Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Not just waiting for the dust to settle

I've spent some time over the last couple of days trying to explain the decision which the party took on student fees last Saturday. 'Manfully', said Glyn Davies, quite kindly (I think!); 'pathetic' was the rather less kind verdict of one of the pseudonymous comments on Politics Cymru. Trying to explain the party's decision whilst also recognising the difficult position in which our ministers find themselves isn’t the most straightforward of tasks, and there's a danger that it sounds like, to use Peter Black's regular phrase when he refers to Plaid, having our cake and eating it.

As a long-time opponent of tuition fees, I was neither surprised nor unhappy with the decision which the National Council took, and on that note, I think I've said enough about the specific issue of tuition fees - for the time being, at least.

There is a more general issue to emerge, however. One of the questions which I've been repeatedly asked over the past three days is how Plaid can stay in government when the government's policy on an issue is so different from the party's policy. That's actually quite an easy question for me to answer – but it's not the best question to be asking.

Since we know that no coalition government will ever agree with Plaid policies on everything, and since we are certainly not going to change party policy to match that of the government every time a Labour minister makes a statement, then it seems to me that it is inevitable that there will be occasions where party policy and government policy clash. In that sense I'm quite relaxed about the fact that there will be differences - since the alternative is never to do a coalition deal with anyone.

It's hard to explain in a country where coalition government is historically so unusual, but it's simply not as black and white an issue as some try to paint it. And, for what it's worth, this isn't just a problem for Plaid – although we're the party which is facing it at the moment. If coalition government is going to be the norm in Wales - and most of us believe that it is - then parties are going to repeatedly face this sort of issue.

So, the right question is not 'How can you stay in government when they do something contrary to your party's policies?', but more 'How do you decide which issues are important enough to threaten the agreement which you have reached?'.

Ideological purists (and of course, opposition parties desperate to bring about a split between Plaid and Labour) will see any disagreement as a reason for withdrawal; the most enthusiastic supporters of the coalition agreement will be the most reluctant. But most of us lie somewhere in the middle – accepting the possibility that some compromises will be a step too far, but accepting also that compromise is the nature of coalition, and that we have to give as well as take.

The current economic backdrop doesn't help – people facing major economic problems are unlikely to thank any party which brings down a government if a particular issue is perceived to be other than crucial to them, particularly if that government – like the One Wales government – is perceived to be doing quite well in its response to the economic crisis.

I honestly don't know exactly where the line should be drawn, but I think I have a feel for the sort of questions which any party faced with this sort of problem should be asking itself.

How different is the government's policy from that of the party?
How core is this area of policy to the party's principles and beliefs?
How easy would it be to reverse the policy if we were in government in enough strength to do so?
How far is the policy out of line with the coalition agreement signed at the start of the term of office?

How well is the coalition working in general in a whole host of other areas?

I do not intend at this stage to pass any judgement on where the issue of tuition fees sits against this sort of question; I'm just drawing attention to the fact that there is a more general question which needs to be faced.

That question is considerably more complicated and sophisticated than the simplistic way in which it has been posed to date – but I suppose a more complex argument doesn't quite make for the good confrontational arguments to which political discourse is so often reduced.


Anonymous said...

of course, if Plaid didn't go along with Labour gimmicks like 'free' perscriptions and 'free' parking etc there would be some money for important long-term, strategic infrastructure policies like helping support Welsh students who study in Wales.

The question is when are the 'socialist' (bribers) in Plaid going to take a long term view of Wales and see money is finate.

I'm not sure how many students from Wales there are. But if there are some 10,000 students from Wales studying in Wales then the £15m+ wasted on the 'free perscriptions' would work out at some £1,500 which could go to each student's fees annually.

You're right John, Plaid need to decide on priorities. Please in 2011 less socialist heroism and no more of this patronising 'free' business. Maybe then there'd be some money for infrastructure and keeping our young people here in Wales.

Progressive Comment said...

Couldn't a junior coalition partner's non-ministerial members abstain from any vote, thus ensuring the Government isn't defeated or brought down, but also ensuring that AMs aren't going against party policy?

Draig said...

The problem is it isn't just Student Fees. Ieuan Wyn Jones has gone against the stated policy of his party on the Nuclear issue, he's maintained a conspicuous silence on the issue of a "Yes" campaign for lawmaking powers (apparently we're just going to sleepwalk into victory) and he's going against the grassroots on the issue of a military academy in the Vale. There are multiple issues.

And it's not just IWJ either - Dafydd El had a piece supporting Nuclear in the Western Mail the other day - why? Why go on the public record and take a position against the stated wish of the party, when there's absolutely no need to! That strikes me as breathtaking arrogance and egotism.

What exactly are the "leadership" doing? And did I mention PFI?

plaidcasnewydd said...

