Where does Corbyn leave Plaid?

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.

John Dixon is a former member and National Chair of Plaid Cymru. He is now an independent political blogger at Borthlas.

21 thoughts on “Where does Corbyn leave Plaid?

  1. Interesting isn’t it? As I recently said in another post; you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the political positions taken by Jezza and those taken by Woody. Where is the clear green’n yella water that will differentiate Plaid from “London Labour”?
    Not so long ago all the talk in Plaid was about having the constant message of an Independent Wales on the lips of every one of their politicians. Remember the vilification of the noble Lord Dafydd El Thomas, characterised as the “Vermin in Ermine” for the heinous crime of not making Welsh independence central to his campaign to be Plaid leader? It seemed that at last Plaid had come out of the closet as the little brother of the SNP with the same confident determination to “Cry Freedom” from the rooftops.
    Independence didn’t seem to be such a popular message and so, far from crying it from the rooftops, Plaid decided it was more appropriate to mumble it into their cappuccino’s behind closed doors. The new political message was that Plaid was going to be like Old Labour but more so and they could then sneer at the Red Tories in London and link Welsh Labour to them….glove puppets of “Tory Lite”.
    Along comes Jezza and it’s all gone out the window.
    Plaid has now retreated to its heartlands in the Fro Cymraeg; but here, as always, lies a difficulty; the Plaid Heartlands are not particularly socialist in outlook. Small farmers and the people around them are independent capitalists, they are the most Welsh speaking group in Wales along with the teachers and council employees of the West and North West. These are, at heart, Culture and Language Nationalists who feel little kinship to Valleys Socialist Nationalists. The Plaid supporters of the Fro are hungry for an out and out anti-English campaign. It isn’t a politically reasoned approach it is essentially born out of a deeply ingrained dislike of our brothers to the East.
    It would be hard not to shed a tear for the plight of Plaid. Independence, anti English tendencies in a country where one in 5 was born in England, far left policies identical to Labour in England but with core voters entrenched in conservatism, a minority language and exclusion.

    Wales is really in a political mess. Labour are in power for all eternity because the opposition are split between vastly different political ideologies and apparently can never unite to oust Labour. As a lifelong Labour voter I am still uncomfortable with a “Democracy” where there is no challenge to my chosen party. I do not accept that everything that Welsh Labour is doing is right and I don’t believe that it is healthy that the same small group of people shuffle round the ministerial jobs until they retire or die.

    Worse than all this, there are areas of policy, notably on Welsh Language measures and enforcement and devocreep, where all AMs agree to…agree without question. When anyone bothers to ask the Welsh people they find that there is far from overwhelming consensus on these issues.

  2. I know several people who voted Plaid Cymru in the past who said they would now support Labour. Corbyn has re-fueled the Left, and many in Wales will vote Labour just because he is leader. The big plus for Plaid Cymru, though they rarely play it, is the independence card. This is how SNP success was achieved. Talk about Wales, instead of being obsessed with the UK. The SNP focused entirely on Scotland and eschewed Westminster. Change the focus and rhetoric and success may follow.

  3. I agree that the Corbyn victory “highlights the glaring divergence between the views of ordinary members and professional politicians” However has it occurred to John Dixon that the views of professional politicians might better accord with the those of the public. MPs are after all elected. The new Labour leader does indeed have a sizable mandate from the party but every MP has a mandate. Corbyn has been elected by the people of North Islington and collectively the rest of the parliamentary labour party has the mandate of millions of people.
    It is dangerous and deeply undemocratic to regard the mandate of party members as superior to the mandate of the people.

  4. I predict a political landscape as follows following the May 2016 Welsh Assembly Election.
    Labour 28 seats, Lib Dems 2, Conservatives 12, Plaid Cymru 10, UKIP 8. Consequently, Labour will continue to lead the Welsh Government with the support of either Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats. There will certainly be no ‘Rainbow Coalition’ due to the presence of UKIP.

  5. Plaid will struggle as it is again seen as the party of Welsh speakers and not much more. Corbyn of course is not to the hard left as progress would like us to believe and as for getting rid of Corbyn if labour wishes to be seen as a party it had better be careful because it does not take much to see labour as a party of opposition, very much as the Liberals , losing people as the Tories due to boundary changes and wales cuts it councils and boundaries it self . Corbyn is not stupid and he knows he needs to get UKIP voters back and people from Scotland , although he is against the break up of the Uk for now .

    labour is going to have to work at getting people back building a party not for 2020 but after 2025 it’s going to take a long hard battle within the party to stop the right taking it back because like it or not we have a good solid right wing party in power.

