In my assessment of Plaid Cymru’s prospects this time last year, I observed that “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.” Once again, my expectations for a party in 2015 were somewhat confounded.
In the case of Plaid Cymru, I had not anticipated – though to be fair to myself, I’m not sure I reasonably could have done – that the general election campaign would marginalise Plaid Cymru rather less than had occurred in previous UK general elections. Apparently interminable negotiations between the parties and the broadcasters over televised leaders’ debates in the general election produced, in the end, a rather bizarre compromise. As a result of this, there were two major GB-wide debates: one a seven-way event that included both the Prime Minister and his then Deputy; the second a five-way ‘Opposition leaders debate’ that excluded the leaders of the Westminster coalition parties. But crucially, the stage for both events was opened up to include both the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru. This gave Plaid a higher-profile platform than they had ever enjoyed before in a UK general election.
Leanne Wood undoubtedly had a good general election. After a slightly hesitant start in the first GB-wide debate, she got into her stride when berating Nigel Farage over immigration. Visibly growing in confidence, she performed better still in the Opposition debate, and was probably the strongest performer over the two televised Welsh debates that came later on in the campaign. Even her valleys accent won admiring comments – as well as, reputedly, offers of work as a commercial voice-over artist and audio-book narrator! Leanne seemed to relish the campaign trail, and the Welsh Political Barometer polls recorded both a significant rise in her public profile and an improvement in her popularity ratings. By the end of the general election, she had become just about the most widely-known active Welsh politician, marginally ahead even of the First Minister.
Yet rather as with Clegg-mania in 2010, the mini-cult of Leanne that developed during the campaign won her party precious few additional votes. True, Plaid Cymru’s vote share did show a rise over that in 2010, of almost one percentage point, having fallen in both previous general elections. But after enjoying much greater media exposure for their leader than in any previous general election, Plaid were undoubtedly disappointed to make so little ground. The party’s active social media supporters made much use, in the last weeks of the campaign, of the hashtag #plaidsurge. But any such surge, if it had ever existed outside of the minds of Plaid supporters, had largely fizzled out by polling day.
The picture was similarly mixed when we look at specific seats. Yes, the party held onto all its existing seats. While Dwyfor Meirionydd always looked pretty safe for Plaid, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr and, especially, Arfon, had looked under potential threat from Labour. In the event, Plaid significantly increased their majorities in both. But they fell agonisingly short of unseating Albert Owen in Ynys Môn, despite having dominated all other elections on Anglesey in recent years. Plaid’s other main target was Ceredigion; here, a vigorous local Plaid campaign failed by more than three thousand votes in the face of Mark Williams’ formidable local presence. Thus, Plaid came out of the election with the same three seats as they had gone into it. The contrast with the fortunes of their sister party in Scotland, who made fifty gains (out of only 59 seats in the whole of Scotland) has rarely been more stark for Plaid Cymru.
Some of the most interesting and important results for Plaid Cymru in 2015, however, were perhaps less immediately noticeable. The party made some significant advances in vote share in seats where they would be looking to build for the future, and possibly even challenge seriously in 2016 – particularly in the Rhondda and in Cardiff West. But the party’s two greatest vote share falls in 2015 were in Llanelli and Aberconwy: both seats that Plaid Cymru won in the 2007 National Assembly election, and which would be at the top of their list of targets for 2016. In another potential target seat, Caerphilly, the party’s vote share also slipped and they fell to fourth place in the face of a major advance from UKIP. If Plaid had been hoping that the general election would allow them to put in place the building blocks for seat gains in 2016, then 2015 was at best only a very partial success.
At present, then, Plaid Cymru’s prospects for the 2016 Assembly election look little improved from a year ago. True, all the polling shows that devolved elections remain much better territory for Plaid Cymru than do those for Westminster. Moreover, for the first time since 1999, Plaid will be fighting a devolved election with a party leader likely to match Labour’s leader in terms of profile and popularity. But Plaid’s poll ratings are no better now than they were at this stage of the 2007-11 Assembly. In addition, Plaid face a significant new competitor for votes in UKIP. That statement might seem bizarre – it would be difficult to find two democratic political parties that have less in common in their outlook than Plaid and UKIP. Yet UKIP’s appeal to some of the more alienated working class voters who have traditionally been much of Labour’s support base may well inhibit Plaid from winning over some of those voters to their cause.
There also remains a significant question of how Plaid Cymru might handle the post-election environment. It currently looks very unlikely that Plaid will be in any sort of position to lead a government themselves. But neither their experience between 2007-11, nor that of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, makes the role of junior coalition partner look like a very appealing one.
Leanne Wood has had a good last twelve months. But her party – well, not so much. And the next few months, both the period before the Assembly election and that immediately after it, are likely to pose considerable challenges for both the leader and her party. They will need to raise their game further to prove remotely equal to those challenges.