The obstacles Plaid Cymru have to overcome to emulate the SNP

Listening to both Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon address this weekend’s Plaid Cymru Conference in Aberystwyth has helped consolidate my view that Plaid Cymru are up against it in achieving SNP levels of success next May, but has given me reason to think that they may get there one day.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 15.48.07Leanne’s speech was, to my mind, a lot better than the headlines made me think it was. The Guardian’s headline was:
“Plaid Cymru leader opens party conference with attack on Labour”

This was the one that appeared to be going around the twittersphere too, even among the PC supporters. This made me sigh with frustration. It is exactly the sort of negative campaigning I have been complaining about for months. And for sure, there was far too much of it in Leanne’s speech. But there was a lot of good stuff in it too that I was pleased to see some of the Welsh media latch onto instead.

Wales Online (the website that aggregates the coverage of Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales On Sunday and many local titles) ran with the much more positive headline: ”

The nine key pledges from Leanne Wood’s Plaid conference speech – as she outlines her priorities for government

Most of these pledges were much more along the lines of what we need to hear:

  1. Reversing cuts to NHS services
  2. New cancer diagnostic centres to ensure a maximum 4 week wait for cancer tests
  3. Free personal care for the over 65s
  4. Reform of school inspection system and rewarding improvement in schools
  5. Banning fracking
  6. More renewable energy
  7. £100 million for most promising new businesses
  8. Achieving devolution equality with Scotland
  9. Achieving at least an involvement in government.

I am not going to dissect these individually, except to say the first seven are all major steps in the right direction that a PC government should be able to deliver. We need a lot more detail on how they would achieve them, within the current budgetary constraints in existence, before the wider public will see them as attainable rather than aspirational. I have little doubt that they are achievable, but they would need funding and we need some honesty about how that would be achieved. If they are serious about coming into government, they must have done those sums. Presenting this analysis will help give them credibility. The last two pledges, on the other hand, are outside their ability to deliver alone. Such things are therefore dangerous, indeed I would say foolish, things to pledge. Taken as a whole, I would agree with Adam Johannes’ assessment: “The problem with the 9 key pledges that Leanne W made is that they are all okay, but taken as a whole seem a jumbled shopping list and are not demands that present …….. something that will inspire people. Pretty timid. For example, it could include – Housing Justice – ending the bedroom tax in Wales; introducing rent controls in private rental sector;  making letting agency fees illegal;
opposing trident, nuclear power and foreign military intervention….”  

But I am digressing from the main points I wish to make here.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 15.49.48Nicola Sturgeon’s speech contained within it a very sound analysis of where Plaid Cymru are and set out how the SNP went from a very similar position a few years ago, to its current position. It strongly stated that Leanne Wood is the right person to lead Plaid Cymru and take them forward. This I agree with wholeheartedly, not just because Leanne is a very accomplished performer, but perhaps even more because of the lack of alternatives. For the SNP to have Nicola Sturgeon lined up to seamlessly takeover and advance the SNP after Alex Salmond is a luxury that the SNP simply do not have. Nicola also tried to make the case for PC being able to advance as rapidly in Wales and the SNP did in Scotland. But here I do not share her conviction. There are key aspects of the political landscape in Wales that make it much tougher for PC than the SNP. I believe three things are particularly significant in this respect.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.02.29Firstly, the make up of the media scene in Wales is not as conducive to getting PC’s message across. As I point out above, the Welsh papers gave a much more positive spin on Leanne’s speech that the the UK national peers like the Guardian. The Welsh papers have a much lower market penetration than the the Scotland only papers. On top of which the Scottish editions of the big ‘red tops’ have Glasgow based editorial control; something that does not happen in Wales. Wales may have stronger Welsh Language broadcasting provision than Scotland in S4C and Radio Cymru, but these achieve pitifully low penetration figures and little political impact on voting intentions I would suggest. Overall, however, this may well be the weakest of the three factors.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.04.51Secondly, and most certainly a key factor, is the nature of the Labour brand in Wales. Welsh Labour, and Carwyn Jones in particular, have been relatively successful in carving out a separate identity for Welsh Labour and differentiating themselves the UK Labour Party. This is truer now than it ever has been with Carwyn making it very clear that he does not buy into the Corbyn ‘revolution’ and that whoever is labour leader in Westminster does not alter the fact the he is Labour leader in Wales. Thus labour in Wales was never quite as Blairite as Milliband Labour, but are now being seen to be a lot more Blairite than Corbyn Labour. Red Tories, they most certainly seem to want to remain. This may prove to be an opportunity for PC and Leanne Wood. Historically, with more of a Welsh identity, being a bit to the left of the national party and voting Labour in the people’s DNA, PC were a resistible force against an immoveable object.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.06.01Labour were always seen as little more than a branch office of UK Labour in Scotland and all its big players shunned the Scottish Parliament to head of to Westminster. The SNP have very successfully shone a light on this with the help of the independence referendum showing just how close to the Tories UK Labour, and thereby Scottish labour too, had become. The PC focus insofar as attacking Welsh Labour, needs to be less on Welsh Labour’s record in office. Quite frankly, that speaks for itself. It needs to be on Welsh Labour’s refusal to sign up to the leftward march of popular politics – the ant-austrerity agenda – that speaks to values of old Labour and which are being renewed and re-invented for the new century by people like the SNP in Scotland and other popular movements in Europe (e.g. Syriza and Podemos). This is a gift to PC that they need to take advantage of, but requires a subtle change of messaging from the off-putting negativity of purely bashing their record in office. Focus instead on highlighting the differences in approach going forward. This will, of course, be much easier once the manifestoes are available. Carwyn promises something fresh and radical. It will be a surprise if he even knows what that means.

