Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Ieuan's swan song and Plaid's paradox

Ieuan Wyn Jones's legacy to Wales and Plaid Cymru runs far
deeper than high-profile air links and "WAG" managerialism. (Pic : BBC)
He's still got another few months as Plaid leader, but Ieuan Wyn Jones's speech at the Plaid conference last week was the start of a goodbye process. Who will replace him? We don't know. Judging by reports, there'll be no shortage of candidates. Elin Jones has thrown her hat into the ring, Dafydd-El Thomas too. There have also been rumblings about Leanne Wood, Llyr Huws Gruffydd, Simon Thomas and Jocelyn Davies since May's disappointing election results.

IWJ's legacy will be a bit of an odd one. He's arguably the most successful leader Plaid has ever had, yet this isn't the first time the party has moved quickly to replace him and descend into (justified) post-election naval gazing.

He was a successful Economy and Transport Minister in terms of delivering projects on time (if not quite on budget) and overseeing a complex (and controversial) review of post-WDA economic policy. He's an excellent manager, organiser and always seemed keen to listen. Yet he never seemed to have the confidence of the business community, and there have been more than a fair share of completely unfair accusations and labels thrown at the man.

"Ieuan Air" is a case in point. The outgoing Labour Second Assembly introduced the north-south air link in 2007 - before the election, and way before Plaid went into One Wales. Yet all of the negative fall out - the accusations that it's a waste of money (as though £1.5million would achieve anything near the same boost for north-south travel) or that the money should be spent subsidising the awfully-run Cardiff Airport - fell squarely on IWJ's shoulders.

In his own back yard, he was accused of doing too much "nation building" - improving north-south links that would shame a Central American banana republic. He also stood equally accused of not doing enough for Ynys Mon – like failing to wave the WAG's magic wand and turn Wales' most rural, most distant local authority - run by a cabal of bickering and incompetent Independents - into an economic powerhouse.

He's been labelled bland and uncharismatic, yet his speech to the conference was full of passion and vitriol - albeit in Welsh. He's clearly a far better public speaker in Welsh than English. That's a problem (though in an ideal world it wouldn't be a problem) if Plaid want to make head ways in the Valley and M4 corridor. It's a factor the party membership should consider when choosing a new leader.

His performances in the leader debates in April were pretty good - especially the first one. Yet he was always cut as something of a pathetic figure. A squeaky "Gog", who couldn't command physical presence (like Carwyn Jones and a lesser extent Kirsty Williams) or a lightly pompous academic respect (like Nick Bourne). Yet he was still a fine leader regardless. No infighting or party rebellions. Competent in government. A trustworthy and workmanlike face for Plaid.

He didn't get everything right. He had a tendency to waffle, a tendency to become obsessed with process over delivery (a Welsh problem if ever there was one) and never stood up for himself or his record in government when it mattered.

But there's absolutely no reason why he, or Plaid, shouldn't be proud of his contribution as leader.

Ieuan's legacy is everywhere: the construction of a £100m+ road in Port Talbot that will help regenerate the centre of the town, the Porthmadog and Tremadog bypass, the Church Village Bypass delivered after 30 years of waiting, several new and improved rail stations, a new Swansea bus station, a reduction in road casualties because of "nation building" safety improvements along the A470, platform extensions in the south Wales valleys, ProAct & ReAct keeping thousands of people in work and training during the worst recession since the 1930's (and Welsh unemployment not the worst of the UK's nations and regions for once) and a strong case made for future electrification of the south Wales mainline and valley lines.

He set the ball rolling for infrastructure improvements for the next 10-15 years. He also radically (in Welsh terms) changed the relationship between business and state that has existed unchallenged in Wales for 40 years – a conceived wisdom that handouts and grants dished out like swimming certificates to any business that wants one in a mobile globalised economy automatically leads to jobs and wealth creation.

I'm not the only one who disagrees with some of the outcomes of that, but he grasped a poisoned chalice and did his best to deliver in some pretty intolerable conditions and under fire from many different quarters.

History is going to be very kind to him.

The Plaid Paradox

There were a few other developments at the conference of note.

Firstly, the party have finally put "the i-word" into its constitution. We should be laughing at the reaction to this - especially from our Cheryl - that independence has been some sort of insidious "nats under the bed" plot Plaid have kept quiet for decades. I'm glad this nonsense has been sorted out once and for all. It's also prompted one of the best debates on Welsh independence for a long time on BBC Radio Wales which you can listen to here.

Secondly - and more importantly - the vote to support those evading TV Licence Fees in protest at the UK Government's proposals for S4C funding.

The good from this move is that Plaid are clearly a party who actually listens to and values its membership, they actually have a spine and that they are not ashamed to stand up and fight for what they believe in – things ordinary voters might want in a party.

