Plaid Cymru should keep an open mind on coalitions
Whatever your views of the Plaid Cymru leadership election, foisted upon the candidates and members by our party’s constitution, there is no denying that it has proved rejuvenating.
Each of the candidates have shown themselves to be more than capable of leading both the party and the nation. But they have also demonstrated their commitment to an open and honest discussion of the direction that Plaid Cymru is taking.
Last night saw the first in a series of eight regional hustings, with the three candidates appearing before a hall packed with ordinary members, each wishing to hear from the candidates, but many also wanting to be heard by them.
Over the summer, each of the three – Rhun ap Iorwerth, Adam Price and Leanne Wood – have outlined their vision for the future of the party, and for the future of Wales. And in doing so, they have sparked a lively, serious, and vitally important debate surrounding a number of key issues.
One of these key issues has been the question of collaboration and cooperation with the other parties.
All three candidates have made it clear that their aim is to lead a Plaid Cymru government, rather than serve as junior partners in a coalition. They are each aiming to become the First Minister of Wales, rather than the Deputy.
This is a noble aim, and one that the membership can unify behind – but it also presents an enormous challenge. How, in practice, can we ensure that whoever wins our internal election has a path to the First Minister’s office?
Is it the reality of politics in Wales that in order for us to exercise power, we must do so in collaboration with either Labour or the Conservatives?
This question has been the subject of two highly engaging and provocative articles by Professor Richard Wyn Jones, published in the past two issues of Barn. Prof. Jones has cast a critical eye over the two main unionist parties, and their relationship to Plaid Cymru.
The bumper double issue that appeared in July/August includes a withering attack on the current state of the Conservative Party, that Jones describes as the worst in living memory.
Faced with the greatest domestic crisis since the 1940s, and utterly lacking in both judgement and discipline, the Tories are descending into bloody internecine warfare driven only by the desire for personal advancement.
Former Remainers, led by the Prime Minister herself, have been convinced that “Brexit means Brexit”, and are now cheerily driving the British economy over a cliff.
Alun Cairns in the Wales Office seems oblivious to all of this, filling his days with the naming of royal bridges. Cast your eye over this, says Prof. Jones, and ask whether you can seriously see a Plaid Cymru-Conservative coalition grasping the reins in Cardiff Bay?
His views on the relationship between Plaid Cymru and Labour – found in this month’s edition of Barn – are very different. The notion that Plaid Cymru could win 20 seats in the next Assembly election, potentially making them the largest party, are “psychedelically optimistic”, according to Prof. Jones.
Having discounted the possibility of a coalition with the Tories, and offering such a pessimistic evaluation of Plaid Cymru’s chances of governing as a minority, he argues that the only way in to the corridors of power would be if Labour opened the door.
Plaid Cymru could then use its influence to advance its agenda from within, gradually pushing the anti-Brexit, devolutionist wing of Labour towards the idea of independence.
Of the three candidates for the leadership of Plaid Cymru, two have been keen to play down talk of future coalition.
Adam Price described it as “playing post-election poker”, a purely speculative exercise in crystal-ball gazing.
Rhun ap Iorwerth has repeatedly argued that he feels no affinity with either of the unionist parties, emphasising that he is driven by the Welsh national interest, rather than ideology or dogma.
Both men emphasise that it is the ordinary members of Plaid Cymru, and not the party leader, who will have the final say on any proposed coalition.
Under these circumstances, they feel that it is a waste of time and energy to speculate on what might happen once the votes have been counted in the summer of 2021.
Leanne Wood has been rather less circumspect, however, offering a firm, simple commitment that she will never enter into any formal arrangement with the Conservative Party, under any circumstances. Her reasons for ruling out any collaboration with the Conservatives are twofold, objecting on both principled and practical grounds.
On principle, Leanne Wood goes much further than Richard Wyn Jones in her criticism of the Tories. She channels some of Aneurin Bevan’s famous “deep burning hatred for the Tory Party”, reportedly describing them at the hustings in Pontypridd as “enemies of everything we hold dear”.
To work alongside the Conservative Party would represent not only a betrayal of her fundamental values, but also a betrayal of the post-industrial community that has been her lifelong home.
Yet she also sees a strategic risk of entering into coalition with the Conservatives. Such an arrangement may well deliver some Plaid Cymru policies, but would come at a high price to the party.
The Welsh electorate contains too many other Bevanites, who share some variation of the view that Tories are “lower than vermin”. To enter into coalition with them would be to doom Plaid Cymru to electoral oblivion for a generation.
Indeed, so virulent is the (presumed) hatred of Toryism in Wales that merely to discuss the possibility of coalition is enough to taint us. For Leanne Wood, any prospect of electoral success rests upon a prominent and public declaration that Plaid Cymru is a party of anti-Tories.
Many Plaid Cymru members will doubtless agree with Leanne Wood’s view. But I believe that there are others who do not, myself among them.
Stating this openly will, inevitably, lead to charges that I am a closet Tory. The truth is that, like all of the leadership candidates, I consider myself to be a left-winger – although I am a fairly liberal social democrat, rather than a socialist red in tooth and claw.
