The Talking Point: The End of the Labour-Plaid “Compact”

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

Last week, Leanne Wood announced to party members via a letter that the “compact” agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru – negotiated following the 2016 Welsh General Election and subsequent deadlock over the First Ministry – has ended.

Plaid Cymru said it was a natural end to the agreement after they secured a two-year £210million package in exchange for passing the next two Welsh budgets.

With Kirsty Williams and Dafydd Elis-Thomas actively working with or backing the Welsh Government, Labour still has a majority (of sorts). It will, however, make Labour’s task a bit harder in the final two years of the Assembly term, with Labour backbenchers needing to maintain the required discipline to get controversial measures passed if they are no longer going to use Plaid as the first point of negotiation.

Plaid will also lose something. Under the compact, the party formed joint liaison committees with the Welsh Government and were given “priority access” to discussions over Brexit and legislation. With the Welsh Government’s Brexit position now clear and with no controversial legislation on the horizon as of yet, the loss of the liaison committees (which reportedly stopped meeting anyway) won’t exactly affect everyday business.

So in raw political terms, this announcement doesn’t mean very much. Both sides have got what they wanted from it and, as said, it’s come to a natural end – but maybe it hints at a shift in relations with Labour from within Plaid Cymru’s Assembly Group.

It became obvious during the UK General Election in June that treading the same ground as Labour under Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to do Plaid any favours. With Plaid only being a tiny number of votes away from disaster, alongside an overall poor national result, it may have shocked Plaid into action even if, in public, everything was hunky-dory.

They couldn’t go further left without growing moustaches and opening gulags, while trying to convince wavering Labour voters to back a Plaid Cymru that was saying almost exactly the same things as Labour – particularly when it comes to social issues and identity politics (Carwyn Jones being Labour’s face of soft nationalism) – was never going to work; it’s a fight Plaid will always lose.

Plaid now wants to form a stronger opposition to Labour, when they’ve often been accused of being far too cosy and accommodating to them in the past. However, the tricky task facing them will be trying to put distance between themselves and Labour in a manner that offers voters a genuine change come 2021, not just a more feminist, green-tinged version of Jeremy Corbyn’s metropolitan socialism.

The decision to end the compact was the correct one, but I’m not convinced Plaid – as they are – will be able to make that far more important big step. Many of their policies – with a few exceptions – have been indistinguishable from Labour though usually with a bit more thought behind them in terms of vision and application.

For 20+ years, Plaid’s strategy has boiled down to getting what they want through Labour (directly or indirectly) because they perhaps privately accept it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to lead a government under their own steam in the current electoral system.

The current and previous budget deals (as well as 2007-2011 One Wales) proves this strategy works up to a point, but being a near-permanent unofficial junior partner to Labour has caused cross-pollination in both directions.

That said, it’s not as if they haven’t shaken it off before. Cultural nationalism is, by its very nature, small-c conservative, while supporting the likes of Wylfa B, Development Bank and Infrastructure Commission are very technocratic centrist economic positions that would otherwise be at odds with the Plaid leadership’s desired public image of a radical liberal.

Plaid either has the fight in them to ditch the baggage in their relationship with Labour (which verges on an inferiority complex) that’s held them back, or they’re going to do what they usually go and jump back in to rescue Labour the next time the red team find themselves in trouble as a misguided, unrecognised and unappreciated bit of cosy left-wing solidarity. Let’s see.

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