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Plaid Cymru’s Strategic Dilemma

11 August 2014


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.


  1. Marcus Warner

    I think this pretty much sums up the dilemma we as a party face at the moment.

    The seeds of the problem was actually the 2010 Westminster election in my view. We threw far too much resource at far too many seats on the rather over ambitious goal of winning 7 Westminster seats. While they are not disparate, I think the priority from here on in resource wise has to be the Welsh elections.

    A proper post mortem of that decision in 2010 was hard to conduct as we had the referendum, 2011 elections etc and it seemed for a small party like Plaid it was in permanent electioneering mode.

    This is my personal opinion based on my own politics within Plaid, but the strategic mistake we are making is trying to be the ‘real’ Labour alternative and attack Labour from the left. Even when successful, say under the Blair government during Assembly elections, it’s only temporary – we merely lend voters from Labour in elections they perceive to not matter a great deal. What too many people forget is that far more people DON’T vote Labour than do, and not enough focus is to uniting that vote to vote for Plaid. I very much believe Plaid needs to become a more centrist, more unifying political force to do this and while I was and remain a supporter of Leanne Wood’s leadership I do believe we need to move towards that political ground.

    A genuine alternative to Labour needs not be a ‘tradtional/idealised’ version of it – it needs to be a competitive version that people who don’t vote Labour would consider to knock Labour off it’s perch.

  2. Cymro Cymraeg

    I consider this article to be a very fair and accurate analysis of Plaid’s position and potential, however the article doesn’t make reference to the importance and influence of local cllrs within the geographical patch of each constituency – neither does it consider the loose regard that the ocal Plaid Cymru organisation and cllr groups have for adhering to National party policy. (e.g. as a staunch PC supporter for 25 years at every election, I supported a Labour MP at the 2010 election because of PC’s mixed and inconsistent attitudes towards issues such as Nuclear Power, the closure of Welsh medium rural schools, peers nominated to the house of Lords and LDP’s). I made this decision not because I believed that Labour party policy was any more sincere than PC policy, rather because I recognised the local Labour MP as being a hard working and sincere individual.
    In my opinion, the only way forward for Plaid to succeed is to commit to the following.
    1. To increase activity at a local level by supporting communities such as villages and towns with initiatives and protests..
    2. To nominate and select PC representatives at EVERY community / town and unitary authority election.
    3. For all elected PC groups to conform to the ‘narrative’ that is embedded within PC National policy.

    Finally, it would be wrong for Plaid Cymru policy advisers and representatives to consider that all of its supporters and potential voters are ‘Labour haters’ as this would be an electoral disaster at National elections.

  3. Jason Morgan

    I think Plaid Cymru have a bigger dilemma as it happens, which the result of the next election won’t change unless it becomes the largest party (which, as you point out, is very unlikely), and I suppose I generally agree with Marcus above…

    After the next election, if current polling is correct and stays mildly the same (and I’m unsure as to whether either a new Labour government or Scottish independence would have a huge effect on the Welsh polls) we’ll likely have an Assembly that consists of a Conservative party, and UKIP AM’s, that wouldn’t be able to form a coalition with either each other or any of the other parties, and it’s likely that Lab-Lib wouldn’t have the numbers either. The only choice for a government, I’d imagine, is another Labour-PC coalition. I don’t know about you, but number-wise this seems the only likely majority government in 2016 at the moment (and when I say Lab-PC I mean with Labour as the largest party yet again).

    This really brings about the question of Plaid Cymru’s amibition and whether or not they’re actually serious about replacing Labour. Is being a junior parter sometimes enough to satisfy PC? I wouldn’t want to speculate but I think there’s a strain within the party who would be completely content with that.

    If they do that, Plaid would likely suffer at the polls during the next election – it’s not only that junior coalition parties often do that but “Vote Plaid, Get Labour” could be entrenched in many people’s minds by then, being the second such coalition in 3 terms. Who do people who don’t want to see a Labour-led assembly vote for in such a situation? I think PC would get a hammering, and with it any ambition they’ve had to be the main party in Wales.

