How Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives could use the union and independence to put the squeeze on Labour
Ifan Morgan Jones
Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives aren’t going to go into coalition in Wales.
Sorry if that’s a spoiler for anyone who was waiting for the 2021 Senedd election series finale, but it’s just not happening.
A left-wing, pro-EU, Welsh independence party and a right-wing, pro-Brexit, devo-sceptic party is an ‘odd couple’ that makes Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison look super-compatible.
But in the run-up to the Senedd election Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives do have one major interest in common – stopping Labour winning as many seats as possible.
With the election almost upon us, it doesn’t look likely that either Plaid or the Conservatives will overtake Labour in the polls. But the fewer seats Labour has, the more influence Plaid Cymru as their more natural coalition partners can seek to wield in the next parliament.
And while the Conservatives will be frozen out of any pacts by Labour and Plaid, whatever happens, they too will want to make inroads into Labour territory in the north-east and along the M4 corridor.
If they can build on 2019’s success and get within ten seats of Labour, then it’ll play into a narrative of decline for Keir Starmer at a UK-level, and wielding power at the Senedd one day won’t seem as ridiculous a notion as it does now.
Added to this is the fact that Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives aren’t really competing against each other in most of the seats in Wales. There is only one really, Aberconwy, where both parties could realistically win.
Therefore – and Plaid and the Conservatives are never likely to admit this – but both parties to an extent need the other to do well in order to put the squeeze on Labour.
There have been elections in the past where Plaid Cymru has done well – like 1999 – and ones where the Conservatives have done well – like 2011 – but never an election where both have gained a lot of ground simultaneously.
So despite a coalition being impossible, there is a certain amount of mutual Labour-walloping benefit going into the elections.
And if these two opposition parties can decide between them on what basis they’re going to attempt to clobber Labour, it will be much easier for them to set the agenda for the election both in the media and in voters’ minds.
But on what issue can they set the agenda for the election that achieves this vice-like squeeze from both sides?
One thing is clear – there’s going to be no joy in attacking Labour’s record on Covid. By the time the election rolls around most of the population will be fully vaccinated, society and the economy will be unlocking and Mark Drakeford and Vaughan Gething will be sitting pretty on a pile of plaudits.
If they want to succeed, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives will both want to move the agenda on to an issue on which they’re on firmer ground and where Labour are wobblier.
In doing so they could take inspiration from Labour’s travails in Scotland and England, where they’ve found themselves standing in the middle of the road on the biggest constitutional questions of the time – independence and Brexit.
A similar issue is now starting to come to the boil in Wales as Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives play tug o’ war over the future of Wales in the United Kingdom.
Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives have an advantage here in that their stances on this question is very much part of their parties’ USP.
Everyone knows that Plaid Cymru is a pro-independence party, and everyone knows that the Conservatives are die-hard unionists. They’re not Diet Coke on these questions – they’re the real thing.
Within Labour meanwhile, there is a whole spectrum of opinions from Labour for Indy Wales to Mick Antoniw’s ‘Radical Federalism’ to Mark Drakeford’s ‘Home Rule,’ all the way to Chris Bryant MP who said this week that the Labour Welsh Government felt just as distant to his constituents as Westminster.
This is a party that is in the foothills of a journey towards deciding where it stands on the likely break up of the UK. There’s no real internal consistency on the issue, and there may never be.
As a result, if Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives can both turn the Senedd election into one about Wales’ future in the UK, it’s one area where they can outflank Labour from both sides.
How might they go about this? Well, if I was a Plaid Cymru or Conservative strategist I might be contacting the other side to see whether there was a possibility of organising a pre-election television or online debate between party leaders Adam Price and Andrew RT Davies on the issue of the union and independence.
Despite being at loggerheads on the issue itself, such an agenda-setting scrap could be of mutual benefit to both sides. It would allow Plaid to attempt to pick off the 50% of Labour supporters who, polls tell us, are at least indy-curious, while the Conservatives go for the other half.
For Labour, there would be no great options. Either they would not take part in the debate or whoever they sent would not be able to articulate as clear an answer on the issue as the others, as they simply – as a party – haven’t made up their minds yet.
The irony of all of this is that one of the main things keeping Labour in power in Wales since 1999 has been the incompatibility of their political opponents.
However, that could turn into a weakness if their political opponents turned those exact divisions into the defining issues at the heart of the election.