In little more than six months’ time, the May local elections will tell us whether Plaid Cymru has slid below the current lowly rankings of the Liberal Democrats – or will once again be aspiring to occupy the first division of Welsh politics.
In the wake of disastrous Assembly election results (which, we must recall, saw Plaid retreating almost everywhere and ceding the position of official opposition to the Tories) the signs are certainly not too good. Indeed, the Tories are on such a high at present that they are convinced they will come second to Labour in terms of council seats held. And belief can be more important than the truth – in particular among the party volunteers who do most of the local authority foot-slogging.
Andrew RT Davies, the Tories’ Assembly leader, talks proudly of controlling the same number of councils as Labour (two out of 22). But in reality, that tells us only how far Labour has sunk – no doubt to rise again under the leadership of Carwyn Jones.
The truth is, out of 1,263 seats, Plaid currently holds 207, Labour 351, the Tories 172; and the ‘Independents’ and others, 378. Of the parties, Plaid controls Caerffili and Gwynedd, and the Tories run Monmouth and Vale of Glamorgan. Admittedly, working out who else runs or controls our other authorities then becomes difficult. Certainly Labour remain top-dog, with an absolute majority on Rhondda Cynon Tâf and Neath Port Talbot; while Bridgend and Torfaen are run with the benefi t of a few ‘winks-and-nods’ from other parties, particularly in the case of Plaid in Torfaen.
Tory leader Andrew Davies is very cautious about making a forecast for May. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher who boasted (after her party’ gains in 1983) that she would, next time, field an entire rugby team of Welsh MPs. “Next time”, of course, saw her party start on its slide into near oblivion within Wales.
For Plaid, this year’s council by-elections added to May’s Assembly disaster, with the party vote down 3% to only 19%, while the Tories rose 3% to 25%, thus indicating that yet another potential disaster beckons next Spring..
In May, Plaid lost two seats, one of them (in Uwchaled, Conwy) simply because no candidate was fielded. However, in Gwynedd, the party held one (so it should, in an authority it is supposed to dominate) and gained another from the Lib Dems.
The acceptable news was that all other by-elections were fought – even in Torfaen, where the party risked voting ridicule in an area where the late-lamented Labour ‘backroomer’, John Vaughan Jones once crowed that a Plaid candidate had managed to achieve the lowest-vote ever in a poll.
One of the councils which Plaid considers to be theirs by right – because they are the largest party or group – is Ceredigion. Unfortunately, there have been no by-elections in the county to help us assess their current standings in this bastion of Plaid support. But a warning of a tough fight ahead in this area might be heeded from AM Elin Jones’s experiences last May. Both the Conservatives and Labour gained support, while the Lib Dems (who hold the Parliamentary seat) slipped slightly. But – more to the point for Plaid – Elin’s backing fell 8% per cent to 41%.
The only unalloyed good news was to be found in Carmarthenshire. There Plaid soared brilliantly to gain Llanegwad – is this an augury for winning control of County Hall, where the party is currently the largest?
Unfortunately, some at the top of Plaid too easily believe in the ‘swings-and-roundabouts’ theory: that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but it all works out OK in the end. Plaid reckons it won the battle of the Cabinet in the Assembly by forcing Labour to work rather than rest on its laurels, and to deliver policies that are good for Wales rather than purely for Labour. Plaid even forced the government to find the money to activate policies that, under Labour, were heading for delay – such as trains to Ebbw Vale; even though the promised link to Newport remains missing.
If Plaid were in government, the badger cull (aimed at curbing bovine TB in cattle) would already be under way – rather than delayed endlessly, either because Labour lack the experience of standing up and taking a lead, or they are devotedly following the London line. Unfortunately, the Tories seem better prepared for next May. They are certainly giving local government minister Carl Sargeant a hard time of the shambles of a ‘reorganisation’ that the Cabinet is inching towards. Moreover, the Tories are not scared to air their thoughts, yet when Plaid comes up with some positive ideas, it almost keeps the results under wraps. For example, the party conference debated the need for a local government manifesto based on a Valleys jobs-creation programme which would be implemented by Plaid-run councils throughout Wales. But who knows that? There was not a word about it on the party’s website: it is as if Plaid is scared of revealing its bright ideas to anyone else.
It will be a tough fight for Plaid next May. The party will sorely need leadership from the front, to make up for a lack of members on the ground in some regions. Elin Jones argues that Plaid needs a leader who will be “ambitious for Wales”: one who, while mindful of the Welsh-language activists, is also concerned for “the Swansea plumber and the retired couple from Wigan living in Pwllheli”. As she said, the party has indeed “stagnated of late”, yet with nominations for the new leader not opening until nearly Christmas, little time remains for the new leader to raise spirits and enthuse the party into believing that – come May – Plaid is no longer in retreat.
gan Clive Betts