31 Mar 2015

Plaid Cymru: can they emulate the SNP? – key questions

The national party for Wales has so far failed to spark a “Plaid surge” to mimic its nationalist counterparts, the Scottish National Party – so is Election 2015 the moment Plaid Cymru comes of age?

Plaid Cymru, the “Party for Wales”, has been on the political scene for 90 years but is struggling to match the pace of the Scottish National Party in generating true UK clout.

Plaid wants to play kingmaker if the UK general election results in a hung parliament, saying it would support a minority Labour government on a case-by-case basis – but can it really hope to match the roaring success of the SNP?

Is Wales the new Scotland?

When it comes to nationalist party success, maybe not.

The SNP has become the powerhouse in Scottish politics, threatening to wipe out Labour north of the border as it capitalises on the huge swell of support it generated for the independence referendum in late 2014, garnering 45 per cent of the vote in the process.

In recent years Plaid Cymru has stalled by comparison, with its Welsh support staying steady at around 11 per cent since the start of 2015.

“If you’re comparing them to the SNP it’s quite a way off,” Keiran Pedley, polling analyst and associate director at market research company GfK, told Channel 4 News.

“The SNP have a habit of being in power in a way that Plaid have not been in Wales,” he said

How far can Plaid go at election 2015?

Plaid had three MPs in Westminster at the time parliament was dissolved, but may struggle to grow that total come 7 May.

Dr Craig McAngus, research fellow at the University of Stirling and a member of the Centre on Constitutional Change, told Channel 4 News the party has three target seats: Anglesey, Ceredigion and Llanelli.

“A good performance would be winning one of those, and a very good night would be getting a total of five,” he said.

The SNP had six MPs at dissolution – but one poll at the turn of 2015 predicted the party could almost wipe out Labour on 7 May to walk off with a total of 55 seats in Scotland, riding the wave of the popularity that built up after the referendum despite a “no” vote.

Plaid Cymru “are obviously going to overstate their chances in the general election, but I can’t see that influence being huge,” Dr McAngus reckons.

The SNP had Alex Salmond – who do Plaid have?

Plaid did better than SNP in the 1999 devolved elections, “but the story of Plaid from that point is that their leader Dafydd Wigley stepped down”, reckons Dr McAngus.

“Ieuan Wyn Jones became leader but he wasn’t lighting the world on fire, he wasn’t well known among the electorate.”

By contrast, Alex Salmond became “a very strong figure in Scottish politics”.

Mr Pedley said Plaid’s current leader Leanne Wood “is quite popular among Plaid supporters, but doesn’t have that presence – one in three in Wales doesn’t know who she is,” he added.

Another significant difference from the SNP, whose new leader Nicola Sturgeon is well-known and enjoying voter popularity in Scotland.

What are the chances of a Plaid breakthrough?

“They’re mainly looking towards the debates this week,” Mr Pedley said, as all seven main parties prepare for a head-to-head on live television.

“It’s very unlikely you’re going to see a surge unless there’s some sort of breakthrough there.”

But Dr McAngus was less optimistic, saying Plaid were more likely to “chip away at Lib Dem areas” and perhaps some Labour seats in future.

“I’d be completely astounded if there was some Plaid breakthrough in the next couple of years,” he added.

Compared to the SNP “they’re in different places as parties”, he said.

Is Plaid limited by its history?

The SNP has managed to translate nationalistic sentiment into electoral success much better than Plaid Cymru – and ironically, part of the reason could lie in Plaid’s strong support of a native Welsh culture.

“Historically, Plaid is very strongly associated with promotion and defence of language, but the SNP has been very reticent over promoting a certain type of Scottishness,” Mr McAngus said.

“For a lot of people who don’t speak Welsh, Plaid is seen as a party that cares only about Welsh speakers,” he added.

This feeds into a “tension over strategy” within the party itself, Dr McAngus said. Plaid “can’t abandon” this historic support “but it needs to balance that off”, he added.

Is Labour Plaid’s only route to power in 2015?

Plaid Cymru’s leader has said she would support a minority Labour government on a case-by-case basis, and may end up in a multi-party arrangement with the SNP and Green party of England and Wales after announcing an alliance.

But the challenger parties are not in quite the same pecking order as in the rest of the UK.

“Labour haven’t really had the problems in Wales that they had in Scotland,” Mr Pedley said. “Ukip are taking some of the anti-politics support that Plaid would like to tap into, and the Labour vote is pretty solid in Wales.”

Is Plaid more concerned about the devolved elections in 2016?

Given the limited prospects for success in election 2016, maybe.

Plaid Cymru currently has 11 Assembly Members out of a possible 60 in the Welsh Assembly, forming a mixed opposition to the ruling Labour administration.

In the devolved elections, “Plaid do want to become the government of the largest party in Wales but I think that’s quite unlikely,” Mr McAngus said.

Plaid could probably share power “as coalition partner with the Labour party,” he said. “It would be inconceivable they could work with the Conservatives or Ukip.”