Friday, 2 August 2013

Cry 'Haggett', and let slip the blogs of war


I have to apologise first of all. On Monday, I incorrectly described the Ynys M
ôn by-election as a "contest" and a "two horse race".

It was, in fact, a "curbstomp". If it were a football score, the result would've had to have been given in brackets. There was only one horse, racing against some garden gnomes and cabbages. Rhun ap Iorwerth wins. Fatality.

It's a humiliating result for Welsh Labour, who sent several big guns from Cardiff over the last few weeks - including the First Minister. While Tal Michael is - on paper - as high-calibre a candidate as it gets Labour wise. They were very close to finishing third behind UKIP.

To put the cherry on top, Plaid also held two council seats in Caerphilly by comfortable margins.

Plaid's campaign was intensive and positive, coming across like a cheesy US presidential run and I found parts of it rather amusing (in a good way). Plaid should invest in Factor 50 next time (that's not a Wylfa joke).

Rhun has all the professional credentials to be an excellent successor to Ieuan Wyn Jones. I wish him the best and I'm pleased Plaid have spared us a Labour majority. I suspect I'll be covering many more positive stories involving Rhun from the Senedd over the coming years.

You know where I'm going next because of the blog title. If you've had enough I suggest you stop reading now. I'm posting this at a relatively early time because I want to help draw a line under things, but I'm not doing so without raising some concerns of my own.

Yes, it's time to turn to this week's big talking point on the blogopshere – highlighted by A Change of Personnel, Borthlas, Inside Out, indirectly by Blog Menai, Ifan Morgan Jones & Hogyn o Rachub - though I thought it best not to comment until after the by-election.

Bloggers usually only make the news when we've done something naughty.

I doubt Michael Haggett (MH) of Syniadau is flavour of the month within Plaid at the moment, finding himself up Shipton Creek. The Snitchfinder General grilled his more critical blogs for The Western Mail days before the by-election, drizzling it with the obligatory anonymous sauce.

I guess you're expecting me to join the chorus of outrage against Michael for attempting to undermine a crucial by-election - and the sterling efforts of Plaid activists who travelled from across Wales to campaign for Rhun - which under a slightly different set of circumstances could've played a role in handing Welsh Labour a Senedd majority.


Syniadau : The (Nuclear) Free Radical

Far from being a Brutus, Syniadau's Michael Haggett has played Mark
Antony to the Cleopatra of idealised Plaid rules and core principles, ultimately
crushed by the party hierarchy's Octavian quest to win. And what a win it was.
(Pic :
I have to be a little bit critical of course, so I'll get that out of the way. I think some of Michael's language and timing was brazen. Even I was taken aback, and any anger from Plaid for that reason - but that reason alone - is justified.

Now that that's over with....

MH had two primary concerns.

Firstly, the issue of Rhun ap Iorwerth's selection. I didn't think there was anything wrong. Any party would jump at the chance for someone well known to run for them, especially journalists as they both walk the walk and talk the talk.

However, Michael had a point on IWJ's decision to resign immediately which changed the dynamic a lot.

I'm presuming that's because Rhun had to declare his intentions immediately - due to his former job - so the Plaid higher-ups thought, "A well known local journalist would like to run for us in a constituency where personality matters a lot. Let's start immediately to catch the other parties off guard! #ymlaen"

In political strategy terms, that's pragmatic, sensible and perfectly legitimate.

The trouble is that Heledd Fychan cancelled her candidacy bid in Arfon just beforehand in order to run in
Ynys Môn having been a long-standing member. Meanwhile, usual candidacy rules were suspended under "extraordinary circumstances" (being an impartial BBC journalist) to allow Rhun to stand.

It's that circumventing of usual selection procedures that wound MH up. He believed similar with regard Angharad Mair before, so MH is being consistent about "ringer" candidates, and I don't think this was ever about Rhun himself.

What's done is done, and this was a distraction from the bigger, more important issue of Plaid's energy policies.

MH is vehemently anti-nuclear and it's a blue touchpaper issue for him, having blogged in detail in favour of renewables. Plaid voted its "total opposition to the construction of any new nuclear power stations" in 2011 and MH strictly interprets that to mean none whatsoever.

Interpreting "new" as meaning "new sites" lets Plaid off the hook, as Wylfa B could be interpreted as expansion of an existing station. Plaid can therefore support Wylfa B, whilst appearing to oppose nuclear power in general – a politically dangerous position of trying to be all things to all people.

MH was fine with a position that opposes Wylfa B outright - in line with the agreed Plaid policy motion - but as long as it were to be built (in the absence of devolution of energy) then securing local jobs should be the top priority. Rhun ap Iorwerth said something similar on his campaign site in relation to the jobs.

MH seemed happy with that, but neither Rhun nor anyone else in Plaid were making their position clear on nuclear energy or Wylfa B itself, trying not to draw attention to it.

