Cross-party alliances are a valid way of fighting back against Westminster’s flawed FPTP monopoly
Ifan Morgan Jones
For over a hundred years Wales has been something of a side-show at General Elections.
The Tories have not won a majority here since the Reform Act of 1864 which gave most male householders the vote.
Since Wales became anything close to a representative democracy, it has been a Liberal and then Labour stronghold, and the Conservatives have not had much of a look in.
The Tories reached their high watermark in 1983 when they took 14 seats to Labour’s 20, but as recently as 2001 they did not hold a single seat in all of Wales.
However, this time Wales is central to the Tory mission to win a majority. If the current polls are correct the Conservatives could win a large number of margial seats across the country.
Once they reach a tipping point of a 2.5% or so swing the gains could quickly become something of an avalanche.
They could easily capture Alyn and Deeside, Bridgend, Cardiff North, Clwyd South, Delyn, Gower, Newport West, Vale of Clwyd, and Wrexham from Labour.
That would put them on 17 seats to Labour’s 18. If they also captured Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats and Ynys Môn, a three-way marginal, they could be the largest party in Wales.
Wales is now therefore no longer a side-show but a swing seat. Alongside the north-east of England it is the battleground of this election. An Ohio-like, bell-weather state.
It is also the nation within the UK where the impact of this General Election could be felt most keenly. A majority for the Conservatives could have a profound effect on Wales beyond Brexit.
Last week Boris Johnson suggested in the House of Commons that the Scottish Parliament could “forfeit its right to manage” the Scottish NHS.
The subtext was clear – once Brexit is done, we’re coming for devolution.
For Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, there is more at stake here than just Brexit, but the future of Wales as a political, and perhaps cultural, entity.
It is in this context that we should consider recently proposed plans by the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru to come to an electoral compact.
Ideally such a compact should also include Labour. They could step aside in seats such as Brecon and Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire, in return for Lib Dem backing in seats like Newport West.
Of course, ideally, every party should stand in every seat and give voters a full choice. But the First Past the Post system in which Westminster elections are fought makes idealism impossible.
Wales is a good example of why this is the case. Between them, the three progressive parties of Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently on 53% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 29%.
But because this progressive vote will be split three ways it will count for little. Progressivism in Wales will be punished because it is popular.
In the current political environment, with so much at stake, pragmatism has to trump tribalism.
Ironically, the best hope of changing First Past the Post is for progressive parties to use the system’s inherent flaws to their advantage to defeat those who know their monopoly on power depends on its continuation.
Some Plaid Cymru members and voters, in particular, have been turned off by the idea of making a deal with the Liberal Democrats because they are a ‘Westminster party’.
This point of view would be fine if they were suggesting that Plaid Cymru should abstain from Westminster elections altogether.
However, they are of the opinion that Plaid Cymru should contest Westminster elections. They simply want Plaid Cymru to play by Westminster’s rather arbitrary rules.
But since Westminster’s own First Past the Post system is designed to exclude parties such as Plaid Cymru, there would be nothing more anti-Westminster than turning its own First Past the Post electoral system against it.
Furthermore, the bargain Plaid Cymru looks like striking with the Liberal Democrats will benefit Plaid Cymru much more than the Lib Dems.
Plaid Cymru will stand aside in Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radmore, seats where they had 5.6% and in 3.1% of the vote in 2017 – i.e. there is no realistic prospect of a Plaid Cymru victory there.
Meanwhile it looks as if the Lib Dems will stand aside in at least five seats Plaid Cymru need to win or are currently defending.
The other criticism of this alliance is that the Lib Dems are ideologically not a good fit with Plaid Cymru. Under their new leader Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems have tacked to the right on the economy and benefits.
Again, I think pragmatism trumps idealism here. In a seat is a two-horse race between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, it is clear that the former is ideologically closer to Plaid Cymru’s position.
The alliance is, therefore, a good idea for these parties – in theory.
However, the real test is how the Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat and Green alliance will work in practice.
Voters are not, of course, goods that can simply be handed over from one party to another like a bank transaction.
If the alliance is just a matter of one party not running an election campaign in a seat, there is a danger of unintended consequences.
For instance, what is top stop Liberal Democrat or Plaid Cymru voters backing the Conservatives instead? There are plenty of staunchly Unionist Lib Dem voters and Brexit-supporting Plaid Cymru voters.
For the alliance to work out, the parties will probably need to continue to send out campaign material, but backing the other party rather than their own. Is that a realistic prospect?
Plaid Cymru might, however, argue that the greatest boost the alliance will have on their prospects is that it will be a news story that will be continuously mentioned not just in Wales, but across UK media as well.
By drawing attention to the fact that both the Liberal Democrats and Greens are happy to endorse them in some seats, Plaid Cymru are ensuring that voters receive two key messages:
- That they are a party that is explicitly backing Remain.
- That they are not just a party for rural Welsh-speakers but can appeal to urban progressives as well.
In a General Election, where Plaid Cymru often suffer from a lack of attention, that in itself might be a calculated price worth paying for sitting the election out in Powys.