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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.