Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Tangoing with the Tories

At the time of the 2007 Assembly election, there was a great deal of speculation as to whether Plaid would, or would not, enter a coalition with one of other of the parties in the Assembly.  It wasn’t always popular with the electors, though – I found a number of people telling me something along the lines of “If you go in with Labour/the Tories (delete as applicable), I’ll never vote for Plaid again”
Overall, the numbers deleting ‘Labour’ from that sentence were roughly equal to the number deleting ‘the Tories’.  It was of course a constituency where Labour and Tory supporters were fairly evenly balanced – as the eventual result showed.  I can imagine that the balance would be significantly more one-sided in the many constituencies in Wales where Labour have a large amount of traditional support and the Tories are close to non-existent.
I can understand, therefore, why Helen Mary would feel that, had Plaid ruled out any alliance with the Tories, she would still be AM.  Where a majority is as wafer-thin as that gained by Labour in Llanelli, a single factor such as that might well have made the difference.  But I’m not convinced that it is thus in the interests of either Plaid or Wales to respond to the 2011 election by explicitly ruling out working with the Tories.
Certainly, if Plaid is going to rule it out, it’s better to do it well in advance of any future election than to do it after the polls closed as happened earlier this month.  I was not alone in my incredulity at that one.  There is, though, a wider question about why the party would want to rule it out, and it comes right back to my questioning of what Plaid is trying to achieve.
If a national party’s main objective is to bring about self-government for Wales, and to take whatever opportunities that arise in the interim to move towards that, then it must surely be prepared to work with whichever party is most willing to facilitate the next step.  Now, it might be argued that the Tories are unlikely to be that party; that would be a valid and very pragmatic reason for ruling out working with them at a given point in time, but not necessarily for ever. 
For instance, if the Tories were to talk about moving to a formal federal set-up (David Melding has already got to that point, and it’s entirely conceivable that Cameron will get there at some stage as he tries to deal with both a referendum on Scottish Independence and a demand for ‘English votes on English issues’ from within his own ranks), then would a nationalist party really want to rule out working with them to achieve that, and argue that it should instead only work with a Labour Party which puts forward a much more limited programme of change?
Alternatively, it might be argued that Plaid has a strong commitment to decentralised socialism and cannot therefore ever work with a right wing centralist party like the Tories.  That’s a valid line, as far as it goes; but what then is the distinguishing feature between say Blair’s Labour and Cameron’s Tories which makes one acceptable and the other not?  On a rational basis, it’s hard to see one – and this was one of the issues where Plaid really struggled to demonstrate a clear narrative during the recent election and in the immediate aftermath.  Were they saying ‘Labour-Tory, all the same’, or were they saying ‘Tories are savage reactionaries and Labour are part of a progressive consensus’?  At times they appeared to be saying both, but they cannot both be true.
The third possible reason for ruling out ever working with the Tories is the hard-nosed electoral one.  There are many in Wales who do not simply dislike the Tories; there is a degree of hatred which is visceral.  It tends to be almost inherited rather than based on a reasoned analysis of the two parties’ respective policies.  Labour do everything in their power to keep the attitude alive and strong; it is in their own electoral interest to do so.
As long as it is thus, it might well be in the short-term electoral interests of Plaid to ‘go with the flow’ and simply rule out working with the Tories.  But there is a need to recognise that the main beneficiary of an approach which reinforces Labour’s narrative about the differences between themselves and the Tories will be Labour.
There is a phrase much-loved by consultants to describe the way in which many organisations work – ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’.  But, generally speaking, organisations achieve more if they aim before firing.


Spirit of BME said...

It`s all a matter of attitude.
English class warfare is alive and well in the South Wales valleys with many a delegate at the Plaid Cymru Conference warning that if the Tories come in then things will be bad for Wales. They fail to see that all and any of the English Parties are there to deny our national rights and support the Monarchy and “Union” or Occupation to give it its proper description which is the only problem Wales has..
“Plaid Cymru working with” is the problem; it implies a subservient role from the start. I would put it that Plaid Cymru should set out their stall – Aims and all and ask who will support them in what should be viewed as a transitional government in Wales. In short “plough your own furrow” and be bold enough to wait for the right time and take control of the agenda. The SNP did it and won.
On Scottish Independence, my friends in low places tell me that Dear, dear Betty Battenberg called poor old “Spliff” Cameron, plus a Constitutional expert, in for a meeting as she was not best pleased with the outcome in Scotland and the idea of a referendum – well let’s put it this way, some of her chaps think that an Oath to serve the Union, sworn to the Christian Anglican God at her Coronation sees off and trumps any here today, gone tomorrow referendum. –OH, dear.

maen_tramgwydd said...

To what extent do you think a federal solution is workable in the medium to long term, given England's dominance in terms of size within a federal structure?

Personally I can't see it working for the Scots, as it would be an interim step to independence. The Tories are likely to see it that way too.

Boncath said...

We should start looking at what we want for Wales
An English nation at the present time would swing between two parties with the third providing the occasional balance of power.
Put simply their MPs are already their AMs

For Wales the scenario is different in that now Mps and AMs cover essentially the same territory but now deal with different responsibilities

In the recent election there was some confusion in that the vote on changes to the voting system led people to believe the Assembly vote was a kind of UK general election for Welsh voters a re run of Cameron versus Brown

Identify target. confim target. Aim with purpose clearly understood. Allow for movement wind drift, potential obstructions
Squeeze trigger slowly follow through and confim outcome

Plaid failed to do this and Plaid paid the penalty
Outcome on the ground for the people of Wales is more important than Political parties, coalitions or politicians egos

John Dixon said...