Can the Westminster group really be reduced to 'ideological purists' John? I think this issue is indicative of wider issues with the leadership...

John Dixon said...


The issue about student fees isn't primarily a financial one; it's more a disagreement about the best way of using what resources are available. So the choice between free prescriptions and student grants is not a realitsic one.


I didn't say that the Westminster Group were ideological purists. What I said was that only ideological purists would "see any disagreement as a reason for withdrawal". That is not the position of the Westminster Group.

Anonymous said...

"The issue about student fees isn't primarily a financial one; it's more a disagreement about the best way of using what resources are available. So the choice between free prescriptions and student grants is not a realitsic one."

Yes it is John. As a politician you know there is a finate amount of money. It's a political decision to go after easy news-stories and is indicitive of what Welsh Labour did in 8 years of government at the Assembly. Plaid backed it and justified the bribes as socialism and social inclusion when all knew it was about headlines and bribes.

When money is very tight, all budgets are scrutinised and policies like these and the early and large pensions which the public sector receive (that's another argument) are not sustainable ... or they are, if you cut back at other things, usually long-term infrastructure like student's grants, railways or more often than not 'culture'.

John Dixon said...


You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. But for me, 'free prescriptions' is not just about headlines and easy news stories. Nor, actually, is it about socialism or social inclusion. I believe that health treatment (including medicines) should be provided as part of the health service. You obviously disagree. On that, we'll agree to differ.

Of course you're right that any government can decide to choose between student fees and prescriptions, and in that sense they are alternatives. My point, however, which perhaps I didn't make terribly well, is that the specific decision of the Assembly Government to change the way in which it has decided to fund higher education isn't about saving money; it's about using the same amount of money in a different way.

Anonymous said...

OK - thanks John. So, out of interest, which other services (within WAG's remit) will you cut to keep up the free perscriptions + deliver a better deal for Welsh students?

John Dixon said...


A pretty selective approach to budgeting, if I may say.

The Assembly government has to produce a balanced budget for each year, and I'm sure that it will do so. I, and I'm sure everyone else, is expecting a tighter settlement over the next few years, which means that the government will have to look at how it can either fund its programme or amend the programme to fit within available funds. That may well mean changes to priorities, but neither I, nor anyone else, knows what those might be at this stage.

Demanding to know now what might be cut at some point in the future in order to fit within any particular hypothetical settlement sounds like seeking easy headlines to me rather than holding a serious debate about finances.

But isn't an accusation (from you that time, assuming you're the same anon) of seeking easy headlines where we came in?

Anonymous said...

It is important to understand that money isn't being taken away from higher education but re-directed to provide more to lower income families and to improve HE Institutions in Wales.
Why is it that the student pocket has to fill the funding gap that the previous labour governments have created?
I agree with a previous comment that the Plaid Ministers should simply have voted against the proposals - it would still have passed as labour have a majority in the cabinet. Plaid wouldn't see such huge media attention.

I am astonished that Ieuan Wyn Jones informed the National Council that he could not deliver on his mandate - maybe because he had signed up to the proposals before hand?!

A previous blogger notes how IWJ has gone against party policy on nuclear power also...

I can picture Mike German threatening to leave the labour-libdem coalition if some compromises weren't meant.. why aren't Plaid doing the same?

This whole thing stinks... I sense a leadership contest!

Draig said...

And now we learn that the Plaid ministers have decided to support Labour's tuition fee plans - against the wishes of the Party membership.

Well, it looks like Welsh Labour have a "mini left wing" all of their own - and it's called Plaid Cymru! And like it's Parliamentary counterpart it's just as ineffectual. Very sad.

John Dixon said...

The decision on student fees was effectively taken by the government months ago, when the original announcement was made. The debate since then within Plaid has been about whether we change our policy to reflect what the government has decided, or whether we continue to argue against top-up fees. The party membership have delivered a very clear verdict on that.

plaidcasnewydd said...

You did say that, and I rather rashly misinterpreted you John. Sorry about that and I shall read more carefully next time.

Personally, even as a bit of a purist myself, I don't think Plaid should walk out of the coalition. Being able to influence policy and enjoying even small degree of legislative initiative is preferable to opposition.

I think the national council being asked to change position on such an important issue like tuition fees was highly questionable however. And the ministers decision to support labour policy pitiful in the extreme. These actions force us, I woud argue, to question exactly what we can hope for from remaining in coalition, and also the direction of the leadership that is failing to put clear water between themselves and labour.

It is such a shame this becomes an issue when the vast majority in Plaid, from grassroots right up, are dead against tuition fees and have been for a long time. Like you said, the will of the party is clear however. The continued role and direction of the leadership appears much more hazy to me eyes though.