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The Electoral State of the Parties, 3: Plaid Cymru

In my equivalent piece last year on Plaid Cymru I observed that “Plaid Cymru has seen much worse times than this. Plaid are nothing if not resilient; they are not likely to disappear. But things are not looking good. The party has had a poor twelve months. And its prospects for the immediate future are not obviously much better.” Twelve months on and things have not yet improved from this. But there are, for the first time in a while, at least some plausible reasons for thinking that Plaid Cymru’s electoral prospects could be about to improve.

The last year for Plaid has been dominated by the issue of the party leadership. Any celebrations of the party’s gaining Ceredigion at the 2017 general election soon dissipated after what had been, overall, a mediocre set of local and general election results. Plaid spent last autumn and the following winter and spring flatlining in the opinion polls, and lacking much obvious direction. They were marginalised by the dominant political issue of the time, Brexit, and their Assembly group continued to be troubled. Although few of Plaid’s problems stemmed from Leanne Wood, by spring this year many of the party’s leading figures had evidently lost faith in her ability to respond adequately to these difficulties. By the time that challenges to her leadership were finally declared in August there was an air of inevitability about them.

Leanne Wood could have chosen to bow out; instead, she faced the challenges head on. This may have been brave, or possibly foolish; but the paucity of support for her from leading figures in the party spoke volumes about the manner in which confidence in her had drained away in the upper reaches of the party. In the end, she finished third out of three: a rather ignominious end to a leadership which actually had a rather better electoral record that that of her predecessor. But the dignity with which Leanne had faced plentiful on-line abuse during her leadership was displayed once more in the manner in which she dealt with its painful conclusion.

One of the reasons for optimism about Plaid’s future prospects is their new leader. No-one has ever doubted Adam Price’s talent: that has been obvious throughout his political career. Plaid’s new leader is intelligent, energetic and capable of being a fierce and inspiring public speaker. But there are plenty of talented politicians who never become party leaders; and others who make a hash of it when they do. We haven’t seen Adam in this sort of role before. He is unlikely to lack for self-confidence, nor to be daunted by the scale of the challenges ahead. Among those challenges will be that of leading an Assembly group that, since the last devolved election, has been notable mainly for its fissiparous nature; and revitalising a party machine that has been too obviously off-the-pace for too long.

In the longer term there will be two other challenges that are likely to define the Price leadership. One, rather obviously, is the defining political issue of the age: Brexit. Will Adam be able to make Plaid relevant to the debate on an issue that undoubtedly has enormous potential consequences for Wales but over which Plaid are very unlikely to have much influence? And will he be able to make his party ready to take advantage of any political fallout – the manifold unintended and unanticipated consequences likely to arise from the most complicated and difficult thing the UK state has tried to do since fighting World War II.

The second question that will do much to define the success of the Adam Price era concerns his own political judgement. There is no doubt that he has ability aplenty. But can he, and the advisers he groups around him, show the judgement necessary to maximise the impact of those abilities? This is partly a question about ideas: choosing the right ones to focus upon, and not trying to push ahead with too many innovative policies at once. But there is also a very personal dimension to this. Self-confidence and self-assurance are necessary qualities in a successful political leader – and perhaps particularly if one is to lead successfully a minority nationalist party. But there is a point at which such attributes can tip into a self-regard that will alienate more people than it attracts. A politician who has allowed himself to be associated with descriptions of himself as ‘mab darogan’ (the son of prophecy) has already shown less than flawless judgement in this respect.

Of course, parties and leaders are never wholly in control of their own fate. Plaid Cymru have had the misfortune to face, as their main political opponent throughout their history, one of the most successful parties in the democratic world – Welsh Labour. Yet here things could be about turn in Plaid’s favour. Ever since Alun Michael’s defenestration in early 2000, Plaid have struggled against a Welsh Labour party that has been led by two electorally appealing figures in Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones. But Carwyn will soon be gone – and the chances are high that his successor will struggle to connect so well with Welsh voters. It is also at least plausible that Brexit will inflict substantial damage on the Conservatives, including their Welsh arm. In short, Plaid could enter the next Assembly election in May 2021 with both of their main opponents in rather poorer shape than for some time.

Will Plaid be ready to take advantage of any political opportunities tat do arise? There has already been an apparent upward spike in membership; we will will soon see if their new leader has had any impact on their immediate poll ratings. Even if the next Welsh Political Barometer shows him not to have yet had much impact on the Welsh electorate, under Adam Price it is possible for the first time in some while to see brighter electoral prospects for Plaid Cymru. In these febrile political times it is unwise to predict almost anything with confidence, but the opportunities for Plaid are at least looking brighter than they have for many years.

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