In Welsh politics, it seems that the one constant is the immovable dominance of the Labour Party. Though their share of the vote in Welsh elections is nowadays much lower than the 50% plus they regularly won in the 1950s and 60s, they seem stubbornly embedded in power within every Welsh political institution. It is hardly surprising (though still disappointing) that there are political activists in Wales whose frustration has spilled over; and having despaired of being able to break Labour’s grip on these institutions, they instead want to diminish – or even abolish – the institutions themselves.
Yet in Scotland, where Labour were once every bit as dominant as in Wales, they are now almost vanquished as a political force. When, and why, did the two countries’ paths diverge so much?
Neck and Neck
We are used to the idea of the SNP in Scotland being vastly stronger and more successful than Plaid Cymru in Wales, but this has not always been the case. In the 1979 General Election when Mrs. Thatcher swept to power, the two parties were neck and neck at two seats each – the SNP’s seats being a much smaller proportion of the total. This remained the case in the 1983 election (two seats each) and the 1987 election (three seats each). In 1992 Plaid Cymru overtook the SNP, having four seats to the latter’s three. In the 1999 first elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, Plaid Cymru’s 30.5% of the list vote comfortably exceeded the SNP’s 27.3%. Labour narrowly failed to win an overall majority in either case but were able to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
It was only after Dafydd Wigley retired and Plaid Cymru started its long march to the Left that the two parties’ fortunes began to diverge. In 2003, with Ieuan Wyn Jones as leader and the ‘Leannistas’ already making their disruptive presence felt, Plaid Cymru lost a third of its votes and its seats but still clung on as the second largest party in the Assembly. Labour, too, clung on in both Wales and Scotland, but in both cases needed the support of the Liberal Democrats to form a government.
Rise and Fall
But in 2007 the national elections in Wales and Scotland both produced a result of “no overall control”. Even the support of the Liberal Democrats was insufficient to form a stable Labour government in either country. Something had to change.
In Scotland the result was the first SNP Government of Scotland; a minority government which excluded the Labour party from power and ruled with the co-operation of, at various times, all the other parties including the Conservatives. After this the decline in Labour’s support in Scotland became unstoppable: their dominance was shattered and the SNP achieved a reputation for competent government which they have retained since.
In Wales the result could have been a Rainbow Coalition led by Plaid which also would have excluded Labour from power. What actually happened was that, due to renegade Plaid members deciding to do a deal with Labour instead, Labour were strengthened and Plaid weakened. The end result for Plaid was further loss of electoral support and the loss of their position as Wales’ second party. The end result for Wales was yet more mediocre Labour Governments.
What exactly happened in 2007? Lets look at the results:
|Labour: 46||Labour: 26|
|SNP: 47||Plaid Cymru: 15|
|Conservative: 17||Conservative: 12|
|LibDems: 16||LibDems: 6|
|Indy: 1||Indy: 1|
|Greens: 2||Greens: 0|
Now, looking at both governments a coalition with the Liberals could have given Labour a narrow majority in Wales but in Scotland they needed a second party of 3 or more members to join to get a majority. The independent member was the nationalist Margo McDonald, not likely to help, and even with both greens they would have fallen short. However, in both administrations the Liberals were not playing ball with the Labour Party, having become unhappy with the results of the previous arrangements.
In Scotland every single opposition party decided to put the boot into Labour and keep kicking. After all, it was in all their interests to diminish Labour by keeping them out of power in the Scottish Parliament. A minority government meant that the SNP would be unlikely to put through any major policy changes without the support of either the Lib Dems, Greens or Tories. The nationalists, who had no actual experience of government, concentrated on the business of running the administration and did it well. They have dominated Scottish Politics since, their popularity currently being as much for their reputation for good governance as their Scottish nationalism
In Wales the story was different. A “rainbow coalition” of all the opposition parties was proposed. Plaid would, as the largest party of the coalition, lead the show and Ieuan Wyn Jones, Plaid’s leader, would be First Minister. Again, there would have been a tremendous political advantage for all the other parties. There was considerable popular support for this option but the Liberal Democrat Executive meeting split 50/50 on the subject and called a special conference to decide the issue, delaying matters. When that special conference met it endorsed the Rainbow Coalition. However, in the meantime a group of Plaid assembly members and one of their MP’s, Adam Price, had formed a group to negotiate a deal between Plaid and Labour. Although we know who these people were, why they so strongly preferred Labour is not so clear publicly other than their rather underdeveloped ideological objection to working with the Conservatives and their reluctance to be nasty to Labour.
