Monday, 29 July 2013

All eyes on Môn Mam Cymru

Assembly by-elections are rare, and Ynys Môn's this Thursday – prompted as you know by Ieuan Wyn Jones' resignation to head the Menai Science Park – is the first since Trish Law won Blaenau Gwent as an Independent in 2006.

The by-election itself has been covered extensively by Blog Menai in particular; also Syniadau, National Left, Click on Wales, Ifan Morgan Jones, Inside Out and Politics in Wales.

The candidates lining up to replace Ieuan Wyn Jones are :
  • Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid) – Former political journalist. Former presenter on Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and of S4C's Newyddion.
  • Steve Churchman (Lib Dem) – Local councillor in Caernarfon, Gwynedd. Former Westminster candidate in both Barking (1992) and Dwyfor Meirionnydd (2010).
  • Rev. Neil Fairlamb (Con) – Rector of Beumaris. Stood in the May local election and finished 6th of 9 candidates.
  • Nathan Gill (UKIP) – Formerly ran a care home business. Stood in the May local election and finished 8th of 9 candidates.
  • Kathrine Jones (Soc. Lab) – Stood in the Gwynedd council elections in 2012, winning 31% of the vote in a two-candidate seat.
  • Tal Michael (Lab) – Policy consultant. Former chief executive of North Wales Police Authority. Unsuccessfully ran for North Wales Police & Crime Commissioner in 2012.

What are the likely issues?

I can't comment on local nuances, so I'm looking at this more from a general perspective.

The island's economy – Anglesey remains one of the least productive parts of Wales in terms of GVA per capita. Will the voters reward Plaid/IWJ for getting the Menai Science Park on the agenda as part of their budget deal? Or will they go down the "sending a message to Westminster" narrative, perhaps boosting Labour's chances?

The mothballing of Anglesey Aluminium has probably been a bigger economic and productivity blow to Anglesey than anything before or after it, including....

Wylfa B – This could cause problems for Plaid due to their confusing stance of supporting Wylfa B for local economic reasons, but opposing nuclear power elsewhere. Syniadau's coverage of this issue might appear to be slightly contrarian, but I think he's right in principle.

There were hints from Blog Menai that Wylfa B
hasn't been brought up often on the doorstep.
(Pic :

This is going to be a decision taken by the UK Government, so Labour don't have much leverage either – though they likely will in 2015. Could that open the door for the Tories? I presume the main issue here surrounds securing as many local (construction and operation) jobs as possible, and deciding whom would be in the best position to press for that.

The construction jobs will be gone once the plant's completed – and will likely be carried out by contractors experienced at building nuclear plants, probably French - while the net-gain in jobs will be around 200. So, the economic case isn't exactly brilliant in the long-term, while the energy case isn't even there at a Welsh level as North Wales exports more energy that it uses already. Jobs are jobs I suppose, but we can probably do better than this.

Stability on Anglesey Council – Anglesey Council has hopefully moved on from its period of destructive personality politics, and the humiliation of being directly ruled from Cardiff. Labour have influence in the council, but they don't have the numbers and are very much second fiddle to the four Independent groups. Plaid have the numbers, but can only scrutinise and have limited influence in Cardiff Bay. Who would be best placed to keep the council in check as a local AM?

Agricultural Reforms – Ynys Môn is Wales' "breadbasket" with some of the highest concentrations of high-grade farmland in the country, and an important player in the Welsh meat and dairy industries. Issues like CAP reform will disproportionately affect Anglesey more than many other parts of Wales. Moves like the emergency Agricultural Sector Bill – and Plaid's attempt to remove zero hour contracts - might've played well to a large chunk of the island for different reasons.

Will north follow south in the rail electrification stakes?
(Pic : The Mirror)

Improving access – There've been outline plans to improve/widen the Britannia Bridge since 2007, removing a pinch point on the A55. There's also the question of pressing for electrification of the north Wales mainline, the proposed reopening of the railway serving Gaerwen, Llangefni and Amlwch to passenger services and the expansion and retention of services from Anglesey Airport.

Hospital and social care services – Anglesey doesn't have a district general hospital, and is reliant on Ysbyty Gwynedd for acute care. Current hospital reorganisations are going to affect the island like the rest of Wales, with the general trend being to close or downgrade some community hospitals – and there are at least two on Anglesey. Betsi Cadwaladr LHB were recently ripped a new one over their management of health services.

There's also been a controversial review of residential care homes on the island, with the possibility of closures, centralisations or a shift to social enterprise provision. Compounding this issue, Anglesey has seen amongst the biggest increases in the proportion of people aged over 65 in the 2011 census. Anglesey Council are due to make a decision this autumn.

Summer party poop

It's being (fairly) described as a "two horse race" between Plaid Cymru and Labour.

I'm not going to focus on how Plaid or Labour selected their candidates as I don't think either party did anything too controversial. You could see Tal Michael standing for Labour coming a mile off, and urgency was perhaps used as cover by Plaid to rush through a candidate with stature – even if they had at least two such potential candidates.

Plaid have – as you might expect – gone hard to retain the seat, with many visits by the top brass over the last few weeks, aided by the weather. They seem to be quietly confident, and are "getting a good response". I take pronouncements like that with a pinch of salt, but my gut instinct tells me it's probably correct. As I pointed out though, they've left open goals due to confused policies – which has always seemed to be a problem with Plaid due to their left-of-centre, "broad church" makeup. That's something I've often dubbed "Plaid's Paradox" of being both electable and unelectable at the same time.

Despite their poor showing in May, Labour have been taking this seriously (though perhaps not seriously enough) with the First Minister visiting the island several times. A working majority – which recent polling suggests might come in 2016 anyway - would prove incredibly useful for the remainder of the Assembly term, and would render the Plaid-Lib Dem budget pact largely useless just weeks after it was announced. That would be huge in political terms, so you've got to wonder why nobody seems too bothered?

The Conservatives had a miserable local election in May. However, they have an ability to pop out of nowhere on Anglesey, more famously Paul "The Druid" Williams in 2011, in addition to Peter Rogers in 2003 and (as an Independent) in 2007. They should be preparing themselves for disappointment due to the effect of UK Government policies, or at the very least aiming to finish above UKIP.

You would expect Anglesey to be fertile ground for a populist, anti-politics party like UKIP. However, when you think "UKIP", the first thing that comes to mind is "anti-EU". The second thing is "anti-devolution". They've campaigned (in Wales) so hard against the Assembly, they've backed themselves into a corner. There are eurosceptics across the political spectrum, but I'd imagine a large chunk of UKIP's Welsh base consists of what's left of the hardcore anti-devolutionists.

Doing an about face is strange, and I suspect potentially damaging to UKIP in Wales – the signs of a split are already surfacing - even if it's a more pragmatic stance. I think they'll do better than they did in May but nothing more than a distant third/fourth. Next year's European elections will be more important to them, I'd expect.

For the Lib Dems and Socialist Labour, I suspect it'll be a case of trying to retain their deposits.

The big issue will be how many people bother to vote – I'd guess turnout will be a rather low ~35-40% – and that might aid Plaid, especially in the absence of a strong Independent candidate. Or, as others have said, voters could equally punish Plaid for prompting them out of their homes in the first place.

You've got to say that Plaid should hold the seat as long as they continue their momentum from the local elections. I think we'll all be surprised if they didn't, and it would be a story in itself.

Having said that, I don't think Plaid should get over-confident, and still need to get their vote out. I wouldn't be surprised if Labour come an uncomfortably close second (within 2,000 votes compared to 2011), possibly making Ynys Môn a hotly-contested seat in 2016....or simply off the back of a low turnout.


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