What went wrong for Plaid Cymru?

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by George Kerevan

THE leader of Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has been forced to quit following the party’s poor election results on 5 May.  Plaid, which had been governing in coalition with Labour, won just 11 seats – the fewest since the assembly was established in 1999. Plaid’s defeat is in sharp contrast to the fantastic gains made by the SNP in Scotland.

Initially, Jones had indicated he intended to stay on as group leader. But on Friday he was forced out after half the Plaid assembly members said they wanted him to go immediately. The split provoked angry recriminations in the party. One Plaid Westminster MP said he was disgusted the party’s Assembly Members (AMs) had failed to consult the wider membership.

Ieuan Jones, 53, had been determined to stay on, even though he admitted the election result was “deeply disappointing. Labour won 30 seats, up four on 2007. The Conservatives won two more to give them 14. The Lib Dems lost one, going down to five. Plaid was the biggest loser in the contest, dropping four seats.

Plaid’s deputy leader Helen Mary Jones lost her Llanelli seat, and the party’s policy director, Nerys Evans, failed to win in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

Plaid won 19.3 per cent of the constituency vote, down on the 22.4 per cent it attained in 2007. This compares with Labour’s 42.3 per cent and 25 per cent for the Conservatives. Being beaten into third place fatally undermined Mr Jones’ position.

The leader of Plaid Cymru’s group at Westminster, Elfyn Llwyd, attacked his party’s AMs for their role in ditching Ieuan Jones. He said the the leadership issue was “just one of 25 issues to be discussed after the election” and it was wrong to single out Jones “for the blame.”
What went wrong for Plaid?

The first problem is that, while in coalition, the party appeared to renege on a number of its key policy commitments, leading to accusations that it had betrayed its principles for office. In particular, Plaid fought the previous 2007 assembly elections promising not to support university top-up fees.  However, in government Plaid AMs reversed this position.

At a party national council in early 2009, rank and file members passed a motion reaffirming opposition to student fees and instructing all their AMs to vote according to party policy. But Ieuan Wyn Jones issued a statement saying he would not be able to persuade the Welsh cabinet to back such a policy. Only two Plaid AMs supported party policy: Leanne Wood and Bethan Jenkins.

As a result, Ieuan Jones and the Paid Assembly group came under withering criticism, not least from public opinion. The Western Mail opined:

“If Ieuan Wyn Jones believes that economic circumstances have forced a change in position, he should have taken the case to his membership and spelled out the figures. Without such detail, some will inevitably take the view that he and his colleagues have been hoodwinked by Labour.”

Plaid’s second problem was a series of splits in the leadership that diverted energies from campaigning. In 2001, Ieuan Jones was elected President of Plaid Cymru with 77 per cent of the vote. But more traditional members of the party opposed what they considered to be his gradulist and centrist policies.Such criticism influenced the formation of Welsh language pressure group Cymuned, and the fundamentalist Independent Wales Party.

When Plaid lost ground in the 2003 elections, Jones was pressured to resign as both as party president and leader of Plaid’s assembly group.  But within three months regained the position of assembly leader, after winning backing from grassroots members.

At the 2007 elections, Plaid gained three seats and Jones tried to forge a coalition a “Rainbow Coalition” with both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. When the Liberal Democrat leadership backed-out of talks, Jones did a deal with Labour instead.  He became Deputy First Minister under Labour’s robust Rhodri Morgan. But Plaid entered government for the first time in 80 years as a party.

The main result of Plaid’s period in office was the constitutional referendum in March which gave public approval for new, legistative powers for the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. When the last result was declared, all 22 counties except one – Monmouthshire – backed the change. The final result saw 517,132 vote Yes, and 297,380 vote No – a two to one winning margin.

However, the coalition with Labour did not please everyone. Last year, the party’s national chairman, John Dixon, resigned after eight years in the post, claiming the party was moving to the right.  

Plaid’s third problem arose with its election strategy. Rather than run on its record, as did the SNP, the party opted to spend the election attacking its former coalition partner. Jones’ intention was probably to put a political distance between Plaid and Labour. However, this plan seems to have backfired, with voters rewarding Labour for the good things delivered by the coalition, and punishing Plaid for its negativity.

The respected former leader of Plaid, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, criticised the negative campaign as “mindless”.

“What’s the point of attacking Labour if you’re looking for Labour votes?” he said. “It’s what I don’t understand.

“What Labour did very successfully in this election was fight the election on Plaid ground. They said ‘we will stand up for Wales’. And what did Plaid do? They started attacking them.”

Plaid hopes to appoint a new Assembly leader by September. Among the names in the frame is Pauline Jarman, the leader of Rhondda Cynon Taff Council. Other possible candidates are AMs Helen Mary Jones and Rhodri Glyn Thomas, and MEP Jill Evans.