Thirdly, and of more significance than PC seem prepared to acknowledge and address, are key differences in demographics between Wales and Scotland. In Wales, 20% of the current population were born in England, with an additional 5% born outside the UK. In Scotland, 8% were born in England, with a similar number born outside the UK. Figures for second generation immigrants are hard to find, but must be hugely higher in Wales than Scotland, especially those with at least one parent born in England. This creates issues of identity and conflict at all sorts of levels, from the individual (am I Welsh, English, British?), to community levels (reflected in attitudes to the Welsh language for example), through to the whole country’s attitude to devolution and possible independence.

Simple branding

Simple branding

The SNP have successfully managed to establish itself as the party of Scotland with high levels of support across all parts of the country and among people of all backgrounds and origins. It has built support by successfully arguing that Scotland can be better off when it has control of its own economy (be it in or out of the union).

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.19.18

Not so easy for graffiti artists!

Plaid Cymru calls itself the Party of Wales, when it patently isn’t in any popular sense. Welsh Labour has long been the party of Wales in terms in terms of support. It struggles to appeal to people in sufficiently high numbers to win seats outside of its heartland areas of West/North West Wales. It can alienate people with little interest in the Welsh language. It is identified as the guardians of the culture, but not as managers of the country’s wider wealth. It struggles to paint a credible vision of a Wales that would be better off standing on its own two feet.

None of this is insurmountable. But it is certainly too much to overcome between now and next May. But Plaid Cymru needs to get on the right path sooner rather than later. Nicola Sturgeon set out the key to this in one small part of her speech – I’ll get the exact words to quote as soon as I can track them down – where she essentially said that the secret of SNP success was essentially down to stopping simply denigrating the opposition and by laying down a positive vision and explaining how it could be achieved.

I want Plaid Cymru to succeed. They are without doubt the most realistic prospect of positive change in Wales. They have become a party that I can relate to in so many ways. I will almost certainly vote for them in May and probably encourage others to do so too. But there are still too many reservations that they really know where they are going and have the ability within their ranks to deliver. Leanne cannot do it on her own and she is not getting sufficient support or the right advice from those around her. All this has been graphically demonstrated with the Wylfa B issue.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.31.09So as their Conference continues, I hope the right people are asking the right questions and getting the right answers so as to give them the right direction and impetus to make significant progress next year. It is vital that they do. If they don’t, it is easy to imagine the knives coming out for their greatest asset, Leanne Wood, and things completely unravelling again from there. They desperately need to build momentum after a disappointing General Election. Most of what I have said here I said before that election. I can see little evidence to date that anything much is changing. You really do not need to be Einstein to recognise that doing the same things and expecting different results is madness.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 16.30.30

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