I noted previously that I’d received two coherent responses on the issue of a possible USP for Plaid if the party is no longer going to distinguish its position primarily on the question of constitutional change. I mentioned the first last week; the second was to argue that Plaid in Wales should seek to occupy the slot which the Green Party occupies in England.
It’s an option which would build on the excellent work which the party has done over many years (led by Dr Phil and Cynog some years ago, and more recently by people like Leanne with initiatives such as her work on the Valleys Greenprint) to create and present a credible ‘green’ alternative vision of Wales. A ‘green’ approach must also incorporate a robust stance on equality of access to resources, another attractive feature.
It is still problematic though, for three main reasons.
The first is that, whilst it might be identifying a defining feature which would set Plaid apart from the other three parties currently represented in the Assembly, it isn’t the same defining feature which led to many of the party’s members joining it. That doesn’t invalidate it; it just means that it would be a mistake to assume that such a change in mission would carry everyone with it.
The second is that the objective of those who are taking the party to the centre ground to win elections appears to be to get away from expressing views which might polarise opinion and/or appeal only to a minority. It’s the operation of Hotelling’s Law. A ‘green’ future merely swaps one currently limited range of appeal for another. Like arguing for the concept of Independence, it depends on being willing to say what is right rather than simply that which will not put people off.
But the third, and most relevant, is that there is already a party in that part of the political spectrum. It might be small and ineffective (and not particularly strong on the ‘national question’) but to displace it means that the commitment to green issues of the party seeking to do the displacing would need to be strong, robust, and consistent.
And that’s where the problem lies. It’s not that Plaid’s formal policies have not been sufficiently robust; it’s simply that the presentation of those policies in practice often seems to depend on the commitment of individual candidates, and on what might prove popular in their own constituencies. There is a lack of overall coherence as a result.
I’d start with energy policy. Most people who are serious about tackling man’s impact on the planet would agree that energy policy is absolutely central, but Plaid’s stance on energy has become at best confused.
I have tried to explain on more than one occasion (on this blog and elsewhere) that the fact that the party leader supports the building of a new nuclear power station at Wylfa does not change the party’s position at all. During last year’s election, I found myself on a number of hustings panels, and whenever this issue came up, I quoted Plaid’s official policy. The rather different stance taken by Ieuan was the obvious and immediate rejoinder thrown at me each time.
It is not comfortable for a national officer of the party to be repeatedly and publicly dissociating himself, and the party, from the position taken by the leader. And to be blunt, the more I did it, the less credible it felt. My conclusion is that a party cannot credibly claim to be against something if its leader is saying the opposite, no matter how many times people repeat the point. I’ve tried it.
And at last year’s Plaid conference, it became clear to me that Ieuan is far from being alone in his inability to support Plaid’s opposition to nuclear energy – a number of other elected members and candidates took to the rostrum to support him. As I said at the time, there is a danger that the party appears to be against nuclear power stations only in locations where no-one wants to build them anyway (leading to Gareth Hughes questioning how such a sceptic could have got into the conference at all).
It isn’t just the leader who’s sometimes at odds with Plaid’s policy on energy. During last year’s election, a candidate and AM in one constituency put out a statement saying that ‘Plaid Cymru’ was calling for a 2km buffer zone around any new wind farm. It was a classic case of ‘invent-a-policy’ as a basis for opposing the construction of unpopular wind farms in their own area, but it had never been discussed or agreed by anyone else in the party. In response to questions, I ended up distancing myself from that statement as well.
For the last four years, Plaid has been part of a government which has produced a forward-looking and imaginative energy policy under which Wales would move away from the use of fossil fuels. Yet last year’s conference was faced with an amendment on energy policy submitted by the Assembly group, which was passed, which effectively supported greater use of coal, thereby seriously undermining the party’s commitment to a fossil fuel free future.
So, to summarise Plaid’s current energy policy in practice, rather than in theory, the party is:
· in favour of meeting all our needs from renewable energy;
· against burning fossil fuels, particularly coal; and
· supports renewable energy projects,
unless local candidates feel that:
· supporting non-renewable generation will win votes;
· producing and burning fossil fuels will lead to more jobs; or
· renewable energy projects will prove unpopular.
That is simply not a basis on which any party could even begin to think about occupying the position on the spectrum currently held by the Green Party. Against this background, if people are going to support a green party, why ever would they not simply choose the real thing? It’s a plausible option for the future only for a party which has a coherent and credible policy, consistently presented.