Jason Morgan casts a critical eye over Plaid Cymru’s election campaign, and looks at the seats where they’re most likely to make gains…
For most of the past twenty years or so, Plaid Cymru’s election-time story has become almost formulaic.
Campaigns start hopeful and positive; then their members, elected representatives who should know better and supporters (particularly online) hype themselves and others in their echo chambers up; and the results are without exception hugely disappointing.
It’s all become a bit awkward and embarrassing, especially given the fact that the party has had more UK-wide coverage since 2015 than all but a few ever thought it would get.
Leanne Wood’s relatively high profile on both a Welsh and British level has yet to translate into seats and votes in any meaningful way.
Even the most recent elections for Welsh councils must privately feel somewhat underwhelming.
Although the party gained more councillors across Wales (and England for that matter) than any other bar the Conservatives, which may seem impressive, it was at a time of unique and historical weakness for their main rivals in local government, Labour.
It was a decent election, not a resounding result, with successes in some parts of Wales mirrored by huge disappointment in others.
I get the impression that Plaid Cymru are being a little more realistic in this election.
The embarrassing #PlaidSurge hashtags and bizarre photoshops are nowhere to be found this year, and the party is obviously targeting some key seats rather than going for an all-out all-Wales campaign.
It has also turned up the nationalist rhetoric; something that I can frankly never recall the party doing in the devolution era.
The message is hardly revolutionary from the party perspective; Plaid Cymru always talks about making Wales’ voice heard in Westminster in the general election context; #DefendingWales is a mere tweaking of that sentiment.
They do however seem to be focussing more on the message, which is a departure from the policy-heavy ultra-detailed manifesto-centric campaign we saw last year. It’s refreshing.
So, we come to it: where can Plaid Cymru win, and what would be a success from them from an objective perspective?
The answer to this question is as always dependent upon the political context in which it is asked, which may well change during the next week.
As I write this, Labour is making a comeback in the polls even though people still don’t particularly like Jeremy Corbyn.
Theresa May is floundering and leading the most embarrassing Tory campaign since 2001 (‘24 Hours to Save the Pound’, remember?).
The Lib Dems aren’t really in it, and UKIP is irrelevant, as are the Greens.
In Wales, the polls have changed dramatically. From being up to 41% a month ago, the Conservatives have plummeted to (a still respectful) 34%, with Labour going up from 35% to 44%. Due to various factors, which I shan’t discuss here, that’s not that surprising.
Plaid Cymru however have seen their vote, although staying within the margin of error, slide down. Are the Welsh again succumbing to ‘Keep the Tories Out’ and voting Labour in their droves? I don’t know.
The last three Welsh Barometer polls have been unprecedented, not just with regard to the actual percentages but the swift changes seen between the second and third of those.
If things are as changeable as it appears, it’s difficult to make any solid assumptions about what lies ahead.
‘An additional seat is a must’
There are two ways of looking at it. We seem to be seeing and increasing polarization before the election, as we often do, which squeezes smaller parties, Plaid Cymru amongst them, making real gains more difficult.
However, if you target seats properly then you can buck trends in polls – the best example being the Liberal Democrats in 1997 who lost around 800,000 votes, but more than doubled their number of seats.
Some would argue that in the context of political polarization retaining three seats would be a good election for the nationalists.
However, sending three MPs to Westminster for what would be the fourth election consecutively would simply not be good enough.
Let’s be straight: Plaid Cymru need to make gains. An additional seat is a must – the most basic requirement.
Two more would be their best ever result and could therefore be considered successful. Anything else is edging on a stunning result. That is the bottom line.
Seat by seat
The earlier polls, both on a Wales and UK wide level, suggested that the Conservatives may come close in both Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.
That may have led to some pretty jittery conversations within the party, but the Tory lead is creaking and I would suggest that they are both safe at the moment, even if the 9% swing the Tories require in both isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
However, the incumbency and obvious talents of Liz Savile-Roberts and Jonathan Edwards should be enough keep both seats with decent-to-healthy majorities.
