Why the Labour vs Plaid Cymru contest in Llanelli is likely to be decided as the clock goes red
It is an unwritten law that political profiles of Llanelli constituency must contain a reference to rugby union. So, in the words of my namesake, the Llanelli and British Lions coach Carwyn James, I’m going to “get my retaliation in first” and begin this piece with a glaringly unsubtle reference to the oval code.
The general picture of the Senedd election result in Llanelli will be shaped by two main “packs” of votes, more or less cancelling each other out. In the red corner, Labour will count on the “irresistible force” of their vote in the urban areas of Llanelli, where the Trostre steelworks looms large on the skyline. However, Labour’s vote will come up against the “immovable object” of Plaid Cymru’s strength in the more Welsh-speaking villages of the Gwendraeth valley, centred on Tymbl, Pontyberem and Pontiets.
The question is then, which piece of magic, silly handling error, or something else from left-field, will allow the decisive kick to scrape over the crossbar to hand victory to either Labour or Plaid, in a contest that is impossible to predict with certainty.
I will indulge the sporting metaphor just a little more to argue that in most political contests, incumbency normally brings with it a natural “home advantage” for the defending member. Lee Waters begins the campaign with a five-year incumbency as Llanelli MS.
However, the unexpected return of Helen Mary Jones to the Senedd as the MS for Mid and West Wales region, means that Lee Waters has effectively had to “ground share” his patch, as Helen Mary Jones has located her regional constituency office in the centre of Llanelli town. Furthermore, Helen Mary Jones is well known as Llanelli’s first-ever Senedd member, having served from 1999-2003 and again from 2007-11. In 2007 Helen Mary Jones won with a majority of 3,884, in a seat where the average margin of victory for all the other elections is 292 votes (and was as slender as 21 votes in 2003).
It is British political convention that Labour is regarded as the “party of the NHS” and in this year of all years, the Labour Welsh Government has had unprecedented exposure centred on delivery of NHS services. However, Llanelli is one of the very few seats where its natural advantage in health policy is genuinely neutralised by the Plaid Cymru candidate, where Helen Mary Jones’ command of the health and social care brief includes a long track record of trying to align the cause of Plaid Cymru with that of Llanelli’s Prince Phillip Hospital in the minds of local voters.
During the past few weeks, both main candidates have faced some recent public criticism relating to their personal conduct. In Lee Waters’ case, his lockdown travel and accommodation arrangements have come under fire from civic leaders in Llanelli town. Meanwhile, Helen Mary Jones has taken the drastic step of closing down her personal Twitter account following two social media storms in quick succession.
In the first instance, Ms. Jones was censured by a Crown Court judge for “gross irresponsibility” in retweeting another campaigner’s tweet relating to the proceedings of a high-profile domestic violence court case. Subsequently, Plaid Cymru Senedd candidate Owen Hurcum resigned their candidacy on the North Wales Regional list due to what they described as “transphobic retweets” by Helen Mary Jones.
The wafer-thin nature of Llanelli’s Senedd seat means that focus will naturally gravitate towards the two leading parties. However, it is important to bear in mind that Llanelli doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that wider factors will be at play as well. Historically, the Conservatives have always maintained a respectable level of support in Llanelli, in comparison with other seats in industrial south Wales. In theory, if 383 Labour voters concluded that “Boris handled ‘corona’ better than Drakeford”, then that small shift from red to blue would be enough in itself to hand the seat to Plaid.
It should also be noted that the “Leave” vote in Llanelli was probably decisive in Carmarthenshire county’s narrow pro-Brexit vote in the 2016 EU Referendum, and that the UKIP candidate gained 10% of the vote in Llanelli at the 2019 General Election. Whilst I wouldn’t expect the new Reform UK party to feature strongly in the forthcoming battle, it is nevertheless another repository on the right wing for a small but potentially decisive number of erstwhile Labour voters.
Similarly, local community councillor Siân Caiach (ex-Plaid Cymru member now standing for the new “Gwlad” party) is a perennial thorn in the side of Plaid Cymru’s attempts to recapture Llanelli. In 2011 and 2016, her vote as an independent candidate was bigger than the Labour majority over Plaid Cymru.
The Welsh Political Barometer opinion poll by Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre is always devoured with gusto by Welsh political enthusiasts. Invariably, one of the seats that always feature in the poll’s conclusions is whether Llanelli will stay in Labour hands or switch to Plaid Cymru.
The most recent poll projected that Llanelli would be taken by Plaid.
However, when we look at Llanelli in the context of the roller-coaster of the factors described above, and a Covid-affected Senedd “non-campaign”, the only conclusion that I can reasonably draw is that this battle, whichever way it goes, will be decided as the clock goes red.
Dr. Carwyn Tywyn is a former Senedd Correspondent of 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.