The barriers to Plaid Cymru’s success are bigger than any change of leader can surmount
Ifan Morgan Jones
Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price is currently on paternity leave but will probably not be oblivious to the fact that heat is being turned up on his leadership.
Yesterday, former leader Leanne Wood recorded a BBC podcast criticising his stance on Brexit and how independence was placed at the forefront of the Senedd campaign.
Former Plaid North Wales PCC, Arfon Jones, followed that up by saying that it was time for Plaid Cymru to think about changing leader.
Perhaps this is inevitable after a Senedd election in which Plaid Cymru lost one constituency seat and, to be frank, probably owed their extra list seats to the collapse of UKIP.
Leadership talk after an election is par for the course for the party. In fact only one Senedd election, 2007, has not been followed by leadership rumblings or changes in Plaid Cymru – after 1999 Dafydd Wigley was replaced by Ieuan Wyn Jones, who retained his leadership after resigning following the 2003 election. He was replaced by Leanne Wood after the 2011 election, who was then replaced by Adam Price after 2016.
What’s clear however is that this has not made much difference to the party’s fortunes. With three very different leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Leanne Wood and Adam Price – the party’s overall constituency vote only changed 1.3% between the 2011 and 2021 elections.
Considering that they would really need around 40% of the vote to form a Plaid Cymru government, a few percentage points north and south of 20% is no real gain or loss.
It suggests that both the strengths and weaknesses of the party are more fundamental than anything a change of party leader can realistically change or fix.
There are two big, fundamental, baked-in problems that make it very difficult for Plaid Cymru to advance much further.
The first is the relative weakness of the Welsh media compared to the British press, with the latter placing all the focus on the adversarial two-party contest between Labour and the Conservatives.
The Welsh media has strengthened somewhat over the past year, but the huge focus on the Covid-19 pandemic mainly benefitted the incumbent Welsh Labour government rather than Plaid Cymru.
The second problem for Plaid Cymru is that, as a Welsh national party, there are simply not enough Welsh nationalists in Wales.
Research by Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University and others following the election demonstrated to what extent the votes for Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Conservatives were tied to national identity.
The “stark” findings showed that those who identified strongly as Welsh not British tended to vote Plaid Cymru, those who felt around equally Welsh and British voted Labour, while those who felt British not Welsh voted Conservative.
To win, Plaid Cymru need more people who feel Welsh not British. ‘A Welsh national party needs more Welsh nationalists’ may seem like an obvious point. But are these extra nationalists something a Plaid Cymru leader can realistically be expected to conjure up – as well as strengthening a Welsh media in his spare time?
Or do Plaid Cymru members need to accept that much of what needs to change in Wales to ensure Plaid Cymru’s success are just, actually, fundamentally not really Plaid Cymru’s job?
Only a grassroots national movement can achieve that kind of fundamental sea change in the way the people of Wales see themselves. Plaid Cymru’s job is to most effectively hoover up their votes after they do so.
Of course, there are some problems a Plaid Cymru leader can get to grips with, which have been handled well and poorly at different times by present and previous leaders.
These include clarity of message, maximising membership, ensuring an effective ground campaign during an election, and dealing with internal discipline.
But in the grand scheme of things, these are quite marginal things that could eke out a few extra seats for Plaid Cymru in marginals like Llanelli, Rhondda, Aberconwy and Caerphilly but are unlikely to be enough in themselves to put them over the top and into government.
Ultimately, if you’re a Welsh nationalist and complaining about Plaid Cymru’s leadership you’re shifting responsibility. The change needs to come from the grassroots – the change needs to come from you and people like you.
As for Adam Price, he has essentially had one normal, pandemic free-year as leader since taking over in late 2018.
Any moves to replace him now would just be a distraction – a change of wallpaper over the deeper and more fundamental crack in the walls.