Election 2016 Report: Plaid Cymru

(Title Image: Daily Post)

Highlights

  • Largest majority : Ynys Môn (9,510)
  • Smallest majority : Ceredigion (2,408)
  • Biggest increase in vote share : +31.2%, Blaenau Gwent
  • Biggest decrease in vote share : -7.3%, Cynon Valley
  • Lost deposits : 1 (£500; +1since 2011)


Plaid are, quite understandably, making the most of Leanne Wood’s headline-grabbing victory in the Rhondda, as well as massive swings in Cardiff West (+11.9%) and the biggest swing of the night in Blaenau Gwent (+31.2%). They also achieved admirable increases in vote share of least 5% in five other constituencies and regions : Aberavon, Aberconwy, Merthyr Tydfil, Ynys Môn and South Wales Central.

On the other hand, take away the results in Rhondda, Blaenau Gwent, Cardiff West and Ynys Môn(which was an aftershock of the 2013 by-election) and the results start to lose their rosy smell and start smelling more like a service station toilet that’s been sprayed with air freshener. Plaid’s vote share fell in twenty two seats and the Mid & West Wales regional list. Also, in some seats that would previously have been Plaid targets, there were hammer blow falls, particularly Cynon Valley (-7.3%) and Carms. W. & South Pembs. (an astonishing and yet unexplained -11%). In the key target seat battle – Llanelli – Plaid lost 4.3% of the vote.

The Good News

Plaid’s best-run Assembly campaign? – The results might not have matched the effort and resources that went into it but in terms of branding, professionalism, presentation and organisation this was arguably the best put together campaign Plaid have had yet. In many respects it was the best campaign of any of the parties and it’s clear Plaid have sought to emulate the SNP in many respects. They need to keep that up over the whole course of the Fifth Assembly, however daunting that task appears.

The manifesto – If the campaign was generally well-run, the manifesto hasn’t got the praise it deserves. In terms of the breadth of policy ambitions, Plaid’s manifesto was one of the best, if not the best, produced by a party in post-devolution Wales.

Plaid usually have a few sensible policies accompanied by some wildly idealistic/ideologically-driven ones that puncture their tyres. This time around there was a much better balance between transformational change and practicality – though, as I said at the time, Plaid under-estimated how hard it would’ve been to implement many of these policies. It could’ve been a bit more concise and they should’ve published their full costings but this was a  highlight of the campaign and the other parties could learn from it.

Cardiff & The Valleys – Plaid had a particularly good night in Cardiff, with the strong performance in Cardiff West and they didn’t do too badly in Cardiff South & Penarth either. South Wales Central also saw an above average increase in the list vote – perhaps better than expected – which ensured a second Plaid list seat for Neil McEvoy.

The Rhondda result speaks for itself, but the biggest surprise result of the night was in Blaenau Gwent, as well as sizable increases in the vote in Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney. Whether that was a personal vote for the candidates, a “Leanne Effect” (“She’s just like us”), a minor shift towards nationalism or dissatisfaction with local candidates or institutions is up for debate – but it’s probably a combination of all of them.

The only exception here seems to be Cynon Valley, and I’ve got no idea what’s gone wrong for Plaid there as it would’ve once been considered a target seat. Nevertheless, Plaid have come tantalisingly close to achieving something similar in scale to 1999 and they should do their best to build upon it.

Leanne’s leadership is locked-down – For the first time in a long time it’s safe to say no knives will be coming out for Plaid’s leader unless yesterday’s stunt has longer-term consequences to Plaid’s credibility. However, if a few results went the other way then things could’ve been different. In the absence of a leadership contest the party can concentrate on next year’s local elections without any distractions. If they continue their momentum there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be cautiously optimistic about making councillor gains, particularly in the valleys local authorities and Cardiff.

The Bad News


The hype train derailed (….again) – Where’s the #plaidsurge? There’s confidence and then there’s arrogance and Plaid have been sitting dangerously on the boundary between the two for a while. Of course hope for the best, but don’t expect it to land in your laps because you’ve decided for yourselves you were the only true opposition to Labour and Wales “needed” you.

A bit of humility wouldn’t go amiss from now on as quite a few of their senior members seem to have become big-headed – demonstrated by the stunt yesterday. It’s not been a particularly auspicious start to the Fifth Assembly so far by Plaid.

Patchy campaigning – The elephant in the room is that Plaid still aren’t a truly national party. They’ll only be able to say that with credibility when their vote outside Y Fro is regularly hitting 25-30% (or 15-20% in the hardest to win seats). It wasn’t a shock that their efforts were concentrated on those constituencies where senior/party crachach figures were standing. However, the only places where that genuinely paid off were Rhondda and Cardiff West – the latter driven by Neil McEvoy himself over the course of several years rather than the party.