  6. Robert says:
    “Plaid will struggle as it is again seen as the party of Welsh speakers and not much more.”

    Hit the nail on the head there. The best thing Plaid could do to broaden their appeal in 21st century Wales is to change their name to an English one.

    I’ll just get my coat.

  7. Jon Owen Jones asks “Has it occurred to John Dixon that the views of professional politicians might better accord with the those of the public?”. Of course it has – but it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question. Do the views of Labour MPs coincide with those of the public because they’re following the public, or is it because the public is following them? How does public opinion reach the point it reaches? It’s an interesting question, which I won’t go into here in depth because it’s somewhat tangential to the main point of the post, but in essence it’s about whether politicians and parties should follow or lead. A subject for another day…

  8. I urge Plaid to take the advice of Jack Rawls….stop being so reticent about your long term aims. If you keep independence as a “long term” objective it will remain in the distant future.

    Plaid need to go big on the “I” word…bring it into every statement just as they do with such phrases as “our communities” and of course the recent favourite “Scotland”. Plaid need to clearly state their IMMEDIATE, present and immutable objective; an independent, Welsh speaking Wales where all employment is dependent on the ability to speak, read and write Welsh fluently and where this requirement is used even more effectively to keep out people from the rest of the UK.

    Only when Plaid embrace their core objectives and constantly make them plain to the people of Wales will they become a political force able to become the government and make their aims a reality.

  9. John; to follow or to lead? I acknowledge the dilemma but here is another. An elected politician`s primary responsibility is to represent. That is their only legitimacy.

  10. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one: “An elected politician`s primary responsibility is to represent. That is their only legitimacy.”, for a number of reasons, not least because I find it over-simplistic. It overlooks the question of any mandate to pursue the policies put forward at an election, even if the voters don’t agree with them all. However, as I said in the previous comment, this discussion – interesting though it might be – isn’t core to the point being made in the original post. Perhaps we can continue it at another time and place.

  11. There is a small problem with immediate independence. Wales runs a budget deficit of over 25 per cent of our GDP, currently funded from England. Independence would entail making people in Wales about 30 per cent worse off on average. That is not an appealing prospect even for patriots. The only sensible pitch Plaid can make is it wants to get into government in Wales to develop the economy and make the country richer. Then in about three decades’ time it can ask the Welsh people whether they want to have their own state or not without threatening them with penury if they answer yes. Plaid has a low hurdle to clear in one sense because no-one imagines the Labour government is going to improve Wales’ economy. They haven’t so far. On the other hand Plaid has not come out with plausible policies for developing the economy. “Anti-austerity” doesn’t cut it when we are living off other people’s taxes as well as our own.

  12. I’m having to shoehorn this comment in since I believe it’s relevant to next May’s election though not strictly in line with the headline of the article. There are two aspects to the next election which will serve to disrupt the national narrative, the first is the resurgence of the Conservatives and the second is the predicted rise of UKIP in the Assembly. The question on my mind is what is the nature of the UKIP electorate in Wales. It would seem from various comments made in the media that they are largely disaffected Labour voters. Would it be correct to say that these voters feel left behind by the political developments of the last 16 years? The fact that they are turning to a party which offers a nostalgic view of the past writ large in the present would seem to confirm that. The direction of travel would then appear to be how to reconnect with those voters so that they can feel involved again with modern Wales. I appreciate that this analysis is largely unformed but does anyone share this perspective or indeed differ from it?

  13. Rhobat your analysis is the consensus one and is correct for all I know. One point here is if UKIP is a protest vote it must still imply that people either don’t like the EU or they don’t like immigration from Eastern Europe. But Wales has a strong positive cash flow from the EU even if the UK does not. No-one should imagine a Comservative London government would replace the regional assistance that comes from EU so Wales would lose hundreds of millions of pounds if UKIP had its way. And in any case neither relations with the EU nor immigration policy generally are devolved issues. So unless UKIP comes up with some attractive Wales-specific policies there is no reason to vote for them in an Assembly election even if you vote for them for Westminster. The sad fact remains that these voters do not identify with any other political party, which reflects the failure of those parties.

