Leanne Wood won plaudits this week for her bold ambition to abandon the safety of her list seat in South Wales Central to stand for an as-yet-unnamed constituency seat at the next Assembly election in 2016. As others have noted, much will depend on the constituency Leanne seeks to fight – but the decision shows her confidence in her own leadership, and in her ability to convert voters to Plaid’s cause over the coming years.
But is the decision a wise one, or is it based on a false premise and a condescending dismissal of what list results tell us about party politics in Wales?
Media reports and discussions of Leanne’s decision have – not for the first time – been underpinned by an implication that list seats are somehow less worthy than those held by constituency AMs. This is arguably an inevitability of the Assembly’s electoral system. The calculation of the top-up seats can only happen after constituencies have been declared, meaning that they are both figuratively and literally an afterthought. Indeed, Leanne Wood has herself suggested in the past that list members have a different (less accountable?) role than their constituency colleagues.
However, I would argue that the democratic legitimacy of list members is actually more attributable to party identity than is the case for constituency members. Constituency elections are heavily defined by local agendas – particularly for Assembly elections where turnout is more akin to a local election. Candidates are judged less on the ideology and policies of their party than they are on their own track records as local champions – hence election leaflets proclaiming “Candidate A is a tireless local campaigner in Constituency Z”, or “Candidate B has a track record of local action here in Constituency Y”.
The result is often that votes are cast not on party politics, but on the esteem in which a particular candidate is held in that area. Ironically, this is a point backed up by events in Llanelli, where Leanne Wood may choose to seek selection. In the 2011 Assembly election a nominally-safe Plaid seat was lost to Labour after a self-styled ‘local champion’ stood as an Independent and split the Plaid vote.
It is also the case that constituencies are particularly susceptible to tactical voting. Again, this is borne out by the plethora of leaflets saying “Constituency X is a two-horse race between Party 1 and Party 2 – don’t waste your vote by supporting parties 3 and 4” – often accompanied by a dubious-looking bar chart.
In contrast, votes for list seats are not generally cast tactically or on personalities, but on party policies and affiliations. On the list ballot paper, it is the party logos, rather than the candidate names, which are most highly visible, and voters are much more likely to vote for their favoured party here than on their constituency ballot where so many other factors come into play.
Through this lens, Leanne Wood’s wager seems at best counter-intuitive. If her aim is to rebrand Plaid into a radical and serious challenger to Labour through building its electoral credibility, broadening its electoral base and boosting public perception of the party brand, then the place where this will yield the most discernible results will be on the top-up lists. That is not to say that Plaid might not also win constituencies through good local campaigning and good local campaigners – simply that it should be seeking to do that anyway, whilst at the same time using its efforts in the mass media to build the number of people sympathetic to the party’s ideals.
Leanne’s gamble is a brave one, and it signifies the swagger of a rejuvenated party under the guidance of a new leader with fresh ideas and ambition. But it is not impossible that it could backfire. If the party’s campaigning efforts are distracted into winning back Llanelli, or taking on Labour in Caerphilly, Islwyn or the Rhondda, at the expense of building their brand in the nation as a whole, Leanne Wood might end up furthering her own ambitions at the expense of her party’s.