The news that Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Green Party will participate in two of the three televised leaders’ debates has created a seismic shift in the power relationships of politics.
Plaid has faced problems of apparent legitimacy across swathes of Wales for decades. One memorable story is told of a young woman who, having been selected to stand for Plaid back in 2005, visited a relative in Newport to relay the good news. Her aunt was aghast, telling her “What on earth are you doing with those extremists!”
But that legitimacy has now been handed to Plaid on a silver platter. Because it’s very difficult for people in any corner of Wales to argue that Plaid isn’t relevant to the political discourse at a Wales or UK level when they’re on TV screens, beamed into 30 million homes from Islay to Islington.
One of the enduring myths of Welsh politics is that a vote for a particular party is a wasted vote; it’s one that it particularly commonly used by the Labour party to persuade people not to vote for Plaid. But as I’ve argued before:
…some parties will try to persuade you that your vote is wasted if you vote for so-and-so party in a UK election. That’s blatantly false, because it’s the one species of election where your vote is almost guaranteed to achieve nothing but send a message, regardless of the party you vote for.
This scenario couldn’t be a worse result for the ‘big UK’ parties. Instead of bickering amongst themselves to show who has the thickest fag paper to put between each others’ policies, they now face the prospect of policy humiliation by a determined, intelligent and telegenic trio of anti-austerity party leaders. The delightful schadenfreude is that it’s a result that’s been brought about by the parties themselves attempting to score cheap political points. David Cameron’s bluff has been called – he didn’t want to participate unless the Greens were also invited to the party (clearly he was unwilling to go into a contest where the only likely outcome would be his party bleeding votes to UKIP). But Ed Miliband can’t now refuse to participate, because of the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons a few weeks back when he branded the Prime Minister ‘running scared’ for his stance and his Labour MPs ‘clucked like chickens‘. And with three left-wing parties in the fray, Ed Miliband now stands to lose the most.
In Wales, valleys seats that were formerly impregnable Labour fortresses will now start to drift into accessible territory for Plaid. The combination of new establishment-gifted legitimacy, the platform of the TV debates itself, and UKIP eroding Labour’s vote from the right mean that some veteran coasting MPs the like of Chris Bryant and Wayne David will have to start to work their constituencies.
It also signals the beginning of the end of the two-party system in the UK, and the one-party system in Wales. Although change happens relatively slowly under the first-past-the-post electoral system, the days of people sacrificing their principles to vote, with gritted teeth, for a candidate who is slightly less unappealing than the other candidate, are coming to a close. When people have a genuine choice over their options, they’ll give less of a fig about some fictitious formula where only X party stands a chance of being in government. The fact that every political pundit is saying this is the hardest election to predict for 100 years tells you that the field is wide open.
This 7-party debate, which I among many would have thought totally fanciful (although I participated dutifully in the social media to bring it about) has changed Welsh politics for Good.
Finally, it also vindicates the stance taken by Plaid of forming a bloc with the Greens and SNP. Some commentators (Simon Brooks, for example), have criticised Plaid for working with the Greens in the run-up to the UK election. However, it’s extremely unlikely that David Cameron would have used either Plaid or the SNP in the way he did the Greens in order to try to avoid the leadership debates, and which has ultimately led to this significant step forward for democracy in Wales.