Now is the time to look back at the Ynys Môn by-election and take a hard look at what went wrong for Plaid Cymru. Went wrong? Of course there will be some people who think nothing went wrong: that it was a spectacular victory for the party with a huge winning margin. But when the euphoria dies down and the empty bottles of champagne get put into the recycling bin, I think people will realize that this victory is one that will cause the party problems for years into the future.
We might think we can get away with throwing away our principles for a single by-election in a seat that was always going to be safe at Assembly level, but we won't be able to do that in a general election, either for the Assembly or for Westminster. To do well across Wales we will need to find our principles again and stick to a coherent set of policies for the whole of Wales.
A flawed selection process
I've already addressed this in previous posts, particularly this one. In a nutshell, the first problem was the decision to allow Rhun to put himself forward for selection, even though nobody apart from those in his immediate circle could have any idea about his opinion on political issues or his qualities as a candidate. It was a needless gamble, and we've paid the price for our lack of due diligence. Someone who looked plausible has in fact turned out to be a conman who has shafted us.
Of course there were some people in the party who knew exactly what Rhun was going to do, but I suspect there were only a few. The rest were duped. They took things on trust that they should have taken the time to test. In our party constitution there is a rule that no one can stand as a candidate at national level unless they have been a member for a year. That rule is there for a good reason, it gives us time to see what that person is made of; what their political beliefs are and how they will behave in different situations. The National Executive, though by no means everyone on it, decided to waive that rule. They were wrong to do so.
But that bad decision was immediately made worse by Ieuan Wyn Jones reneging on what he had said he would do. I'm sure the original statement he made would have been discussed and agreed with other members of the Plaid Group in the Assembly, namely that he would continue to do both jobs for a while and step down as a AM at some time before 2016. That breathing space could have been a factor in the decision to allow Rhun to be a candidate. Those on the National Executive who were unsure about Rhun might have felt that an election some time between now and 2016 would have provided enough opportunity for people to assess whether Rhun would be a suitable Plaid Cymru candidate. But Ieuan's immediate U-turn meant that there was no time for anyone in the party to properly scrutinize potential candidates for the seat. Local members were forced into making an instant decision at one hustings meeting.
However, as I made clear in this comment, my criticism at that point in time was aimed at the National Executive of the party and at Ieuan Wyn Jones. Some people assumed I was attacking Rhun and trying to undermine him, but the only criticism I made of Rhun at the time was that he was being presumptuous and that he was not doing enough to tell us where he stood on the issues. Presumptuousness is not an especially bad thing for an ambitious man who wants a career in politics. But I also said it would be very different if it ever came to light that Rhun was involved in arranging what happened.
Immediately after Rhun's selection
As I was not at the hustings, I cannot know for sure what Rhun said. However I was told by someone who I have every reason to trust that what Rhun said about Wylfa B was "more or less identical" to what Ann Griffiths and Heledd Fychan said about it. As Heledd said she was opposed to nuclear power, it seems clear that Rhun did not say that he supported it in the hustings. But I don't need to rely on that alone. It was confirmed in two public statements Rhun made immediately after he had been selected: first in the Daily Post, then on his own blog.
In this post I described what he said in the Daily Post as "tortuously ambiguous". He had accurately expressed half of Plaid Cymru's position on nuclear power, but had not mentioned the other half. Yet the approach I took was not to condemn him for it, but to explain why it would be much better if he took the trouble to present a more balanced picture of party policy.
Fair play to him, Rhun responded by making a more detailed statement in his blog a couple of days later, which I wrote about in this post. I warmly welcomed the things that Rhun added, but I also noted that he had still not given a straight answer to the fundamental question of whether he supported or opposed Wylfa B.
He said he would "listen to the people", and I told him exactly where he could find a survey of what local people thought about it. I was content to leave it at that. It seemed clear to me that he was trying to take the same line as Ieuan Wyn Jones had taken before him. It was painful to listen to and cringingly embarrassing but, as I said later, it is better for Ynys Môn to have a Plaid AM who is ambiguous about whether he supports or opposes nuclear energy than a Labour AM who unambiguously supports it.
