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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The dilemmas of power

I have suggested before that Plaid Cymru have not yet made the adjustment to a party comfortable with power however recent news items have caused me to revise that judgement. I am now convinced that they are not even trying. Instead the nationalist party are trying to redefine the role of a government party by having their cake and eating it.

This approach involves divorcing their backbench Assembly Members and MPs from their Ministers so as to enable each to pursue their own path. The moment that any inconsistencies are rumbled and Ministers put on the spot they run for cover behind the so-called responsibilities of government, either allowing the WAG press operation to respond through a bland statement or accusing those scrutinising them of not understanding the limitations of government or, worst still, not being prepared to take on the mantle of power.

In many ways this approach does keep Plaid Cymru in the news and enables them to play both sides of an argument. The downside is that sooner or later the Minister will have to make a decision and that could well isolate those in his or her party on the opposite side of the argument. The tactic is opportunistic and it creates the impression of a party interested in power for its own sake. It is also dishonest.

The only thing that has prevented the party getting into significant trouble with this approach so far is the lack of an effective Welsh media prepared to question them on it. I would think that that will not last for long. The One Wales Government is coming to the stage when Ministers are going to have to make some very difficult decisions. That is fine and I have no problem with that process, even if I end up on the opposite side to them, however where those decisions are contrary to clear policy positions and emphatic statements by Plaid spokespeople and elected representatives then they could find themselves in some difficulty.

There are two good examples of this approach from this week's events. In the first instance we have Adam Price MP once more throwing up policy ideas in his endless search for headlines. This time he is advocating the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) to manage revenue from the huge quantities of coal and methane gas that could be exploited in South Wales.

A reasonable idea perhaps but one that has been dismissed out of hand by the Minister for the Economy and Transport, who just happens to be Plaid Cymru's leader. Ieuan Wyn Jones does not even give his colleague the benefit of a personal response. Instead he gets a Spokesperson to tell the media that “The Assembly Government does not have the power to raise revenue in this way on non-Government-owned land and is unlikely to be able to do so at least during the term of this Assembly Government. The Government is interested however in how its current resources can be used in order to share the benefits from the exploitation of Wales’ natural resources, such as through the leasing of Forestry Commission land.”

Adam's response is predictable but only if he were attacking a Labour Administration. He says: "I am not at all impressed with the response of the Assembly Government. If Wales does not have the power to charge royalties for minerals extracted from under the ground, the Assembly Government should be making a case for such power to be granted.

“Instead of accepting the status quo, there is the need to be imaginative, to do some creative thinking so that every opportunity can be taken to improve the Welsh economy.

“The Assembly Government should draft and submit a Legislative Competence Order that would give it the power to get a share of the wealth that will be generated if these developments go ahead.”

“I shall be raising this matter with Ieuan. He is, after all, the leader of my party. In Scotland, the SNP Government is looking to establish a Scottish oil fund using similar principles.”

But does he not understand? Ieuan Wyn Jones has spoken already. The Minister is not a separate entity from the Government he forms a part of. The Assembly Government Spokesperson is not pontificating on behalf of some abstract entity. He or she is speaking on behalf of Ieuan Wyn Jones and the two Plaid politicians are clearly at odds with each other.

The second example involves Plaid Cymru Assembly Member and their environmental spokesperson, Leanne Wood. She joined a number of Welsh Liberal Democrat politicians on Tuesday outside the Senedd to protest at the planned M4 extension past Newport and through five SSSIs on the Gwent levels.

On her blog she writes: 'I have a lot of sympathy for the campaigners. If we are serious about climate change, and we take heed of the warnings over peak oil, we would not spend around £20million per mile on a motorway. Our public transport system is in urgent need of investment. More roads inevitably result in more traffic. This in addition to the fact that the proposed road would run through the Gwent Levels, five miles of which are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).'

This is fine and I agree with her but does Ieuan Wyn Jones who, as Transport Minister, has already committed to taking this new road through the relevant processes? Will Leanne publicly oppose her own leader on this road and where exactly do Plaid Cymru stand on this issue? It is time we were told.
You seem to think that having backbenchers disagreeing with the government is a bad thing? In my opinion the worst thing about the Assembly for the past 9 years has been the fact that parties act as big blocks, without the hint of disagreement.

At times I felt the whole place would work just as well if the party leaders just met once a week and cast their party AM's votes for them.

Having backbenchers act independently of the government or shadow "front bench" is great news as far as I can see - let's hope it spreads.

The only thing that has prevented the party getting into significant trouble with this approach so far is the lack of an effective Welsh media prepared to question them on it.

Or a lack of effective opposition? ;-)
What a little Stalinist you appear to be - demanding unquestioning party loyalty to the leader. Shame it doesn't extend to your own leader!

Disagreement within a party is democratic and healthy, especially when those disagreements are voiced in public.
Adam's excellent idea has only been dismissed because Wales doesn't yet have the powers to raise its own revenues.
Leanne's stance on the Gwent Levels reflects the opinion that you can't continue to build roads to ease congestion. Ieuan Wyn Jones's decision on the A494 reflects that too.
My understanding is that the M4 Gwent Levels decision was taken before the current administration. Whether it is changed is a matter for government but at least this one is listening.
Did you read Leanne Wood's essay in Tuesday's "Western Mail"? It was as if written by a pre GCSE School girl! If she reflects her Party's Energy Policies then heaven help us in the power black outs. She prattled on about "Community".
I challenge all readers, that's YOU reading this, to go around your neighbourhood and ask each house for just £500 to help purchase a Community Energy producer like a medium sized Wind Turbine costing £500,000 and see what answers you get. The truth is, Leanne Wood's essay was a load of infantile rubbish.
Plaid will be content to hang on to Labour for now, whilst doing little bits of nationalist tub-thumping secure in the knowledge that labour have to lump it. Let's see how things move though when the Tories are back in govt in westminster - I guess that Plaid will then find 'cause' to ditch Labour and try to revive the rainbow that they killed off last year. Given the assembly maths, that sort of upheaval will be interesting for the LDs though - fingers crossed there'll be a strategy in place!
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