Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Vanishing Act?

Normal Mouth’s latest outing in Golwg has, as ever, provoked a good debate, by asking whether Plaid are in danger of disappearing now that they are in government. I think the points he makes are very sound ones and it is a pity that so much of the response has been partisan; there is a real challenge to Plaid in keeping a clear and distinctive position whilst accepting the responsibility of government in coalition.

Much of Plaid’s hopes seem to be placed on showing competence in government, but as I noted a while ago, I think this is unlikely to be particularly effective as an approach.

It is a matter of opinion as to whether Plaid’s ministers have shown themselves to be more competent than Labour’s ministers to date. There seems to be no evidence that they are any worse, and some good arguments have been made that they have performed well. The question is whether anyone, outside the world of political anoraks and journalists, will actually notice either way.

Certainly, all the reports on Elin Jones in Rural Affairs seem to be positive, and she appears to have been well accepted by the farming community. But will that turn into votes (and if a strategy based on competence in government has any purpose at all, that is surely the acid test)? My impression is that the farming vote in Wales is split (largely on linguistic grounds) between Plaid and the Tories (with the Lib Dems having some localised support, and Labour almost universally hated), and even a fairly large (and highly unlikely) shift from the Tories to Plaid within that group would not make much difference to the result of the next election - with the possible exception of one of the Pembrokeshire seats.

Ieuan Wyn Jones may well have become the face of WAG for Welsh business people and therefore well-known to them – but most of them are committed Tories anyway. Again, it’s hard to see that his role will produce a significant shift in voting intentions – or that it would make much difference even if it did happen.

And all of this has to be placed in the context of the fact that Welsh politicians in general do not enjoy a high level of recognition amongst the Welsh voting public – how much electoral leverage really comes from any slight perception of a higher than average performance?

The danger for Plaid's ministers is that they get sucked into the system. Surrounded by sycophantic civil servants who tell them what a wonderful job they are doing and protect them from the real world, looking at acres of coverage of their every statement in the Western Mail (which enjoys a tiny circulation), 'working hard' all day on the mountains of paperwork that the civil service supply to them, and making organised visit after organised visit, it's easy to see how they could end up believing that they have only to carry on as they are and all will be fine.

For most ordinary people in Wales, the face of WAG – health, education – is undoubtedly Labour. If the government does well, Labour may - although even that doesn't necessarily follow - be rewarded electorally; if it does badly, Plaid will certainly be punished along with Labour.

I think Plaid in the Assembly need to do a great deal more to distinguish themselves from Labour, especially on issues outside One Wales. That might be uncomfortable at times for the coalition partners; but do the One Wales government really need to have a collective line on all issues, even those which are nothing to do with the Assembly? In my view, it is that which creates the biggest danger of the party losing visibility.

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