My first reaction, after the the outcome of the General Election became clear, was that I should pack my bags and move to Scotland. This was a gut reaction, but one that has given me serious pause for thought; thoughts that I feel need sharing if we are to ever share Scotland’s new air of optimism and commitment to real change, rather than continue under a cloud of despair as we find ourselves faced with Cameron et al completely untethered and unleashed, shaping our destinies.
My starting point has got be why I did not vote Plaid Cymru. It is well documented that I fully recognise the extent to which Plaid Cymru’s manifesto shares most of my ecosocialist core values. I also fully acknowledge Leanne Wood as one of the most talented politicians in Wales. The bottom line is that if they cannot persuade me to vote for them, then their chances of getting 50% of the vote and sweeping all before them, as the SNP have just done, are non-existent.
I believe that there are three main ingredients needed to connect with the electorate as the SNP have just done:
The SNP, after years of floundering around, finally got these spot on, and this allowed them to successfully capitalise on being in the right place at the right time. After failing to get the outcome that they were committed to in the Independence referendum last year, it would have been all too easy for them to have withered away.
Replacing Alex Salmond with Nicola Sturgeon was the first essential piece of the jigsaw. Salmond was excellent and instrumental in getting the SNP to be seen as a viable party of government in the Scottish Parliament. He was also the right person to head the YES campaign re independence. He could not have carried on into this General Election campaign, however, and credibly delivered the messaging required to appeal to Scots across the land (that voted both Yes and No last year) and achieve the astonishing gains witnessed this week. But in Nicola Sturgeon, he had an excellent apprentice who could set about subtly reshaping the image and messaging required. This took outstanding strategic leadership, alongside the personal characteristics to convincingly sell the message to the electorate.
Leanne Wood is on a par with Nicola Sturgeon, in my opinion. She has a natural ease and sense of conviction that connects with people. She has an engaging smile and a sense of fun, but can equally turn on the ‘don’t mess with me, I’m a Valleys girl‘ glare that stops anybody taking liberties with her. She is the right leader, especially given the lack of any appealing alternatives. Her personal image is just fine. The image issues are with her party.
At this point, I am going to inevitably start rattling some very predictable cages. I do so with some trepidation as I have fallen foul of the Welsh language fascists (in this sense) before, but I do so in the hope that they will hear me through and see that I offer this analysis in a spirit of friendship and wanting to help Plaid Cymru emulate the SNP’s success. The first thing I need to stress is that these are not just my views in isolation. I am drawing on published sources as much as possible.
In dealing with problems of image, it is not even necessarily the case that the problem is grounded in reality. The Green Party, for instance, has longed been dogged by its image as the ‘hippy environmentalist fringe party‘, the classic ‘single issue party’ image that is totally at odds with the reality of a comprehensive ecosocialist agenda that they struggle to get people to listen to. The name does not help. Mentioning the environmental issues, that are taken as given, is a no win situation. Having members that are only too willing to pander to the stereotypical images seals the deal.
Plaid Cymru has exactly the same set of problems. Its prevailing image is as the ‘Welsh language preservation society‘, the classic ‘single issue party’ image that is totally at odds with the reality of a comprehensive ecosocialist agenda that they struggle to get people to listen to. The name does not help. Mentioning protecting and promoting the language, that is a given, is a no win situation. Having members that are only too willing to pander to the stereotypical images seals the deal.
A New Statesmen article, written just a few weeks ago, cites this issue as its main answer to the question ‘Why aren’t Plaid Cymru surging?‘. I quote:
“The biggest problem for Plaid in the areas where it is failing to make the breakthrough only becomes apparent as I head north. Complaints about the amount the Welsh government spends on dual-language signs become laments about the vanishing language as English speakers move north. Fears about the mortgage become concern about being priced out by holiday homes. And public transport – and with it, links to the English cities of Liverpool and Chester, which ought to be the engines of growth, are brittle and unreliable.”
