With elections to the Welsh Assembly no more than three months away, the rhetorical war is hotting up. According to yesterday’s Western Mail, the Conservatives are now demanding that Plaid Cymru come off the fence about how they would vote in a new Assembly, in which – potentially – they could hold the balance of power. Plaid’s rhetoric has been deeply critical of Labour, much more so than of the Westminster Tories, while seeking to position themselves as the true voice of progressive Wales. But the Welsh Tories are right to ask the question – how would they position themselves in the Senedd in the real world after an inconclusive election?
Plaid’s reply is that they are campaigning to form an administration. But that is vanishingly unlikely. Despite the largely favourable coverage that Plaid leader Leanne Wood received as a result of her appearances in the televised General Election debates, Plaid were the real losers in the 2015 General Election, finishing a distant fourth in terms of vote share behind Labour, the strongly-performing Tories and a resurgent UKIP, who made signficant inroads in terms of percentage of the vote in Labour’s heartlands in the Valleys. Between the Assembly elections in 2011 and the General Election in 2015, Plaid lost a third of its share of the vote – from 18% to 12%, barely half their vote share in the 2007 Assembly elections. Plaid like to channel the electoral success of Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP but in truth there is no Plaid surge in Wales and every reason to believe that in traditional working-class Wales it is UKIP, rather than Plaid, that will pick up votes from those who are disillusioned with Westminster politics.
Plaid’s problem is worsened by the distribution of seats in the Welsh Assembly. Of the 60 seats in the Assembly, Labour hold 30 – 28 constituencies and two list members. In 2016 it seems almost certain, based on the General Election votes, that UKIP will elect its first AMs – but these are likely to be list AMs, taking seats away from the Tories, Plaid and Lib Dems (who narrowly held four list seats in 2011 and look set to lose them all in 2016). It’s much less likely that UKIP will win constituencies. It’s possible that Labour could lose a small number of constituency seats but, even assuming Plaid hold all five of theirs, the biggest change in the composition of the Assembly is likely to be among the List members – with UKIP gains coming at the expense of Tories, Plaid and (especially) the Liberal Democrats.
So, to return to the Welsh Tories’ questioning of Plaid, where does this leave them in a situation where Labour remains the largest party – on any analysis the most likely outcome? Increasingly, Plaid leaders are making aggressive statements about not supporting Labour in office, but in the reality of day-to-day voting, are they really going to make common cause with Tories and UKIP, while reasserting their claim to be the truly progressive voice of Wales?
At one level, that’s a question that goes to the heart of what Plaid is for. Originally a largely rural and regional Party, drawn together by the Welsh language, Plaid has sought to reinvent itself as a modern, progressive party that can appeal to an urban Wales that is grappling to overcome serious long-term economic problems. Ironically, Plaid leader Leanne Wood is the only Welsh party leader who is not fluent in the Welsh language; her Rhondda background and avowedly radical politics are at odds with the traditional, socially-conservative and rural politics that Plaid has traditionally seemed to express.
But the question that Plaid have to answer – and hitherto have sought to avoid – is that, if Wood and other Plaid leaders are honest in saying that they will not back a Labour administration, are they prepared to form common cause in the Assembly with the Tories and UKIP against a progressive, left-of-centre Welsh Labour that has delivered every manifesto promise it made in 2011? Are they really going to vote alongside Tories and UKIP against the party of free prescriptions and EMA? That is spending more per head on health and social care than in England despite Westminster-imposed cuts, and with shorter waiting times for cancer care? The party that protected Sure Start, introduced Flying Start, and one that has kept the Welsh NHS entirely in the public sector without privatisation, PFI or an internal market? The party of free school breakfasts? The party that has effectively ensured there will be no fracking in Wales?
In Scotland, the SNP government talks the talk of opposing austerity while refusing to use its tax-raising powers to mitigate Whitehall cuts. Plaid needs to be honest about whether it is a serious progressive party, or whether, like the SNP, it is playing at it. And my guess is that it doesn’t really know the answer.