Plaid stares into the abyss of a limbo land existence

John Osmond says the party of Wales has to decide whether it wants to be a party of government

Plaid Cymru has a big decision to make in the coming days and few weeks. But if the party is to have any substantial impact on the fourth Assembly it can’t leave making that decision any longer. Put quite simply, does Plaid Cymru want to be a party of government with a future influential role in Welsh politics? Or does it want to sleep walk into a limbo land and abandon its destiny of being the one party that has building the political nation as its unique selling point?

In the recent election it sold that pass to Welsh Labour. But ‘standing up for Wales’ is not the same as ‘building the political nation’. If that were the case, then Labour would have included in its manifesto clear messages about taking the Welsh constitutional process forward, in terms of:

  1. Establishing a Welsh jurisdiction to accompany the primary legislative powers acquired in the 3 March referendum. This is not for its own sake but for three clear reasons: (i) to enable the Assembly’s new powers to be exercised effectively – as First Minister Carwyn Jones himself has stated more than once, “I’m not aware of any other part of the world where two primary lawmaking institutions exist within the same jurisdiction, passing laws in the same areas of responsibility”; (ii) to place the Assembly in a position where it can have the same beneficial system as Scotland in which all powers are devolved except those specified (such as defence and foreign affairs), rather than the present position where nothing is devolved except what is itemised in lengthy, legally confusing schedules; and (iii) leave Wales free to develop its service legal economy in advantageous ways.
  2. Pressing for an early  change to the Barnett formula to ensure fairer funding for Wales and to accept that income tax varying powers are likely to be the quid pro quo for this – Labour’s manifesto stated in terms that it would “not seek powers to vary income tax”.
  3. Arguing for borrowing powers to match those that are being allowed the Scottish Government.

In response to those who might argue that none of these are immediate or urgent matters, the fact is that within a few weeks the Conservative-led coalition government in London will be setting in train a process to establish a Calman-style Commission for Wales (following the one that reported in Scotland) to examine these very questions. Remember that the Calman remit was very wide-ranging indeed:

“To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom.”

What will be the newly established Welsh Labour Government’s response to this kind of agenda when it is put forward by the Welsh Commission that will begin work later this Autumn? Surely, its resolve would be stiffened if it were joined in a coalition by Plaid Cymru Ministers. Surely, too, in any coalition negotiations the three points listed above would be high on Plaid’s agenda.

But does Plaid want to be in a position to press such a constitutional enhancement for Wales? Does it want to put the country in a better position ‘to stand up for itself’ against policies it doesn’t like emanating from across the border? Put like that, surely there can only be one answer? However, if some Plaid voices in recent days are to be believed, the party is “relishing” the prospect of “going into opposition” in order to regroup and rethink what it is about and what it should learn from the recent election campaign.

This is woolly, lazy, and worse, irresponsible thinking. First of all, Plaid can’t ‘go into opposition’ by itself in the multi-party system we have in the Assembly. Anyway, such opposition as there is will be led by the Conservatives, now the largest ‘opposition’ party, and not by Plaid Cymru. More importantly, if Plaid takes this route it will end up in the cul de sac of a limbo land in which it will make no decisions and have no influence.  It will become a talking shop party that demonstrably and deliberately has put the fate of the people of Wales solely in the hands of the unionist parties. You can be sure that if Plaid abandons the people of Wales in this way then they will abandon it to an extent that will make the result of the recent election look like a high point in the party’s fortunes.

Yet such a limbo land beckons if Plaid follows its current, interim leader Ieuan Wyn Jones and his suggestion that he might hang on for another two-and-a-half years to, as he put it in his resignation statement last Friday, to give the party “time to reflect on the results, look long and hard at our message, our party structures and campaigning abilities.”

Such a course would mean oblivion for Plaid Cymru so far as the next five years are concerned. Ieuan Wyn Jones has an honourable record in leading his party into the One Wales coalition with Labour in 2007 and then delivering the referendum on greater powers for the Assembly last March. If he wants to secure that record he should announce his resignation with immediate effect, and launch a leadership election process to take place over the summer months, culminating in Plaid’s annual conference in late September.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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