Gwynoro Jones sees it as a potentially huge missed opportunity, and a repeat of the situation in 2007. This one I’m a great deal less sure about. It is based to an extent on the idea that demonstrating that there is a viable alternative to Labour, however cobbled together, will be enough in itself to bring about the sort of change in Welsh politics which will destroy the hegemony of the Labour Party. That’s not dissimilar to the arguments which were being put forward by the supporters of an alliance with the Tories in 2007. I thought the argument was wrong then, partly because I feared that such an alliance would end up strengthening rather than weakening Labour, and partly because, for a serious nationalist party, there has to be a long term gain to justify the short term pain which would probably follow such an alliance, and I simply didn’t see such a gain in 2007.
The question for me was (and is) not whether a simple coalition between Plaid and the Tories would be a good idea or not (it wouldn’t), but whether the gain for Wales would be enough to justify the pain for Plaid. My disagreement with the position taken so categorically by Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru this time round is that it rules out even considering whether there might be such a trade-off.
And it does so on the basis of what seems to me to be an assumption that the Tories are still the untouchables of Welsh politics. I’m not at all convinced that that assumption is as valid as many seem to think, but if we accept that it is true, it means in effect that short term electoral advantage for the party is considered more important than considering whether there might be a real long term gain for Wales.
Accepting for the sake of argument the premise that any form of post-election arrangement with the Tories would be electorally damaging to Plaid, could the Tories offer anything at all which might justify such a sacrifice by Plaid in the short term to advance the cause of Wales in the long term? That is, I think, the question which should be being asked but doesn’t seem to be. And it’s complicated, of course, by the fact that any conceivable arrangement of parties which comes to a majority over Labour needs to include – on the basis of current polling – at least the tacit support of UKIP as well (an even more unpalatable prospect for Plaid).
Despite all the difficulties and problems, there is actually one potential prize which I think might be worthwhile. Under the latest Wales Bill, the Assembly is to get control over its own membership and electoral system, and a move to an even more proportional system of elections would be a better way of bringing about the step change in Welsh politics which most parties claim to support in principle. An Assembly based on 60 constituency seats elected by STV in multi-member constituencies, with a further 20 list members from a single national list, would produce a legislature whose membership matched very closely the overall share of votes across the whole of Wales.
Labour’s projected vote according to the latest polls is around 35%, but the current electoral system is likely to give them over 40% of the seats and be within a few seats of an overall majority as a result. An electoral system which gave them only 28 seats out of 80 for that 35% would not only be fairer, but with 52 non-Labour members, it would transform the playing field of Welsh politics.
It’s not a huge step forward for most of the parties involved. Most parties recognise that an increase to 80 members will happen at some stage; Plaid, the Green Party and the Lib Dems are long-time supporters of STV; and UKIP and Plaid recently joined forces with the Greens and others to present a demand for a more proportional system of voting. Could the Tories be brought round to such a proposal?
It would not, of course, be enough to make for a stable Welsh Government for a full four or five-year term, but a government which passed such legislation and then sought to dissolve the Assembly for new elections to be held under the new system should be able to hold together for long enough to achieve that more limited aim. If they’re as serious as they all claim to be in wanting to see the log-jam of Welsh politics removed – and removed by democratic vote, rather than stitch-up – this would be a far better way than trying to put together a far-from-credible multi-party coalition for a full term.
Making peoples’ votes count – all of them, across the whole of Wales – would probably lead to a different outcome, beyond the difference resulting solely from proportionality, as people think about their second and third choices as well as their first. And it would also open up the possibility of realignment of parties and an opportunity for new and different parties to emerge.
It’s the stuff of fantasy, of course. I really don’t see the non-Labour parties in the Assembly being able to come together around such a proposal. But in the absence of a step change of some sort, then the conclusion reached by Gwynoro looks depressingly likely to be true – we will be facing more of the same for the foreseeable future.