At that time Rhun had my support and I was completely confident he would win. Any candidate we had selected would win, not because of their media profile, but because of the hard work done by members of the party over many years. That's why we had done so well in the local elections in May. It was so obvious that we would win that I make jokes about the rather corny graphics that had just appeared on Plaid T-shirts. Yet some people, Cai Larsen in particular, had already got it into their heads that I was trying to undermine Rhun and engineer a Labour victory ... just read the comments that he wrote.
What then changed
On 20 July, I found out from Ifan Morgan Jones' blog that Rhun had tweeted this message:
@theNukeGuy Ha!Yes,I'm pro Wylfa B,& will fight to ensure our young people& communities benefit.Can't put it clearer than that!All the best.— Rhun ap Iorwerth (@RhunapIorwerth) July 19, 2013
As I said in this post, Rhun had suddenly shifted from his previous position of not saying whether he supported Wylfa B to a position of actively supporting it. He had moved from a position of supporting some aspects of Plaid's policy on nuclear power to a position where he was now openly and actively opposing Plaid's policy. Rhun had only been a potential liability before then; now he had become a real liability.
With hindsight I think Rhun might have done this for one of two reasons, but both of them are bad. One explanation is that he was being goaded by Labour, who were making all sorts of silly accusations to try and catch him off balance. At one time they were saying that his ambivalence about whether or not he supported Wylfa B was a sign that he secretly supported it; but when another Labour goon suggested that it was a sign that he was secretly against Wylfa B it proved so offensive to him that he felt he had to say he supported it. If this is what happened it was a result of his political immaturity and lack of experience in fighting election campaigns. I can imagine Ieuan putting his head in his hands in despair, muttering, "I managed to be ambiguous for thirty years, but the boy can't even manage thirty days."
The other explanation is that Rhun had now realized that he was so far in front in the election campaign that he could afford to say what he really thought about nuclear power. He'd already been selected; he'd already got endorsements from party leaders; so he could now dispense with the carefully prepared ambiguity he had used to get selected and say whatever he liked.
It doesn't really matter which of these explanations is true. All that actually matters is the fact that he had now moved from a position that was compromised but at least reflected some parts of Plaid's policy to one that openly opposed Plaid's policy. He was now undermining the party he was meant to be standing for.
If it had been a careless slip there was a chance that he could at least try to get back on the fence again. He could perhaps say that the tweet had been sent in the heat of the moment during a hectic campaign and that what he really meant, if he had had more than 140 characters in which to say it, was ...
Or he could have come clean and said, "Sorry I misled you before, but I don't in fact agree with Plaid Cymru's policy on this issue." That would at least have been honest. But instead of doing that he decided to try and justify himself by resorting to blatant lies. Instead of acknowledging that Plaid's policy is to be totally opposed to the construction of any new nuclear power station, including Wylfa B, he started repeating the cock and bull story that Plaid's policy was only to be opposed to power stations on new sites, not existing ones. When he said it on Sunday Supplement, Vaughan Roderick—who, like any journalist, can't be expected to know every detail of Plaid Cymru's policy—was only able to say that it was having our cake in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Ynys Môn and eating it elsewhere, details here. But Rhun then went on to repeat the same lie on Pawb a'i Farn on Monday. This time Dewi Llwyd—probably because he had read Syniadau—was able to take him to task and point out in no uncertain terms that Rhun was lying. Rhun's reaction was to start throwing mud at every other party, but doing that can neither hide nor justify Rhun's dishonesty.
On Sunday Supplement he also said that he would vote against Plaid Cymru if the matter of nuclear power ever came up at the Assembly. Odd, isn't it, that Rhun's supporters accuse me of being disloyal to the party, when it was Rhun who was now openly admitting that he would be disloyal to the party.
