It’s Plaid Cymru’s spring conference at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay this weekend and all the focus is on the Assembly election on May 5th.
The party is in a very different position to that which it found itself in before the last election in 2007, in that then it was eyeing up the possibility of taking part in government, whereas now it’s coming to the end of its first experience of government.
And it’s that experience which has coloured this conference – all the speeches are about what Plaid thinks it should and could do in government.
In are specific, practical (and therefore criticise-able) pledges – such as renegotiating GPs’ and dentists’ contracts and a new form of raising private capital for construction projects.
Out is talk of independence and over-optimistic idealism.
But here’s what really interests me: it’s no insult to Plaid to state that it always wants more in terms of the constitution – it’s what the party is for after all.
And now that the Assembly is about to have lawmaking powers, what’s next on Plaid’s shopping list?
In his speech yesterday, the Assembly’s presiding officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas said,
This is the year when we can celebrate the establishing of real democracy in Wales. It is appropriate to celebrate that, for it was the aim of this party when it was established to create a real legislative assembly, a Senedd.
He didn’t make it explicit, but the subtext of that was that Plaid’s original aim – a lawmaking Assembly/Senedd – is a reality. Now it’s time to make it work.
That fits in with what we’re seeing this weekend from party leaders – a stream of practical pledges and less misty-eyed talk of nationhood.
But it doesn’t mean there’s nothing Plaid wants and would be looking to achieve in a coalition agreement with one or more of the parties which are in government or could be in government in future at Westminster.
A perusal of speeches yesterday yields the following wishlist (in no particular order):
- Criminal justice
- ‘Fair funding’ for Wales
- ability to borrow
- funding for a devolved network rail
- natural resources
On the last point, Elfyn Llwyd MP told the conference yesterday that ownership of land, coastline and maritime assets owned by the Crown Estate in Wales should pass to the Assembly Government. He said,
Ownership and control of these assets would transform the finances of the Welsh government and provide a springboard for the development of new renewable energy job opportunities in Wales.
What I can’t tell yet is whether or not that or one or more of the other items on the wishlist will become as integral to 2011 coalition negotiations as the powers referendum was to 2007 talks.
Party sources will only say that they have their priorities and won’t reveal their hand before any coalition negotiatons.
In public Ieuan Wyn Jones talks about the party’s aim being to ‘move Wales forward not back.’
My feeling is that he’s leaving himself negotiating room so that achieving any combination of the above wishlist items could be presented as ‘moving Wales forward’.
UPDATE 1110 Following a couple of conversations let me upgrade ‘Natural resources’ on Plaid’s wishlist. This more than any of the others is being pushed here at the conference as a tangible next step in ‘moving Wales forward’. It would mean devolving the assets owned by the Crown Estates and changing the Government of Wales Act to transfer responsibility over water and large power projects.
Add also to the wishlist the severing of links between the UK civil service and the public service here in Wales.
Also ‘a new relationship’ with ministers in London which effectively means the end of the Wales Office.
UPDATE 1325 A senior Labour person articulated to me the same point I was getting at earlier which was that one of the wishlist is ‘the one’ that will be central to possible coalition negotiations. Their feeling was that it could be policing. But with Labour out of power in Westminster, what could it promise that would lure Plaid back into its arms? That’s what we don’t know but we both agreed that Plaid’s strategists have clearly done a lot of thinking about what their coalition price would be and what it would expect to be offered from potential partners.