The General Election results show that Plaid Cymru has a mountain to climb before 2021
Ifan Morgan Jones
At the launch of Plaid Cymru’s independence commission at the beginning of November, Adam Price spoke of how the party would, after forming a Welsh Government in 2021, push for a referendum on Welsh independence.
What struck me at the time, sitting in the audience in Caernarfon, was that Plaid Cymru’s success in the 2021 Senedd elections was being spoken of almost as if it had already happened.
Of course, every political party talks up their own chances of success. And one of Plaid Cymru’s key tasks over the next 18 months is to drill into the minds of the people of Wales that it is a realistic challenger for government.
This is essential if they are to counter Labour’s assertion that a vote for Plaid Cymru will just ‘let the Tories in,’ its go-to line at every election within political memory.
But there is also a danger that by repeating the claim that they will be in government in 2021 the party either fails to motivate its supporters or leaves them crushingly disappointed after the event.
Because on the evidence on Friday morning, the party has a hell of a mountain to climb to get to a point where it is the largest party at the Senedd.
I don’t want to be too negative, so first let me list the positives to be taken from Plaid Cymru’s performance.
On the one hand, the results on Friday were a success for the party. Two of its four seats, Arfon and Ceredigion, were marginals and they turned those into big majorities.
What was most pleasing was that in the four seats they do hold, Plaid’s canvassing and Get Out the Vote operation was a well-drilled machine.
The messaging was also much more focused and professional than I’ve ever seen it by the party. Their campaign had clear themes, and they made great use of multimedia content and social media advertising.
Adam Price also did very well, not just on the TV debates but also in finding a way to make himself relevant to the UK media. His idea of making lying by politicians a criminal offence was a good example of this. A completely unworkable idea, in my honest opinion, but the press and public lapped it up.
The position which Wales’ main opposition parties find themselves, also suggests that 2021 will be a great opportunity for Plaid Cymru.
Labour are in a real mess, having suffered two historically bad election in Wales in a row. Their new leader Mark Drakeford has not made a great first impression.
They face a decade long slog back into government – if they ever get there, making it much easier for Adam Price to align the debate around Wales v Westminster rather than Labour v Conservatives.
‘Vote for us or you’ll let the Tories in’ has far less force if the Tories are likely to be in anyway, for the foreseeable future.
For the Conservatives, by 2021 they will be a party approaching the mid-point of their time in government and will probably face an inevitable slump in the polls. And with Boris Johnson sticking to the end of 2020 as a final possible moment to Brexit it is likely that any economic shock that will be felt will be rumbling away in Wales as the country goes to the polls.
UKIP and the Brexit Party, meanwhile, will likely be defunct for much the same reason. So things are looking very positive for Plaid Cymru at the moment, if the aim is to increase their numbers of AMs.
And yet, despite all these improvements and advantages, there was nothing is Friday’s results that suggested that Plaid Cymru have conquered their key hurdle: an ability to generate any kind of broad appeal beyond their own heartland of Y Fro Gymraeg.
Even if the seats where they did not stand are discounted, Plaid Cymru only saw an uptick of 0.03% of the vote on the 2017 General Election.
One of the arguments made by many of Leanne Wood’s detractors (including myself) was that the party had stood still electorally under her leadership, so it’s only fair that the same charge is laid at Adam Price’s door.
More worrying still, while the party saw small increases in their share of the vote across the M4 corridor, their vote went down in the valleys themselves and plunged in Rhondda and Blaenau Gwent.
Part of this plunge can be explained by the popularity of the Brexit Party in these valleys seats. There were four major parties now vying for the vote here rather than three.
However, rather than making gains in these constituencies that Plaid Cymru will have to win to have any hope of forming a majority in 2021, the party seems to be going backwards.
Of course, many will argue that General Elections are a completely different kettle of fish to Senedd elections. Plaid Cymru just aren’t as relevant there and their vote is squeezed by the unionist parties.
They will point to the SNP in Scotland who only held six seats before they formed a government at the Scottish Parliament, and then after the independence referendum had their breakthrough at Westminster.
