Could the Welsh indy movement influence the result in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire?
Writing on a sunny Easter Bank Holiday weekend, the words ‘Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire’ don’t exactly conjure a great sense of urgency in one’s mind. Thoughts drift instead towards the rolling pastures of Whitland, the picture-box view of Tenby Harbour and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse in Laugharne. A picnic in Llansteffan perhaps, evening fish and chips in Saundersfoot and a “Cowpot” ice cream produced in the rural heart of the constituency.
Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire will not attract the attention of many pundits in the 2021 Senedd Election. Angela Burns MS steps down as Conservative MS having established a Conservative lead of 12% over Labour (and 17% over Plaid Cymru) since her first victory in 2007. With the March Welsh Political Barometer Poll projecting five Conservative gains, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire would seem to be safely in the Conservative fold, all bar the voting.
It is this small caveat, concerning voter turnout, that provides my main rationale for discussing this seat. To what extent will, and if so where, a restricted campaign impact on turnout in a seat that has a wide range of geographical, social and linguistic pockets ranging from Cynwyl Elfed to Pembroke Power Station? When Angela Burns won the seat for the Conservatives in 2007, the three biggest parties were separated by just 250 votes (a mere 0.9%). Is there any prospect of the seat reverting back to its former marginal status with Angela Burns’ departure?
The Conservative candidate hoping to step into Angela Burns’ shoes is Cllr. Sam Kurtz. On the surface, Cllr. Kurtz’ appears to have textbook credentials for this seat. He was born and raised on the family farm but has also worked as a journalist at Pembrokeshire’s local newspaper the Western Telegraph, before moving into the political sphere. However, in December 2020, it came to light that Cllr. Kurtz had written offensive tweets towards women and gay people as a student seven years ago, an episode for which he has had to apologise.
Cllr. Kurtz’ campaign to win the seat is aided by a lack of continuity among the two main challenging parties. Marc Tierney had stood for Labour in the 2016 Senedd election and the 2019 General Election. However, Tierney is now replaced by Riaz Hassan, who has not listed any local personal connections on his campaign website. Hassan’s main professional experience appears to be centred some distance down the M4 in the Western Bay Regional Partnership area (Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend).
Several local Plaid Cymru “big hitters” have contested Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire since the first Senedd Election in 1999, including one current and two former MS’s. Plaid had initially chosen a senior medical consultant, Dr. Rhys Thomas, to contest the seat in this election. However, Dr. Thomas has since decided to withdraw his candidacy in favour of focusing his efforts on combatting the ongoing pandemic, and has been replaced by Cllr. Cefin Campbell. The new candidate’s local ward is located a small distance outside of the constituency but his responsibilities as a member of Carmarthenshire Council’s Executive Board do cover the “Carmarthen West” section of the seat.
One more factor to throw into the mix is that 22% of the votes cast in 2016 were for smaller parties, including one independent candidate. How this 22% breaks is crucial in a seat where neither the Conservatives (35%), Labour (24%) or Plaid Cymru (19%) command anything approaching a majority of the votes cast. In 2021, Reform UK will join the fray on the right wing alongside UKIP. However, there appear to be no independent or Green Party candidates on the ballot this time around.
It is perhaps worth mentioning Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the wider context of Welsh nationalism and the independence question. In Carmarthen town centre (a town that is is located just inside the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire boundary), a monument depicts the scenes of celebration following Gwynfor Evans’ breakthrough by-election victory for Plaid Cymru in 1966. This event preceded a succession of bitter contests between Plaid Cymru and Labour in Carmarthenshire right up to Adam Price’s victory for Plaid over Dr Alan Williams in the neighbouring Carmarthen East and Dinefwr parliamentary seat, at the 2001 General Election.
A recent poll indicated a record level of support (39%) for Welsh independence. This is way in excess of what would have been imaginable when Gwynfor Evans won back in 1966. If the independence numbers are reflected on the ground, then surely Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire should be a high profile Plaid Cymru – Conservative contest along the lines of Perthshire South and Kinross-shire in Scotland? It is something of a paradox that in the #indywales era, there is very little buzz (let alone bitterness) around Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, no sense of a social media bubble hyping up a dramatic Plaid Cymru victory.
As a resident of Burry Port since 2007, my sense is that politics in market-town ‘middle Wales’ remains obstinately parochial and pork-barrel in its political priorities, and distinctly unionist in terms of the prevailing national state identity. This is consistent with Michael Billig’s (1995) description of understated ‘Banal Nationalism’.
I recall Siôn Jobbins, Chair of Yes Cymru, once describing this Welsh version of unionism in terms similar to “summer carnival nationalism”. I sense that this quiet, informal Britishness is likely to endure in places like Pembroke Dock, Narberth and Carmarthen, oblivious to future changes in Wales’ constitutional status, including independence. Yes, there is plenty of passion to be found in debates about A&E departments, school mergers and post-COVID pub opening, but the UK constitutional debate remains, from my lived experience, a distant abstraction in the sleepy market and coastal towns of Wales outside of Y Fro Gymraeg.
So, whilst Tenby may rival Dubrovnik in terms of its natural beauty, it is unlikely to ever to assume the sharp political significance of its Croatian seaside counterpart. For all that, I would maintain that there are still enough of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ at play in this election to keep half an eye on the result in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
Dr Carwyn Tywyn is a former Senedd Correspondent for Golwg magazine. A graduate of Strathclyde University’s politics department, Carwyn conducted his doctoral thesis under the supervision of the late Barry Jones, founder of the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University. Carwyn is co-author (with Professor Rhys Jones) of “Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism”.