Friday, 16 March 2012

Plaid heads for Groundhog day

Almost unnoticed by the Westminster village, one of the main political parties in the UK has a new leader. Any guesses? Yes, it is Leanne Wood who has become the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. If you thought this is of no importance to UK politics, think again. 
In 2006 Plaid joined Welsh Labour in a coalition government in Cardiff. This is generally regarded as a tragic decision, not helped by the fact that the then party leader of Plaid, the uncharismatic Ieuan Wyn Jones,  acted as deputy first minister of Wales. Going into a coalition with Labour cost Plaid significant number of votes at the next election in 2011. Ever since, Plaid has languished behind Labour and the revitalised Welsh Conservatives who became the second largest party in Wales in 2011. 
So, for Plaid it is all change now. But where will the new leader take the party? There are few continuities with the previous leader. Ieuan Wyn Jones was widely regarded as an ineffectual leader and deputy first minister who struggled to free the party from working in the shadow of the Labour party in Wales. Whilst Plaid is the only openly nationalist party which aspires to take Wales out of the Union, Plaid had considerably moderated its nationalist stance and there was little talk about Welsh independence over the last years. 
This may change with Leanne Wood. During the hustings for the leadership election, the new leader has advocated full independence for Wales, and ruled out any coalition with the second biggest party in Wales, the Welsh Conservatives. She may come to regret this. 
Positioning Plaid in Wales’ political landscape wont be easy. Welsh Labour always haboured distinctly ‘old Labour’ sentiments, favouring a large public sector largely financed by the bloc grant it receives from the Westminster government. Despite some recent pro-business rhetoric, Welsh Labour retains socialist instincts and so do many Plaid voters. Which means Plaid will have to formulate policies that are different to Labour’s policies to set itself apart from Welsh Labour while appealing to roughly the same voting constituency. 
Given the abysmal record of the current Welsh Government (currently a minority administration formed by Welsh Labour only), Labour’s vote is likely to decrease at the next election for the Welsh Assembly and the question for Plaid will be whether it is serious about getting into government. Since even Plaid wont do the same mistake twice, another coalition with Labour is unlikely. And so the only alternative will be a coalition with the LibDems and the Welsh Conservatives. There is much that unites these three parties, not least their determination to call an end to Labour’s (then) 16 years rule in Wales. 
Yet the new leader’s socialist and nationalist rhetoric makes it difficult to conceive of such a coalition. Plaid once again may take the blame for letting Labour stumble on in Cardiff Bay in 2016. 

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