How a pragmatic Plaid Cymru can win power

Picture by: Ruth Hartnup

Ifan Morgan Jones

The last few months have felt like something of a boom time for the Welsh national movement – at least, within our own social media bubble.

Several new groups have sprung up or built up a head of steam, such as Yes Cymru and Labour4IndyWales.

It’s a sign of a healthy national movement that such groups exist. But I also wonder whether the sprouting of so many of them within such a short time is a coincidence.

The cross-party Yes Cymru campaign, and the more pragmatic Labour4IndyWales, may well be less a show of strength and more a symptom of Plaid Cymru’s inability to put its finger where the electorate is.

Plaid Cymru has now had a long run of disappointing electoral performances, going back to the early days of devolution.

So what is Plaid Cymru’s problem? Why is the party failing to break through?

In my opinion, there are two fundamental issues:

  1. Plaid Cymru are trying to communicate a whole set of arguments at once which, due to the lack of a strong Welsh media, they simply don’t have the bandwidth to do. They have very, very limited opportunities to get their message across. Which means that their message needs to be focused, consistent and very straightforward.
  2. In many ways, the party’s core is fundamentally misaligned politically and culturally with the nation they want to speak for. So even when they do get their arguments across, many do not appeal to the electorate.

Although I disagree with the plan to set up a new party, I think Royston Jones, in his article here, elaborates on a great deal of the second problem.

Plaid Cymru are seen as having lost touch with the ‘left behind’ in society, i.e. the working class in post-industrial communities or rural communities that are dying on their feet.

Fundamentally, it’s because Plaid Cymru are a ‘front’ row party in a ‘back row’ country.

Plaid Cymru core The average Welshman
Socially very liberal Socially mildly conservative
University degree High school education
Mainly Welsh-speaking English-speaking
Primarily north and west based South-east based
Mainly middle-class Working class

This misalignment means that Plaid Cymru appeals to a niche within a niche. The core vote of left-wing Welsh speaking voters make up around 10-15% of the voting population, which is essentially what they got in the General Election.

But, I hear the middle-class Plaid Cymru intellectual cry, aren’t we all for helping those in the left column? It’s us that are anti-austerity, anti-bedroom tax, pro lifting the cap on public spending, etc.

Isn’t it just a matter of convincing people that immigration is good for the economy? That Wales did well out of the EU? That they’re being taken by a ride by a cabal of globalists?

Can’t they see that we know better?

Austerity

This is the wrong approach, because:

  1. Again, Plaid Cymru just doesn’t have the bandwidth to change people’s minds on allof these issues.
  2. Disagreeing with the electorate on a myriad of issues just emphasises the divide between the party and those whose votes they’re chasing.

The voters in the right-hand column aren’t necessarily wrong; they just disagree, for their own perfectly valid reasons.

Let’s take public spending as an example. If it wasn’t already obvious then Brexit should have made it so: There is a lot of antipathy to the way money public is spent.

This is hard for the middle-classes to understand. Isn’t our generosity what is keeping struggling people just above the bread line? Without that, people would be destitute. We have their best interests at heart.

But think about what people see. What they see is the country’s administrative class doing very well out of public spending.

While they’re gorging on a feast, the ‘left behind’ are thrown a fish a day to keep them from starving. And the message is that they should be happy with their one fish.

People are fed up of living on a fish a day – they want someone to give them a fishing lesson, and buy them a damned rod.

Having to depend on that one fish is embarrassing. What people want is an opportunity, and work.

When you tell them ‘but Wales got £200m from the EU’, what they hear is ‘you should be thankful to these foreigners for showing pity on you’.

People don’t want pity. They want independence. Personal and national. They want to stand on their own feet.

It gobsmacks me that farmers would risk 80% of their income, which comes from EU farming subsidies, to support Brexit.

But it shows the depths to which people loathe dependency. It’s degrading and it offers no hope of improvement, no way out. Any change is better.

This doesn’t mean not spending money. But it means building a nation where hard work is seen to pay off rather than on keeping people just about ticking over from day to day.

Anti-austerity isn’t enough – people want to see a difference in how money is spent.

This is a fundamental difference in worldview and telling people they’re wrong to think the way they do, that we know better, just won’t cut it.

The core message

The Plaid Cymru leadership can overcome these two core problems if they focus their message on the one issue that cuts across these boundaries.

They do have a core message that does this. Essentially, it is: ‘Wales is being neglected and treated unfairly by Westminster (Tory and Labour) – only a vote for Plaid Cymru can change that’.

