Wednesday 12 May 2010

Changing the language of politics

It's generally recognised that coalitions are likely to be the norm in Cardiff Bay. It's too soon to say whether a similar statement can be made about Westminster, but the hung parliament looks like the result of a long term trend for the two main parties to receive an ever diminishing share of the vote. And any change to the voting system – even non-proportional AV – is likely to increase the number of MPs who come from neither of the two major parties.

However, the language being used by politicians – of all parties, including my own – still seems stuck in a world where single party government is the norm and no party will ever have to talk to, or work with, any other party. I don't think that's terribly helpful, and I don't think it really helps the electors to know what to expect.

Referring to the junior partner in any arrangement as the 'poodles' of the larger, or even as being their 'little helpers' amounts to little more than an attempt to demonise one party by association with another. But demonising only really works if the target audience agrees that the larger party is, indeed, a demon. Such tribalism is alive and well within our political system – but it seems to me to be increasingly breaking down amongst the voters.

And it's no substitute for serious discussion about policies and programmes. Or, rather, it's often an attempt to avoid discussion of policy and programmes. Worst of all, it falls into the trap set by Labour and Conservative alike, of trying to make out that they are really very different, and that people must choose between two differing philosophies and approaches. Letting them get away with that – or even worse, joining them in doing it - can only serve to further marginalise the real alternative voices, by concentrating debate around what are, in practice, fairly minor differences of opinion.

I don't dispute for one moment that the founding principles of the Labour and Conservative parties are very different; I'm just not sure how relevant that is to the twenty-first century. Am I, personally, more comfortable with the founding principles of Labour than those of the Tories? Yes, of course I am – but we need to deal with their programmes for government, not with their founding principles, which are frequently more honoured in the breach.

On an objective analysis of policy overall, it seems to me that the most obvious and rational coalition would have been Tory-Labour. (Or Labour-Tory in the Assembly). There is much on which they agree. However, I don't expect to see such an arrangement any time soon. It may match their policy positions, but it doesn't suit their interests, let alone their current culture or style. And they are both still too emotionally attached to what they think they are to be able to rationally analyse what they actually are in practice.

I think that the future may well belong to those parties who are most able to move out of such a confrontational, partisan, and essentially negative approach. Parties which can move away from name-calling and guilt-by-association and talk more about their policies, and what they would do differently. Parties which state honestly and openly that their programme for government is what they will deliver if elected with a majority, but that they will be prepared to talk to whichever other politicians the public choose to elect if no party has an overall majority.

I really don't see the position of the Labour Party on a whole series of issues as being so radically different from that of the Tories that forming an arrangement with one is acceptable, but even talking to the other is shameful – and I don't see why we should allow either of them to define that for us. It simply helps to set an agenda where we are forever outsiders.

The question in coalition discussions is about whether we can persuade any potential partners to move far enough in our direction to deliver a programme of government which we believe to be better – or even simply less bad - than that which would otherwise be delivered. And the most valid criticism to make of those parties which then form a coalition is not about with whom they have coalesced, but about the nature of the package negotiated – and about its delivery.

That's the basis on which I shall be reading the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems. And that's the basis on which I'd like people to judge the success or failure of One Wales. It's time to change the style and language of political debate.


Anonymous said...

I suspect that the 'OneWales' coalition between Labour and Plaid in the Senedd has considerable political synergy, and the way in which the policies have been implemented have to some extent put Plaid policy to the fore, and actually amplified the political differences between Labour in Wales and Labour in the UK context. It is a coalition of agreed policy backed up by core principles. Disagreements are peripheral, when not interfered with by London. To transplant this positive onto the coalition that has recently developed in Westminster is rather tenuous. The ConDem coalition is hatched from constitutional crisis because of the voting system and has required some fundamental flips in policy and principle of both parties involved. This is not style or language. It's a potch from necessity in a crisis. This may not such a good basis of stable government which some have us believe. Whilst I agree that Plaid should talk with the Westminster coalition to try secure the best interests of Wales, it's important to know who you are talking to, and how reliable is the conversation. It is also important to point out that Plaid is not just about getting the best deal for Wales, but that argument comes from the firm belief that greater autonomy leading to independence is one of our core values. The discussion with the previous administration in Westminster was them saying one thing one day and something else the following day. If the new administration in Westminster is now talking with two voices, these problems of direction and reliability are amplified. We have a LibDem MP speaking as viceroy for Scotland and an English Tory speaking as viceroy for Wales. We should tread carefully. I also think that if the response from the communities of Wales is a rejection of this potch in London, especially in the face of 'savage cuts', then Plaid should champion this politic on behalf of the communities of Wales. We should not be the apologists for a Westminster fudge because it's a constitutional requirement. I also don't see the position of the Labour Party on a whole series of issues as being so radically different from that of the Tories, but it is true that many people in Wales, rather naively, still expect this to be the case.

John Dixon said...


Stating that the One Wales agreement is a "coalition of agreed policy backed up by core principles" whereas the Con-Lib Dem coalition in London is "hatched from constitutional crisis because of the voting system and has required some fundamental flips in policy and principle of both parties involved" looks to me like a projection of your own subjective view that one of them is 'good' and the other 'bad'. I'm not sure that it's as simple as that, not least because the smaller range of policy issues covered by the limited devolution settlement in Wales makes it look easier to come to an agreement.

"To transplant this positive onto the coalition that has recently developed in Westminster is rather tenuous"

I don't think that I did. What I was arguing was rather that, if coalitions are likely to be normal, it is not credible for any party in advance of an election to demonise a party with which they are willing to deal post-election. And I certainly did not suggest that we should be the apologists for the deal in Westminster - merely that any critique of the Lib Dems needs to be made on the basis of what they have conceded and what they will achieve, not on the basis that they are 'Conservative poodles'.

Considering it to be valid to criticise them for the very act of being willing to deal with the Tories is the sort of playground politics that Labour have been guilty of throughout the campaign - and ends up with us having to defend the idea that Labour is so significantly more progressive than the Tories that we can talk to one of them but not the other. That means we're following Labour's agenda, not our own.