Leanne’s gamble in the Valleys

Ed Bridges says the Plaid leader’s decision to contest a constituency seat is brave but one that could backfire

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.

Ed Bridges represents the Gabalfa ward on Cardiff City Council for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

16 thoughts on “Leanne’s gamble in the Valleys

  1. I would say that Plaid/Leanne’s aiming for constituency seat(s) represents a recognition that they are needed to gain a majority of seats in the Assembly – there are simply not enough list seats to make the Assembly elections proportional and if Plaid (or indeed any party) wants to have a plurality in the Assembly then they *must* win constituency seats. I don’t think this is a case of list seats being seen as inferior to constituencies, though that may play a role; rather it is a signal of ambition. She’s leading from the front and I think most people will view this as a good thing for her and the party.

    However with the exception of Llanelli it is difficult to think of a South Wales seat that she could genuinely expect to win under current polling (and it seems unlikely she would stand in the North or Mid Wales). That said I wouldn’t write her chances off; there are some years to go yet and if it pays off the dividends could be huge.

  2. I agree with Ed Bridges. The list seat is no less valid than any other – indeed, because it is an endorsement of the party, logically it is well suited to a party leader. But the British will take a while to move away from 1ptp and she must be aware of the jeerings her current status has received.

  3. As a true fan of Leanne and the one of the few ‘alive and sparkly’ members of the Welsh Assembly and I wish her well.

    Do think that ‘Regional AM’s are an unfair anomaly to the electoral process and should be removed as we do have far too many AM’s and MP’s in Wales.

    Would be nice if Leanne can make Plaid Cymru an inclusive party to all and accept British flag, Monarchy and equal rights for non-Welsh language speakers in Wales!!

  4. Welshguy – I suppose my hypothesis was whether “leading from the front” is the right call. You’re right that Plaid will need to win constituencies – but Leanne’s gamble to try and do so herself may prove a distraction. She will have to stand in a non-held seat for the stunt to fulfil its purpose, which means Plaid will have to throw a lot of resources into winning the seat (and you can bet your bottom dollar that Labour will do the same as part of a “decapitation strategy”). Will that draw resources away from other constituencies? It’s hard to see how it couldn’t. The net result could be that Plaid go backwards rather than forwards.

    My theory, and I hope I’ve expressed it clearly in the article, is that not only is the stunt a risky one, but it is also unnecessary if one sees the leader’s role as defining the overall party brand (which is what informs people’s list votes more than is the case for their constituency votes).

  5. This comment more on the list system than on Leanne’s announcement:
    I have no deep problem with the list aspect of the Senedd electoral system – but it does need refining (again). In my constituency/area for example, where Labour is strong, there is no direct positive point in voting Labour on the List – in current circumstances they are never going to get a list seat. This seems to me a sort of disenfranchisement for Labour voters.
    A possible solution is for the rules to allow cross-party arrangements, and for the political parties to then grasp the opportunity creatively. Eg for the political/campaign process to take account of the possibility/incentive for Labour voters to give the Greens their list vote. In a saner world, it would even be possible for say Plaid or the Lib Dems to target Labour list votes in this way.

  6. J.Protic – another sad little dig at Welsh speakers? Yawn zzzz, we speak Welsh ok, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, get over it!

  7. One way to raise the status of list AMs would be to allow the public – rather than party apparatchiks, operating behind closed doors – to choose list candidates. For part of the reason why list AMs feel second-rate is that they haven’t done anything to ‘earn’ their seat.

    Open primaries allow the public to choose the best candidate for the party rather than the other way round.

  8. Safe option is Llanelli but then what’s the point? That falls short as a grand gesture. Bold option is to go for broke in the Rhondda, her home area. If sucessful that would take out Leighton Andrews, one of the more vigorous Labour AMs. If LW can’t take the Rhondda, why would she have a chance in Cynon Valley?

  9. Huw Jones – you suggest that list candidates are chosen by “party apparatchiks, operating behind closed doors”, which seems a rather over-the-top description of an internal party election! I would argue that the best way to make list selections fairer is for people to be more open to the idea of joining their favoured party and taking part in the ballot to choose their candidates.

    The age of mass party membership is probably irretrievably gone, but to want the chance to select a party’s candidate without wanting to commit to becoming a member is a bit like wanting the penny and the bun, no?

  10. She has to choose Llanelli; the only seat with a good chance of falling to Plaid. Rhondda? Didn’t Plaid lose seats in the valleys in the local elections?

  11. “Would be nice if Leanne …. accept …. Monarchy ”
    Perhaps it would be better if the monarchy accepted that in the C21 it is intolerable that they deny every GB citizen his/her inalienable right to participate in the running of the society into which he/she finds himself, by voting for the head of state, and step aside in favour of a modern, constitutional democracy. The fact that LW stands up for what is right, while the rest crawl to authority is a commendation of her and a condemnation of the rest. It is inexplicable that anyone suggest that the elected defer to the unelected.

  12. Surely the elephant in the room is Adam Price is it not? (in the nicest possible way of course)

    If he stands in Camarthen East (or perhaps Llanelli) or even on the SWW list he has a better than average chance of being elected. If Leanne Wood fights Rhondda or Caerphilly, she has a slim chance, but who knows.

    If Leanne wins she will have climbed a huge political mountain and deserves all the credit and secures her place as leader (I am sure Adam Price would support that – he would much rather not be the ‘mab darogan’ from what I can see).

    If she loses, step in ready-made leader with huge popular support in the party and outside it…Mr price. Exciting new chapter, build again, success just around the corner.

    This makes a lot of sense if the ‘elephant’ does indeed carry out his duties as my hypothesis requires. If he does not, Plaid could be sunk for a further 5 years if Leanne loses and there is no elephant to replace her…

  13. Jacques Protic…..
    “Do think that ‘Regional AM’s are an unfair anomaly to the electoral process and should be removed as we do have far too many AM’s and MP’s in Wales.”
    That would turn Wales into a one-party state under Labour

  14. I would like to declare my admiration for Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood for eschewing the safety of a regional seat to go for a constituency seat at the next Assembly election.  This is exactly the sort of ambition and courage we need in Welsh politics if we are to set about reversing decades of economic decline.
    Wherever Leanne decides to stand, I wish her well.  Our Assembly is short on politicians who are prepared to rail against the status quo and business-as-usual mindset that seems to run through the current Welsh Government like a stick of Tenby rock.  If we had more politicians like Leanne then perhaps the valleys and mid Wales would not be among the poorest regions of Europe.  

  15. Of course she can win Llanelli but that’s why it’s no big deal and her gesture is a damp squib. Leanne is no ordinary politician – she wants to make a difference. That’s why she has to go for broke in the Rhondda. As Phil says, Plaid can run Adman Price on the list as a safety-net leader if Leanne comes up short. Mind you Plaid had better hope Leanne wins. Expectations of Adam are so high that, engaging guy though he is, he can’t fulfil them.

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