Plaid Cymru’s Strategic Dilemma

Roger Scully looks at Plaid Cymru’s strategic dilemma.

For members and supporters of Plaid Cymru, the devolution years have been a strange mix of achievement and failure, fulfilment and frustration. The positives are considerable. First and foremost must be the creation of an elected Welsh legislature and the significant extension of its powers after the 2011 referendum. Also of great importance is the 2007-11 coalition government, with Plaid moving from being a party of protest to one of power – a role to which it adapted with perhaps surprising ease and in which it generally performed competently. But on the negative side of the ledger, after its annus mirabilis of 1999 when Plaid twice came close to beating Labour in the national vote, the party’s electoral performance has been consistently disappointing. Plaid are currently only the third party in the National Assembly, and finished fourth in Wales in the most recent UK general and European Parliament elections. The contrast between the recent electoral fortunes of Plaid and its sister-party in Scotland (who Plaid actually out-performed in 1999) is stark.

The last year or so has produced some signs of electoral improvement for Plaid. The party’s opinion poll ratings have begun to edge upwards, both for Westminster and the National Assembly. The polls have also shown some advance in public ratings of their leader, Leanne Wood. Meanwhile, real elections have also produced a few  successes. The most striking, by far, was Rhun ap Iorwerth’s Assembly by-election victory in Ynys Môn in August 2013 (which itself followed a strong performance in the island’s local election the previous May). However, retaining Jill Evans’ European Parliament seat, in the face of strong advances from both Labour and UKIP, was also a fair achievement. With Labour’s poll ratings in Wales having moved downwards significantly over the last 12-18 months, Plaid Cymru can look forward to the 2016 National Assembly with at least cautious optimism.

However, in looking to advance, Plaid Cymru faces a strategic dilemma. That dilemma can be simply stated: that there is a fundamental tension between Plaid Cymru’s long-term objective of challenging the Labour party’s dominance of Welsh politics, and what is clearly the most sensible short-term strategy for it making a significant advance in the 2016 National Assembly election.

Leanne Wood has stated that Plaid’s long-term strategic objective is to challenge Labour as the dominant party in the National Assembly. To achieve this, Plaid will obviously need to raise their overall vote share well beyond the 18-19% won in 2011. But in addition to simply stacking up more votes, challenging Labour dominance in the Assembly will require Plaid to capture a significant number of constituency seats from Labour in south Wales. Labour won 22 of the 23 constituency seats in the three south Wales regions in 2011; whereas even a strong performance by Plaid on the list vote could plausibly secure it only two list seats from each south Wales region, or six in total. While Labour continues to dominate the south Wales constituency seats so totally (in South Wales West Labour have never lost a single contest for an Assembly constituency seat) it is nigh-on mathematically impossible for Labour to be displaced as the largest party in the Assembly, or indeed for any other party even to approach them in terms of number of AMs. For Labour’s dominance of the Assembly to be challenged, serious inroads must be made into Labour’s dominance of the south Wales constituency seats: there is simply no alternative.

But let us remind ourselves of where Plaid starts the campaign for the 2016 National Assembly election: as the third party in the Assembly, with only the 11 seats won in 2011. A general rise in Plaid’s vote share might plausibly win the party some additional regional list seats. But the scope for gains there is distinctly limited – probably at most to one additional AM in each of North Wales, South Wales West and South Wales Central. A more substantial advance will require some constituency gains. So at what targets should Plaid be aiming?

Sensible strategy is generally for parties to target the most clearly winnable seats. The three clearest target constituency seats for Plaid in 2016 are the following:

  • Llanelli, which requires only a 0.2% swing from the 2011 result for Plaid to capture
  • Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, for which, although they narrowly came third last time, Plaid require only a 3.2% swing to win; and
  • Aberconwy, for which Plaid would need a 3.9% swing.


These are the only three constituency seats that look obviously ‘winnable’ for Plaid in 2016: the only seats that Plaid can capture with a percentage swing significantly below 10%.

None of these seats is in one of the three south Wales regions.

The strategic problem facing Plaid begins to come into focus. Do they focus on the most obviously winnable constituency seats? These offer the clearest potential for immediate Plaid Cymru gains. However, winning these seats – two of which are currently held by the Conservatives – would have little impact on Labour’s overall dominance of the Assembly. Furthermore, because both Llanelli and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire are in the Mid and West Wales region, success in gaining both these constituencies might well mean losing Plaid’s Mid and West Wales list seat, thus producing a net gain of only one seat in that region.

