A contrast between Scottish and Welsh politics is that while the SNP are most happy when Conservatives are ruling at Westminster, Plaid Cymru prefers Labour to be in charge. This goes some way to explaining the differing political dynamics in each country.
In Scotland the one thing calculated to increase a Yes vote in next year’s independence referendum woud be the threat of a Conservative or Conservative-led coalition at Westminster following the 2015 general election. That is why David Cameron is refusing to debate the independence question directly with Alex Salmond – it would present the Scottish leader with just the platform he needs to ‘stand up’ for his country.
In Wales, however, ‘Standing up for Wales’ was the soft nationalist pitch made by Labour at the last Assembly election, one that evidently appealed to the Welsh electorate. However, if Labour regains power in Westminster at the 2015 general election, whether alone or in coalition, Carwyn Jones will unable to deploy that slogan in the Assembly election the following year. It’s a bit implausible for a Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff to declare it is standing up to a British Labour Government in London. Which is why Plaid Cymru is hoping for its main political opponent being presented with just that prospect.
In Scotland, partly because the SNP are in government and pursuing independence Labour is branded as a unionist party. It sounds an uncertain note when putting the case for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. Many Scottish voters support the SNP to make sure Scotland receives attention from London, especially when a Labour is running the government there.
In Wales the roles are different. With the Tories in power at Westminster Plaid Cymru is left trying to outbid Welsh Labour in pressing the Welsh case. At their conference slogan in Aberystwyth last weekend they were reduced to deploying the rather tired slogan ‘Wales First’.
The result of Labour and Plaid competing for the same narrow ground at the Welsh national level is that they tend to fashion a chasm between themselves at the local level. This is why local government cuts and threats to hospital services are such toxic issues in Welsh politics.
Plaid leader Leanne Wood’s most eye catching policy in her conference speech was the so-called ‘pop tax’. She said a Welsh Government under her leadership would recruit a 1,000 more doctors by taking on Coca Cola and putting a 20p per litre levy on the sale of obesity-inducing sugary drinks. These doctors would then shore up the A&E and maternity wards being threatened with closure or downgrading around Wales by the present Welsh Labour Government’s plans for reorganising the Welsh NHS.
Labour’s sensitivity to such ideas was evidenced earlier this year when their leading lights in the Rhondda – MP Chris Bryant and AM and former Education Minister Leighton Andrews – led protests against their own Government’s proposals to downgrade A&E services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant. If this goes ahead, as seems likely, it would mean Rhondda people forced to travel to Cardiff for emergency treatment.
A few weeks later Leighton Andrews protested again, this time against the projected closure of Pentre’s primary school in the Rhondda due to falling pupil numbers. On this occasion the perceived inconsistency of an Education Minister opposing the implementation of his own policy led to his resignation.
Such local issues seem destined to frame the forthcoming 2016 Welsh Assembly elections in a raft of marginal seats across Wales. Yet in many cases the outcome will be determined by factors further afield such as whether Labour or Tories are in power at Westminster and the strength of UKIP’s vote.
It will be ironic if, at the end of the day, an indecisive result in terms of the seats won by the parties will force Labour and Plaid into coalition negotiations. At this point they will join hands in a new government, creating an echo of the One Wales coalition that followed the 2007 Welsh Assembly elections. And as happened then, one of the new coalition government’s preoccupations will be to force budgetary and constitutional concessions from whatever government happens to be in power at Westminster.