Monday 12 September 2011

Plaid vacates the centre ground

The fortunes of Plaid Cymru have waxed and waned over the last decades. In 2007 they came close to forming a coalition in Cardiff Bay with the Welsh Conservatives and Lib Dems. However, the next four years were then spent with Labour, their arch enemy, and it seems the voters have punished Plaid for this at the ballot box in 2011. In May this year Plaid's share of votes decreased significantly: they lost seats that seemed safe in West Wales, and came in only behind the Welsh Conservatives as the third largest party in Wales. This is a remarkable turn of fortunes. There were times when Plaid couldn't do anything wrong. So what brought it down?

The pattern of Welsh politics is a curious one. Two factors play an important role for a nationalist party such as Plaid. First, there is the defining issue of the Welsh nation. What should Wales look like, and what notion of national identity should it embrace? This question may seem difficult to answer in a modern society, where cosmopolitan urban centres have little regard for a nationalist discourse. However, an idea of the Welsh nation is critical for a nationalist party and, as Wales is becoming ever more modern and more diverse, Plaid's older visions of Welshness are being tested and found wanting by the electorate. So far Plaid has unsuccessfully oscillated between some notion of bucolic Welsh bliss and a modern high tech country. In addition, it was hampered by a contradictory socialist doctrine that advocated the expansion of public services but never explained how to pay for it or how to generate inward investment for the Welsh economy.

The second factor is the brutal electoral arithmetics and the predominance of Labour in the South Wales Valleys. This means that Plaid cannot become the strongest party in the Sennedd. Which leaves two options. It either locates itself at the fringes of the political debate, cultivating dreams of national independence, or it readies itself to go into coalition with Labour to shape the future of the nation. The former may be soothing for a large part of Plaid's constituency, yet it removes the option of being in power in Cardiff Bay. The latter option is fraught with difficulties too since Plaid is bound to be the junior partner in a coalition with Labour and destined to suffer while in power. Junior coalition partners do not fare well generally with their own voters. Coalitions are marked by compromise, more so for the smaller party than for the party that leads.

Given these unattractive options, Plaid should have a natural desire to develop a third option. To become the second biggest party in Wales and eventually form a coalition with the Welsh Conservatives and the Lib Dems. That would allow them to lead the Welsh Government and shape the future of Wales.

Yet, opposition politics are politics of comfort. And so, this weekend at its annual conference, Plaid decided to sulk rather than grasp the nettle of leadership. It almost barred itself (through a binding decision) from ever entering a coalition with the Welsh Conservatives. Given the arithmetics of Welsh voting, this can only mean one thing. Plaid would remain in opposition and have no ambition to be at the heart of Welsh politics. It would effectively cede the centre left ground to Labour and nurse its nationalist dreams.

In the long run however, such a strategy would spell nothing but disaster for Plaid. The Welsh people wont forgive this capitulation in the face of Labour. Plaid may temporarily recover some of its core vote, yet that will never be enough to win a central place at the table in Cardiff Bay.

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