What is Plaid Cymru for?

Syd Morgan and Alan Sandry reflect on the implications of the party coming third in last week’s Assembly general election

The 2011 National Assembly election should mark the end of the ‘post-devolution’ era for Plaid Cymru. In 1999, the party was on the verge of becoming the largest in the country. It also came within 2.3 per cent (14,455 votes) of beating Labour in June 1999’s European parliament elections, winning two seats. In the previous month’s Assembly contest, Plaid had polled 30.6 per cent in the regions and 28.4 per cent in the constituencies, winning 17 seats.

In our two following general elections, Plaid’s votes and seats fluctuated, although it retained second place in the party rankings. May 2003 saw its share of the vote reduce by a dramatic third to 19.7 per cent regionally (21.2 per cent in constituencies). However, in 2007 the party partly recovered to garner 21.0 per cent and 22.4 per cent respectively. Although a minor recovery in terms of votes – but three more AMs – Plaid nevertheless received 4,396 regional votes less than the Tories (and just 391 more constituency votes) in the third Assembly. The writing was on the wall for those who wished to see it.

In 2011, Plaid Cymru’s regional vote was 169,799, with six AMs sealing their tickets to Cardiff Bay, whilst their vote in the constituencies was 182,907, delivering them five seats, a total of 11. In percentage terms, the regional vote registered 17 per cent with the constituencies recording 19 per cent. Both showed a fall off of 3 per cent on 2007. Also, both display the fact that less than one in five of those who bothered to turn out to vote – 42 per cent of the electorate – actually gave their endorsement to Plaid Cymru. Compared with the party’s 1999 zenith, where it was enticing nearly one in three voters, Plaid Cymru’s 2011 ‘ebbing’ appears dramatic.

Assessing the 2011 result, it is evident that Plaid Cymru has taken a substantial, though widely predicted, ‘backward step’. In some respects, and in judging the final figures, Plaid may now be perceived by observers of Welsh electoral politics as little more than a relatively inconspicuous ‘third party’. It may be regarded as not too dissimilar, in all reality, from the Liberal Democrats, though Plaid Cymru’s vote noticeably outweighed that of the Liberal Democrats. We can speculate what might happen to that difference if and when the latter regain political kudos from any UK economic recovery.

Nevertheless, what could affect Plaid Cymru more than anything else is any perception that they are a now run-of-the-mill ‘drifting party’ – ideologically and electorally – that may not have a decisively significant role to play in future Assembly elections. Hence, they may be seen from this moment on as essentially second tier rivals to the Liberal Democrats. This would relegate them to seeking what could be labelled the ‘mop up’ or discordant vote, with the bulk of the Welsh electorate left to decide between the two ‘giants’, Labour and the Conservatives, as their chosen ‘party of government’.

Speaking on Radio Wales, former Labour Minister Andrew Davies asked the pertinent question, in the light of the election count, “What is Plaid Cymru for?” That question now has to be addressed as a matter of urgency by those at the operational heart of Plaid Cymru as well as its foot soldiers. Should any justification be required for this introspection, the loss of an indisputably ‘thoroughbred Welsh’ constituency like Llanelli is reason enough.

The other startling development, and one that the party has to seek to find a positive and engaging response to, is the triumph of Plaid’s sister party, the SNP. Whilst Plaid Cymru has to now indulge in a period of internal soul searching, for the SNP the questions and policy direction appear settled. The narrative in Scotland is now about how and when the detail of EU ‘member-state’ status can be enacted. In contrast, some in Plaid Cymru seem terrified to even contemplate the thought of some (distant) scenario in which Wales applies to become a member of the European Union in its own right. The differing positions of these two ‘nationalist’ parties could not be more marked.

