Monday, 7 May 2012

Guest Blog: The Decline and Fall of Plaid Cymru in Four Acts

During better times in Act 1 and before the
Llanwnda scene in Act 3.
Now that the dust has settled on this weeks local elections, one of the most revealing and largely unreported vignettes from polling day was the re-election of Aeron Jones, a Llais Gwynedd councillor, to Llanwnda despite an energetic campaign led by Plaid Cymru 'royalty' Dafydd Iwan and Dafydd Wigley to unseat him. Llanwnda was just one example of the declining support Plaid is currently experiencing in its Gwynedd heartlands. On a larger scale, at a time when the personal ratings of the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all in negative figures and at an all time low, why wasn't a party like Plaid Cymru able to capitalise on the general dismay with politics-as-usual?

Here in a Guest Post, a seasoned and anonymous veteran of local politics in Gwynedd and beyond charts the decline and fall of Plaid Cymru in Four Acts.

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YMLAEN! YN OL. I LAWR.

Last Thursday 10 million people voted in an election of 15,000 candidates contesting nearly 5,000 wards across England, Wales and Scotland. The eyes of most commentators, as ever, were drawn to London and a reaction from No 10 – or here in Wales, to events in Cardiff. It is understandable that with 70% of the population in Wales living within 60 minutes of the capital this will happen. But the latest unreported episode of a story with real significance for Wales unfolded in Gwynedd: the drama in four parts which depicts the rise and fall of Plaid Cymru is now moving into its final Act.

ACT I: SMALL BEGINNINGS

Act I saw the formation of Plaid broadly in response to poor governance and threats to our Welsh nation-hood and culture – especially our language. Even today the constitution reflects this, promising to secure social justice, equality, a bi-lingual society and nation-hood. Some 90 years later, in part through their actions and voice, the Welsh Language enjoys protection and promotion from an Act of Parliament and Wales has its own Assembly with some significant devolved powers. Many regard this progress as a success (many do not – both as too little and too much, but that is not the point of this piece). 

However, these achievements have presented Plaid with two big questions over its identity. The first is simple: what do they stand for now? Polling on support for Welsh autonomy barely moves into double figures who favour separation from the UK. This removes nationhood as a serious campaign platform for any Party with national ambition. We might compare it perhaps to the status of UKIP campaigning on withdrawal from the EU – irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue, the largest amount of voters just don’t care enough. 

The second question is raised by the fact that both of these achievements came through mainstream UK parties. It was a Conservative government, moved by Conservative MP for Bangor and Conwy, Wyn Roberts, who introduced the Welsh Language Act. Labour introduced the Assembly. Once again, this defines Plaid in the role of cheerleader and agitator. It is a sobering truth that having secured an Assembly for Wales (albeit by the narrowest of margins in a national referendum), the closest Plaid have come to power is brief tolerance by a grateful Labour administration that they propped up for four years. 

Which brings us to Act II of this period that Plaid shared power in the Assembly.

ACT II: POWER AND GOVERNMENT

This is a short Act and not a very happy one. Not just for the period of time it represents – just one term out of four so far – but for another reason. A big, awkward, question that won’t go away and can never be hidden from anyone who wants to know the answer.

Can anyone think what was achieved during that time? 

What did having Ieuan Wyn as Anglesey’s representative (for a quarter of a century), the Deputy Leader of the Assembly, and Plaid’s own Party Leader achieve for Mon man? What vision was shown, what benefits gained, what resources were wrestled from the outstretched hands of a populous, needy, South? What evidence is there of strong local leadership and careful investment for the future wellbeing of Anglesey and its residents? An airline. A failing local authority. And the lowest GVA of any county in the UK. 

To be fair, this is to ask a lot of both IWJ and Plaid. But for the LibDems inability to organise themselves, it might have been a rainbow coalition against Labour. After eight years, people were already well aware of their failures. The Daily Post and Western Mail both ran big spreads on the 10 year anniversary of the Assembly, reviewing progress, celebrating achievements and asking people what the Assembly had done for them and for Wales. How had the billions of pounds spent made a difference to them? The answers? Bus passes and free prescriptions. I can only imagine the discussion in the Editors’ offices. The stark and simple truth is that under a Labour led Assembly, Wales has plummeted down international rankings for economic competitiveness. Worse still, under the management of our own Assembly, outcomes in health, education and more are now worse than our nearest neighbour, England. In the Welsh valleys we have managed to cultivate some of the most impoverished places in the UK. 

ACT III: A NEW DAWN

At this point of the play we are ready for the entry of a charismatic figure to herald a new dawn and lead the oppressed out of gloom into sunlit uplands. 

