Whither Plaid Cymru: Lions, donkeys and a leadership vacuum

John Dixon finds that last week’s internal report on the party’s future has a glaring omission

An ex-boss of mine used to say that there are only two rules concerning the General:

  1. The General is always right, and
  2. In the event of the General being wrong, Rule 1 above applies.

It makes for clarity, but it doesn’t always facilitate objective analysis of a problem. If the General can never be wrong, then when anything does go wrong, it must be the fault of somebody else. In the case of the army, that’s usually the poor bloody infantry.

The rules came to mind when I read through the report of the group that has been reviewing Plaid Cymru’s policy and strategy in the wake of last year’s Assembly election Moving Forward. I had expected this to be a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong together with recommendations for getting the party back on course.  And the reason they came to mind is that the report has one obvious and glaring omission – nowhere does it discuss the General, and whether he was or was not leading his troops in the right direction.

To continue, briefly, the military analogy, it was said of the foot soldiers during the First World War that they were lions led by donkeys. No amount of extra training and exhortation of the lions would have done anything about the more fundamental problem – which was at the donkeys’ end of the chain of command. Any analysis of the military failings during that conflict which omitted to consider in detail the actions of the generals would be unlikely to come up with proposals for change which would actually avoid repeating the mistakes.

To discuss an 80-page report and its likely implications in a short article inevitably means concentrating on only part of it. So let me say upfront that there is a great deal in Plaid’s report with which I agree, and even a number of things, which I tried (and failed) to push through during my own period as the party’s chairman.

There is nothing at all to disagree with in the recommendations on training and developing activists and candidates, and professionalising the party’s campaigning at all levels. These are entirely worthy aims. A well-trained and committed team of foot soldiers would certainly help to give the party an edge over its enemies. But it’s only a solution to poor electoral performance if that performance was a result of those issues in the first place. If the infantry isn’t the problem, improving the infantry isn’t the solution.

Professionalisation of campaigning techniques is something I’ve long supported, and attempted to encourage and facilitate over many years. However, I always had two concerns about what professionalisation can mean, neither of which seems to be reflected in the report.

The first is that becoming more professional is not the same as putting the party more firmly into the hands of professional politicians. The word ‘professional’ has two different meanings here. People do not need to be paid professionals to be professional in the way that they do things. And, conversely, being a paid professional is actually no guarantee at all that someone has the ability or the aptitude which are required for adopting a professional approach.

The second is that professionalism in technique should be an adjunct to, not a substitute for, the underlying substance of clear political aims for the short term leading to the achievement of objectives in the long term. In the absence of the latter, the adoption of the former turns Plaid into ‘just another party’. Vision provides the context for shorter-term pragmatism, and without vision there is no unique selling point.

Of course, vision has to come from the top. It’s a point which Alex Salmond and the SNP have very clearly understood and acted on. The SNP has been extremely fortunate to have the right man in the right place at the right time.

The closest that the report gets to discussing the leadership question is when it talks about the lack of clarity over aims and objectives. The problem, though, is that without an analysis and understanding of how and why there was such a lack of clarity, it is hard to put the matter right.

To discuss that lack of clarity without even referring to the fact that the party had a leader who seemed unwilling or unable to promote or even discuss the party’s constitutional aims is to skirt around the problem. And so is the lack of any acknowledgement of the way in which some other prominent figures spent years arguing that the long term aims were either unimportant or irrelevant – all that mattered was winning the current skirmish.  The lack of clarity shown by the party was entirely self-inflicted, and it came from the top.  Failure to acknowledge that does not inspire confidence that it will be rectified.

My point is not that the recommendations are without merit in themselves. There are some with which I’d disagree, and there are always questions of detail, but on the whole, they are a good and practical set of steps which Plaid can take to step up its game. The question is whether the analysis is complete or comprehensive enough to be certain that the cure addresses the disease rather than treating the symptoms. It seems to me that a review which ignores the question of leadership inevitably fails to consider all relevant factors.

Now, it would of course have been very difficult for the team to cover this issue – it’s a lot easier from the sidelines than in the heat of battle. I can understand why a group of senior members would naturally avoid that difficulty. And it could be argued that the issue is resolved anyway – the election of a new leader makes a comprehensive review of the strengths and weaknesses of the outgoing leader something of an irrelevance.

Perhaps.  That depends on whether the lessons have been learned, even if they haven’t been formally recorded and reported. Reading the report doesn’t allow me to judge that.

The absence of that analysis also means that the report, for all its undoubted value to the party, is something of a sideshow to the main event, which is the election of a new leader. In effect, by not considering leadership style and direction – by not thinking about what it wants from a leader, or what it does not want – Plaid is making the decision vicariously through the leadership election.

Whether things change or not, whether the issues are addressed or not, depends not so much on the report of the review as on who is elected as leader.  A Plaid Cymru led by Dafydd Elis-Thomas would be a very different animal from a Plaid Cymru led by Leanne Wood, for instance.

Members of the three UK parties would see nothing unusual about that. All three parties have long operated on the basis that a party and its workforce are there to reflect and promote the values and policies decided on by the leader (although two of the parties continue to maintain the fiction that policy is decided at their conferences), rather than the leader being there to reflect and promote the values and policies of the party. Parties’ missions, insofar as they have them, are redefined and reinvented on every change of leader as well, and are therefore necessarily more short term in nature.

The failure even to consider the issue of leadership over the last 12 years, the emphasis on training and developing the membership, and the proposals for further concentration of power in the hands of the leader all suggest to me that Plaid is – even if by default, rather than through conscious decision – choosing to follow the same path trodden by those other parties. That, I suspect, will be the real significance of the review in the long term.

It may even work, in electoral terms. Behaving more like the other parties and reinventing itself every time it changes leader may make the party more electable and see it playing a greater and more frequent rôle in the government of Wales.  Accepting that as the aim would implicitly finalise the choice about direction which John Osmond summarised in Tuesday’s contribution to this series. However, I can’t help but wonder whether all of those making the choice understand the full significance of the choice they are making.

John Dixon was Chairman of Plaid Cymru between 2002 and 2010. He blogs at the Borthlas site here.

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