Scotland’s vote of confidence in Alex Salmond, and SNP principles, has rocked the UK establishment. This has happened to such an extent that even respected Conservative peers, such as Lord Philip Norton, are now suggesting David Cameron’s government should pre-empt any SNP-sanctioned independence referendum by either calling a snapshot referendum themselves, or conjuring up some alternative constitutional carrot, in the form of some additional devolution ‘top up’ for the Scottish Parliament. As Norton remarked, “the UK Government need to reconfigure the constitutional agenda so that the SNP don’t take the lead”.

With this level of political sword fencing in the offing, the requirement for Plaid Cymru to get up to speed with the rapidly evolving political mapping is of primary importance. Of course, the same agenda is also gaining momentum in Catalunya and Flanders. Unless Plaid offers some dynamic, and offers it in the very near future, there will be little doubt that it will be effectively excommunicating itself from actively participating in the inevitable dialogue about the UK’s impending political reshaping. Thus, Scottish impetus will have superseded Plaid’s irresolute gradualism.

So, what went wrong for Plaid? The “reality” (Ieuan Wyn Jones’ favourite phrase) was that this election was fought under quite different conditions than the previous three, principally a UK government that wasn’t Labour. Further, two other parties with Welsh branches governing from London reinforced the UK focus. Both changes – together with the continued shrinkage of the Welsh media – tended to marginalise Plaid.

Yet, despite these ‘known knowns’, there is little evidence that Plaid revised its strategy in the light of the new UK reality, which dawned 12 months ago. Internet sources and press statements post May 2010 indicate that the party became, in effect, Labour’s ‘mini-me’, primarily attacking the ‘ConDems’. There appears to have been no attempt to build its unique selling point of a ‘plague on both your houses’, rightly criticising UK government cuts while condemning massive Labour mismanagement and waste and almost identical policies on public expenditure, privatisation and militarisation. It openly prepared for One Wales Mark II and even trimmed its own party policies or ignored germane issues prior to coalition negotiations. Of course, Labour’s strength and Plaid’s weakness is now likely to produce little more than ‘One Wales Lite’ in the form of yesterday’s announcement that Labour would govern alone, at least for the time being.

This policy stance was a symptom of Plaid gradually slipping into a UK devolutionary, Cardiff Bay, but Labour-led consensus. The close relationships between AMs, staff, media, academics, lobbyists – and civil servants – in CF99 may also be detaching Plaid from its nationalist roots throughout the country. Note the use of ‘Plaid’ for the party’s Senedd wing. Post 1999, naturally, the party re-focussed its attention from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. In the last twelve years, that rebalancing, initially necessary and legitimate, has taken place seemingly at the cost of denying itself – with some notable exceptions – many political opportunities in Wales via the UK and European levels of government. Meanwhile, the British parties continued to fire on all four cylinders (including local government) and thus remained connected to issues way beyond the devolved powers.

This ‘all power to Cardiff Bay’ approach seems to have been transferred to the party itself. The party executive and national council now seem dominated – some would argue neutralised – by Cardiff Bay thinking, thus limiting the many political opportunities beyond. If this analysis is correct, Plaid might be narrowing its political vision to the confines of the UK devolutionary envelope – a strange place to be for a Welsh nationalist party.

The further absence of party spokespersons outside the National Assembly denied Plaid, while in government, the opportunities for criticising its coalition partner, best illustrated by Lyndon Johnson’s infamous aphorism pointing in or out of the tent. More realistically Labour had no such policy and used party ‘outriders’ to good effect, both nationally and locally. The too easily dismissed resignation of former party chairman John Dixon reflected this problem, underlining the weakening autonomy of the party itself and emphasising the accrual of internal power within Cardiff Bay.

This ‘absorption’ appears to be confirmed by Plaid’s stand-offish approach to EU engagement and its ‘sub-political’ relationship with ‘inclusive’ UK organisations like the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. And, of course, its policy on the House of Lords is in marked contrast to that of the SNP.

