08/05/2010

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.

21 comments:

  1. AnonymousMay 08, 2010

    very well written piece Alun and I think very balanced and fair. I hope you're right about Elin. She's an excellent AM but I'm not so sure that the LD machine won't have the names, addresses and emails of the people who voted for them on Thursday and will chacing every vote to get Elin out.

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  2. AnonymousMay 09, 2010

    Excellent, measured post. This explains a lot to me, as one who was not particularly surprised that MW was returned but was flabbergasted at the extent of his majority. Food for thought.

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  3. AnonymousMay 09, 2010

    Really interesting analysis. Only significant group left out by you is the traditional Welsh rural liberal voters. They might have given Cynog their backing once but they're now well and truely back to form. And it has to be remembered that they did not back Geraint Howells on the Referendum question in 1979. And they idolized him !

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  4. AnonymousMay 09, 2010

    I suppose a lot can be said for knowing your MP, and him actually bothering to say hello, turn up and take action. Does it really matter if they have a local impact. I must say, as a Plaid voter there have been occasions in Penparcau when I have got in touch with local councilors and the AM and had no response, yet have had the MP doing what they should have done. To be honest he does exactly what people want in the area, they don't want a politico full of large scale Wales wide jargon, they want local action! Plaid should be more visible.

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  5. Very good item, Alun.

    I intended to vote Plaid. While we don't agree on all policies, my nature is left of centre and Plaid were the only serious party aligned with that agenda. I was even prepared to go one step further and campaign for Plaid and got a email back from Penri HQ that my local organizer would be in touch. I favor cock-up over conspiracy, but they never did get back to me and that was enough for me, unable to vote for the alternatives, to write an anarchy symbol on my postal voting paper and post it.

    People don't vote for a party that they feel has rejected them, either by intent or by oversight.

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  6. AnonymousMay 11, 2010

    I voted Plaid, always have and probably always will. I believe that the interests of Wales and Welsh people should come first. I do agree with other comments here though that Plaid need to be out there more. Plaid need to be wary of becoming "sheep" and following the crowd, they are the party of Wales after all. Perhaps the huge majority gained by an English born Lib Dem candidate is a reflection of the demography of Ceredigion ...? Come back Cynog, we need you!!!

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  7. AnonymousMay 11, 2010

    Well unfortunately, looks like they voted Liberal and got Tory

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  8. AnonymousMay 11, 2010

    Well a lot more people voted Tory than Lib Dem, so the country got what they asked for!

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  9. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    Please do not patronise late sixties widows.

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  10. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    So, are you saying students don't have a right to vote in Ceredigion?

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  11. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    Anonymous said...
    So, are you saying students don't have a right to vote in Ceredigion?

    Now don't jump the gun by taking the sentence out of it's context. I take it that this is the sentence that took your eye:

    '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.'

    From what I could see, the LibDems certainly did target the student vote - it is a fact, not a statment against student's right to vote. But I will have to agree with Alun, I found the leaflet headline “Students will decide who our next MP will be!” quite an unwise move, I'm sure your John Jones from Tregaron or your William Williams from Cwm Ystwyth (or any other local resident in Ceredigion) will not appreciate the message in that leaflet headline - 'even though I'm a local, my vote doesn't count then!'

    Many false accusations have been said about Plaid supporting a policy in which students are not allowed to vote - and a few of LibDem councillors continuing to falsly spread such rumours. Some of these rumours I found quite alarming such as the the complete lie of an accusation that Plaid have no interest what so ever in non-Welsh speakers - something I heard several of my neighbours saying after being canvassed by LibDem activists. I find this a complete disrespect to councillors such as Alun, Rob Gorman and Paul James who have served this community well even though being non-Welsh speakers.

    Also, I noticed during the campaign that the LibDems continually attacked Plaid for 'jumping into bed with Labour', at least they didn't cuddle up to the Tories who (of course) have a very proud record of serving the Welsh economy and communities, where many areas in Wales still show the scars of the Thatcher era.

