Monday, 16 February 2015

Not talking to the baby eaters

I probably don’t need to say this, but there isn’t a great deal of love lost between myself and the Conservative Party.  I’m not, never have been, and am confident that I never will be, a Conservative (although one member of that party did once, many years ago, make a vain attempt to recruit me).  There is little with which I agree with that party.
On the other hand, I feel much the same about the Labour Party.  The chief difference between them is not what they will do once in government, it is what they will say in order to achieve that.  Labour in opposition almost always (the Blair era being an honest if unattractive exception) sound more radical – until they get their hands on power.
I can understand why Plaid, the SNP, and the Green Party would want to work together in parliament wherever their policies overlap.  A lot could change between now and May, but on the basis of current predictions, it makes a great deal of sense for Plaid and the Greens to try and take advantage of the probable success of the SNP to increase their leverage in the Commons.
Opposition to austerity is the obvious place to start, of course, even if, when set against the formal aims of the nationalist parties, it can end up looking like something of a lowest common denominator.  Furthermore, given the commitment of Labour and Tory alike to essentially similar spending plans, any concessions are likely to be small in the grand scheme of things.
Whilst opposition to Trident is a core issue for all three parties, given the overwhelming pro-Trident majority which exists in the Commons now and which will continue to exist after May, I’m not at all convinced that making it a red line issue does more than encourage the largest party – whichever that turns out to be – to avoid coming to any arrangement of any sort.
I’m even less convinced about the commitment in advance to talk to only one party about any sort of deal, and to exclude axiomatically the Tory party from any consideration.  Whilst I can understand the electoral driver for that position – the idea that the Tories are still toxic in some places – it seems to me to weaken the bargaining position post-election.  After all, if they all know that there’s only one game in town, they hardly have an incentive to put their best offers on the table.
(And, as an aside, I’m not convinced that the Tories are as toxic in Wales as is claimed, let alone as many of us would like to believe.  That is, though, another subject entirely.
There also seems to be some confusion coming from Plaid as to what the narrative is in relation to Labour and the Tories.  One day, the Tories are so evil that they can’t even be talked to but it's possible to build a 'progressive alliance' with Labour, and the next day, Labour and the Tories are like peas in a pod, they’re so similar.  In the rational world, both positions can’t be true at the same time.)
However, I digress.  If the main aim of a party is to protect the position of Wales, and to advance the constitutional position in Wales, what would happen if the Tories were to offer more than Labour?  It’s hypothetical, of course, but given the splits within Labour over devolution to Wales, it’s far from inconceivable that the Tories could offer a more coherent and far-reaching next-step settlement than would be forthcoming from Labour.  But if they know in advance that whatever they say will be rejected, they’re unlikely to bother.  One doesn’t need to be a Tory sympathiser to wonder whether it’s just possible that Wales will be the loser as a result.


Anonymous said...

Spot on.

Dafydd Williams said...

A similar dilemma faced Plaid Cymru after the 2007 Assembly elections regarding a possible 'Rainbow' coalition. The Lib Dems carried the can for the failure of the rainbow to take place, but I wonder whether Plaid Cymru was not a little relieved. Dafydd Williams

John Dixon said...

Certainly there were those within Plaid who were mightily relieved, albeit for a variety of reasons, not all of them an axiomatic rejection of one party. For anyone who believes that entering a coalition is worthwhile only if, and to the extent that, it advances the cause (to use shorthand), then it was obvious that the Tories had little to offer. The numbers weren't there to bring about a referendum on law-making powers, to draw attention to but one problem. All the Tories and Lib Dems had to offer was a chance to form an anti-Labour alliance and to be 'in government'.

On the other hand, for those who see 'being in power' as a sufficient end in itself, the reaction to Plaid playing second fiddle to Labour rather than first fiddle to the rainbow was disappointment rather than relief. (For me, the disappointment in 2007 was seeing how many in Plaid seemed to believe that gaining power was indeed an adequate and worthy aim in itself for a national movement.)

