At the first devolved elections in 1999, Plaid Cymru secured a higher share of the vote than the SNP. When I mentioned this fact in a recent lecture, much of the audience gaped in disbelief. Afterwards, one asked me: was I sure about that? Yes I was. (Plaid’s constituency vote share, 28.4 per cent, was 0.3 per cent behind the SNP’s, but Plaid’s 30.5 per cent list vote compared with the SNP’s 27.3 per cent, giving them a higher overall share.)
That a simple statement of fact should so surprise, and reference a reality that now seems almost unimaginable, says much about Plaid Cymru’s recent electoral history. That same lecture described Plaid’s recent performance as constituting more than a decade of “pretty abject electoral failure”. I see no reason to revise that statement.
State of the Welsh Parties
This is the last in a series of posts we’ve published this week considering the current electoral standing of the political parties in the National Assembly. On Tuesday we looked at Welsh Labour, on Wednesday the Welsh Conservatives, and yesterday the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Of course, set in a wider historical sweep Plaid’s recent electoral performance looks rather better. For much of its history, Plaid was a truly marginal electoral force. Even when years of unremitting defeat gave way to occasional success – Gywnfor Evans’ famous 1966 by-election victory, and a permanent Plaid parliamentary presence from February 1974 on – the party’s electoral performance across much of the nation remained feeble. Plaid’s threadbare organisation often lived a hand-to-mouth existence, while the 1979 referendum rendered the prospects of significant Welsh political autonomy looking little better than those of the Dodo. One sometimes wonders how the two Dafydd’s summoned the spirit to keep going through the 1980s.
The 1987 and 1992 UK general elections saw Plaid make some advances, increasing their parliamentary numbers to three, then four. This level of representation was maintained in 1997, with a rising Plaid vote share. But Plaid still won fewer than 10 per cent of Welsh votes. It was in that context that the inaugural Assembly election result was such a shock – a ‘quiet earthquake’ in Dafydd’s Wigley’s phrase.
Suddenly Plaid more-or-less trebled its vote share, winning totemic Labour seats like Llanelli, Islwyn and Rhondda, and coming close to capturing several others, on huge swings, thereby denying Labour its nigh-on-universally expected Assembly majority. European Parliament elections just a month later seemed to confirm Plaid as now the second largest party in Wales, and strongly challenging Labour’s dominance.
In 1999 Plaid benefitted from two tangible electoral assets. One was its own popular leader, Dafydd Wigley. The other was Labour being saddled with Alun Michael. Twelve months later, both advantages had gone. Plaid’s contribution to the de-fenestration of Alun Michael was wholly defensible: there were genuine fears that his weak leadership would de-legitimise an Assembly that appeared to rest on shaky foundations of public support. Plaid knew that Rhodri Morgan would be a more formidable electoral opponent than Michael. But, in the language of political science, they chose to prioritise bolstering the policy goal of Welsh self-government (a goal that was, and remains, of existential importance to Plaid) over shorter-term electoral objectives.
Less defensible was Plaid replacing an electorally successful leader with one singularly lacking in voter appeal – and then retaining the latter for over a decade. In many respects Ieuan Wyn Jones was a highly effective and successful politician, who personally maintained a strong electoral record in Ynys Môn. But he never looked capable of generating public support for his party across Wales. Plaid also suffered localised electoral disasters largely of their own making: in Ieuan’s Ynys Môn backyard in the 2001 general election, and in Ceredigion in 2005 when local complacency lost for Plaid a parliamentary seat they will now struggle to regain.
Reviewing Plaid’s series of poor electoral performances since 1999, for me it is 2007 that stands out. Superficially this was one of Plaid’s rare successes, with the gain of three seats in the Assembly. Yet in reality it was probably Plaid’s worst electoral failure, for it was in 2007 where the opportunity was greatest. Labour was in deep trouble, its vote share sliding well below even that of 1999. And Plaid’s electoral machine, with slick new logos and effective slogans, ran what was in most respects the best campaign. Yet Plaid barely improved their vote share on 2003, actually finishing third in the popular vote. Only a mixture of good planning and considerable luck with the electoral arithmetic put Plaid ahead of the Conservatives in seats. In 2007, much of the electorate was searching for a credible alternative to Labour. But – in stark contrast to the SNP in Scotland – Plaid wholly failed to provide that alternative.
Plaid’s 2011 electoral setback is rather more explicable. There are rarely great electoral payoffs to being a junior coalition partner, while Plaid had put considerable time, effort and local resources into ensuring a successful March referendum. It must also be acknowledged that Plaid’s travails since 1999 have not been all their own doing. Labour have had two highly popular Welsh leaders, while all the main UK-wide parties responded to Plaid’s 1999 success by, to some degree, invading Plaid’s ideological territory: ‘Welshing up’, as it is sometimes inelegantly phrased.
So what of Plaid’s current electoral prospects? Leanne Wood’s leadership does, at least, seem to have put some excitement back into Plaid Cymru. And both council and by-election results in Ynys Môn have suggested that, with determined campaigning, the party can make progress. But Plaid faces a resurgent Welsh Labour. To seriously threaten Labour in 2016, Plaid will probably need a favourable UK-wide context – an unpopular and weak Labour-led government in London. And Plaid must also convince large numbers of the Welsh people that it offers a more effective and credible option for governing Wales than its opponents. One of Leanne Wood’s favourite Welsh words is ‘Ymlaen’. This is sensible, for Plaid needs to move forward a very long way.
Tomorrow and Sunday
Nationalist politics in 1960s Wales