'New high-energy democracy contains seeds of possibilities' - Adam Price

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In this article, first published in the Western Mail on June 2nd, 2016 Adam Price AM discusses some of the possibilities that lie ahead for Welsh democracy as the National Assembly returns for its fifth term.

In the first four weeks of this fifth Assembly the question I have been asked most as a former MP is how it compares to Westminster. Before its opening session I found myself mumbling something about the seats being more comfortable and the people friendlier. Which is perhaps both the source of its greatest strength as an institution to date, as well as its greatest weakness. A National Assembly – just like a National Theatre, as John McGrath reminded us in his electrifying Patrick Hannan lecture this week – needs to be both a place of coming together and division, of dialogue but also disruption if we're to be shocked into shifting from our collective comfort zone.

May the 5th did not deliver the political earthquake for which some of us were hoping. But a few weeks on it's hard to deny the fact that those tectonic plates have begun to rumble. A vote for First Minister held for only the second time in seventeen years is itself a symbol of a political culture in which challenge has been not so much unusual as unthinkable. We have been present at the noisy birth of a new 'high-energy' democracy, crackling with unpredictability, which at times will mean more fractiousness but also contains within it the seeds of new possibilities.

Before considering the new potential this watershed moment represents, it's worth for a moment reminding ourselves, given the torrent of misinformation that surrounded it, what it's not.

It is not a coalition, rag-tag or any other variety, between Plaid Cymru and UKIP. Such an arrangement is completely inconceivable, for either party quite frankly, given the ideological gulf. We will as Opposition parties, together with the Conservatives, from time to time, end up voting on the same side, often for different reasons, to defeat the Government. That will not make it a coalition either – which will not prevent our increasingly desperate opponents in Labour and what's left of the Liberal Democrats from flaming us on social media. Nor will it stop the Welsh broadcast media from presenting a lost vote for the ruling party – as with the Public Health Bill before the Election – uniquely in the democratic world, as an embarrassment for the Opposition.

The Compact which ended the impasse is not a "progressive alliance" between Labour and Plaid. We are not Labour's conscience, we are Labour's competitor. This mean that while we are both progressive parties, we are rivals not allies, with different visions of the future. Fundamentally we believe that a change in leadership is necessary to solve our country's deepest problems. The "historic compromise" of 2007 was the exception not the rule, and we will never make the same mistake as the ILP, the Cooperative or Communist Parties whose reward for being part of Labour's broad progressive front was political oblivion – as will now most likely also be the fate of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Twenty Nine AMs is not a 'majority government'. We have not signed a confidence and supply agreement, nor, I doubt, would our membership sanction it. That means the government cannot secure any of its business or its budget, without the agreement of at least one Opposition Party. While the Opposition parties cannot win a formal confidence vote they could, should they choose, trigger fresh elections when the current First Minister resigns.

Moving to the positive effects of this new "parity parliament", the once Senedd-in-name only is now stronger, not just formally in the powers it holds, but in its culture of accountability and its relationship with the Government. The Compact between Plaid and Labour paves the way for this, for example, through the election of Assembly Committee Chairs, and the parliamentary review promised into the future of health and social care, a very significant new initiative.

This balanced parliament also creates opportunities for genuine policy innovation. The agreement to create a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales is a chance for Plaid Cymru finally to secure the kind of investment vehicle we have argued for since as far back as 2010 when we first floated "Build for Wales". Similarly, the agreement to establish a Cabinet Office – a key plank of our alternative vision for the machinery of government, to try and end the 'polo-mint' vacuum at the heart of this administration – is to be welcomed. In both cases we want to inherit an institutional structure that is functioning and fit-for-purpose so that we can hit the ground running when the time comes.

As an Opposition we will be robust but responsible, recognising at all times the fact that trust is the lifeblood of a democracy. That means in Parliament respecting the confidentiality of discussions while agreement is sought, not reneging after agreement is reached, and never ever substituting argument with abuse. But it also means being open with our own supporters and the public at large about the principles which will underlie any decision we may make.

Just as we support the ideas of Open Government, we will operate as an Open Opposition, as transparent and accountable for our own decisions as the Government which we will be endeavouring to hold to account. Mindful of the universal truth that "no-one has a monopoly on good ideas", we will seek to engage as widely as possible on what we should be asking for in each year's budget, using new digital platforms and face-to-face fora to crowd-source Wales' future and make our politics more genuinely participatory.

We are living in new times. Old political allegiances and voting habits are dying. The idea that a party, any party, can be the sole repository of wisdom belongs to the 19th century. Though Labour is at least now talking the language of political humility, with a deeply entrenched culture of tribalism and statism, as the left-wing think-tank Compass has recently argued, it still sees itself as "the" party of "the" people. The challenge for Plaid Cymru during this Fifth Term is not to shout the loudest as to who is the "true" party of Wales, but to be the better bridge between the governing and the governed, and, most importantly of all, to help the people of Wales change things for themselves. That is, after all, the true definition of self-government and the much wider progressive alliance of which we aspire to be part.

 

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