Ynys Môn after shock to quiet earthquake

Roger Scully says that following years of Plaid electoral under-performance, yesterday’s by-election was a decisive step in the right direction

Since the 1999 ‘quiet earthquake’, the story of Plaid Cymru’s electoral performance has been one of almost unremitting setbacks and disappointment. In a lecture last year I described it as “more than a decade of pretty abject electoral failure”. In that context, the by-election victory in Ynys Môn will obviously be very welcome to the party.


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Ieuan Wyn Jones maintained a highly impressive electoral record in Ynys Môn. Indeed, he was the only successful constituency candidate (for Westminster or the Assembly) that Plaid has ever had in the constituency. The challenge that faced Plaid was to win without him, in a place where personal votes seem to count for a great deal.

The final result was (with % changes from the 2011 result in brackets):

Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) 12,601 58.2% (+16.8%)
Tal Michael (Labour) 3,435 15.9% (-10.3%)
Nathan Gill (UKIP) 3,099 14.3% (+14.3%)
Neil Fairlamb (Conservative) 1,843 8.5% (-20.7%)
Kathrine Jones (Socialist Labour) 348 1.6% (+1.6%)
Steve Churchman (LibDems) 309 1.4% (-1.7%)
Turnout: 42.4% (-6.3%)

This is clearly a very good result for Plaid Cymru. Of course, anything less than a victory would have been a great disappointment. They were the incumbent party; had encouraging recent local elections to build on; had a well-known and eloquent candidate with a strong Ynys Môn background; and they clearly put a lot of effort into a very energetic campaign. I can’t think of a prominent Plaid member whose campaigning presence in Ynys Môn has not been announced to me via Facebook/Twitter at some point over the last few weeks!

But even with these advantages it will be encouraging for Plaid, as were May’s local elections, that their local organisation in Ynys Môn appears sufficiently strong to support such a vigorous campaign. And it is similarly encouraging for them that the campaign won substantial electoral support, on what was, by by-election standards, a very respectable turnout. This result must place Plaid in a good position from which to challenge for the Westminster Ynys Môn seat in May 2015.

It is also encouraging for Leanne Wood’s leadership. Suggestions after her election that choosing a first-language English-speaking leader from the south Wales valleys might alienate some of Plaid’s more traditional Welsh-speaking northern electorate do not appear to be coming true. More generally, the result will be encouraging for Plaid regarding their future prospects. One good by-election does not turn around years of under-performance. But the Ynys Môn by-election is at least a decisive step in the right direction.

Labour’s Ynys Môn result was disappointing. It was noticeable in the 2011 Assembly elections that the strong swings to Labour in south Wales were not quite replicated in the rest of the country. To be precise, Labour’s average rise in constituency vote share between 2007-2011 was:

  • 15.6 per cent in South Wales East – boosted, admittedly, by the special case of Blaenau Gwent.
  • 13.8 per cent in South Wales West,
  • 10.8 per cent in South Wales Central.
  • 8.2 per cent in North Wales.
  • 4.2 per cent in Mid and West Wales.

Labour can hardly be said to have done badly in north Wales in 2011, but its performance was not as consistently strong as in south Wales. Yet, even taking that into account, Tal Michael’s result was below par. Still, as the recent YouGov poll showed, par for Labour in Wales is something quite different to that for any of the other parties.

Perhaps the most notable other feature about the result was UKIP finishing well ahead of the Conservatives, and indeed not far behind Labour. The Tories have a history of some electoral success on Ynys Môn. They held the Westminster seat until 1987, and finished second in the 2011 Assembly contest. In that context, to finish well behind UKIP is rather embarrassing. The result also lends some plausibility to the relatively strong UKIP showing reported in the recent YouGov Welsh poll. The less said about the Liberal Democrats’ Ynys Môn showing, the better.

Projecting by-elections swings onto national elections is a very dubious exercise. Predicting Ynys Môn by-election swings onto national elections is probably even more dubious. However just (as Peter Snow used to say) as ‘a bit of fun’ I have worked out what would be the result of the 2016 National Assembly election ‘if these swings were repeated across the country’. I’ve projected the by-election percentage swings onto both the 2011 constituency and list votes; parties that did not stand in the by-election, like the Greens, have been assumed to remain unchanged. This yields the following constituency and list vote shares:

PARTY Constituency List
Labour 32.0% 26.6%
Conservative 4.3% 1.8%
LibDems 8.9% 6.3%
Plaid Cymru 36.1% 34.7%
UKIP 14.3% 18.9%
Greens 3.4%
Soc. Lab. 1.6% 4.0%

This in turn yields the following projected seat outcomes:

PARTY Constituency List TOTAL
Labour 23 1 24
Plaid Cymru 13 9 22
UKIP 0 10 10
LibDems 3 0 3
Conservative 1 0 1

Probably the most striking thing to emerge from this exercise is that even on the huge Ynys Mon swings, which would put Plaid Cymru ahead of Labour on both the constituency and list votes, Labour still come out ahead on seats. Indeed, on these swings Labour would still win 19 of the 23 constituency seats in south Wales – including Rhondda, where Leanne Wood plans to stand in 2016. That is a measure of Labour’s strength in many constituencies, and of the task facing Plaid – and all other opposition parties – in attempting to challenge Labour’s electoral hegemony in Wales.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University.

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