Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Collective Responsibility

Apart from rather unkindly suggesting that I might be in denial, in his response to the government announcement on student finance, Peter Black raises a point about the question of "collective responsibility". To what extent are parties and their members bound to support and agree with all of the decisions taken by their ministers when in government?

It's pretty easy for the Labour and Conservative parties to answer that, because for them, party policy is decided by the leader. Whatever their constitutions and standing orders may say, in effect the membership have no real voice on policy or direction, and are expected to support whatever the leader says – even if (s)he stands on his head and says the opposite tomorrow.

It's more of an issue for a party like Plaid, which belongs to the membership and whose policies are decided by the members. (I haven't a clue where the Lib Dems fit into this spectrum, but I suspect that it will be as complicated and arcane as their other operating processes). Clearly, it is the position of Plaid Cymru which is of most direct interest to me, and it is a question which we didn't really have to face before the advent of One Wales.

All of those of us who stand as candidates are bound to support the party's election manifestos, which are debated and agreed by the party's membership through our National Council. The One Wales agreement was also debated and agreed by the membership through the party's National Council, and it is entirely right that the party's members and spokespersons should be expected to support the content of that agreement as well.

The issue of student finance, however, is interesting in that it is a clear case where the One Wales government has proposed a policy which in the first place is not the only way of achieving a One Wales commitment, and in the second place is directly contrary to a manifesto commitment. There is a real issue for me and many other members here – we may be criticised for inconsistency if we support the proposal and for alleged disloyalty if we do not. And any attempt to bridge that gap will inevitably be described as a fudge.

So, somebody will be unhappy whatever I say - even if I say nothing.

In principle, I'm willing to change my mind on most issues - if the facts change, or if someone can come up with a convincing argument. On the issue of student finance, neither of those things has happened, so I haven't changed my mind; and it would be dishonest to pretend that I had. That means that, in all honesty, I am unable to support or defend the current proposal.

If I choose loyalty to the party's democratically-adopted policy and manifesto, is that necessarily disloyalty to the Plaid ministers in the One Wales government? No, it is not. They have a difficult job to do and are doing it well. As I said yesterday, coalition government inevitably involves short term compromise from time to time, but short term compromise is not the same as long term policy. Plaid ministers make compromises on some issues; Labour ministers make compromises on others. That doesn't mean that they, any more than I, necessarily agree with the position taken by the government on each and every issue.

There is nothing at all wrong with making a particular compromise on a particular issue at a particular point in time whilst making it perfectly clear that we will reverse the policy if and when we have an opportunity to do so. Indeed, such an approach is the only tenable way for coalition government – likely to be the norm in Wales – to operate effectively. What is completely unrealistic, however, is to expect that people who have strongly argued for one position will suddenly start arguing the opposite as a result.

On the specific issue of student fees, we are now entering a consultation process. I expect Plaid, as part of that process, to re-iterate the party's policy. I am confident that the consultation process will be a meaningful one, and I hope that it will lead to a change in the proposal. If Labour are unwilling to change their proposal, then I hope that we can agree to continue with the current regime for the life of the One Wales coalition, and allow all parties to place their proposals before the electorate in 2011.

Whatever the outcome, my own view that higher education should be free is unlikely to change, and no-one should expect me to say that it has.

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