My attitude towards the Tories is somewhere between Richard Wyn Jones and Leanne Wood.
Today, the Conservative Party is in a parlous state; at its head is a leader that lacks any capacity to govern, flailing helplessly as Britain edges towards disaster. Theresa May’s only obvious challenger is a mendacious halfwit, a living embodiment of the failures of the English class system.
Yet this situation is allowed to persist, in part, because there is no reasonable alternative. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is little better than the Tories, failing to take a stand on Brexit and tearing itself apart because the leader refuses to challenge the extremism of his own allies.
Theresa May knows that however unpalatable her own regime is to many voters, they are unlikely to cast a ballot for the Labour Party in its present condition.
Likewise, she knows that Corbyn’s leadership acts as a brake on the rebellious tendencies of her own parliamentary party; to put country before party is one thing, but few are willing to betray their own Prime Minister in order to help a Leader of the Opposition that they (rightly) see as fundamentally unfit to govern.
Talk of a new centrist party is half-baked, but to break the current deadlock in Westminster, one of the parties must shift position to accommodate some of the views of their opponents.
Brexit matters here because it cuts so clearly across the traditional left-right divide. During the leadership debate on ITVs Sharp End, Adam Price argued that Plaid Cymru should do anything in its power to stop the UK from leaving the EU.
Jonathan Edwards MP has argued that if there were proposals on the table to form an anti-Brexit government of national unity, then Plaid Cymru should be a member of that government.
This is undoubtedly the stance that we should take. Should this (admittedly unlikely) situation arise, then Plaid Cymru would be duty-bound to join such a government.
Yet, to do so would be to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives, to breach the anti-Tory firewall. It would involve admitting that while we oppose the vast majority of Tory policies, there are some principles that transcend traditional party lines.
To work in concert with other parties is, sometimes, a means of signalling that we wish to move beyond a model of politics that is based merely on opposition, towards one that fosters cooperation and collaboration.
Is this a model that could work in the Welsh Assembly? Or is Brexit an exceptional case, a political crisis that uniquely demands that we put aside party difference for the greater good?
My own view is that there is too much distance between the two parties for any collaboration to be feasible at this moment in time. But I also think that it is wrong for us to say that we should never entertain the prospect of working with the Tories; that the door is shut, forever, in every possible circumstance.
Why? Part of my objection is principled. I believe in a politics of engagement, that is open-minded and intellectually curious, where ideas develop and grow.
I have firmly held beliefs about Wales and the world, but they are beliefs that have evolved over time, changing in response to events but also reacting and responding to the ideas of others.
Plaid Cymru will always have core principles that distinguish us from the other parties, but I also believe that we should look out for the things that we have in common. By sitting down together and discussing, we may not end up forming a coalition, but we may find other ways of working together for the good of Wales.
But while I believe that keeping our options open is right in principle, I also think that it is the right thing to do strategically.
Liberals, the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru have, over the decades, made much of Wales’ radical tradition. The fact remains, however, that throughout our history a sizeable minority of the people of Wales have voted Tory.
Whether we agree with them or not, these are our neighbours and friends, our fellow citizens. When they hear us say that Plaid Cymru will never work with the Conservatives, then they will naturally assume that Plaid Cymru aren’t interested in them, in their views, in their way of seeing the world.
There are some within Plaid Cymru that see this as a zero-sum game; that we have to choose between courting former Labour voters or former Tory voters – but never both.
I think that they make the mistake that many of us do, of seeing the world only through the eyes of people like us, people who are very politically active, who identify strongly and passionately with a single party.
But many voters aren’t like this; between the 2015 and 2017 elections, a time of extreme political polarisation, around one-third of UK voters either stayed at home or switched between Labour and Tory.
It is entirely possible for Plaid Cymru to appeal to both former Labour and former Tory voters – in fact, it is essential that we learn to do so if we seriously aim to become the largest party in Wales.
However, this goes beyond the electoral fortunes of Plaid Cymru in 2021 and beyond. All three of the leadership candidates have offered their firm, unwavering support for Welsh independence.
Each has a plan, a set of practical actions designed to build support for the cause. The party is finally, post-Brexit, moving on from the embarrassed, embarrassing, obfuscation of the past.
If this election achieves nothing else, it has made independence a priority for Plaid Cymru, and as a result forced it onto the Welsh political agenda.
And if we are truly serious about creating a new Wales, then it is essential that we take the rest of the country with us.
Many have already realised that this means persuading Labour voters, and Labour politicians, of the merits of independence. But to build a nation, rather than simply win a referendum, we will need to appeal to a broad cross-section of society – Liberals, Tories and the politically disengaged as well as Plaid Cymru and Labour.
A first step towards this is to engage the Welsh Conservatives in dialogue, as fellow members of a devolved Welsh polity.
We may not find that we have much in common, but we may end up being pleasantly surprised.
What is vital, however, is that we move beyond the Bevanesque notion that Tories – and by extension Tory voters – are lower than vermin.
It shouldn’t be a radical proposition to argue that Tories are people too.
Dyfrig Jones is a member of Plaid Cymru’s NEC, but writes here in a purely personal capacity.
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