There’s a risk that trying to replicate the personality-driven campaigns in Ynys Môn2013 and Rhondda 2016 will backfire if the candidates they put up aren’t particularly well-known or well-liked, or have a patchy track record despite occupying senior positions within the party. They shouldn’t throw disproportionate resources at some seats at the expense of others simply because a big name is running there; there has to be an expectation of either a victory or a significant swing that could make victory possible in future.

Also, it wouldn’t hurt to run proper regional campaigns, with consideration given to banning whoever’s placed #1 on a regional list from standing in a constituency (or vice versa) unless they’re the leader.

Is Leanne Wood becoming bigger than Plaid? – As any football fan will tell you, being a “one player team” has its advantages and disadvantages, the worse outcomes being when the star player gets injured or when a failing manager becomes too big to sack. Plaid are in danger of becoming a one-woman team. Although Adam Price is one of the towering political figures in Wales, if there are any potential future cabinet ministers and leaders behind those two they haven’t proven themselves yet.

During the Fourth Assembly there were periods when “Shadow Cabinet” members and party spokespeople made clumsy arguments and seemed to be juggling too many things at once. Plaid can’t become a Saturday morning cartoon called Leanne & Various Associates. Leaders are only as effective as the people around them. There needs to be a sharper divide between those who can cope with being a shadow minister (through better delegation of responsibilities) and those who are better suited to the backbenches so they can really get stuck in to the government and have a bit more freedom to say what they think.

Did taking charge of Carmarthenshire Council cost Plaid Llanelli? – There’ll be accusatory glances in Sian Caiach’s direction again, but if Plaid had taken a more reformist approach to their joint governance of the local authority, maybe Sian wouldn’t have had cause to stand this time. I’m sure many people voting for People First will be critics of CCC and more than aware of their treatment of Jacqui Thompson and other abuses of authority. I wasn’t the only one to warn them – not that it matters. There’s still time to make things right, but when you dance with the devil….

What would’ve happened with the Plaid-Lib Dem-Green electoral pact? – As the “lead party” Plaid could’ve won Aberconwy, Llanelli, and Cardiff West and gone very close in Caerphilly and Pontypridd.

What do they need to do?

Be an opposition, not a “critical friend”of Labour – No, this isn’t how you go about it – laws and budgets are where you can really hurt Labour. If they want to make progress they have to prove to the electorate they’re a genuine alternative with their own ideas and driven by their own set of principles, not what they can “extract”from Labour through negotiations or consensus. They don’t have to oppose everything and anything, but how successful they prove to be as the official opposition could determine whether people see them as a future Welsh Government. They won’t admit it of course, but the reason they reacted to strongly to the “cheap date” stuff was that it hit a bit too close to home.

Learn to accept criticism and address groupthink at the top of the party – After the events of the last 24 hours this suggestion is more pertinent than ever. They’re in a position to criticise Labour properly now (LOL), but Plaid struggle to accept criticism aimed at themselves; despite the outward confidence they’re remarkably thin-skinned at times. As I said before the electionthere’s an air of smugness and arrogance about Plaid. I’m not the only person who’s been saying for the best part of three years that the leadership bubble has become prone to groupthink.

If you object to anything Plaid say or do, or point out glaring mistakes, at best you’re completely ignored, at worst you’re blackballed as some sort of loose cannon – Michael Haggett’s “trial” being an example.

Within the Assembly group, they need someone to take an opposing view in private to anything the leadership proposes (even if they don’t really believe it) in order to explore options more carefully and fill holes in arguments – a “Devil’s Advocate”. They would need to be politically experienced, intelligent and slightly detached from the other AMs – Dafydd Elis-Thomas would be the obvious choice. 

Re-evaluate the use of social media – Plaid, by some way, have the biggest and most active presence on social media of the Welsh parties. Although retweets and likes might boost morale and feed the narcissism of politicians, more prominent members of Plaid’s online campaigning army have become security guards against any questioning of the party’s agenda – even legitimate questions – demonstrated yet again by some of the reaction to yesterday’s events.

I said last Friday that social media was an echo chamber, where supporters of one party reinforce the views of themselves and followers. That might get “good metrics” but it’s as useless as “yes men/women” are in real life. Any party, or party candidate, that exists in a cocoon where they only hear what they want to hear or only want constant praise or adulation will fail. The successful ones don’t whinge about being treated unfairly or try to sugar coat the truth. The successful ones also don’t just have people around them telling them the truth without fear or favour either; they listen and act on it.

Politics takes graft to get anywhere. It’s not a fluffy safe space or form of show business and having a Twitter account doesn’t make you a spin doctor. Their enthusiasm’s a great asset to any party, but it would be better channeled into traditional campaigning or playing a more active role within the party itself at meetings etc. Blindly following whatever AMs, candidates or party apparatchiks tells them does more harm to Plaid’s cause than “sniping from the cynical sidelines”– as we non-Plaid nationalists/tent-pissers have been described. “We”were, in the main, proven right.