Where is comes next on the list of potential Plaid targets? The next two constituency seats requiring the smallest swings for Plaid gains are Caerphilly, where Plaid would need a 9.7% swing on the 2011 result to win, and Clwyd West, which would need a 10.2% swing for Plaid to come from third place to win. These are the only other two seats where Plaid can win with swings around 10%. Neither of these two seats would exactly be easy wins for Plaid Cymru (to put it mildly). And only one of these two seats is in south Wales (Caerphilly is in South Wales East).

In a very good year for Plaid Cymru (with their national support level at around that won in 1999) and a bad year for Labour (with their support falling to the sort of level won in 2007), it is possibleto see a pathway to Plaid winning 18 seats in the National Assembly. (That is not, please note, my prediction for how well Plaid willdo in 2016.) Achieving this would require Plaid to capture all its obvious target constituency seats (up to and including Caerphilly), and the mathematics on the list seats working in ways that are as favourable to them as seems even vaguely plausible. On such a scenario, though the parties would be pretty close in terms of vote share, Labour would still be some way ahead of Plaid in the Assembly, at around 24-25 seats.

Moving any further forward than this would require Plaid to be achieving some truly remarkable swings – in some places even to approach the sort of swings they managed in several seats in 1999:

Clwyd South would require a 12.0% swing for Plaid Cymru to capture it;

Neath, a 13.5% swing

Preseli Pembrokeshire, a 13.5% swing

Cardiff West, a 13.6% swing

Wrexham, a 15.5% swing

Swansea West, a 15.8% swing

Rhondda, a 16.9% swing

Torfaen, a 17.1% swing

Cynon Valley, a 17.5% swing

Islwyn, a 18.2% swing

In pondering the task ahead of them, Plaid Cymru strategists might be wise to reflect on one aspect of the experience of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Prompted by the eruption of ‘Clegg-mania’ after the first leaders’ debate into thinking that they might make considerable gains across Britain, the Liberal Democrats diverted precious resources from their original limited list of target seats into attacking across a broader front. They ended up, on a somewhat increased vote share, actually making a net loss of seats overall (including losing Montgomeryshire in Wales).

For Plaid Cymru in 2016 to put resources into targeting seats that are crucial to achieving their long-term objective would risk sacrificing more obviously winnable seats. Yet prioritising the seats where Plaid clearly could win in 2016 would mean, in practice, accepting that they will not seriously challenge Labour’s status as the leading party in the Assembly until some point in the future.

It is clear where Plaid Cymru wish to get to. Their dilemma is that the pathway for them actually getting there is much less clear.

Professor Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre and Director of Research, Politics of Cardiff University. This piece was originally published on Roger's blog, Elections in Wales (

11 thoughts on “Plaid Cymru’s Strategic Dilemma

  1. If it were only a question of percentages and vote swings, wouldn’t it be easy to plot a course to derail Labour and gain a much greater share of seats in the National Assembly? Surely, it’s the people, policies, and campaigning that count for votes? And having an agenda that takes account of peoples’ greater concerns too.

  2. Plaid Cymru’s message should be simple: “independence now”. They just have to get out on the streets and create the movement for change. They have to challenge Labour’s British Nationalism at every opportunity.

  3. All well and good but this commentary doesn’t tell me anything I could not get from Wikipedia. Where is the analysis of what is really happening and how people feel in each of these key seats…

  4. Although the article is headed ‘strategic,’ it is mostly about tactics.

    Actual strategy means playing the long game. The collapse of the Welsh Liberals offers Plaid a historic opportunity, as does a general sense of alienation among both Labour and Conservative voters, but Plaid is badly out of position to take advantage of these openings.

    Swinging further around Labour’s left flank is particularly foolish at a time when the Labour strategy is to move left themselves in order to secure their base. The cynical gerrymandering of the Commons means Miliband the Younger can walk into Number Ten on just over a third of the national poll, even without a plurality, so Labour’s priority is to get their core vote out. This means that, however far left Plaid go, Labour are likely to be there already.

    The biggest difference between Plaid and the SNP is leadership. The latter owe a great deal to Alex Salmond. It is no coincidence that Plaid reached their high-water mark in 1999 when their leader was Dafydd Wigley, a genuine statesman and arguably the outstanding Welsh politician of his generation. Moderate swing voters began to feel that an independent Wales might be a credible possibility with a real grown-up like him at the helm. Happily for Unionists, everything that has happened since then has destroyed that image of Welsh nationalism.

  5. Pondering on the politics of the future is often been about warlocks brewing misogynous dreams & prophecies. However Wales is now discovering the reality of the belief in itself as a nation of humanity. Hopefully such wisdom shall be the bearer of truth in the 2016 election without any Westminster governance or poltergeist wizardly prophecies.

