Plaid Cymru’s mixed bag: can they break through?

Since the result of the EU Referendum in Wales, Plaid Cymru has found it hard at times to fit into the debate. As the Conservatives fly ahead, as in England, on what has been called “Hard Brexit” and Labour continue their infighting, the other main party of Welsh Politics has stood steady in both Assembly and General Election polls. Today’s local council elections add more evidence of a mixed bag of positive and negative results and news for the Welsh Nationalist Party, prompting a thorough examination of Plaid Cymru’s chances on June 8th.

One on level, there has never been a better chance for the Welsh Nationalists to make up ground. Labour’s internal divisions and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s popularity have meant that any General Election was undoubtedbly going to be centred on Jeremy Cornyn’s Leadership, meaning the effects of any unique ‘Welsh’ Labour branding would be more minimal than in other circumstances. The collapse of Labour in the polls — including the Welsh-only polls — should serve as a rallying call to voters across Wales that the best way to stop Tory election victories would be to vote for Plaid Cymru where they are strong and mirror Scotland’s focus in recent years with the success of the SNP.

Yet despite this unique situation of Labour decline and the generlised pretext that Wales is a Scotland that generally rejects the Conservative Party (in the 1997 and 2001 elections, the Tories had no MPs in Wales) Plaid Cymru find themselves stagnant. These are facts that when it comes to Plaid’s growth are all-too-often repeated. In the 2015 General Election, the party’s vote remained steady and they gained no MPs. Despite increasing their majority in two of the three seats they held, they lost ground in key target seats Ceredigion and Llanelli — though they did run Labour to within 250 votes on Ynys Môn.

Next came the Assembly Elections, and despite initial predictions that Plaid would remain as the third party in the Assembly, the fall-back in the Tory vote and increase in the UKIP vote meant Plaid’s single gain projected them back to second place. It is also worth noting the extraordinary nature of that gain: Plaid Cymry Leader Leanne Wood had taken the ultra-safe Labour seat of Rhondda on a swing of over 23% from Labour to Plaid Cymru, eventually gathering over 50% of the vote. As the only constituency seat to change hands in Wales in 2016, the gain stood out as an incredible achievement in its own right.

However, the failure for Plaid to go further, and actually going backwards in key target seat Llanelli begs the question as to the strategy that Plaid were deploying. If they had resourced Llanelli, Aberconwy and Llanelli like they did the Rhondda, could they have taken more? We will never know. The defection of UKIP AM Mark Reckless in 2017 to the Tories and the departure of Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas last year also both mean that Plaid is once again the third party in the Assembly.

2017: the Local and General Elections

It’s therefore easy to understand why 2017 is a make or break year for Plaid Cymru in some ways. If they can’t gain seats from Labour, their main opponent in Wales, now, then when can they? With the local elections now behind us and the General Election campaign now in full throttle, it’s Plaid’s last chance to get their message across. Their chosen campaign slogan is “Defend Wales”, a good start in and way off the Labour and Lib Dem more cryptic, complicated and somewhat meaningless messages. In choosing this, Plaid have pitched themselves against the Conservatives.

Leanne Wood launches Plaid’s GE2017 campaign in Bangor

The Tories of course go out of their way to get in the lines “Strong and Stable Leadership”. That’s because their leader, Theresa May, has that unrivalled reputation and they are playing on her strength — rebranding the party as the Theresa May Party in some seats with little mention of the Conservative brand. Plaid politicians also go out of their way to say their own slogan, linking it to the coming Tory surge. If Plaid Cymru are savvy, they will be able to target this message at progressive-leaning voters who would otherwise opt for the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats, while their opposition to leaving the single market can also give them a boost in this department.

Although it is unlikely to be able to claw back enough ground in five weeks to make this a truly three-way contest in Wales, Plaid Cymru have selected a slogan that at least can penetrate the electorate meaningfully — if the party has the media performances and resources to do so, which is yet to be seen.

We also now have the local results in from May 4th, in which Plaid Cymru were the only party, along with the Conservatives, to make gains across both Wales and Great Britain as a whole. Despite the headline statistic, however, some of those results are less than what they seem. Plaid were heavily targetting Ynys Mon in both the council and General elections, but didn’t manage to take the council there from No Overall Control — though the fact that they have stood their former Leader and Anglesey MP and AM Ieuan Wyn Jones suggests the Party will still make a gain on the Island.

The Party also failed to take a majority in Carmarthenshire, stagnated in Ceredigion despite winning Aberporth from one of Wales’ (only) two UKIP Councillors, and failed to breakthrough in Cardiff despite playing up expectations there. One place they did make meaningful gains, though, was Rhondda Cynon Taf: the party now has the majority of councillors in the Rhondda Westminster Constituency area, although Labour retain their majority. Controlling the majority of councillors in that constituency and Leanne Wood’s personal victory there last year do prime Rhondda for a fierce battle between the incumbent Labour MP, Chris Bryant, and Plaid Cymru.

The fear on the Plaid benches is, as ever, the the General Election will see a small nationalist party squeezed out in a snap election dominated by Brexit, the Conservatives and Labour and the question of who will be the Prime Minister sitting around the negotiating table in Brussels. Every body knows it will either be Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, and Plaid must come up with some other reason to vote Plaid in their target seats — such as using the “Defend Wales” slogan— if it is to succeed in making a breakthrough in Westminster for the first time since they won Ceredigion in 1992.