When your image is inextricably linked to one issue (Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Cornwall all have some dual-language road signs without brow beating everybody about the languages), you alienate everybody, like me, that might agree with everything else you have to say, who have simply found no need to embrace the language despite living here 25 years, because you pander to the more unpleasant aspects of nationalism, such as racism, bigotry and hostility towards outsiders that are present in a small part of the membership. The New Statesmen article goes on to conclude:
“One Labour MP in Scotland mused to me recently that “the SNP’s great strength is their grievance is imaginary – it’s about a better state, a better way of living your life, a better politics…and that is very hard to fight”. Plaid Cymru’s weakness is that their grievances are more concrete: a fading language, communities cut off from the prosperous south of the country or England’s Northern cities. Progress in tackling them, far from strengthening the party, actually weakens it: one Plaid activist describes how, in years gone past, the Welsh language attracted hostility on the doorstep. “Now people think it’s sweet,” they sigh. And that may be the biggest problem of all for Plaid Cymru.”
Amongst the general electorate and typical Labour voter, whose political illiteracy cannot be over-estimated, certainly in the extensive parts of South Wales in which I live and work (I work with adults with poor literacy and numeracy), these image issues are usually the first, and certainly the most-cited, reason for not voting Plaid Cymru.
Q. “Why not vote for the strong socialist policies of Plaid Cymru?”
A1. “Well, I don’t speak Welsh!”
A2. “I might be Welsh, but I’m not that Welsh!”
It staggers me just how many don’t even know what Plaid Cymru translates to. They recognise it as welsh words, and many recognise the Cymru bit, but the Plaid bit flummoxes many. A woman I considered reasonably intelligent told me it meant ‘kilt’. Or should I say cilt? The SNP have no such problems. Scottish National Party is clear and unambiguous. And being universally known by the initials is even better. It is snappier and tucks away the ‘N’ word that puts some off. Plaid Cymru runs into problems relying on its initials, as PC has too many other uses with unfortunate connotations.
Professor Roger Scully (Professor of Political Science at Cardiff University) has been known to compare Plaid Cymru to Radio Three: “People are glad it is there, they are well-diposed to it, but they don’t want to listen to it themselves”. This re-enforces the ‘Welsh language preservation society’ image, and sits alongside the ‘Museum’ attitude of saying I want things preserved for posterity and to preserve our culture, but don’t expect me to visit it very often, even if you make it easy and free!
The SNP and PC are both seeking to be parties of their country’s best interests, so how can such ‘national’ parties dodge the intrinsically vile connotations of ‘nationalism’ to become parties of the people? The SNP have managed it, and PC patently have not. Beyond the image issues already discussed, the secret has got be in simple, consistent, straightforward messaging.
The SNP and Nicola Sturgeon, got this spot on. The messages were:
- We are NOT talking about independence
- We are against the unnecessary austerity agenda of the Westminster establishment parties (broken down for the many that are unclear what ‘austerity’ means – protecting the public services we rely on; ending exploitative work practices; ending poverty; a positive future for the young)
- Labour have consistently let us down because they have sold their souls to become part of the Westminster establishment
- The Westminster parties should be given no mandate to control Scottish lives – we can do better for ourselves.
In essence, it was a very clear anti-austerity, anti-Tory, anti-Westminster message, and not an attempt to foster a post-referendum rise in nationalism (which would have failed). Sturgeon mentioned Westminster for more times than she mentioned Scotland in all of her dialogue. The message was always primarily about fighting the forces of evil, that everybody could relate to, rather than banging on about Scottish identity and making it a ‘Scotland hates the English’ thing that would have turned people off. It was underpinned by a strong record in power in the Scottish Parliament and a strong record in local government. This is the order of things. You build credibility from the ground up – via first local councils and then national assemblies. Only then can you aspire to dominate at UK elections as the SNP have done.
Plaid Cymru have a strong base of councillors on which to build, but they need to quadruple the numbers to overtake Labour (as the SNP have done in Scotland) and they need to start controlling some councils successfully too (PC control none at present, unlike the SNP). From here success can happen at Welsh Government level – where PC need to treble their representation to take control.
