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.

6 thoughts on “Whither Plaid Cymru: Lions, donkeys and a leadership vacuum

  1. I think that you are being rather unfair to the authors of the report. It was not in their remit to conduct an autopsy on the past performance of the party, but rather to suggest ways we can improve our offering to the people of Wales.

    I was as disappointed as anybody by the previous leadership, but, whether by accident or by design, I don’t know, it actually managed to deliver the legislative powers, so it serves no purpose for us to recriminate and point fingers now. The next 5 years are going to be crucial for the future of our country, and we have to be ready as a party to face the challenges thrown up by the Scottish referendum. Anything but a resounding NO will change the fabric of the UK forever, and we need strong, clear leadership and a well oiled party machine if we are are to meet those challenges for the benefit of our country. That is why I am voting for Leanne.

  2. I feel John is caught between two stools here. In my experience of him in his position as chair, he was always very big on the primacy of the Party membership’s decisions. This of course reduces the role of the leader of the Party in deciding what the Party should be doing or representing. Therefore, as a cheerleader for the primacy of the rank and file, he must find it difficult to castigate any given leader for “failing” to impose their will on the Party’s activity. So, one could argue that this isn’t a question of the failings, or otherwise of any particular leader, it is in fact a problem that relates to how we run the Party.

  3. A worthwhile read by the ever reliable Mr Dixon.

    There is, however, a certain duality to the essay.

    The final fifth or so of the article urges Plaid Cymru not to fall into the UK pattern of allowing the party to be moulded into the leaders vision; and an appeal for Plaid to remain a grass roots party, allowing decisions to be made from the bottom up. It is a criticism of modern politics complaining that too much emphasis is put on one person – the leader. Yet the vast majority of the article argues that Plaid Cymru’s leader has failed to lead and give direction.

    Admittedly the author argues that the failure is more to do with the fact that the current leader has failed to follow the vision and policies as set out by party members at conference. But still the criticism of the failure of a single leader remains.

    It seems that the author’s personal animosity towards the current leader has clouded an otherwise excellent argument, which is hidden somewhere in this article.

    The author also writes:

    “…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.”

    The suggestion is that until the current leader this was not the case, and that Plaid Cymru’s leadership only followed Party lines.

    I’m not convinced that this is the case. If so, how then can we explain the vast contrast between Saunders Lewis and Gwynfor Evans, and the personal influence that both those individuals had on the party’s direction during their tenures?

    It is not my intention to be critical of the author. I think that the question of how much power should be invested in one individual needs to be resolved urgently.

    Plaid Cymru seems to have put all its faith in Adam Price. But what can he alone achieve if he were ever to become leader? Nothing, I would suggest.

    A leader is only one cog in the machine and the party can only be as good as the sum of its parts.

    If a leader is to succeed then the party as a whole needs to succeed.

  4. Thanks for the feedback.

    The issue of leadership is difficult to raise without being critical, and there was necessarily an element of criticism in the original post. That was not however the main intention, which was to discuss the reasons for the lack of clarity about the party’s direction, and to look at the way power is shifting within the party.

    The review report quite rightly highlighted a lack of clarity as being a key factor in the party’s performance, but it avoided any serious discussion of the reasons for that lack of clarity – partly, I suspect, in order to avoid getting into any criticism. But avoiding discussing the reasons means that the solution proposed – which basically amounts to saying ‘the party must state its aims more clearly’ is unlikely to deal with the issue.

    There was a serious mismatch between the party’s stated aims and objectives and those being promulgated by prominent individuals – and that isn’t only about the leader as an individual, although his own obvious discomfort at defending or explaining the party’s aims was inevitably a factor. Failure to recognise that mismatch is to invite a recurrence in the future.

    I think Glyndo misunderstands me – I certainly wasn’t castigating the leader for ‘failing to impose his will on the party’. It is indeed a question of where primacy lies, and part of what I was saying is that – without formally debating or agreeing it – Plaid has moved to a position where power has shifted from the membership to the leader. I think that’s a bad thing; others may think it’s a good thing. But it isn’t being recognised.

  5. I’m glad I’ve read this piece. The point John makes about the distinction between professionalism and professionals cuts right to the heart of it. What I would say though is I think that the greater danger within Plaid is not so much that the Party is drifting towards greater centralisation around the leader, but rather that the Party is drifting into the hands of a professional cadre, whose attitude towards the membership leaves a lot to be desired.

    As a Local Council candidate and branch sec, I was recently advised by Ty Gwynfor that I and others will be required to sign a “Contract” with the Party if I wish to stand as a candidate. This in itself has created some unease amongst a number of my branch. Having read the document now, I’m pretty shocked. For a Party which professes decentralism as a core philosophy, the amount of control and autonomy that candidates are required to cede to Ty Gwynfor is quite frightening. We are required to attend “Political Education” sessions, submit to targets, surrender a proportion of allowances, and obtain permission before talking to the media, amongst other things.

    I worked on the naive assumption that Plaid members who joined agreed to FREELY adhere to the core aims, standing orders and constitution of the Party. Apparently not. Grassroots, voluntary members of Plaid are required to account to a professional cadre at Ty Gwynfor for every public activity. Where is the basis of trust here, and where is the democracy?

  6. James,
    The document you are referring to was actually debated and passed at National Council; a democratic body made up of branch representatives from across Wales. Also, the document itself is a two way contract, where Ty Gwynfor is also tied down to a level of support for all Council candidates. Above all, it is about offering a greater level of support and expecting a level of response in return from Councillors, if elected. As a party, we do not have the massive funds that the other parties can rely on, or the software and canvassing systems that they use at a UK level. We have to make the very most of what we have and above all, give the very best support to our volunteers at branch level. This idea of a professional cadre is an impression many are aware of and is something that the review is actually trying to deal with, and not add to. There are 7 full time staff in Ty Gwynfor working flat out for the members and it is largely their work that led to the recent surge in party membership. It is National Council and conference that drives the policy and constitutional direction of the party and the leadership and Ty Gwynfor are answerable to these bodies. Please make every effort to raise your concerns at the next National Council, or even at the leadership hustings. The training sessions offered to Council candidates have been extremely well received and appreciated across Wales; something you are very welcome to attend as a candidate.

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