For the third piece in this short series evaluating the electoral standing and prospects of Wales’ main political parties, I turn to Plaid Cymru.
As with the other main political parties, the recent past for Plaid has seen extraordinary changes in fortunes. Summer 2019 saw the party scoring some historic successes. For the first time ever, they led the way in voting intentions for the Senedd in the July Welsh Political Barometer poll. This followed on from Plaid finishing ahead of Labour, again for the first ever time in a Wales-wide electoral contest, in the May European election. And although the political landscape became more difficult in the latter part of 2019, the party still ended up retaining its four parliamentary seats fairly comfortably – with greatly increased majorities in hitherto ultra-marginal Arfon and Ceredigion.
But in other respects the 2019 general election was a huge disappointment for Plaid. Their own vote share fell once again – with the party not having the excuse, as it did in 2017, of competing in the left-of-centre against a surging Labour party. In 2019, the self-styled ‘Party of Wales’ was once more in the position of failing to attract the electoral support of even one in ten voters in Wales. Plaid candidates lost their deposit in ten seats in 2019, and in fully 33 of the forty Welsh seats there was either no Plaid candidate at all, or that candidate secured below 15 percent of the vote. Of course the party could legitimately point out that 2017 and 2019 were not like-for-like comparisons, because Plaid stood down in favour of their Remain Alliance partners, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, in several seats. But that excuse simply draws attention to the utter failure of that electoral pact. In no seats in Wales did the Remain Alliance deliver an additional pro-Remain MP. And in the wake of the election, at the end of January 2020, Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom formally departed from the European Union. Plaid pinned many hopes in 2019 on its pro-Remain stance and strategy. Those hopes were utterly crushed.
One of the few positives that Plaid Cymru could take out from the general election was the performance of leader, Adam Price. Although not given the chance to debate with the major party leaders directly, as Leanne Wood had enjoyed in 2015, Price did perform capably in the UK-level debates where he participated. There was certainly enough evidence for Plaid to be optimistic that their leader might out-perform his Welsh counterparts when it came to the Senedd election. One other positive sign for Plaid is the manner in which their long-term objective of independence has moved more into mainstream political debate in Wales. The Welsh debate is in a very different place from that in Scotland, and even the most optimistic reading of the evidence shows independence still to be very much a minority taste in Wales. But that minority has grown in size; while the debate about independence has moved, to some extent at least, beyond simply an internal discussion within the ranks of Plaid. It is doubtful that Plaid’s own actions have contributed much to these developments; far more relevant has been the discrediting of the UK state, in the eyes of at least some voters, through its handling of Brexit and Covid-19. The rise in the salience of independence is not necessarily a route to electoral success for the main party advocating that goal. But its central objective becoming shared, or at least considered, by more voters is surely a good thing for the long-term health of a political party.
In the shorter-term, however, Plaid appear to face an uphill struggle. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer pollput the party’s Westminster support notably higher than at December’s general election, but still showed them in third place for the Senedd. The gap between Plaid and the two parties ahead of them was not huge, and Plaid would hope that their campaigning efforts could improve their standing. But will Plaid (and the other parties) have much opportunity to campaign over the next few months? With much of Wales currently in lockdown, and a long and difficult virus-struck winter apparently looming, on-the-ground campaigning could well be significantly restricted. Meanwhile, the attention of voters is likely to be on matters other than the Senedd election. The handling of Covid-19 has given a huge boost to the profile and popularity of First Minister Mark Drakeford. In most other respects, however, devolved politics have been marginalised – and they are likely to remain so for some time. Plaid supporters can justifiably expect that their party leader will put over their case effectively next year – quite possibly more so than any of the other party leaders in Wales. The concern for them must be whether anyone will actually be listening?
A further challenge for Plaid remains where to target their resources. A major advance for Plaid will require them gaining more constituencies than just the ever-marginal Llanelli. As I have commented on at various points on the blog, if the other parties are ever to make a serious dent in Labour’s domination of the Senedd, then they need to start winning significant numbers of the south Wales constituency seats that Labour have hitherto dominated. But there are not a huge number of obviously winnable targets for Plaid in south Wales next May. Moreover, even those seats that are winnable on paper are likely to be much more difficult in practice. After Llanelli, the next two most marginal seats in south Wales where Plaid finished second last time are Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff West; in both places, Plaid managed large swings in 2016 to come close to capturing the seats. But in both seats the candidates who achieved those swings are (for reasons I don’t propose to discuss here) no longer members of Plaid. Nor has the party exactly been short of ‘local difficulties’ in recent years in Llanelli. In short, even in many of the places where Plaid Cymru should be most obviously in the running to win next May, they do not appear to be in optimal shape to take advantage of those opportunities.
Given the generally unpredictable nature of politics in recent years, and the capacity for major issues like Covid-19 and Brexit to alter the political landscape over the next few months, predicting the shape of the Senedd next May remains hazardous. What we can say with more confidence is where things are now. And there the evidence is clear: unless Plaid Cymru do find a way to change their fortunes over the next seven and a bit months, or external events change their fortunes for them, the party are currently on course to come third in the Senedd election. And simply to state that is to lay bare the scale of the challenge facing Adam Price and his party.