to vogue of the idea of small nations setting their own monetary policies. In paragraph 28 Moving Forward deftly manages to evade the issue with a consideration of Plaid’s role within the European Free Alliance (EFA). However the meaning between the lines is crystal clear.

In summary, the risks of a further leftward move after this leadership election to try and win over Labour voters without a serious and thorough consideration of Plaid’s positioning risk missing the historical opportunity which the party has so longed for. It would be like trying to outrun the Titanic on the side of the iceberg given the further impending cuts to the public spending so beloved of Welsh Labour. Certainly any positioning on the left should be supplemented by a more thorough understanding of the issues that appeal to the ordinary voter outside the political ‘bubble’.  To fail to do so would render Moving Forward as another excercise in self-delusion. At a critical time in our history Plaid and Wales needs a leader with a broader vision than that defined simply by the confines of a particular ideology – vote Elin.

Gwion Owain is Chair of the Dyffryn Nantlle branch of Plaid Cymru.