PC therefore simply did not have the right base from which to surge as dramatically as the SNP – but there are no reasons why they should not aspire to make huge inroads in the WG elections next year. Given that the SNP managed to re-position itself after the Independence referendum so successfully in such a short space of time, PC do still have the time to get it right, if they can get the image and messaging right. Leanne needs to stop banging on about fighting for the people of Wales (which gets subliminally translated as the proper Welsh people; you know, the ones that can speak Welsh, or at least pretend they can by having a few Welsh lessons), and keep the focus on the common enemy, which is the Westminster elite (including Labour) and their austerity programme of robbing the poor to give to the rich (although 11 constituencies voted for exactly this by electing Tories!! Another problem the SNP didn’t have to face as there was only one Tory seat to start with in Scotland – one of only 3 to resist the SNP tsunami). It was a tacit confession that this needs addressing when Leanne said this:
On top of the messages that were central to the SNP’s success (above), PC can add the leverage of Scottish Labour’s demise, and their woeful performance in both England and Wales, to press home the message that Labour are a spent force, finally being outed as the traitors to their proud heritage that has long been happening, but only now being widely recognised. (Labour MPs who voted in Jan 2015 for Tories ‘Charter for Budget Responsibility’ requiring £30bn of cuts in next 5 years: here)
If this is the way PC choose to go forward, then I am in, and will fight alongside them, indeed with them. If they want to carry on being seen as as little more than cultural guardians, then so be it. Valuable work, but not for me. There are far more pressing battles I want to fight and win.
One obstacle to me supporting Plaid Cymru has already fallen. I no longer see a future for the UK. Given the surge in Conservative support (Tory and UKIP) that has swept through England (they are effectively English Nationalists), leaving us with the prospect an unbridled assault on the vulnerable by Cameron and co., I have come to the conclusion that whatever the difficulties it might bring, home rule for Wales is the only way to get out of their firing line. It is very surely time to exercise our right to self-determination, as the future we can determine for ourselves can only be better than that which the Tories will leave us. Without 40 plus seats in Scotland for Labour, it is hard to see how we can ever shake off the hold of the Tories. A renewed drive for Scottish independence seems almost inevitable, leaving us with these unpalatable images (of the 2015 GE outcome and a post Scottish Independence UK) to digest:
If Plaid Cymru cannot welcome in a committed ecosocialist, who happens to also be a bit of a cultural heathen, then it has no prospect at all of appealing to the size of support achieved by the SNP currently. Let us see what happens.
If you want to join Plaid you would be very welcome!
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Andy, i understand where your coming from in this blog. However to be fair to plaid cymru the snp have only recently become a truely left wing party, in fact they were historicaly seen as tartan tories. In scotland we got rid of the tories about 30 years ago, 1983 was the start, ukip would never be accepted in scotland. In wales not only did the tories do well but ukip got a large percentage of the vote therefore unfortunately plaid have a huge disadvantage at this time compared to the snp. Why people in wales accept this i dont know why, no real welsh media is a start, they read english paper with their bias, there is also a large english presence in wales far greater than scotland so historically they would be more right wing, not saying this is a bad thing just something i have noticed, the snp were either clever or as i believe evolved into a left wing party when nicola sturgeon got power as deputy leader. Personally until approx 12/18 months ago i would never have considered voting snp but would have without doubt this year so i decided that on reflection that i should lend my vote to plaid until another viable option is available. PS when you coming to the bowls , they are mainly english right wing tories down there as well. LoL
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Spot on Ken, can’t argue with any of that. I am looking at the possibility of Plaid Cymru evolving into that ‘viable option’ you refer to. With the SNP example to learn from, I think it can.
PS – you may have just put me off bowls! I would love a couple of beginners lessons if you have time some time soon.
Agree with what you say about Plaid being seen as a one-issue party but struggling to find an answer to the problem as Plaid haven’t campaigned on this issue for a long, long time but can’t shake the misconception. In fact, it is frequently dragged up by the other parties as a caricature to beat Plaid with.
The fact is that Plaid are even more to the left than SNP and used the same arguments as them which you suggest already.
Honestly my fear, especially given the strength of the UKIP vote here, is that Plaid can’t reach these people because they are of a directly opposite mindset. I hope I’m wrong but I do feel very disappointed with fellow Welsh voters at the moment.
