This was a bad election for Plaid Cymru – but they seem to be winning without winning elections
Ifan Morgan Jones
Which is the most successful political party in Wales over the last 100 years?
The obvious answer to this question is ‘the Labour party’. They are the ones who have won election after election, and there is no sign that they will stop winning elections.
But if you look at whose political mission has been and is being fulfilled, you could make a credible case for the most successful party being Plaid Cymru.
Some may laugh. They haven’t won a single national election. And they’ve struggled for any kind of breakthrough beyond their traditions heartlands in the Welsh-speaking west of Wales.
However if you had offered Plaid Cymru the current arrangement 25 years ago – a law-making parliament as the settled will of the Welsh people and a majority in that parliament in favour of more powers – they would likely have bitten your hand off.
Plaid Cymru have never won anything but have exerted a kind of political gravitational pull on the Labour party. The closest comparison (which Plaid Cymru would no doubt hate) would be UKIP, which never won anything either but dragged the Conservatives to a more eurosceptic position by threatening to split their vote.
On the one hand, Thursday’s election was a very bad one for Plaid Cymru. They have now made no real electoral progress as a party in 20 years. For all the talk of Adam Price as First Minister, they are still contesting the same small number of Labour-Plaid marginals they were in 1999 – and failing to pick them up.
But this hides Plaid Cymru’s real achievement which is that Welsh Labour have, in attempting to thwart Plaid Cymru’s ambitions, come very much to resemble them.
It’s very easy to be frustrated by the pace of constitutional change in Wales but we have to remember that in the context of nation-states the transformation over the last 50 years has happened in a blink of an eye.
Wales has gone from a nation with essentially no political institutions of its own – little more than a county of England in practical terms – to essentially being a state within a state. Wales has never existed, as a unified political unit, to the extent it does today.
Plaid and Labour have got there by forming a kind of symbiotic political relationship, in which Plaid Cymru lays down the constitutional road and Labour, sometimes gladly and sometimes reluctantly, drives up it.
This election was another example of that. The middle ground on constitutional issues in Wales is entirely clear – it’s measured every year as a multi-option question in the BBC / ICM St. David’s day poll.
Around 15% are devo-sceptic, around 15% want independence and the vast majority – a whopping 70% – support devolution but want to strengthen it.
Once again what we’ve seen over the last year and two is Plaid Cymru making a choice – does it want to go for the middle ground and seriously contest for being the next Welsh Government? Or does it want to continue to push the constitutional Overton window towards more powers?
And once again, as throughout the lifetime of the Senedd, Plaid Cymru decided to do the latter, essentially sacrificing electoral gain for putting pressure on Labour to advance on constitutional issues.
I should note that Plaid Cymru’s progress on this hasn’t been all their own work – they have the remarkably successful YesCymru to thank for that.
And they’ve been given a huge helping hand, too, by the UK Conservatives’ ‘muscular unionism’ which seems to have misunderstood the nature of British nationalism in Wales and Scotland.
But without Plaid Cymru’s electoral pressure Labour’s politicians would not be feeling the heat to crank up talk of reform and making such indy-curious noises as they are now.
The small ‘n’ of Welsh Labour nationalism is very rapidly becoming a big ‘N’, with many top names making it clear that they could support independence or something close to it if they didn’t see the UK working for Wales in a practical sense.
Going forward, Plaid Cymru face the same choice again. What do they see as their job – winning elections or shifting the Overton window on constitutional issues?
They’ve done a fantastic job of the latter over the last 50 years but – probably because of that – a bad job of the former.
And I think that comes down to the fact that, in their heart of hearts, most Plaid Cymru supporters would rather an independent Wales than being in government.
This election was a classic example. Plaid placed themselves with the minority who wanted indy. Labour with the majority who wanted more devolution.
Labour, rather predictably, won. But Plaid shifted the debate towards more autonomy.
You can win without winning elections.