YesCymru must avoid being dragged into party politics in 2021’s election year
Ifan Morgan Jones
It’s easy sometimes given the success of YesCymru to forget how far the movement has come in the last two years.
Despite the best intentions of those involved, the movement in 2018 was riven by infighting, resignations and constant accusations that it was being taken over by the hard-left / hard-right [delete as appropriate].
These debates raged on to the point where I pleaded that members set themselves a New Year’s Resolution in 2019 – to get off social media and talk to each other in the real world.
That did happen in spectacular style (which was nothing to do with me) as three marches were held in 2019 that between them attracted almost 20,000 people.
2020 has been another extremely successful year for the movement as savvy leadership, a growing professionalism, and political events have seen support surge and membership grown six-fold to over 16,000.
However, and perhaps because Covid has driven the debate back on to social media, niggly arguments have once again arisen as to what and who the movement is for.
And these debates aren’t likely to go away in 2021, particular during the next few months. With Senedd elections due in May, political discourse is inevitably going to become more divided along party political lines.
In particular, YesCymru are going to come under pressure to be seen to back political parties that support independence.
And those appeals will in turn anger independence supporters who back other parties, who will claim that YesCymru isn’t being inclusive enough.
Let’s face it – these debates are going to play out whatever YesCymru does, because online dabate is a jumble of misinformation, misunderstandings and straw men.
But YesCymru can do its bit by resolutely affirming its cross-party nature – and being cross-party in the context of an election means, in practice, being no party.
It doesn’t mean retweeting a little bit of everyone, it means just keeping away from party political debates altogether.
YesCymru’s one job is to drive up support for independence in Wales. What political parties then do with that rising support is up to them.
That may seem very frustrating for independence supporters when electing politicians who support independence will, in the long run, be essential to delivering independence.
But political parties respond naturally to changes in public opinion. And rising support for independence has already had a clear impact on the political debate in Wales.
Plaid Cymru have become much more vocally pro-independence than they have in the past. Labour and the Lib Dems are also clearly having their own internal conversations, either about independence or ways to placate independence supporters (federalism, more devolution, etc).
There is really no need for YesCymru to get involved in party politics. They are the wind, and the political parties are the weather vanes. If they blow hard enough, the weather vanes will turn.
There is nothing of course stopping independence supporters getting involved in party politics, or even joining pro-independence groups that support particular kinds of post-independence politics, such as Undod or Labour4IndyWales.
But it’s not YesCymru’s job to get involved in these debates and no one should attempt to misuse YesCymru’s political heft the vehicle for doing so.
This also applies beyond election years, of course, and to any kind of appeal for YesCymru to favour any one political ideology over another.
Very often in the context of debates about independence we come across arguments that ‘there is no point to Welsh independence unless it’s about X, therefore YesCymru should be arguing for X or I’m out’.
There are two problems with this line of thinking:
Firstly, it’s a promise that can’t be kept. YesCymru is not in a position to promise anything about the kind of country Wales will be, ideologically, after Welsh independence. That will be up to voters.
Secondly, it essentially makes it impossible to win a referendum. Because there is almost no agreement even between those who say that ‘independence must be about X’ as to what X should be.
It’s a case of Russian dolls. If you start telling people that to support independence they also need to subscribe to a list of other demands, you’re appealing to a smaller and smaller share of the electorate.
As a result, YesCymru would be better off completely ignoring any appeals for them to concentrate on one particular political group or wing when promising what changes independence will bring.
While we can all dream of winning independence with a radical, utopian vision that ticks all of our personal political boxes – and individual parties and groups are well within their rights to lobby for that – but in practice independence will be delivered by a messy political coalition of people who want different things.
YesCymru’s remit is to be the generic, basic, cross-political spectrum case for indy – the umbrella group under which that coalition can huddle together.
I do however agree that independence for the sake of ‘sovereignty’ or the nice cosy feeling of being a national unit is pointless. Nationalism in and of itself is an empty vessel.
So what can YesCymru do? Well, the one promise they can honestly make is that an independent Wales will be free to wield power and make political decisions in its own interest.
And if you cut out the ideological skirmishes, the honest and deliverable argument for independence is ultimately a straightforward one:
‘Economic, political and cultural power is currently centralised at Westminster, which is a flawed and unreformable political institution that is neglecting Wales and treating it unfairly – only a vote for Welsh independence can bring those powers back to Wales where they can be used for Wales’ own good.’
That is, realistically, all YesCymru can promise. And, communicated skilfully enough and repeated often enough – with reference to real-world examples – it is also a resonant enough argument to win the debate.
Beyond political considerations, communicating this simple, core message is also a necessity because YesCymru simply don’t have the bandwidth to communicate a more complicated one.
Once they leave the cocoon of social media echo chambers and start fighting on mass, mainstream media they will have very, very limited opportunities to get their message across to the 70% of voters who don’t back independence.
This means that their message needs to be focused, consistent and very straightforward.
I don’t suggest that YesCymru replicate the Leave campaign’s dishonesty, but they one thing they did have was a straightforward message which they hammered relentlessly.
The Conservative 2019 campaign was also very straightforward: ‘Get Brexit Done’. Labour meanwhile offered a radical manifesto – and nine additional targeted manifestos – with a large number of commitments. How many do you remember?
I should note that the above isn’t a criticism of YesCymru, whose message discipline in 2020 – beyond one or two few much-discussed mishaps – has been excellent.
Their challenge now is not to promise the world but to use the new membership funds at their disposal to reach a new audience with the core message they do have, and relentlessly hammer away at it, by whatever means necessary.
Don’t get dragged into fighting the 2021 election. And don’t mistake the voice of Twitter for the voice of the nation.
If they can do that, 2021 will be another successful year for them. And for their supporters, that first march after Covid restrictions lift will be a hell of a get-together.