So - I agree that there was relief in Plaid, although that isn't the same as saying that Plaid Cymru was relieved. For what it's worth, I always rather suspected that those feeling disappointed were more numerous than those feeling relieved, and that things would have been very different - and much more disastrous for the party - if the choice had actually been put to the membership.

Alun Cox said...

Hi John
As someone who regularly reads and often agrees with much that you say on your blog on this issue on this i cant see your reasoning.

I disagree because:

a) The No equivocation on deals with the tories removes from Labour their one trick message to the people of Wales that a vote for Plaid might let the tories in. Of course they continue to do that now but just imagine how potent that would be if they were able to point to any real chance of that happening.
b) You might be right that Trident is not possible for the labour party to deliver - too many of its MP's support it. I fail to see how that is Plaid's problem. If Labour fail to come to an agreement with PC/ SNP because of Trident and let the tories back in Im will take my chances with the people of Wales regarding the priorities of the British/ welsh Labour Party.
C) "What would happen if the tories were to offer more than Labour". ok lets play fantasy politics. the tories offer income tax (other tax) raising powers and further control of key areas - Criminal justice in return for Plaid supporting their particular austerity programme. I would guess that they would have to go to a referendum which is ( in my opinion) in this situation doomed. Opposed by Labour, Plaid undoubdetly racked by internal division and probably many tories and the unprincipled Lib Dems finding an excuse to oppose as well - To be honest i dont see that going too well. All a bit like the AV referendum a suppposed advancement ( bought by short term expediancy) but ultimately putting back the cause of national advancement by a generation at least.
d) Ultimately though I think you get to the heart of the question when you really ask should we treat labour and conservative parties differently. My answer is yes, not because the parties are that different but because the people who vote for them are. Roger Scully did a paper a few yeras ago (2012?) when he examined attitudes of party voters to national identity and guess what Labour voters are most like our voters, mainly welsh identifiers wheras the other parties have predominent british identifiers. An attitude survey carried out in 2013 in Wales showed that Labour and Plaid Cymru are the most "liked" parties - tories and UKIp and Lib dems not so much - I will try and find a link. Do i think that the Labour party is better than the tories - not that much, but do I think that the people of Wales believe that there is a difference - Yes i do. All of the evidence points to that If you know of any evidence to the contrary I would be interested in seeing it. Parties of course have to have a political philosophy - a reason that people vote for it. In Plaid Cymru that philosophy is based on the will to see our country free AND for that counttry to be a more just and equitable society than the one that we are now enjoying. Any party that is seen OR PERCIEVED to betray its core principles will be roundly punisherd by its supporters and quite rightly so. Can you honestly say that you can envisage a situation post a dael with the Tories that would be positive for the National Movement?

Your last line i think is problematic "One doesn’t need to be a Tory sympathiser to wonder whether it’s just possible that Wales will be the loser as a result." I sincerely believe that Wales would be the loser if the national movement was torn apart by a short term fix, if the price to pay was so high and the return so uncertain as to make that akin to throwing the life savings on number 8 in roulette. No all of that would mean that Wales is the loser.


John Dixon said...

Hi Alun and welcome,

There are a number of points here where we're going to disagree!

a) Whilst logically the no equivocation position might appear to remove that trick message, I'm not sure that logic enters into the equation. We're dealing with the Labour Party here remember; they will claim that a vote for anyone else is a vote for the Tories regardless of logic. They've got away with it for long enough - why wouldn't they carry on saying the same thing?

c) I'm not sure that it's entirely fantasy politics. I don't think that it's beyond the bounds of possibility that the Tories would try to 'tidy up' the devolution settlement by introducing more symmetry and parity across the UK. Not from any great standpoint of principle, but purely out of pragmatism, and not least because it would make it a great deal easier to decide what is an 'English issue'.

d) I agree that this goes to the heart of the issue. And I agree with you that the perception in Wales is that there is a difference between Labour and Tory, even though we seem to agree that the actual difference is a good deal smaller than the perceived difference. But should we react to that perception by playing it up (and therefore strengthening it) or by trying to expose its invalidity? Short term electoral tactics suggest the former, but long term political change doesn't merely suggest the latter - it mandates it.

