As Plaid Cymru’s annual conference opens today John Osmond says it is still searching for a unique selling point
Plaid Cymru’s annual conference, which opens in Aberystwyth today, will be a more important milestone than usual in the party’s journey to next year’s twin ballots – the referendum in late March on more powers for the Assembly swiftly followed by the Assembly election itself in early May.
In many ways the most important session will be this afternoon when Plaid’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones and its director of policy Nerys Evans launch the party’s ‘New Vision’.
It must be sobering for Plaid Cymru to acknowledge that the most distinctive policy ‘vision’ to emerge in the first decade of devolution came in the form of Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ speech back in December 2002. This was a classic exposition of the claims of social democracy and one that rapidly found a good deal of agreement across the political spectrum in Wales. In it Rhodri Morgan set out a distinctive Welsh Labour stall, one that differentiated his party, not so much from its political opponents, but its political enemies in New Labour. “We’re not new or old Labour,” Morgan said at the time. “We’re Welsh Labour.” In his speech he defined what he meant in the following terms:
“There are always going to be those ideological fault-lines in the approaches to social welfare in post-war social policy in Britain – universalism against means-testing and the pursuit of equity against pursuit of consumer choice… The actions of the Welsh Assembly Government clearly owe more to the traditions of Titmus, Tawney, Beveridge and Bevan than those of Hayek and Friedman. The creation of a new set of citizenship rights has been a key theme in the first four years of the Assembly – and a set of rights, which are, as far as possible free at the point of use, universal, and unconditional.”
He gave the following examples of how this was being put into practice:
- Free school milk for youngest children.
- Free nursery place for every three year old.
- Free prescriptions for young people in the age range 16-25.
- Free entry to museums and galleries for all our citizens.
- Free local bus travel for pensioners and disabled people.
Since 2002, of course, free prescriptions have been made universal across all the age ranges. Morgan argued that free services bind a society together and make everyone feel that they have a stake in it. But what was perhaps most remarkable about the speech was that it placed the goal of social democracy firmly within a national project of creating Welsh citizens. By virtue of receiving the universal provision he described, the people of Wales would become increasingly conscious of their Welsh citizenship. The objective was to cement an ever-closer relationship between the Welsh people and their fledgling new institution in Cardiff Bay.
As I say, it must be sobering for Plaid to acknowledge that in devolution’s first decade they have come nowhere near matching the impact of this intervention. It is noteworthy, therefore, that this afternoon’s launch has been flagged up by Nerys Evans as seeking “Green Welsh Water” to distinguish Plaid from Welsh Labour and to provide a “transformational” vision ahead of next year’s election.
Given the source of the liquid analogy it was a risky one to use. This afternoon Plaid has an opportunity to tell the nation what it is for. Is it just another party aiming for power in government? Or is it a movement with a highly distinctive purpose and a strong sense of direction about where it is going? In short, what is Plaid’s unique selling point? The fact that this question can be asked of Plaid, 75 years after it was formed and ten years since it was a central reason why the National Assembly was created, speaks volumes.