State of Play 2 - Plaid Cymru
- 15 August 2012
- From the section Wales politics
@TobyMasonBBC here again, with the second of our detailed looks at the state of play for the four main political parties to keep you in reading over the summer break.
Today it's Plaid Cymru - a party with the newest leader on the block in Leanne Wood, and the party that's done the most thinking about its future over the past year.
Leanne Wood's election came as a surprise, perhaps to her as much as anyone. There were many within the party who could not quite believe that its members had gone for the candidate who represented by far the biggest break with its past, and arguably the biggest risk to its future in terms of her experience thus far.
A few months on, what's the verdict? All the virtues that the Plaid leader played up during her election have been in evidence since - approachability, plain speaking, a non-metropolitan, unspun approach to politics, even a refreshing (some might say) aversion to overt political strategising. In that sense, the party has got what it voted for.
However - and there's always a however - up till now the membership and voters alike might also be scratching their heads as they try and work out exactly what the new Plaid leader's political strategy actually is. Yes, there was the danger that she could be quickly pigeonholed by voters and her opponents as the leftie Valleys republican firebrand. But the last few months have seen some, well, diverse approaches adopted.
The big hope was that the election of the new leader would provide Plaid with a much needed bounce at the ballot box at the local elections in May. The outcome, in particular Caerphilly, dashed that hope, with Labour conclusively retaking control. But even during the campaign, there was confusion about who the real opponents were.
On the one hand, Ms Wood laid into Labour with gusto. And then, at around the half way point of the campaign, came her call for what she dubbed "the United Welsh Alternative" a grand alliance of left-wing, anti-cuts parties and organisations - principal among them, Plaid Cymru and Labour, working together to oppose the UK Government.
Then an even odder juxtaposition just a few weeks ago - in the space of the same week, the new leader made the decision to join the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Assembly for the vote of no confidence in the Health Minister, and also wrote a warm letter of support to the First Minister, offering him her and her party's full backing in his call for a constitutional convention on the future of the UK ahead of the 2014 Scottish referendum.
Her approach at First Minister's Questions too is confusing. The preferred strategy seems to be to open by asking Carwyn Jones whether he would agree with her about opposing some policy of the UK Government affecting Wales. The First Minister normally agrees politely that he would. Ms Wood then proceeds to ask him what he is doing about it, to which the reply is generally that he is raising it with the Prime Minister / Chancellor / another UK Government minister - sometimes gently pointing out that it's something he doesn't necessarily require her support to do, thank you very much.
This has the effect of making Plaid Cymru sound as though they are dead keen to do a coalition deal with Labour, and Labour sound if they have no need whatsoever to do a coalition deal with Plaid Cymru. It's also an oddly consensual approach for a political firebrand, carrying the additional danger of appearing timid in the face of the First Minister's decade of ministerial experience.
One Plaid Cymru AM who would certainly not qualify for the adjective "timid" is the third placed candidate in the leadership runoff - Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Summoned back from degree ceremonies at Bangor University by party whips to vote in the confidence motion against Lesley Griffiths, he not only declined to make the journey south, thereby guaranteeing Labour would win the vote comfortably, but was also happy to go in front of the cameras to denounce the decision, calling his Assembly group "Tory poodles" for voting alongside them.
Some Plaid Cymru members we spoke to in the aftermath of the vote that evening were spitting feathers - already angered by the refusal to return to the Bay, they were frankly incensed by the comments. The decision by the group to temporarily withdraw the whip and set up a disciplinary panel, which (by chance) contained three members not noted for their goodwill towards Lord Elis-Thomas, then triggered a standoff that threatened to get out of control.
The immediate response to Ms Wood's statement a couple of days later that she was effectively dropping all charges against his Lordship was that it was a move born of desperation and weakness in equal measure. He had faced her down and won, in effect.
With the benefit of a few weeks hindsight, I'm not so sure. It avoided a saga that would have dragged on for weeks, potentially - not so much washing the party's dirty linen in public as opening a Chinese laundry on the steps of the Senedd. Crucially too, it meant any future decision by Lord Elis-Thomas to resign the party whip permanently and sit as an Independent or even Labour member, however unlikely the latter, could not be seen as the party, and his leader, pushing him out.
While the statement headed off the short term crisis, it's not clear that the Dafydd El problem has been resolved. All three opposition parties are likely to use their allocated time in the chamber to press for near weekly votes on health reconfiguration plans up and down Wales once the Assembly returns in September. Plaid in particular feel somewhat bruised about the way they were dismissed as scaremongering on health changes in the runup to the 2011 elections, which is one of the reasons why they were willing to vote with the Tories on the confidence motion.
But there will be close scrutiny of the way Lord Elis-Thomas casts his vote on all matters health from September onwards, which always has the potential to produce another flashpoint. And could his call for "constructive" opposition in the wake of the confidence vote extend to lending Labour the one vote they need to get their Budget passed in December, whatever the fallout from his party? I'll leave that question dangling there.
Away from the chamber, Plaid have been working hard on sharpening up their campaigning machine on the ground after the Assembly and local election losses, including learning lessons from the SNP's victories in Scotland. Taking the Buttrills council ward in Barry in a by-election from Labour with a 12 per cent swing earlier this month has given them some heart that they're on the right track.
But all the campaigning techniques in the world are no substitute for a clear, unified national strategy and an unequivocal offer to the voters - this is who we are, and this is where we stand.
Tomorrow - the Liberal Democrats.