It is an anti-establishment message that resonates. It also has the advantage of being true, and there is a daily stream of evidence to show that it is true.

And the message hits home whether you’re:

  • Young or old
  • Welsh speaking or not
  • Live in north or south Wales
  • Middle class or working class
  • Left wing or right wing

Plaid Cymru have never lacked for good ideas. Welsh nationalism has always been an intellectual pursuit.

However, they need to appreciate that a) most of the electorate will never hear about these ideas, and b) they won’t necessarily appeal to the worldview of the majority of the Welsh population.

So, every time anyone within Plaid Cymru has an idea, they should consider:

  1. Does this advance the cause of our central message about Westminster’s mistreatment of Wales?
  2. Do most people in Wales actually agree with our approach, or are we just appealing to well-educated, liberal intellectuals like ourselves?

Plaid Cymru don’t have the resources to fight every battle. And for a national party, anything beyond the central message is superfluous.

Pragmatism

Modern Welsh nationalism has its roots in the religious nationalism of the 19th century, and I think this still shows.

There is a strong moral code at its heart, but in the cut-throat world of politics, such a code is also very restrictive. Sometimes you have to be pragmatic.

The short-term dopamine hit of being right is too often favoured over the long-term strategy that will do the greater good in the long term.

There are a whole host of policy areas where Plaid Cymru are right, but to no avail, as they’re not in power.

Votes for 16-year-olds? Is it right? Yes. Does it advance the central argument? No. Does it divide Welsh voters? Yes. Throw it overboard.

Getting rid of the Royal Family? Is it right? Yes. Does it advance the central argument? No. Does it divide Welsh voters? Yes. Don’t mention it.

Freedom of movement? Is it right? Yes.  Does it advance the central argument? No. Does it divide Welsh voters? Many are against it. Acknowledge their opinions.

Working with the Labour party? Is it right? Sometimes. Does it advance the central argument? No, it undermines it. Does it divide Welsh voters? Yes. Don’t do it.

‘Strip the barnacles off the boat’ as Lynton Crosby is apparently fond of saying.

Following this approach may mean that Plaid Cymru lose opportunities to do good in the meantime.

But it’s arguable that spending time, resources and political capital dealing with symptoms of Wales’ predicament are less important than focusing on the root cause.

Which has been the most successful nationalist party of the last two decades? No, it’s not the SNP, but UKIP.

UKIP are, and have long been, something of a joke as a political party. They had no coherent policies, apart from one: Leaving the EU.

They repeated this argument every opportunity they got, ad nauseam. But when they were saying it for the 500th time someone was hearing it for the first time.

As their arguments gained traction and became more mainstream, the press gave them aplatform, and they continued repeating it again and again until they got what they wanted.

If UKIP had a whole host of well-developed but divisive policies that would have split their base into smaller segments, they wouldn’t have been half as successful.

Their very ambiguity on anything beyond their one, central policy was eventually their greatest strength.

Contrast this with Plaid Cymru. When you decide to support the party, you are asked not only to support the central argument that Westminster is menglecting Wales, but a whole left-wing, intellectual way of seeing the world: high public spending, republican, pro-immigration, and socially liberal.

A national party by defeneition needs to be a bigger tent.

Building bridges

The middle-class intelligentsia worry a lot about the growing political divide in the West, but they think less about what they themselves could do to bridge it.

The onus is put on others to see the error of their ways – to stop being stupid. Again, I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.

But what are national movements for? Ultimately, they’re about finding common ground between the competing cultural, economic and demographic interests within a nation.

They’re always driven by the middle classes because that’s the group that has the leisure time, and education, to think about and articulate these issues.

However, to take that step from being an intellectual pursuit to a mass movement they need to appeal to a broad swathe of society. That means meeting the electorate halfway.

It means sometimes being pragmatic, and agreeing to disagree, even when you’re bursting wanting to say that something isn’t right.

If Plaid Cymru is to succeed, it needs to become a much more streamlined operation. It needs to push one issue and, on all others, find the electoral middle ground.

This isn’t populism – it’s democracy. It’s listening to the people and responding to them.

If we don’t meet people’s concerns halfway, if we talk down at them, we will see the rise of a different kind of nationalism – Trump and other neo-fascists.

Because, ultimately, people would really rather a dangerous authoritarian who understands them than a lovely person with a social conscience who doesn’t.

If Plaid Cymru can become a pragmatic party willing to compromise on its point of view for the greatest eventual good, it can win over the voters and get to grips with what’s really ailing Wales.

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