Winning for What?

The contrast between the Welsh Conservative and Plaid Cymru leadership elections is striking.

The largely affable and low-key Tory race between Nick Ramsay and the eventual winner, Andrew RT Davies, did not result in wild shifts in policy. The Conservatives seem delighted to have overtaken Plaid to become the second group in the Senedd and are confident they can cement their position as a major player in devolved politics.

Meanwhile, Plaid faces a choice of four potential leaders but also great questions about the party’s purpose, goals and electoral strategy.

Essentially, do Plaid members want (a) a seat-winner who will take the party back into government at the earliest possible date; (b) somebody who will use the position to win the battle of ideas and push all the parties to support greater autonomy for Wales as part of the long-term goal of securing support for independence?

Since 1999, Plaid has failed to end Labour’s position as the largest party in the Assembly. It also passed up the opportunity to lead a potentially unstable non-Labour coalition in 2007.

However, it has arguably enjoyed much greater success pursuing option B.
The overwhelming cross-party support in the Assembly for last year’s referendum and bilingualism testify to the culture change which has taken place in Welsh politics.

Traditionally, parties in UK politics seek power the way an athlete seeks a gold medal and regard opposition as a wretched experience. New Labour under Tony Blair was absolutely focused on getting through the door of No 10, not on liberalising the Conservative party.

But Plaid is not a traditional UK party. It would be a success for Plaid if its Senedd rivals embraced fiscal independence for Wales and gradually became independent from the UK parties.

For many Plaid supporters, seeing their own AMs serve as ministers of the crown will be less important than ensuring that more decisions are made in Wales and that the renaissance in the use of Welsh strengthens.

However, it would be a dangerous and false dichotomy for Plaid to think electoral success and cultural power are not inextricably linked. It was in response to Plaid’s electoral potency that parties moved their tanks onto its lawn.

The SNP are now in a position to stage a referendum on Scottish independence because it presented itself as a competent custodian of the economy and guardian of public services. Its electoral success was not rooted in a surge of nationalist idealism among the Scots but the success of Alex Salmond and his colleagues in championing unromantic bread and butter policies.

If Plaid wants to shape tomorrow’s Wales it needs to win a nation’s trust today.

A Thursday Column.

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