In a country where the highly unionised public sector is dominant, the party’s attitude to trades unions also reveals its strategic failure to develop Welsh nationalist alternatives post devolution. There is little evidence that, despite repeated initiatives and failures, it has dawned on Plaid that, via the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, they are the organisational, financial and electoral backbone of British Labour in Wales, many of whose leaders – some argue – have difficulty in reconciling the objective needs of their members with Labour’s electoral interests.

Plaid’s relations with largely-Labour UK trades unions – which ignores the more successful examples of trades union engagement by its European Free Alliance sister parties – confirms its mistaken attachment to Labour’s coat-tails in relation to the UK coalition government’s policies.

All these post-1999 decisions and tendencies resulted in Plaid Cymru becoming institutionally ill-equipped to respond to the British focus of the 2011 National Assembly election. At the end it was left markedly behind by the SNP’s ‘1945 moment’.

Alan Sandry is a university lecturer in social and political theory at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Syd Morgan is a former university lecturer and political practitioner. Together they have formed The Welsh Nationalism Foundation, affiliated to the Centre Maurits Coppieters, a political foundation researching into civic nationalism that has been recognised by the European Parliament since 2007.

6 thoughts on “What is Plaid Cymru for?

  1. Since the referendum in March, many party members and commentators have asked the question ‘what is Plaid Cymru for?’ We had very little time to consider our answer. Two months before the election, Plaid Cymru contributed vast staff and volunteer resources to the ‘Yes for Wales’ campaign. We had comfortably secured a strong YES vote in the referendum on the Assembly’s law making powers, which, we must remember, had only come about because of Ieuan Wyn Jones’s insistence and persistence.

    By then, Plaid had met all of its short term goals. As part of the One Wales agreement, the Holtham Commission managed to finally persuade the other parties of the need for reform of the way the Assembly is funded. The other major gain for Plaid had been to secure legislation to protect the future of the Welsh language, granting its’ official status for the first time. A key question was asked: what is Plaid’s Unique Selling Point was now that all of that has been achieved?

    Comparisons with Scotland’s election results can’t be avoided. Some will argue that a more independent broadcast and print media would have helped to ensure that the election there was fought on Scottish issues. That the election in Wales was dominated by the UK coalition government’s cuts and Labour’s claim to ‘stand up for Wales’ went unscrutinised. How, exactly, are they going to stand up against the Tory cuts? The political context has changed beyond all recognition since the last UK general election. The SNP (and Labour in Wales) have managed to work out their response to the new context quickly. Has Plaid? The SNP’s UK-wide known, strong, tub-thumping leader is only part of the SNP’s success story. Salmond was able to push a clear message with a clear Unique Selling Point – uncompromising promotion of independence and a means to fund it (through controlling Scotland’s natural resources and fiscal autonomy). No-one is in any doubt what the SNP is for.

    At the first Plaid Cymru Assembly group meeting, it was decided to recommend to the party’s National Executive Committee that a root and branch review of all aspects of Plaid’s structures, communication, messages and organisation takes place so that we can work out what needs to change. The plan is to look at everything. But before we work out the processes, we must first address the ‘what is Plaid for’ question. As members, we all know why we do the work we do, but can we explain it to people in simple, understandable terms? In answering this question, we will have to show what makes Plaid unique. There should be no ambiguity. People should be left in no doubt as to what Plaid Cymru is for.

    Last summer, I presented a lecture at Plaid Cymru’s Summer School outlining the decentralist/co-operative ideas of DJ Davies and his wife Noelle Ffrench who emphasised the power of ‘community’ to create an alternative, viable economy for Wales. DJ and Noelle were part of the first group of people who came together to form Plaid Cymru in 1925. The pair spent years during the financial crash of the 1930s carrying out detailed work which provided a basis for Plaid to offer a vision of a different, better, economically-functioning post-imperial Wales. They provided the economic case for self-government in very difficult financial times and it is inspriring. Can their work be applied to the cuts context we are in now? The Davies/Ffrench programme offered practical solutions to tackle unemployment, limited state welfare and the lack of control over our natural resources. Community, co-operation and self-sufficiency have been the basic principles underlying Plaid’s economic philosophy since the party was formed. They are principles which can be re-applied today to offer a vision for a better, economically and environmentally sustainable and more equal Wales which would be radically different to the same-old management approach to Wales favoured by the British parties. Wales faces a range of challenges which can not be met with more managerialism. Plaid Cymru now has the time to work on this and to make sure our message is radical and bold. Why not? And if not now, when?

