A Party of Government or a Party of Change?

There is a grand irony that Westminster – that bastion of first past the post – this week marks the first anniversary of a coalition while one-party rule is under way in Wales and Scotland.

The electoral systems for the Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were expected to make these outcomes more unlikely but the SNP last week won a majority which justifies the use of the term “whopping”.

In Wales, Labour did well to win half of the seats in the Assembly but there are political reasons why the party decided to launch this experiment in solo-government.

Historians will scratch their heads when they look at Plaid’s strategy before, during and after the election. Successive polls showed the party ranking behind the Conservatives so the result cannot have come as a surprise.

Even though three of their top five winnable seats were held by Conservatives they chose to direct extraordinary firepower at Labour. This is despite having shared power with Mr Jones’ party since 2007 and together delivering a Yes vote in the March Assembly referendum that was (a) historic and (b) also verifiably whopping.

Plaid could have adopted a version of the 2001 UK Labour slogan, “The work goes on”, and used the election campaign to promote the idea of another coalition which would address endemic poverty and under-performance – but this time with a new toolkit of powers.

In the immediate aftermath of the election the party could have forcefully made the case that no group had won a majority, that 57.7% of constituency votes had been for parties other than Labour and that Wales needs a strong government when the nation is braced for the full force of the spending cuts.

Instead, Plaid seems poised for long nights of debate and soul-searching about its raison d’etre. The idea that renewal is found in opposition is dubious. Were the Conservative eras under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard times of unbridled renaissance?

The appearance is of a party that has not only lost power but does not regard winning power as its over- riding purpose. Does Plaid exist to win office and make decisions about road expenditure, prescriptions policy and fisheries, or is its success to be judged by its wider impact?

Without hesitation, politicians from all parties now champion bilingualism, talk about the Welsh people as a nation and seek to tailor bespoke made-in-Wales solutions to policy problems. It is a sign of Plaid’s success at shaping the political landscape that other parties’ tanks are parked on their lawns. But the party is in no mood to celebrate and tough days are ahead.

A Thursday column

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