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.
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Agree 100%. Let us all celebrate!
I agree too! Remember we’ve been a nation under the yolk for centuries so people here wanting more powers for Cymru is pretty amazing, most countries would have folded and disappeared by now. This mindset that we can manage ourselves is the first steps towards independence and credit to Plaid Cmyru for initiating that. The one dimensional, colonial minded Tories in London will now help move those desires for more power to desires for out right self determination !
Plaid seems to be a “pressure group” that slowly pushes Welsh Labour into its direction without actually winning elections – 20% overall supported Plaid last week, a figure the Party has been unable to increase in 20 years, Adam Price was touted as the new messiah even before Leanne Wood won the leadership back in 2012 – but we Welsh shrugged our shoulders and went “Nah” …. Rhun ap Iorwerth/Sian Gwenllian look to be better options for the next leadership election BEFORE 2026 – Price cannot be allowed to lead us into another election in 5 years, YES, circumstances went… Read more »
Diddorol, Ifan. I ba raddau y mae’r Blaid Lafur wedi newid, a faint ohono sy’n ‘wyrddgalchu’? Mae Drakeford yn ei chael yn hawdd beirniadu llywodraeth Doriaidd yn Llundain, ond faint y byddai o’n ymladd dros Gymru petai yna lywodraeth Lafur yn Llundain? Mi ydw i’n credu fod yna newid wedi bod, ond mae ‘Llafur Cymru’ yn dipyn o gameleon.
Gallen ni weld esiampl o hwnna pan glywon ni Bron dim o Fe pryd wnaeth llafur yn San Steffan beidio pleidleisio yn erbyn y bil masnach mewnol
Absolutely agree with this. Question is, if IndyWales becomes a leading position for grass root Labour supporters in South Wales, will old school leaders like Mark Drakeford follow?
Nid oes golwg o lywodraeth Llafur yn Llundain. Sut gall y Blaid Lafur peidio erfyn am fwy o rym er mwyn gwrthsefyll polisïau asgell dde y llywodraeth Doriaidd? Rhaid iddynt os ydynt am wireddu polisïau ei plaid yng Nghymru.
Oh, this is interesting. My comments, unfavourable to Plaid, are being deleted.
I had a comment deleted a few days ago. It was quite inoccuous but it seems that censorship happens on this site.
Another excellent article from Ifan – diolch. It’s a real dilemma for Plaid whether or not to shift to the centre to win more votes/seats. I feel more optimistic (not my natural disposition!) after reading this article and understanding better the nature of the dynamic between Plaid and Labour and how Plaid has helped influenced so much change in Wales over the years (a history to be proud of). I look forward to the coming years with renewed hope (with new Plaid Senedd members full of energy, Yes Cymru going from strength to strength, young voters getting involved, Tories really… Read more »
Plaid should be encouraging Welsh media companies to make a film in the mould of Braveheart featuring the stories of Owain Glyndwr or the Welsh princes especially HYwel Dda who established welsh law .
The people need to relate to heroes who tell them a story. Gives them a focus and helps them relate to today’s context.
This may help win elections, the Rebecca riots is another thought.
Pam rhaid o fod un neu’r llall?/ Why does it need to be one or the other?
This is part of the image problem for Plaid. They are so much more than a Welsh language and independence party.. Good ideas for investment, infrastructure, the natural world, health and social care. This need to be promoted.. Labour are distancing themselves from the social ethic and are very shy about policy. Now is the time to pick up those who want a greener, fairer Wales.
Unfortunately, I don’t think they are more than that. They are a culturally Welsh party, whose leaders are now comfortable in the Senedd, and they have no intention of ceding those positions in the name of progress!
Totally disagree with you Josh. Read the history and look at the policies.
This must be the massage Plaid’s hurt pride attempt. To associate Labour’s tentative move to self government, with Plaid pressure, is stretching it a bit. There was, through the previous 22 years of devolution, no discernable shift. It is a recent phenomena and It is surely down to Yes Cymru’s efforts and others, not least Boris. Plaid remains a Party of Federal UK as their preferred option ( as per their Commission document )
The problem for Plaid is simple they can never win a Welsh election without winning in the South Wales Valleys which realistically isn’t going to happen. It’s why every party that isn’t Labour and the Conservatives should be making front and centre the need to switch to a fully proportional voting system.
Under full PR the current election would have looked like this a much better summary of actual Welsh voters.
Labour 23 (-7)
Cons 16 (=)
Plaid 13 (=)
Greens 3 (+3)
Lib Dem’s 3 (+2)
Abolish 2 (+2)