Then Rhun did – saying he supported it outright – the complete opposite of MH's interpretation of Plaid's own policies.

I can understand why MH would've been angry with that as a grassroots member holding his party to a democratically agreed policy. Add MH's antagonism towards the selection process and you're building up a (somewhat justified) head of steam.
Ynys Môn needs jobs and investment, so Plaid are going to do everything they can to support those efforts, the most eye-catching proposals being Wylfa B and the science park.

It's realpolitik. Plaid's job is to win elections as much as pushing their long-term political goals. But those long-term goals - including a coherent energy policy - have to be set in stone otherwise there's no point in having a party, it may as well be a collection of Independents.

Judging the behaviour of some Plaid politicians down the years, that's what they appear to be, dropping core policies whenever they feel like it, as has happened in other parties and even ministers. Michael had enough and saw red.

Plaid are, by some way, the best of a bad bunch. But there've been plenty of examples in the past (and more recently) of : ruthlessness, ambition trumping ability, lack of respect or loyalty for sitting leaders, anonymous passive-aggressive briefings against fellow party members, backbiting and muddled policy development.

For all the sunny logos and smiles, they're no angels.

The internet's double-edged sword

I don't bother politicians or activists directly, demanding retweets or whatever, because I believe they're busy enough without having to babysit me.

Whenever they retweet or repost a blog on social media under their own steam it's always appreciated and flattering. I go all bashful because they've acknowledged my existence and I hope I'm being helpful in some way - but I know not to expect more than that and it's the limit of my influence.

Online support can help publicise party initiatives, explain/promote new policies or promote candidates during internal and external elections etc. All that can be shared on social media to reach as wide an online audience as possible.

The same thing goes for criticism and internal arguments.

However, you won't get any acknowledgement if you're critical, no matter how well-reasoned you are. That's understandable as nobody likes to hear bad things about themselves, but as long as it's about policy, not personality, they should probably note it.

If a politician or activist notes concerns in the street or via e-mail, it probably feels more "real" so it's treated more seriously.

You publish it on the internet, it could be read by hundreds, sometimes thousands, before it even reaches the target - including opponents and journalists.

You would therefore expect parties to want to nip online criticism in the bud ASAP – especially from their own members and prominent bloggers like MH - by addressing concerns directly as they would any other member of the public.

However, whenever MH has been critical of party or policy he's been brushed off, or in the case of the selection process dubbed a pedant for trying to uphold his own party's rules.

Also, I'm sure if someone in Plaid outlined their official nuclear policy on Anglesey to MH, he would've re-published it on Syniadau for people to debate, knowing the party hierarchy were taking his concerns seriously. He probably would've still disagreed, but he might've toned things down.

MH started off neutral, even complimentary towards Rhun when he announced his candidacy. He praised his "ambition for Wales and to stand as a candidate". It was only after his concerns on the nuclear issue were being brushed aside, and as he was leaned on to keep quiet for "undermining the campaign etc.", that his polemic became angrier. You can see it progress in his posts.

Politicians wouldn't dare snub a committed activist, regardless of where they lived or who they are. However, Plaid blanked their highest-profile blog, which has a readership in the thousands.

Bloggers aren't "influential" but can stick the boot in where it hurts – ripping apart policies and airing dirty laundry – made doubly worse when picked up by the press.

Michael presumably did so because he believed policies pushed during the by-election ran contrary to what his party stands for, and what they agreed in good faith with the rank and file membership.

His tone was ill-judged, but the principle was sound. You could even say he was taking a noble stand, exposing – as John Dixon said – major problems with Plaid's energy policies and how they're drawn up.

In some respects, this victory might've cleared things up. There won't be any "civil war" - it's just ended. The pro-nuclear lobby have won.

Because of this campaign, Plaid Cymru can only be considered a pro-nuclear party, and Wylfa B will have cross-party support in the Senedd. Nobody in Plaid - regardless of where they are in Wales, or how they voted in the policy motions - can backtrack on that position now without rendering themselves and the party a laughing stock.

Plaid/Nationalists dominate the online political scene in Wales because they were the first to adopt it as an effective campaign tool.

I consider Syniadau my single biggest influence, and MH's posts have been consistently high-quality and enlightening. Syniadau often acts as an unofficial forum for the Welsh nationalist grassroots and it's where I found many other blogs.

Plaid have taken that online support for granted, perhaps viewing people like Michael, maybe myself and others too, as nothing more than "useful idiots" when we're positive, and as loose cannons if we're even slightly "off message".

No harm was done at all. However, despite winning the by-election comfortably, I think Plaid (perhaps all parties) should re-evaluate how they interact with and treat their grassroots online – not just blogs, but social media - especially as the internet garners increasing influence down the years.


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