Why it may take a UK Labour government to give Plaid Cymru a shot at victory
Ifan Morgan Jones
Adam Price’s speech at the Plaid Cymru conference on Friday was a very revealing one.
While conceding that the election was “disappointing”, a large part of the speech was dedicated to the fact that they had, in fact, won without winning.
“We didn’t win the election,” he said. “But as so often in our history, we dusted ourselves down and resolved to win the argument instead.
“We snatched our moral victory from the mawing jaws of defeat.”
How had Plaid Cymru achieved this? Through the cooperation deal with Welsh Labour, which included a great bulk of what Plaid Cymru had spent the election campaigning on.
Plaid Cymru, he said, had “moved the Welsh Overton Window” to the extent that it was they, in fact, who were now leading Wales – “who are the leaders now?” he asked.
“Where we lead, they always come – eventually,” he said, finishing by stating that “politics to me is not about who wins or who loses, it’s about doing big things together.”
On the one hand, this feels rather like a leader – one sold as a ‘mab darogan’ no less – who did not deliver the electoral breakthrough that he promised rapidly moving the goalposts.
Certainly, this idea that Plaid Cymru won without winning is hard to square with the emphasis Adam Price put on what he promised would be breakthrough results for Plaid Cymru before May of last year.
On the other hand, he is no doubt in many ways correct – if the Plaid-Welsh Government cooperation agreement is delivered in full Plaid Cymru will once again have managed, somehow, to get the bulk of what they wanted out of this Senedd term.
As I argued back in May of last year, Plaid Cymru has an uncanny ability to win without winning elections. That article copped some criticism in Labour circles at the time, but their rolling out of the rose-red carpet for half of Plaid Cymru’s manifesto shows that it is once again true.
Mark Drakeford has been so open-handedly generous to Plaid Cymru that some of Welsh Labour’s own MPs have been baffled by it.
Cymru Sydd and Cymru Fydd
But the reality is that Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru go together like a horse and carriage. Welsh Labour want to win, and are very happy to borrow Plaid Cymru’s ideas to do so. Plaid Cymru meanwhile want their best ideas put into action, and are completely unwilling to compromise on them in order to win votes.
Both in their own way are ‘the party of Wales’ – Welsh Labour the party of Cymry Sydd, Wales as it is, while Plaid are the party of Cymry Fydd, what they see as the future ideal version of it.
And listening to Adam Price’s speech, I got the feeling that Plaid Cymru are, for the moment, quite content with that arrangement, as long as that “Welsh Overton window” keeps shifting.
The speech contained very little detail of how, beyond “dusting ourselves down” and going again, the party was, electorally, going to turn things around.
Instead, there was some vague hope that something would come along – some spark that will awake Wales from its political apathy and deliver a revolution.
Not to be uncharitable to Plaid Cymru, but this is unlikely. Winning will require less nonconformist revival-esque charisma and more of the boring work of figuring out what people want, communicating that message effectively and hoovering up their votes.
That is, meeting the voters where they are not where Plaid Cymru would want them to be. Putting themselves within the Welsh Overton window, rather than shifting it. I.e. the kind of stuff that Plaid Cymru’s leadership or membership has not, as of yet in their 97-year history – for good or ill – shown that much interest in doing.
The one thing that could break up the present symbiotic relationship between Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour would be a change at Westminster – to a UK Labour government.
At the moment Labour are able to be a national party in all but name for Wales because Wales is the only nation in which they’re in power.
Mark Drakeford is able to employ the us vs them rhetoric of Welsh nationalism while also claiming the get-out clause that the divide is really Labour v Tory, not Wales v Westminster.
For the first time in a very long time, however, the idea of a UK Labour government seems a little bit more likely.
The Conservatives seem stuck with an unpopular leader, and a Chancellor who the public believes is failing to get to grips with a cost of living crisis.
It’s hard to explain the real-world impact of Brexit or Partygate but if voters can’t pay the bills they’re unlikely to back you at the next General Election.
If Labour does win in 2024 then suddenly it becomes much harder for Welsh Labour to define themselves as Wales’ shield against Westminster, a theme they have returned to time and time again since the 2011 Senedd election.
That would leave Plaid Cymru alone in possession once against of a USP – if you’re not happy with how Westminster is treating Wales, give them a bloody nose by voting for us.
It’s worth remembering that it was under a Labour Westminster government that the SNP first formed a Scottish Government in 2007.
Going into a Senedd election in 2025 or 2026 with a Labour government at Westminster would be the key moment for Plaid Cymru, if it is to form a government of its own – and turn a string of ‘moral victories’ into a real electoral one.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.