Back to the drawing board for Plaid?

Can Plaid Cymru move beyond its 15 year state-reforming interlude? Syd Morgan asks

It is a truism that Wales and Scotland are different nations. But it can be argued that – despite their shared progressive civic nationalism – post-devolution Plaid Cymru and the SNP have become different parties. One illustration is comparing the SNPs spectacular 2015 intake of 56 MPs with Plaid’s performance (votes and MPs) at Westminster elections:


Their electoral divergence is also starkly illustrated by comparing 1999-2011 votes in their respective devolved legislatures:



The 2016 National Assembly elections will now be fought against the looming backdrop of a majority UK Conservative government. This has hitherto made it easy for Labour to retain its 60-year hegemony. Things can change, but the latest YouGov/ITV Wales poll prediction (4th-6th May) can be interpreted as Plaid static at 11 seats next year. This snapshot was taken before the shock Westminster result. So, what can Plaid do?

The most positive aspect of the party’s 2015 campaign was the unprecedented exposure of its Leader across UK media. That opportunity came on the back of the rise of UKIP and the SNP is besides the point. Leanne Wood was revealed in a positive light. It is her métier. She gave faultless broadcast, print and social media performances. She may have ‘got off lightly’ in interviews with less Wales-savvy or novelty-curious (“love the accent”) London journalists, but she also more than held her own with live audiences here. This success undoubtedly obviates the need for a leadership change. But the pause in the forward march raises questions about strategic changes of direction.

There’s a curious aspect to Leanne Wood’s success which runs contrary to existing Plaid strategy. Her media ‘worm’ and favourable Tweets spiked when she put down Farage, Smith, etc. with short, sharp one-liners. This effectiveness contrasts with the party’s two-year long ‘positivity programme’. It confirms the expanding academic research that negative campaigning is essential to win votes.

This is not just a political truism. If Independence is a sooner-than-later objective (“in my lifetime”), Plaid must criticise the UK state, per se.To win SNP-style, it clearly needs to detach majority Labour voters from their 90-year state and party comfort blanket. That requires both a huge deconstruction project and a visionary elaboration of Cymru Fydd.

Identity politics is the vogue. Central to the needed change is Plaid coming to grips with its own and other nationalisms. Instead of being hidden under a devolutionary bushel, progressive, civic Welsh nationalism must be re-invigorated and popularised. This is no exceptionalist whim. Its alterity – the increasing promotion of British nationalism in both soft (culture) and hard (military) forms – buttresses UK neo-liberalism. Not least, the re-emergence of British ethno-nationalism, latterly as BNP and now within UKIP, further threatens our national identity. Despite the warning delivered at the 2014 European parliamentary election, Plaid has yet to formulate a usable Welsh nationalist critique. The coming EU referendum presents a corrective opportunity.

Another challenge is the reformulation of the England & Wales sub-state, a modern version of “For Wales, See England”. Often disguised by its proponents as “UK” or “British”, it is an existentialist threat to Welsh nationhood. Although being deconstructed as a legal jurisdiction, it still exists and expands. It has e.g. significant consequences for water resources, Local Development Plan population and housing targets, the labour market and military recruitment. Its persistence requires Plaid to courageously tackle migration issues, including the forgotten curse of emigration. England & Wales also legitimises Wales both as a Region and joining its parts to English city regions.

The state-reforming devolutionary agenda blocked-off the development of pro-independence arguments. Having sidelined two of its own recent initiatives, influential figures doubted the wisdom of the SNP’s independence referendum. As that campaign gathered momentum, the party rapidly clambered on board – but without being fully equipped with policies. For example, apart from Elfyn Llwyd’s pioneering work on military welfare, Plaid is noticeably weak on defence and security and a fully-rounded international policy. Both these are essential for arguing independence.

