Wales gets exciting: some comments on the impasse in Cardiff Bay…

Last week’s National Assembly election was a strange one alright. The campaign was dominated by UK-wide issues like the Tata Steel crisis and party leadership rows in London until almost its last gasp. Then, at one level at least, the results that came in last Friday morning looked as if nothing much had actually changed, despite the sound and fury of campaigning and several years of speculation. Welsh Labour again emerged as the largest party but, with 29 seats, one down on the previous term and still without a majority. Every other party did less well than they would have hoped, but to differing extents, with the exception of UKIP for whom the election campaign was always a complete irrelevance. That is, as long as its vote held up (more or less), the party was guaranteed multiple representation in its first domestic legislature. A note to those over the border who think Wales is somehow more inclined towards the ‘charms’ of UKIP: its actual share of the vote in the forty Welsh constituencies last week went down from last year’s General Election-from 13.4% to 12.5%- but our semi-proportional electoral system (a poor man’s version of the Additional Member System) meant a fair reward of seven seats for a consistent and evenly spread performance across the nation.

So, there we were yesterday gearing up for the “excitement” around the state theatre of the election and investiture of the new Presiding Officer (Speaker equivalent) and Deputy Presiding Officer when, all of a sudden, the docile and usually predictable world of Welsh politics was thrown into a spin. We started hearing mid-morning that, rather than the simple confirmation of a single nomination for First Minister for the leader of Welsh Labour, Carwyn Jones, Plaid Cymru was planning to nominate its own leader, Leanne Wood. The drama of what happened next has been reported extensively, but what is more interesting and intriguing is why this happened in the way that it did and, more importantly, what might happen next?

Now, what follows are only my ideas. For what it’s worth, no one can be completely sure why exactly we ended up here, and whether it was planned or a comedy of errors. Whilst doing various bits of media yesterday afternoon and evening, I heard a host of different interpretations of the episode, as well as multiple predictions as to the likely outcomes. And so it continues, plus the situation is changing hourly! So, with those health warnings, here goes…

All of this goes back to a damaged and increasingly toxic relationship between Labour and all of the other parties in the last Assembly, but especially with Plaid Cymru. Cue its culmination in the ill-advised “cheap date” comment from the then Minister for Public Services which resulted in the collapse of the important Public Health Bill on the very last day of Assembly business. That was childish, public and shocking but, in truth, the relationship has been conditioned by far deeper, historical factors played out more privately. Many of these, in my view, have their roots in a disturbing lack of pluralism of both attitude and thinking across the whole political scene in Wales. Now, it would be wrong to blame one party for this, and there is absolutely no doubt that all of them are a million miles away from where the electorate is on its views of the Assembly, of Welsh politics and of sharing power. The lack of movement at the very top of politics since devolution has meant Wales continues to be dominated by a “you’re either with us, or against us” attitude, where proper scrutiny and regular, robust challenge are patronisingly tolerated at best, and spitefully undermined and discredited at worst.

Furthermore, the events of the past week seem to suggest that little real, strategic thinking around the brave new world of coalitions, minorities, deals and arrangements has occurred in the political parties or, if it has, no-one has thought to share its take with the others. As several of us commented after the “One Wales” Coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid in 2007, there was scant recognition that the deal meant that nothing in Welsh politics would be the same again. Indeed, a much improved result for Labour in the 2011 election, coupled with a divided and fractious set of opposition parties seemingly incapable of mounting a strategic challenge within or without the Assembly chamber, miraculously wiped organisational memories and, as if by magic, the political equilibrium was restored.

So, normal service was to be resumed: the largest dominant party in charge, parent-child relationships to be continued. But from Plaid Cymru’s perspective, this was not on. Now relationships between the leaders of the two biggest parties have been imperfect for some time. This time, post-election, there is no soothing (in the past, predominantly female) presence in the teams around each leader to seek out clear party objectives in the critical negotiations necessary within what is effectively a hung parliament.

I've described the decision by Plaid to nominate Leanne Wood as an incredibly brave and bold one. That’s fairly obvious, but it is also one that reflects a new spirit of risk within Plaid’s ranks, as well as an indicator of the new thrusting, muscular approach from a new team of AMs less naturally consensual in style and keener to stake out the party’s political position in the new landscape. That’s entirely natural of course, but every political intervention of this kind must be clear what its goal or end point is. The truth is that, with only 12 AMs, Plaid’s is unclear. An ultra minority Plaid government could, in theory, work, with deals struck with all the other parties on a case by case basis (yes, why not Labour too when the specific policies or programmes of the two parties coalesce?) but also necessarily at times, with Plaid’s arch enemies, the Conservatives and “worse” still, UKIP. But blimey, it would take a brave leader to attempt this with just a fifth of the Chamber’s AMs. Otherwise, a coalition or more permanent deals with the Conservatives and UKIP? I think not.

So, was it therefore a shot across the bows by way of smoking out something more concrete from Labour in terms of a deal (if so, it would help to know exactly what those Plaid demands are) or, like the underdog boxer at a weigh-in, to at least purport to be a serious challenger for an unexpected points victory?

I have to confess that I am still slightly perplexed as to why plenary could not have been reconvened sooner, either today (Thursday) or even tomorrow (Friday). I believe the Standing Orders require a 24 hour gap but, the longer this continues, the more scope there is for problems of a variety of kinds, not least a damaging spin war for both ‘sides” as Labour accuses Plaid of jumping into bed with the Tories and UKIP-a slight weakened somewhat by recent suggestions that Nathan Gill (UKIP’s leader in Wales but NOT of its Assembly group) and/or Mark Reckless might do a proper deal i.e. actually for something, rather than just vote for a rival candidate for First Minister. Meanwhile, Plaid reminds Labour that, in any parliamentary institution without an outright majority for one party, any party can nominate a candidate for First Minister. Plenty of precedents for that with the Scottish Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson challenging Nicola Sturgeon’s coronation as First Minister after she took over the SNP leadership from Alex Salmond in 2014.

Finally, I have to dispute the claim that this impasse makes the Assembly or our politicians a “laughing stock” as some have suggested. Far from it (and relevant to Labour’s accusations of this looking like an episode of Borgen), these kind of things happen regularly elsewhere in the world where pluralist politics, PR and shared power are the norm. Instead, I think that this is a first sign that Wales is belatedly catching up with its new pluralist realities.