To say that Leanne’s election as leader was a “surprise” is not strictly true. Her cry of “Ymlaen!” and her ability to mobilise young people invigorated the Party membership and boosted its numbers. However politics and the fortune of nations turn on wider support. As a federalist and an avowed Marxist she occupies two of the smaller constituencies from which to build a majority. “Outflanking Labour from the left” is not a credible political strategy and the warm endorsement of the Welsh Communist Party will not feature on the Party’s letterhead. 

And so the to the Leader’s first test in battle. Setting the broad paint brush of strategy aside, could the finer brush strokes of local elections on local issues prove this analysis wrong? Would the devil be in the detail? Could personal politics and the handfuls of votes cast in remote, rural polling stations demonstrate a deeper connection and broader appeal to Welsh citizens? Could she reach good, honest, hard working Welsh folk, wanting a bit of help for their families in touch times, hoping for a lift in the local economy? Would she win the support of those proud to be Welsh and proud to vote for the “Party of Wales” in a local election? 

The results suggest otherwise. Plaid it could be argued, held its own. Indeed it remains the majority party in several counties. Net gains/losses might suggest little movement. But in truth, it failed. This was a huge setback. When dissatisfaction was deepest, hopes were highest, the simple truth is that by midnight on May 4th not a single Welsh council is run by Plaid. Anglesey of course had no election and only Labour can claim success and gains. The independents and NOC (“no overall control”) continue to be a big player in Welsh local politics. However, it is in Gwynedd that we see the true reflection of the demise of Plaid.

Back in 1925, Gwynedd was the birthplace of Plaid Cymru. Today some two-thirds of residents are first language Welsh speakers. If not Leanne’s personal politics then surely this is the safe ground from which a movement could be rebuilt?

In truth, this has not been safe ground for Plaid for years. Llais Gwynedd is a story worth telling but better told by others. However, what was dismissed as a narrow, single interest group that sang songs on the steps of Cyngor Gwynedd Council in protest at the closure of rural village primary schools has turned into a stone in the shoe of Plaid Cymru. The harder they stamp, the more it hurts them.

The 2010 general Election in Gwynedd heartlands also revealed the wobble in Plaid’s support base. Hopes for a “magnificent seven” seats in the UK parliament were revealed as baseless and they did well to hang on to the three they had, including the new Arfon seat. With proposed boundary changes we may never know what could happen in Arfon’s boundaries over time, but the general election was dominated by a two prong tactical pinch: voters calculated who was most likely to beat Plaid in Caernarfon and who was most likely to beat Labour in Bangor. Plaid’s majority tumbled. Labour came within touching distance. The Conservative vote grew dramatically, through the middle, a local candidate drawing on dissatisfaction with both and memories of the effective Lord Roberts.

Plaid’s majority on Gwynedd Council – never the strongest and always under threat – is now gone. Its hopes for a majority reduced to the outcome of a by-election in a ward where neither they (nor any other Party) could manage to raise a candidate. This is as damning an indictment of local political governance in Gwynedd as any economic statistic. Seasoned Gwynedd watchers will also know this is not an isolated event. Several more urban wards were decided on less than a few hundred votes cast.

And what of the fight itself? In Llanwnda, a leading Llais figure was targeted by Plaid. They rolled out their local man and an intensive campaign, blessed by the aging, but iconic Dafydd Iwan as Agent and Lord Dafydd Wigley as canvasser-in-chief. To no avail, as the result was an increase in the Llais majority.

In Deiniolen a long serving, senior Plaid Councillor very active in the Gwynedd administration was defeated by a local independent who was “well liked” in the village. The Plaid candidate's list of activity, every Chairmanship and senior position held filled a side of paper. The independent noted that he lived with his parents and enjoyed playing snooker in the evenings.

Bethel ward was perhaps the biggest shock, lost to the diligent work of an active Labour candidate.

ACT IV: AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

So the “narrative arc” of our drama comes full circle and Act IV has returned us to where the story started. We all care deeply for Wales and things Welsh. I am the first to acknowledge the importance of a Party built on national interest and the preservation of language and culture. These are valid perspectives and vital – in its truest meaning, they are “essential for life” for Wales.

From its humble origins “Y Mudiad Cymreig” (the Welsh Movement) has made huge gains and left a permanent and proud mark on Welsh politics. But the high water mark has been reached and that tide is now running out. With just one Welsh EU seat, less than one-tenth of Welsh Parliamentary seats, one-sixth of local government and Assembly seats, Plaid may always have a proud voice. But it has not proved its ability to govern and by overlooking leaders with the potential to influence and appeal beyond the Party, not just within, it has settled for the Opposition benches. The results confirm this.

This Act is still being written, but it appears the plot line is set. The inconvenient truth is that gains we have in Wales have come from mainstream parties. Not English parties, but Welsh. Voted for by Welsh people.

One way or another, mainstream politics and parties are the future in Wales. We must grapple with their agendas to secure the best deal for Wales.

