The huge challenge facing Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru will gather for its annual conference with support for an independent Wales at just 3 per cent.

Plaid Cymru will gather for its annual conference with support for an independent Wales at just 3 per cent

Plaid Cymru will today gather for its annual conference in the small town of Llangollen in the north east of Wales.

This will be the first conference for the Welsh nationalists following last months’ referendum in Scotland which saw a clear majority opting to remain within the Union.

With all parties in Wales now falling over themselves to call for greater powers to be given to Cardiff Bay, Plaid’s leader Leanne Wood has quite a job on her hands when she addresses delegates later today, namely to give a clear explanation as to why Plaid are relevant.

Unfortunately for Plaid, whilst the SNP have secured outright control on the levers of power at Holyrood and are now predicted by some to be on course for potentially 20 seats in the UK parliament, the SNP’s sister party now finds itself stuck in a rut.

The European Elections in May saw Plaid facing the humiliating spectacle of being relegated to 4th place, behind Labour, UKIP and the Conservatives, narrowly holding on to its one MEP in Brussels. It did so as its share of the vote fell from that which it secured in the 2009 Euro elections by 3.25 per cent.

Writing on his blog, Roger Scully, a professor at Cardiff University, has noted that when looking at the Wales-only polls that have been conducted so far this year, Plaid are averaging 12.1 per cent of the vote in terms of General Election voting intention, equal with UKIP.

Meanwhile the Welsh nationalists continue to make what Scully himself dubs “limited progress” in voting intentions for the Assembly, remaining second behind Labour when it comes to the constituency vote on around 20.2 per cent of the vote, a little above the 19.3 per cent it  secured in the 2011 elections to the Welsh Assembly on this part of the vote.

So why are Plaid not making the kind of gains that they potentially should be given all the talk of extra powers for Cardiff?

Scully observes that one of Plaid’s biggest problems is its continued failure to make the kind of breakthroughs that it needs to in the South if it is to stand a chance of mounting a credible challenge to Labour’s stranglehold over Wales. As he explains:

“A significant problem for Plaid, however, is that these short-term priorities and goals will require channelling resources into parts of Wales that do little to help Plaid address its longer-term stategic objectives. As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere, if Plaid Cymru are ever to crack Labour’s hegemony over Welsh politics then they must break out of their traditional north and west Wales heartland, and be consistently challenging for seats across south Wales.

“Without beginning to make a serious impact on Labour’s stranglehold over the constituency seats in the three south Wales regions, Plaid can never challenge Labour effectively for the status of largest party in the Assembly. Senior figures in the party are fully aware of this. But they are also, surely, aware that investments of resources in south Wales will have uncertain short-term payoffs, and risk denuding Plaid’s efforts in more immediately promising territory. There is no obvious answer to this dilemma.”

He continues:

“As I mentioned this time last year, one of Leanne Wood’s favourite Welsh words seems to be ‘Ymlaen’. Over the last twelve months, her party has indeed moved forwards. But a UK general election, in which a Wales-only party will inevitably be marginalised by the UK news-media, presents risks as well as opportunities. And achieving the desired result in 2016 will, for Plaid, require moving forward much further than it has managed thus far.”

Noting meanwhile that Plaid members will meet this weekend in “buoyant mood” as they seek to capitalise on the Scottish referendum, the BBC’s political editor in Wales, Nick Servini, has never the less picked up on the challenges facing the party, explaining:

“But there are difficulties, including how the party differentiates itself when so many of the other parties are supporting the roll out of further devolution. Senior figures insist this territory belongs to them so we can expect plenty of speeches taking ownership of constitutional change.

“Leanne Wood’s in the middle of an electoral cycle that will define her time as leader of the party.

“One of the challenges she faces is to set out how extra powers are not just needed for their own sake but because they will make a difference to people’s lives.”

And for all the speeches made at the conference, Plaid will be acutely aware that they will be made against a backdrop of support for their cherished ideal, namely an independent Wales is, at 3 per cent, at its lowest level ever.

Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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