John Osmond reports on a conference where Plaid Cymru recovered a sense of self-belief
In a speech to Plaid Cymru’s conference at the weekend Ron Davies took another step on a path which, if it reaches his desired destination, will trace one of the most remarkable comebacks in Welsh political history.
But just in making the speech, to a packed and rapt audience at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, the former Labour Secretary of State for Wales who is standing for Plaid in Caerphilly in next year’s Assembly election, marked a small notch in Welsh history.
Predicting he would be back in the Assembly he said winning a key Labour heartland seat would send shockwaves through the British political establishment. It would also demonstrate that Plaid Cymru was not just a party for the Welsh-speaking west and north but was one that could represent the whole of Wales. “It will send out a message that Plaid is in the mainstream,” he predicted.
It would also be a victory in the battle of ideas. Plaid Cymru was a party that believed in fairness, equality and that people and the nation as a whole should take responsibility. “These are the values of the people of Wales,” he said. “We need to draw down from Westminster the sovereignty to chart our own future.”
By any standards this was a remarkable moment, not just in terms of the drama of Ron Davies’s own political trajectory, but in the welcome he received from his new party, and what the occasion may tell us about the future of Welsh politics.
The conventional reading of next year’s Assembly election, confirmed by the current opinion polls, is that it will be a good one for Labour. Buoyed by the presence of the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government in London the party will have a simple message that will resonate across Wales, ‘support us in opposing the cuts’.
But Ron Davies believes it won’t be that simple. What real difference to the Wales present predicament would have been made if Labour had won in May? Decades of increased welfare spending had done nothing to prepare it for the coming storm. He had three questions for the Labour Party:
- Why did you leave us vulnerable at the bottom of every social and economic league table?
- Why didn’t you sort out the Barnett formula and fair funding for Wales when you had the chance?
- Why didn’t you create a proper Parliament for Wales rather than bequeathing a dependency culture in which 30 per cent of people across the Valleys are economically inactive?
He predicted devolution will prove to be the game changer of Welsh politics. Perhaps with an eye on what might have been if he had not had his ‘moment of madness’ on that walk across Clapham Common in 1998, he asked, “Who knows what would have happened if Labour had used the Assembly to build the nation?” But that would have required Labour to identify with Wales and put the interests of the country first, an impossible task for what at root remains a London-based party.
He said Plaid Cymru’s sharing power in the One Wales government since 2007 had brought the first sense of the country setting its own agenda in more than a decade of devolution. The task following next May’s election was for the party to elect enough AMs to enable it to lead a coalition to consolidate and enhance this achievement.
If devolution will prove to be the game changer for Welsh politics, will Ron Davies prove to be a game changer for Plaid Cymru? If he is elected next May that will be certain to deprive Labour of any chance of governing on its own. If he is accompanied by Plaid winning a few more seats in the Valleys, perhaps the Cynon Valley and Neath, then the prospect of a more evenly matched coalition between Labour and Plaid next year suddenly comes into view.
Plaid Cymru received a mauling at the general election last May and its confidence took a knock. It over-hyped its ambitions of winning five or six seats, and was completely marginalised in the most English of British elections in decades. The party had little relevance in a contest in which most English voters wanted rid of Gordon Brown but wavered between embracing Cameron or Clegg.
At Aberystwyth over the weekend Plaid Cymru recovered a sense of belief in itself and the continuing centrality of its role in Welsh politics. And it had Ron Davies to thank for that. The best messages in politics are the simple ones. He reminded Plaid that its mission was uncomplicated and straightforward. Its mission, as ever during the 85 years of its history, was simply to build the nation.
This explained the standing ovation and extraordinary wave of empathy that flowed from the assembled ranks of the faithful as Ron Davies approached the podium to make his speech. You could see, too, that it was an emotional moment for Ron Davies himself. He began his speech with a self-deprecating story of how recently he had been accosted by an elderly woman in his local supermarket. Looking at him quizzically she queried, “Didn’t you used to be somebody?” In joining Plaid Cymru Ron Davies has given himself and his new party a brighter future.