Fault Lines in Welsh Politics – Article for Institute of Welsh Affairs Magazine ‘Agenda’

For the best part of the last century, Labour political domination over the nation at all elected levels, has meant that opposing parties such as Plaid have had to operate within a hegemonic political environment. Unable to directly implement our political programme we have had to work with those elements of the Labour party who share our vision of delivering social justice in Wales via greater political self determination.

The coalition built to secure the referendum victory in 1997 is the main achievement of the Red-Green strategy, and a tribute to the close working relationship of then Plaid Leader Dafydd Wigley and the then Welsh Secretary of State, Ron Davies.

The current One Wales agreement is Red-Green in its purest form, with the Labour party effectively operating a delivery device promoting Plaid’s social justice, cultural and constitutional objectives – although lets be totally clear that Part 4 of the 2006 Government of Wales Act is Labour’s policy its just that we wanted to implement their policy faster than them. I’m delighted that we won that battle. In return, the Labour party has been allowed to lead the Welsh Government.

However, it would be misleading to portray One Wales purely as a nationalist programme of Government. The values and policy aims are shared by many progressives in the Labour party in Wales. In many ways the red-green alliance is a natural partnership. The Welsh wing of the Labour party has far more in common with Plaid than it does with its own unionist wing.

Political strategies always have a secondary motive. Red-Green, from a Plaid prospective, ultimately aims to undermine Labour political hegemony over Wales. To this extent, the strategy has been far more successful than anticipated. Labour is in electoral free fall in Wales, losing control of all but two Local Authorities in the 2008 elections, and probably more significantly not winning a Welsh national election for the first time in nearly a century in the 2009 European elections. Labour are likely to lose a significant number of their Welsh MPs at the Westminster General Election in May to both Plaid and the Tories, and possibly to the Liberal Democrats in Swansea and Newport. Without Rhodri Morgan at the helm Labour is likely to hemorrhage further support to Plaid and the Tories in the 2011 National Assembly elections.

For Labour, Red-Green strategically enables them to pursue a pan-Wales political strategy by challenging Plaid in the northern and western parts of the country. Carwyn Jones knows he has no hope of securing the holy grail of an overall majority in 2011 unless he wins back seats like Llanelli, Carmarthen West, Arfon, Aberconwy, Clwyd West and Ynys Mon. (some of the seats are obviously Tory held constituencies and are in fact Plaid v Tory marginal’s in 2011, but for Labour to win the easiest route to victory would be supplant Plaid support) Following a unionist strategy for Labour is the road to political ruin as they would effectively become a Greater Gwent party, whilst facing a growing Plaid challenge in that great part of our country.

We are entering a new political environment where Labour’s traditional domination over Welsh politics is at an end and a new plural political environment is developing. This requires a significant strategic adjustment for all political parties in Wales, but particularly Plaid and Labour.

The challenge for Plaid is to withdraw from basing its political approach on supporting Welsh Labour versus Unionist Labour. Our strategy must be to polarise the political debate in Wales between us and the Conservative party, particularly as the Tories are likely to form the next UK Government. This would then create a dynamic of a right wing London Government against an increasingly Plaid dominated Government of Wales

This reality is underlined by Labour’s choice of Leader, Carwyn Jones, who has to hold together an increasingly divided and directionless party. His position would have been stronger if he had followed Edwina Hart’s line in pressing for a more autonomous Welsh Labour Party in the leadership election last Autumn. However, his need to keep Welsh Labour MPs on board during his campaign prevented him from taking this position. My colleagues in Government inform me that they can do business with the new First Minister – however in dithering on the Referendum Trigger he has been forced into a humiliating climb down that shows where the real balance of power lies within the Welsh Government.

Labour will obviously also try and polarise the political debate between them and the Tories, which is Peter Hain’s strategy. However, after 13 years of following a Thatcherite political approach their narrative will lack any meaningful credibility. The alternative to a Tory London Government after the General Election therefore will not be a New Labour London Government, but rather the development of Welsh political sovereignty and democracy.

For Plaid the social justice and constitutional advancement agendas have always been interdependent and interlinked. This message is likely to have significant appeal to Labour voters who are Welsh identifiers – especially with a right wing Tory Government in London ruthlessly cutting public expenditure driving the Welsh economy towards oblivion.

For Plaid to make progress in 2011 we have to make significant advances in valley seats. The new Development Unit under the control of the Campaigns Directorate is already laying the foundations for a very aggressive electoral strategy come 2011. With the Labour party imploding after their defeat in the Westminster election, we have a once in a generation opportunity to replace Labour as the dominant political force in Welsh politics. If we can defeat Labour in the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys as we have done in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr for the last decade there is no reason why we can’t penetrate right through the Welsh coalfield. Neath, Rhondda, Cynon, Islwyn and Caerffili are winnable and with the Tories also gaining additional constituency seats in those regions it should be possible to maintain a regional presence with Labour losing the electoral bias it enjoys in those parts of Wales under current electoral arrangements. In the very least, Plaid needs to win three Assembly Members from each South Wales West, South Wales Central and South Wales West.

For Labour the new political environment poses significant challenges. Traditionally the Labour leadership has tried to placate bath wings of their party as the major battles in Welsh politics are essentially fought from within their party. The 2006 Government of Wales Act is an obvious example. On the one hand it turned the National Assembly into a legislative body, while at the same time ensuring that the sovereignty of the people of Wales over their democracy was undermined by allowing a Westminster veto over democratically mandated legislative proposals. Similarly on Part 4 of the Act, their position was that they supported their own policy but only after 2011. Securing the trigger therefore has been a significant political achievement for Plaid that only a few commentators have acknowledged.

For Labour to survive it must decide whether it’s a Welsh progressive party or a unionist party. At the moment it is a coalition of inherently incoherent political traditions. Failure to make a defining choice will mean that Labour will increasingly become marginalised within an increasingly polarised Plaid versus Tory political environment. Labour strategists are banking on a period in opposition at UK level to renew the party at Welsh level in electoral terms. As I have explained above I don’t think that sort of shallow approach is going to be enough. They have to renew politically and once and for all make a defining choice about how it views Wales and what sort of nation it wants to build.

Labour’s political hegemony over Wales which has lasted for nearly a century is at an end. To avoid oblivion Labour has to make a defining choice between the Welsh and Unionist wing. Failure to do so would make Plaids strategic aims easier to accomplish as Welsh politics becomes a fight between the forces of progressive nationalism led by the national movement and the regressive conservatism of a Tory London Government.

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