And yet this is also the sign of a party driven by protest and the Welsh language, willing to ramp up illegal activity to make a point – things that will turn away many ordinary voters, and make Plaid look like nothing more than a large pressure group.

This is the "Plaid Paradox" : electable, yet unelectable at the same time.

The SNP have managed to reconcile the two (North Sea oil arguably being the SNP equivilant of the Welsh language) and that might be one of the reasons they've been so successful. Surely there's a "moderate" path Plaid can follow as well instead of being dragged to extremes?

No party should encourage or support illegal activity unless there is a clear injustice, oppression or predjudice being enacted or targeted at its members or supporter base that contradicts the existing law or constitution. As frustrating as the S4C situation is, I fail to see the "injustice", but what I do see is an opportunity.

Plaid could have come out of this calling for a new funding model – i.e. Welsh Government grant funding for S4C, combined with the licence fee - or even used this as leverage to devolve broadcasting (or at least Welsh-language broadcasting) to Wales. That would've not only made Welsh Labour look toothless and lazy, it would've made Plaid look like they were the only party genuinely standing up for Welsh interests and that they are willing to explore the issues and come up with clear and practical solutions.


  1. Picking up on just one point, I don't particularly see why a party should only support illegal acts that affect its own members or supporter base, Owen. Direct action is something that can be used in any cause which those who undertake it think worthwhile.

    I will always support the right of anybody to engage in direct action; provided it is non-violent, done openly with no attempt to evade arrest, and with willingness to accept that if you break the law you must accept the full consequences of doing it. In fact being fined or sent to prison is perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive way of showing how much the issue matters to you.

    If anyone's interested, I gave a fuller explanation here.

  2. Just an opinion on whos standing:

    Jocelyn Davies has and Llyr Huws Gruffydd practically endorsed Elin Jones. Simon Thomas seems to lean that way also. I dont think any of them will stand. The only other possible candidate is Leanne Wood IMO.

  3. Anon

    Hope you're wrong. Hopefully Leanne will put her name forward.

  4. Your comments are appreciated as always.

    MH - I agree with you on direct action, but I do think there is a danger of overreacting to events. The wider issue is that DCMS are making a complete hash of the spending review while the BBC are in danger of failing to meet their public service broadcaster responsibilities. In my opinion it was an open goal for Plaid (or the Assembly) to make a solid case for devolving broadcasting.

    Instead I can only see headlines of the odd language campaigner appearing in magistrates courts for non-payment complete with the usual rent-a-quotes implicitly linking them to Plaid, Sgorio gets zero viewers and that the Welsh language causes cancer blah blah blah.

    Anon 23:40, maen_tramgwydd - Thanks for clearing things up. I wouldn't at all be surprised if it's a straight "fight" between the two "El's" in the end.

    I honestly think Leanne Wood is better as a backbencher. I wouldn't want Plaid to lose an effective backbencher and gain a leader who has to hold back because of the role.

  5. Owen

    Elin Jones as leadership material?

    I think DET would be a disaster, but Plaid would make a splash when it hit bottom. Elin Jones... the party would sink without a trace.

  6. You say—and probably rightly—that you see only a certain sort of headline, Owen, but that isn't really Plaid's fault. The party has been calling for devolution of broadcasting to Wales for some time, and the motion that was being debated repeated that call.

    However it also included what I thought was an innovative way of dealing with the problem of the BBC failing to meet their responsibilities to fairly reflect and cater for the various parts of the UK: namely for the BBC to itself be devolved with the licence fee from each country being paid to, in our case, BBC Cymru Wales, who would then decide what programes they wanted to buy and broadcast on their channels in Wales. The full motion is here, starting on page 24/25.

    Yet how much of that was reported? The BBC's story is here, and it is nearly all about the campaign to withhold the TV licence fee, with only a few words about devolution of all broadcasting powers and absolutly nothing about the proposal to restructure the BBC.

  7. MH - Thanks for the conference document, it's a good read. I think we're both frustrated at the lack of coverage of "proper" issues raised by the conference.

    I don't think that's a problem limited to Plaid either to be honest, considering how much coverage David Melding's "Ymalen" proposal has been getting recently.

    maen_tramgwydd - Neither Dafydd El or "El" knock my socks off with regard leadership potential or excitement. Elin does at least have a track record in government and has, to her credit, come out quite strongly in favour of independence. She's a safe pair of hands and the leadership is likely to be a one-term (or one and a bit term) job. I fully expect Plaid to take another hammering in the local elections next May and neither El will be able to do anything about it.

    We have to remember that Alex Salmond hasn't always been the leader of the SNP. Plaid's future leader post-2016 (I think you can guess who I'm referring to) is going to need a strong team behind him (hint hint) and it's fair to give other AM's who are likely to be part of that team a fair crack at the whip and I'd include Leanne Wood in that.