Plaid Cymru’s identity problems

Gareth Hughes offers some thoughts for the nationalists’ review of what went wrong in the election

Over the years Plaid Cymru have positioned themselves as a left of centre party. Of course, this puts them in competition with the dominant ‘leftish’ Labour Party for votes. Consequently, they mop up the votes of protest when the main party of the left is unpopular. But alas, when the reverse is true they suffer a loss of votes.

Now the SNP in Scotland have never branded themselves as either right or left but ‘nationalist’. They’ve been branded ‘tartan Tories’, by Labour. But whatever label you put on them they have been an effective electoral machine.

First of all they targeted the Tory vote and swallowed up the Conservative vote in Scotland. They then moved their tanks onto the Liberal Democrats lawn and helped themselves to their votes. By so doing they eclipsed Labour in most of the Scottish constituencies earlier this month, to gain an absolute majority. This was a first as no other party in the Scottish parliament has had such a majority.

Now, of course, Scotland is not Wales. But there are lessons in this approach for Plaid Cymru.

Over the years Plaid Cymru have being obsessed with attracting the Labour vote. Attacking Labour from the left has been their chosen approach. Indeed the recent Assembly election was a prime example of this strategy.

Barely a word about the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Westminster governments cuts. Cuts that most people in Wales are uncomfortably aware of. And which Labour exploited so effectively in the campaign.

No, Plaid barely mentioned these. Their campaign was almost exclusively a litany of Labour’s mistakes. OK, such a campaign might have had some merit if they had been in opposition these past four years. But the public are not idiots and found such attacks barely credible from a party that had shared the governmental bed with Labour over the last Assembly term.

Such a strategy failed from two points of view. It was not creditable and secondly it was a negative campaign. The public tend to switch off such negative campaigns.

Plaid Cymru went into the campaign with high expectations Why? They thought that there would be a dividend arising from the successful referendum on law making powers. Indeed much of their eve of election party conference was a valediction of the part they had played in the successful referendum. What was overlooked in the heady aftermath of the win was that 60 per cent of Welsh people were not bothered enough to vote. So, if there was to be an electoral bonus to Plaid it would only come from the minority that bothered to vote in that referendum. To base an election strategy on such slender foundations proved to be mistake.

The resulting law making Assembly causes a more fundamental problem for the party. Now that the Assembly is a real law making body many voters question whether there is now a purpose in voting for Plaid Cymru. Surely, the voter reasons, they have met their ambitions.

Clearly, this is a problem for Plaid if ‘Independence’ is a word that few in the party may dare call it by name. What then is Plaid Cymru’s underlying philosophy? How can it attract people to its banner? Where is it going as a party? What is it’s raison d’etre?

Unless it comes up with a creditable answer to these questions it’s electoral success or failure will be determined more by the ebb and flow of the political fortunes of Labour than anything they do as a party. In other words, Plaid Cymru only benefits in Labour’s lean years. A party that bases its electoral philosophy on Micawber’s philosophy that “something will turn up” is not likely to have to bright a future.

On a more practical level their one unique selling point, their plan to create 50,000 jobs with their Build4Wales company, was kept until almost the last minute of the campaign. Why? Because when the proposal was first unveiled it was subject to a withering attack by Labour in Westminster. Instead of ploughing ahead and being confident in their own work they shied away from the issue until a few dates before polling day. The result was that  a possible vote winner not deployed effectively.

So will Plaid review of the campaign be clinical and forensic? Only time will tell. But the omens are not good with local constituencies already patting themselves on the back on excellent campaigns -despite losing. It’s like a football team claiming victory on the number of near misses rather than goals.

Gareth Hughes is a political commentator and a freelance journalist who publishes his own blog here.

3 thoughts on “Plaid Cymru’s identity problems

  1. Leanne Wood AM has posted a video on her blog in which she assesses many of these points- during summer 2010 in fact. Leanne’s point is that Plaid haven’t positioned themselves as left-of-centre- they are left-of-centre, and have been for decades. Socialism was adopted as one of the party’s aims in the early 1980s after the demoralising referendum defeat, poor electoral results, and an internal enquiry.

    Her video makes a case that Plaid’s leftism must be based around the thinking of the Marxist Raymond Williams and the co-operativist DJ Davies. Plaid watchers would probably expect to see Leanne Wood further trying to advance these ideas if there is any kind of leadership contest. How these ideas would be sold to the electorate in a modern climate does not seem to have been discussed yet.

    There is also a sense as a reader that Plaid aren’t comfortable in their own skins, on the nationalist issues around independence and possibly also the language.

  2. I think the problem is the innate split within Plaid between Plaid Gwynedd and the rest. The party in the North has been conservative leaning and focussed on language and identity whilst that in the South tends to be more left wing and have the lannguage less at the centre of it’s thinking.

  3. I would extend Rhys Hughes’ analogy further. Living in Ceredigion, it has always struck me that there is a dichotomy between those who vote for Plaid (the conservative / liberal – with a small ‘c’ and ‘l’ – people of the West) and those who it would like to vote for it (the left leaning people of the South).

    Plaid is in danger of losing those who actually support the party rather than its aspirational electorate. By merely posing as a left alternative to Labour, it ceases to be a party of Wales, but a party of a faction wthin Wales.

    Plaid needs to take a long hard look at what has been happening in Scotland.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy