Sunday, 5 March 2017

We need to talk about Neil

(Pic : BBC)
For the second time in succession, a Plaid Cymru conference has been overshadowed by internal politics.

This time it involved Cllr. Neil McEvoy AM (Plaid, South Wales Central), who was found
by the Adjudication Panel for Wales to have directed "bullying language" to a Cardiff Council officer. He's subsequently been suspended from Cardiff Council for a month (more from National Left and Ifan Morgan Jones).

At a hearing in 2015, a single mother was evicted due to arrears caused at least in part by the "bedroom tax". That's disgusting in itself - and should be the real story in all this - but following the hearing, Neil reportedly said, "I can't wait until May 2017 when the restructure of the council happens" in earshot of/in the direction of a housing officer, who implicitly thought it was a threat to her job.

It's not the sort of thing you casually say when addressing someone who's just lost their home. It was a snide remark backhandeldy aimed at the officer and, coming from their superior/employer (the important point everyone seems to have missed), completely unacceptable. You don't need a dodgy tribunal to say so.

There's talk of appeals, attacks on free speech, "just doing my job" etc. It's (ironically) very similar to the "I'm just a Mam" argument used by one of the prominent anti-Welsh medium campaigners in Llangennech, and roundly criticised by many of the people now leaping to Neil's defence on Twitter. It's something of an insult to those who've genuinely had their free speech impinged by people in authority, and free speech doesn't/shouldn't extend to abuse or threats (veiled or open).

It's true that everyone has a right to be an arsehole and say things that offend people, but to be frank I'd still demand  better from someone in Neil's position despite his reputation.
There's a fine line between being an effective populist "pavement pounder" and a gobshite. That difference is the former needs a much thicker skin and the ability to take what they dish out.

It's one month. It's not 25-to-life on Alcatraz. He can still stand in May's local elections. Both Neil and his supporters should take it on the chin, go back and have a think.

It didn't end there, of course. Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) upped the ante by saying Neil should've been barred from addressing the party conference on Saturday afternoon (he eventually did), going so far as to (somewhat out of character) criticise the leadership.

Bethan's come in for some stick (and offered support too), and I won't make myself popular by backing the sentiment as well. Even if her timing wasn't brilliant she was absolutely right. The personal history between the two is irrelevant as even on objective/neutral measures she's still right.

You don't speak to/direct comments like that to employees full stop, and being a councillor shouldn't act as a shield, neither should the family involved be used as shields to deflect criticism - the tribunal was purely about Neil's behaviour not the eviction. Plaid are usually amongst the first to come out and condemn bullying and it's disappointing that when one of their own are implicated they haven't been quick to do the same.

The circus arrived in Newport, all the headlines have been about (and cameras focused on) Neil, and any policy news or announcements coming out of conference are buried. Again.

He shouldn't be suspended as an AM because he wasn't an AM at the time and it would effectively be punishing him twice – but Plaid have form for clunky disciplinary proceedings with rules not being applied equally to everyone, and I fear this won't be any different.

Update 07/03/17: As I feared, he's been suspended from the Plaid Assembly group. Firstly that seems excessive for what this is, removing the portfolio responsibilities and warning him of his future conduct (even suspending the suspension) should've been enough. It's going to play right into his hands because....

There's almost a desperation on Neil's part to become a victim or a martyr. He could start a fight with a mirror.

Neil often has noble intentions but he'll present them in such a comically aggressive way that things I wholeheartedly agree with – like no evictions policies on the bedroom tax, fathers access to children, his proactive arguments on lobbying and the Third Sector – end up being delivered in a tin foil hat. We're probably not far off shoes being banged on a plastic lecturn in the Senedd chamber.

I'll get it in the neck (again), but there are very few Labour conspiracies. Take a look at Labour politicians at all levels - from Westminster down to community councils. You need a certain level of intelligence and cunning to pull of conspiracies at that scale and they're simply not bright enough or competent enough to do it. Labour are in their dominant position because the Welsh have gotten used to the taste of turd sandwiches as it's better than starving. That doesn't mean to beat them you need to be a douche.

Neil's also storing up longer-term problems for Plaid Cymru. He has a near cult-like following in western Cardiff. That's useful, but his supporters come across as more loyal to him than the party, and his supporter's inability to see how this was wrong underlines that. Nobody should be afraid of calling politicians out when they screw up and it's the responsibility of members to keep representative's behaviour in check, not indulge them.

I'm in no doubt that he'll deliver seats for Plaid in Cardiff come May. If he could keep the passion but ditch the temper he could be an asset - as Ifan said. He doesn't need to let constituents down by getting needless suspensions because he doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut.

The commentator and public affairs consultant, Daran Hill, has even been talking up the possibility that Neil could one day lead Plaid Cymru and I'm in genuine agreement. Is that a good thing?

Those higher up in Plaid should be asking themselves:

  • If Neil's getting these headlines after 9 months, what are they going to be like over the next four years?
  • What's going to happen to Plaid and its supporter base in the capital if/when Neil does something that warrants further disciplinary action? What commitments have you got from Cardiff Plaid? Is Neil a representative or a ring-master?
  • In failing to curb things now, are you silently condoning this sort of behaviour and giving Neil a green light to derail the party's work in the Senedd (because he knows he can get away with it)?

After this weekend there's clearly going to be a icy atmosphere in the Plaid Assembly Group – possibly even the makings of a split – and whether Neil's supporters (inside and outside the Assembly) like it or not, if the group can't work together they'll eventually be punished for it at the ballot box. How they deal with that is up to them.

Overall this Fifth Assembly has been dreadful in terms of the standards of debate and behaviour. You know things are bad when you long for a glimpse of Peter Black's headache-inducing ties or Eluned Parrott talking about train seats. To any Lib Dems reading this - you are missed, as I said you would be.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of spirit and strong-arming but there's a fine line between that and being an oaf. It's not as if I don't warn people.

Labour are utter shite, but one thing you can say about them is when you present them with open goals they usually take them. Right now, Neil McEvoy's a rush goalie charging past the halfway line about to rugby tackle the referee.


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