Monday 6 August 2018

The change we need

On Friday, Nation.Cymru carried an article by Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, arguing that the choice facing Wales is between independence and an increasingly right-wing, centralised British state.  I can’t disagree with the underlying assumption that those driving us to Brexit are instinctive believers in a return to a more unitary, centralist and authoritarian state in which British patriotism and deference to authority become once again the norm.  It’s a perspective from which the economic crisis which they seem determined to precipitate is probably viewed as a plus in order to rekindle that famous ‘wartime spirit’ for which they are so nostalgic.  Nor do I disagree with the assertion that one way of avoiding that future is by seeking independence for Wales.  But I do nevertheless harbour a number of doubts about posing the choice of futures for Wales in such terms.
Firstly, there’s a question of nomenclature.  The terms ‘hard right’ and ‘hard left’ are regularly used by politicians, but what do they mean?  As a general rule, politicians use such terms as a substitute for debating ideas and policies or as a way of insulting other people rather than engaging with their views.  When the Telegraph or Mail refer to Corbyn as ‘hard-left’, their intention is to portray him as a villain, and it probably works with a large part of their target audience.  It’s not that the target audience necessarily understand exactly what it means – they just know that it’s a bad thing to be.  But outside that target audience, it probably just annoys people.  Similarly, calling people ‘hard right’ works with a different target audience, but not outside that audience.  Both are pretty much meaningless other than as insults.
Secondly, there exists, in the Welsh electorate, a hard core of Tory voters.  While swing voters can boost the party’s performance to anything up to 33% of those voting, the party has almost never attracted less than 20% of the votes in a Westminster General Election in Wales.  And that 20% can be considered to be composed of people who identify their political affiliation as Conservative, and who will vote for the party almost regardless of the specific platform being put forward.  It doesn’t matter how ‘right-wing’ (whatever that means) the party becomes, they are likely to continue to support it, because it’s ‘their’ party.  It’s probably true that many of those voters are, currently at least, opposed to independence for Wales (although we know from past opinion polls that even some Conservative voters do support independence), but presenting independence as a direct alternative to their party is more likely to confirm that tendency than to change it.
Gaining independence requires at least 50% support of the Welsh electorate (and personally, I’d want to aim much higher than that: the experience of Brexit surely indicates the problems of trying to implement such a significant change with the support of only a bare majority of those voting).  Potentially alienating at least 20% of the available voters makes that harder to achieve.  It is, perhaps, inevitable that a party which seeks to combine support for the long-term aim of independence (and as an aside, the reiteration of Plaid’s previous position that Wales’ economic position needs to improve before seeking independence was disappointing, but that’s off-topic here) with positioning itself in a particular part of the political spectrum will end up alienating those who do not place themselves in that part of the spectrum from that longer-term aim; but it isn’t always helpful in terms of furthering that aim. 
I would not argue, however, that an independence-minded political party which involves itself in electoral politics can or should avoid any ideological positioning.  That’s fine for an extra-parliamentary campaign, such as Yes.Cymru, but a political party represented in a parliament will need to be willing to vote on a range of issues (and even participate in government); and those voting for it need to know where it stands.  I would argue, rather, that what Wales needs is the normalisation of the debate around independence as being something which people on all parts of the political spectrum can support, albeit whilst holding different visions of the sort of Wales which would emerge.  That requires the existence of other credible parties of independence, which can present the aim in terms that welcome, rather than exclude, the support of those on what is loosely called the political right.  I wouldn't vote for such a party, but there are people who would, and whose views have no current home.  A situation where there is only one party even nominally supporting independence can also allow that party to ‘park’ the issue, almost with impunity, because they calculate that independence supporters have nowhere else to go.
The blockage which prevents the expression of alternative visions for an independent Wales is an electoral system which not only militates against a multiplicity of political parties but also gives a huge inbuilt advantage to one party in particular.  The real ‘change Wales needs’ (to steal a phrase) in order to remove that hegemony and facilitate a more representative form of politics in Wales is a move to STV for Assembly elections.  I cannot think of any change which would do more to change the nature and direction of Welsh politics.  The irony is that the only route that I can see to achieving that in the foreseeable future is by a level of joint working between non-Labour parties which one party has emphatically ruled out. 
It may well be, as some would argue (although I'm not convinced), that there would be a high political cost in the short term to any such collaboration.  But without such change, does anybody really see any way out of a stagnant and ossified politics in Wales?

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