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The Electoral State of the Parties, 3: Plaid Cymru

 

In this, my third look at the electoral state of the parties, I turn to Plaid Cymru. Twelve months ago, when I reviewed the party’s recent electoral fortunes, I reflected on ‘more than a decade of pretty abject electoral failure’, with no more than fragmentary indications of recovery. Have things improved at all in the last year?

On one obvious measure, at least, the answer would appear to be no. In May’s European election Plaid Cymru’s vote share was down more than 3% from what they won in a far from outstanding electoral performance in 2009. Self-evidently, this was not an advance for Plaid. However, the 15.3% that they gained was enough for them to hold onto their seat in the European Parliament. Retaining that seat had looked distinctly unlikely for most of the period prior to the election, with all the polls bar the very final one putting Plaid clearly on course to lose out. Fighting against both a Labour party in significantly better shape than in 2009 and an advancing UKIP tide, Plaid arguably did well to hold their ground.

The opinion polls over the last year have not shown any great leap forwards for Plaid. But nor have they been wholly static. Both in polls for the general election and for the National Assembly, Plaid have made at least a modest amount of ground over the last year; the most recent BBC/ICM poll put the party in a clear second place for the Assembly constituency vote, and gave Plaid their highest score since 2009. This may be limited progress, but it is progress nonetheless. And that is unquestionably better than the alternative.

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

10.5

17.25

2013

10.33

18.0

2014

12.1

20.2

 

The effective rallying of Plaid’s vote in the European election, and the strong performance in both local elections and the Assembly by-election on Ynys Môn in 2013, have suggested that Plaid may be re-discovering how to fight elections effectively after some years of lassitude and decline. There are other causes for at least qualified Plaid optimism: the steady decline in Labour support over the last year or more; the slowly growing profile, confidence and public popularity of Leanne Wood; and the possibility of a more favourable electoral context in 2016 than was the case in 2011. None of this makes a repeat of 1999’s ‘quiet earthquake’ inevitable, or even likely, but it does suggest that somewhat brighter electoral prospects for the party may well lie ahead.

In the short term, next May’s UK general election looms. Plaid’s priorities for this election would seem to be clear. First and foremost they must hang onto the three seats that they currently hold, and avoid another body blow to morale as suffered in both 2001 and 2005 from losing parliamentary seats that should not have been lost. Dwyfor Meirionydd ought to remain secure for Plaid despite Elfyn Llwyd’s retirement from Westminster. However, neither Arfon nor Carmarthen East & Dinefwr are certain holds against a Labour party looking to make gains in Wales. (Arfon requires only a 3% swing to Labour to fall; Carmarthen East & Dinefwr a 4.6% swing).

Second, it would be an enormous morale booster for the party if they were able to gain a seat (or maybe even, if things were going really well for them, two). After their strong performances on the island in 2013, Ynys Môn looks the obvious Plaid target. Yet this requires a swing from Labour to Plaid in an election where Labour will generally be looking to advance rather than lose ground. Beyond that, Ceredigion may just be a possible: it requires a big (11%) swing, but a stronger Plaid candidate than in 2010 and a softening of Liberal Democrat support among the large student vote might just put it into play. After that, Plaid’s remaining priority would seem to be to put in place some advance ground work for seats that will be targets in 2016: such as Llanelli, Aberconwy and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire.

A significant problem for Plaid, however, is that these short-term priorities and goals will require channelling resources into parts of Wales that do little to help Plaid address its longer-term stategic objectives. As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere, if Plaid Cymru are ever to crack Labour’s hegemony over Welsh politics then they must break out of their traditional north and west Wales heartland, and be consistently challenging for seats across south Wales. Without beginning to make a serious impact on Labour’s stranglehold over the constituency seats in the three south Wales regions, Plaid can never challenge Labour effectively for the status of largest party in the Assembly. Senior figures in the party are fully aware of this. But they are also, surely, aware that investments of resources in south Wales will have uncertain short-term payoffs, and risk denuding Plaid’s efforts in more immediately promising territory. There is no obvious answer to this dilemma.

As I mentioned this time last year, one of Leanne Wood’s favourite Welsh words seems to be ‘Ymlaen’. Over the last twelve months, her party has indeed moved forwards. But a UK general election, in which a Wales-only party will inevitably be marginalised by the UK news-media, presents risks as well as opportunities. And achieving the desired result in 2016 will, for Plaid, require moving forward much further than it has managed thus far.

Postcript: A few days after drafting this piece, I came across the following discussion of Plaid Cymru’s strategy for the 1992 general election, in the second volume of Dafydd Wigley’s memoirs. (See Dal ati, pp.350-351):

“Y nod cyntaf oedd cadw’r tair sedd a oedd gennym… Yn ail, byddem yn ceisio ennill Caerfyddin a Cheredigion/Gogledd Penfro. Yn drydydd, roeddem yn awyddus i godi’r bleidlais yn y Cymoedd, gan glustnodi Llanelli a Chaerffili” (“The first goal was to keep the three seats we had Secondly, we would try to win Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion/North Pembroke. Third, we wanted to increase our vote in the Valleys, focusing on Llanelli and Caerphilly”)

It is, perhaps, a sobering thought for Plaid Cymru that, while the names of the seats may have changed, in other respects they will face the 2015 general election seemingly no further forward than they were 23 years previously.

Comments

  • J.Jones

    I really can’t make up my mind whether Plaid are about to make a break-through on the heels of the Scottish referendum or whether they are about to become the 4th party in Wales. I understand the Plaid logic of sending Leanne Wood up North to show solidarity with the SNP and Kim Jong Un. If Scotland votes Yes why not Wales? If Scotland votes No then We want whatever they get. Win Win for Plaid as voters flock to the cause…….except.

    How do Welsh people really feel about partition of the UK? Only about 10% consistently say that they want independence and a majority (just about) don’t want more devolution (including those wanting abolition).

    Plaid could go down like a lead balloon if there is bad feeling about Scotland and who would be the heroes then? UKIP?

    • Roger Scully

      I’m always grateful for people taking an interest in the blog. But please don’t make any further such comparisons – even if not intended seriously – between democratic politicians and mass-murdering dictators.

    • Robert

      We are a small nation with a lot of others within that nation so to get devolution would be difficult, getting devolution within the Union maybe a chance. But with Plaid going into coalition with labour in Wales and then standing up for labour was a massive mistake. Now rumours Plaid would go into a coalition with Miliband Newer labour is just to much for many. I suspect Plaid will have a poor election and coming forth will be on the cards.

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