In the niche

Polly Manning, Women’s Officer for Plaid Ifanc (2017-18) reflects on the recent aggression shown towards minority issues within the national movement in Wales and asks if we really can afford to ignore the personal within the political?

I’ve been a member of Plaid Cymru for just over two years now. In the summer of 2016 Leanne Wood, Adam Price, and Jonathan Edwards came to my local – The White Lion in Llandeilo – for a public meeting, intending to give the public a chance to express their thoughts regarding the recent Leave vote in the Brexit Referendum of the 23rdof June. I went along out of a vague curiosity – and by the next morning I was a member.

I went to university and discovered Plaid Ifanc. I attended my first Conference at Swansea University and met a whole host of intelligent, funny and passionate young people, the likes of which I’d never been exposed to before. They were brilliant, and so well-informed it was almost intimidating. But I soon settled in and bonded with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s became a kind of home.

Plaid Ifanc, for the most part, is packed to the rafters with brilliantly critical minds. For the most part, my peers – we call each other ‘comrade’ – are feminist, environmentalist, anti-racist, pro-LGBT and BAME rights, anti-imperialist, and anti-classist. Yes, that’s a lot of ‘ist’s. Do I see that as a problem? Of course not. All inequalities within a society are inherently interlinked, woven of the same cloth. What I most admire about my peers in the youth section is their ability to perceive intersectional struggle, to recognise the way in which the protection and promotion of these values is not only ideal, but completely critical to the achievement of our ultimate aim: namely, that of an independent, socialist Welsh Republic able to be a force for good on the global scale.

Unfortunately, a populist language has recently crept into the national movement which decries the presence of ‘identity politics’ and passes off concerns for the plight of minority groups and women as ‘niche issues’.

The first thing we need to consider is, what actually are ‘niche’ issues?

According to various sources a niche issue is one which relates to the specific challenges facing women and minority groups. They are issues which serve as a ‘distraction’ from the real issue – that of Welsh independence.

The people who’ve been spouting this idea seem, 1. Unable to conceive of tackling more than one issue at a time, and 2. Ignorant of the fact that engagement with these issues is what will encourage people across all of Welsh society to engage with the independence project. After all, these ‘niche’ issues of inequality effect, even if in indirect fashion, absolutely everyone in our nation.

Why should women be encouraged to fight for an independent nation which ignores their struggle against the patriarchy? Why should immigrants and refugees welcome a sovereign state which does not fully recognize their humanity, let alone their citizenship? Why would members of the LGBT+ community follow elected representatives who refuse to acknowledge their identity?

These arguments aside, we shouldn’t be focussing on these issues as a mere means to an end. The basic principle of human understanding should lead us to consider them as a matter of course, natural as breathing.

Do I mean focussing on the struggles of women and minority groups ‘for the sake of it’? Absolutely.

The heart of all truly progressive politics is essentially the same: of wanting to ensure happiness, health, and security for members of a society. For a long time now, I have noticed a trend of commodifying the support lent to women and minority groups for strategic political gain. We shouldn’t be seeking to engage with black and minority ethnic communities just so that we can pat ourselves on the back, and feel smug that we’ve secured their votes when elections come around. We should be engaging with these communities and their struggles because we possess a shared humanity.

Social inequality, peace, women’s and trans rights are not ‘fringe issues’ for my generation of activists. The intersection of these issues with minority nationalism is precisely what brought us into the party in the first place.

You cannot separate the struggle from the people.

I believe it’s also worth saying that politics isn’t, and shouldn’t be, an unemotional landscape. The issues which we as activists seek to debate and work on often affect us on a personal level. The rampant obsession with ‘bias’ and ‘level debate’ ignores the fact that many of us are directly affected by the politics which we seek to promote. By definition, the only people able to give a truly ‘unbiased’ (though no one is) political voice are those who aren’t themselves touched by the issues which structural inequalities present.

To put it simply: women are told that they can’t debate the pay gap in a level-headed manner, black people are told they can’t discuss police brutality without bias, the working class are accused of jealousy when they point out the increasing polarity between rich and poor. Essentially, this belief grants yet more power to those groups which already have enough, and puts distance between people and their most intimate struggles. Who isn’t negatively affected by sexism, racism, and poverty? The answer is, of course, wealthy white men who – if we adhere to the above argument – are the only demographic qualified to speak on the aforementioned issues without the bias of actually experiencing them.

The notion that politics ought to be a scientific and impersonal expression of will is, in a word, ignorant and degrading. Not only this, but it is ignorance which disempowers those who already bear the brunt of society’s ills.

One of the most damaging effects of this recent trend towards dismissing the aforementioned issues as ‘niche’ is that it dehumanises individuals who are already disadvantaged. I’m a young, queer woman with an invisible disability – if those are ‘niche’ issues, surely that makes me a ‘niche’ subject?

I can’t dice and divide up the various parts of my identity on either a personal or political level, and I shouldn’t have to. It’s the fluidity and correspondence of these identities and struggles which make us human. This multi-faceted tangle of issues and inequalities does not detract from our efforts towards independence, but rather, serves as a reflection of the diverse make-up of the nation that we want to take a place on the world stage.

I’ll finish on this pertinent quote from Martin Duberman, quoted in Daniel G. William’s brilliant Wales Unchained (University of Wales Press, 2015);

‘It is difficult to ‘march into the sunset as a ‘civic community’ with a ‘common culture’ when the legitimacy of our differences as minorities has not yet been more than superficially acknowledged – let alone safeguarded. You cannot link arms under a universalist banner when you can’t find your own name on it. A minority identity may be contingent or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless. And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure.’’

Polly Manning is a student at Swansea University currently studying English Literature. She has been Plaid Ifanc’s women’s officer since 2017 and is also involved with Merched Plaid. 


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