Opinion

Are we heading for a second Plaid-Labour coalition in Wales, and if so what could they agree on?

23 Mar 2021 7 minutes Read
Adam Price picture by Plaid Cymru. Mark Drakeford picture by CPMR – Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

Yesterday’s ITV / YouGov poll was the second in a row with bad news for Labour, suggesting that the Senedd election in a little over a month’s time will see them down seven seats on their 2016 total.

That is thanks to a predicted boost for both the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru in the polls, costing Labour eight constituency seats and gaining them one regional seat in compensation.

In practice, because the projection is based on 2016 results – which now feels like a different political age (David Cameron as Prime Minister, seven UKIP MSs?) – the seat distribution is unlikely to actually turn out exactly as the YouGov poll suggests.

But although there is a lot of unpredictability around the individual constituency and regional seats it may not matter much as we seem to be heading for the same destination – Labour short of a majority and needing some kind of support to form the next government.

Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price has already said that they will not be a “junior partner” in coalition with Labour.

However, I think Plaid Cymru should be more open to the possibility, particularly while there is a Conservative government at Westminster.

The first and most obvious reason is that a Labour-Plaid deal is the only realistic option on the table and any extended wrangling over who forms the next Welsh Government would be a very bad look for devolution during a global pandemic.

The public will want someone at the wheel making decisions about lockdown easing, vaccinations, and so on.

This is an election that could see an increasingly devo-sceptic Conservative party make gains, and a handful of Abolish candidates be elected.

It’s not the time for those who are pro Welsh autonomy to give voters the impression that devolution is dysfunctional.

Furthermore, with devolution facing rollback from Westminster, Wales doesn’t need a weak 24-seat seat minority government wobbling through the next few years.

A ~40 seat Plaid / Labour government could at least credibly claim to be representative of the democratic will of the Welsh people and push back against any attempts to scale back Wales’ autonomy.

Referendum

I do however understand why Plaid Cymru aren’t keen on a coalition, given the perception that coalitions are bad for the junior partner.

However, I think that may be to a degree a myth based on the Liberal Democrats cataclysmic performance after their 2010 Conservative coalition.

The problem for the Lib Dems was that they were seen to have sold out their principles on issues such as tuition fees for very little gain.

Plaid Cymru, in contrast, got much of what they wanted out of the 2007-2011 One Wales coalition, including a successful referendum on more powers.

Plaid Cymru didn’t do great in the subsequent 2011 election. But they didn’t do much better in 2016 after five years out of government either, and don’t seem poised to do fantastically better in May.

It’s probably not the coalition that was Plaid Cymru’s problem in 2011 but rather other fundamentals – particularly a new Conservative government at Westminster which meant that voting Labour at the Senedd was now a protest vote.

It’s easy to forget that the SNP first came to power under a Labour UK government, and needed a loose deal with the Conservatives to do it – something that would be impossible for Plaid Cymru in the present political climate.

A coalition might be Plaid Cymru’s best shot at power for the foreseeable future, particularly until the wider political climate is more favourable to them.

Reform

So what could a Labour and Plaid Cymru coalition look like?

I think there is plenty there that Plaid Cymru are very keen to get their hands on and which Labour would probably be amenable to as well.

The first and most obvious is a larger Senedd – increasing the number of Senedd members to 90 or even 100, and an increase in the number elected through proportional representation.

As well as giving the Welsh Government a larger talent pool to pick from, and allowing the Senedd more manpower to scrutinise the government, it would also be a big boost to Plaid Cymru who tend to do well in the regional lists but fall short in many constituencies.

The second could be large-scale investment in Wales’ infrastructure, but with a particular emphasis on internal transport links such as a railway linking Carmarthen, Aberystwyth and Bangor. This could sit well with Labour’s push for more commuting via public transport.

The third might be steps towards solving Wales’ media deficit. The Welsh Government has already indicated a willingness to look at an independent body funding public service English language news services on a similar model to Golwg360.

After a Covid-19 pandemic which has highlighted the difficulties of communicating the fact that Wales has different laws and rules to those of the UK Government, strengthening a rapidly weakening Welsh media may be a priority for both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.

Another priority might be reform of the NHS in Wales. Plaid Cymru think it needs a complete overhaul, putting them at odds with Labour on the subject. But the Covid-19 pandemic might have made Labour more open to the idea, particularly of integrating the care sector into the NHS.

Local government reform might be another area where Plaid Cymru and Labour could see eye to eye. Local authorities themselves aren’t keen – turkeys never vote for Christmas after all – but a coalition might give both parties the excuse to wield the axe.

Larger councils with more local powers over matters such as planning, language, education and limits on second homes is something that perhaps they could agree on.

The environment is another area where Plaid Cymru have been particularly vocal, including calling for a new Nature Act setting a statutory duty, with legally binding targets, to restore biodiversity. Again Labour would be, at a push, unlikely to object to that in principle at least.

Parity

This isn’t an exhaustive list but rather just a few areas where there may be some overlap between the two parties.

In fact, Plaid Cymru may find themselves pushing at an open door on some of these suggestions.

However, a coalition would give the more small ‘n’ nationalist wing of Welsh Labour cover to push along with them.

The sticking point in all of this might not be what policies Labour and Plaid Cymru can agree on – as they have plenty in common – but how much status Plaid Cymru are given within the government.

Plaid’s big ask, which Labour may find hard to swallow, could be for some kind of equal power-sharing agreement.

That goes back to Price’s comment that he would be unwilling to be a “junior partner” in a coalition.

Might Plaid Cymru want an equal number of cabinet members – or even a spell in the First Minister’s post for themselves?

The only thing that’s clear is that the post-election discussions could be as interesting, if not more so, than the election itself.

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