  2. Music to my ears. I warned the Plaid National Exec about swimming in the Cardiff Bay “goldfish bowl” years ago.

  3. Rather than asking “what is Plaid for?” the question we should be asking is “what is Wales for?”. In Scotland the SNP have addressed this question through the National Conversation and by offering the electorate a different future for Scotland based on a renewal of industry and the concept of them being the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”. The SNP has offered this vision for Scotland whilst Plaid has not done the same for Wales.
    Plaid has achieved a lot whilst in government and has nothing to be ashamed of but now we need to return to our roots and start offering that different vision for Wales. The constitutional questions that will be asked of the UK over the next five years make it a perfect time to do so. We can’t always be on the back foot as Welsh people and hence Plaid should not be “standing up for Wales” as Labour now claims to be but actually pushing Wales forward.
    In four years time, if we are not careful, we could find that Scotland has seceded and we are nothing more than western England with a different accent. Plaid is about offering Wales that vision for a different future where we are not the perpetual victim but an equal player on the international stage. We must stay true to this resolve until, like in Scotland, people feel compelled to vote based on their hopes and aspirations rather than their fears.

  4. Thanks for this. So much packed in but could the authors expand what mean by the “sub-political” relationship with the British Council etc? Do they mean that Plaid Cymru should be resisting the institutions of “banal” British nationalism (the BBC should be added to the list)? What is the alternative model of engagement with trades unionism?

  5. We must not devalue the work done by Ieuan Wyn Jones over the last four years, with regards to the language act, the Economic Renewal Plan and of course securing and winning the debate on sufficient powers for the Assembly.
    There is no point comparing the political landscapes of Wales and Scotland – two different nations who are on different stages of the independence journey.
    However, it is true to say that there are lessons to be learnt for Plaid Cymru following the disappointing election results. Having radical policies from election to election will not improve things for the Party. More important is to create a narrative which strikes a chord with the membership, and maintain that narrative for successive elections. A constant message on the future of Wales (and the Wales that Plaid wants to see) is what will draw support for the party. Plaid Cymru itself must be more comfortable in debating the notion of self-governance for our nation, and campaign on the benefits it would bring to the people of Wales. Plaid must not be afraid to talk of the failures of the Union, which has left Wales in the position it now finds itself; at the lower end of Westminster’s concerns and on peripheries of decision making. Plaid Cymru must present an alternative to the Union, by stressing the immense potential of Wales to be a modern, vibrant European nation.

  6. It is about creating a narrative that not only resonates with members and activists, but also with anyone who feels Welsh.
    In 1999, the perception was that Labour had compromised on Wales and that Plaid could offer more. Last week, the Labour narrative was very simple and not based at all on policy. They started running it during the referendum campaign, using it to raise Carwyn’s profile and they well and truly claimed the label of protector of Wales. Plaid had the options of just concentrating on policy, attacking the Tories, attacking Labour for not having any policies or a combination. It is fair to say that the combination chosen was in hindsight, not the best. However, I am not convinced that any combination of the above would have made a great deal of difference.
    Whatever the result, the party was going to have to change radically anyway, in my opinion. Our structure and direction is all wrong for the next 5 years. We are in effect a victim of success but what we cannot afford to do is feel sorry for ourselves. We have a huge opportunity in the next 5 years to turn Plaid into the Party that most members really want it to be and if we can do this while keeping it relevant to Wales, then there is no reason why we cannot be the catalyst for taking Wales further as a proud and confident nation. The bad result may even do Plaid a favour and stiffen the resolve to make the necessary changes.

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