Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Greening the nation

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.

16 comments:

Glyndo said...

The problem you highlight is not restricted to Plaid Cymru. The whole green movement continually stand on their heads and feet at the same time. Their attitude to nuclear energy is a case in point. Balance “global warming is the greatest threat to mankind” with “nuclear power must not be used, even though it is a carbon free means of generating power” There are countless other examples of dual standards in the green movement. They have been seriously exposed regarding their tactics on N.E., by George Monbiot, in today’s Guardian. Copy and paste this into your browser.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/05/anti-nuclear-lobby-misled-world

John Dixon said...

Glyndo,

Nuclear power is NOT a carbon free means of generating power. It is low carbon during the operational life of the stations, but there is a high carbon cost associated with construction, a carbon cost associated with mining and processing fuel rods, and an unknown carbon cost associated with decommissioning and waste disposal, not least because there is no agreement on a method of waste disposal.

The fact that those in the green movement are not united about the solutions they propose isn't quite - or actually at all - the same thing as saying that they are guilty of double standards. That accusation is only fair when aimed at individuals or organisations which say two contradictory things.

I've read the piece in the Guardian to which you refer. Monbiot has certainly debunked the statements of one individual on one aspect; but that isn't the same as 'exposing the tactics of the green movement' which is the conclusion you seem to draw.

Although I'm opposed to nuclear power, mostly based on the issues of waste and cost to which I've referred many times on this blog, that wasn't really the point of today's post.

Glyndo said...

All construction and deconstruction projects have a carbon and environmental cost John, why highlight just the nuclear ones? You have to balance them against the useful, and I emphasise useful, electricity generated. Have you factored in the carbon cost of rejigging the national grid to accommodate a larger proportion of wind generation? What about the environmental and carbon costs of a few extra Dinorwigs to balance out the erratic generating profile of wind turbines.

However, you say that your point was something different. If that was the case you spent a lot of words on the NE topic. If your point was Plaid Cymru moving away from “independence” and towards be a “green” party then-.

Why would they do so? Admittedly independence is not the most popular policy, but I see no evidence that green issues are “right up there” with the electorate. Swapping one minority view for another doesn’t strike me as a good idea. Especially as the vast majority of Plaid Cymru members have at least a passing commitment to the idea of independence. How many of them would be alienated?

John Dixon said...

"All construction and deconstruction projects have a carbon and environmental cost"

True. There's no such thing as a carbon-free energy source.

"why highlight just the nuclear ones?"

I didn't, other than for the narrow purpose of refuting the 'carbon-free' claim in relation to nuclear - which was the claim you sort of made in your initial comment.

"Have you factored in the carbon cost of rejigging the national grid to accommodate a larger proportion of wind generation?"

Or the cost of reinforcing the grid to cope with the extra power from nuclear? It's back to the first point in this response; there is no way of getting more energy which does not have some degree of environmental cost. We have choices to make.

"What about the environmental and carbon costs of a few extra Dinorwigs to balance out the erratic generating profile of wind turbines."

Not the only way of doing it, but I've referred several times in the past to the question of 'storing' electricity, and accept that it's an issue.

"However, you say that your point was something different. If that was the case you spent a lot of words on the NE topic."

My point was that if a party wants to be taken seriously on environmental issues, it has to know where it stands on energy policy and be consistent. Merely being populist and saying different things in different places doesn't cut it. It wasn't a post about energy policy per se - there are plenty of those on the blog already, and I'm sure that there'll be more in the future.

"Swapping one minority view for another doesn’t strike me as a good idea."

A point which I made myself - see paragraph starting "The second...".

"How many of them would be alienated?"

Ditto - see paragraph starting "The first..."

Anonymous said...

For me the USP has to be self-determination/independence. If Plaid doesn't have that at its heart, it has nothing.

If it has lost that, as you seem to imply, then I find it disturbing. I can't say that I've been inspired by the party's current leader, and if he wants to ditch independence as a goal, he could find himself in a minority.

How many will tramp the streets distributing leaflets simply to keep a clique in suits in the Bay peddling the same rubbish as the unionist parties?

Jac o' the North said...

I'd be quite happy to see Plaid metamorphose into a Welsh kind of Green party. It's been heading in that direction for a decade or two - who can forget the revolting spectacle, at some conference or other, of DET on the platform desperately wooing Brig Oubridge at the back of the hall. God! Just remembering it makes me queasy.

For if Plaid moves in this direction then it opens the way - at long last! - for a genuinely Welsh party committed to radical constitutional change. A party that puts the national and communal interests of Welsh people above abstractions and tokenism designed to win Brownie points from environmentalists, socialists and others who have never given a damn for Welsh national interests.

Boncath said...

