Plaid has the edge in Anglesey race

Owain ap Gareth looks at the runners and riders in the forthcoming Assembly by-election on Ynys Môn

To examine the prospects for the forthcoming Anglesey by-election for the National Assembly is to look through a glass darkly. In the first place by-elections are notoriously volatile, especially so in a place like Môn where at least three parties are in contention, which is not to rule out the prospect of a strong independent candidate if Peter Rogers, a former Conservative AM for the island, chooses to throw his hat in the ring again.

Moreover, taking into account the Police Commissioner elections in November, this will be the third time in a year that Môn has gone to the polls. Voters tend to respond badly if they think they’ve been called to participate in an election on a whim, or without good reason.  Plaid Cymru must be hoping that Ieuan Wyn Jones’ decision to vacate the seat in order to head up the new Bangor Science Park will not be regarded as in either of those categories.

Table 1 below provides results of the UK and Welsh general elections in Anglesey since 1987, with the winning percentage share of the vote highlighted in each case:

Table 1: Share of the vote Anglesey Welsh General and UK General Elections

Plaid Labour Conservative
2011 Assembly 41.40% 26.20% 29.20%
2010 Westminster 26.20% 33.40% 22.50%
2007 Assembly 39.70% 17.40% 13%
2005 Westminster 31.10% 34.60% 11%
2003 Assembly 37.40% 23.80% 28.50%
2001 Westminster 32.60% 35% 22.50%
1999 Assembly 52.60% 22.90% 19.20%
1997 Westminster 39.50% 33.20% 21.50%
1992 Westminster 37.10% 23.50% 34.60%
1987 Westminster 43.20% 16.90% 33.20%

We should probably begin by disregarding the 1999 result as an aberration since it was the most spectacular election result that Plaid Cymru have ever achieved in Anglesey, one they have not been close to equalling since. But looking at the 2011 result, on what was a good night for Labour nationally across Wales, it is striking that Labour came third in Ynys Môn, behind the Conservatives, themselves a pretty long way away from Plaid Cymru.

Nevertheless, to give the other parties some succour, all the Plaid victories listed in the Table were made with Ieuan Wyn Jones as the candidate. The loss of votes between the General Elections of 1997 and 2001 can be interpreted as a crude indicator of the loss of Ieuan Wyn Jones’ personal following, with Plaid losing 7 per cent of the vote and the seat.

A similar performance to that of 2001 would bring the Plaid vote down to 34.5 per cent. An optimistic interpretation for the other parties is that Ieuan Wyn Jones has increased his personal vote since 2003 by 4 per cent and that this, too, is up for grabs.

The fact that Anglesey voters tend to vote for individuals as much as parties can be seen in the Conservatives’ bad performance in 2005 and 2007 where Peter Rodgers stood as an independent and took a big chunk of their vote. They will be hoping that neither Rodgers nor UKIP stand in this election.

This leads us to the council elections in May. In some ways they provide a good basis for comparison. Turnout is similar to the Assembly elections – this May it was at a relatively healthy 50.5 per cent, easily within the range of the 48.6 per cent turnout for the Assembly election in 2011 and the 51.8 per cent in 2007. Of course, what happens at a council election does not mirror other elections, especially given the number of Independents. At the same time, however, it can give us an idea of the direction of parties’ support.

Table 2 gives results for the May 2013 local elections:

Table 2: Anglesey Local Authority election results in May 2013

Party Number and % of seats 2013 Vote 2013
Independents 14 (46.6%) 32.1%
Plaid Cymru 12 (40%) 32.2%
Labour 3 (10%) 17.2%
Liberal Democrats 1 (3.3%) 5.2%
UKIP 0 (0%) 7.4%
Conservatives 0 (0%) 5.8%

It was a good election for Plaid Cymru.  Plaid Cymru doubled their share of seats on the previous election, and were within a few votes of capturing two more. By contrast both Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservatives had poor results and will have been disappointed they didn’t perform better. While Labour raised its vote share from 12.5% to 17%, it went backwards in seats. For the Welsh Conservatives it was a very bad election. Despite fielding a record high of 15 candidates the party was wiped from the map, losing its two councillors and finishing sixth behind UKIP.

On the basis of these trends, it seems that the wind is in Plaid Cymru’s sails. However, there is an important qualification. The Independents managed stubbornly to hold on, retaining the largest number of seats. Their vote share was a virtual tie with Plaid Cymru.

As such, the hope for Labour and the Conservatives is that there are still a lot of votes to play for, and that the Anglesey tradition of voting for individual candidates is alive and well.

Nevertheless, given the trends in the council election Plaid Cymru must be the favourite. Moreover, a strong public profile is helpful for a candidate in a short election period. On this front Plaid Cymru plainly had its ducks in a row by lining up former BBC television journalist Rhun ap Iorwerth, a native of Anglesey, and then selecting him last week in short order. On this front the other parties have been playing catch up.

Labour have chosen Tal Michael, son of former Cardiff South and Penarth MP Alun Michael who also briefly served as First Secretary in the National Assembly in the first term before he lost a vote of confidence. Michael has north Wales links – he is former chief executive of the North Wales Police Authority and fought (unsuccessfully) for the position of Police and Crime Commissioner. However, he was brought up in the south and does not have ap Iorwerth’s Anglesey connections

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have chosen Steven Churchman, a Gwynedd councilor, but if there is one prediction it is not hard to make about this contest it is that the Welsh Liberal Democrats will struggle to make an impression. The Conservatives and UKIP have yet to announce their candidates.

With the by-election now less than a month away, on 1 August, makes it difficult for other candidates to build a profile with which to challenge Plaid’s lead. The early election date also makes it difficult for other parties to organise effectively behind a candidate. Welsh Labour have the added problem of division in their ranks with John Chorlton, the party’s chairman on the island, complaining that he failed to make the four person shortlist and declaring that he is now considering his position with the party as a result.

This looks like being a  race for Plaid to lose. It has the advantages not only of being in first with its (high profile) candidate, but also a better organisation across most of the island. In addition voter fatigue may depress turn out which is likely to help Plaid which also has a track record in getting its vote out.

Putting all these factors together I would expect Plaid Cymru to hold on to the seat. However, in the case of such an individual seat as Ynys Môn it is prudent to cushion oneself against any hostages to fortune. As Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democrat who lost spectacularly to Nixon in the 1968 Presidential election in America put it: “The difference between hearsay and prophecy is often one of sequence. Hearsay often turns out to have been prophecy.”

Owain Llyr ap Gareth is Campaigns and Research Officer with the Electoral Reform Society Wales

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