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.

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