Rhun ap Iorwerth was appointed as Plaid Cymru’s new leader mid-June 2023. He replaced Adam Price, who stood down in response to a damaging report which found evidence of a culture of sexual harassment, bullying and misogyny in the party.
An immediate priority for ap Iorwerth is to implement the report’s 82 recommendations. These include introducing new policies on sexual harassment, improving how the party manages staff welfare and complaints, and reviewing its governance structures. This is a major undertaking for any political party, but particularly for an organisation which is not large, or especially well-resourced.
Plaid Cymru will have to implement these changes while preparing for the UK general election next year and the Senedd election in 2026. But doing well in those elections requires more than just organisational reform and preparedness.
The party must also consider its electoral strategy – it has failed to make any significant electoral advance in recent years. This is a trend confirmed by its performance in the 2019 general election and the 2021 Senedd election.
And there are no signs of electoral resurgence anytime soon. Opinion polls suggest the party will make minimal gains in the next general election. Improving on that in the Senedd election two years later will be difficult.
In the 2021 Senedd election, Plaid Cymru put its call for Welsh independence front and centre of its campaign and promised to hold a referendum within five years if it became the party of government.
In this respect, it adopted the same strategy as many other pro-independence parties and movements across Europe. Our research analysed the kinds of constitutional claims made by such organisations in documents such as manifestos, policy papers and press releases. We found that calls for independence had increased over the last decade, with a greater emphasis on making the positive case for creating a new state.
But such a strategy misjudged the priorities of Welsh voters at the time, which was recovery from the COVID pandemic, rather than major constitutional change. COVID-related challenges are less likely to be so dominant next time round. Welsh independence is still only supported by a minority of voters. Constitutional reform remains very low on the list of issues that are important to people.
The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) failed efforts to secure the legal right to hold another independence referendum have also shown that there is no easy way forward for those who want to leave the UK. With the SNP struggling to set out a credible strategy for how to achieve independence, there’s little prospect that Plaid Cymru will find many new votes by making this its central electoral offering.
Many of those who do support Welsh independence, are also Labour voters. And there is no sign that they are willing to ditch their allegiance and switch to supporting Plaid Cymru instead.
On the contrary, opinion polls suggest Welsh Labour is likely to increase its share of the vote in the 2024 general election and remain the largest party in the Senedd when it is re-elected. This is in spite of the difficulties that the Welsh Labour-led Welsh government is facing in the areas it is responsible for, such as the NHS.
There is much that can (and will likely) change between now, next year and 2026. Plaid Cymru – like other pro-independence parties, including the SNP – has always had to strike a balance between advancing its long-term constitutional goal and focusing on more pressing challenges.
And voters may yet lose faith in Welsh Labour and its track record in government. It’s also expected that Welsh Labour will contest the next election under a new leader. First minister Mark Drakeford has already confirmed his intention to stand down. Plus the elections will take place for a much larger Senedd (which will see the number of members rise from 60 to 96), and under a new electoral system.
Changing how the Senedd is elected was one of the commitments in the co-operation agreement signed between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru in 2021. The parties agreed to work together on a range of policy areas, without Plaid having to formally enter government as part of a coalition.
Plaid Cymru will hope that other policy changes achieved as a result of that agreement will show voters it can be trusted to govern for Wales and deliver radical change. These have included extending free school meals to children in primary schools and new measures to tackle the often negative impact of second homes on communities, especially in coastal and rural areas.
In the changed Welsh political context of 2026, there could be opportunities for Plaid Cymru to reposition itself as the party of Wales. It has major organisational and strategic challenges to address before it can do so, and it has to move quickly to tackle them.
But even if it resolves those, it’s not clear that Welsh voters will be persuaded that it is time to end the electoral hegemony of Welsh Labour, who have been in power since 1999. In having to compete against such an opponent, Rhun ap Iorwerth’s Plaid Cymru faces an electoral challenge that is unique among Europe’s pro-independence parties.