For all our sakes, the debate must move now towards the damage done by a fourteen year experiment in socialist politics here in Wales. In Anglesey alone the loss of aluminium production and power generation goes beyond metaphors such as “asleep at the wheel”. We still rely on Objective 1 EU funding, seemingly locked into deprivation and dependency.

Plaid does not have an answer and as a result, is rapidly losing its relevance and meaning to those who should care the most.

And “most” is what is counted in politics.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems that you have become obsessed with Plaid Cymru in recent posts. It's rather ironic as they are neither in power in Cardiff nor Westminster - surely we should use all our efforts in criticising Carwyn Jones and his Government?

kp said...

Your guest is clearly confused.

Plaid Cymru in the form of IWJ was, after the Keith Best years, the political choice of most Tory voters here on Anglesey.

These Tory voters were not 'Welsh voters', rather they were just people who had the right to vote here in Wales, the majority of whom more than likely did not speak a single word of Welsh, but trusted a man who came over as honest and decent and fair minded and interested in the 'best' for Anglesey.

To confuse the language, Welsh voters, voters with the right to vote in Wales and everyday party politics is just bordering on the naive.

Plaid will continue to do very well in Anglesey until we can find a more suitable replacement from the ranks of the Conservative party list.

Regrettably, thus far, we have been unable to source an entirely suitable candidate.

Dic Di-Enw said...

Anonymous posting. That's Political Cowardice to quote a recent blog. How did the Tories do in Gwynedd anyway?

228FPA said...

KP said ".....Plaid will continue to do very well in Anglesey until we can find a more suitable replacement from the ranks of the Conservative party list."

Will Plaid do anything for Anglesey?

To date they don't seem to have bothered - once they were voted in, was it a case of "Anglesey - where, what?"

MP, AM, Deputy First Minister - not in any of those positions did IWJ seem to do anything for the county. His successor will be little different I suspect.

Recent Senedd coverage showed IWJ criticising Carwyn Jones for his failures - wasn't IWJ his bed mate for some time - self criticism perhaps?

Politicians are noted for a short term memory.

Jac o' the North said...

I'm also suspicious of anonymous blogs; and people who use the term, "the Welsh valleys". You can talk about the 'The Valleys', that specific region running back from the southern coast, and you can talk of a specific valley, such as the one in which I live. But "the Welsh valleys" is too often English commentator dismissive, as if it's an acceptable alternative for 'Wales'.

mairede thomas said...

a thoughtful blog, as well as provoking thought about which Party can offer the best future for the people of Wales, I wonder, in particular, which Party will protect, conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the land for those people to live in and enjoy.

Your not going to get away with it that easy. said...

Wind Turbine planning disaster.
Today's Daily Post,Page 5.

Planning Committee "Threatened" by developers, claim members.

What a cop out. Just a lot of weak kneed tossers.

Anonymous said...

P Pointless
L Liars
A Arseholes
I Indifferent
D Deaf and Dumb

C Contradictory
Y Yogi Bear
M Malicious
R Rambling
U Unwanted

Anonymous said...

There was an article not long about changing the name of Plaid Cymru to the Real Welsh Nationalist's Party, Rumour has it that Dafydd " Yma o Hyd" Iwan was spitting feather's he hates that name it belongs to his nemesis, from Anglesey.

228FPA said...

Perhaps voters have now, after a very long time, seen that PC only really want full independence - the Banana Republic of Wales or whatever that would be in Welsh.

Once they get that, they'll start thinking about some policies to go with it - too late by then unfortunately.

Have the voters seen the light? The bulb has been lit for a very long time - perhaps the light waves are now arriving?

Anonymous said...

The legacy of Ieuan Wyn Jones as Plaid Cymru's ex leader and Anglesey Assembly Member will be what exactly?

Answers on a postcard to

Ieuan Wyn Jones Legacy Competition
Druid
Anglesey

The winner will receive a day off.
However, if you are unemployed you will get a day in bed.

The Red Flag said...

Conservative councillors in Gwynedd?

Dyfed said...

Still smarting from your defeat, Paul. Quite sad. Let it go and move on.

Paul Williams said...

Dyfed - So having stood for election and lost, I am no longer allowed to comment on Welsh politics? Didn't realise those were the rules.

Anonymous said...

I can guarantee this fact, there is one unarguable thing that Plaid Cymru has been a success at, and that is to betray and let down the people that needed them.
Plaid Cymru, Plaid Y Bradwyr.

menaiblog said...

Plaid's support in the Gwynedd Council elections were pretty much the same as they've been since the introduction of the new Gwynedd. We sometimes just fail to get an overall majority, & we sometimes just make it. The remarkable thing about the electoral history of Gwynedd Council is the stability of Plaid's representation.

