Eurfyl ap Gwilym says Plaid Cymru needs to rediscover the policies that differentiate it from the other parties
For Plaid Cymru the results of this year’s National Assembly elections were disappointing but not unexpected. A number of factors made the campaign difficult for the party. First, there was no longer a failing Labour government in London and we had been in coalition government with Labour in Wales for four years. This blunted our ability to attack Labour’s record and its impact on Wales either credibly or effectively. At the same time we needed to differentiate ourselves from Labour who were predictably concentrating their fire on the Conservatives in London.
The approach taken by Labour in the election was well signalled by the First Minister last autumn when, in a speech at Cardiff business school, he rehearsed their approach. This was to claim that Labour would be best placed to defend the people of Wales against ‘Tory cuts’. Indeed Labour’s nationalist slogan ‘Standing up for Wales’ was one which Plaid Cymru would have been happy to adopt over the years. Time will tell how well Labour stands up for Wales compared with the SNP’s performance in standing up for Scotland.
The outcome of the Welsh general election means that Plaid Cymru now needs to take stock and think through the way ahead. Of course, this is not the first time that we have been in this position. As someone who joined the party in 1963 I have seen the party make gains and suffer setbacks while in the longer run of events, over the decades, we have advanced our cause. As National Chair in 1979 I predicted that following the referendum disaster in that year it would take us a decade to recover. In the event the set back was longer. It took a further eighteen years before the referendum establishing the National Assembly was won in 1997, by the narrowest of margins.
When planning for this political year most of us in Plaid Cymru agreed that the principal goal was to win the 2011 referendum, which was achieved with a big majority. It is also clear that the National Assembly has won the confidence of the majority of people in Wales. This is the most significant achievement of the National Assembly in its short history. However, it now faces much more testing times with the cuts in its budget. The honeymoon period has come to an end.
In looking at our election campaign and reflecting on recent years, although we have focused on important subjects such as the economy, health and education, Plaid Cymru has failed to map out a way forward in terms of constitutional development. Given this failure some voters may have assumed that the positive vote in the 2011 referendum marked the achievement of our constitutional aims. Of course, this is not the case.
Rather, our desire for a self-governing Wales within the European Union is one policy which clearly differentiates us from the London parties and is one that is recognised as such by most people in Wales. The fact that we do not have divided loyalties, trying to serve both party bosses in London as well as the interests of the people of Wales, is another well understood differentiator. What we now need to do is to map out more clearly the way ahead in terms of constitutional development. This will include identifying the steps along the way and the options available at each stage. Some will want to come with us only part of the way and that is fine. Nevertheless, what all will want to know is the route map we advocate and the end goal. It will then be a matter for voters to decide how far to come. Given the shift in public opinion over recent years I am optimistic that many will come a long way.
In terms of short term constitutional steps two areas strike me as worth promoting, the establishment of a distinctive jurisdiction and a measure of fiscal devolution. In the case of a distinct jurisdiction the National Assembly would be responsible for justice, the police and prisons. There are cogent arguments and widespread support for such measures, both from the relevant professions such as lawyers and the police and from the public when asked in opinion polls.
The creation of a jurisdiction would be an important step in building our national institutions. The lack of a distinct jurisdiction has been advanced by some as an argument against further devolution, particularly when comparing the cases of Scotland and Wales. To those who object that such a change cannot be afforded – which was Labour’s argument during the election campaign – one simply needs to look at the relevant expenditure in Scotland and in Wales as reported by the Treasury. The only material difference is that in the case of Scotland funding is via the block grant while in the case of Wales it is spent directly by the UK government in Wales.
In the area of public finances we have rightly concentrated on the inequities of the Barnett funding formula. The intellectual argument was won many years ago but attempts to change the system have failed due to Wales’s lack of political clout. Labour in London has still not committed unequivocally to changing the way we are funded although the local Labour party in Wales has finally called for change – too late of course to influence a Labour government in London.
Whilst still insisting on changes to the way we are funded I believe we should press on and map out steps to give Wales borrowing powers and responsibility and accountability for some taxation. The UK is moving to a form of fiscal federalism and we need to be part of that debate. Until we have fiscal powers we will still not have a real government in Cardiff. Here the commitment of the new UK government to consider devolving power over the rate of corporation tax to Northern Ireland and to have a Calman-type consultation in Wales opens up a range of possibilities and we need to be ready to take advantage of such a review whilst being alert to potential drawbacks.
Of course, the Welsh ‘Calman’ review will take place against a back cloth where not only will Scotland be demanding greater fiscal autonomy, but Northern Ireland will also be pressing its case. There is a real danger that Wales’s interests will be overlooked. Plaid Cymru needs to press our arguments directly with the coalition government in London and not assume that the Welsh Government will suddenly change and be an effective advocate of Welsh interests.
One of the encouraging developments over recent decades has been the growth not only in Welsh medium education but the increasingly widespread support and participation of those who did not have the chance themselves to learn Welsh at home or when in school. It is striking that it was the Welsh Conservatives in their manifesto who set a goal of having 1.5 million Welsh speakers by 2051. While this may be infeasible in practice, it is significant that it was the Conservatives who were prepared to advocate such a target. Support for the Welsh language is no longer the exclusive preserve of Plaid Cymru. However, I am concerned that Plaid Cymru is too often seen in many parts of Wales as being a party exclusively for Welsh speakers. We need to ensure that we make it much easier for those who do not speak Welsh to join and participate in our activities.
As an early member of our research group established in 1966 I am proud of the stream of evidence based policy papers we published in that era, including an economic plan for Wales in 1970 and a set of study papers during the EU referendum campaign in 1975. No other party in Wales published comparable policy studies. For most of Plaid Cymru’s existence it has been the only political party that has developed evidence based policies for Wales. The other parties left such policy formulation to their colleagues in London and saw their role principally as campaigning for and winning parliamentary and council seats. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Labour was the one party that did not bother to submit evidence either to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett formula or to the Independent Commission on Funding and Finance for Wales (the Holtham Commission).
While we continue to develop policies I think there is considerable scope for renewed investment in this work. Perhaps the fact that more of our active members are members of parliament, of the National Assembly or of councils has diverted energy to other activities. In the past we were able to engage not only party members but others who might not be members of Plaid Cymru but were driven by patriotic motives to help us in this work. I know there are many in the business community who would be willing to help if we are ready to engage with them.
Another vital step in re-energising the party is a greater focus on debate and political education. After all most people who join political parties do so not for personal advancement but to serve their communities and also because they enjoy political debate. Debate is often the fuel that energises us. Debate is also the way we hone our policies and gain the confidence to go out and argue our case. In my meetings with members across Wales I find that there is an appetite for such debate and we need to ensure that we provide the fora.
These days party conferences rarely provide such a platform and in any event are too infrequent. In looking at the first twelve years of the National Assembly one of my concerns is the dearth of vigorous debate and the avoidance of conflict. This is not a call for a ‘Punch and Judy’ approach to politics. Yet I fear that the much quoted ‘Welsh way’ of emphasising cooperation often stifles debate and covers up mediocrity. The greater danger in Wales is not a democratic deficit but a debate deficit. We need to address this weakness.
Despite what I am sure will be the short-term disappointment of the election result, the coming years offer an excellent opportunity for Plaid Cymru to reinvigorate itself. We need to be ready to continue to advance the cause of Wales at a time when two major themes will be economic recovery and constitutional advance.