  14. The wonder of UKIP is that they don’t seem to perceive quite what an opportunity they have in Wales. They don’t in fact have to come up with any brilliant new policies or even pretend to be a group of people who would make competent politicians. All they have to do is look at what all the other political parties agree not to disagree on and then DISAGREE.

    So, for instance, we know that every poll that asks whether people want more devolution comes up with a majority for the status quo, less, or abolition of the Assembly. UKIP should go big on “No further devolution” and that includes the tax raising powers that we are threatened with.

    Then there’s the ever increasing drive for more Welsh teaching in schools. We know that there is strong feeling amongst a minority in the Fro Cymraeg that English Medium schools should be available and we know that 64% of people in Wales don’t believe that Welsh should be compulsory at key stage 4, or, in other words, what every political party accepts as OK is contrary to the wishes of the majority. UKIP should go big on linguistic choice in medium of education everywhere in Wales and making Welsh in schools non compulsory after a certain age.

    These are vote winners and would bring some diversity of opinion into the Senedd. However I take UKIP to be a pretty witless bunch of no hopers with not much of a clue about politics in Wales and so they will get a handful of AMs, get their feet under the Senedd desks, like it and join the consensus.

  15. @ R Tredwyn

    I don’t consider my opinion to be fully formed but rather am attempting to understand the right wing phenomenon. It is the case recognised by Labour themselves that they lost votes to UKIP during the European election to a considerable extent. So the question is why did disaffected Labour voters turn to UKIP to express their discontent?

    I can understand the phenomenon in England. Nigel Farage represents a Home Counties view of the UK in which England is the Home Counties. He harks back to a time of apparent certainty in the face of the changing world around him. His objection is that because the establishment accepted changes to the politics and law of England, his world is crumbling around him and he wants that world back as it all started to go wrong when we joined the EU. England, despite the images presented on the BBC is still a class bound society when it comes to power and influence. During the sixties and seventies, it experimented with meritocracy and then went back to patronage, hence the rise in unpaid internships. Nigel Farage very much feels that sense of being patronised and has decided to hit back by stirring the pot on an issue close to the heart of the English establishment and by embarrassing them in Europe.

    What I have difficulty in doing is relating any of that to what is happening in Wales. As far as I can see, none of it is relevant.

    Let me respond to the specific points you make. You’re quite right of course that Wales needs European money and the idea perpetuated by Nathan Gill is that when all this money is returned from Brussels, it can all be given to Wales instead is not just naïve, it’s dangerously naïve in that there are voters who are gullible enough to believe him. It is of note that the First Minister was compelled to declare his first foreign policy position by stating that leaving the EU would be a disaster for Wales. In Scotland, they have the credible option of a second independence referendum to resolve this issue. Wales does not, and it’s difficult to see how Carwyn could move forward on this without leaving the UK. It should be borne in mind however that the position of the English Establishment is to remain in the EU since there are so many vested interests, both financial and political, tied up in that union. They will move heaven and earth to ensure a Yes vote even if the English population is leaning slightly towards coming out.

    Like you, I would like to believe that people would see the reasons and self-interest in staying in Europe and thus be willing to overcome their hostilities towards what they perceive as a faceless bureaucracy. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that this is the case. If people feel alienated, they tend to use these feelings to define themselves. It therefore is no longer a matter of reason but of identification and that alienation will have taken root over a number of years.

    Where I agree with you however is that UKIP is going to have a hard time once they win seats in the Assembly. They are having to draft in the carpet-bagger Mark Reckless to draw up some Welsh policies for them, presumably in exchange for them giving him a seat on the regional list. But I think they will find it difficult to sustain a credible political position once they find themselves in the political arena. UKIP has two themes to its message: Wales should abandon the EU and throw its lot in with England; things were so much better before we joined the EU. Neither of these positions in any way resonates with the issues facing Wales in the here and now. If people see that UKIP has nothing to offer them in terms of advancing their life chances and those of their children, support will begin to fade by the time we have our next election.

  16. Rhobat you say that you understand the phenomenon of UKIP`s popularity in England and then proceed to describe it. You then say you have difficulty relating this explanation to Wales as very little of it is relevant. From which there can only be two possible conclusions: either there is a separate phenomena here in Wales or that your analysis of UKIP`s English appeal is wrong or at least inadequate. The simplest of these two possibilities is the latter.

