The Electoral State of the Parties 4: Plaid Cymru

Roger Scully says the party’s main problem is reversing more than a decade of electoral failure

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

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. His regular commentary on Welsh politics can be accessed at Elections in Wales

10 thoughts on “The Electoral State of the Parties 4: Plaid Cymru

  1. Roger Scully notes that “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.”

    Whilst I agreed with this, what Plaid Cymru must do is explain why its nationalism, which is Welsh, offers a better deal for people than the British nationalism of Labour, Tories, and all the others. In simple terms, Plaid Cymru must explain why Wales needs to be freed up from the decaying, and xenophobic, UK State and its political establishment. One thing that Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru must not do is to cosy up to Labour. Becoming a puppet of Labour, the most entrenched British nationalist party, would be a betrayal of Welsh nationalism.

  2. “In 1999 Plaid benefitted from two tangible electoral assets. One was its own popular leader, Dafydd Wigley”

    It’s almost unforgivable what a few high ranking Plaid members/representatives hatched during that infamous curry night over a decade ago. I’m personally glad that a number of those present will now be voices of the past… of them having left in the last week. Absolutely unforgivable. What were they thinking?

  3. The report mentions almost in passing the recent elections on Anglesey. In fact the Assembly result saw Plaid gaining 57% of the vote. Further the coalition parties plus the UK Opposition party between them achieved only 27%. This was despite the First Minister and his Cabinet spending a great deal of time on the island in support of the Labour candidate. This was no flash in the plan as it followed on from the council election which saw Plaid emerge as the largest party.

    However an even less reported set of results come from Caerphilly again this month. Here the two Plaid candidates recorded over 50 % and 60% of the votes. This was in the face of a concerned Labour campaign led by the local MP. These much ignored results coupled with the Anglesey contests deserve to be considered far more widely.

  4. David – Dafydd Wigley stepped down due to ill health. Heart trouble.

    The “curry night” was an accusation of conspiring against Ieuan Wyn who had been leader for at least a year by then, if memory serves.

  5. An accurate survey of the past in my opinion.

    However, I do believe that Plaid have a bigger opportunity in 2016 than is currently appreciated. Labour will have governed in Wales for nearly 20 years by that point. I’ll say that again, nearly twenty years.

    Much of Labour’s ‘soft’ support – and I think we have seen in the last 20 years that it genuinely has that kind of support in many areas, a kind of inert defaultism like when you choose a highly promoted branded product in a supermarket rather than a better priced or better suited alternative simply out of apathy – will genuinely question the democratic legitimacy of that I think, and will ‘vote for a change’ IF PROMPTED TO DO SO. But they will need to be told that that is what they are doing, told that it is the morally right thing to do, and be reassured that the alternative meets a ‘health and safety’ quality assurance threshold.

    In theory, with the right policy positions, leadership (plural) and campaign – the proactive influencers that is – any of the other three parties could do this and benefit from the ‘time for a change’ vote. But they will all be subject to reactive influencers as well – association with UK political trials and tribulations, engrained prejudices, etc. – and on current estimation both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seem to be suffering quite seriously from these reactive, negative influencers with no great prospect of major improvement by 2016. Furthermore, the entrenched ‘British’ vote is being cannibalised bit by bit by UKIP.

    Inevitably Plaid will suffer from some engrained views against its ‘separatist’ identity, but as the SNP have proven, much of that can be ameliorated by positioning and communication, and it has a clean bill of health in respect of negative UK connotations (unless someone has a particular dislike of Elfyn Llwyd’s moustache or Jonathan Edwards’s habit of leaving his top button undone that is).

    On paper at least, Plaid look like the party who could most profit from a ‘time for a change’-style election, but they have to start thinking like that now and putting the policy, leadership and communication components in place. They have to give serious consideration to the ‘health and safety’ approval test as well – it all rests on consumer confidence in the end.

    If I were in the same strategy meeting as Leanne Wood, Adam Price, Simon Thomas and Rhun ap Iorwerth this weekend, I’d be writing advertising and PR copy for that campaign NOW, and I’d start putting the product specification and brand values in place that best support that campaign.

    The 2016 general election will be fought on those terms, and considerable inroads made, if Plaid choose to make it so. But it is a choice.

    You heard it here first…

  6. Excellent article. The bottom line is still ‘it’s the economy stupid’ that will determine the success or failure of Plaid Cymru. To their credit Plaid have put the economy at the heart of their recent policy statements which means they ‘get it’ as far as it goes on this overriding issue. People haven’t forgotten either Iraq or the banking crisis and will not have forgotten in 2016 . Labour will still be fatally damaged by this and will still be pre-occupied with fighting off the Conservatives and with their internecine warfare.
    If Plaid can create/champion credible mutualist non-wonga alternatives to international banks this will go a long way towards showing whose side the Party is on.

  7. For Plaid to progress they will need to point out Labour’s failures in the governance of Wales but they will also need to have credible policies for how they would do better in promoting prosperity and maintaining the quality of public services when money is tight. It is perfectly in order to demand more powers for specific purposes so the voters can see why you want them and what you would do with them. But more powers for their own sake or a preoccupation with the constitutional question – an irrelevance to most voters – will lImit Plaid’s appeal. Remember Clinton’s slogan: it’s the economy stupid. No need to deny you want independence but it simply isn’t an immediate issue, possibility or desire of most voters. The SNP got a dominant position by persuading voters who didn’t favor independence that it could run a devolved government better than Labour. Plaid must do the same if it wants to make progress.

  8. Trouble is Phil, so many people in Wales think that Labour are still the ‘working man’s party’. Labour are in no rush to dispel that inaccuracy and the fact that the British nationalist Mirror, and the Sun are our most popular press, who report anything happening in England as if its UK wide, means its an uphill battle and the hill, is vertical at best.

  9. Plaid`s biggest problem is that they have painted themselves into an ideological corner. There are few votes and even fewer practical policies to be garnered on the left of Welsh Labour. Chris Franks cites Ynys Mon and yes an excellent centrist candidate won well by opposing his Party and his leader`s policy on the island`s biggest issue.

  10. JOJ, there’s a lot in what you say but ideological distinction from Labour may not be required if you can persuade the voters you will be a more energetic and successful government even while following a broadly similar philosophy. What distinguishes the current government is their inertness; they don’t look like a team straining every sinew to address a crisis. The First Minister woke up, bought an airport and seems since to have gone back to sleep. The most energetic Minister (for good and ill) resigned. It shouldn’t be impossible to generate a more energetic impression without going crazy.

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