I have made this argument myself in the past. However, the difference was that while the SNP held only six seats they were in second place in another 19.
That is, they had a broad-based foundation of support across Scotland – and 20% of the vote – that resulted in huge gains in their favour when that support picked up.
Plaid Cymru, in comparison, did not come second in a single seat on Friday. In the valleys they were fourth in many key seats, behind Labour, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party.
Yes, there was a ‘green dam’ of support that held on Friday, in contrast to Labour’s ‘red wall’ in the northeast.
But I’m not sure if that ‘green dam’ is holding support for other parties out, or holding support for Plaid Cymru in.
It’s going to take a hell of a turnaround between now and 2021 for Plaid Cymru to breach that wall and take a large number of seats beyond it in 2021.
Plaid Cymru spends a lot of time talking about policy but perhaps it’s in the more intangible realm of identity and belonging that explains both their success in the Fro Gymraeg and their failure to break through in the valleys.
The largest shock of the recent General Election was the large swing against Labour in post-industrial, working-class communities.
This was despite the Labour manifesto essentially being tailor-made to appeal to these constituencies in terms of the kind of economic transformation that would save them from decline.
However, many people felt that the Conservative Party spoke to their cultural sense of who they were in a way that the Labour party did not.
In a way, what we may have seen at this election is the Plaid Cymru-isation of the Labour Party. I.e. a lot of well-meaning middle-class socialist leaders with great ideas about how to cure society’s ills but little cultural understanding of the electorate they’re trying to reach scratching their heads about why the voters won’t take their medicine.
Indeed, much has been made since the election of ‘cultural conservatism’, which often seems to be used as a euphemism for racism and misogyny.
However, it strikes me that real cultural conservatism can only be a good thing if it is done with the right intentions. That is, not to foster hate but to foster a feeling of belonging and solidarity and togetherness within a community.
One thing that Brexit has shown us is that this sense of belonging to a cultural community is even more important to many people than their economic fate.
Plaid Cymru are naturally the party of cultural conservatism in Y Fro Gymraeg. Their progressive social and economic ideals sit unobtrusively side by side with being the small-c conservative party of Welsh-speaking towns and rural communities.
In other parts of Wales they are not considered the culturally conservative party at all. People across Wales are broadly supportive of the Welsh language when asked about it but it isn’t directly relevant to their lives in the same way.
For 80% of the population, the Welsh language is not, to use Plaid Cymru’s own slogan, ‘us’. At worse, it can feel like an alien culture being imposed on them.
The inability to foster such a connection with the English-speaking working-class culture of the valleys, in particular, is a block on Plaid Cymru’s left-wing economic and progressive goals, as socialism needs to form around that nucleus of community-led institutions that are either being hollowed out or into which Plaid seem to have little access.
One way Plaid Cymru can perhaps make progress on this question is to take a leaf out of the book of the Welsh independence movement, particularly YesCymru.
What YesCymru has developed is a more hands-off approach, allowing different branches to largely set their own agenda and helping out financially and organisationally when needed.
Plaid Cymru meanwhile have tended towards a more top-down approach, which has caused it problems in Llanelli, Blaenau Gwent, Ynys Môn, and Cardiff – i.e. pretty much everywhere they had a realistic hope of winning in 2021.
There’s an irony that a party whose raison d’être seems to be a criticism of political over-centralisation itself seems so centralised. Why can’t for instance, Plaid Cymru in the valleys be its own semi-independent body? It can even call itself something else, if it likes.
This could be allied to a broader commitment to devolving power across Wales. Plaid Cymru’s focus has perhaps naturally settled on establishing Arfor, a semi-autonomous region across y Fro Gymraeg.
But why shouldn’t the valleys have their own Arfor, and parts of ‘British Wales’ too?
‘Wales, it’s us’ intoned Plaid Cymru’s slogan. But perhaps the way forward is to realise that the basis for any national identity is maintaining a rather superficial wholeness while actually supporting the coexistence of many different parts.
And if Plaid Cymru is to succeed in 2021 the party must become ‘us’ to many different parts of Wales, and do so quickly.