Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Will Plaid Cymru have any influence in a Hung Parliament? (Updated)

In a letter in yesterday's Daily Post, Plaid Cymru's PPC for Ynys Môn, Dylan Rees, rehearses Plaid's most critical message to the Welsh voters for the forthcoming election: that even though there is no chance of Plaid Cymru actually winning the general election, a vote for Plaid Cymru in the Westminster election - as opposed to the Assembly elections - will not be a wasted vote. This is how Dylan Rees makes the argument:

[T]his general election is very likely to produce a hung parliament. In that event Plaid Cymru will have an even more influential role to play as it seeks to win a fairer deal for the people of Wales.

Taken at face value this does indeed sound plausible. If either of the two large parties fail to win a majority in the election they will seek to form a coalition government with some of the smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru. These smaller parties will then give their support subject to the eventual coalition government agreeing to the smaller parties terms - in Plaid Cymru's case this is likely to include:

  • an overhaul of the Barnett Formula to give Wales a more equitable settlement
  • the raising of pensions by 30% for Welsh OAPs over the age of 80

As I said: it sounds plausible - but is it likely? Lets take a look at the numbers...

Electoral Calculus

Following the boundary changes the House of Commons will, after this general election, increase from 646 to 650 seats. Accordingly for any party to obtain an absolute majority they would need to win 326 seats. Using the electoralcalculus.co.uk's mathematical analysis of recent polls, this is the result which they predict:

click to enlarge

So, based on the polls for the month ending March 4th, they predict that the Conservatives will win 315 seats - just 11 short of a majority. How many seats are Plaid Cymru likely to win? Well, for the sake of consistency lets use the same electoralcalculus.co.uk's calculations which predict that Plaid Cymru will hold Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Dwyfor Meirionydd and gain Arfon (part of the existing Caernarfon constituency currently held by Plaid's Hywel Williams), Ceredigion and Ynys Môn. This will give Plaid Cymru 5 seats in Westminster. So its clear that under these current predictions Plaid Cymru's support alone will not provide enough seats for the Conservatives to reach a majority. Therefore both the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru would also need the support of another party - for example the SNP.

There has been much talk of a 'power pact' between the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the event of a hung parliament. Politicalcalculus predicts that SNP will will have 7 MPs after the election, giving SNP and Plaid Cymru together a total of 12 seats which would give a potential Conservative-Plaid Cymru-SNP coalition government a one seat majority. But the reality is that such a coalition would not work because:

  • The SNP's obvious demand for the complete independence of Scotland would be a price too high to pay for the Conservatives, who would simply prefer to go for a second general election
  • According to Gerry Holtham, whereas the Barnett Formula under-funds Wales by about £300 million a year it over-funds Scotland by a whopping £4.2 billion a year. Any adjustment to give Wales a more equitable settlement would necessarily mean Scotland receiving less - and the SNP will never agree to that. Even Dafydd Wigley has acknowledged this stating in effect that they’d be working at cross purposes and should hold separate negotiations with the Tories
  • Even with the probable support of the UUP and other Unionist Parties, the slim majority of a Conservatives-SNP-Plaid Cymru-Ulster Unionist coalition would quickly become unworkable in practice as each of the minority parties would effectively be able to hold the new government to ransom.

The only conclusion we can draw from the above is that even if it is mathematically possible for Plaid Cymru and the SNP to form a coalition government, the practicalities would make it unworkable. It is simply far more likely that the Conservatives would form a coalition with the Lib Dems, who with a predicted 50 seats, would give a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition a much more comfortable 39 seat majority. In such a case there would be no need for Plaid Cymru's support.


The above is just one scenario based on electoralcalculus.co.uk's current predictions. The only real chance for Plaid Cymru to wield any significant influence would be in the event that the Conservatives fall short of a majority by a very, very small margin - one seat for example - whereby Plaid Cymru's support alone would be sufficient to get a majority. What are the probabilities of that? Helpfully electoralcalculus.co.uk also provides the mathematical probabilities of a number of outcomes:

So the chances of there being either a Conservative or Labour majority or a Lib-Dem coalition with either of those two parties is effectively 99%. Accordingly, the mathematical chances of Plaid Cymru forming a coalition government with the Conservatives - and thus seeking a so-called 'fairer deal' for Wales - is less than one percent.