"an Oath to serve the Union, sworn to the Christian Anglican God at her Coronation sees off and trumps any here today, gone tomorrow referendum"

Strictly speaking, under the unwritten constitution which operates in the UK, I'm sure that they're right. Power, after all, belongs to the monarch, not the people.


I honestly don't know whether a federal structure would be a stable long term arrangement or simply a next step to Independence; there are too many 'unknown unknowns' to make a hard prediction. My gut feel, however, is that it is probably the best chance that unionists have of creating a stable settlement, and that anything else will be subject to the ravages of its own contradictions. Certainly, were I a unionist, it's what I'd be pushing for in the hope that enough nationalists would be satisfied with the level of 'domestic' power in such an arrangement.


"Outcome on the ground for the people of Wales is more important than Political parties, coalitions or politicians egos"

Couldn't agree more. A political party is just a vehicle. There are two sorts of driver for such vehicles though. The first sort know where they want to go and are focused on reaching that destination; the second merely enjoy driving. I only want to be in the same vehicle as the first sort of driver, and then only for as long as I'm happy about the planned destination.

Anonymous said...

Re spirit of BME's comment, the SNP precisely ruled out working with the Tories though. And have done consistently, and adopt the same stance as those Plaid valleys delegates.

Anonymous said...

The effect Plaid has had on the two unionist parties in Wales should not be discounted. The 'clear-red-water' of Labour in Wales as distinct from the Blair era in Westminster has done Labour many favours in Wales. It's maintained their credibility in their heartlands in Wales, which they have quite evidently lost in England and Scotland. What is less tangible is the Plaid effect on the Tories. It's as if their conversion to real devolution has gone un-noticed. The speeches of Tory AMs now would be unrecognisable to Tories of a previous era. The particular problem you identify, John, is that voters in the valleys have only experienced Tories as the horrors of the 1980s. There are Tories that are respected in other part of Wales, as good 'ladies and gentlemen' who stand up for their communities, which is different from agreeing with the philosophy of the party. In terms of 'ruling out' a coalition with the Tories, that is nothing to do with policy, it's more to do with forming governments. The Tories will never win in Rhondda and other similar seats so there is no possibility of them forming a government of Wales, even as a minority. If they want to become more Wales friendy that's up to them, Tory support for Plaid in Senedd votes would be most welcome. After 'OneWales' with Labour, Plaid suffered lack of USP, not suprising. Had 'Rainbow' gone ahead, Plaid would have been electorally devastated and we'd have little to show for it other than being percieved as Camarons lapdogs. Unless you can explaim a scinario where that possibility will change in the future then HMJ is right.

Dave Edwards said...

The basic problem for Plaid unlike the SNP , and the one they need to address, is that outside of the welsh speaking heartland there is no appetite for independence. We are clearly locked into a slowly slowly progression to more self governance but there is no sign that the end result will be an independent Wales.
I do not get the idea that some of your contributors, and to other Plaid leaning blogs, acknowledge that democracy often gives what to them is an unwanted result!

John Dixon said...


"there is no sign that the end result will be an independent Wales"

I agree. In fact, I'd go further - for as long as no effort is made to 'sell' the concept, there is absolutely no chance that independence will result from the devolution process.

"I do not get the idea that some of your contributors, and to other Plaid leaning blogs, acknowledge that democracy often gives what to them is an unwanted result!"

I agree with that as well, although in fairness, I have to say that it's not a problem which is restricted to one party. I have to say that I've heard and seen a similar attitude from some Labour supporters following defeats for that party over the years. It was a Democrat candidate for the US presidency who, I believe, first came up with the infamous line "The voters have spoken . . . the bastards." In one form or another, I've heard the same basic message from a range of politicians over the years.

John Dixon said...

Anon 11:27,

"Had 'Rainbow' gone ahead, Plaid would have been electorally devastated and we'd have little to show for it other than being perceived as Cameron's lapdogs. Unless you can explaim a scenario where that possibility will change in the future then HMJ is right."

And, up to a point I agree with you. I'm not actually advocating the formation of a coalition with the Tories either now or at any time in the future; I think that there are sound pragmatic reasons against so doing. I also thought that the 'Rainbow' would be pretty disastrous for Plaid; according to the Western Mail story, Helen Mary said that she was preparing to resign if it had happened, and I know that she was not the only senior member to be thinking along those lines. I didn't believe at the time, and have not believed since, that some of those involved really understood the depth of the crisis that Plaid was about to face had it not been for the good fortune that the Lib Dems proved themselves pretty incompetent.

But, and there's always at least one but...

The first 'but' is that there may well turn out to be, over the long term, little difference between being perceived as Cameron's lapdogs and being perceived as Labour's lapdogs, just because the master of one set of dogs is more popular than the other in Wales.

The second is that there is a difference between ruling out a coalition with the Tories in one particular election or set of circumstances (which I consider to be an entirely valid approach) and ruling it out for evermore under any circumstances. The first is a pragmatic judgement based on a set of facts and circumstances; the other is an axiomatic response based on Labour's narrative of Welsh politics. To return to the point that I've made a few times - if the Tories really were to offer significantly more progress than Labour, would nationalists really choose the lack of progress option? And, if they would, what does that tell us about the centrality of the national question in nationalist politics?

And the third 'but' is that ruling one option out for ever seriously damages the negotiating hand of Plaid vis-a-vis Labour. If the 'Rainbow' had not been an option, would Labour have been as ready to make concessions in the formation of One Wales? It's one of those interesting questions of alternative history which can never be fully answered, so it comes down to an element of subjective belief. I think the threat made them more willing to negotiate rather than try to dictate, but that still leaves a balance; the threat has a positive impact on the government programme, but a negative one on electoral prospects. How should those impacts be weighed up and assessed?