In the last few days of the election period, those of us campaigning for Plaid Cymru’s Mike Parker on the doorsteps of Ceredigion could tell there was a significant shift taking place towards Plaid but couldn’t tell by how much and were privately doubtful if the movement would be enough. That proved to be correct, with the Lib Dems finishing the night with their previously majority cut by 63%, or 5,257 votes, with a reported 6.8% swing to Plaid Cymru. The new Lib Dem majority is 3,067, making the constituency a marginal seat according to the accepted definition.
If Mark Williams was not such a personable local constituency MP with such a large majority heading into this election, he would almost certainly have joined the 49 other Lib Dems who lost their seats on that Friday morning. His undoubted good work with people on a personal level seems to have innoculated him against too much public disapproval at the way he has regularly voted in Parliament in support of the government’s austerity agenda.
He has certainly succeeded in managing to keep his voting with the Tories very quiet during the past five years. When challenged on his voting record by clued-up opposition activists in many of the 15 hustings held around the county during the campaign, he argued that he had been forced to vote in the ways that he had by his party whips and recounted how very, very difficult encounters with these apparent rottweilers could be. This was a difficult argument to pull off since, simultaneously, he seemed to be trying to present himself as more of an Independent MP than anything as embarrassing as a member of the Lib Dems, mention of whom was notably downplayed in election literature.
There's a theory that Mark's success actually represents a kind of ‘anti-politics’ - a vote for an individual who does well at giving a particular service without being seen to get too involved in that messy, contentious politics stuff with its difficult dilemmas about how the country should be run.
It can be a salutary lesson for activists steeped in policies when they present what seems like a cast iron, logical case for change on the doorstep only to be faced with an elector who, although perfectly intelligent, is unfamiliar with the word austerity and simply wants to vote for someone who seems nice in a coffee morning.
I do think we underestimate the importance of this personal side in politics at times. But if what an MP votes for in parliament really doesn’t matter anymore then our democracy has problems. And to have Ceredigion’s representative voting with the Tories to dismantle the welfare state is unacceptable.
For Plaid's Mike Parker, the campaign began with the kind of bad-as-it-can-get headline in the local press, about something he wrote 14 years ago, that would have poleaxed most candidates. In footballing terms it felt a bit like one of those matches when a team has a player sent off in the first few minutes and spends the rest of the game trying to hold on against the odds. Although for some electors the headline never went away, Mike’s resilience meant that, over time, it began to matter less and less.
Another notable aspect of the election in Ceredigion was the improvement in the standing of the parties outside the top two. UKIP (+7.7%), Labour (+3.9%), and the Greens (+3.8%) will all feel reasonably pleased with their results, although the Tories, with what most people regard as a suspiciously lacklustre campaign, stood still. The Greens saved their deposit for the first time in the constituency and their Ceredigion result was their second best in Wales next to Cardiff Central. Given Ceredigion’s Plaid/Green history and Mike Parker’s own strong green credentials, their decision to contest the seat disappointed many but was probably inevitable.
One of the features of the last two Ceredigion elections has been the evaporation of the votes of the parties outside the leading two in the constituency, with an ‘anti-Plaid’ vote seeming to coalesce around the Lib Dems' 50% in 2010. This time, with the Lib Dem vote reduced to 35.9%, the combined Labour, Tory, Green and UKIP candidates are back to the kind of levels being won by the lower scoring parties when Plaid controlled the seat between 1992 and 2005. That trend would seem to give Plaid reason to hope that they can come through the middle to win again in the future.
It's often deceptive to pay too much attention to the feeling within a campaign team. But it must be said that this was undoubtedly the most enjoyable and well-run Plaid campaign for many years. Those turning out to knock on doors were of all ages and sometimes reached unmanageable numbers, having to be split into sub-teams. This was was probably due to a combination of the freshness provided by Mike Parker's candidature, Leanne Wood's groundbreaking performances in the TV debates and a sense that, in what the polls were telling us was a dramatically changing wider political picture, a win might just be possible. No other party in Ceredigion can come close to matching Plaid’s ‘troops on the ground’. The entire Lib Dem parliamentary party now numbers no more than a Plaid canvassing team on an average night in April.
A rally at Aberystwyth University with Leanne Wood on the Monday before polling day (below), followed by a street walkabout with Catrin Finch, was a huge success. Again, no other party in the constituency could dream of pulling that sort of event together. But, in the context of a Westminster election, that campaigning ability doesn’t necessarily translate into decisively more converted votes.
So, for Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion, it’s a case of having plenty of regrets that we couldn’t come closer to winning but just as many positives to take from the campaign. There’s a strong sense that, with Leanne Wood’s leadership, Plaid is on the up, both here and across Wales, and a lot of optimism about next year’s Assembly elections where, in a changing political landscape, a good campaign will see an increased majority for Assembly Member Elin Jones and Plaid Cymru returned to government in Cardiff.
Thanks to the excellent Griffblog for the image