In its productive pre-devolution era from 1926, the party developed trenchant new policies. These had the revolutionary purpose of constructing an holistic New Nationalism (state-building Independence, not state-reforming Home Rule) contra the UK state. Despite vastly increased resources, and in conformity with its doctrine of “defending the Assembly”, Plaid recalibrated its horizon to mostly devolved matters. Further, these were often cross-party and consensual. Most of its policy research remains unpublished – internally as well as externally – and is thus less influential. Even important and original “nationalist” research, e.g. energy policy and local government reform, is not in the public sphere. This has two causes: the party itself is its only political outlet and short-term fears of bad publicity from challenging the consensus. Other parties have their think tanks or political foundations to float and, if necessary, deny innovative thought. Plaid Cymru needs one.

The unique selling point of political Welsh nationalism is the creation of a better State than the one we’re in. Party pioneers made bold leaps to create an all-encompassing Welsh national interest. Although electoral success was gradual, Cymro-centric ideas were accepted throughout the public sphere. This was achieved without side-lining independence.

In his famous, but sadly untranslated, alternatives for a future Wales, Islwyn Ffowc Elis saw two visions. One was a country absorbed into England. The alternative was a free Cymru Cymraeg. The prospect of the former increases. Following the concrete examples of Catalunya and Scotland – and not forgetting prospects for a re-united Ireland in one form or another – Free Wales needs fresh articulation.

The background, status and reach of Leanne Wood makes her the ideal instrument to realise Plaid Cymru’s 90 year vision. The serendipity of the right person at the right time cannot be allowed to pass, surely?

Syd Morgan is a former Plaid Cymru national office holder and member of the Welsh Nationalism Foundation

18 thoughts on “Back to the drawing board for Plaid?

  1. PC is always up against a membership number ‘glass ceiling’ in the eyes of the english speaking majority because of its strong association with the welsh language – SNP does not have to deal with this. Your paper doesn’t face this limit on growth.

  2. Plaid Cymru and Labour are essentially the same party, as they are all left wing Welsh nationalists. Why aren’t they united in one group? Perhaps they will be after next year’s Assembly elections. Still they are irrelevant now as UKIP rises in the western region.

  3. If Plaid can’t make headway under the present circumstances when can they? The Tories have probed Labour’s vulnerability on the NHS and Education and I can’t believe that they won’t exploit these weaknesses in the next year.

    The outcome of obvious attacks over NHS and Council reorganisation from Tories and Plaid will be that Labour spends the next year emasculated and in limbo. They will shy away from necessary reform because the organisation of opposition (to everything new or different) is so easy in Wales. UKIP really have nothing to offer voters except the chance to voice an incoherent yell of frustration at the cloying incompetence of the Assembly establishment. Plaid is a tight party and, as long as the Tories don’t wake up too many new voters, they should pick up the pieces and become part of a Lab/ Plaid (or Nationalist/nationalist) coalition.

    This will lead to 5 years of ossification, wittering and inaction except on the “more devolution, more Welsh language” front because Plaid “local votes for local people on local concerns” will never agree to any major reforms of anything for fear of upsetting….local people.

    The major casualty will be the Assembly. Public opinion will suddenly move towards demands for abolition and Wales will look ripe for partition with the east and North coast turning blue and the valleys purple.

