Laura McAllister explores the implications of Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ decision to go independent in the Assembly.
So, he’s gone then, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Other than timing, it was no great surprise to political watchers and, in truth, unlikely to have been that much of a shock to Plaid Cymru, the constituency party in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, or even to Dafydd himself. That’s certainly not to under-estimate the hurt, disappointment and anger that’s bound to be felt by some Plaid members locally and nationally. But, in many regards, the writing was on the wall since the leadership election in 2012 when relationships between him and the contest’s victor, Leanne Wood, recast Dafydd’s perception of the party and his own position within it.
Since then, and especially in the fag-end of the last Assembly and the early months of this one, Dafydd has long cut a distant-some would say aloof- figure around the Bay; semi-detached from the leadership (and, in truth, from most of the party membership), styling himself as the constitutional elder statesman, based upon his undoubted intellect and long experience in the two Houses of Parliament, as well as 17 consecutive years in Wales’s own national legislature. Garnish that with what was, by any measurement, a successful period as Presiding Officer-one critical for the institution’s maturing and spanning an important chapter in Wales’s stuttering constitutional route towards a better settlement-and bingo, you have all of the ingredients for a proper party grandee.
I see little point trying to chart the clumsy route by which Plaid Cymru and “Dafydd El” (and the widely-used moniker underlines the significant role he’s played in Welsh politics for almost half a century) got to this position. This was a rather inevitable and predictable divorce so has mostly been lacking in high-level animosity and bitterness, at least publicly expressed. Neither am I convinced that this was as avoidable as some might suggest. Of course it would have been better to build bridges, but that spade work can only be done if both parties are prepared to talk, listen and desire a reconciliation, as the Relate counsellors would say.
This blog makes one point only; that it is a lazy over-simplification to portray this fall-out as one over Plaid Cymru’s core strategy. Some seem to be rehashing debates in the 1950s when there were tensions over Plaid’s role as a movement, a pressure group or as a mainstream political party. Clearly, there are important nuances and overlaps in each of these roles, but presenting the row over Dafydd’s resignation as fundamentally about Plaid’s governing ambitions is just plain wrong in my view. Mostly because it ignores the political and contextual hinterland, especially the electoral realities post May’s Assembly elections. There is a subtle distinction between seeking power at all costs and looking to be best placed to influence the exercise of power, and both are dependent on circumstances and opportunities. The truth is that once Labour emerged from last May’s election with a remarkable 29 seats (just one down from its previous total, despite a slump in support of nearly 8% in the constituencies and after 17 years in power), Plaid’s options were limited. It was a far less attractive and necessary coalition partner than it had been in 2007. In 2016, Labour had choices and Plaid was just one of them. Any negotiator will tell you that’s not the best starting position.
Dafydd El is absolutely right that, once elected, politicians should all aspire to utilise their mandate to exercise the power at their disposal in the best interests of citizens. But evidently, that can’t always be in a government or executive role. At the root of a parliamentary democracy is the need for government and opposition, both need to be effective, which means each party and politician will have a different role. Ultimately, what determines the roles are electoral arithmetic and the distribution of seats, and political choices. It’s hard to dispute that, on this occasion, the trump cards regarding choice were all held by Welsh Labour and Carwyn Jones. Dafydd El lauds the “One Wales” coalition between 2007 – 11 as an exemplar of shared power and delivery but the truth is that “One Wales Two” never got on the starting blocks this time around.
This makes the nub of the issue one of timing and opportunity, not of deeper strategy. Does anyone really believe that Leanne Wood, Adam Price, Simon Thomas, Rhun ap Iorwerth and co. do not aspire to be making the political and financial decisions, rather than influencing them? But affecting them is the best deal available to Plaid right now.
Little attention in all this has been given to the Compact agreed between Labour and Plaid back in May. Albeit a limited agreement for the first hundred days, the Compact’s most interesting innovation was its new liaison committees designed to do just that and, as I have said on several occasions, this additional architecture for devolved politics holds more potential significance than any of the agreements over policy. What’s more, both parties would appear to want these to work and to continue. Today’s Budget statement by the Finance Minister alluded to a joint forward work programme beyond this year, and its conciliatory tone rather takes the wind out of the sails of those who say there hasn’t been a constructive approach to financial and other co-operation by Labour and Plaid.
I do share Dafydd El’s frustration over the handling of BREXIT and the need for unity over future positions for Wales outside the EU. We all recognise that the key political event this year was not on the 5th May, but on the 23rd June. As the inevitable “repatriation” of powers is negotiated by UK Ministers with bit parts (if any role) for Welsh Ministers, we need to speak with one voice, and it will need to be a confident one with clear demands over which “patrie” gets the powers, coupled with an expectation of proper resources to discharge new responsibilities and, most importantly, based on a solid political consensus. The words of criticism that economist Gerry Holtham levelled at our political leaders after the Scottish independence referendum still haunt me: “you just don’t know what you want”…
So yes, the voting maths in the Assembly will be significant. With 29 seats (plus the sole Liberal Democrat AM, Kirsty Williams neatly ensconced inside government as Education Secretary), having another two “floating independents” in Dafydd Elis-Thomas and Nathan Gill is certainly useful for our minority Labour Government. But let’s not over-egg this pudding. The issue is surely one of “reliance” and “guarantee”, and for that to happen it requires incorporation into the executive. Otherwise, and unless Dafydd El is brought into the Welsh Government by the First Minister, as he may well be (and there are a range of options here should the Government choose to think creatively) and therefore bound by collective cabinet responsibility, he will vote according to his views, conscience, priorities, constituents (delete as appropriate in each division). That can be coupled with some tricky policy issues ahead that cannot guarantee that each party group will maintain its own internal discipline, alongside little expectation that UKIP will act as a single voting bloc. Suddenly 31 seems less of a magic number.