Accordingly, if you are an Ynys Môn voter, the only reason to vote for Dylan Rees is if you think that he will be a good constituency MP with the experience and ability to lead Anglesey's economic and social recovery (the Druid personally does not believe he is capable and has set out his reasons in detail here). If however you only vote Plaid Cymru in the hope that they will be able to wield influence in a hung parliament then you have a 99% probability of wasting your vote.
UPDATE: Plaid Leader Ieuan Wyn Jones has made clear that in the event of a Hung Parliament, Plaid has no intention of joining a formal coalition - rather, as the always well informed Dylan points out in comments, they would seek concessions from the Conservatives for their support in key votes. He cites the example of Plaid Cymru exacting compensation for Welsh quarrymen from the Callaghan government in 1979 as a historical precedent. Unfortunately this doesn't invalidate my argument as the probabilities of the Conservatives needing to rely on Plaid Cymru for any particular vote are still remote. The fact is that the only circumstance when the Conservatives would need to bargain with Plaid Cymru for their support would effectively be when their coalition with the Lib Dems had collapsed, anyway leading to new election. To prove this point, the below graphic shows that coalition governments (red line) in the UK tend not to last very long:

Furthermore, despite the tightening poll figures, the betting markets are still overwhelmingly predicting a Conservative majority. Therefore as I wrote above: if you are an Ynys Môn voter, unless you think that Dylan Rees would be a good constituency MP, any vote for Plaid Cymru will in all probability still be a wasted vote.


Dylan said...

But wait, there's never been any suggestion that Plaid Cymru would actually seek to be part of the actual UK government. There's no question of an actual formal coalition including Plaid Cymru; the very idea is odd and contrary to PC's raison d'etre.

Rather, what they mean is that they would seek concessions for their support in key votes. There is precedent for this. In 1979, PC agreed not to topple Callaghan on the condition that quarrymen suffering from silicosis got their due compensation. Ok Callaghan's government was trounced a little later anyway but that's neither here nor there. The fact remains that without Plaid Cymru, those quarrymen would not have received a penny from a supposedly Labour government.

So it doesn't need to be a coalition at all. It's a matter of bargaining on important votes.

The Druid of Anglesey said...

Dyfed - thanks for your contribution. I think any government which needs to plead with PC for support in key votes will not last long (as your example of the Callaghan government also shows). Personally my feeling is that if the Conservatives don't get a clear majority at the General Election, they will prefer to seek a second election.

Dylan said...

But the fact remains that in such a situation, Plaid Cymru can punch above its weight and gain important concessions from stubborn London governments.

Amending the Barnett formula is an obvious possibility this time, since Wales loses out quite badly as things stand. You're right that this could be problematic since it might upset the SNP as it would mean Scotland getting less (since they gain rather a lot from the current Formula) but again there's precedent. The SNP were eager to topple Callaghan in 1979 and were unhappy when Plaid agreed to support him in exchange for the quarrymen compensation. As it happens, the SNP suffered in the polls for a few years after that for basically wanting to replace a Labour government with a Tory one, but that's another story.

Anyway, surely everyone can agree that hung parliaments make Westminster politics a hell of a lot more interesting!

The Druid of Anglesey said...

Dylan - its a fair point but lets look at the mathematics again. Suppose the Conservatives do form a coalition government with the Lib Dems giving them a 'majority' of 39 seats as in the scenario I outlined above. For the Conservatives to need the votes of Plaid (or any other minority party) to win any particular vote would mean that they had effectively lost the support of more than 50% of the Lib Dem MPs - which would also surely mean in effect that the coalition was over and a new election would need to be called. As you have pointed out there are historical precedents (such as the quarrymen compensation) but history doesn't always repeat itself. And, as per my conclusion, its still a long shot if thats the only reason an Anglesey voter has to vote for Dylan Rees - who is widely acknowledged to be a weak candidate.

I don't know about hung parliaments making Westminster politics more interesting - but they certainly make blogging the possibilites quite entertaining!