  4. I can’t help thinking that the cause of establishing a Welsh identity has made a lot of progress since the Second World War. As a baby born immediately after the end of the war in Europe I was sent a pound note by a Welsh uncle serving in the forces in Europe. The address was written—— Wales, England. I do not really believe anyone would write that now.
    England barely existed before the Norman invasion which wiped out the Anglo Saxon aristocracy at a stroke yet the Norman French invaders took many years to subjugate Wales. Our Geography can explain our distinctiveness but our Geography can help explain our difficulties in emerging as a distinct country as our borders with our big neighbours are completely porous whilst our roads, rail and air links between North and South are either difficult or non-existent.
    Drawing a distinction between a devolved region and becoming a full blown country may be important for ultra nationalists but Plaid has a potential constituency and even actual members who merely wish to see a fairer deal for Wales and are not particularly bothered about the technical nature of the state. Plaid has always been a very broad church like all political parties and not all supporters are socialists.
    Of course unpacking what is meant by fairer has to be argued for and there may well be large disagreements on many of these issues and compromises made within the party, within Wales as a whole and as long as we remain part of a greater whole with the rest of the UK. Few though can believe the present Barnet formula is fair to Wales but at a different level I wonder if it can be thought fair that a group of people with a strong cultural identity has to travel though England to get form North to South and along County roads of mediocre quality. A hundred or so miles should be covered in an hour and a half not 5 or 6 hours.
    Our lines of economic connectedness are always from West to East in the North and West to South and East in the South. Little wonder therefore there is little economic contact between those who yet have a potentially strong cultural and linguist links. Fortunately with the growth of the internet the problem is less than it was but how can a people who consider themselves to be a country not demand and go ahead and build a proper communication from North to South though its own empty middle?
    Former heavy industries brought many to the valleys of South Wales and to the slate quarries of the North and other areas there too. Some public policy requiring Welsh slate on houses and paving here and elsewhere could still save and re-invigourate slate production but coal on the scale that we saw even into the 60s is finished probably forever and the future of steel production may problematic in the long, Unlike Scotland and Catalonia Wales has no obvious sunny industrial or oil based horizon and needs to find an economic strength if it is ever to really prosper again let alone become an independent country.
    The Welsh language has been something else that has often divided us. With a strong enough will there is the possibility of the creation of a truly bi lingual population so it could be a uniting factor but far more and better resources need to be put into second language teaching in kindergartens and schools and the amazing strides of bringing Welsh into use in the public space must be extended and built on. All signage everywhere in Wales both public and Private should be in at least both languages.
    Finally if negative electioneering does work then Plaid has plenty to get its teeth into given how badly the current Welsh government performs. The down to earthness and approachability of Leanne Woods is refreshing and attractive and is a wonderful asset to the Party.

    Welsh Tories give Mr Cameron his Commons’ majority . I hope they too serve the people of Wales best and press for a fairer deal for Wales.

  5. ”rises in the Western region”, ”Labour are Welsh nationalist”? Can I have what you’re taking Stephanie?

  6. @Brian – Welsh is not an issue, at all for most people. People bang this drum all the time; some are a like a broken record. Plaid’s share of the vote in Blaenau Gwent went up by 4%, a county with the smallest Welsh speaking percentage in the whole of Wales. Plaid have seen success in Caerphilly as well at a local government level. Again, Caerphilly is hardly a stronghold for the Welsh language anymore.

  7. Plaid need to get back into the ring. People do want to hear positive messages and not negative squabbling, but without a proper critique and debate about rival policy proposals, politics can’t function. Chantel Mouffe outlines the principles for a more combative politics where, while treating our opponents with respect, we aren’t afraid to put them to the test and land a few blows. We need to avoid mudslinging, so no blows below the belt, but we need to put people through their paces and see what they can do. We should be able to go a few rounds in the ring and still shake hands at the end, if we play fair. Stephanie suggests above that Plaid and Welsh Labour have similar politics, and it’s true that they could both be categorised as both being soft nationalism, social democratic parties. But merging into one party would further hamper the political process, denying the public access to an open debate about the different solutions. Here’s how Chantel explains how we move beyond the bland Third Way, neo liberal consensus and land a few blows, without taking the gloves off, of course:

  8. Ben11:33am, I suspect you are very much mistaken. The language is an enormous issue and one which Plaid must discard if it is ever to achieve countrywide acceptance.

    The party used the English language almost exclusively throughout the election period, social media excepted. Understandable given that Leanne is an English speaker. However, more importantly, it was a very sensible strategy designed to appeal to a broader selection of voters. And it worked.

    Better still, keep an eye on the Plaid politicians down in Cardiff. You’ll see many of them now hoping to get greater recognition for their efforts by talking and asking questions in the English language rather than Welsh, their previous language of choice.

    The important point is that just because the use of the Welsh language is set to decline in the political world it can and does make a fantastic contribution to life in other parts of the public sector.

  9. I notice that the PC vote in Caerphilly fell. It did increase in BG as you say to a massive total of about 2800. In both solidly Labour constituencies PC were beaten by Conservatives (the ones without a mandate to govern in Wales….) and UKIP. That wouldn’t be enough swallows for me to shout summer. The increase in PC vote across the board, despite unprecedented media exposure and a Liberal Democrat give away sale , was imperceptible. There is clearly something holding things back which PC members can’t figure out or are blind to from inside their bubble.

