John Dixon examines the implications of a new Labour leader for Plaid Cymru.
I’m not sure that the recent Welsh Political Barometer Poll results are clear enough to show any ‘Corbyn bounce’ for Labour. Insofar as there is an improvement in Labour’s standing in the polls in the immediate aftermath of the leadership election, it looks rather marginal to me, given the usual warnings about margins of error in all polling data.
At this stage, many of us are certainly finding his style rather refreshing – I like the line about a kinder and gentler approach to political debate, and the idea that politics should be about policy, not ad hominem attacks. It’s clear that the media are less comfortable with that approach. It is, after all, much easier to report on spats and personal attacks than on the detail of policy; and television hacks have long wished for the Assembly’s question sessions to be more like Westminster than the other way around, because it makes for better sound bites.
It’s unclear whether his own party will allow him to get away with changing the approach; the culture of spin depends on image and presentation not policy, and will not be that easy to dislodge. And to add to his problems, despite the huge margin of victory and his obvious popularity with ordinary members of his party, the whole leadership election process has highlighted a glaring divergence between the views of ordinary members and those of the party’s ‘professional’ politicians in Westminster.
These factors make it difficult to be certain at this stage what, if any, impact his leadership will have on the very specifically Welsh elections next May, a difficulty compounded by the fact that ‘Welsh’ Labour seem, rightly, to be determined that they, not he, will determine the party’s approach.
But given the pressures being placed on Corbyn by his own MPs – with some already briefing that if the party does not perform well next May, he’ll be out – it’s hard to see how his leadership and views will not be turned into a key factor by the UK party and the media, whether the Welsh party wants that or not. And given that we have become more accustomed than we should have to the idea that whatever a party leader says is the policy of the party, it’s likely that his views will be at least a significant factor in the election campaign. It’s worth thinking about what that means.
At the moment, conventional wisdom – even within Labour – seems to suggest that it’s a problem, first and foremost, for the Labour Party. I’m less convinced. Whilst I have serious doubts as to how different he really is, let alone whether he can carry his party with him for the longer term, I cannot avoid noting that at this stage there is very little difference between what he is saying and the pitch made at the May General Election by the so-called anti-austerity alliance of Plaid/SNP/Green.
That certainly does present a problem for Labour – some of those who ridiculed the stance of those three parties in May will now find themselves trying to defend much the same policies – but it also presents a problem for Plaid and the Greens. (The situation in Scotland is so completely different that I’m excluding it from consideration here.) With a Labour Party which can, and may well, win a majority repeating the same core message, why vote for parties which clearly cannot win such a majority, especially if that risks greater electoral success for the Tories/UKIP?
I’m sure that some would argue that a British election has to be fought on British issues, and that that explains why Plaid’s campaign in May sounded like such a British one. It only partially stands up as an explanation. It’s also true that some in Plaid themselves have difficulty in supporting the idea of independence for Wales, whilst yet others seek to avoid all mention of that aim – not because they disagree with it, but because they fear losing votes by talking about it. The party’s problem is compounded by the success of Welsh Labour, under both Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, in hijacking Plaid’s fall back position of standing up for Wales, or at least appearing to do so.
With a reluctance, for whatever reason, to adopt a full-blooded position of support for independence, and with Labour having stolen the party’s clothes – in terms of the public perception, even if one could debate the reality – on standing up for Wales and now, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, on opposing austerity as well, where does that leave Plaid? One of my biggest concerns about the then leader’s approach to the 2011 Assembly election was that it was very managerial. The essence of it was that Plaid could manage things better than Labour. That had the advantage that it was almost certainly true, but it’s hardly the sort of inspirational message which saw Scotland come close to independence last September, and which has seen millions on the streets in Catalunya.
Without offering a more robust, and positive, reason to support the party, Plaid seems destined to hover at around its current level of support, disproportionately tilted as it is to the Welsh-speaking constituencies of the west and north of Wales; sometimes in government as a minority partner to Labour, but mostly not. The causes of that go much deeper than a new Labour leader, of course – but Corbyn’s election seems likely only to exacerbate them.