Election 2016 – State of the Parties: Plaid Cymru

The Current Picture


At the end of the Third Assembly, Plaid Cymru perhaps expected to be rewarded for their time in coalition government with Labour – proving to be a productive and effective partner. The result was the opposite, with the 2011 election becoming a Westminster mid-term and verdict on the increasingly unpopular Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The mass return to the Labour fold saw Plaid punched in the gut for their efforts between 2007-2011 and, in some respects, going into government with Labour was one of the worst mistakes the party’s ever made.

Ieuan Wyn Jones’s tenure as party leader couldn’t continue. The leadership election that followed galvanised Plaid’s grassroots, with Leanne Wood being convincingly elected in early 2012. As someone from the Raymond Williams-inspired radical left of the party she promised real independence, with other Plaid figures confident she would lead an SNP-style charge against both The (then) Coalition and Labour.

It hasn’t happened yet. “OK”would accurately describe Plaid’s Fourth Assembly performance. They’ve lacked the forensic scrutiny of the Lib Dems, while they’ve been practical and accommodating towards Labour (until the “cheap date” stuff). This approach is exemplified by their only legislative proposal this term – the Financial Education Bill– being withdrawn in favour of a new strategy following agreement with ministers; a pragmatic and sensible compromise in the spirit of consensus, but perhaps sold short.

Although they’ve extracted concessions from Labour in budget deals – like the slightly controversial Menai Science Park – Plaid have landed few big punches this term other than their opposition to the M4 Newport Bypass and their u-turn on the Public Health Bill. The former arguably hurt them more, resulting in the Lib Dems securing a £233million budget deal despite their own opposition to the project.

Leanne Wood’s honeymoon period is lasting forever online, but in the real world things haven’t gone exactly to plan. There were so-so results in the 2012 local elections, a failure to take control of Anglesey Council in 2013 despite a good set of results, narrowly hanging on to an EU Parliament seat in 2014 (finishing well behind UKIP), and a series of public spats between the leadership and Dafydd Elis-Thomas, which came close to seeing the latter de-selected for 2016.

That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots. There’s been a major overhaul of campaigning methods, which is arguably the best of any Welsh party and clearly inspired by both the SNP and perhaps even American congressional runs (notice how Plaid candidates are now carefully stage-managed; I see through things like that but it’s very professional and snazzy).

Plaid unleashed their new personality-based campaign methods during the 2013 Ynys Môn by-election to great success, with former BBC journalist Rhun ap Iorwerth elected with a crushing majority. This subsequently saw him quickly rise to the newly-streamlined five-member “Shadow Cabinet” team, and for the last two years Plaid have been telling everyone who’d listen that they’re going to form the next Welsh Government.

After years of complaint, Plaid were also included in Westminster election debates in 2015, giving Leanne Wood the highest public profile of any Plaid leader to date. The problem is it didn’t rub off on, or reflect, the party’s work or policies. The outcome : a few memorable photos and soundbites, but another disappointing set of results.

Following a barnstorming autumn conference in October 2015, and highly-polished campaign launch in February 2016, Plaid remain publicly confident they can lead Wales alone, and some younger and more headstrong acolytes remain convinced Leanne Wood is the next First Minister. The enthusiasm and optimism shines through and is useful for any party going into an election, but if there’s any party that needs a cold dose of reality at the moment….

Strengths


A strong core vote – Whilst Plaid have struggled to break far beyond 20% of the national vote since 2003, one thing you can say is there’s a level of loyalty to the party which means they’re often guaranteed a minimum proportion of the vote across a large swathe of Wales….in Assembly elections. Their vote has a tendency to hold up and doesn’t leech to other parties all that easily, meaning they’re less likely to be victim to a Lib Dem-style crash and burn. Plaid supporters are also more motivated to turn out and vote in Assembly elections so overall low turn-outs actually help them.

Presentable – Plaid are the most highly-visible Welsh party online and the most polished and modern in terms of presentation; their current campaign is head and shoulders above any of the other parties in that regard. When not that long ago Plaid came across as a debate club for retired arts department academics, folk singers and chapel-goers, since Leanne Wood took the reins and the appointment of Rhuanedd Richards there’s been a fresh injection of vibrancy. Although this hasn’t yet generated the same buzz as the SNP, their front bench certainly look like a government in waiting; whether there’s enough substance is for voters to decide.

Active foot soldiers – Plaid often seem to be more than just a political party – they’re a national movement, secular church and perhaps even considered to be an extended family for many people. It may well be anecdotal evidence, but in areas where Plaid Cymru are strong, its members are often more engaged with the party compared to other parties. Plaid have an almost unique ability in Wales to drum up a small crowd with bunting etc. on short notice without drafting in party big-wigs – though they made good use of Dafydd Wigley last year. The fact they’re free of big donors (bequeathments aside) might be seen by other parties as a disadvantage. In a positive light it means Plaid are more in touch with its membership and detached from outside influence than other parties, who are beholden to either trade unions or businesses/wealthy donors.

Weaknesses



Their support is too heavily concentrated in Y Fro Gymraeg
– Welsh nationalism’s biggest mistake was to anchor the national question to Welsh language culture, and not having fought a language war to a stalemate is something the SNP should be immensely grateful for. Being the undisputed “Party of the Welsh language” makes them a target for conspiracy theorists and opposition dirty tricks – and it consistently works too. In some parts of Wales, particularly highly-Anglophone and densely populated areas, Plaid seem dead on their feet. It’s partly (but not entirely) because they’ve never been able to completely shake off their label as “a party for Welsh-speakers”.

