In light of Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ decision to leave the Plaid group, Nye Davies explores the role of Plaid and the opposition in the National Assembly
Clement Attlee called it “the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country”. Ramsay MacDonald’s decision to form a National Government in 1931 has dented his legacy in the history of the Labour Party. Labour’s leader had turned his back on the Labour movement – the alliance with the Tories has not been forgiven by many.
Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ decision to leave the Plaid group is perhaps not on the same scale as MacDonald’s but it has caused similar levels of outrage from his former colleagues. Elis-Thomas was leader of Plaid Cymru for seven years between 1984 and 1991, a considerable amount of time. But with rumours rife that Dafydd Elis-Thomas will join the Welsh Government in the future, it remains to be seen whether the Plaid Cymru historians will place the same verdict on Elis-Thomas as Ramsay MacDonald received from Labour.
Elis-Thomas said his decision to leave was down to the Plaid group being unwilling to “seriously participate in government and to give Wales a stable government” adding that “all pro-devolutionists should be working together” in order to prevent Wales losing powers in light of Wales’ departure from the EU.
But why leave now, especially having just been elected as a Plaid Cymru member in May’s National Assembly election? Many will likely feel betrayed by Elis-Thomas’ decision to leave the group so soon after fighting an election as a Plaid candidate. A petition has been setup calling for a by-election to be fought as Elis-Thomas was “elected through the hard work and financial resources of Plaid Cymru’s local activists”. However, there is no constitutional obligation to call a by-election – perhaps morally though there is an obligation. But as Aneurin Bevan was claimed to have once said, “I have never regarded politics as the arena of morals…it is the arena of interests.”
As well as internal problems for Plaid, there is also the issue of the role of the opposition in the National Assembly. Former Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies’ ambition for “inclusiveness” in Welsh politics, creating “a political system which leads to pluralism”, might be what Dafydd Elis-Thomas feels Plaid are not taking part in, exemplified by the deadlock over the election of the First Minister.
If Elis-Thomas’ complaints are taken as a given, then the question must be asked ‘what is the role of an opposition?’ Elis-Thomas sees Plaid’s stance as a “narrow oppositionist stance”, arguing a coalition should have been sought with the Welsh Labour Government. He also argued that “the idea of an official opposition is not in the Assembly’s Standing Orders and is a Westminster concept”.
However, the deadlock of the First Minister vote could be seen as a success in both collaborative and oppositional terms. After the deadlock, leader Leanne Wood stated that Plaid were happy with the concessions they received from Labour, arguing that “the Party of Wales has secured more concrete gains for people in Wales in one agreement on one vote than the Conservatives achieved throughout the course of the entire last Assembly.” The recent agreement on a budget deal between Labour and Plaid seems to fly against Elis-Thomas’ argument that Plaid are not being constructive in opposition.
Leanne Wood recently commented that “people [in Plaid] are genuinely torn between the two views of whether or not they [Labour] are so bad at governing that we should be in there helping them, or they are doing such a bad job they need to be held to account with a strong opposition.” But in her 2016 conference speech, she stated that “we are not seeking a coalition with the Labour Party.”
Wood has previously argued for the need to get Labour out of government, maintaining that “Wales needs an alternative government in order to progress”, a statement echoed at conference by AM Neil McEvoy who was adamant that Plaid “should have absolutely nothing to do with that party”. If Plaid and Labour have contrasting views on what is best approach for tackling Wales’ problems, perhaps concessions cannot be gained and consensus cannot be met. Fundamental differences mean that Plaid might be better off arguing for its core principles rather than being a passenger to Labour policy. As McEvoy stated, “the public want robust opposition and that is what we should give them…If we go into coalition with Labour we will lose support and will never have the power to really change Wales.” A gradualist approach, with the aim of winning concession, might not be the best option for Plaid.
Perhaps ironically, Elis-Thomas’ defection might help to decide Plaid’s approach to opposition. Plaid have agreed a budget with the Welsh Government but in the future, Plaid’s support might not be as badly needed. With Kirsty Williams in Government, Labour could possibly get the votes they need to pass future budgets and legislation by appealing to Elis-Thomas. As former First Minister Rhodri Morgan put it, Plaid “have lost their leverage” over the Labour Government. If Plaid AMs feel they cannot achieve concessions, and if Labour does not need their support, they may become even more opposition-minded towards the Welsh Government and argue more forcibly for changes in policy.
The numbers in the National Assembly mean that Plaid are level with the Tories on 11 AMs, losing status as the official opposition, highlighted by Presiding Officer Elin Jones now referring to Leanne Wood as ‘the leader of Plaid Cymru’ instead of ‘the leader of the opposition. They will now either share the status with the Conservatives or the position will be lost entirely. Will the same collaborative approach towards the government that some expect of Plaid, also be expected of the Tories? The government whose First Minister described the Tories as “far too much to the right of where we stand”? The first five months of this Assembly term have raised some major issues; but after 17 years, the very nature of opposition and Plaid’s role in the National Assembly is still yet to be fully resolved.