Plaid’s dilemmas of choice

John Dixon says Plaid should not rule out a coalition with the Conservatives

At the time of the 2007 Assembly election, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether Plaid would, or would not, enter a coalition with one of other of the parties in the Assembly. It wasn’t always popular with the electors, though – I found a number of people telling me in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire something along the lines of “If you go in with Labour/the Tories (delete as applicable), I’ll never vote for Plaid again”.

Overall, the numbers deleting ‘Labour’ from that sentence were roughly equal to the number deleting ‘the Tories’. It was of course a constituency where Labour and Tory supporters were fairly evenly balanced – as the eventual result showed. I can imagine that the balance would be significantly more one-sided in the many constituencies in Wales where Labour have a large amount of traditional support and the Tories are close to non-existent.

I can understand, therefore, why Helen Mary would feel that, had Plaid ruled out any alliance with the Tories, she would still be AM. Where a majority is as wafer-thin as that gained by Labour in Llanelli, a single factor such as that might well have made the difference. But I’m not convinced that it is thus in the interests of either Plaid or Wales to respond to the 2011 election by explicitly ruling out working with the Tories.

Certainly, if Plaid is going to rule it out, it’s better to do it well in advance of any future election than to do it after the polls closed as happened last month. I was not alone in my incredulity at that one. There is, though, a wider question about why the party would want to rule it out, and it comes right back to my questioning of what Plaid is trying to achieve.

If a national party’s main objective is to bring about self-government for Wales, and to take whatever opportunities that arise in the interim to move towards that, then it must surely be prepared to work with whichever party is most willing to facilitate the next step. Now, it might be argued that the Tories are unlikely to be that party. Yet that would be a valid and very pragmatic reason for ruling out working with them at a given point in time, but not necessarily for ever.

For instance, it is not inconceivable that the Tories may want to talk about moving to a formal federal set-up for the United Kingdom. David Melding has already got to that point, and it’s entirely conceivable that Cameron will get there at some stage as he tries to deal with both a referendum on Scottish Independence and a demand for ‘English votes on English issues’ from within his own ranks. Would a nationalist party really want to rule out working with them to achieve a move to federalism, and argue that it should instead only work with a Labour Party which puts forward a much more limited programme of change?

Alternatively, it might be argued that Plaid has a strong commitment to decentralised socialism and cannot therefore ever work with a right wing centralist party like the Tories. That’s a valid line, as far as it goes. But what then is the distinguishing feature between say Blair’s Labour and Cameron’s Tories which makes one acceptable and the other not?

On a rational basis, it’s hard to see one. Certainly, this was one of the issues where Plaid really struggled to demonstrate a clear narrative during the recent election and in the immediate aftermath.  Were they saying ‘Labour-Tory, all the same’, or were they saying ‘Tories are savage reactionaries and Labour are part of a progressive consensus’? At times they appeared to be saying both, but they cannot both be true.

The third possible reason for ruling out ever working with the Tories is the hard-nosed electoral one. There are many in Wales who do not simply dislike the Tories but feel a degree of hatred which is visceral. It tends to be almost inherited rather than based on a reasoned analysis of the two parties’ respective policies. Labour do everything in their power to keep the attitude alive and strong – it is in their own electoral interest to do so.

As long as it is thus, it might well be in the short-term electoral interests of Plaid to ‘go with the flow’ and simply rule out working with the Tories. However, there is a need to recognise that the main beneficiary of an approach which reinforces Labour’s narrative about the differences between themselves and the Tories will be Labour.

There is a phrase much-loved by consultants to describe the way in which many organisations work – ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’. But, generally speaking, organisations achieve more if they aim before firing.

John Dixon was Plaid Cymru’s candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the 2007 election and is a former chair of the party, of which he is no longer a member. His Borthlas blog can be found at

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