Ken makes a good point about the lack of a Welsh media – particularly as this has made a lot of people think that the immigration problem is worse than it really is. In fact, Wales basically has no immigration crisis but voters have been brainwashed into placing the issue above housing, education, defence – you name it! The same media is constantly telling us that there’s no way we can ever support ourselves and are lucky to have our handout from our benevolent Westminster overlords.
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I don’t think it needs a major change of emphasis to allow Plaid Cymru to to connect with a far wider audience. They are without doubt our best hope of developing an anti-establishment, anti-austerity consensus in Wales, but they need to learn from the SNP how to focus and connect with people on the matters that really count.
Youve made some good points here, none of which leadership of Plaid is unware of (anybody read Adam Price’s call for an All Wales Convention?), but in the end a large dose of self reflection and responsibilty taking is due on your part.
You moved here 25 years ago and yet havent bought into the cultural aspect of Wales, something that is incredibly important to a majority of our citizens, not just because we’re awkward, but because culture is important to most people, its part of how they define themselves.
You seem to think the Plaid is responsible for bi lingual road signs when even a small amount of google research would put paid to that myth.
You agree with pretty much all of Plaid’s policies, think Leanne is a great leader, and have arrived at the conclusion that home rule is necessary (a conclusion arrived at by Plaid a long time ago, and not because we hate England, but because like you we believe in a Wales not run by a London self interested elite) and yet you chose to concentrate on a non sequitor, a linguistic non issue (we even elected an English speaking leader), and didnt vote Plaid.
So yes Plaid has to persude people like you that we are your anti establishment voice, i think youre going to notice that Plaid do a lot of that work over the next year, but you should ask yourself some questions about your beliefs. Youve lived here for 25 years, perhaps its time to buy into Wales and Welshness.
And Plaid runs Gwynedd Council. Last week the Labour government in Caerdydd announced that Gwynedd Council is the best performing council in Wales. 16 years of Labour rule in Wales and our poor have got poorer, our social problems have been exacerbated, and we have dropped down pretty much every league table in Europe. However, without blinking, in Aberavon Labour stood Stephen Kinnock, a multi millionaire, tax evading Eurocrat with no links to Wales or the area. And won with a landslide. Perhaps ive missed your article about that?
Its time for everyone to start asking questions of themselves, not just for Plaid to try and please everyone. The Plaid message is about social justice for all. I want a party that believes in itself and its principles, not one that is going to start trying to play stupid litte games with its name (because its too Welsh!!!) and road signs. And more than anything else i want Leanne to continue to “bang on” about fighting for Wales.
Thanks for that considered and measured response, Craig. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my beliefs and modified a lot of them – such as my attitude to home rule for Wales. Thanks for flagging up Gwynedd Council – I will have to check that out and do my bit to raise awareness of it.
I am provoking this debate to help raise awareness of different perspectives. Every activist I know is going through some painful soul-searching right now.
I totally agree that to “concentrate on a non sequitor, a linguistic non issue” is not helpful. But it is not me that chooses to focus on it. I want it parked as just that – as important as it is, it is irrelevant to the fight against the neoliberals, the ‘Westminster elite’. But unfortunately, every time I try to engage with Plaid Cymru people, it is dragged up and held against me – and every other person born outside Wales that has not bothered to learn the language – as a mark of respect rather than for any pragmatic reason.
I love living here and intend to die here, I married a Welsh woman, my kids are Welsh, I support Wales against England in sporting fixtures, my favourite bands are welsh bands, I work tirelessly to try to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged living here. Yet you tell me I still need to buy into Wales and Welshness. This is why UKIP attitudes flourish here.
We can choose rally around our core beliefs, for the common good, or we can continue to be divided and conquered.
I think we it only needs a subtle change of attitudes all round – choosing our words a little more carefully to allow the messages to connect with, rather than repel each other.
well I have voted Plaid for many yearsI live in Gwynedd, and I’m not a welsh first language speaker, I voted for them this time in the hope they would be influencing a labour government ( oops ) because they are anti Trident and the green leader advised us to support Hywel Williams, language was not in my thoughts. As an environmentalist I expect plaid to really love the environment as I do t, so I for one do not see Plaid as a one policy party.