  10. Not one mention here of Plaid`s Achilles heal; our economic dependence. Scotland can make a rational argument that it can stand alone(depending on the oil price); Wales can not. The PC line during the election was give us parity with Scotland and £1bn plus comes our way. Its an appealing slogan and I for one would be pleased if it happened. I would also be flabbergasted. Why should Westminster fund Welsh people far more generously than it funds the English. After all there is no oil resource to hold on to. Essentially PC are expecting the English to pay for our divorce and then add a substantial maintenance allowance.
    Plaid might succeed if it convinced the Welsh Electorate that they could improve public services in Wales. That would demand some hard work in opposition and some objective thinking. It would mean placing evidence before ideology. Good luck with that Leanne!

  11. Stephanie is right. Labour and Plaid are now simply slightly different shades of leftist and slightly different shades of devolutionist.

    This is a great shame because a distinctively Welsh party could actually do some good, coming up with innovative Welsh solutions overlooked by the unimaginative Westminster parties.

    Plaid also wasted the – wholly unjustifiable – opportunity offered by the Seven Dwarfs debate. No one is saying Leanne Wood was bad, but she was rather dragged along in Nicola Sturgeon’s wake. Imagine if Plaid had sent instead say Dafydd Wigley or Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym – he would have seemed like the only adult in a room full of children.

    As it is, Plaid, unlike the SNP, is not really a national party. It has walled itself up in its own cosy ghetto. While it remains inward-looking – and there is nothing in the article to suggest it will not – it will remain not the ‘Party of Wales’ but the fourth party of Wales …behind UKIP.

  12. PLAID & GREENS could unite.
    Maybe Leanne should step down now following Ed of the stone tablet , and possibly as Nigel may.

  13. Syd Morgan is right about one thing: Plaid’s lack of credible policies. ‘End austerity’ and ‘give us a lot more money’ don’t have much credibility. There is a general feeling that the Welsh government has underperformed on education and health but the electorate also believes that money is tight so promising to throw lots more money at the problems also lacks credibility. Where are the proposals to improve matters without spending another fortune? The Right has a catch-all solution: privatization. The electorate has wised up that that is not a panacea. But where is Plaid’s big idea? Welsh people are far from averse to Wales acquiring more powers to run itself but they are cautious and want to know what would be done wth those powers and, indeed, with the powers we have. They get no answers from Plaid.

  14. PS. Hey Stephanie, Ukip is rising like a soufflé and is just about as substantial. I doubt if the party will even exist come the next general election. Remember Ross Perot and his third force in the U.S.? Whatever happened to them? Mr Farage is going the same way. Put your shirt on it.

  15. The analysis is valuable. ‘Cymru Fydd’ and ‘Cymru Rydd’. Our future trajectory needing to be unfettered.

    I’ve often wondered how a previous First Minister must have felt as he welcomed the Prime Minister of Estonia to Cardiff – Estonia being a country half the size of Wales, and unencumbered by the need to be part of another state. They have confidence aplenty.

    As you say, we should raise the game above the Westminster-defined debate – not least to face the continuing neo-con austerity agenda – and see ourselves in a worldwide context. It would sharpen the debate but give us confidence too. We can help reduce war, famine, poverty and pestilence as well as anyone.

    Scotland has taken the political opportunity on offer as a result of the independence referendum by adopting the SNP. Political power will follow the “will of the people”. There will be new alignments and structures. Such a contrast.

    Expect the government in London to increasingly wrap itself in the flag of Empire, marching their colourful Imperial troops up and down as their regime falters. If we are true Internationalists then we can define ourselves against such posturing.

    That could also be our political opportunity.

  16. How refreshing to hear a commentator highlight the “Welsh national interest”, when all we seem to hear about is what suits a wealthy section of the population who inhabit the southern half of England.

  17. RT I agree with your assessment of UKIP prospects – what are they going to talk about after the referendum. Their intellectual depth was demonstrated in the first class paper they submitted to this forum for analysis prior to the election……….hang on a minute where is it ?

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