Leanne Wood campaigns in her native Rhondda. Photo:Getty
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Why aren't Plaid Cymru surging?

In an election defined by populist parties, Plaid Cymru have failed to break out of their heartlands. Why not?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 1999, the year of the first elections to the devolved legislatures in Wales and Scotland, Plaid Cymru outpolled the SNP.

In 2015, the picture looks rather different. The latest poll from north of the border puts the Nationalists on 53 per cent of the vote; the most recent survey of Welsh public opinion puts Plaid at 11 per cent.  

It now seems likely that the predictions that the SNP would take 50 of the 59 seats in Scotland were, if anything, overly conservative. Their Welsh cousins, if the stars align perfectly on the night, might take five seats out of 40. It’s more likely they’ll end up where they were in 2010, with a mere three. It’s not implausible that they could end up with just one.

What went wrong for Plaid Cymru? Why, when anti-establishment parties are on the march throughout the United Kingdom, can’t they make a breakthrough? They aren’t even the dominant anti-insurgent force in Wales; that’s Ukip, who have leapfrogged the Nationalists in the polls, although Nigel Farage’s party will be punished heavily by the electoral system.

In part, they have been unlucky with their enemies. In 1999, it was Scottish Labour who looked destined for hegemony. In Donald Dewar, they had a respected and skillful leader, while Welsh Labour had Alun Michael, who was widely regarded as a puppet of Tony Blair. But the Welsh party has displayed a greater flair for reinvention than their Scottish counterpart. Michael was deposed and both of his successors, Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones, have put clear red water between themselves and the government in London. After Dewar’s death, however, the Scottish party increasingly appeared to be a B-Team under the control of the London party – a “branch office” to use the phrase that the SNP regularly hurls at its opponents north of the border.

Jim Murphy’s rebuke to his predecessors at the head of Scottish Labour – “We’ve not been good enough or been Scottish enough” – is far harder to lay at Welsh Labour’s door, although the devolved administration’s record is less popular than its leadership. But Jones has, in the words of one staffer “wrapped itself in the flag”, which leaves Plaid struggling for a raison d’etre that reaches beyond its Welsh-speaking heartlands.

The problem for the party, Roger Scully, professor of political science at Cardiff University, tells me, that it is seen in a similar light to “Radio Three: people are glad it’s there, they feel well-disposed to it, but they don’t actually want to listen to it themselves”.  

That might be why, when I speak to people in the south of Wales, the number one word that people use is “narrow”. A young man in the Rhondda tells me that “I might be valleys, but I’m not that valleys.” Sara, a middle-aged woman in Grangetown, who has lived there all her life, is nonplussed when I ask why her disillusionment with Labour hasn’t led her to Plaid Cymru. “Well, I don’t speak Welsh!”

Leanne Wood was meant to break the Nationalists out of that narrow field. Not only the first woman to lead a major party in Wales, she was, more importantly for Plaid, the first non-native Welsh speaker and the first person not from their northern heartlands to lead the party. But her progress in breaking Plaid out of its heartlands, like her progress with the language – her official biography still lists her interests as “learning Welsh, and gardening” – has been somewhat limited.

One Welsh Conservative suggests that the party “should have come after us [first], like the SNP did”. There is a danger that, in attempting to outflank Labour on the left at the same time as struggling for third place against Ukip, Plaid Cymru end up twice-ghettoised: once as a party for Welsh speakers alone, and again as a party of the leftwing fringe, where, in any case, they are also at risk from the Greens, who in the long-term will almost certainly have more exposure than Plaid Cymru.

As for Wood herself, she divides opinion; one Labour strategist bluntly describes her as “an asset to us”, but other observers speak of her natural ease, her broad hinterland and sense of fun. My journeys coincide with the first seven-way debate, and her increased profile has certainly boosted her popularity, albeit without any noticeable improvement in Plaid Cymru’s vote share.  Like the party she leads, she is liked, but no-one seems to want to vote for her.

But the biggest problem for Plaid in the areas where it is failing to make the breakthrough only becomes apparent as I head north. Complaints about the amount the Welsh government spends on dual-language signs become laments about the vanishing language as English speakers move north. Fears about the mortgage become concern about being priced out by holiday homes.  And public transport – and with it, links to the English cities of Liverpool and Chester, which ought to be the engines of growth, are brittle and unreliable.

One Labour MP in Scotland mused to me recently that “the SNP’s great strength is their grievance is imaginary – it’s about a better state, a better way of living your life, a better politics...and that is very hard to fight”. Plaid Cymru’s weakness is that their grievances are more concrete: a fading language, communities cut off from the prosperous south of the country or England’s Northern cities. Progress in tackling them, far from strengthening the party, actually weakens it: one Plaid activist describes how, in years gone past, the Welsh language attracted hostility on the doorstep.

“Now people think it’s sweet,” they sigh. And that may be the biggest problem of all for Plaid Cymru.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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