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Obviously i cant comment on the Plaid people in your neck of the woods but my experience of Plaid has no resemblance to that. If it did i wouldnt be on board. Of course the language is very important to Welsh speaking Plaid members (and according to every recent poll, very important to the vast majority of Wales) and no one needs to apologise for that, but our party has elected a leader who isnt a Welsh speaker, she pretty much represents those polls; non Welsh speaking Welsh person, who cares deeply about the language, sees it as an important part of her identity, but it isnt issue number one in her life, its just part of the broken picture of all of our lives. We have moved on.
This is a chicken and egg argument and not meant to point any fingers but perhaps your negative experiences are as a result of your attitude towards the language. For what ever reason the Welsh language has taken a hammering in the last 80 years. We are not talking about the natural death of a language, like Latin, but the very visible crushing of a way of life, one that has happened in living memory, in 1981 there were still 20,000 monoglot Welsh speakers for example. Language for most people is a critical part of their identity, watching it die like that is painful, really really painful, in a way that is difficult to explain to someone who hasnt experienced it. Perhaps the best way of explaining it is to compare it to how you (and i) feel about elephants being wiped out (im making assumptions about your principles i know).
Most people who fight for Welsh also believe in social justice for everyone, not many Welsh language activists have aspirations to be millionaire Tory cabinet members. The decline of the Welsh language in the Welsh speaking heartland is an indication of the destruction of our communities. But when we fight for them we are accused of being Welsh language fascists and marginalised. Trying to save the language and its communities is like watching sand disappearing through your fingers. Its an almost impossible task, given that the government says one thing and does another, the media attacks it at almost every opportunity (National Eisteddfod = festival of hate) and at any moment someone can accuse you of being racist and infringing on their human rights. We have to be so tolerant of others intolerance, and those others have usually chosen to move into Welsh speaking areas.
So when someone talks about the ridiculousness of dual language signs (and if we are going to insist on one language on signs, why not Welsh?), changing the name of a political party that has been the only party to stand up for Wales, and calls us language fascists it shoves a salt laden finger into an open sore full of raw nerves. In the relationship between Welsh and English it has been one way traffic, Welsh has given and English has taken, in little over a century Wales has gone from being Welsh speaking to English speaking, and yet its still not enough, we still have to do more accomodating.
I dont want Welsh to be an issue that divides us, it should be one that unites us, but until English speakers try and understand why we care about the language (and lots of them do) it will divide us until the language is dead, and none of us will be better off for that. Welsh speakers understand the English speaker experience in Wales because we have no choice, English is an unavoidable part of our lives whether we want it or not. I have never met a Welsh activist who believes English speakers should be forced to speak Welsh or that Welsh should be forced on anyone. If a little compassion was shown by the stronger partner in this relationship we could stop wasting energy on this subject.
In my opinion, this compassion is not forthcoming in the main for two reasons; divide and conquer is the first rule in any conqueror’s handbook of hegemony and if we are fighting over our miniscule differences rather than focusing on the myriad of things that unite us we are no threat to the establishment order. The mouthpiece of the London elite is our media, they let us know on a regular basis just how monstrous and unfairly demanding Welsh speakers are. A year ago we were being called the Welsh Taliban.
The second reason is most Welsh speakers tend to vote Plaid, the last thing a Labour government in Caerdydd or Tory govt in London wants to do is create more Plaid voters. They have no interest in making the language a viable one and lots of reasons to oversee its demise.
Take those aspects out of Welsh life and the language would no longer create friction and we could get on with making Wales a beautiful place to live for all of us.
Writing an article on what can be learnt from the SNP experience and directly relating to the language is unhelpful i think, it only sees the experience through one set of eyes in Wales.
For me, the lessons to be learnt from the SNP experience have already been learnt by Plaid. The team that engineered the rapid SNP rise to power since about 2006 is now working with Plaid. All the gains The SNP made were until Thursday made in Holyrood. 8 weeks before the Holyrood elections in 2006 the SNP were a threat to no one. Next years Assembly elections will be Leannes first. The General Election gave her unprecendent access to Wales’ and the UKs media and look what she did with it! Imagine what she will do with an election where Wales is the only subject.
