Monday, 29 June 2015

Ghost of summers past—a tale of Welsh politics

‘Sorry Gwynoro you’re too lateIeuan has just left to meet with Rhodri.’

Just as in the novel a ‘Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens where there is a character called the Ghost of Christmas Past, we now have such a ‘Ghost’ appearing in the story of Welsh politics. The Ghost in Dickens’s novel is often portrayed in modern dramatic productions as a womanso also is today’s version in Welsh politics. The leader of Plaid Cymru said some three days ago that ‘there is no way that I would lead Plaid into coalition with the Conservatives’. She believed similarly some eight years to the week in 2007. Leanne Wood was not the leader then, but it is well known that together with Bethan Jenkins and one or two others, the very thought of a deal with the Tories stirred frenzied resistance.

Yes, eight years ago to the very weekJune 27th 2007was a turning point in Welsh politics. It was the day that Plaid, the main opposition party at the time in the Senedd, threw in its lot with Rhodri Morgan and Labour. It was the day the ‘One Wales’ agreement was finalised. It had taken a while to emerge because the Assembly elections had been 7 weeks earlier. This self- proclaimed ‘progressive agenda’ asserted that it was based on ‘shared values, common goals and joint aspirations for the people of Wales’. Well I leave Plaid members to judge the ‘common goals and joint aspirations’ bit ... but we were promised that Labour and Plaid, hand in hand, would transform Wales into ‘a self-confident nation, which is fair to all.’ Did it?

Now I have no idea why Leanne wanted to raise the issue of any deal with the Welsh Conservatives last week, other than that the experiences of eight years ago might still be deeply embedded in her psyche. There was certainly no need to raise the matter eleven months before the next Senedd elections and without doubt, it does rather unnecessarily tie a noose around her party’s neck. There are so many tactical blunders associated with the timing of the statement. Why say anything at all?  Presently there is a great deal of uncertainty over the likely outcome of next year’s election and indeed doubt as to whether Labour would be able to govern on its own after. In addition, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently, at best, in a state of flux, some would say disarray. Both will have to go through a period of rebuilding under new leadership. There is then the question of whether the Tory vote will hold in Wales once the fiscal cuts start to bite over the coming months, and whether the UKIP bubble has finally burst following the remarkable antics of Mr Farage and his senior colleagues. So, it seems to me that all is still there to play for.

Plaid has been so obsessed with hanging on to Labour’s coattails ever since the Assembly came into existence that its own growth and advancement has been stymied. Just consider what might have been...

Cast your mind back to exactly eight years ago. Labour had only 26 seats in the Senedd, with 1 floating independent AM, and the combined opposition had 33. For the first time an alternative administration was an option. To be fair, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Nick Bourne and Mike German saw the opportunity and entered into protracted negotiations resulting in the ‘All-Wales Accord’ which would have established a Rainbow coalition governing Wales. I was delightedat last there was a chance to end Labour’s dominance of Welsh politics! I kept in touch with the three leaders, but more specifically with Ieuan since his party was the largest of the three and he would have been the First Minister. I will not go into the details of what went wrong and why did they fail to reach agreement, but I have included three links to archive Western Mail articles at the end of this feature for reference. Nick Bourne saw the opportunity without doubt; as I believe did his party. I know Ieuan did as well, but he was faced with two problemsopposition within his party particularly by some of the AMs on the ‘left’ and uncertainty over the lasting commitment of Mike German. The Liberal Democrats prevaricated for too long in my opinion and carried on discussions with Rhodri Morgan until breaking point. There was a tied vote in an executive meeting at Llandrindod called to ratify the All Wales Accord, after which, as this article in the Daily Post shows, Mike German ultimately got support of the Welsh Liberal Democrats at a special conference of members. However, it was too late by then because the agreement between Labour and Plaid was well advanced. 

I feel that Plaid also made a major tactical error—it was the main opposition with 15 AMs at the time. It is not often in politics that the main opposition goes into coalition with the party that has won most seats. It does convey an element of insecurity. Without doubt it should have stayed in opposition and watched Labour and the Liberal Democrats form a Government as they had done some years previously, whilst taking on the main opposition role on behalf of the Welsh public.

Rhodri Morgan, being the experienced leader and strategist that he was, also kept the lines of communication open with Ieuan and Plaid. When it was becoming obvious that any chance of a Rainbow agreement was more or less vanishing, I recall ringing Ieuan’s office one last time to plead with him to stay the course. His secretary’s words have stayed with me until today ‘sorry Gwynoro, you’re too lateIeuan has gone to meet with Rhodri.’ An historic opportunity was missed not just for the people of Wales but for Plaid. With their leader as First Minister and a policy programme for government that was progressive, quite radical and free of old biasesWelsh politics would have been transformed.

No one will ever know how Senedd politics would have advanced by today. My view is that it would be considerably healthier and certainly more vibrant. Also it would have done Labour some good to be in opposition to help its development and modernisation. All I can point to is the experience of the SNP in 2007 and what they did subsequently. The SNP had a majority of only 1 over Labour in Holyrood and decided to form a minority government, governing with the tacit support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The rest they say is history. There is no question that that moment was the beginning of the transformation of Scottish politics. It illustrated clearly to the Scottish people that there was nothing to fear from the SNP, in fact, the SNP went on to govern successfully and proved even more attractive to the public. It is very true that great opportunities do not come calling too oftenthe SNP grasped its opportunity with both hands but Plaid faltered, showing a lack of confidence, political acumen and appreciation of the bigger picture. Following their coalition with Labour, Plaid lost 4 seats in 2011 and became the third party in the Senedd.

Given Leanne’s political background I am not surprised that ‘there is no way’ she could deal with the Tories. I can accept that, but it is a matter for Plaid as a party whether it is a good position to take or not. It portrays an image that Plaid is more or less content to exist under a Labour administration for years to come. But her argument has one major flawit is true that the people in Wales have ‘always rejected Tory politics’ but without doubt things are changing. All we have to do is look at the election results for 2011 and 2015—there is no need to gaze into a crystal ball.

Firstly, in the Assembly, the Conservatives have been increasing their share of the vote and number of seats election after election. In 2011 they received 24% of the vote. That is 6% more than Plaid and twice more than the Liberal Democrats.  Then UKIP got 5% of the votethe centre/right is clearly on the increase and poses a challenge.

Then briefly looking at Westminster elections ... In 2010, the Conservatives got 26% of the vote in Wales, winning 8 seats. In 2015, they received 27% and 11 seats respectively.  Plaid, on the other hand, has stayed static on some 11% with 3 seats. However one of the most significant developments of the 2015 election was the emergence of UKIP as a political force in Wales with 13% of the votepushing Plaid into fourth place.  So 40% of the electorate voted for right wing parties. All three centre-left parties had better wake up to what is happeningfor sure Wales is changing.

My advice to Plaid and the Liberal Democrats is to keep your powder dry! There is a lot to play for and the uncertainties are indeed many.

Rainbow coalition back on agenda: Western Mail 28/5/2007

Laws threat issued on Rainbow coalition: Western Mail 12/6/2007

Rainbow coalition most popular: Western Mail 25/6/2007