Craig McAngus says the party of Wales is accommodating its structures to more accurately reflect the views of the electorate
Plaid Cymru had a mixed year in 2011. It worked tirelessly to achieve a Yes vote in the March referendum and played an important role in delivering the first law-making body in Wales for over 600 years. That achievement marked a step in the journey towards the party’s end goal of an independent Wales.
However, a few months later Plaid experienced its worst Assembly election to date, losing four seats and winning only 19.3 per cent on the constituency vote and 17.9 per cent on the regional list. Furthermore, this poor result meant the resignation of their leader and former Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones.
However, the party has not stood still. In March last year it elected Leanne Wood as the first woman to lead the party. Wood has made it her mission to address the chronic underperformance of the Welsh economy and to use the constitutional momentum in Scotland to put Welsh independence on the agenda. Behind the scenes, Plaid has been going through a less visible but arguably more important process of organisational reform.
Following the 2011 election, a review of the party’s strategic direction and organisational structure was carried out, resulting in a report entitled Moving Forward, published in January 2012. Led by the party’s economics adviser Eurfyl ap Gwilym this set out 296 recommendations for reform, ranging from the party’s vision and strategy to organisational structures and party membership. Some of the changes required amendment to the party’s constitution and these went before a special conference held in Aberystwyth last Saturday.
Political parties increasingly try to become more electorally attractive and undertake internal reforms to achieve this end. Interestingly, the SNP underwent similar organisational reforms in 2004 that many within the party believe played a role in the SNP’s electoral successes in 2007 and 2011. Indeed, academic literature on political parties suggests a continuum from amateur beginnings to a more ‘modern’ professionalisation. Certainly, the SNP underwent this process back in 2004. Plaid’s current organisational changes are another example of this process. Two major problems required reform:
- The ability of an unrepresentative segment of the membership to dictate party strategy and policy.
- The ineffectiveness of some of Plaid’s organisational structures.
Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, although praised when they are working well, branches are too often boring, uninspiring and can impinge negatively upon a national campaign by organising sometimes diversionary parallel campaigns of their own at the constituency level. As for the wider membership it is argued that, because the majority are not very active beyond paying their monthly direct debit, the party is dominated by a relatively small number of highly engaged members who are ‘difficult to control’.
Secondly, as currently constituted Plaid’s annual conference does not reflect the wider membership. Although branches can submit motions to conference, the reality is that only a minority make use of this right. The result is a constant repetition of motions from a small number of branches, for instance on S4C and anti-nuclear policy. These are then picked up by the media and the myth is perpetuated that Plaid is a party only concerned with a narrow range of policy issues.
Moving Forward made a range of recommendations to address these criticisms of Plaid’s internal structures. On the branches, the report recommended that their position as the “primary level of organisation of the party” should be removed and replaced by the Constituency Committee. These committees would take control of political strategy, policy development and elections. Meanwhile, the branch level should be mainly responsible for fundraising and canvassing. Furthermore, each Constituency Committee should have one individual responsible “for the development of Party structure and organisation within each Assembly electoral region”.
Moving Forward also recommended reform of the party’s National Executive Committee. This, it said, does “not provide the necessary direction and leadership for the 21st Century”. Plaid’s democratic ethos has meant that hitherto the National Executive has been at the heart of the strategic direction of the party. However, Moving Forward found that 32 people meeting every eight weeks was insufficiently agile. Instead, it recommended creating a ‘Leadership Team’ responsible for “overseeing the day-to-day political tactics of the Party”, a change that involved the abolition of the post of Party President.
The members of a political party can be regarded as both assets and liabilities. On the one hand, members are valuable for knocking on doors, gathering data on the electorate, paying their monthly fees and providing legitimacy for their party’s leadership. On the other hand, members – especially those who are most active – can insist on promoting fundamentalist vote-losing policies. Parties that allow active members too much influence are more likely to display these tendencies.
In recent years Plaid Cymru’s membership has declined which has undermined its ability to organise and campaign. Accordingly, Moving Forward made the recruitment of new members a priority. The document also reaffirmed the importance of membership in more general terms. In short, Moving Forward reiterated the importance that Plaid’s leadership places on its membership as an asset.
At the same time, other proposals in the document viewed members as potential liabilities. On strategy, it was claimed that the party “should be focussed on what is really important and not be distracted by side issues”. Furthermore, it stated that members who were tempted come up with “their own version of policies and this can lead to incoherence and confusion”.
Moving Forward suggested allowing every member to attend and vote at the annual conference rather than just delegates. The logic was that ‘ordinary’ members tend to mirror the views of the electorate more closely than branch delegates who reflect the more partisan views of the highly active membership.
Plaid has been busy implementing many of these proposed reforms over the past year. However, last Saturday’s special conference was needed to ratify those recommendations which alter the constitution and standing orders of the party. The proposals put before the conference were passed almost unanimously. The Constituency Committee is now the primary constituent component of the party, in place of the Branches. The position of Leader is more firmly entrenched in the party’s constitution, and the rules concerning voting at conference have been altered to allow all members attending to vote, not just delegates.
The newly created ‘Leadership Team’ has also taken on some responsibilities of the National Executive. This means that the party’s leadership now has a greater degree of power and control over the political tactics of the party, a move away from the so-called ‘decision by committee’ culture that Moving Forward criticised.
In 2004, the SNP went through similar reforms. Although not a mirror image of what Plaid has just implemented, they were similarly designed to curb the influence of powerful activists perceived to be damaging the party. Instead, power and control was put into the hands of the party’s leadership. The 2003 Scottish Parliament election was disappointing for the SNP and gave its reformers a legitimate platform to make important changes to the party structure. The most important was the adoption of one-member-one-vote for the selection of candidates.
By engaging with the wider party, the SNP became more outward looking; ordinary members are more representative of the Scottish electorate. This is also Plaid’s intention with extending voting rights at its conference. Other changes, such as the creating the position of ‘Leader’ and the relegation of the party’s National Executive, are moving in the same direction.
In short, Plaid is going through a process that is common to political parties that have to adjust to the realities of government or the potential of being in government. Plaid consulted with the SNP in late 2011 about their reforms and many of the changes have been inspired by these inter-party talks. As a party Plaid is becoming more professionalised. The aim is to give the leadership more control over day-to-day tactics and strategy.
For many in its ranks Plaid is still regarded as much, if not more of a political movement as a political party. But these reforms are intended to make Plaid more effective as a political party and edged it closer to becoming a party of government. They are a necessary step if the party is to achieve its aspiration to replace Labour as the dominant force in Welsh politics.