In Arfon, it’s likely that Hywel Williams’ majority will also be comfortable. However, for smaller parties the possible elation of winning more seats is often vanquished by the dread of losing one of the few that they have, so I understand their apprehension.
The Labour upturn in the polls, if correct, would actually make it easier for Plaid Cymru to retain seats, but also more difficult to gain any. Life can be cruel.
On the assumption therefore that the Plaid Three should be returned, the party needs a gain somewhere else and maybe produce another win to count this a truly successful election.
I believe most people would agree that there are six seats to watch with regards to this: Ynys Môn, Ceredigion, Rhondda, Llanelli, Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff West. Let me offer a few brief comments on each.
Undoubtedly, this is the seat to watch in Wales. Ieuan Wyn Jones is back, and it’s difficult to agree that he’s not the clear, yes, clear favourite.
Jones stood as a candidate four times here from 1983 to 1997, and even the one time he lost in 1983 he still won over a thousand more votes than Albert Owen ever has.
Ynys Môn is about the right candidate, and when Plaid Cymru chooses the right candidate here they win (point in case: Rhun ap Iorwerth).
In truth, the party has chosen substandard or unsuitable candidates here since 2001, and whatever your opinion of the man, Ieuan Wyn Jones is probably the best man to bring the island back into the fold.
The 5,000 UKIP votes in 2015 here won’t just go to the Conservatives, and few of them came from Labour in the first place therefore aren’t “going home”: difficult as it is for some to fathom (particularly among the more leftist, Corbynesque wing of the party), I imagine a lot of them will go Plaid Cymru’s way.
This time, I honestly can’t see Plaid Cymru not winning here; however the question may be asked whether it is Plaid Cymru that will win, or Ieuan Wyn Jones.
On Ynys Môn, that’s an important point to consider, and a lesson to learn when choosing candidates in future.
When Plaid Cymru lost Ceredigion in 2005, it hurt. It really, really hurt.
And when Mark Williams was returned in 2010 with a crushing majority, it hurt even more.
And it’s important to note, although the party trumpeted slashing Williams’ majority in 2015, they themselves won around 500 fewer votes than in 2010.
There are added complexities this time due to Brexit; this is after all a seat where the two leading parties were against Brexit; although Plaid Cymru have altered their stance somewhat which may aid them in Ceredigion.
The legacy of the 48% is hardly producing the hoped Lib Dem surge, after all, and perhaps some of their more Brexit-minded voters here might be tempted to take a punt on the Conservatives – this is, after all, a rural and small ‘c’ conservative constituency by and large.
It will also be interesting to see what happens to the Green vote here, which was over 2,000 strong last time. The possibilities in Ceredigion deserve a full article.
The main problem for Plaid Cymru here is, essentially, Mark Williams is a popular local MP; that may be the deciding factor.
However, in a situation mirroring post-Ieuan Wyn Jones Ynys Môn, Plaid Cymru’s candidates here have, since the Cynog Dafis era, been substandard or simply not a good match.
Even the ex-MP Simon Thomas, in spite of winning the 2000 by-election and subsequent general election, could hardly be described as a good fit for Ceredigion.
In Ben Lake, however, Plaid Cymru appear to have a strong candidate, who I am reliably informed is popular locally amongst many important voting blocks in Ceredigion (including students and farmers).
As in Ynys Môn then, the party this time around has a good constituency candidate. Ceredigion is certainly winnable (possibly more so than in 2010 and 2015), and uniting Y Fro Gymraeg under the Plaid banner would, while maybe reinforcing the view held in some quarters of the party being for Welsh-speakers only, certainly provide a boost, and definitely feel overdue.
I will just put this out there: Plaid Cymru can win the Rhondda in this election.
It’s not just because of last year’s result, followed by the local elections there this year. It’s not just because of Leanne Wood: although it certainly wouldn’t happen without her.
The raw statistics make Rhondda a possible gain. Although the 12% swing Plaid Cymru would require to win here looks daunting, that’s the same as convincing 3,728 people who voted Labour last time to switch.
With an energetic local campaign currently being fought, it’s possible. How many of the four thousand that voted UKIP will go through the ‘gate’ to the Conservatives, switch back to Labour, or could vote Plaid Cymru to give Labour a kicking?
