After weeks of swirling coalition claims, counter claims and electoral pact failures it is timely to discuss the merits of considering the benefits and penalties parties may face should they entertain dealmaking after the 2016 Welsh General Election.
At the centre of coalition considerations in the Welsh context is Plaid Cymru. Apart from a brief dalliance with a rainbow alliance in 2007, all talk of Plaid’s position has assumed that it would be a junior member of any government coalition. In fact, this has reached the point where Andrew RT Davies has called on Leanne Wood to publicly rule out a post-election deal with Carwyn Jones.
Herein lies danger for the party.
The UK/English media, if not the public, does not treat junior members of coalitions well – as Plaid, themselves, should understand from first hand experience. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Welsh electorate is far more similar to UK/English in voting patterns than the Scots or Northern Irish and likely share similar sentiments on power sharing.
The question is: What would Plaid Cymru gain from a coalition as junior partner to either Welsh Labour or, even, the Welsh Conservatives? The prospect of ownership of a particular portfolio – and the potential for a Plaid minister to deliver significant changes in that role – is likely the main temptation.
This post will discuss two compelling reasons why Plaid Cymru will be damned to a minor role in future Welsh Parliaments, should they give in to that temptation.
Leave the Liberal Democrats to be the Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrats are serial coalitionists and have, in recent history, provided stability to minority governments in Scotland, Wales and England (apologies for the repeated use of the UK/England allegory but it’s helpful and not entirely inaccurate, in the absence of an English Parliament).
It’s well known that the Lib Dems have taken (what would charitably be described as) an electoral pasting since coalition with the UK Conservative Party in 2010. This is a fascinating outcome for many reasons but, chiefly, the consequences have been far worse after a single Tory-LD coalition than the multiple Lab-Lib coalitions that preceded it. Whether that is because of working with unnatural bedfellows in the Tories, the reneging on pre-election promises or because of the slant of the English press’s view on any coalition in UK Government that was absent from Cardiff and Edinburgh coalitions, we do not know.
Is the truth, though, that the Liberal Democrats are a natural party of coalition? Considering their size and electoral reach since founding in 1988, they are wholly unlikely to lead any government across the UK in the foreseeable future, even with enthusiastic press backing. Despite this, they have managed to strike deals that commit ruling parties to enact Lib Dem policies that they might not otherwise consider. It may not reward them at the polls but Kirsty Williams’s team in Wales have over-delivered compared to larger parties in the Assembly. The Welsh Lib Dems are good at being the minority party.
We know a little about Coalition from the inside, via Mark Williams MP, and that may shed some light on why the Lib Dems achievements in the 2010 UK government have been so well hidden under a massive oak bushel. However, in light of the UK Gov actions since 2015 where the Tories have had a free hand, it’s possible that history (as well as The Guardian) will judge Nick Clegg more kindly than the electorate.
In 2016 the main reason why Plaid should not take a turn down Lib Dem Alley is because the Lib Dems are already there and jockeying for the position of the plucky underdog really ought not be their ambition.
The Persuasive Power of Success
One doesn’t have to look further than Andrew RT Davies’s blog to see how much coalition speculation can be exploited by rivals. Tellingly neither Welsh Labour nor the Welsh Tories use these arguments against each other. Is that because they perceive themselves and their opposites as too big to be hurt by this kind of speculation?
In a Wales where neither the Lib Dems, UKIP or the Greens are ever going to lead a Welsh Government, Plaid should be positioning themselves that as one of the big 3 (instead of throwing in the towel as part of the small 3).
In the 2010s it seems extraordinary to think there was a time (1966 to be precise) when the SNP and Plaid Cymru marched in lock-step, as equals, to Westminster. The obvious divergence in their fate seems vast at present but it wasn’t that long ago that the Tartan Tories were working with Thatcher and had electoral divisions and underwhelming success of their own. It took years, if not decades, of divisions, revisions and leadership changes until they were ready for their surge.
Just like the SNP, Plaid Cymru should hold fast. Political success and failure comes in waves. The Tories are riding high at the moment (we’ve been there before and we know how that ended) and Labour are facing a purple-collar revolt in their heartlands, unprecedented in their history. In post-EU Referendum Wales after two-terms of Tory Governments in Westminster there is the distinct chance that normal service will not resume. No-one knows what might happen and the Welsh public can surprise everyone – remember that the the Rainbow Coalition, led by Plaid Cymru and supported by the Welsh Tories & Lib Dems was actually the popular choice for the public.
The first party to break Labour rule will reap considerable mind-share in the county and instantly be perceived as the real opposition to the Labour in Wales. That should rule out Plaid becoming a junior partner to the Tories and handing them a platform for decades to come (though, as we know, there’s little enthusiasm in the Plaid Assembly Group for such an agreement anyway).
The Ideal Scenario
There are many specific policies that Plaid might be able to implement in a portfolio area that may well be of benefit to Wales in the short & mid term but the opportunity for the elusive big win will come – though it will require hard work & good fortune.
For this day to happen, breath should not be held.
If and when it does come, we ought hope that the Lib Dems will be there too – doing what they do best.