Chief Reporter Martin Shipton examines how the 'Room 13 Accord' may lead to a new direction for Welsh politics
IT'S far too early to be definitive, but the possibility of a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition after next May's election seems more likely now than ever.
As Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones met in Room 13 of the Senedd yesterday, it gave the broadest hint yet that Plaid is manoeuvring itself towards an alliance with Labour, albeit an unofficial one.
The first hint of what to many grassroots activists in both parties will seem an unlikely alliance came last week, when Finance Minister Sue Essex lavished public praise on Plaid Shadow Health Minister Helen Mary Jones for her negotiating skills.
Nothing of this kind would have been possible six months ago, and it inevitably leads to speculation about what might happen in the slightly longer term.
In many ways, the prospect of a Labour-Plaid coalition might seem to make sense. In policy terms - certainly at the Assembly - there is barely a candle between them. Both espouse left-wing principles, and apart from the small disagreement about Welsh independence - which for all practical purposes remains notional - there are no significant ideological divergences between them.
All the indications are that Labour will not win an overall majority next May, and there is a strong likelihood that in terms of seats it will end up in the mid-20s, well short of the 30 or 31 required for a straight win. In these circumstances, Labour will need a partner if it is to remain in power. The Liberal Democrats have made it clear that they will not join a coalition with Labour unless proportional representation in local government elections is conceded. Labour says there is no chance of that, and Peter Hain has gone so far as to say that even if such a proposal came from the Assembly, it would be vetoed by a Labour Government at Westminster.
Plaid, therefore, on paper might look like a good coalition partner. Labour has ruled out any partnership with the Tories, and while not explicitly doing so, any Plaid leader would face internal problems if a coalition with the Conservatives was proposed.
Yet for many in both Labour and Plaid, the idea of the two parties working together in government is difficult to contemplate.
At local level there is often great tribal enmity between Labour and Plaid activists after decades of bitter council election contests. Many voters, however, do not see things in the same way - there is a significant crossover of support, with many happily voting Labour in general elections and Plaid at council elections, or splitting their votes between the two parties at Assembly elections.
Last week there was perhaps a small harbinger of something to come when the votes of four Plaid councillors in the Vale of Glamorgan ensured the election of a new Labour council leader. Previously they had propped up the Tories.
This side of next May's Assembly election, there is no chance of a formal agreement between Labour and Plaid.
But as the prospect of a rainbow coalition including Plaid, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats grows dimmer, a previously discounted Labour-Plaid coalition becomes at least marginally more likely.
A new dawn for Welsh politics may be breaking.