David Howell examines Plaid Cymru’s position after this week’s European elections.
While the status quo remained the same in Wales following the European elections, there was no shortage of change. With UKIP solidifying their presence in Wales and half the country turning from blue to purple after the final results, the political landscape is largely unrecognisable from a few years ago. The spread of elected representatives being sent to Europe from Wales is no different, but the signs are certainly there that the political will of the country has decidedly shifted.
Throughout the European campaign, Plaid Cymru followed a path well trodden by the major parties, in basing the bulk of their arguments around why the electorate should not vote for UKIP. In some respects, the strategy paid off. Certainly Plaid Cymru have been concerned at the prospect of losing Jill Evans as an MEP, and descriptions of Plaid’s relief at the result, rather than expectation, are probably quite accurate. In terms of base results, yes, the Plaid plan paid off, but scratch the surface, and a story of stagnation and decline is perhaps more representative.
Cross the border into England, and one area in which Labour, the main opposition party in Westminster, have been criticised over, is their lack of gains. While seats have been won, the general consensus is that Labour have not made the inroads they should have, at a time when the current coalition government continues to press forward with unpopular spending cuts. For Wales, Plaid stand in opposition to the Welsh Labour Government, and have no formal links to the unenvied coalition in Westminster. Yet, instead of making inroads at the expense of the establishment and seemingly unpopular parties, Plaid’s overall vote share went down. While Labour are feeling squeezed in the face of what in practical terms can only be described as a success, how can Plaid consider the retention of their one seat, and a decline in vote share as anything short of a failure?
Of course, history would suggest that Plaid Cymru’s position in European elections has little to do with how it is received by voters at a local/national level. The most relevant issues in European elections are not necessarily shared when the vote is focused on home territories. Yet, the manner in which the European elections of 2014 have been covered by the media, may well force a change in this dynamic. While the BBC have courted plenty of criticism for delivering a dominant UKIP narrative in the weeks leading up to the final vote, the wider television and print based media share a collective guilt for pushing the UKIP agenda into the homes of voters. The UKIP manifesto may ultimately fall very low in voter priorities, but this does not mean that their arguments will not dominate headlines. Voter priorities are what the media make them to be, it would seem.
In less than a year, a General Election will be held. In the months to follow, there is little scope for Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat positions to be strengthened, the parties of power seeming to only be in a position where votes can be lost. UKIP however have now established their profile. Through their own policy to do very little in Europe, it is difficult to conceive how they will be in a position to lose any of this ground. Implosion is a possibility, but for all the racism, homophobia and misogynistic scandals that have surrounded the party in the run up to 2014, it is questionable what outrage UKIP members have left to commit that could possibly alienate prospective voters. As a result, it is entirely conceivable that in the run in to the next General Election, a significant proportion of media coverage will be handed over to UKIP, or what other parties have to say about UKIP.
This is where Plaid Cymru has an opportunity to be distinctive. Whatever might be said of UKIP, one thing that has stood out from their campaigning is their capacity to stay on message (however deplorable that message might be), and offer less obsessional commentary on their opponents than their opponents did for them. At times during this campaign, it felt as if the Conservatives, Labour Party, Liberals and Plaid were all in some grand coalition designed to promote UKIP. The alternative to UKIP was a succession of rosettes which appeared capable of only talking about, of course, UKIP.
If the momentum stays with the ‘newcomer’, and media attention continues to fixate on the growth of the British (and European) right, this will be a factor in 2015. Plaid Cymru, while holding ground in heartland areas, must surely be concerned that since devolution came to Wales, their vote share has almost been halved. Focusing on a party narrative, rather than becoming trapped into the ‘fear cycle’ is imperative for gains. The ‘fear cycle’, where parties go out of their way to outline the perils of what might be if a certain vote is cast, is frequently counter intuitive. The Liberal Democrats, through Nick Clegg’s televised campaigns, become synonymous with the dangers of UKIP campaign strategy, and it nearly wiped them off of the map. In Scotland, while the referendum on independence is still being led by the No campaign, their lead is slowly being eroded. As emphasis falls more and more on the fear of change, the negative tone proves increasingly unattractive to voters. Plaid Cymru must distance themselves from such approaches if gains are the order of the next election.
A strong, distinct message, is what every party strives to deliver come election time. In 2014, UKIP delivered that, while their opponents collectively floundered in a festival of finger pointing. Those parties who manage to extract themselves from this cycle in time for 2015 will find votes. If UKIP has achieved anything in 2014, it is in showing the electorate that there is another choice. For Plaid Cymru, staying on topic, and not sharing in the nationwide fixations on opposition, has the potential to set the party aside. They need to be seen as another choice. To just maintain current levels of support, in a country which now has five distinct political voices (the Greens being someway off gaining the foothold needed to be considered a sixth major player in Wales), will be a major challenge for Plaid. For that to be achieved, before even thinking about winning back lost territories, a focus on transmitting the party message first, must now be a priority before arguing about the dangers of any other group. Should Plaid Cymru attempt to repeat the trick of the 2014 elections, then the continued gradual erosion of their share of the vote should only be expected.