PLAID CYMRU is perpetually standing at a political crossroads.
One step forward. One step back. Followed by a step to the left and a half-step to the right.
And that’s been the way of it since 1999.
When a party’s policies consistently score well with the public, yet the party doesn’t increase its number of seats, there’s an indication some deep-seated issue prevents a breakthrough.
In the parts of Wales where Plaid needs to win constituency seats, it has made little progress at the national election level in twenty-two years.
And yet its policies score well with many Labour voters.
In the Valleys of East Wales, Labour’s core vote is not thrilled by that party’s record in Wales. It is soft at the edges and fed up with the same old formula.
After twenty-two years of Labour government, Wales is stuck in a never-ending loop of narrow managerialism without national leadership.
PERCEPTIONS OF PLAID
The massive elephant in the room is that in Anglophone Wales – where Welsh is relatively little spoken or read – Plaid is seen less as the Party of Wales than the Party of the Welsh Language.
Running in tandem with that notion, which is supported by census data about the distribution of those with Welsh language skills, is the electorate’s perception that Plaid considers the Welsh language first and all other policies second.
To an extent, the second point is projection. People project on to Plaid what they know of Anglo-parties’ history and attribute to the Party of Wales what they know of other parties’ conduct. In Westminster, the Conservatives are a byword for back-scratching cronyism. In Wales, the Labour Party – see Neath Port Talbot Council – fulfils the same role.
Based on those experiences, the internal logic is that Plaid would prioritise the language – ‘forcing it on non-Welsh speakers’, using the English-only pejorative phrase – above good governance and good sense.
For a significant number of Wales’ voters, even among some who speak Welsh, the Welsh language is irrelevant to their political considerations.
It’s a stick with which voters beat Plaid and one which the other parties deploy.
SMALL ‘C’ CONSERVATISM
Wales is a small ‘c’ conservative country. Those arguing the contrary have spent far too much time in the Students’ Unions of Wales.
The rout Labour suffered in parts of Wales in December 2019 demonstrates, no matter how much activists howl, large sections of the electorate do not share Plaid and Labour’s vision of the nation. At least not when and where it counts.
And Plaid, determinedly, is a party of the left with less in common with many of its traditional voters than it might find comfortable to acknowledge.
Plaid Cymru’s contortions to satisfy a largely metropolitan interest in identity politics estrange its traditional voters with more grounded priorities. And whatever votes there in those contortions, they won’t add a single seat to Plaid’s tally.
That said, it’s grossly unfair to suggest that identity politics define Plaid Cymru. Plaid’s primary problem is marking out an identity for itself, that is inclusive of all Welsh nationalist sentiment instead of one part of it.
Those small ‘c’ conservatives among the Welsh electorate favouring greater Welsh autonomy should be inside Plaid’s tent. They should not feel excluded from it because they have views that irritate Party activists.
The issue of perception is perhaps Plaid’s most significant hurdle to overcome with the broader Welsh electorate. It certainly has been to date.
For a party with so many gifted communicators both inside and outside the Senedd, and a leader who is a compelling public presence, between elections, Plaid’s communications seem a little diffuse and inclined to contrarianism for the sake of it.
Election campaigns start the day after the last election finished.
Plaid needs to spend more time driving home its core manifesto pledges on everyday issues, whether in government or not.
This time Plaid’s manifesto is admirably focused on what it wants to achieve if it forms a government.
It needs to stick to those lines as hard as possible, even if it is either not in government or in government in a joint enterprise with Labour.
Plaid also needs to accept that whatever its electoral fate on May 6, not everything it wants to do will be deliverable.
Plaid calls its manifesto ‘the most radical since 1945’. This article doesn’t make a judgement on that claim. However, 1945’s Labour manifesto came in at under 5,000 words and barely 11 pages of A4.
Plaid’s five core policy areas are interwoven in the detail of its manifesto.
A more concise document (126 pages!) that preached less to the choir and more to voters would improve it no end.
THE CORE POLICIES
As Adam Price told The Herald when he became leader, the core of Plaid’s programme boils down to five key policy areas.
1. The best start in life for every child
- Free school meals to all primary school children using quality Welsh produce.
- Investing in 4,500 extra teachers and support staff, reducing class sizes, and valuing the teaching profession.
- Childcare free for all from 24 months.
2. A plan for the whole country to prosper
- A guaranteed job or high-quality training for 16–24-year-olds.
- Zero-interest loans to support small businesses to bounce back post-Covid.
3. A fair deal for families
- Cut the bills of average Council Taxpayers, helping the weekly budget go further.
- £35 per child weekly top-up payment to families living below the poverty line.
- 50,000 social and affordable homes and fair rents for the future.
4. The best national health and care service
- Train and recruit 1,000 new Doctors and 5,000 new Nurses and allied staff.
- Free personal care at the point of need for the elderly, ending the divide between health and social care.
- Guaranteed minimum wage of £10 an hour for care workers.
5. Tackling the climate emergency
- Set a Wales 2035 Mission to decarbonise and to reach net-zero emissions.
- Establish Ynni Cymru as an energy development company with a target of generating 100 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2035.
- Introduce a Nature Act with statutory targets to restore biodiversity by 2050.
In principle, none of the above should be particularly contentious. The climate emergency and green energy pledges will not play well among some older voters. However, the environment is an issue that resonates with younger ones (aged 16-24). It’s a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of climate contrarians wouldn’t vote Plaid if it meant them winning the Euromillions in return.
Of Wales’ three main parties, Plaid has the most to gain from younger voters and mobilising them to turn out. It’s a mystery why Plaid hasn’t both encouraged younger voters to register and targeted them more assertively. Doing so would deliver a USP and a future voter base.
PAYING FOR IT
Ynni Cymru, a Welsh national energy company, is an idea Plaid floated at the start of the last Welsh Parliamentary term. It has re-emerged in a much-changed form from that originally floated. Instead of controlling green energy production, Ynni Cymru would be a staging post, a project development company similar to Transport for Wales.
The long-term aim is the establishment of a state-backed energy company.
Unnos –Land and Housing Wales – would be a clearinghouse for investment in funding affordable and social housing in the same vein.
Extending the state will come at a cost.
More public spending needs more money. That money can only come from raising taxes and more public borrowing. You can’t ignore basic fiscal principles by wishing them away.
The Plaid manifesto’s reliance on historically low-interest rates to fund its plans glosses the certainty of future interest rises, a probable funding squeeze.
Both impact those plans’ deliverability.
Plaid is at least upfront that – if it forms a government in its own right – some people will pay more tax in one way or another. And, at least, it confronts the issue of Council Tax head-on instead of pussyfooting around it like Labour. After 22 years, Labour intends to have a jolly good chat about it for the next five years.
In addition, the Conservatives’ plan to do much more with far less is scarcely credible in light of economic reality. Labour promises more of the same, but more so – grinding on with micromanagement until the machinery of fiscal delivery finally clogs up and explodes.
Plaid is honest what it wants comes at a cost to the electorate.
For which reason, if no other, the Party deserves a round of applause.
This is an issue on which detailed analysis is unnecessary.
Plaid is in favour. It promises to hold a referendum on independence if it forms a majority government.
Of all Plaid’s policy pledges, that’s the least surprising.
More surprisingly, Plaid has not – so far – managed to convert the upswing in public support for Wales’ independence into a larger poll share for itself.
Unless that changes in the last couple of weeks of this election campaign, Plaid needs to ask itself why that is the case.
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