John
Taking the intellectual highground in any debate will lead to the total loss of credibilty in the long term
Can you remember any time when the Constituency party you so ably
represented ever discussed real or indeed any political issues

There is a welsh saying that you should seek the wise man in his cottage or is it hovel?

jac o the north is correct in that the gweryn seek independence or as close to it as can possibly be obtained. if Plaid gives this ground up someone else or something else will fill the vacuum.

Dave Edwards said...

John,
Whether I am called a Socialist Green Welshman or a Welsh Green Socialist is immaterial to me as they both describe me in the political context. To describe me as just welsh, just green or just socialist would be an incomplete statement. The dilemma then for me, and others of my ilk, when looking to support a party is that no party will adequately represent all my views in equal measure.This leads me to make a ranking choice of my views and then to join or support the party that most closely matches this ranking. For me it meant joining the Labour Party and working within it to increase its welsh and green credentials. Since 1997 the voting system of the Assembly has further enabled me to influence matters by voting Labour in the Constituency, sorry John, and Plaid on the list. Unfortunately, with Plaid moving to a position of merely managing the status quo in the Assembly and not seeking to advance its powers in any substantial way my list vote this time will be more than likely Green to address the third of my defining principles. Unless I am alone in thinking this way, and I doubt if I am, unless Plaid can offer to satisfy the Welsh side of my political triangle it will have little relevance in the future of Welsh Green Socialism.

Anonymous said...

So, are you saying that the work being done by Leanne etc. is worthless?

John Dixon said...

Dave,

What matters to me ultimately is not whether any particular party succeeds or not, but whether Wales (and the wider world) progresses in the right direction. It's what I have referred to several times as winning the arguments rather than merely winning elections.

Parties are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, as far as I am concerned. When a party starts to see electoral victory as being more important than the objective(s) for which it stands, then the case for the objective(s) stops being put. It happened to the Labour Party a long time ago; I now see it happening to Plaid.

Anon,

"are you saying that the work being done by Leanne etc. is worthless?"

Au contraire. Leanne is trying to build an alternative way forward for Wales, which builds on the economic approach laid down by DJ Davies in the early days of Plaid, and incorporates environmental concerns of the twenty first century. It's an alternative narrative which I support.

Separate out, though, the approach being developed from the question of party politics for a moment. Whilst a party, such as Plaid, could adopt the sort of approach being developed, it cannot credibly do so whilst at the same time trying to fight elections on the 'centre ground' on the basis of managing things better, nor can it do so whilst candidates are saying completely different things in pursuit of votes in their own areas.

eclecs said...

If plaid Cymru metamorphosed into the Green Party, then I'm afraid John I would be saying a very sad farewell. Having looked at Leanne's Greenprint, my view ( and I do Know a bit about sustainability) is that it at best naive pre Copenhagen nonsense.

My aspiration for Plaid is that it becomes the foremost left of centre party in Wales by cannabalising the "nationalist" wing of the Labour party. In a way this happened under the One Wales Agreement and explains its evident success, even though the partners are going through the motions now. Some people ( I'm afraid including you) are afraid of a new Wales dawning.

Anonymous said...

So, Dave, why do you still support Labour?

John Dixon said...

Eclecs,

I'm glad that you put 'nationalist' in quotes; I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as a 'nationalist wing' in the Labour Party. There's a devolutionist element (and another element still opposed to devolution), but that isn't the same thing.

I'm not sure that I'd disagree with the idea of Plaid becoming the foremost 'left of centre' party in Wales (although you should not assume that such a positioning would carry all Plaid's members with it), but the term 'left of centre' itself is woolly. It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Any new positioning has to define itself in terms of policy, not rhetoric; but the one thing it must do is distinguish itself from the other parties. That, in my view, is where it is struggling at present.

eclecs said...

I agree with your comment,since Plaid Cymru has moved away from the "I" word ( also in quotes) it has lost a degree of the distinctiveness which once bred its very existence. However, jumping metaphorically into a political bed with Caroline Lucas is hardly the way forward. The "E" word seems to have equally become a shackle for the greens who are emerging as European Marxists.

Anonymous said...

I am almost certain that Plaid's manifesto due this week will mention support for independence.

John- I appreciate your credentials but where is the actual evidence that Plaid has ditched independence?

It would be a clause 4 moment- at the most recent debate Plaid reaffirmed independence.

The idea that Plaid has abandoned its constitutional aims is a thesis, and one that has deflated the party in the small Welsh press, but isn't necessarily true.

The issues over nuclear power could happen regardless of whether Plaid supports independence or not.

John Dixon said...

Anon,

I didn't expect everyone to agree with me, but by way of response I'll just refer you back to the sentence about half way through this post, beginning with the words "My conclusion...". That conclusion is one with rather wider and more general application than the specific context.