Can I envisage "a situation post a deal with the Tories that would be positive for the National Movement"? That probably depends at least in part how you define the 'national movement'. If a deal with the Tories secured parity with Scotland as a next step, that would, surely, be a positive outcome overall for the national movement - even if it electorally damaged part of that movement.

I accept, of course, that this is full of ifs and buts; but assuming that it's impossible doesn't look like the best starting point to me.

Spirit of BME said...

Your second and last paragraphs are the interesting ones.
There are differences between Tories and Labour at the run up to elections, but the duration of the promises they make after the polls close at 10:00 pm and that of an ice cube in my microwave,- my money is on the ice cube.
On the fundamentals of power they are of one mind – Defence, Foreign Policy and the architecture of the tax system, even on Europe both in reality are in a stalled position. There will be differences of emphases on where to hose down various issues with tax payers money or where to collect a few extra ponds in tax, but when managing power that is marginal. The other reason is that the grass roots of all parties have lost power to control their party, as most party machinery are now “advisory” bodies, so Hailsham speech –“Do we live in an elected dictatorship” is even more accurate now that when he gave it in the early seventies (I was actually at this lecture and the man spoke on the subject without a scrap of paper before him).
As we see in the issue of English votes for English issues, the Labour Party is even more Tory that the Tories in endeavouring to maintain their power base, good governance clearly not on their agenda and as the Tories have in reality abandoned Scotland, both parties could do the same in Scotland and Wales as they have done in Northern Ireland and develop a franchise agreement with local parties, the same is seen in Germany versus Bavaria.

Anonymous said...

I think you underplay the Tory issue by describing it as an "electoral driver". My understanding from what both the SNP and Plaid Cymru say is that it isn't just electoral, it's an issue of legitimacy. The SNP is circulating a poster noting all of the times that Scotland didn't vote for the Tories, but still got a Tory government. This, rather than national pride alone, is the fundamental democratic driver behind independence (and before that devolution). The same broadly applies in Wales, and the issue of Tory Westminster governments is also very different to working with Conservatives within devolution as was suggested in 2007.

But when you ask "what would happen if the Tories were to offer more than Labour?" My question would be why don't they? The Tories run the Wales Office. Yet they are offering less powers than Labour are. They are offering more on income tax but subject to a referendum, which Tory voters are most opposed to (in comparison to Plaid and Labour voters). The Tories let Labour off the hook on the constitutional side of things. Tax isn't enough when you don't deal with policing, justice and energy at the same time.

John Dixon said...

The comment about "What would happen if..." was referring specifically to the situation which might pertain after the votes are counted in the election, where no party has an overall majority and the formation of the next UK Government depends on the ability of one or other of the two largest parties to persuade one or more of the other parties to at least abstain in any vote of confidence. As things stand, what is being said is that it doesn't matter what the Tories offer Wales, the bloc comprising Plaid, the SNP and the Greens will only talk to Labour.

Now, it may well be that in those circumstances, Labour would put the better (or perhaps that should be 'least worst') option on the table, but I don't think that we can be certain. What we can be reasonably sure about is that if both the Tories and the Labour Party know that only one deal is possible, then neither of them have much incentive to make their best offer.

Anonymous said...

You're right about that John. The SNP and Plaid (and presumably) the Greens are accepting a hypothetical weaker negotiating position by excluding the Tories. But failing to exclude the Tories also weakens the negotiating hand of the SNP/Plaid/Greens, by weakening them electorally. This is particularly true in Scotland where doing such a thing might actually end the prospect of a hung parliament altogether. It's actually circular, in that ruling out working with the Tories, which stems from the independence referendum campaign of "ending Tory rule forever", is the actual factor which brings a hung parliament into play in the first place. Wales is bolted on to that scenario through Plaid's relationship with the SNP.

What has been offered by the Tories to Wales and to Scotland informs why all of this is true. They haven't offered enough in the case of Wales, but to be honest their offer in Scotland has been fairly ambitious and more so than Labour.