In the face of a right wing assault that saw every other party bar SNP lose seats Plaid held on to theirs and increased their majority. The people that stood as Plaid candidates are people who genuinely care about Wales and the people that live here, unlike the robots that stand for the Unionists parties.
I am very upbeat about the result of the General Election and Wales’ future. I would rather a London party that openly hated Wales than one that pretended to care about its people and then shafts them at every opportunity, one that proclaims to stand for working people (whatever that means) and then stands a multimillionaire, tax evading Eurocrat in a Welsh seat. With the SNP in opposition, a divisive EU referendum on the way, a huge Tory induced recession within touching distance, the Tories with an unworkable majority and no one else to blame, and Carwyn now having to chose between supporting horrendous right wing policies from London or backing away from the union, what i want for Wales is just around the corner. The real reason why the whole of Scotland now seem to be SNP supporters is the SNP leadership managed to easily trick the London elite into villifying the Scots, they gave them no other option. That is a year away from happening in Wales.
An unsurprising amount of Welsh people voted for the English Nationalist Party. Not because they support English nationalism in Wales, or because they are monsters, but because theyve had enough of being “shat on by the Tories and shovelled up by Labour”. UKIP have a simple message, anti establishment (even though they are uber establishment), anti immigrants and anti EU, a negative message that is well financed and is supported whole heartedly by every element of the English media. For reasons ive already mentioned non Welsh speaking Welsh people all think that Plaid only stands for independence and rascist Welsh speakers. So UKIP are non Welsh speakers only option.
All that Plaid need to do is persuade those people and people like you that have a social conscious that they are the party that will fight Wales’ corner against the forces of far right wing misery. I just want you to buy into the message and ignore the divisive bullshit.
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Excellent riposte Craig. Thank you for being so measured and considered. Straight away me say that I have built some very constructive relationships with some of the Plaid Cymru people in recent years. We got our heads together to form Bridgend Against the Bedroom Tax, for instance.
I am very familiar with the historical context, and have long been a strong critic of British economic and cultural imperialism. To an extent I am playing devils advocate and being deliberately provocative because choosing not to work around some of these attitudes is a genuine barrier to the electoral success I desperately want to see PC achieve.
I have not learnt welsh because I simply haven’t found/created the time to do so and have chosen other ways to spend my time that I would argue have been more useful/enjoyable.
Your final paragraph is exactly what I could say myself, so we are not very far apart at all!
Sorry Andy, ive only just figured out who you are.
Ive just read that you abhor nationalism and have no time for the language. Weve already covered the language so you know how i feel about that (but further to you last comment, its no surprise that you havent learnt the language, its hardly relevant to your life, if we want the language to grow we have to work on making it relevant not just expecting people to start learning it for no reason), but nationalism wise…
We live in a relatively newly created nation state world order. Whether we like that or not, thats the way it is. You cannot have nations without nationalism. There have been horrendous examples of nationalism, the British Empire, the Nazis, Israel, Indonesia, and France to name a few, but there are equally benign forms of nationalism, present day Scotland, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Finland, and i would say Wales, again to name a few. It depends on your standpoint, if you believe that your nation is better than other nations thats generally a bad thing, if you just feel youre no worse than any other nation thats generally a good thing.
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Hi Craig, you will have gathered, I hope, that my views have become more nuanced. I cannot argue with anything you say here.
The crux of the issue for me re nationalism is that as benign and benevolent as it can be, it is all to easily and readily corrupted, as seen in the many horrendous examples you allude to and by fascists great and small. I have a very similar issue with religion.
But you are right – given that a world organised on a nation state basis is all we have to work with, I am at a point where I am willing to try to see it used to the advantage of me and my family – if not, unfortunately, the rest of humanity – by following the Scottish example of it being the best way of destroying the UK’s neoliberal establishment mandate over all of us, and ability to walk all over our values and communities.
Hence me coming to the conclusion that home rule/independence being the way forward. It is about reducing the democratic deficit of 100% of us having to suffer at the hands of the 20 to 25% of the electorate that have handed us a 100% Tory government.
But at every step of the way, we need to be alert to any signs of the abhorrent aspects of nationalism and deal with them accordingly.