The Electoral State of the Parties, 3: Plaid Cymru
This time last year I was able to talk about the electoral state of Plaid Cymru in fairly positive terms. In the past few months the party had regained its status as the second party in the National Assembly, and had won two of the four PCC elections in Wales; during the post-election period, Plaid had achieved some of their best ever polling numbers. It was hardly a tale of unalloyed triumph – the Assembly elections had been only a qualified success, while the result of the Brexit referendum posed obvious challenges for Plaid’s long-standing long-term vision of ‘independence in Europe’. Still, it had been a year of at least some electoral progress for the party.
Now it is much more difficult to find positive things to say. There has been a consistent diet of bad news for Plaid during the last year. It is no longer the second party in the National Assembly. Shortly before the party conference last autumn, former party leader Dafydd Elis Thomas left Plaid Cymru. While he had had a distinctly strange, and often distant, relationship with his party for much of the previous quarter century, it was hardly a positive thing to lose him altogether. When this development was followed some months later by Mark Reckless leaving UKIP to sit with the Conservative group, Plaid were once again relegated to being the third-largest party in the devolved chamber.
Among those Plaid AMs remaining on board, all has hardly been sweetness and light. There has been persistent talk of divisions within the Assembly group – culminating in the recent suspension of the combative Neil McEvoy. This has, at least temporarily, diminished Plaid’s ranks in the National Assembly still further – to a mere ten. And whatever way the McEvoy case is resolved, the outcome will alienate a significant number of people in the party.
It is also difficult to put a very positive spin on Plaid’s election and polling performance in the last year. The main positive news is that the party gained seats at both the May local elections and in the June general election. Yet the local election performance was, in truth, at best moderate: seat gains were limited, and in much of Wales Plaid Cymru councillors remained either wholly absent or very few in number. Plaid remained the second party of local government in Wales, and they closed the gap somewhat on Labour. But some of the attempts by prominent Plaid figures to talk up the results bordered on the absurd: if finishing with barely more than two-fifths the number of councillors won by Labour was really regarded as an ‘historic breakthrough’, then it spoke unintentional volumes about the level of ambition within the party.
Still, the local elections did at least show Plaid making some ground in both seats and votes. In the general election, Plaid scored their lowest vote share in Wales in twenty years – despite party leader Leanne Wood once again being given a major platform with her appearance in the main, UK-wide televised debates. The general election result does not look any better when you examine the details: the party lost its deposit in almost half the seats in Wales, and increased its vote share from 2015 in only six. The saving grace for Plaid was that it held its existing three seats – although only just in the case of Arfon – and actually made a gain, by narrowly picking up Ceredigion from the hapless Liberal Democrats. That pushed Plaid back up to four MPs, a total it last won in the 2001 election, and gave the parliamentary group an injection of fresh blood with the impressive young figure of Ben Lake.
Frankly, at the general election Plaid Cymru just about got away with it. Little more than a hundred voters changing their minds across two seats would have seen them slip down to two seats for the first time since 1983. In those circumstance, and on top of the poor vote share won, the position of party leader Leanne Wood might well have been questioned more urgently. As it is, facing the prospect of several years long slog until the next major election, and with a difficult and diminished National Assembly group to manage in the meantime, one could hardly blame the party leader if she were to decide that she had had enough.
At the moment, the party’s poll ratings are poor – although Leanne Wood herself still remains fairly popular. Plaid also face the prospect of the political agenda in the next few years being dominated by an issue – Brexit – over which they will have precious few opportunities to exert influence or even to appear relevant. The party has made some effective use of its position in the National Assembly to exert influence in recent months: in January, the Welsh Government position paper on Brexit, Securing Wales' Future, was issued jointly with Plaid; more recently, Plaid have once again struck a deal on the Welsh budget that has allowed them to claim delivery of some of their 2016 manifesto pledges.
In the longer-term, the party also faces considerable problems. What sort of credible, post-Brexit future vision for Wales can it project? How can it sell any such vision effectively, when Welsh Labour are currently so effectively occupying their turf? And how does the party broaden its appeal beyond its traditional Welsh-speaking base, something that demographic change in Wales makes essential for Plaid to have a successful future.
Plaid Cymru has seen much worse times than this. Plaid are nothing if not resilient; they are not likely to disappear. But things are not looking good. The party has had a poor twelve months. And its prospects for the immediate future are not obviously much better.