    Cymro Cymraeg above is right to say that not all PC voters are “Labour haters” – although it’s fair to say that many PC voters do hate Labour. But both sets have one thing in common: they vote Plaid Cymru because they don’t want a Labour-led assembly for eternity. If Plaid Cymru can’t deliver that then who will? I don’t know how many Plaid-leaning voters would agree with me, but I personally certainly won’t be voting Plaid Cymru in 2016 if they don’t rule out being part of a Labour-led government.

    I think it’s wrong and dishonest for parties to say “let the voters decide” before elections when asked about possible coalition partnres. They should say exactly what they’re willing to do (not just who they’re not willing to form a coalition with). I think that if PC were to say they’d rule out being part of a Labour-led government before hand it would probably do them a lot of good.

    Whatever result Plaid Cymru attain in 2016, they should remember that if they do want to advance as a party and truly challenge Labour then they have to, well, challenge Labour. Another coalition would be the death-knell to their ambitions to do this.

    • Marcus Warner

      Weirdly I can remember being one of the few people who put forward the idea of ruling out a coalition with Labour – it is fair to say that remains a minority position within the party! Good to see someone else make the case though.

      My view is that replacing Labour is the only game in town and that the tories are far more entrenched in Wales than they are in Scotland. I would say that is probably down to the large border/English incomer factor.

      I personally have no ideological problem with a rainbow coalition if it meant breaking Labour’s hold on the levers of Government and if the rainbow coalition involved further constitutional gains. Let’s be blunt here – the Welsh Government barely has any economic power, so what exactly is the massive ideological difference between left/right in that context? The biggest bogie man in Wales is not Thatcher or the Tories, it is the absolute continual power of the Labour Party, whose internal party debate becomes the defacto political debate in Wales.

  4. J.Jones

    I always wonder at Plaid. Its public face is of a Socialist party positioning itself to the left of Welsh Labour but of course it is a culturally conservative party in its heartlands where much of its support comes from small business (particularly farming) and public servants (particularly local govenment and teaching). Are these people really radical socialists in the way that Leanne portrays Plaid?
    The people who I grew up with and have always voted Plaid are rabidly anti-Labour but actually support the policies and positions taken by the Tory party whilst voting Plaid! I’ve never quite understood this but from time to time you see Plaid take a political position that looks anything but liberal-socialist……Fox hunting and badger killing spring to mind but also vocal support for small businesses, these are the policies to woo conservative middle England not the Welsh valleys.
    Even further to the right are the culture and Language “fundamentalist” Nationalists who loathe all things associated with all parties originating from England….they share UKIP’s objection to all immigration and are similarly averse to the EU. All in all Plaid supporters are a diverse bunch and its hard to see how the leadership can please one group without alienating another. At the moment they are taking the loyalty of their heartland supporters for granted; after all, who else would they vote for?

    One thing I notice here:

    Is a welcome recognition of the need to weight for Born/not born…in Scotland. I believe that it is an adjustment long needed in the polling methodology in Wales. Most people accept that those born in England form the bulk of UKIP support but also the bulk of anti-devolution (or further devolution) sentiment. It’s time that YouGov recognised the need to weight for Born/not born in Wales in their polling.

  5. cigmoch

    The 2016 election will bring many scenarios but the the most important for Plaid will be the gains it makes, followed by consolidation, identification of progress and strategy going forward.

    It is hard to disagree with comments already made, but I would suggest a position of positivity could well be in place with the calibre of elected members Plaid may well see at The Senedd.

  6. Jason Morgan


    Are you saying that, in your experience as a member of Plaid Cymu, that most within the party would be happy to be part of another Labour-led government?

    I would find that really depressing. It essentially means that people like myself who don’t want to see another Labour-led Assembly have no-one to vote for in 2016. And although I know you yourself cannot speak for the party as a whole, I really think PC as a party should be honest about this NOW and not just before the election. It’s important for the Welsh electorate to know what the parties are willing to do come 2016, before te results themselves.

    • Marcus Warner


      No I wouldn’t say that…what I would say is that I think there is a rabid anti-Tory feeling, which I can understand but it does lend itself at the moment to either beating Labour outright (unlikely at the moment), or going into power.