  17. @ Jon Owen Jones

    I have no difficulty with criticism and it would be more helpful if you clarified what you think is wrong with the analysis. However I’ll consider what you’ve said about the analysis of UKIP’s English appeal being wrong or inadequate and see whether an alternative explanation better explains the phenomenon.

    That said, the purpose of my piece was to invite comment, to be challenged so that I can form a better understanding of what is happening in Wales and what will happen at the next election here. I thought that was one of the purposes of having a forum like this.

    One thing I will conclude with however. UKIP could only have started in the Home Counties. Had it not, there would be no UKIP in Wales.

  18. Here’s an interesting, if somewhat surprising, analysis of just who UKIP are in England…or in Wales(?)


    I think this sentence is telling:-” research I have done with colleagues on UKIP loyalists suggests many come from working class, Labour leaning backgrounds, and are deeply hostile to all the establishment parties. This is borne out in the YouGov data – UKIP supporters’ views of all three parties’ leaders are strongly and persistently negative, and they are more likely to express alienation from politics and dissatisfaction with democracy.”

    I think that in Wales “consensus politics” and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from staring at an eternity of Labour/Plaid/Libdem rule brings out an anarchic streak in Welsh voters. This is also telling; 44% of UKIP voters would support a take over of government by the military under certain circumstances:- http://www2.politicalbetting.com/index.php/archives/2015/10/18/an-armed-coup-if-boris-or-corbyn-became-pm-an-extraordinarily-large-number-of-people-say-it-would-have-their-support/

    with only 40% saying that that should never happen.
    I think that in Wales 90% of UKIP voters would support overthrow of the Assembly government…some of us non-UKippers might also go along with that.

  19. Rhobat you ask me what is wrong with your analysis and I suggest to you that it is evidence free. It tells us more about your opinions than that of UKIP supporters. In one of the regular spats between Dafydd El. and Leanne Wood he pointed out that she shouldn’t suggest that those that think differently from the Plaid Leader are any less welsh. I think you are trying to make a similar argument.
    UKIP are weak in London and with people who share a metropolitan outlook(that`s me and most people who read this); they have much more support in areas with older working class voters where there is little multiculturalism. So most of Wales fits their demographic quite well. Why UKIP appeal to these people is a more complicated issue and I would require a separate article to do it justice. However no analysis could possibly omit to mention immigration. Oh sorry your`s did, didn’t it?

  20. @ Jon Owen

    Thank you for your criticism even if it was a little barbed at the end. This is clearly something I will need to rethink from the beginning, starting in Wales rather than the Home Counties. I think that a large part of the problem is my ignorance of Labour voters’ thinking, particularly in the Valleys where the UKIP threat to Labour is at its greatest. Also, having been brought up in London where multiculturalism was an everday reality, as it is in Cardiff, I’m having difficulty adjusting to a situation where the idea of multiculturalism appears to be a foreign one. I remember one language activist of the old school nationalist variety telling me that multiculturalism has nothing to do with the language.

    As a kid that went to a multicultural school, my view was,”So people are different. What’s the big deal?”
    I don’t think my view has changed on that even if it is naïve. And in politics, naïve is a dangerous thing to be.

    Some of the questions I wish to consider are:

    Are the Valleys not multicultural or simply don’t have a multicultural view of society?

    What is the scale of immigration into the Valleys? The Valleys historically, as you know better than I do, was the product of large-scale immigration from both within and outwith Wales. I assume that this experience led to an all-in-it-together culture. Has this attitude hardened over the years or was it never there in the first place?

    Anyway, my original post asked for the views of others and you have been generous enough to share your views with me which has been helpful. So thank you for that and for helping me to redirect my thinking.

  21. OK sorry about the barb. I do not think that your view is naive; it is your view . It is difficult to see the world through other people’s eyes but necessary in the analysis you are attempting.
    The Valleys a melting pot? To some extent at the time but remember the nature of the work and its ubiquity. Even so there was violence directed at Irish immigrants undercutting local rates.
    Last week I took part in a radio program and one question came up on Trident. A Plaid Cymru councillor from Ceredigion blamed its introduction on “London politicians”. It seemed ironic to me that her views on Trident were far more representative of the electors of Islington North than her home patch. In my party many activists associate views they dislike with Tories and Plaid sympathisers often associate views they dislike with the English. Better still English Tories.
    At the last general election in England and in Wales a majority of the electorate took a view on Austerity, Welfare and Immigration which differed from that advocated by Plaid and by Labour. These people weren’t all English or all Tory.

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