Plaid Cymru: A few votes from disaster
Ifan Morgan Jones
Plaid’s press office will attempt to spin last night’s General Election result as a positive one, and may well succeed in doing so.
A disinterested British media will note that they kept all their seats, and added a new MP in Ceredigion’s Ben Lake.
But the truth is that the party came within a few hundred votes of disaster.
Had 92 votes gone the other way in Arfon, and some 104 in Ceredigion, the party would have suffered a blow from which it might never have recovered.
This is to take nothing away from the hard work and deserved victories of Hywel Williams, Jonathan Edwards or Liz Saville Roberts, or Ben Lake’s historic triumph.
But pretending that all is well won’t do. If the party continues to steam on ahead in the same direction, it will hit another electoral iceberg, and won’t scrape past again.
Plaid Cymru has been handed a reprieve. And they must use it to rebrand and realign the party. Time is short – there could be another election this year, and by that time the Labour red wave could be unstoppable.
The problem last night was easy to spot but difficult to fix. Plaid’s USP is that it’s a more nationalist and more socialist alternative to the Labour party.
But with Jeremy Corbyn taking Labour to the left, and Carwyn Jones keen to emphasise Welsh Labour’s autonomy from the central UK party, Plaid were unable to distinguish themselves.
Plaid’s supporters had to resort to arguing that Labour’s socialism and patriotism were just a veneer – that the Welsh Labour MPs were the same unionist Blairities as before.
There’s a lot of truth to that argument. But it’s a complex and nuanced one, and with the dire state of the media in Wales it was one that Plaid Cymru had no hope of getting across.
Faced with what they saw as diet-Labour and the real thing, voters went for the real thing.
Unfortunately, questions must be asked about Leanne Wood’s leadership, after the party failed to make any headway in the valleys.
Chances to get Plaid’s message across in the first few weeks of the campaign were squandered as Wood uhmm’d and ahhh’d about standing in the Rhondda, before eventually bowing out.
This does not mean she has to stand down – and I have argued in the past that this might be a bad idea – but every option now needs to be on the table.
Questions must also be asked about Plaid’s ability to collect data and correctly identify the constituencies in which it will be competitive.
At the last General Election they worried unnecessarily about Arfon and missed out on a narrow victory on Anglesey. At this General Election they didn’t spot that they were in danger in Arfon, invested heavily in no-hope sets in the valleys and almost missed out on a victory in Ceredigion.
To be fair to them, none of the main parties saw last night coming. Labour had practically abandoned many seats they ended up taking from the Tories, such as Gower.
But it should be easier for a party that is only seriously competitive in six or seven seats to invest its resources correctly, than it is for parties that have to concentrate on 600+.
Plaid should take the lead from its south-west cohort in answering these questions. Whatever Ben Lake, Jonathan Edwards, and Adam Price have, the electorate like it.
Carmarthen East should on paper have been a better bet for Labour than Arfon, but Jonathan Edwards held it very comfortably because of his own personal popularity.
Ben Lake was also instantly popular in Ceredigion, as a man who was rooted in the community and could talk to people in a language they could understand.
The very lack of polish that was inevitable when standing for the first time as a 24-year-old was just what the voters wanted.
What Jonathan Edwards and Ben Lake in particular have is an ability to intelligently articulate the advantages of Welsh nationalism, but also to engage in an empathetic way with the concerns of the man and woman on the street on a more fundamental level.
This is what they have in common with Albert Owen, Carwyn Jones – and Jeremy Corbyn. And it’s what Theresa May doesn’t have.
Sadly, perhaps, one of the recurring lessons of politics is that the substance and complex policy differences don’t matter that much – it’s all about the presentation.
Plaid need to find an easy to communicate message that a) distinguishes them from the other parties, and b) appeals to people at a fundamental, local level. Then they need to get it across.
It sounds simple, but it’s easier said that done.