1966 is when history starts for some people in Wales, such was the impact of Gwynfor Evans’ victory in Carmarthen.

Cast your mind back to then: Plaid Cymru had its watershed moment, with decades-long cultural activism rewarded with a seminal political moment, one that many hoped would lead them to becoming the Party of Wales in more than name only.

But Plaid Cymru have failed to escape the label of being reserved for rural, Welsh-speaking Wales, Y Fro Gymraeg. The perception has taken its toll, as one of the most consistent features of our politics since Gwynfor’s day has not been the triumph of the national movement in British or later Welsh elections but the long-running electoral failure of Plaid Cymru.

Last week’s Senedd election result confirmed just as much. It was unquestionably a low point for the party during devolution, an era that itself was supposed to create a two-horse race between them and Welsh Labour. Even that hasn’t come to fruition: Adam Price now takes up his new role as the leader of the third party in the Senedd.

There are some very difficult issues for him and his team to confront in the weeks and months ahead. These must be dealt with, bearing in mind that if there was a successor waiting in the wings, a normal party would be pressuring any leader – who had set such high expectations and delivered very little – to go.   

Target seats became redder by the hour, a former leader was lost in the party’s most coveted seat, and the presidential campaign run by officials landed like a damp squib. COVID-19 played its part in silencing Price and elevating Drakeford but it should not qualify as a fair excuse for trends that have been developing for a while.

Most strikingly, Plaid Cymru’s vote retreated to its heartlands and away from industrial areas – the spitting image of how it would have looked a few decades ago – as its strategists’ only takeaway was that it had run a ‘positive’ campaign as their friendly compatriots in Welsh Labour had secured victory to steady the Senedd ship.

READ MORE: Rarely seen documents revealed to show secret side of Dylan Thomas

Questions over the party’s failures cannot remain unanswered. On election night, the affable Ceredigion MP Ben Lake was put up in front of the media. But even charming Ben could not answer for his party’s rejection at the ballot box. Many voters, party activists and campaigners are scathing, especially at how little progress has been made since 2016.

Professionalism – in its broadest sense – is the party’s most important present issue to master. Several key constituencies for different local and national reasons saw the nationalist vote split and left the door open for Labour. There was the collapse in the Rhondda too – a seat prioritised above others including Cardiff North – while Llanelli ended its long trend as Wales’s most marginal seat. The well-oiled machinery of Welsh Labour embarrassed Plaid Cymru.

There is no question the party are between a rock and a hard place. Welsh Labour’s dynamism has a universal appeal to the people of this country. Independence is a niche portion of the electorate but Plaid Cymru do need a coherent position on it. For all the talk about being confined to Y Fro, they shouldn’t abandon those communities either.

READ MORE: Cabinet reshuffle: Drakeford calls the changes

Plaid Cymru do need a strategy for semi-official opposition which isn’t just voting through Labour budgets. It needs to carve out its own identity so that they are not overlooked in 2026. But only if they want to govern, of course.

Liz Saville-Roberts shot back this week by saying that Plaid had “made the lawn” that Labour had parked its indy-curious tanks on. A clever turn of phrase and it perfectly captures what role Plaid Cymru has happily fulfilled in modern Wales: a happy gardener to the king of the castle, who really runs Wales. No guessing who His Majesty is.

In political terms, without a coherent strategy Plaid Cymru are in danger of continuing their long reign as Wales’s most celebrated (and successful) pressure group. That is not necessarily a bad thing but let us please be honest about it. From the Welsh language to second homes, poverty to independence, Plaid Cymru have been effective in influencing the policy agenda but are bogged down by history and poor electioneering to win power themselves.

Plaid Cymru must decide what it wants to be, as it cannot have both: pressure group or party of government. As above, it is no easy feat – and if it is the latter it requires speaking to new audiences, bolstering local constituency resources over the next few months, clearly positioning itself as an alternative to Welsh Labour and broadening its base. It has failed to do that over the last five years and especially throughout the pandemic.

Leanne Wood said that last week’s results were a big step back for the party and she is right; her defeat was symbolic of how being a pressure group doesn’t keep or win you seats. The leadership and strategists, she added, need to do some head scratching. They certainly do, and there needs to be answers. Otherwise the Party for Some of Wales will limp on: a glorified pressure group with little hope of ever governing Wales.

At The National we're creating a sustainable national news service for Wales funded through subscribers. Support us and become a digital subscriber