In my second piece assessing the current standing of the political parties in Wales, I turn to the second party in the National Assembly, Plaid Cymru. I observed this time last year that the coming months were “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.” Plaid had achieved a rather mediocre result in the 2015 general election, while polls for the Assembly election were generally putting them in third place, behind the Conservatives. Indeed, the strength of UKIP in Wales suggested that it was not impossible that Plaid might actually finish fourth in the 2016 Assembly election.
Given these expectations, Plaid Cymru have good cause to look back on the last few months with some satisfaction. They finished second, in both votes and seats, in the National Assembly election, reclaiming their position as the official opposition in the Senedd. Plaid also won two of the four Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Wales. And, since May’s election, Plaid’s poll ratings have risen to heights not seen for several years – putting it in a clear second place for the Assembly, and even possibly on course for seat gains at Westminster. Evidence from the last few polls has also suggested that Leanne Wood is (albeit only marginally) the most popular political leader in Wales. In short, 2016 has certainly been a year of some progress for Plaid.
But ‘some progress’ definitely does not mean unalloyed triumph. May’s National Assembly election saw Plaid make ground overall, but the election was hardly some great victory for the party. A look at the details of the results demonstrates this all-too-clearly. In more than half of the constituencies (22 out of 40), Plaid’s vote share in 2016 was actually lower than it had been in the (disastrously poor) 2011 Assembly election. The party’s performance was very patchy. There were several extremely strong showings, with double-digit vote share rises in Blaenau Gwent, Rhondda, Ynys Môn and Cardiff West. But there were other places where Plaid very seriously under-performed. Party managers must surely, for instance, be looking closely at what has been going wrong in Llanelli, where Plaid saw their worst vote-share change anywhere in 2015, and their third-worst in 2016. Some of that may well be down to strong campaigning by Plaid’s main opponents, Labour; but at least part of the blame must surely be due to what Plaid themselves have been doing. The party’s abysmal 2016 performance in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, another potentially winnable seat, also requires some explanation.
Also of some concern to Plaid must be that several of these results – both the good and the bad ones – were unexpected. Plaid appear to have known that the Rhondda was heading their way, but had little idea that they would make even greater progress in Blaenau Gwent. The Carmarthen West fiasco similarly seems to have come as something of an unwelcome shock.
Meanwhile, much of the party’s rise in support since May appears to be less about Plaid Cymru than about the troubles of the Labour party. In short, this is likely to be very ‘soft’ support, much of which could disappear very quickly if Labour were actually to get their act together.
All the while, some bigger issues remain unresolved for Plaid. Unlike their colleagues in the SNP, the party have not yet found a way to make themselves appear relevant to many voters in the context of UK general elections. As long as this remains the case, their support for Westminster will continue to lag some way behind that for the Assembly. And some of Plaid’s long-standing problems in appealing effectively to much of the non Welsh-speaking population of Wales remain: significant chunks of Wales still appear to see Plaid Cymru as a party primarily concerned with the Cymry Cymraeg.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the result of the EU referendum poses some huge questions regarding Plaid’s vision and ultimate ambitions. For several decades, a core part of Plaid Cymru’s long-term goal for Wales had been some version of ‘independence within Europe’, with Europe generally understood as the EU. But no part of this vision currently appears remotely achievable. There is little or no sign of any rise in public enthusiasm for independence. And membership of the European Union has now been explicitly (if narrowly) rejected by the people of Wales. Once again, Plaid finds itself in a very different position from the SNP, whose hand has been immensely strengthened by the fact that Scotland voted strongly for Remain. The traditional Plaid heartlands of Gwynedd and Ceredigion did vote for Remain in the referendum, but Wales as a whole did not.
So what is the new Plaid long-term vision for Wales going to be? And what will be their strategy for achieving that vision?
Leanne Wood has had a very good last few months, politically. There was persistent talk, around the ‘Bay bubble’ prior to the Assembly election that Plaid (or at least some significant figures within the party) would look to have her replaced as party leader after the Assembly election. I always found such talk more than a little puzzling. After all, Plaid had stuck with her predecessor for more than a decade, despite his very obvious and total lack of voter appeal. So why would there be such desperation to be rid of a leader who quite a lot of voters actually seemed to like? In any case, there seems no such talk now. Leanne Wood had a good national campaign and achieved a decent result, while victory in her own home base of the Rhondda was a huge personal triumph that has given her immense authority within the party. It has also very visibly given a boost to her self-confidence.
But what does Leanne Wood want to do with her enhanced status? And what can she do with it? In the short term, her party faces the May 2017 local elections, where they have realistic prospects of making at least some gains. But beyond that, big questions remain unanswered. A credible vision for Wales; a realistic path towards victory in a National Assembly election; a plausible strategy for achieving the party’s ultimate goals: these are all areas in which Plaid Cymru has a very long way to go.