“Decentralised Socialism” – Plaid have never figured out how to co-ordinate policies at local and national level. They want to be taken seriously as a party of government but seem unwilling to give up being a protest party because, presumably, they want to give their elected members and local branches flexibility and want to be seen to support as many grassroots campaigns as possible. Fair enough, but this means collectively, and as individuals, Plaid back causes that contradict each other. For example, Plaid enforce small school closures in one part of Wales, then vigorously oppose them in another part. They support renewable energy, then campaign against renewable energy schemes….and the less said about their nuclear energy policies and heel-face turns in Carmarthenshire the better. Plaid tend to do best when they combine a strong USP with workmanlike practicality; they seem to have lost that for whatever reason.

Groupthink – An immodest self-congratulatory undertone has developed in Plaid which, at the very least, is smugness that occasionally verges on arrogance. Plaid have a long-standing tendency to create personality cults around senior figures which has given them false expectations down the years; most stuff I see on social media leaves me shaking my head and going, “Oh, my sweet summer child….” I’m genuinely concerned some 2016 candidates are going to burn themselves out with little to show for it because they’ve been told their arguments are infallible, they can win (presently) unwinnable seats and as a result they might think they’ll let everyone down if they don’t bring“the change Wales needs” (‘needs’ – presumptuous?). That’s not fair on candidates and activists because it’s placing them under undue pressure even when they do their best, which is all you can ask. It also insults our intelligence as voters – to say I don’t appreciate that is an understatement.

Before I get flamed in the comments on social media by Plaid members and supporters, deep down you’ll know most of this is true and you can’t bring yourself to say it, so I’ll have to do it for you by playing court jester. Honesty on matters like these is much better than a painful delusion.

Current Polling & Targets

The latest polls make good reading for Plaid and present a “best case scenario” – they’re unlikely to do much better than the projected 13 seats, while I’m not convinced they can win as many list seats as it’s based on a uniform swing. Nevertheless, it should provide a morale boost to activists and shows steady, modest progress – but it has to be built upon and maintained; whenever Plaid have had polling boosts like these they’ve been short-lived and return quite quickly to the 19-20% mark.

Leanne Wood’s unlikely to get the same levels of publicity as last year’s Westminster election due to the fact Assembly elections are not greeted with enthusiasm by the public. So there’ll be little advantage gained through TV debates other than getting their message out.

Llanelli, Rhondda and Aberconwy are clearly their main target seats, and I’d expect Plaid to focus their resources there in particular. Neath, Caerphilly and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire are outlier targets based on historic results. There are also seats where Plaid are unlikely to win but will want to put in a strong performance and “set the pins up for 2021” like Cardiff West, Cynon Valley and Aberavon. If there were a combination of factors – like a sizable jump from Labour to UKIP – Plaid might….stress might….be able to spring a surprise or two.

Plaid’s vote is strong enough in their current FPTP constituencies that they don’t really have to expend much effort to retain them, but on the lists there could be problems retaining what they have due to the mathematics and expected UKIP surge, particularly in Mid & West Wales (if Plaid win Llanelli) and South Wales East – possibly North Wales too.

Despite the ramping, no party can realistically form a minority government with less than 25-26 seats – and electoral pact discussions with the Lib Dems and Greens shows Plaid accept this privately if not publicly. Why they didn’t approach it like that from the start is beyond me : arrogance and groupthink again (see also Syniadau’s The maths would work).

To get to the figures needed to form a minority government, Plaid would have to win all of their targets, plus many extras on top, as well as expanding their number of list seats. Unless something miraculous happens over the next few weeks they’re not going to do it. They can still do relatively well if they have a good campaign, but there’s no evidence of a groundswell (which I define as a double-digit percentage increase) in support for Plaid in the same manner the SNP experienced in 2007, 2011 and 2015.

What would count as a good result?

It’s closely tied to what happens to the Lib Dems, and how many seats UKIP win.

The short answer is : retaining as many of their current seats as possible and adding one or two more at Labour’s expense. If the number of Lib Dem AMs falls to less than 3, Labour will have no other choice but to go into coalition with Plaid (if Labour can’t form a minority government). I suspect an attempt to become the official opposition again at the very least – regardless of seat numbers – would be the privately-accepted target.

In numbers it translates into 10-12 seats. That, alongside a steady voting percentage (~20%), ought to be acceptable as long as they take Llanelli and maybe Rhondda too. UKIP and the Greens have added a new dimension to this election that makes a “steady as she goes”result more palatable and should rightly dampen expectations. If anyone in Plaid thinks they’re going into government by being anything other than Labour’s elves they’re in for a hard lesson in realpolitik.

What would count as a bad result?

Falling to a single-figure number of seats – a new low – which should prompt serious soul-searching above and beyond that which followed the poor 2011 election.

Falling to below 9 seats (which previously would’ve impacted staffing levels and funding), or being overtaken by UKIP (which is looking increasingly less likely by the week), could even cause an existential crisis within Plaid. It would almost certainly lead to a change of leadership and would call into question the party’s long-term role in Welsh politics. They would become a (less effective) successor to the Lib Dems, and we all know how that’s turning out for the yellow team.

This election has, therefore, become surprisingly high-stakes for Plaid almost entirely because of their own hubris.