21st April 2017
Alexander Phillips from the Public Affairs team considers the implications of a Parliamentary bid from the Plaid Cymru leader
Over the past few days Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood AM has made it known that she is ‘seriously considering’ launching a campaign to represent Rhondda in Parliament. This is the kind of high risk strategy we’ve come to expect from her, following her previous decision to challenge Welsh Labour for the same seat at last year’s Assembly election. A challenge which delivered her a remarkable victory, overturning a Labour majority of 6,739 to make Plaid’s only electoral gain of note since she became leader in 2012.
If she had lost it would have likely cost her the position of party leader. But she took the risk and reaped the reward. This makes the potential of doing it again is very appealing. However, this time the stakes are even higher and a repeat victory, as we will discuss, will put in motion a series of events which could result in Plaid Cymru losing further influence in Cardiff Bay and handing a majority to Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Government.
The first question we have to consider is what are the advantages of running? The obvious answer is increased coverage of the wider Plaid Cymru campaign and the potential of putting their most recognisable figure into Parliament; thereby increasing their representation in Westminster. It will also show that her Assembly result wasn’t a fluke, and that Plaid have the potential to beat Labour in the same way the SNP can in Scotland.
Looking deeper there are other factors. As previously mentioned, Leanne’s Rhondda win has been the only significant progress made under her leadership. To date they have the same number of MPs, AMs, and MEPs as they did the day she was elected, and their overall vote share has shown little change. Since the Assembly election last May they have been repeatedly out manoeuvred by rival parties in Cardiff Bay, and their Group has at times appeared divided. In short they need a win. They need to show progress. And taking advantage of Labour’s current problems is a great way to do it.
But does it need to be Leanne and does it need to be the Rhondda? In that constituency it almost certainly does need to be Leanne. The general lack of progress elsewhere over the past five years suggests that Leanne’s support in the Rhondda is far more personal than it is for the wider party. As such it’s difficult to see anyone else having the name recognition to pull it off – more on this later. But it’s also true to say there are potentially easier gains out there that for other Plaid candidates.
The easiest of all is Ynys Mon [Anglesey] which Labour retained from Plaid in 2015 by just over 200 votes. With the current levels of Labour support the seat should be easy pickings for almost any competent candidate. There are also constituencies such as Ceredigion, with a much smaller majority than Rhondda, which they have challenged for in the past. The difference in Ceredigion, of course, is that it’s Lib Dem facing. It isn’t unreasonable to consider the relative campaigning costs versus rewards of overturning a 7,455 majority in the Rhondda (nearly a thousand more than the one she overturned last year) compared to overturning a combined majority of just 3,296 across Ynys Mon and Ceredigion. These are the kind of issues Leanne and her team will be considering over the weekend.
If she stands can she win? Absolutely. Her personal vote combined with Labour’s unpopularity under Jeremy Corbyn makes it an attractive proposition. Were she to stand and fail it would not necessarily mean the end of her leadership this time round, especially if obvious gains are still made elsewhere. Nonetheless it’s actually the fallout of a Leanne victory in the Rhondda which presents the greatest challenge of all.
In the first instance this is due to party rules requiring the Leader to come from the Assembly. Such rules can, of course, be changed; but there are plenty of Plaid AMs waiting in the wings to take over who could resist such a change. The biggest challenge of all is that the Assembly has been clear that any AM who wins a Parliamentary seat will cease to be an Assembly Member. This is down to recent constitutional changes which prevent ‘doubling jobbing’ across the two chambers.
This raises the requirement to hold a by-election in the Rhondda Assembly constituency (which has identical boundaries to the Parliamentary seat). As this blog has already highlighted it would be very difficult for Plaid to repeat their 2016 success with a new candidate. Nor is it likely that Rhondda residents will appreciate having to turn out for yet another election! Were this to happen Labour would have a good chance of regaining the seat as the campaign will be fought under the Welsh Labour banner of Carwyn Jones, rather than the UK one of Jeremy Corbyn (who may well not even still be leader at the time).
Regaining the Rhondda would be critical to Welsh Labour has it would give them 30 seats in the Assembly. When this is combined with the confirmed support of Kirsty Williams AM and Plaid defector Lord Elis-Thomas AM, Labour’s Welsh Government would be handed a comfortable majority until the next Assembly election in 2021. This means Plaid Cymru would lose all meaningful influence over the Government which has the greatest impact over the lives of the people of Wales.
Leanne Wood and Plaid Cymru are doubtlessly seriously considering whether one more MP and a personal victory is enough reward for this level of risk and whether they need to roll the dice. She has a few weeks to decide, but a decision may well come much quicker than that.
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