Will Labour and Plaid’s deal leave the Conservatives out in the cold?

By Siân Jones

As Westminster watchers were preoccupied with Boris Johnson and Peppa Pig, the Welsh political landscape underwent a quiet re-calibration this week. It was announced on Monday that Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour had finally reached an agreement on cross-party working after two months of talks. The deal is planned to take effect from 1 December, subject to ratification by Plaid Cymru members at their conference this weekend.  

Although Westminster still tends to get a little queasy at the prospect of cross-party working, it’s long been the norm here in Wales. Although the first indications after the election were that Labour would seek to govern alone after winning 30 of the Senedd’s 60 seats – one short of an overall majority – a couple of early tussles with Plaid on issues such as road-building schemes have clearly provided a reality check. The ever-cautious Mark Drakeford doesn’t want to leave anything to chance, particularly when it comes to getting his Budget through.

The co-operation document is, at first glance, ambitious, covering 46 policy areas. Flagship measures include plans for universal free school meals for primary school pupils, creation of a publicly-owned energy company for Wales, extending free nursery places to two-year olds, strengthening transport links between North and South Wales, ending homelessness, council tax reform, reforming the school day, implementing a cap on second homes, and bringing forward measures to strengthen the role of the Welsh language.

Look a little closer at the language, though, and it’s clear that many of the plans are aspirational rather than firm pledges – notably a pledge to obtain independent advice on bringing the net-zero target date from 2050 to 2035. Given that the deal is due to last for only three years, that perhaps isn’t surprising. Implementing these measures within such a compressed timescale looks challenging, not least given the huge price tag on many of these proposals. 

Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of Plaid’s election pledge for an independence referendum in the next Senedd term. However, plans to expand the Senedd to 80-100 members and reform the current voting system will be taken forward.

It’s been stressed that this is not a formal coalition, and no Plaid Cymru Ministers will be appointed off the back of this deal, which may give some comfort to unionist Labour supporters wary of closer links with Plaid. However, it’s understood that two Plaid Special Advisers will be joining the Government to oversee the implementation of the agreement. Whether two Spads will effectively be able to cover almost 50 areas of policy between them, particularly without the back-up authority of a supporting Plaid Minister, is open to question, as are the ‘rules of engagement’ for these Spads’ role. Interestingly, we learn that the Plaid Spads will be appointed by the Labour First Minister, meaning that candidates with a penchant for asking too many difficult questions may well be given short shrift.

For Adam Price, who has been largely invisible since his Party’s disappointing performance in May’s Senedd elections, this deal has provided him with an opportunity to save face. He himself did not lead the coalition negotiations – those were driven by his colleague, Sian Gwenllian, who has previously been spoken of as a future Plaid leadership contender. Unlike the Liberal Democrats in Westminster in 2015, there may not be much of an electoral consequence for Plaid if this agreement does not pan out as planned due to the electoral arithmetic in Plaid-held constituencies. That said, Plaid’s press team will inevitably face tussles with their Labour counterparts as each side seeks to take credit for policy wins. With Welsh Labour’s considerably greater resources and civil service firepower, it may be hard for the smaller party to continue to make its voice heard. This may be why a number of moderate Plaid MSs were understood to be lukewarm at the prospect of a deal.

What this document does demonstrate is the depth and breadth of common ground between Labour and Plaid –  whether it’s on constitutional reform, social justice, or green issues. This, coupled with the recent announcement of a constitutional commission in Wales, may also show that Welsh Labour – now in Government in Cardiff Bay for over 20 years – are doing some serious long-term thinking about how they will consolidate their future grip on power. Key to that will be consolidating the ‘soft nationalist’ vote in Wales, which they have so far courted very successfully.

Where does that leave the Welsh Conservatives? Sources within the party point out that some pro-Union Labour MSs have expressed doubts about a stitch-up with Plaid, and that this presents the Conservatives with an opportunity to court disaffected, pro-Unionist Labour voters, whilst shoring up its devo-sceptic base. That is certainly an optimistic attitude, but it’s doubtful whether it will provide the Welsh Conservatives with a credible route to power in the medium term, particularly given historic low turnout patterns in Senedd elections. The Conservative brand remains toxic in many parts of Wales, and so if the Conservatives hope to tempt pro-Unionist Labour voters, a significant rethink in branding and positioning is likely to be needed.

Mark Drakeford has said he’ll be stepping down before the next Senedd elections. The success he has enjoyed since the pandemic struck has, no doubt, surpassed even his expectations. However, he will, like all political leaders, want to leave a legacy behind. Working with Plaid to cement the future of devolution as part of a wider campaign for a revised Union settlement –  while locking the Conservatives out of power for the foreseeable future – could be just the ticket.