Greens and Plaid stand down in Brecon and Radnorshire - should this set a precedent?

Jane Dodds (Photo: Mark Pack)
A lot has been made of a decision, announced today, that both the Green Party and Plaid Cymru will not stand candidates in the forthcoming Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.

The two parties will instead endorse Jane Dodds, the Liberal Democrat candidate.

The by-election was called after over 10,000 constituents signed a recall petition. Incumbent Conservative MP Chris Davies, with a majority of 8,038, had been found guilty of expenses fraud.

Jane Dodds has understandably hailed the decision as "historic and courageous" and in the interests of a “progressive cause”. Indeed she should - while I am cautiously optimistic we can win back the seat, every vote will count. I, for one, believe both parties have done the correct and sensible thing - for reasons I will explain shortly.

Others have suggested that this shows that a progressive alliance can work, should be made to work and that the generosity and self-sacrifice of the Greens and Plaid Cymru must be reciprocated in future. There are calls to allow this to set a precedent and ensure that all future by-elections should see the Lib Dems, Plaid/SNP, Greens and Change UK unite around a single anti-Brexit candidate on the ballot form. I have read some comments from experienced Lib Dems urging for an immediate arrangement with Change UK and the Greens (in English constituencies) - and potentially also with the SNP and Plaid - that alternates candidacies for forthcoming by-elections between the parties.  there is even open talk about having conversation between the parties in relation to agreeing "united" candidates for a potential snap General Election in the autumn. I am not remotely convinced by the merits of this. 

Why not? Surely, you may well ask, it is the right thing to return the favour. The logic states that the cause should matter far more than party politics, and for the time being Brexit is the big issue. They've generously stepped aside for us, now we have to do the same for them.

Firstly, all such arrangements should be a matter for local parties - not something dictated to local parties by a national strategy. That is what has happened in this case - this is very definitely a local decision based on local considerations, however much it has been openly supported by the national leaderships for understandable reasons.

Secondly, there is the little difficulty of making a "progressive alliance" work, especially if the SNP are brought into the equation. There is simply no practical way to forge any kind of understanding that involves the SNP and, even without them, determining seat allocations is likely to be even more contentious that those involving the SDP-Liberals in the early 1980s. I am not averse to working with the SNP - far from it. However, to overlook barriers to such an arrangement and simplistically assume all it requires is the will to make it happen is suggestive of what I will diplomatically call extreme naivety.

Thirdly, where do Labour progressives fit into this? Clearly the national party will not agree to any negotiations, but there are individual anti-Brexit candidates that could potentially be united around especially in a General Election. How do we involve those candidates if decision-making is removed from the local and instead centralised? Would we run an anti-Brexit candidate against, say, David Lammy in Tottenham? If so, why? 

Tim Farron went on to facebook to express his gratitude to the two parties: "Thank you to both Greens and Plaid Cymru for putting Britain’s future before their own party interests." This, of course, sounds terrific. Unfortunately it's frankly nonsense. 

Both the Greens and Plaid Cymru have very definitely acted in their own interests here. Naturally, I don't blame or criticise them for doing what is right, and sensible, for them. But we need less of the dishonest spin that portrays the decision as some kind of heroic self-sacrifice, as if either of them had any realistic ambitions in this constituency. Neither will have wanted to stand, and have found a convenient reason not to while simultaneously saving face and buying themselves a useful bargaining chip for potential future by-elections in more friendly territory. It's quite clear this is in Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price's thinking: "[This is] the right thing to do. But we believe that that principle could be applied in other cases."

This decision has not been made as part of a national strategy: it is Plaid Cymru and the Greens being realistic about their chances in this particular constituency.

The Greens did not stand in Brecon and Radnorshire in 2017. In fact they've only stood there on three occasions previously and failed to keep their deposit each time. Last time they stood (2015) they polled 3.1% and would no doubt be squeezed further in a by-election portrayed as a two-way battle between the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

To say it's not fertile territory for Plaid Cymru is something of an understatement. Plaid have lost their deposit there at every election (and by-election) since 1974. Obviously there are some constituencies that haven't historically been good for the Lib Dems, but I can't think of too many in which we haven't kept a single deposit in 45 years. 

So I'll disagree with Tim and suggest it is in both of their interests NOT to stand - and to do it in such a way as to gain some credit for co-operation. It's a win-win situation for them. It also gives both of those parties reason for expecting the Lib Dems to do similarly elsewhere, where they might have a better chance of success. So very, very much in their interests...

Which is fine. I can live with the fact that this election was a no-hoper for them and they've found a convenient excuse not to stand. I am happy to praise them for the sensible decision - it would have served no-one to put up candidates that would almost certainly have struggled to poll 5%, but yet could make the difference between a Lib Dem gain and a Tory hold. There is no convincing reason for Plaid Cymru and the Greens to stand in this by-election - and several good reasons not to. The Greens in particular risked losing the momentum gained from the recent Euro elections by standing and taking a hammering. But let's cut all the nonsense about self-sacrifice and putting national interest ahead of that of their respective parties - and definitely the ludicrous notion that this compels us to develop a national cross-party approach to seat allocations in by-elections and beyond.

Should the Lib Dems act in a similar fashion? That all depends on the constituency, the candidate, the feelings of the local parties concerned and a variety of other potential local factors. I'm happy to leave local parties to make their own decisions, because it is they who understand their constituencies.

Top-down diktats insisting on collaboration would be a recipe for all kinds of unpleasant and unintended outcomes; what is needed instead is sensible, grown-up, considered local decision-making. If there is any precedent I think the Lib Dems should follow here it is precisely the ability to act in one's own interests while also being sensitive to political realities on the ground. Plaid Cymru didn't have to publicly endorse Jane Dodds, but they knew that to do so sent a far more powerful statement than simply not standing a candidate. 

So, to Plaid Cymru and the Green Party: thank you for acting sensibly and honourably. I appreciate your stance and support for Jane. Hopefully this will ensure a strong, liberal pro-EU voice is returned for Brecon and Radnorshire.

But to those calling for immediate reciprocal arrangements in response: let's not disempower local parties. I am optimistic there will be scope for further local collaboration, but it cannot be forced and neither can it be worked out by some kind of generic formula. The best candidate for a constituency can't be determined by a rigid rotation system, either. Let's go out and win Brecon and Radnorshire, and worry about the next by-election (wherever it is) at the appropriate time.