|Plaid Cymru signs in Ceredigion|
It’s difficult to think of a more fortuitous situation in which Plaid Cymru could find itself.
The Conservative party is being led further right by May and the three Brexiteers, who don’t seem to have any idea what they’re doing.
They are likely to be in power for a long time despite all of their problems, due to a lack of a viable opposition party, further encouraging calls for Welsh self-determination.
UKIP have lost their entire raison d’etre with the vote for Brexit, members are defecting to the Conservatives, and their charismatic leader has left the stage (for the time being).
The Liberal Democrats are still in the wilderness, although they seem to be having some success in their pre-coalition role of the ‘none of the above’ party in recent by-elections.
Meanwhile, the Labour party continue to move towards the hard-left under the control of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
Unless there’s a significant shock in the leadership election, it’s going to be at least 2020 before the Labour party are rid of Corbyn– and they could just elect another hard-left socialist in his place.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so they say, and there’s currently a large vacuum at the centre ground of Welsh politics where any half-sensible political party could take residence.
Plaid Cymru have to take the opportunity to be that party. If they blow it now, that could well be it, I think. But they need to make some changes.
Although the party’s supporters have watched Labour’s decline with incredulity and some moral indignation, the truth is that they suffer from many of the same problems.
They’re a hard-left party in a country that is tracking towards the right. It’s no surprise therefore that electoral success has been limited.
We tend to think that Plaid Cymru have been held back by their nationalism and their support for the Welsh language.
But an alternative view is that this is what has been keeping Plaid Cymru afloat. A number of people vote for them as a bulwark against cultural erosion, without caring much about their politics.
If they are to become a party with mass-appeal, they need to start appealing to the masses rather than left-wing, middle-class Welsh-speaking university lecturers like myself.
Principles v pragmatism
How best to position themselves on the electoral compass is a difficult decision for any political party.
Their members usually lean either left or to the right – very few people join a political party in order to sustain the middling status quo.
But a political party that wants the chance to puts its politics into action must compromise between what the members want and what the voters want.
As Labour’s current travails have shown, there’s little point in sticking to one’s left-wing principles if what that means in practice is the Conservative party having free rein to re-open grammar schools and privatise health services.
Added to this, there has been a real and dangerous shift towards the hard-right across Europe and the United States in the last few years.
The choice facing Plaid Cymru is either a) become an election-winning party that occupies the political centre ground with a membership that leans to the left (the Labour route).
Or b) allow a party such as UKIP to hoover up former Labour voters in the valleys and lead Welsh politics to Trumpsville.
It’s not difficult to imagine that much of what Plaid Cymru has fought almost 100 years to defend, would come a cropper in a Neil Hamilton-controlled Assembly.
So what does that mean in practice?
First of all, it’s more about the way a party presents itself to voters than its actual policies. And for that reason, a Welsh national media should remain goal #1 for Plaid Cymru. Little can be achieved without one.
But there are certain areas where I think the party could track towards the centre ground while also securing some of its long-term goals for greater Welsh autonomy.
Infrastructure and taxes
This is an area where we’ve already seen some drift towards the centre ground within the party.
The party’s main weakness at last year’s General Election, in my opinion, was a tendency to focus too much on opposing austerity at all costs.
The party should instead focus on reducing levels of public subsidy and encouraging Wales to stand on its own two feet with a healthy private sector.
This means lowering taxes for businesses so that there’s some incentive for them to choose Wales over the South-east of England.
Where public money is spent the focus should be on infrastructure. Wales has terrible infrastructure and very little money has been spent addressing this problem.
For instance, it was mentioned this week that Wales has 11% of the UK’s rail network, but 1% of the funding.
The A55 is poor enough, but the roads from north-south Wales are a nightmare. They’re so bad, that it almost has to be deliberate.
A bypass here and a roundabout there isn’t enough – billions need to be spent on new roads and railways.
There are very practical reasons beyond appealing to voters why Plaid Cymru should argue this case:
Wales cannot make the case for independence, or even further financial devolution until it has its own integrated and robust private sector economy.
An independence movement based around public sector workers will screech to a halt if they’re asked to vote their own jobs into oblivion. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
With no integrated transport system, north and south Wales care little about each other, and tend to nurture cross-border links. This is a big problem for any nationalist party.
A strong private sector is all important for a strong media (which needs companies that can afford to advertise and a wealthy population to advertise to), which as pointed out in the past is all important for the reproduction of the discourse of nationalism.
The political narrative of Westminster allowing Wales’ infrastructure to stagnate while spending billions of HS2, Cross-rail and a 3rd Heathrow runway is a drum Plaid Cymru should be beating all the time.
Most painfully for the party, tracking to the centre would also mean having something to say on the issue of immigration.
There needs to be a centre ground here between Plaid Cymru’s more-the-merrier view of immigration and the UKIP xenophobia, as the second is (at the moment) winning out.
It could in fact be an opportunity for Plaid Cymru to marry its stance on cultural erosion with a wider narrative that encompasses immigration into the UK as a whole.
There is little wrong with saying ‘There has been a lot of fear-mongering about immigration, and the truth is that in many parts of the UK, such as the south Wales valleys, it is practically non-existent.
‘Any immigrants that come into the UK should be welcomed and encouraged to integrate into their community. Portraying them as the ‘Other’ is in fact a barrier to such integration.
‘However, we also have to respect people’s right to feel at home in their own communities. If immigration completely changes the cultural character of a community, then the residents of that community do have valid concerns that need to be addressed.
‘This applies equally to a community within a city in England as it does a village in Gwynedd.’
Whether we like it or not, and whether we think they’re valid or not, people do have concerns about immigration, and any political party does have to address them.
What this doesn’t mean is scapegoating minorities for political gain – again, that would be a one-way ticket to Trumpsville.
A niche within a niche
Despite the popular conception of nationalism as the madness of crowds, Plaid Cymru has for most of its history been run by left-wing academics and intellectuals with a penchant for big policy ideas.
Compare this year’s Assembly election manifesto with Labour’s offering.
However, I do sometimes feel as if they’re overcomplicating matters when it comes to winning elections.
Any healthy democracy needs political parties which have well-thought through policies. You certainly need them to stay in power once you have it.
But elections aren’t won by good policies alone. People make a series of gut decisions about who they trust with their vote.
They think: Which of these parties is run by people who are politically and culturally like me? Can I trust them to run the economy - do they understand my aspirations?
There is a danger that a hard-left, Welsh nationalist party fails all of these tests: It is a niche within a niche.
If it is going to taste electoral success, I think Plaid Cymru needs to shed at least one of these constrictions.
The nationalist problem is one it can overcome, and, in my opinion, it goes hand in hand with compromising on its socialism and moving to the political centre-ground.
For Plaid Cymru, this is equally a moment of great opportunity, and potential crisis: How Plaid Cymru responds will shape its destiny, and Wales’ future, for decades.