Why the 2021 Senedd election is a big opportunity for Plaid Cymru
The General Election results suggest, at first glance, that Plaid Cymru has made almost no progress electorally since 2017.
Ifan Morgan Jones has already written an excellent article pointing out that Plaid has a mountain to climb if they are to make gains at the 2021 Senedd election.
I don’t disagree with what Ifan has written. However, I do think that this election was particularly difficult for Plaid.
They were at a disadvantage in this election, not just because it was a UK Parliamentary election, but because it was also a Brexit election.
UK Parliamentary elections have become almost like Presidential elections over the last decade or so, particularly with the introduction of head-to-head leader’s debates.
The two main parties attract most of the media attention and therefore, voter’s minds are likely to focus on that choice between the two main parties.
The polarized nature of the debate around Brexit also meant that voters were pressurized to back either the Conservatives or Labour as a route to leaving or having an opportunity for a second vote.
As a result, smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats found their vote squeezed during the last days of the election.
These two problems are unlikely to arise in the Assembly elections. Firstly, a vote for Plaid Cymru can realistically be presented as a vote for a Plaid Cymru government.
Secondly, it can be assumed that by the time of the next Senedd elections, whether Brexit happens or not will no longer be an issue for the voters.
Many Brexit negotiations will still be outstanding but the Withdrawal Agreement will have been signed off by Westminster for over a year.
The Brexit fiasco has distorted and skewed voter allegiances in bizarre ways but politics may by then be restored to some semblance of normality.
However, one of the most encouraging signs for Plaid Cymru does not concern Plaid Cymru at all but rather their rivals, Labour.
Despite winning 22 of 40 seats in Wales last week, Labour’s support here continues to erode even after nine years of Conservative government.
They lost six seats to the Tories, all but one in the north-east of Wales. In the south Wales valleys, now the last Labour stronghold in the UK, Labour was more resilient in holding on to most of their seats, but in some cases with much-reduced majorities.
But this was not generally because the Conservative vote went up (it only rose 3% in Wales) but because Labour lost support to alternative parties.
If Plaid Cymru can present itself as a credible alternative to both Labour and the Conservatives in 2021 it could be the beneficiary of Labour’s lost vote.
Also of advantage to Plaid Cymru in 2021 will be the contrast in talent between Plaid Cymru’s leader Adam Price and the Labour leader Mark Drakeford.
The General Election was skillfully used by Adam Price as a springboard to increase his public profile. He won many plaudits through his debating skills on national TV.
This contrasts very much with the leadership of Mark Drakeford, the Welsh Labour leader. It’s generally agreed that he lacks the charisma of his two predecessors, Carwyn Jones, and Rhodri Morgan.
He had said whilst campaigning for the Welsh Labour leadership election that he does not enjoy doing TV interviews. He was seldom seen in TV debates and has had a very low profile during the General Election campaign.
Since becoming First Minister and Welsh Labour leader one year ago he has presided over last week’s very poor General Election results, and the European Union elections in May were the worse ever.
Welsh Assembly opinion polls before the General Election campaign kicked in also showed a similar trend with Welsh Labour performing poorly by historical standards.
When we look back in a few year’s time Plaid Cymru’s General Election performance may be looked at as a time of laying the foundations for future growth rather than stagnation.
They consolidated their support in the seats that they did hold. For example, in Ceredigion, they succeeded in turning around a wafer-thin majority of 107 in 2017 to over 6000 last week.
And by focusing on issues directly relevant to devolved elections such as health and the environment they laid the groundwork for the 2021 campaign.
If the party can broaden its appeal outside its heartlands in the western parts of Wales, there are many reasons for Plaid Cymru to be optimistic about their chances of success in the next Assembly elections.
They could be well placed to return to the high levels of support they enjoyed in the first Assembly elections in 1999.
UK Labour’s attention is likely to be elsewhere: focused on electing a new leader and deciding on where the soul of their party now lies during the next few years.
These two elements together give Plaid an excellent opportunity to perform well in 2021.