For members and supporters of Plaid Cymru, the devolution years have been a strange mix of achievement and failure, fulfilment and frustration. The positives are considerable. First and foremost must be the creation of an elected Welsh legislature and the significant extension of its powers after the 2011 referendum. Also of great importance is the 2007-11 coalition government, with Plaid moving from being a party of protest to one of power – a role to which it adapted with perhaps surprising ease and in which it generally performed competently. But on the negative side of the ledger, after its annus mirabilis of 1999 when Plaid twice came close to beating Labour in the national vote, the party’s electoral performance has been consistently disappointing. Plaid are currently only the third party in the National Assembly, and finished fourth in Wales in the most recent UK general and European Parliament elections. The contrast between the recent electoral fortunes of Plaid and its sister-party in Scotland (who Plaid actually out-performed in 1999) is stark.
The last year or so has produced some signs of electoral improvement for Plaid. The party’s opinion poll ratings have begun to edge upwards, both for Westminster and the National Assembly. The polls have also shown some advance in public ratings of their leader, Leanne Wood. Meanwhile, real elections have also produced a few successes. The most striking, by far, was Rhun ap Iorwerth’s Assembly by-election victory in Ynys Môn in August 2013 (which itself followed a strong performance in the island’s local election the previous May). However, retaining Jill Evans’ European Parliament seat, in the face of strong advances from both Labour and UKIP, was also a fair achievement. With Labour’s poll ratings in Wales having moved downwards significantly over the last 12-18 months, Plaid Cymru can look forward to the 2016 National Assembly with at least cautious optimism.
However, in looking to advance, Plaid Cymru faces a strategic dilemma. That dilemma can be simply stated: that there is a fundamental tension between Plaid Cymru’s long-term objective of challenging the Labour party’s dominance of Welsh politics, and what is clearly the most sensible short-term strategy for it making a significant advance in the 2016 National Assembly election.
Leanne Wood has stated that Plaid’s long-term strategic objective is to challenge Labour as the dominant party in the National Assembly. To achieve this, Plaid will obviously need to raise their overall vote share well beyond the 18-19% won in 2011. But in addition to simply stacking up more votes, challenging Labour dominance in the Assembly will require Plaid to capture a significant number of constituency seats from Labour in south Wales. Labour won 22 of the 23 constituency seats in the three south Wales regions in 2011; whereas even a strong performance by Plaid on the list vote could plausibly secure it only two list seats from each south Wales region, or six in total. While Labour continues to dominate the south Wales constituency seats so totally (in South Wales West Labour have never lost a single contest for an Assembly constituency seat) it is nigh-on mathematically impossible for Labour to be displaced as the largest party in the Assembly, or indeed for any other party even to approach them in terms of number of AMs. For Labour’s dominance of the Assembly to be challenged, serious inroads must be made into Labour’s dominance of the south Wales constituency seats: there is simply no alternative.
But let us remind ourselves of where Plaid starts the campaign for the 2016 National Assembly election: as the third party in the Assembly, with only the 11 seats won in 2011. A general rise in Plaid’s vote share might plausibly win the party some additional regional list seats. But the scope for gains there is distinctly limited – probably at most to one additional AM in each of North Wales, South Wales West and South Wales Central. A more substantial advance will require some constituency gains. So at what targets should Plaid be aiming?
Sensible strategy is generally for parties to target the most clearly winnable seats. The three clearest target constituency seats for Plaid in 2016 are the following:
- Llanelli, which requires only a 0.2% swing from the 2011 result for Plaid to capture
- Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, for which, although they narrowly came third last time, Plaid require only a 3.2% swing to win; and
- Aberconwy, for which Plaid would need a 3.9% swing.
These are the only three constituency seats that look obviously ‘winnable’ for Plaid in 2016: the only seats that Plaid can capture with a percentage swing significantly below 10%.
None of these seats is in one of the three south Wales regions.
The strategic problem facing Plaid begins to come into focus. Do they focus on the most obviously winnable constituency seats? These offer the clearest potential for immediate Plaid Cymru gains. However, winning these seats – two of which are currently held by the Conservatives – would have little impact on Labour’s overall dominance of the Assembly. Furthermore, because both Llanelli and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire are in the Mid and West Wales region, success in gaining both these constituencies might well mean losing Plaid’s Mid and West Wales list seat, thus producing a net gain of only one seat in that region.
Where is comes next on the list of potential Plaid targets? The next two constituency seats requiring the smallest swings for Plaid gains are Caerphilly, where Plaid would need a 9.7% swing on the 2011 result to win, and Clwyd West, which would need a 10.2% swing for Plaid to come from third place to win. These are the only other two seats where Plaid can win with swings around 10%. Neither of these two seats would exactly be easy wins for Plaid Cymru (to put it mildly). And only one of these two seats is in south Wales (Caerphilly is in South Wales East).
In a very good year for Plaid Cymru (with their national support level at around that won in 1999) and a bad year for Labour (with their support falling to the sort of level won in 2007), it is possible to see a pathway to Plaid winning 18 seats in the National Assembly. (That is not, please note, my prediction for how well Plaid will do in 2016.) Achieving this would require Plaid to capture all its obvious target constituency seats (up to and including Caerphilly), and the mathematics on the list seats working in ways that are as favourable to them as seems even vaguely plausible. On such a scenario, though the parties would be pretty close in terms of vote share, Labour would still be some way ahead of Plaid in the Assembly, at around 24-25 seats.
Moving any further forward than this would require Plaid to be achieving some truly remarkable swings – in some places even to approach the sort of swings they managed in several seats in 1999:
Clwyd South would require a 12.0% swing for Plaid Cymru to capture it;
Neath, a 13.5% swing
Preseli Pembrokeshire, a 13.5% swing
Cardiff West, a 13.6% swing
Wrexham, a 15.5% swing
Swansea West, a 15.8% swing
Rhondda, a 16.9% swing
Torfaen, a 17.1% swing
Cynon Valley, a 17.5% swing
Islwyn, a 18.2% swing
In pondering the task ahead of them, Plaid Cymru strategists might be wise to reflect on one aspect of the experience of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Prompted by the eruption of ‘Clegg-mania’ after the first leaders’ debate into thinking that they might make considerable gains across Britain, the Liberal Democrats diverted precious resources from their original limited list of target seats into attacking across a broader front. They ended up, on a somewhat increased vote share, actually making a net loss of seats overall (including losing Montgomeryshire in Wales).
For Plaid Cymru in 2016 to put resources into targeting seats that are crucial to achieving their long-term objective would risk sacrificing more obviously winnable seats. Yet prioritising the seats where Plaid clearly could win in 2016 would mean, in practice, accepting that they will not seriously challenge Labour’s status as the leading party in the Assembly until some point in the future.
It is clear where Plaid Cymru wish to get to. Their dilemma is that the pathway for them actually getting there is much less clear.