  6. There is huge concern amongst ordinary people like myself about seeing the Labour Party in almost permanent power in Caerdydd,and its power to ‘put in place’ its appointments in public sector.There seems to be little prospect of any major ‘supply side’ changes in provision of services,rather we are continually stuck in the 1945 model which is now well passed it sell by date. If PC could get rid
    of its separation nonsense,and its never ending welshification process on a largely unreceptive anglo/welsh population then it could be in real business. There are huge contradictions in a)seeking to adopt a socialist perspective in south east Wales,and b)continuing to support welsh farming ‘communities’ in remote and marginal lands which are totally uneconomic without the CAP.Whatever happens in Scotland there are going to major political changes in UK and with England going to flex it economic muscle the end of the Barnett formula and subsidising the celtic fringes is almost certain. It appears that UKIP is moving into the ‘english’ nationalist position so we can look out,and need radical changes to deal with the brave new world that is on its way.

  7. Thanks for the interest that people have shown in this piece, either posted here or on my blog.

    Strategy is generally understood to be concerned with ‘setting goals, determining actions to achieve the goals, and mobilizing resources to execute the actions.’

    This is why I termed the piece Plaid’s Strategic – rather than Tactical – Dilemma. Plaid’s ultimate electoral goal, of challenging Labour dominance, seems clear. The dilemma relates to their actions and resource allocation in the next few years. Achieving the (relatively) easy electoral wins potentially available to them does very little to advance them in the direction of their key strategic aim. Prioritising that long-term strategic aim means putting precious resources into places where success is by no means assured, or maybe even likely, and risks leaving the party in a position where they have made more-or-less no ground at all.

  8. Plaid`s strategy has remained unchanged for decades. It has aimed to replace the Labour party`s welsh hegemony by attacking its left flank. As this strategy has repeatedly failed it has resolved to repeat the plan with renewed vigour.
    It is unfair to draw a direct comparison with the SNP in Scotland as there are many differences which include its leadership; however the SNP strategy has been far broader. Yes it has won support from Labour but it has also successfully targeted tartan Tories.
    I am not overly concerned with Plaid`s judgment except that their political choices affect the direction of government policy. If the only credible opposition party constantly only attacks you on the left flank the government response is naturally to turn and address the threat. We the Welsh public see the results in our services.

  9. I think Kevin Lewis has the right view. Plaid Cymru should be campaigning on an Independence Now ticket. The SNP have campaigned successfully on this policy and been flexible enough to mop up people of a broad range of opinions from left to center right.
    Plaid is too cautious, it is scared of the “Wales can not pay its way, it would be a very poor country” attack from the unionists. The union with England has wrecked our economy, the over priced pound and decades of anti-manufacturing, mineral and farming policies of London Governments at the beck and call of the City of London.
    The economy will be put right by a government of an independent Wales that can shape policies to grow our industries. It will not be put right by a devolved Labour Government in the Bay that actually thrives on poverty and the poverty industry. Look at Labour’s recent economic schemes. The new prison in Wrexham, does little for local companies or employment and will provide massive problems for local social services, health and housing. The M4 round Newport, insisted on by London and agreed to by the Labour puppet government minister who accepts now questions from the press or any one else.Money should have gone on the A48 by pass and schemes around the rest of Wales.
    Plaid Cymru should be mercilessly attacking and exposing New Labour. Instead some in the party, as Prof. Scully says thing the way forward is to get in to another government with them.
    The SNP had nothing to do with unionist parties. They governed by themselves and said the Scottish way is better and are succeeding. Plaid Cymru should insist on a similar broadly left of center policy but with independence as soon as possible as its stated goal.

  10. I have probably missed most of the comments.
    But Plaid’s failure was mentioned in one of them in that it does not have a Wigley. When Jones of Anglesey was deputy government leader, I noted that his main line in press conferences was to agree with the Labour leader. It was almost the case of the two Joneses, and we can remember who spoke first.
    The new Plaid leader is a failure in that she never says anything of note.
    Plaid needs yet another new leader, who can find a way to say something which one feels one has to notice. Until then, the party almost might as well pack up. Left of Labour? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

    In Caerffili, the party’s strength is in the south of that constituency, in the areas which swing towards a more Tory (rot their boots!) view of society. Perhaps the answer is to go towards a Lib Dem position. In other words, be critical of Labour, but tend towards a Lloyd George position (he was on the left of the Liberal Party).

    Be better than Labour, but beware of concentrating on that party’s Left. What about a Greenish position? You only have to look at Labour and you would be aware of why they do so badly in the opinion polls. Perhaps it is the fault of a Plaid leader who, because of the previous jobs, looks at the gaps towards the Left. Perhaps that constituency is not large enough. The constituency Plaid should be concentrating on is that between Labour and the Tories, especially with a Clacton by-election pending.

    The present leader is not the person to do it. Perhaps we need someone more like the AM for Anglesey, or the future man for the Carmarthen area.

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