Plaid Cymru's policy
At this point I think it is worth taking a detour to look in more detail at what Plaid Cymru's policies are and how we formulate them. Plaid Cymru is actually quite bad at making policy. I have lost count of the number of times I have asked what Plaid's policy on this or that subject is, expecting to be directed to a definitive policy paper that had been written this year, last year or five years ago ... often to be told there wasn't one. Making policy and explaining to members what our policies are was one of the weaknesses addressed in Eurfyl ap Gwilym's review, and we had responded by appointing a very good Director of Policy and Education to coordinate it. It's a shame that this has now gone to waste.
However, because nuclear power had been such a contentious issue, we had already spent a lot of time and trouble (and perhaps shed a few drops of blood along the way) to define exactly what our policy on nuclear power is. We voted on every aspect of it at conference so that our policy reflected the views of the majority of the party. There are some clauses in it that I would prefer not to be in it; some clauses were excluded that I would have wanted to be included; but in the end we reached agreement. There is therefore no room for any doubt at all about what our policy is, and I have on many occasions referred to it in full, being careful not only to focus on the parts I fully agree with, but also on the parts that I didn't fully agree with [click to display].
This is the full text of the motion as approved by Plaid Cymru at our conference in 2011:
NUCLEAR ENERGY AND RENEWABLE ENERGY
(Newport Branches / European Parliamentary Group)
1. The tragic consequence of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan which led to the dangerous situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, namely that fuel in the reactors produced considerable amounts of heat which led to a full meltdown, causing radioactive material to leak.
2. That the incident at Fukushima, occurring on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, heightens concerns for the safety of nuclear energy.
3. That as a result the European Commission has proposed stress tests on all current nuclear reactors, and the UK government has called on the Chief Nuclear Inspector to carry out a review of nuclear installations.
4. That as a result, Germany has announced that all the country’s nuclear power plants will be phased out by 2022. Switzerland has also committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2034.
Conference further notes:
1. The essential principle of energy independence given Plaid’s long term ambition for devolved sovereignty and independence.
2. That as a net exporter of energy with massive undeveloped renewable energy potential new nuclear developments are not required in Wales in the long term in order to meet energy demand. Further investment is required into developing the potential of wave and tidal technologies which when commercialised could lead to Wales becoming more self sufficient in renewable energy.
3. That cost per KW of production for some forms of renewable power generation are lower than nuclear.
4. That the long term costs of nuclear decommissioning are not calculated.
5. The proven evidence of the effect of carbon emissions towards catastrophic climate change, also the growing pressure on fossil fuel resources including significant commodity price escalation as we approach peak fossil fuel production.
6. That the current coalition government’s policies on the carbon price floor will serve in the short term to raise consumer fuel bills and will leave the nuclear industry by the far the biggest beneficiary and also therefore fail to optimise the potential investment in renewable energy that variants of this legislation could bring.
1. Plaid Cymru’s belief that all energy decisions should be devolved in full to Wales.
2. Plaid Cymru’s total opposition to the construction of any new nuclear power stations. If the Westminster government gives the go ahead for a new nuclear power station at Wylfa, we should make sure that the investment recognises the need to employ local people, invest in training to maximise local employment and make sure that indigenous companies benefit from supply chain opportunities.
1. For Plaid at all levels to lobby the coalition Westminster government to restructure Carbon Price Floor legislation in order to exempt nuclear power from receiving any form of public funded subsidy.
2. For the EU’s nuclear stress tests to be carried out by independent experts and to be based on robust criteria.
3. On Plaid Cymru to welcome Germany’s decision to phase out all nuclear power stations and to encourage other governments across the world, including the United Kingdom, to follow their lead.
4. For greater investment by the Welsh government in renewables and energy efficiency measures.
As I see it, accepting the decisions reached by a majority in a democratic process is the mark of political maturity, and it is the collective responsibility of every member of the party to accept what we as a party decide. That's what party discipline is about, and without it we will never be an effective party. Yet we have some recalcitrant party members who point-blank refuse to accept decisions we make that they don't like. John Dixon, who knew much more than me about the petty factions and infighting that takes behind the scenes when he was Chairman of the party, explained that very well in this post on Wednesday.
