|During better times in Act 1 and before the|
Llanwnda scene in Act 3.
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.
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.