In fact a very slightly larger vote would have given Plaid it's biggest majority ever on the council. We failed to win three seats in Bangor, one in Tregarth & two in Dwyfor by very, very small margins - roughly 100 votes between them.

Meanwhile the Tories were demolished in the three seat they fought.

Anonymous said...

menaiblog;

"Meanwhile the Tories were demolished in the three seat they fought."

Yes, but Gwynedd is a Plaid stronghold, not a Tory one. And it is Plaid who has lost a majority in their own stronghold. Last time I checked the Tories actually did pretty well in their stronghold of S.E. England.

menaiblog said...

The Tories shed hundreds of seats in South East England as compared to 2008. Plaid slightly improved their position in Gwynedd.

menaiblog said...

Oh one other point as regards the main blog post. The new Arfon constituency was a notional Labour one before 2010. It was listed as a Plaid gain.

Anonymous said...

menaiblog;

If by "slightly improved their position in Gwynedd" you mean that Plaid gained two less seats than in 2008 and lost overall control of Gwynedd Council, then, yes, Plaid slightly improved their position in Gwynedd.

menaiblog said...

Plaid won 35 in 2008 & 37 in 2012. 37 is a bigger figure than 35, so the 2012 performance was slightly better than the 2008 performance.

Anonymous said...

menaiblog;

"Plaid Cymru has failed to gain overall control of Gwynedd after a difficult night around Wales.

With all results in, it shows Plaid lost its majority, taking 37 seats of 74 and Independents on 18. At the last elections Plaid had 39 of 75 seats."

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-17953636

menaiblog said...

No, you're wrong I'm afraid.

Plaid controlled the council by 2012, & as you say had 39 seats. But we didn't have 39 in 2008 - we had 35. The extra four came from by election gains & independent & Llais councillors jumping ship.

There was a lot of musical chairs, & an unusual number of by elections in Gwynedd between 2008 & 2012.

Anonymous said...

menaiblog;

Don't tell me, tell the BBC.

However how going into an election with 39 seats and coming out with 37 seats represents a 'slight improvement' is a mystery to me.

menaiblog said...

I was simply saying that Plaid slightly improved their performance compared to 2008. That's factual & correct. Your assertion that Plaid got 39 was incorrect. The BBC article didn't claim that Plaid had 39 in 08. You simply misunderstood the piece.

Anonymous said...

menaiblog: "The BBC article didn't claim that Plaid had 39 in 08."

BBC: "At the last elections Plaid had 39 of 75 seats."

Okay, so Plaid "slightly improved" their performance compared to 2008, but went backwards compared to the day before this election?

menaiblog said...

Yes, we agree that Plaid lost two seats compared to the 2012 position, & improved 2 on the 08 position. & it looks as if you're right about the BBC getting it wrong too.

Nothing unusual there - they constantly get their facts wrong when it comes to local politics in Gwynedd.

Lyndon said...

What a pathetic piece of fact-free propagandist drivel No wonder the author wished to remain anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Menai Blog the mouthpiece for Plaid Cymru, the party of fools. The leader we had was pointless, his legacy will be nothing, I wonder if Menai Blog knows how useless Plaid Cymru really are. Or is Plaid Cymru going to keep floating along like a turd on the Menai Strait's.

menaiblog said...

Hmm- well thought out, informative & considered post Anon 19.26.

You should get yourself a blog.

Anonymous said...

As someone who lives in Gwynedd, Plaid has lost the support of the Welsh heartlands and the tradditional Welsh voters. At one time you could have pit a donkey with a Plaid rossette and people would have voted the donkey in - not any more. D Elis Thomas lost a lot of votes at the last election and if a llais stood against Hywel (whO ?) Williams, labour would take the seat.

RIP laid - youve had your day and blew it.

Anonymous said...

"As someone who lives in Gwynedd, Plaid has lost the support of the Welsh heartlands and the tradditional Welsh voters. At one time you could have pit a donkey with a Plaid rossette and people would have voted the donkey in - not any more. D Elis Thomas lost a lot of votes at the last election and if a llais stood against Hywel (whO ?) Williams, labour would take the seat."

This is inaccurate. What has happened is Plaid has lost "some" of its support in the Welsh heartlands and with traditional voters. At other times it has gained new support in the Welsh heartlands. Dafydd El lost a lot of votes to Llais Gwynedd. It remains to be seen whether Hywel Williams would also lose votes to them. Labour also suffered losses in its own heartlands in the past, Blaenau Gwent to independents and Rhondda/Caerphilly to Plaid, but came back. The fortunes of parties go up and down. That's democracy. Plaid may win support back or lose further support, or hold their own. They may remain the first party in Arfon and Mon or become the second party or whatever. But to say they have "had their day and blew it" is nonsensical.