After winning the Rhondda mere months ago, Leanne Wood declared that “a new dawn is about to break in Wales”. Yet, Plaid Cymru made no other gains that night. For years, Plaid Cymru have been confident of a breakthrough, yet none has come. What are they doing wrong, how can they become a real challenger to Labour?
Plaid Cymru’s traditional heartlands have been through rural, west Wales; the traditional Welsh speaking strongholds. For the party to grow, and be a real challenge to Labour, Plaid Cymru needs to take seats in the valleys, the former industrial areas of the South East of Wales. Plaid Cymru cannot grow, or survive, by being contained to its rural heartlands.
After Wales narrowly voted for a Welsh Assembly in 1997, the buoyed Plaid Cymru did exceptionally well in the first assembly election. In the areas that voted Yes to the Assembly, Plaid managed to win an unprecedented number of seats. They won 17 seats (out of 60), with 30% of the vote. Many of these seats were won in the valleys. We’ve never seen this many Plaid Cymru Assembly Members since. The following election saw Plaid’s vote share drop by 10%, they lost 5 seats. Plaid Cymru joined Labour to form the One Wales government, while successful; Plaid weren’t able to take credit for many critical policies. The 2011 election was also a disappointing result. They lost the position of Official Opposition, even after the decisive referendum in favour of granting further powers to the assembly. This posed a significant threat to the “Party of Wales”.
So where are Plaid now? The 2016 election can be spun both positively and negatively for Plaid. On one hand, they failed to capitalise on Labour’s unpopularity and sliding vote share; but, on the other hand, they were the only party (bar UKIP) to increase their vote share and took a seat in the valleys, something that they absolutely must replicate across the valleys to become the largest party in Wales.
There was a swing to Plaid Cymru in the valleys. Blaenau Gwent saw a 27.73% swing from Labour to Plaid, the Rhondda saw a 24.19% swing Labour to Plaid and Cardiff West saw an 11.71% swing. These are all impressive results, but Plaid Cymru were unable to capitalise in many close seats, such as Llanelli and Blaenau Gwent. Plaid lack the final push in the valleys to really challenge Labour nationally.
What can Plaid do to break the red block in the South of Wales?
They need to continue to be the hopeful, positive voice for change that they have been for years. They need to show that they are the only credible party in Wales willing to take the fight to the Tories and challenge austerity. Plaid need to be a strong voice against listings of foreign workers, tuition fees, PIP (Disability Payments) cuts and many more backward Conservative policies that would damage Wales. Plaid need to be the alternative to austerity-lite Blairism and the infighting that is Corbyn’s Labour Party; as much as Carwyn Jones attempts to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn, Welsh Labour will always be connected, in the mind of voters, to Corbyn’s leadership. It is arguable that this was the largest reason behind Welsh Labour’s vote share dropping by 7% for the Assembly Elections.
I believe that Plaid must continue with the leadership of Leanne Wood. She was born and raised in the valleys, she represents the voters Plaid needs to gain, non Welsh speaking, diverse and passionate for progress. Plaid has made great progress under her leadership; I believe that they would fall backwards without her.
Then, there is the elephant in the room, Brexit. How should Plaid Cymru handle Brexit? The valleys emphatically voted to Leave; yet, many Welsh speaking, Plaid voting, areas voted to Remain, notably Ceredigion and Gwynedd. Leanne Wood walks on a tightrope, on one side there are the Pro-EU strongholds; the other, those who have been left behind by globalisation, who’ve been betrayed by successive governments and have seen their communities torn apart by austerity; all of which has accumulated into a protest vote, a vote for change.
Plaid Cymru need to acknowledge the factors behind the Brexit vote, and act on them. But, they also must defend the valleys, the farmers, the businesses, by campaigning for Wales to remain a member of the single market and for Wales to have a seat at the Brexit negotiating table. Plaid have already made headway with this, they proposed a motion in the Assembly for Wales to continue its membership of the Single Market; without Liberal Democrat or Labour support, the motion failed.
The question we must ask is this: Is Plaid Cymru more than a protest party that can never lead a government? Plaid Cymru is standing at a crossroads, where all choices have consequences. But, they also have a historic opportunity; Labour is in the midst of its largest crisis since the 1980’s, the Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen and Theresa May’s right wing agenda is alienating many Welsh voters.
Plaid Cymru must stay true to their principles. They must be the credible, hopeful, progressive, anti-austerity party that they’ve always been. Then, we may see “a new dawn” break across Wales.