I predicted that Plaid would come third in the by-election with 12% of the vote; in the event, Plaid were edged into fourth place by the Lib Dems, polling 9.5%. What does history tell us about this result?
Since the seat’s formation in 1983, Plaid have mainly spent their time writing cheques for £500 (ok, £150 in 1983 for the pedants amongst you!). The Labour landslide of 1997 was the first election in which Plaid registered more than 1.6% of the vote. And since the start of this century, Plaid have hovered around 5% of the vote, sometimes keeping and sometimes losing their deposit. So the 9.5% vote gained in November 2012 must rank as a huge success, right?
I’m not so sure.
In terms of share of the vote, it’s a big improvement on their best-ever performances in 2001 and 2005 (both 5.5%). But let’s bear in mind the special circumstances of this election. Firstly it was held in the absence of a strong UK focus, which meant it was a more ‘Welsh’ vote than in UK general elections. That in itself would indicate that we would expect Plaid’s share of the vote to be closer to its Assembly results than Westminster. And if we look at the Assembly elections, Plaid has never registered less than 12.1% of the vote in this constituency. Secondly, Plaid was able to expend more effort (both in terms of election pamphlets and door-knocking effort) than we would ever reasonably expect during a general election. And thirdly, it was held in the context of a deeply unpopular Conservative-Lib Dem UK government and a Labour Party led by someone that is widely regarded as an electoral liability.
The fact that Plaid were unable to pip the Lib Dems to third place would I’m sure have been a disappointment to them. But perhaps most troubling for the Plaid leadership is the total number of votes cast: 1,854. One of Plaid’s advantages over most of the other parties is the fidelity of its core supporters. But looking at the election result in 2011 (1,851 votes), all of Plaid’s huffing and puffing in the run-up to the by-election persuaded a grand total of three more people to vote for them than had the previous year.
Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise to you to learn that this seat is number 22 (out of 35) on Plaid’s hit-list. Pretty low down by all accounts. But not low down enough. I’m going to be examining the seats that all parties must win in order to have an outright majority in Cardiff Bay in due course. But the bad news for Plaid is that Penarth and Cardiff South is one of them. And on the evidence from the by-election, we’ll be waiting a long, long time for a Plaid majority at the National Assembly for Wales.