To win Plaid Cymru needs to focus on its core message
Ifan Morgan Jones
Jonathan Edwards is quite right to warn that Plaid Cymru faces “oblivion” if it lurches to the left.
But of course, the party has been on the left throughout Leanne Wood’s tenure as leader – during which Plaid Cymru haven’t made huge progress.
So perhaps in this is a matter of escaping electoral oblivion rather than falling into it.
The left-right dichotomy is, of course, a little too simplistic. In fact, the electorate increasingly seems to want a left-wing agenda on economic matters but a more conservative agenda on social matters.
Plaid doesn’t need to become a ‘populist’ party but the leadership need to find out where the people of Wales stand on these issues and position themselves accordingly.
The core Plaid Cymru argument, which is that Westminster rule is failing Wales, has never been more compelling. Almost every day brings new examples of this.
But the key is message discipline, and Plaid Cymru often seems intent on talking about everything but its core USP.
The party seems distracted by a range of, admittedly important but tangential to devolved politics, social issues (the latest being trans women) that may be better left to charities and campaign groups.
There are three problems with this focus:
1.) They’re not Wales-only issues and so they’re things that other political parties on the British left can, and do, also talk about. But they’re in a better position to do something about it.
Leanne Wood may be congratulated by Owen Jones on Twitter for taking a stand on a particular subject, but Owen Jones and his followers in Wales are still going to be voting Labour.
2.) Many of these social issues are actually quite divisive, particularly in the more socially conservative valley seats Plaid have their eye on.
For instance, again on trans’ rights, there’s a lot of difference of opinion out there on some issues even amongst those on the left.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of building a coalition within the party of socialists, environmentalists and Welsh speakers. But if you add up all these issues Plaid Cymru have taken a stand on you end up appealing to a smaller and smaller segment of the population.
3.) Plaid Cymru doesn’t have the bandwidth to fight on multiple fronts. Because of the dire state of Wales’ media, they’re a political party largely invisible to the average voter.
That means that repetition is key. They need to treat every interview, every tweet as if it’s the only exposure the voters will have to their arguments between now and election day.
That means emphasising what’s different between them and the other parties, rather than issues on which they have opinions in common with other parties on the British left.
To achieve this message discipline there needs to be a clear direction of travel at the very top of the party.
It’s not always clear to what extent this is the case. The party doesn’t seem to have had a conversation about what went wrong at the last two elections and what needs to change to win the next.
This week’s expulsion of Neil McEvoy was indicative of a party that seems to be drifting along and slow to respond to the challenges facing it.
The 18-month expulsion itself is a fudge that almost seems designed to displease all of the party’s members.
His supporters are likely to see it as a plot by a Cardiff Bay establishment to stop a man who is trying to shake up the cosy consensus among the parties.
His opponent in the party, however, will look at the 18 months term limit and ask what exactly the expulsion is meant to achieve, given that he was in effect an independent AM anyway.
It’s no kind of punishment at all for Neil McEvoy. All it’s given him is a higher media profile and a chance to burnish his anti-establishment credentials yet further.
For an ‘anti-establishment’ politician the disapproval of the establishment is, for many supporters, very much part of the appeal.
But McEvoy’s appeal to those supporters in itself is a symptom of a party that many members feel has lost its direction.
His populist instincts appeal because the bedrock of Plaid’s support is their anti-establishment opposition to Westminster and the Welsh Government.
Plaid Cymru do a lot of good work at the Senedd and Westminster but much of the constitutional grunt work is opaque and the general public aren’t particularly interested.
McEvoy’s confrontational style and populist campaigns appeal because they draw attention and are easy to understand.
Plaid Cymru needs a mix of both styles – the emotional campaigns that draw attention and the cerebral grunt work in the Senedd’s underground corridors – if they are to leave their mark.
Ultimately, Plaid Cymru has to be able to compromise with the electorate on some issues in order to push the core argument.
If the party manages to thread that needle, there is no good reason why Plaid Cymru can’t thrive.
Wales now faces two terrible choices at the ballot box. A shambolic Conservative party and a Labour party hamstrung by a leader that the majority simply can’t see as a Prime Minister.
Plaid Cymru needs to put itself forward as the competent, dependable, big-tent nationalist party that can include anyone who thinks Wales isn’t getting a fair shake.