    On the other hand, I feel Penri and the Plaid group have fought a very hard and honest campaign in a political environment where there was an up-hill struggle from the start. Credit to them all.

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  12. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    OK Alun, you have given us your opinion, at great length, of our elected MP. Please now give us your equally frank opinion of all the unsuccessful candidates.

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  13. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    The truth of the matter is that PJ was a weak and lame horse in this so called two horse-race. Even if had trained himself to be the political genius of Simon Thomas and had aquired half the social graces of Mark Williams he would not have won - the people of Ceredigion have long memories - Penri James was a complete disgrace as a PC Leader in the county council.

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  14. AnonymousMay 12, 2010

    Why do you say that ?
    You seem to be implying that Penri James is somewhat lacking in social skills, and 'disgrace'is a stong description. Are you saying that in a dismissive manner , or is it your objective assertion that he is uncouth in some way.

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  15. I wonder if there will still be a seat here by the next election.

    I don't think it's fair to resort to slagging people off on a personal level, regardless of what party they belong to.

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  16. AnonymousMay 13, 2010

    It's true that Mark Williams works very hard - he works hard for himself, to keep himself in Westminster.

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  17. AnonymousMay 14, 2010

    RE the student vote - the students are there for the taking, as it were. Any party can go and canvass them, any party can work hard at showing how their policies are relevant to students. If the Lib Dems did that and were successful, then chwarae teg (fair play) to them. And if an MP is likable, approachable, and gets things done on a particular issues (eg for a relative of mine) whereas the AM of a different party doesn't help at all despite requests, then naturally people are going to vote for the person and party that has helped them.

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  18. AnonymousMay 14, 2010

    Couldn't agree more with the previous post, and the tale of the responses from the two different parties certainly sounds familiar.

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  19. AnonymousMay 15, 2010

    The Lib Dem vote in Ceredigion is a weird one. It a mix of the anti-Welsh (especially the Welsh language which many 'incomers' believe is imposed on them), then theres the 'Old Liberal' vote, people who have voted Liberal for generations. Then the are people who have been taken in by Cleggmania, which is especially true for students (I think that the proportion of students who voted Lib Dem was similar to last time, the turnout was much higher), and not forgetting Mark Williams is the incumbent so the people he has helped them, and to be fair he has very high name recognition. Cllr Alun Williams has a very good blog post on this matter on his blog.

    With all this and the Lib Dems big spending advantage (They sent a lot of material out just mentioning Clegg on central party funds, not impacting on the constituency spend limit). My guess is that this is a safe seat at least until Mark Williams retires (Unless of course this seat is scrapped like the LibCon Government want). Plaids best hope is to try to get the majority down quite a bit, pick a candidate early, and campaign hard.

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  20. AnonymousMay 15, 2010

    Alun

    We lost the election but we still drew 10,000 supporters who thought that Penri and Plaid Cymru would have been the best for Ceredigion.

    Your recent posts and the response they generated suggest that there are many out there who would contribute to discussions on current political issues in Ceredigion. Perhaps you could set the ball rolling in your next post by asking your readers whether they think this is an idea worth pursuing.

    There is little original and imaginative thinking in Ceredigion politics. Policies and ideas seem to be delivered from the top down. We need to broaden our approach, blogs and on line discussion groups do just that. We need to make better use of them.

    What do you think?

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  21. I definitely think there's room for an on-line Ceredigion political/cultural discussion scene. There's a lot of ideas and creativity out there that could do with a forum/outlet. Drop me an e-mail if you've got any specific ideas (alunw@ceredigion.gov.uk).

    In the meantime, if anyone wants to write a piece I'd be happy to consider guest posts in keeping with the spirit of this blog, i.e. broadly (but not necessarily uncritically) pro-Plaid and pro-green or simply informing people about things that are happening.

    Thanks, by the way, to everyone who's contributed to this thread.

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