As a joint statement by the 4 AM’s issued on May 22nd 2007 put it:
“We fought this election on a platform to deliver a proper Parliament for our nation. A deal with the Conservatives would undermine the chance of delivering that goal.”
Helen Mary Jones, Leanne Wood, Bethan Jenkins, Nerys Evans
How do Conservatives make parliaments improper? Are they really more unionist than the Labour Party who, in 2014 magnificently sacrificed themselves in Scotland to keep the Union for a few more years? If any of you ladies ever read this, please expand your arguments in the comment section!
Of all the Unionist parties, the only one to not “go native” in the Senedd is Labour, who think they can win every time and have led every government so far. The other parties are sold on the advantages of a degree of proportional representation, without which they would have little representation. In every group of humans there are varying political views and always will be. In government at every level there is also a considerable degree of cross party consensus. Maybe it was all just too hard and too difficult? When the insiders finally spill the beans, I suspect it will make a much better drama/documentary than the Cameron-Clegg engagement did.
I was a Plaid activist in 2007 and I heard our local AM, Helen Mary Jones tell us that for her the decision was made for the following reasons:
1. You should always make a coalition with the largest party.
2. The Liberal Democrats are always unreliable.
3. The Conservatives are so right wing you should never, ever work with them.
4. The Labour party are “socialists” like Plaid, and therefore our natural allies
5. Plaid has no experience of government and needs prior ministerial experience to form a competent government eventually.
6. With a Labour Government in Westminster, any coalition without Labour would be under constant political attack.
Was it just because the majority of Plaid AM’s were convinced it was easier and ideologically better?
Did Ieuan Wyn Jones lose his nerve… or was he stabbed in the back ?
So it was a done deal. I suspect that if the Plaid branches and membership had been properly consulted prior to the decision to negotiate with Labour, it would have been different outcome. The pro-Labour group, I think, knew that well. To most members, getting Labour out of government and getting a Plaid First Minister was more important than ideological differences in a coalition. Labour would have been broken, possibly permanently, as they were in Scotland. As it was, it was Plaid that ended up diminished.
And so to 2021
All the indications are that, in the event of Labour failing to win an overall majority in next May’s elections and Plaid still having a significant showing, Plaid will once again want to prop Labour up.
But is “Vote Plaid, Get Labour” really a message that will have any resonance in the areas which Plaid need to win over if they’re to make a real impact – places like Llanelli and the Eastern Valleys?
A big difference between 2007 and 2021 is that this time around, it may well be the Conservatives that are the largest party in the Senedd (though very unlikely to have a majority), and the best Plaid can hope for is probably that they will come in third, perhaps distantly.
It sounds brutal, but perhaps it’s the case that 2007 was Plaid’s moment – and they blew it, condemning Wales to another 14 years of moribund Labour rule. They failed even to come second in any constituencies in December 2019’s General Election, besides the ones they won in their heartland. A return to the levels of support they had in the Dafydd Wigley era seems extremely unlikely to come anytime soon, or under the current leadership.
Perhaps it’s time for supporters of Welsh independence outside Plaid’s heartlands to seek a different party to pursue their aspirations. Gwlad is dedicated to seeing the end of Labour rule in Wales, and while we’re no fans of the Conservatives either we’ll work with whoever we need to in order to see Wales put on the path to being a functioning multi-party democracy – and ultimately a prosperous independent country.