In recent years, Conservative energies have been focused on knocking down Labour’s Red Wall in the North of England and North Wales. Indeed, it is extraordinary how much the voter coalitions have changed since 2015, writes Charlie Evans.
Under Cameron, we were a middle class, southern party with representation still in cities. We are now a party whose base still engenders strong support in the rural south but now are heavily represented in the working class, post-industrial north. Yet one area that has not generated much debate are our fortunes in Plaid Cymru’s Green Fringe. Beyond the Cardiff; Beyond the valleys, there is a Wales which unlike the rest of the country has not traditionally voted Labour. Many of these rural seats have similar characteristic to the Conservative bastions along the Welsh borders. Yet that’s where the similarity has historically ended.
However since 2017 politics has started to change dramatically in rural Wales. Perhaps the most striking result was in Ynys Mon, where a miners’ granddaughter, Virginia Crosbie, snatched victory from the jaws of a visibly shocked Plaid Cymru.
But should Plaid have been so surprised? All along their Green Fringe their vote has started to crumble. In Carmarthen East & Dinefwr – Plaid’s breakthrough seat in the 1960s – Havard Hughes was only denied a seat on the green benches due to the presence of the Brexit Party, paired with the Liberals and Greens standing down to save the now embattled Jonathan Edwards. Who knows what the result would have been if the election had occurred after his much publicised criminal caution.
In neighbouring Ceredigion, once a Liberal bastion, Amanda Jenner beat the Liberals to a humiliating third place. In Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Tomos Davies delivered 9,700 votes, the strongest conservative performance ever in the seat. What is particularly striking about these seats is that the Conservative vote is near or surpasses the vote with which Plaid Cymru holds these seats in the Welsh Senedd. Havard Hughes’ 2019 result is just 297 votes behind Plaid Leader Adam Price’s result in 2016. Tomos Davies’ result would have beaten Plaid in the 2016 Senedd elections.
So despite not many eyes being fixed on Plaid’s western wall, our progress there should be a topic of serious conversation, and should be the area in which we as are Party look to grow into next. And I must stress the urgency of this — whilst the Labour Party’s incompetence and mismanagement must always be challenged, they unlike Plaid, are not looking to tear up our country. Well, not in England, at least.
Plaid Cymru have strategically managed to be all things to all people. To a socially conservative, amongst linguistic Welsh speaking voters in rural Wales, here they remain the Party perceived to protect a community’s culture and identity. So much so they “out Conservative” the Conservatives when it comes to culture, faith and language. Yet to progressives, in Cardiff’s metropolis and on social media they manage to convey themselves as the party of woke, bickering among themselves about trendy issues, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people. To the most ardent of nationalists and separatists, their independence footing appeals to them. And to many English-born people who have settled in Wales, they have a romantic view of Plaid as the party to protect the Welsh language and speak up on local matters. This is in spite of Plaid Cymru’s Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire Councils closing down rural schools and poor record on services.
Plaid’s existential crisis is that this janus like behaviour only works for so long — as the Liberal Democrats discovered under Nick Clegg. Locally, they can tailor their message, but Plaid are now explicitly clear — they are an independence agitating, republican, socialist, left-wing party. They make thinly veiled attacks on tourism. Their social media content seeks to portray a national purity of Plaid supporters and imply that people like me – Welsh Conservatives – are somehow not really Welsh.
However, in seats like Dwyfor Meirionnydd where I am standing, the idea of Welsh independence is far from universally supported. I am yet to see polling published on the matter, but with Plaid Cymru voters I speak to, independence does not even register on the radar. More frequently, a resentment of Cardiff Bay politics is vocalised. In fact, several of my surveys have returned suggesting that the same voter could vote Plaid or Abolish. Quite the oxymoron! Impossible if you believe the lines trotted out by the Labour friendly Welsh media. But Plaid-voting is a habit, and they fall into one of the categories I cite above. But in 2019 we saw the habit of voting Labour in the Red Wall coming to an end, and we began to see a bit of in Plaid seats too.
But how do we encourage Plaid Cymru voters make the transition to us? Here are some of my thoughts:
- Embrace Welsh language and culture. Wales is a diverse but in rural West Wales, the language and culture go hand in hand. Plaid have weaponised language and culture to further their own ends. Yet the language and culture has existed for centuries without the constant yearning for separation. Just as it was the Welsh Conservatives who introduced the Welsh Language Act; Welsh Conservatives must adopt a pro-Wales, pro-Welsh approach that sees us play an integral part of British culture; and seeks to further integrate Wales into the United Kingdom. Before the advent modern nationalist parties like Plaid Cymru in the 1930s the Welsh saw themselves as the true descendants of the Ancient Britons. Which given the Welsh language’s roots across the British Isles is not difficult to understand. Before the Saxon invasion the Londoners of the dark ages spoke something more akin to Welsh and the stories of King Arthur have their origins in the Black Books of Carmarthen.
- Do not play on Plaid’s turf. Plaid’s constant demands for further devolution to the Bay is because they want to build the case for Welsh independence and the Senedd as a platform to bash Westminster. It is not at the forefront of ordinary people’s minds. The Bay Bubble got really worked up when UK Government decided to engage with local authorities directly through the Internal Market Bill. But it is simply a bubble issue. As referenced previously, Cardiff can feel as distant as Westminster in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion or Gwynedd and there is still a sense of confusion over devolution. People in Wales are fed of up distant politicians telling them what to do, be these people in Brussels, London or Cardiff.
- Being active. The attacks on my character on social media have been ferocious yet there has not been one part of Dwyfor Meirionnydd where I have felt unwelcome or out of place. So even if the keyboard warriors wage war, on the ground there are huge opportunities to get our Conservative message out. Just by being out there and talking to voters – that will be welcomed. But crucially, the work cannot just take place in election time. Local Conservatives must be on a permanent campaign footing, talking about issues that matter to us and that matter to local people. Plaid Cymru do not own these constituencies, but we must put in the work.
- The message. This will take the most time to formulate and this article cannot be long enough to do it. But simply, it must look to increase the number of jobs, stop the mass exodus of young people leaving home to pursue education/employment and increase home ownership. It must strengthen local communities and back our farmers. It must also stress the benefits of tourism, the visitor economy and the cross-border nature of Wales and England. Many English-born people decide to settle in West Wales. This is not a threat to Welsh people despite what the separatists claim – we must reject the Malthusianism and champion the integrated nature of the British Isles, whether for economic, social or cultural reasons.
Toppling the Green Fringe is not a long-term challenge but it will not happen overnight. However, as the separatists look to move into new territory in the South Wales Valleys, the Conservatives have the chance to catch them off guard and on May 6th, claim some major scalps in the west of Wales.
Charlie Evans is the Welsh Conservative Senedd Candidate for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.