Neil McEvoy, AM for South Wales Central
The National Assembly went into recess this week, ending an explosive year for me personally and the Assembly as an institution.
One suspension as a Councillor and two suspensions from the Plaid Cymru group later and I’m an independent Plaid AM.
My crimes were to be overheard by a council eviction officer saying “I can’t wait to restructure the Council in 2017”.
That was enough to be off the Council for a month and out of the Assembly group for several weeks. They didn’t need to suspend me, but groupthink prevailed.
It leads to dysfunctional decision-making and discourages any disagreement with the consensus.
Just asking what’s wrong with selling council houses so long as the money is used to build new ones was enough to suspend me, for a second time, from the Plaid Assembly group.
This suspension will last at least six months, depending on whether my appeal in March is successful.
People who defied the UK Government’s whip on the Brexit vote this week don’t get such punishment.
But In the groupthink of Labour and Plaid, the sale of council houses to working class people has to be ended, regardless of anything that could be put in place to help people buy their home and then build new ones.
I went against this groupthink and now I have to take the consequences.
Many politicians have been suspended this year, but none for so long and for something as trivial as questioning a housing policy, while still voting with the party line.
A lot of the other suspensions were related to claims of sexual harassment. The atmosphere became almost mob-like.
So much so that, at that time, a politician offering for a journalist to stay at his flat while they were out drinking suddenly became news.
And within that atmosphere, three complaints by women against a Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary – which were not investigated, proven, deemed serious enough to go to the police or even written down – were enough to sack him.
Four days later Carl Sargeant took his own life.
Despite that horrible tragedy, the groupthink shows no sign of ending.
This week Gareth Bennett was banned by Elin Jones, the Presiding Officer, from speaking in the Assembly chamber until he apologises for an intervention he made on human rights.
I could barely hear what he was saying at the time because of all the jeering coming from the Labour/Plaid benches.
What I did hear was strange, and at times quite offensive towards ethnic minorities and transgender people.
But I think it’s important that he has the right to speak; and that’s coming from someone who is of mixed race.
In part of his speech he said:
‘There is only so much deviation from the norm that any society can take before that society completely implodes.’
But it was his deviation from the norm and the groupthink of the Assembly that has led to his ban on speaking.
That’s ironic but it’s also dangerous. Those same people in the Assembly who virtue signal about diversity cannot tolerate any real diversity of thinking.
Virtue signalling has a bad connotation on the left now, and has become bound up with the far right. But the description of it, by James Bartholomew who coined the phrase, says:
‘I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous…
‘One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.
‘It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.’
In effect, virtue signalling means showing how right on you are, without actually having to do anything that really helps anyone.
Virtue signalling creates a sort of smug satisfaction and, make no mistake, the Assembly is a very smug place.
Silencing Gareth Bennett gave an opportunity for politicians to fire off tweets and hashtags about all the things they’re against.
They’re anti-fascist, anti-hate, anti-transphobic. And political parties with Assembly groups that are exclusively white/exclusively non-Muslim get to show how anti-racist/anti-Islamophobia they are.
There’s no need to walk the walk when you can just talk the talk instead.
We’re getting to the point where we need to have a serious discussion in Wales about the right to free speech and what we actually stand for.
It used to be that students would be in the vanguard here but many now prefer to campaign to no-platform people with opinions they don’t like.
Those that do want to defend free speech seem to have few options on the left.
Things have got to change. The quote wrongly ascribed to Voltaire really sums it up: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.
I don’t like what Gareth Bennett says but I will defend his right to say it.
I see Plaid Cymru and the Assembly as a vehicle to a free Wales, where free speech, free expression and free association are fundamental rights, all guaranteed through a Welsh constitution.
Looking at the current direction of our Assembly it seems we’re going to a much darker place.
One where groupthink, virtue signalling and deviation from the norm can lead to natural justice, duty of care and due process being completely abandoned.
We have to get off this path and that’s what I’ll be working towards in 2018.