Leanne Wood campaigns in her native Rhondda. Photo:Getty
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Why aren't Plaid Cymru surging?

In an election defined by populist parties, Plaid Cymru have failed to break out of their heartlands. Why not?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 1999, the year of the first elections to the devolved legislatures in Wales and Scotland, Plaid Cymru outpolled the SNP.

In 2015, the picture looks rather different. The latest poll from north of the border puts the Nationalists on 53 per cent of the vote; the most recent survey of Welsh public opinion puts Plaid at 11 per cent.  

It now seems likely that the predictions that the SNP would take 50 of the 59 seats in Scotland were, if anything, overly conservative. Their Welsh cousins, if the stars align perfectly on the night, might take five seats out of 40. It’s more likely they’ll end up where they were in 2010, with a mere three. It’s not implausible that they could end up with just one.

What went wrong for Plaid Cymru? Why, when anti-establishment parties are on the march throughout the United Kingdom, can’t they make a breakthrough? They aren’t even the dominant anti-insurgent force in Wales; that’s Ukip, who have leapfrogged the Nationalists in the polls, although Nigel Farage’s party will be punished heavily by the electoral system.

In part, they have been unlucky with their enemies. In 1999, it was Scottish Labour who looked destined for hegemony. In Donald Dewar, they had a respected and skillful leader, while Welsh Labour had Alun Michael, who was widely regarded as a puppet of Tony Blair. But the Welsh party has displayed a greater flair for reinvention than their Scottish counterpart. Michael was deposed and both of his successors, Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, have put clear red water between themselves and the government in London. After Dewar’s death, however, the Scottish party increasingly appeared to be a B-Team under the control of the London party – a “branch office” to use the phrase that the SNP regularly hurls at its opponents north of the border.

Jim Murphy’s rebuke to his predecessors at the head of Scottish Labour – “We’ve not been good enough or been Scottish enough” – is far harder to lay at Welsh Labour’s door, although the devolved administration’s record is less popular than its leadership. But Jones has, in the words of one staffer “wrapped itself in the flag”, which leaves Plaid struggling for a raison d’etre that reaches beyond its Welsh-speaking heartlands.

The problem for the party, Roger Scully, professor of political science at Cardiff University, tells me, that it is seen in a similar light to “Radio Three: people are glad it’s there, they feel well-disposed to it, but they don’t actually want to listen to it themselves”.  

That might be why, when I speak to people in the south of Wales, the number one word that people use is “narrow”. A young man in the Rhondda tells me that “I might be valleys, but I’m not that valleys.” Sara, a middle-aged woman in Grangetown, who has lived there all her life, is nonplussed when I ask why her disillusionment with Labour hasn’t led her to Plaid Cymru. “Well, I don’t speak Welsh!”

Leanne Wood was meant to break the Nationalists out of that narrow field. Not only the first woman to lead a major party in Wales, she was, more importantly for Plaid, the first non-native Welsh speaker and the first person not from their northern heartlands to lead the party. But her progress in breaking Plaid out of its heartlands, like her progress with the language – her official biography still lists her interests as “learning Welsh, and gardening” – has been somewhat limited.

One Welsh Conservative suggests that the party “should have come after us [first], like the SNP did”. There is a danger that, in attempting to outflank Labour on the left at the same time as struggling for third place against Ukip, Plaid Cymru end up twice-ghettoised: once as a party for Welsh speakers alone, and again as a party of the leftwing fringe, where, in any case, they are also at risk from the Greens, who in the long-term will almost certainly have more exposure than Plaid Cymru.

As for Wood herself, she divides opinion; one Labour strategist bluntly describes her as “an asset to us”, but other observers speak of her natural ease, her broad hinterland and sense of fun. My journeys coincide with the first seven-way debate, and her increased profile has certainly boosted her popularity, albeit without any noticeable improvement in Plaid Cymru’s vote share.  Like the party she leads, she is liked, but no-one seems to want to vote for her.

But the biggest problem for Plaid in the areas where it is failing to make the breakthrough only becomes apparent as I head north. Complaints about the amount the Welsh government spends on dual-language signs become laments about the vanishing language as English speakers move north. Fears about the mortgage become concern about being priced out by holiday homes.  And public transport – and with it, links to the English cities of Liverpool and Chester, which ought to be the engines of growth, are brittle and unreliable.

One Labour MP in Scotland mused to me recently that “the SNP’s great strength is their grievance is imaginary – it’s about a better state, a better way of living your life, a better politics...and that is very hard to fight”. Plaid Cymru’s weakness is that their grievances are more concrete: a fading language, communities cut off from the prosperous south of the country or England’s Northern cities. Progress in tackling them, far from strengthening the party, actually weakens it: one Plaid activist describes how, in years gone past, the Welsh language attracted hostility on the doorstep.

“Now people think it’s sweet,” they sigh. And that may be the biggest problem of all for Plaid Cymru.


Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition