Monday, 17 July 2017

Parties and sisters

The recent UK General Election produced something of a mixed message as far as Plaid is concerned.  On the one hand, under the Westminster system, “it’s goals that count”; near misses are valueless and soon forgotten.  On that basis, an increase from three seats to four counts as progress on the scoresheet, and the closeness of two of those results is immaterial.  On the other hand, support leached away almost everywhere else; I’m not alone in wondering whether the repeated messages about needing one of those mythical beasts called a “progressive alliance” (led, inevitably, by Labour) was not in effect an open invitation to simply vote for the real thing and support the Labour Party.
There have been some calls since the election for Plaid to adopt a stronger stance on independence for Wales, making it the key part of the party’s appeal.  It’s an interesting answer, but I found myself wondering what the question was if that’s the answer.  If the question is about improving Plaid’s short-term electoral appeal, then making a position which has the support of only a small minority in Wales the centre of its campaigning seems a particularly strange response, and one unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.  It would be a silly response.
That means that the issue becomes one of what Plaid is actually for – a question which has been fudged for electoral purposes for decades now.  Because if we ask a very different question – how do we being about Welsh independence – then depending on a national party which declines to discuss the issue is an even sillier response.  The argument about the role of independence in the party’s campaigning is actually a proxy debate about the purpose of the party.  Is it to bring about that constitutional aim, or is it about winning elections to try and bring about smaller incremental change in the shorter term?  The party has, for years, tried to do both, and failed; failed, in fact, to the extent of appearing shifty and dishonest about its real aims.
In that context, Adam Price’s comments in Saturday’s Western Mail were an interesting response to the issue. 
One of the things he said was that “Yes Cymru is a very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue than Plaid is able to do”.  The particular word which hit my eye in that sentence was the word “able”.  What exactly is it that prevents Plaid from taking a radical line on independence if that is what its leaders and members want?  The answer, of course, is ‘nothing’.  If independence was an objective that they really, seriously wanted to achieve, then there is nothing at all that prevents them from making that argument.  There would, though, be consequences; as discussed above, it would probably have a negative electoral impact for the party in the short term.  (I use the words ‘short term’ because the whole purpose of campaigning for independence would be to increase the numbers supporting it which in turn should lead to increased electoral support over the longer term.)  But to argue that the party is not ‘able’ to make the argument is to make the aim of independence secondary to the short-term electoral objectives.
Leaving that aside, there were a few other issues which struck me about the suggestion.
Firstly, when we look at “those areas where Plaid is not currently breaking through”, compared to those where it is, there is one obvious factor which differentiates the two.  That factor is the Welsh language, or rather the percentage of Welsh speakers in a particular geographical area.  Wholly unfairly, but unarguably true, Plaid is still associated overwhelmingly with the language.  And the implication of having a sister party working in the areas which Plaid is failing to reach is that Plaid would withdraw from those areas and leave the field free to a largely English medium party of independentistas.  It’s a very radical proposal and might even work; somehow, though, I doubt whether that was the intention.
Secondly, the comparison between the Labour Party and the Cooperative Party is an extremely poor one.  The second of those was effectively swallowed up by the first many years ago; although it has its own structures and conferences, it is always subordinate to the needs of the Labour Party and knows its place.  Taking a “very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue” and subordinating it to the needs of a political party which is afraid even to discuss the issue looks more like closing the issue down than advancing it.  Those campaigning for independence outside the structures of any political party should be very wary of being seen as the servants of, or even a front for, one particular political party in Wales.
And thirdly, I’m far from sure that turning a ‘very, very lively movement’ into any sort of political party, whether as a sister or not, is the best way of advancing the cause of independence.  I’m much more attracted to the idea that a campaign outside formal political structures is a better way of building support. 
That is not the same as saying that there shouldn’t be more than one political party in Wales seeking the support of those desiring Welsh independence.  Having multiple independence-supporting parties is a normal and healthy situation in nations such as Wales.  If turning Yes.Cymru into a political party isn’t the way to achieve that, how else might it be achieved?  One obvious step would be for the Welsh branch of the Englandandwales Green Party to declare independence and adopt a position similar to that of its Scottish sister party on the constitutional question.  Sadly I see no signs of that happening at present. 
That aside, what is the obstacle preventing the emergence of alternative independentista parties?  The answer, it seems to me, is the electoral system under which we operate.  It encourages and incentivises people who otherwise have little in common in political terms to coalesce in a single party for fear of splitting the vote, and to continue to cling to that party even when it is making little or no progress.  I like Adam’s suggestion that there should be more than one party occupying the independentista part of the spectrum, but it seems to me that the pre-condition is either a willingness of Plaid to withdraw from large areas of Wales or else a change in the electoral system to STV.  Of the two, I think the second is extremely difficult, but still more likely and achievable than the first.


Anonymous said...

"One obvious step would be for the Welsh branch of the Englandandwales Green Party to declare independence and adopt a position similar to that of its Scottish sister party on the constitutional question. Sadly I see no signs of that happening at present."

Not so sure. I understand the Wales branch of the Green Party discussed the Independence issue at their 2016 conference, and decided to leave it on the table because they didn't have enough information.

They are likely to discuss it again at their 2017 Conference. If that's the case then those of us who believe in Independence should endeavour to provide them with as much information as possible.

Anonymous said...

There are three main manifestations of Independence.

1. Superficial: a sort of 52 week National Eisteddfod where everything is Welsh not English (though not necessarily linguistically) This is the vision for a worldwide recognition of our little nation with the emphasis on flag waving, national chauvinism and drunken singing spelling out the bad things the 'old enemy' did to us. Used to be quite popular, but they're now either grown up or dead.

2. Constitutional: the emphasis very much on constitutional settlements, marking out frameworks into which our people will grow (if they know what's good for them). Using the Thomas Masaryk model of post colonial settlements. Nation states are relatively new things and we're just a little late catching the train. Could work if there was a following wind. Largely (but somewhat mistakenly, I think) seen to be Plaid Cymru's position, though it does itself no favours in failing to dispel the impression.

3. Confidence: we act as though we were already independent and let the minions do the tidying up after we've swept through. Bang some tables. Slam some doors. Avoids tedious disputes about why we can't do things (within reason). This model makes independence a cross-party issue, with policy difference on execution not on principle. (Surely if Labour activists mean what they say they would see this as an answer to their prayers - no austerity, no assault on the NHS, no privatisation, etc. etc.). This is potentially Plaid's platform, and should appeal to serious Labourites who are now seeing that devolution is going to be shafted. It would also avoid a situation like Kezzia's pointless 'unionists last stand' in Scotland.

The villain of the piece is FPTP and the Westminster Duopoly, of course, as you point out.

We should put up a detailed vision of what this country will be like in 50 and 100 years time. (Hint: it won't be about constitutions and international courts). Step one is making ourselves confident to do it. Step 2 is doing it.