I referred in a previous post to the first of what I thought were the two big questions which Plaid members would be considering as they pondered which option to pursue. My first question was what the voters wanted; my second is about the electoral consequences of any decision. This one isn't just for Plaid of course; it is a poser for all the parties, although, as we shall see, I believe that it is Plaid which faces the greatest difficulty and the greatest risk in making a decision.
People vote for all sorts of reasons; some positive, some negative. Some vote positively for one party or another. Others vote against the party they like least. Some vote for the party which they think has the best chance of defeating the incumbent – whoever the incumbent is. And some just want to register a protest against their usual party, by voting for the one which is, in their view, the 'safest' alternative.
All parties, in all elections, amass a coalition of votes on this basis; but the relative proportion of the different categories varies from area to area, and from party to party.
Labour have the easiest decision of all to make. Most of their seats are in their heartlands, and most of their supporters are voting definitely for Labour. Some vote against the Tories, but none of the three options open to Rhodri Morgan are likely to alienate any large section of voters. Whether he ultimately ends up in a coalition with Plaid, a coalition with the Lib Dems, or soldiering on in a minority, he is unlikely to alienate any of his supporters. The things most likely to upset his supporters are either a deal with the Tories (which is not even on the table), or else deliberately standing down and letting the Tories in. (Note that these comments are about Labour supporters, not members and activists, where there are much stronger feelings about the options, as we have seen in recent days!).
Lib Dem voters come from all over the place – there is a complete mish-mash of reasons for supporting that party. But they also have an easy choice. They have so little to lose in terms of seats that they can afford to gamble any way they like. The biggest danger for them is that being seen to be irrelevant might lose them some support; but they really don't have that much to lose.
The Tories don't really have a problem either. It remains a mystery why their activists and members have not reacted more strongly to their support for a nationalist programme, but most of their Assembly vote is a pro-Tory vote, and is unlikely to go anywhere else. They have been marginalised in Welsh politics for the whole of their history, and are likely to remain so unless someone else gives them a bunk-up. Faced with a choice between the rainbow and continued peripheralisation, it is easy to see why the rainbow looks attractive to Bourne.
Plaid, on the other hand, face the toughest choice of all. They have most to lose, as the main opposition party being closely pursued by the Tories; and their vote contains the second most mixed coalition of all. Whatever their left wing rhetoric, in those parts of Wales where they are seen as the only, or the strongest, alternative to Labour, they unquestionably pick up 'borrowed' votes from other parties, and particularly the Tories. But for Labour supporters, disillusioned with Labour, but finding the Tories 'unpalatable' (© Rhodri Morgan), Plaid are the 'soft' alternative. And these two groups form a substantial proportion of Plaid's vote.
Now if Plaid are seen to support the Tories, they risk losing the votes of Labour voters who want to protest against their own party; and if they support Labour, they risk losing the support of all those Tories who have loaned them their votes. Either way, they risk being the biggest losers, and they seem to have no strategy in place to deal with this. Ieuan Wyn Jones talks about gaining 'credibility' by being in government either way; but if the effect is to lose a substantial proportion of their vote, that 'credibility' will not do a lot of good.
Seems to me that they're between a rock and a hard place – and they've got there entirely by their own devices. It will be interesting to see whether their members start to look for a third alternative.