Political Parties and Civic Welshness

For some political commentators, the task for the newly formed Welsh government was clear: to build a civic sense of Welsh identity for the first time in its history Osmond (1998). Earlier we described how Labour, Plaid and the Conservatives have derived their support from different class and ethnic (Welsh, English) groupings in Wales. Within the postdevolution period, each of these parties has attempted to broaden their appeal beyond their core support. Plaid in particular has rebranded itself as a party for all of Wales. Before devolution, the Labour Party was already losing some of its traditional hold over working-class and Welsh national sentiments. For Plaid, capitalising on this has meant adopting a more explicitly social democratic platform and softening its relationship to language politics. The party has been renamed bilingually as ‘Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales’ to widen its appeal beyond Welsh speakers. In the first assembly election in 1999, Plaid had a degree of success in gaining support in traditional Labour voting areas, receiving 28 % of the vote and winning some seats in the formerly industrialised Labour Party constituencies. Analysis of this election distinguished between so-called party loyalists—those who voted Plaid in both general and Welsh assembly elections—and party switchers, who moved to Plaid in 1999. Loyalists are more likely to be Welsh speakers, whereas switchers were primarily those who voted Labour in 1997 but who felt that Welsh issues were being ignored by a British New Labour Party government in Westminster (Trystan et al. 2003).

In the 2003 assembly election, Plaid experienced a setback as Labour regained some of its core vote, which prompted some internal division within Plaid as to whether it should retain its focus on the Welsh language. The stabilisation of the percentage of Welsh speakers in the 1991 census had helped depoliticise the link between nationalist politics and the language, whereas the 2001 census recorded an increase in the percentage of Welsh speakers for the first time ever, from 18.7 % in 1991 to

21 %. The census also confirmed that the main increases in numbers of Welsh speakers were in the Cardiff and surrounding urban area. However, there remained concerns over the ongoing decline in the number of rural communities in which Welsh was the daily spoken language. In 2001, a Plaid Cymru councillor representing one Welsh-speaking area sparked controversy when stating in a BBC radio talk show, in Welsh, ‘.. .if they (the English) were coming here under strict monitoring and control, were made aware of the cultural aspects and made to learn Welsh there wouldn’t be a problem. .They’re coming here and you know frankly, they’re telling us “listen we’re the new kids on the block and you do as we say now”’ (cited in Mann 2007) . The debate took another turn a month later, when the BBC political programme Question Time came to Caernarfon, during which Labour Member of the European Parliament Glenys Kinnock challenged then Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones to dismiss the councillor from his party, along with his ‘racist’ remarks. In the aftermath of this debate, a new Welsh language pressure group, Cymuned, was formed with an explicit focus on the integration of nonWelsh speaking migrants to Welsh-speaking areas. This primary concern of Cymuned is to protect the language, and charges of racism can be seen as an attempt by the other political parties to mobilise popular opinion against Plaid Cymru. Either way, it is likely that this episode reinforced popular perceptions of Welsh nationalism as being preoccupied with cultural and linguistic concerns.

Labour has also attempted to respond to its declining support, and to the challenge from Plaid, by reasserting its identification as a ‘Welsh’ party, to the point where it now represents something of a ‘soft’ Welsh nationalist party. Hence the Labour Party in Wales was rebranded as ‘Welsh Labour’ and ‘the true party of Wales’ (Jones and Scully 2003). This involved adopting a stance that was more to the left than its Westminster counterpart, rejecting for example New Labour plans for foundation hospitals and free schools (McAllister 2004). Labour’s dominance in Welsh government elections nevertheless continued to decline (from 40 % in 2003 to 32 % in 2007), raising concerns that the party remained overly reliant on its traditional support and was losing what votes it did have in rural areas, either to Plaid in the Welsh-speaking areas or to the Conservatives in areas along the English border. The 2010 gen?eral election saw Labour’s vote share in Wales fall to 36.2 %—almost 20 % below the mark achieved in 1997 and worse even than the vote won in the desperate defeat of 1983. It was also the first time since World War I that Labour in Wales had won a lower share of the votes in any election, devolved or parliamentary, than in Scotland (Scully 2015).

Plaid recovered in 2007 to win 20 % of the vote and entered the Welsh government as the minority partner in a Labour-Plaid coalition government. As the majority party in the coalition, Labour was able to claim credit for introducing a further referendum on devolution of powers, despite these being Plaid Cymru policies. The Labour-led Welsh government also introduced a number of policies to promote a bilingual Wales. In 2011, a third devolution referendum took place in Wales concerning the granting of further powers to the Welsh government. Compared to 1979 and 1997, this produced a far more comprehensive Yes vote, with 63.5 % voting in favour of further powers. This result appeared to point to an increasing consensus within Wales, amongst Welsh and non-Welsh speakers, on further devolved powers (Jones and Scully 2012) . In the aftermath of the vote, the Welsh government and Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones described Wales as ‘an old nation that has come of age’. However, the turnout was 35.2 % of all registered voters in Wales, which is lower than the 50 % turnout in 1997. Moreover, the actual number of Yes voters in 2011 (517,132) was no more than the number of Yes voters in 1997 (559,419), suggesting a strong correlation between the people who voted for devolution 1997 and those who voted for further powers in 2011 (Scully and Jones 2012). Of course, the number of people voting to oppose devolution in 2011 was almost half the number who did so in 1997. There was much commentary on the fact that the percentage of support for further powers in 2011 was highest in the former coal mining areas of South Wales. But across all of the formerly industrialised constituencies the actual number of Yes voters was less in 2011 than it was in 1997 (National Assembly for Wales 2011). Given that the 2011 referendum shows a close correlation between participation and voting Yes, it is not clear whether the 2011 result reflects a growing number of people in favour of enhanced self-government or simply a sharp decline in the turnout of those opposing devolution.

By the 2011 Welsh government election, Plaid Cymru’s overall support in Wales had fallen to 19 %: more than its share in any general election but its third lowest showing in a Welsh government election. Plaid had slipped behind the Conservatives as the third largest party in Wales. The experience of being in a coalition may have lost party votes, but this was also a period of change within the party, with considerable internal debate over whether the party should continue to emphasise rural communities and the protection of the Welsh Language or whether its emphasis should be on winning votes and seats in the former industrialised Labour areas of South Wales. Accounting for the small decline in support for Plaid in recent years, Elias (2009) finds evidence of continuing tensions within the party over its direction and the extent to which it should be emphasising the protection of the Welsh language and the rural communities in which it is the majority language. The appointment of Leanne Wood as party leader in 2011, a non-Welsh-speaking woman originating from a deindustrialised Labour-voting constituency, clearly suggests a party strategy to win votes in these areas.

The Conservative Party in Wales has also attempted to widen its appeal from its traditional support derived from English in-migrants and its links to Britishness and the UK as a unitary state. During the 1997 referendum the party held to an anti-devolution position. By 2007 leaders in the Welsh arm of the party had changed stance to one favouring the extension of powers to the Welsh assembly, although grassroots supporters in the party remained opposed (Bradbury and Andrews 2010 : 17). The Conservatives secured only 15.9 % of the votes in the first elections for the Welsh Assembly, but by 2011 they had increased their share to 22 %, making the party the second largest, ahead of Plaid. Also, in the 2010 general election, Welsh Conservatives received 26.1 % of the votes, their highest share since 1987.

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