      As a bargaining position I don’t see that as strong. Seriously, if Plaid ruled out going into Government with Labour as we want to replace them and not prop them up, it would cause Labour far more problems than us. Even better if we dropped this inability to even consider a rainbow option – to me we have to box clever and see which parties Westminster wise can deliver us further devolution, while the powers are limited. Let’s be honest – what exactly can a ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing Welsh Government really do that is tremendously different economically with the powers it has? That is the ideal time to consider working with a rainbow surely.

      Get Labour out of power in the bay and they will panic, they will lose that patronage and that historic image of absolute power.

  7. Welshguy

    I was tacitly pro- the previous Labour-Plaid coalition. I think it was a good experience for the party and it was a means to achieve some of our short-term aims; and despite the drop in support at the next election (which wasn’t necessarily down to the “junior partner” effect; there are a myriad of other potential factors) I think it was a positive mood for the party’s image as a serious party of government. Certainly, the 2007-11 ministry was the most competent administration in the Assembly’s history, although being a Plaid supporter I probably would say that!

    However, I do agree with the above commenters in believing that a repeat of this would be a mistake. The point has been made; to repeat it would begin to look like Lab/PC are a “natural” fit – which they’re not, or at least, shouldn’t be – and to make it look unambitious for the party. I’d also not like to see a “rainbow” coalition either, and don’t expect we will – Leanne Wood has always expressed her distaste for the Tories and has previously suggested the party should rule out a coalition with them, let alone UKIP.

  8. Ian Gorman

    I was wondering if any of the individuals engaged in the discussion above would like to sound their opinions in light of the 2015 General Election results? Plaid suffered some severe reversals of fortune to the point where UKIP are now the third strongest party in Wales with Plaid falling to fourth. Should these results be repeated next year Plaid will be losing nearly half their current AM seats. In South Wales East Plaid faces being wiped out losing both of its list seats to UKIP.

    The next few months should prove to be very interesting.

    • Cymro Cymraeg

      As a former parliamentary candidate, cllr and member of Plaid, it is unfortunate that Plaid place so much emphasis on policies that are not even adhered to, on a local level, when they ‘control’ the local democratic institution. At the moment, their only asset is Leanne Wood and she is only succeeding in maintaing support in areas that have already been won. I’m afraid that Plaid will probably return with between 11 and 15 AM’s next year. When considering the North Wales region, I would predict that Plaid will retain Ynys Mon and Arfon (and Llyr Huws Gruffydd returning as the candidate at the head of the list). However, it will be unlikely that LL.H.G. will retain his regional seat if Plaid win a third constituency seat in the North. There is a very slim possibility Plaid may win Conwy (as a third constituency), however the settled UPKIPERS are strong along the anglicised coastal strip but Plaid does retain some strong support within the rural valley. I’m afraid that UKIP will win a North Wales regional list seat and the current AM (Aled Roberts, Lib Dem) will probably lose to the UKIP candidate. Incidentally, I have no respect for the Lib Dems, however I’m considering Aled as a sincere, hard working and genuine individual who works just as hard as Llyr. Maybe Aled needs some help. After all, I don’t want any UKIPERS in the Assembly and my allegiance to Plaid has recently faltered………..and they know why!

      • Ian Gorman

        Based on the General Election vote Plaid are on target to win a total of 6 seats, even being generous they might get 8 or 9. There are going to be a bunch of Kippers in the Assembly, like it or not, somewhere between 7 and 11.

        If Jeremy “Austerity” Corbyn wins the Labour leadership race the radical left might gel around Labour taking further leftist votes from Plaid and the Greens. Corbyn will displace a portion of current Labour supporters over to UKIP and the Lib Dems. Essentially the change in the positioning of a Corbyn Labour Party would result in a further shift in favour of UKIP.

  9. Christian Schmidt

    Nope, I’d disagree, I don’t think there is a dilemma. For the article presumes that gaining a few percentage points in losing constituencies now while at the same time winning fewer seats overall is a better stepping stones to winning those constituencies in future elections. And for that there is no evidence whatsoever.

    While I do not have any evidence either, I would argue that winning seats and thus strengthening the party overall will have more of a positive effect in the future than some small swing in losing constituencies.

    And if one considers that Labour are likely to loose some seats, then surely the crucial target for Plaid is to come second in terms of assembly seats again. And perhaps try to establish a rainbow coalition again, as they tried in 2007.

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