Who knows but … enough might. It’s also noteworthy that Labour’s vote in Rhondda is half of what is was in 1997.
In saying that, a dose of realism is needed. Leanne Wood’s victory last year in the Rhondda may have been an easy one, but she still won 5,000 fewer votes than Chris Bryant did in 2015. Overturning him is still a gigantic task.
However, if Plaid Cymru is ever to win here in a Westminster election, this is one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities. Lose here after all the hype and they look silly. Win, and we may well see some floodgates opening.
Make no mistake about it, whatever happens in the Rhondda next week, it will be defining for the party.
A few years back, Llanelli was the place Plaid Cymru saw as its gateway to the rest of Wales (somewhat like Rhondda could be considered now). But since then it’s faded off the radar a bit.
Losing the Assembly seat in 2011, failing to attain the tiny 0.15% swing it needed in 2016 to recapture it, and a dismal result in 2015 (one of their worst results nationwide) show the party is going backwards here.
I’m not convinced that the party has rebuilt sufficiently to challenge this time, although UKIP’s demise may well be significant.
It’s interesting to note that when UKIP’s vote surged by 13.5% at the last general election, Labour’s vote only dropped 1% while Plaid Cymru’s fell by 7%. Llanelli is an excellent example of the complex interchangeability of votes.
Although, if the Tories’ push for working class votes goes back on the rails during the next week, Labour may leak votes to them in a place like Llanelli. It is debateable, however, whether Plaid Cymru would benefit from that enough to make Llanelli again an interesting seat, if they would benefit from it at all.
Blaenau Gwent is an odd seat. Traditionally on a Westminster level Labour would win here with a majority that was more than half the size of the electorate, such was their dominance.
However last year Plaid Cymru almost seized the Assembly seat; with a 28% swing, mainly due to the strong local campaign led by Nigel Copner.
It was even more of a shock because nobody outside of Blaenau Gwent saw it coming. He is again standing and already there are hopes that this may be a huge shock.
I’m somewhat wary of that. While a 28% swing directly from Labour to Plaid Cymru again would in fact result in that shock, those sorts of swings don’t really happen at general elections.
Some would point out Peter Law’s 2005 victory to counter that; he technically managed a 49% swing but he was a sort-of incumbent (being the AM), already had a base and the situation was unique.
That may be true of Nigel Copner but it’s probably not to the same degree.
Again, the UKIP vote could provide for an interesting result depending on where it goes in the same way it could in Llanelli.
Quite simply, Labour have to go into complete and utter meltdown to lose Blaenau Gwent this time, and with the polls suggesting somewhat of a Labour fightback, this is the type of seat where their vote might consolidate.
Ironically, it could also be the sort of seat where that happens! Realistically, a good second is what’s on the cards here.
In spite of the closeness of the Assembly result, Cardiff West hasn’t really been mentioned as a possible shock, and that’s possibly because it isn’t Neil McEvoy that’s standing.
The earlier Welsh Barometers saw this as a possible Conservative, not Plaid Cymru, gain.
However, the swing required here is similar to that required in the Rhondda. The difference is that there is a strong Tory presence here, and the disappointing council elections for Plaid Cymru in the capital, seat-wise, must surely have been a bit disheartening.
What Plaid Cymru will surely be hoping for here is a decent rise in their vote, turning this one into a possible three-way marginal in future at Westminster with a view to capturing the seat at the Assembly level.
It’s noteworthy given that Plaid Cymru espouses itself as the Party of Wales, that it is only in a quarter of Welsh seats that they might truly challenge this year, and realistically is only favourite in four.
My gut feeling is that they may well find themselves foundering in most of Wales but getting some striking results in a handful of seats (much as they did in 2016).
However, seats are the only currency at Westminster. No gains yet again simply isn’t good enough – though it wasn’t last time either.
Put simply, Plaid Cymru cannot go on vegetating electorally, it needs gains outside its traditional heartlands and needs them fast. If the Welsh nation is at stake during this election, as the party insists, then so too is Plaid Cymru itself.