On the Progressive Alliance


That photo of Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett hugging on the podium during a leaders debate in the 2015 election campaign remains one of the defining images of modern British politics.

The image says much about what a progressive alliance might offer. Firstly, three women on a stage, which is symbolic too of other possible forms of diversity within politics, and Welsh and Scottish nationalism are presented as open and welcoming of difference. Secondly, two non-English leaders offering to the smaller nations of the Union a place within UK political discourse, and perhaps even the mirage of political power. Thirdly, the Celts hugging a political leader from England, recognising the place of England, an important message that Welsh nationalism is not about separation, but that those who live in England are our closest neighbours and friends.

Although the leader of a Wangland entity, the ‘England and Wales’ Green Party, Caroline Lucas, Bennett’s successor as Green Party Leader, is in many ways the voice of a bucolic, Blakeian English nationalism. This Progressive Alliance is thus ‘of the nations’, and can be presented as a panacea for the evils of right-wing nationalisms. It negates ethnocentricism; both the ‘ethnicist’ centricisms of minority nationalities and the ‘colonising’ centricism of big nations.

Clearly, there is much here that is appealing. The alliance between Plaid Cymru and the Greens in 1992 which led to Cynog Dafis’s famous victory in Ceredigion that year also appealed. But the Progressive Alliance of today cannot be understood without Corbyn (in the famous picture from 2015, the Labour leader, Ed Milliband, is excluded and looks wistfully in). And a Progressive Alliance honed on Corbyn is primarily a Trojan Horse for the Labour Party and the ‘Yookay’, based as it is on simplistic and rather universalist assumptions about the British common good.

In cold Parliamentary terms, the non-Labour Progressive Alliance is ineffective too: the reach of the Green Party does not extend beyond the boundaries of Caroline Lucas’s seat of Brighton Pavilion, which with its artisan cheese cafes, Regency architecture and pebble beach is the most Bohemian constituency in the entire United Kingdom. To enter into an alliance with Brighton is to imagine that Aberystwyth represents the whole of Wales. A progressive alliance with the Green Party is an alliance with utopianism, for like much of Utopia it cannot easily be found.

Thus contemporary Welsh nationalism blends into the politics of British socialism, enabled by the self-deception that Corbyn stands apart from Welsh Labour.

Following the election of Leanne Wood as its leader in 2012, Plaid Cymru positioned itself as the Leftist resistance to the managerialism of Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones. This was an implicit criticism too of Plaid’s previous leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who had seen managerialism and gradualism as the most effective way in a purportedly post-political age of achieving power. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 threatened to undermine this strategy. Corbyn was the mirror image of Wood, and this made it difficult for Plaid to maintain ‘clear green water’ between itself and Labour. Green water would have overflown had Plaid Cymru in the tradition of post-conflict Sinn Féin, or the post-conflict Abertzale parties of the Basque Country, rejected the state socialist party as the inevitable carrier of state hegemony. This could have meant rejecting Corbynism by emphasising independence, a course of action desired by much of Plaid’s rank-and-file, as became apparent following the Brexit vote.

Rather ironically, however, the logic of ‘progressive politics’ coerced Plaid Cymru into a conservative rather than radical response to Corbyn. With a Lloyd Georgian emphasis on sanding down the bumpy surfaces of national differences to attain social justice, progressive politics assumes the radicalism of identity politics (independence, language, culture) to be a form of essentialism. In this sense, Plaid Cymru’s warmness towards the Progressive Alliance is strikingly similar to that of Cymru Fydd towards the Gladstonian Liberal Party and will have the same effect.

The deceptive genius of ‘progressive politics’ is this – despite solidifying injustice between various national groups, it wears the pretence of radicalism. By utilising the sort of rhetoric now identified with Corbynism, Plaid Cymru can appear radical within the wider context of British politics. But the link between progressive politics and universalism arrests any move towards cultural particularism as reactionary. Any genuine national struggle is cast as backwards, or at the very least, unimportant. The Progressive Alliance requires Welsh nationalism to be conservative in terms of its own teleology.

Observant of the war between Welsh Labour and English Corbynism, ‘progressive politics’ persuaded Plaid Cymru to cut a furrow for Corbyn in the west, in keeping with the idea that progressive ideas always transcend national and party-political borders. As a result, Plaid Cymru politicians and activists sang openly and with great regularity the praises of the Leader of the British Labour Party as if he were the embodiment of goodness itself.

But the argument that the best way to support the Leader of the British Labour Party is to vote Plaid Cymru is not an easy one for the Welsh electorate to understand. There is some evidence that it helped the Plaid vote in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, the only Plaid seat in which the Tories came second in 2015. Here indeed, a tactical vote for Plaid might help keep the Tories out. But in the rest of the country – in particular in Llanelli, Rhondda, Blaenau Gwent and Neath; all Labour seats which a resurgent national movement might be able to take – Plaid’s Corbynism proved disastrous. In Plaid-Labour marginals like Arfon and Ynys Môn, it was to prove suicidal. Electors drew the conclusion that the best way to get Labour was to vote Labour, a logic which appears on the face of it to be rather logical.

Furthermore, the politics of the Progressive Alliance saw social politics as emancipating individuals rather than championing disadvantaged groups. It was the Welfare State and not national community which became central. The national question was downplayed as a minor, denominational difference between Plaid Cymru and Corbyn. A flood of Plaid voters turned to Labour in those Labour seats which were under possible Tory challenge, which in the feverish atmosphere of voter volatility meant nearly all of them. In much of the Valleys, in Cardiff and in the north-east, Plaid’s core vote deserted it: it went on manoeuvres to help ‘keep the Tories out’. Persuaded by months of pro-Corbyn propaganda on the Facebook accounts of nationalist activists, large sections of the Plaid vote were convinced that this is what the Plaid Cymru leadership wanted.

When political parties have a bad election, they often presume that things cannot get any worse, but as the recent history of the Welsh Liberal Democrats shows, this does not have to be the case. Political parties disappear when they cease to have a purpose. In persuading voters that ‘progressive politics’ – most easily attained through a state-wide party like Corbyn’s Labour – is more important than nationalism, Plaid Cymru undermined the logic of its own electoral existence. This is why continuing to promote Corbynism and the Progressive Alliance represents a threat to the very existence of the Welsh national movement itself.

Unreciprocated political overtures, like unreciprocated love, can be the cause of great misery and unhappiness. With its Siren calls of universal brotherly and sisterly love, the Progressive Alliance is in reality a mechanism by which Welsh nationalism can be disarmed and dissolved within the politics of a pan-British Left. As the legitimate voice of British universalism, the Labour Party advances, for it is well placed as a large party to take on the Tories. In Wales, the Welsh Labour Party has managed to express resistance to metropolitan Corbynism and also take advantage of it, a rather nice, but for Plaid Cymru somewhat ironic, post-colonial twist.

Complexity can be beguiling for those seeking insights. But some things are quite simple. In order to survive, Plaid Cymru will have to retreat from the Progressive Alliance and return to the national question.