Some things therefore need to be said very clearly, because it is obvious that quite a few people need to be firmly reminded about them:
First, that the majority of people in Plaid are totally opposed to building any new nuclear power stations in Wales, including Wylfa B.
Second, that even though there is a minority in the party who support Wylfa B, most of them are mature enough to acknowledge that our anti-nuclear policy has been put together in a democratic way, and accept it for that reason. Only a small core of recalcitrants have resorted to telling lies about it and misrepresenting it, but as a result of them doing it others have unwittingly repeated those lies.
Third, that anyone in the party who is pro-nuclear is free to try and change party policy, providing they realize that the only way to change the decision is to bring the matter before conference again and make their case there. If their arguments convince a majority, our policy will change. But until or unless that happens, party policy is going to remain firmly anti-nuclear.
Back to Rhun
Having shown what Plaid Cymru policy on nuclear power actually is, and having explained that there is no way of changing it except by raising the matter again at conference, it is time to return to Rhun's character and behaviour.
Rhun told blatant lies about Plaid's policy and he fully deserves to be criticized for it. The double standards of those who have criticized me for undermining the party are breathtaking. I have consistently stood up for Plaid Cymru and our policies. It is Rhun who has undermined the party and brought it into disrepute by using deceit.
John Dixon is wrong about only one thing: I have not singled-out Rhun for criticism. I have treated Rhun in exactly the same way as I have treated others who have tried to mislead the public about Plaid's nuclear policy. When Elfyn Llwyd did it on Question Time in June 2011, I criticized him for it here. When Bob Parry, leader of the Plaid Cymru group on Ynys Môn, did it in Golwg in October 2011, I criticized him for it here. When Dafydd Elis-Thomas did it in the campaign to be leader of Plaid Cymru on Sharp End in February last year, I criticized him for it here. They were telling barefaced lies, and I was not afraid to tell anyone who reads Syniadau that this is what they were doing.
My motive throughout is that I care about Plaid Cymru and am not prepared to see our party being misrepresented though their lies. I have been completely consistent in criticizing those in the party who are clearly too afraid to try and change Plaid's policy by arguing their position in an open and democratic way, but instead try to do it by subterfuge and manipulation. I had my suspicions about Rhun from the start, but I only turned my fire on him when he proved that my suspicions about him were justified. Rhun has shown himself to be another member of that narrow-interest clique, and he has received exactly the same treatment from me as the others did. He has only himself to blame for that.
What Plaid Cymru should do now
The spinelessness of people in the party who should have spoken out and reaffirmed Plaid Cymru's total opposition to Wylfa B is very disappointing. Senior figures who have in the past not been afraid to say that Plaid is opposed to Wylfa B now need to make their voices heard again. If you don't—for I am now talking to you directly—public perception that we are a party that will throw away any of our principles for short-term gain will only grow stronger. We will be thought of as nothing more than a bunch of cynical hypocrites who would sell our own mothers if we thought it would give us an electoral advantage.
Rhun, by suddenly shifting his position half way through the campaign, after he had been allowed to stand, after he had been selected, and only when it was clear to him that he would win the seat, went off like a loose cannon and has done immense damage to the reputation of our party. Don't kid yourselves about the scale of the victory. It was a safe seat and our main opposition had all but crumbled. We would have won it just as easily if we had selected a better candidate with the strength of character not to use deceit. Winning seats across Wales will be much harder. We won't be able to get away with having 40 different, contradictory sets of policies for 40 seats. We will need one coherent policy package that works for all parts of Wales.
So don't bury your heads and imagine this will all blow over. The grass-roots majority that has consistently reaffirmed our opposition to nuclear power will not let you get away with it. Trech gwlad nag arglwydd. The people of the land are more important than its leaders.
This damage needs to be repaired rather than ignored. It will be an uphill task. You need to go back and find your principles, give voice to them, and learn not to throw them away so easily next time. It is the only way to stop the party being a laughing stock outside our heartlands. It is the only way we will break the perception that we care about pork-barrel politics for a few Welsh-speaking areas rather than policies for the whole of Wales. And it is the only way we will make enough electoral headway to have any hope of leading a future Welsh Government.