There’s been a lot of talk over the last few weeks about the Plaid Cymru leadership election.
Plaid Cymru has three very able candidates. As a party member and a County Councillor for Plaid Cymru I would be extremely happy to support and work with either of these individuals.
But the election is more than simply choosing an individual – its an opportunity to discuss ideas, policies, and the party’s direction.
Fake News, as coined by the Trump, is a bit of a phenomenon at the moment.
But it’s not a modern phenomenon – you only need to look at the Daily Mail over the last few decades to see what fake news is. Propaganda, spin, and other techniques employed in order to manipulate the political order through the mass media have been in use for many centuries. Look at the Roman Empire and how the idea of Pax Romana still holds sway today, two thousand years later! It’s doubtful whether the people of Asturias thought that the Romans sword was very peaceful!
The EU referendum result is an example of how an election result can be skewed by a crude but effective fake news campaign.
It’s therefore important that we in Plaid Cymru don’t fall into the same trap, and let ourselves be influenced by untruths.
One narrative that’s been doing the rounds for several months – in fact it’s been in circulation since some time before any candidates had formally put their names forward for the leadership election – is the narrative of Electoral Failure.
This has vexed me since I first came across it, because while it’s clearly an attempt to discredit and damage the current leader, the truth is that it serves to do far more damage to the party as a whole. It’s also a stinging criticism of a great many of us ordinary members who have knocked the doors and walked the streets campaigning in recent years.
It also shows our weakness as people. For whatever reason we always seem to be looking for a scapegoat; putting the blame on an individual in the hope that this will turn our fortunes around, without first looking at some of the fundamental problems, and, sometimes, looking in the mirror.
But this electoral narrative failure is a false one, which must be dismissed. This isn’t a comment on any one of the candidates, but merely an attempt to correct a false impression that’s been created.
There are several electoral measuring sticks – Assembly, Westminster, Councils and others.
On each one of these the accusation of having failed electorally is wrong.
National Assembly Elections
In the 2011 National Assembly Elections Plaid Cymru received 182,907 votes and 169,799 list votes.
In 2016 Plaid Cymru received 209,376 votes and 211,548 list votes. The increase in the list vote is notable because it shows an understanding of the electoral system. It’s of course important to increase the number of votes in each constituency, but while a significant increase in the majorities of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionnydd would be most welcome, it would make no difference to how many Assembly Members we have. Increasing the list vote would significantly increase our chances of getting more AMs and is therefore a huge achievement.
As well as this, those of you who’ve studied the SNP’s recent history will know that they managed to get into government in 2007 by ensuring a huge increase in their list vote. Of course we need to increase the number of constituency AMs, but it’s difficult to get into Government by solely concentrating on the constituencies. We also need a plan to ensure that we maximise the list vote as well. This is what Plaid Cymru started to achieve in 2016.
It’s also worth pointing out that critics are happy to point to some of the electoral success that were very marginal (Ceredigion and Arfon in 2017 for instance), saying that this is even more proof of electoral failure. But they never point out how close Plaid Cymru came to capturing other seats. Plaid Cymru were within a hair’s breadth of capturing a handful of other constituencies in 2016. Another 2500 votes would have increased Plaid’s tally by 4 AMs.
With the exception of UKIP (and they were exceptional circumstances) Plaid Cymru was the only party to succeed in increasing its vote across Wales, in both constituency and regions, in 2016, increasing by 1.3% and 3% respectively.
As a result Plaid Cymru increased its number of AMs from 2011 to 2016.
It’s worth looking at the history of Westminster Elections and Plaid Cymru.
Plaid Cymru fielded a full slate of candidates for the first time in its history in 1970.
Since then history shows us that the Plaid vote falls everytime the Conservatives are in Government and increases whenever Labour are in Government. This tells us three things:
- That our vote is very soft to Labour and vice versa.
- Labour are by far our most likely source of votes.
- Labour’s campaign slogans that a vote for Plaid is a vote for the Tories is just a downright lie.
But this is by-the-bye.
The fact remains that if the Tories are in Government our vote falls, and if Labour are in Government the Plaid vote increases.
Plaid’s largest ever vote in a Westminster election was in 2001, when Wales was still basking in the glow of Cool Cymru, an increased awareness of Wales and Welshness, and Labour were in Government. We reached a high water mark of 195,000 votes.
In 1970, with Labur once again in Government Plaid Cymru received 175,000 votes. And in 2005, with Labour in Government, we received 174,000 votes.
But, in 2015, Plaid Cymru achieved its second highest ever vote at a Westminster election, receiving 181,000 votes. This was with the Conservatives in Government.
2017 was clearly more difficult, because of Brexit and the unique circumstances of those elections. But even though Plaid Cymru received more votes in 2017 that it received in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997. And less than 1000 votes shy of the total received in 2010 during the dark days of Labour’s Gordon Brown. In fact, the lowest vote tally ever was during Dafydd Elis-Thomas presidency in 1987 with 123k votes.
Plaid Cymru has more County Councillors elected today than at any time in its history. It also has outright control or leads on more Councils than ever before – with four councils under Plaid Cymru control.
Carmarthenshire County Council is an excellent example of the recent growth seen by Plaid Cymru. In 2008 Plaid Cymru had 17 Councillors on CCC. In 2012 that number increased to 27. And today we have 37 Councillors on CCC.
On top of all of this Plaid Cymru won two of the four Police and Crime Commissioners in 2016.
Backing a winning horse
Is all of the above a record of failure? Is the party stagnant?
Not at all. All of the evidence suggests otherwise.
To say that Plaid Cymru has failed electorally in recent years is therefore wrong, but more importantly it’s damaging.
Every psychological study into voting and voters tells us that people like to back a winning horse. This is why the Liberal Democrats literally put a picture of a winning horse on their leaflets, then a bar chart informing you that a political rival ‘can’t win here’.
Electors are reluctant to lend their vote to a candidate who’s likely to lose, because they feel that it’s a wasted vote. This is perfectly understandable, especially in a First Past The Post electoral system. Very few people are actually tribal and stick to the same party, and most are willing to consider changing their vote depending on the circumstances.
Why therefore push a false narrative that Plaid is failing electorally which damages our chances of increasing our vote in the future?
I’m not saying this as a Leanne Wood supporter. This will damage the chances of the party regardless of who the leader is.
It also knocks the morale of our grass roots activists who do their best to promote Plaid Cymru and the cause.
Let’s talk about policy and direction by all means. But we must discount this false narrative that Plaid Cymru has failed electorally over the last few years. We have not failed. In fact we’re in a stronger position today than we’ve been at any point in the last ten years and more.
We have strong foundations to build on. Let’s not dig up the foundations and start all over again.