The Ceredigion 8,000 – Why

Ever since the morning after the first TV leadership debate Mark Williams’s second win in Ceredigion was expected by those on the ground. The incumbent MP always has an advantage but, even though Cleggmania ultimately amounted to nothing across the UK, the galvanising effect of seeing Nick Clegg holding his own on TV with Gordon Brown and David Cameron, with Plaid Cymru the only main party in Wales excluded, seemed to give the Lib Dems in Ceredigion a boost that Plaid had no answer to.

What was a surprise was the scale of the win. Not since Roderic Bowen’s victory over Labour in 1959 has Ceredigion been won by a margin of more than 8,000 votes and no-one has ever achieved 50% of the vote before.

The Lib Dems targeted the large student vote, sliding a leaflet under the doors in their halls with the headline, “Students will decide who our next MP will be!” – pretty irritating for local people. This can explain away some of the result. But most of the credit has to go to Mark Williams himself. The question opponents are scratching their heads over is how he managed it. The answer might lie in the contrast between the styles of Mark and the man he defeated in the 2005 election, Plaid Cymru's Simon Thomas.

Simon was a politician’s politician. I’ve spoken to, or heard comments from, a range of politicians from different parties all testifying to what an excellent performer he was in the House of Commons. He was highly credible on the BBC’s Question Time and seemed to effortlessly command large public meetings in the constituency. He was loved by radicals, including this one, for his no-nonsense stance on peace and justice issues, climate change and the Welsh language. At one time he was voted the hardest working MP in Wales. Unafraid of a political battle or taking on big local players, Simon once publically described the then County Council Leader as “fundamentally corrupt”.

On the other hand, in 2008, this is how Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail viewed Mark Williams in the House of Commons,
“We are assured that one Mark Williams sits for the electors of Ceredigion. Does he? Could have fooled me. What makes this all the worse is that the alleged Mr Williams - who may well be Inspector Clouseau, for all we know - won his seat at the last general election by ousting Plaid Cymru's Simon Thomas, an outstanding parliamentarian.”

So that’s the comparison from a political journalist. But from another perspective the story is very different. Engaging individually with his electorate wasn’t Simon’s strongpoint. Mark, on the other hand, for all his shortcomings at Westminster – and they sound quite serious - has become renowned for his warm and helpful attitude to all who approach him, including opponents.

The routine seems to go like this. He’s approached on an issue by a constituent. He writes a letter on their behalf which doesn’t get the desired result. He then explains nicely - really, really nicely – why he’s been unable to help. The constituent decides to vote for him next time because he’s been so nice.

In the space of five years an awful lot of coffee mornings are held in Ceredigion, and Mark Williams goes to a great many. You can guarantee that at each of these he’s spoken very agreeably to everyone there, apologised bashfully for his lack of Welsh, offended absolutely nobody and certainly hasn’t discussed anything as crude or controversial as politics. The skills he honed as a primary school teacher in Devon, Cornwall and then Breconshire are directly transferable to this style of political work.

It’s easy to disparage him for his avoidance of controversy and lack of punch, and activists from other parties do. But in cold, hard electoral terms they’re wrong. Decency is an underrated asset that should probably be given more currency in politics. Mark’s all-round niceness and approachability may seem to lack the evangelism, decisiveness and charisma expected of politicians but as a slow-burn, low-level campaigning tool it’s an absolute killer. Plaid activists, being generally more cerebral and ideologically-minded, really haven’t got to grips with it.

About 18 months ago I was helping at a Christmas dinner for the elderly in Aberystwyth. Mark was also present and obviously knew many of the attendees. At the end of the evening I watched widows in their late sixties quite literally queue up to give him a hug and kiss. Maybe it was the sherry. He may be the least impressive parliamentary performer ever to have represented Ceredigion but these women simply don’t care. His cuddly, non-threatening, nice-boy-next door attraction is more than good enough for them. And they all vote.

The approach doesn’t just get votes – it gets activists, activists of a certain sort. The day after the election I was in a conversation with a Lib Dem community councillor who had been flattered to be asked to join the party by Mark a couple of years ago and had quickly found herself elected. I congratulated her on the Ceredigion result but couldn’t resist mentioning the demise of Lembit Opik in neighbouring Montgomeryshire. She’d heard of Lembit but didn’t know where he represented and had no idea that he may have lost support due to some interesting extra-parliamentary activities. It’s almost inconceivable that a Plaid Cymru councillor would have been similarly out of touch. But there’s the catch. Plaid, and the other parties, are seen as ‘too political’ by these people.

The Lib Dem vote in Ceredigion has become a strange mix of the middle-of-the-road, the mildly radical, the Cymru-phobic and the kind of people who would form the core of the Conservative vote in any other constituency. All these people have effectively ganged up on Plaid in much the same way that Independents and Lib Dems on the County Council have joined together for years to keep Plaid out of power.

Mark Williams himself can be sensitive to accusations that he’s no more than a glorified social worker (not that there’s anything wrong with social workers) and at times during the campaign he somewhat angrily listed what he felt were his campaigning successes. Unfortunately anyone knowing anything about many of the issues he mentioned knew they had had very little to do with him. After one hustings I was regaled by community activists indignantly saying, “You’ll never guess what he’s claiming credit for now...”. Jokes began circulating that he was claiming full credit for the good weather in election week.

The lack of clear political direction conveniently allows the Lib Dems to adopt a tactic of being all things to all people. Whilst strongly stating their support for the badger cull when talking to farmers, Lib Dem canvassers in the towns told electors worried about the issue that Mark Williams was opposed to it. Whilst Mark, a non-Welsh speaker, supports the language in public, there were numerous reports around the County of his canvassers thoroughly condemning Welsh speakers on the doorsteps of those recently moved to the area. Eighteen years after Cynog Dafis’s extraordinary Plaid/Green campaign brought Welsh and English speakers together in a common radicalism, the Lib Dems were trying to divide them again.

Ceredigion, of course, could do worse. He’s never going to put the county’s name on the map as previous MPs have done but, in as much as he’s political at all, Mark Williams is on the greenish left of his party. In his victory speech he pledged to actively support a Yes vote in the coming referendum on more powers for the Assembly and will probably do a reasonable job of persuading some of his more conservative supporters, of which there are plenty, to vote the right way or, at least, not to vote the wrong way.

The bright note for Plaid is this. In 2007, two years after Mark Williams first won the Ceredigion Westminster seat, and with his party still with their tails up, Plaid Cymru’s Elin Jones was re-elected to her Ceredigion Assembly seat with a considerably increased vote. The two elections didn’t relate at all. And, just as my canvassing was telling me two weeks ago that Mark Williams was going to win again convincingly, that same canvassing was also telling me that next year’s Assembly elections will be very different. And that Elin Jones will win well here next May.