What the hell is going on in YesCymru?

How have the joyful rallies turned into bad tempered rows and a slew of serious accusations?

Credit: Pxfuel

If you log onto #indywales Twitter at the moment, you’ll find bad tempered references to ‘these people trying to wreck our movement’. You’ll find demands to ‘release the minutes’ and hold an Extraordinary General Meeting of the YesCymru membership. You’ll find claims that founders have been hounded out of the movement.

You’ll certainly find people desperately pleading to go back to ‘focusing on independence’ .

All these arguments are laden with references and sub-plots, leaving most supporters scratching their heads.

The journey

Myself, I joined YesCymru in 2016 after the Brexit vote. I was less worried about the decision itself than the idea that Wales was becoming more like England and losing its political identity. I’d always supported independence for Wales, but the way politics was going made me feel it was both more urgent and more likely in the long term.

In 2017, I rocked up to the Hen Coleg yn Aberystwyth on a baking hot day to attend YesCymru’s AGM. It was a friendly room of about 50 people, mostly middle age, and mostly white. Almost everyone spoke Welsh. This was a joy for me as someone who’d been learning the language, but hadn’t had much chance to practice.

But it also showed that YesCymru was drawing most of its support from a fairly narrow group of people.

Fast forward to 2019, and the constant crisis of the British governing class had grown YesCymru’s ranks. The marches for independence in Cardiff, Merthyr and Caernarfon were joyful events bringing together language campaigners, environmentalists, socialists, anarchists, and loads of people who’d never been very political before.

In 2020, the UK government’s disastrous handling of Covid swelled the membership to 18,000. My mum asked ‘where do I sign?’ after being deeply skeptical just two years earlier.

More people than ever were fed up with the British government, it’s cruelty, cronyism and bigotry. Along with everyone else, more young people, black and brown people, LGBT+ people and women were getting involved in a cause that used to skew heavily towards politically-obsessed men like me.

But when these folk started getting involved, whether at meetings, events or online, they often faced the same discrimination or marginalisation that exists in the rest of society. The independence movement doesn’t exist outside of society, after all.

Confronting bigotry

You might think, “we need everyone we can to win independence, so we need to make sure the movement is a place everyone feels able to take part in”. That’s certainly what I believe, and I think most of the current Central Committee (the ruling body of the YesCymru) do too.

But sadly not everyone does. One former member of the CC was at the time regularly posting or liking posts expressing transphobic views. When challenged, they doubled down on their views, calling those holding them to account ‘extremists’ — just for wanting to feel safe in the movement.

Trans people have always existed. They’ve just usually been unable to be themselves for fear of attack or being ostracized by the wider community. Society is now changing enough that people are feeling able to be who they always were in public.

But for some people, the existence of trans people themselves is a legitimate ‘debate’. It would be like debating the rights of lesbian or gay people to be who they are, or for Welsh speakers to use their mother tongue.

So the person expressing these bigoted views was suspended from the Central Committee. This was then cast by their supporters as ‘hounding out long standing members’.

YesCymru members are progressive, but some people can’t handle this

We then had the Annual General Meeting last month. Hundreds of members attended the online event, and used a voting tool used by many other political organisations to choose members of the new Central Committee.

Young, diverse and politically left wing people won almost all the positions. The membership had shown it wants an inclusive and progressive movement that hosted conversations about how independence can change our lives.

But by this time, a group of people had emerged online who were deeply unhappy with this. They claimed the movement had been ‘hijacked’ by people who’s goal wasn’t actually winning independence. But surely, making the movement feel open to people from all backgrounds is the definition of working to win?

Since then, this grouping has been waging a fierce online propaganda war. They’re accusing people of being bad-faith infiltrators simply for being Labour party members — despite the fact 40% of the country just voted Labour two months ago. They said that committee members standing up against bigotry had other ‘agendas’.

Now, all of these people, elected by the members, are being ruthlessly targeted with harassment, threats of violence and even revenge porn. Simply for trying to build an accessible movement, and happening to be young, female or from the LGBT+ community.

Some of these actors are firmly rooted in a hard right mindset of homophobia and anti-socialism. They conflate being non-party political with having no political principles at all, including a commitment to standing up to bigotry.

This is the pressure that members of the executive have been under, and the febrile atmosphere online has meant that people just trying to understand what’s happening have been rebuffed or assumed to be acting in bad faith.

This is a sad outcome of the way social media and Twitter in particular encourages us to be less empathetic and say things we wouldn’t say in person. But when it comes down to it, this battle is between people trying to make YesCymru a progressive and inclusive movement, and a small minority with highly regressive attitudes trying to frame them as wreckers.

What now?

Sadly, at least one of those targeted has resigned from the Central Committee. It’s possible there will be an Extraordinary General Meeting, or new elections to replace vacant positions.

The broad membership of YesCymru have already shown they want a forward-looking and inclusive movement by how we voted last month. So I believe that if there is a new election, we will see candidates with those same principles elected to drive the movement through this difficult phase.

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