Reflections on the Rhondda

by Leighton Andrews

In 1992, Chris Patten, chair of the Conservative Party, delivered an overall election victory for John Major’s Conservative Party against Labour, but lost his own Bath seat to the Liberal Democrats. In 2016, as a member of Welsh Labour’s campaign committee, I played my part in helping to steer Welsh Labour’s campaign this year, where we held on to 29 of our 30 seats seeing off an expected Conservative challenge – but lost my own seat to Plaid Cymru.

Last month I told the Rhondda Labour Party’s AGM that I would not seek to be their candidate in 2021. Now is the time to reflect more fully on the Rhondda result. Next week I will move on to the challenge facing Labour in the Valleys, as the swing to Plaid Cymru was not simply a Rhondda phenomenon.

It is very clear that there was suppressed – and sometimes, overt – anger in the Rhondda over a range of local issues, principally around education and health; that the anger was focused at Labour in general; that Plaid Cymru exploited these issues effectively, digging deep into the networks of groups which were campaigning against everything from nursery changes to school and health reorganization; that Plaid’s campaign successfully sought to turn these specific issues into a general clamour for ‘change’ ; and that Leanne Wood’s profile – as both Plaid’s leader and as  a product of her local community – probably tipped the balance between a close and a clear result.

I have spent most of my adult life running campaigns in some shape or form in a professional capacity. I could have written the Plaid Cymru playbook for this campaign myself:

  • Focus on the loss of services and unpopular council and Welsh Government decisions
  • Link that to Labour’s 17 years in charge at the Assembly
  • Stress the need for change
  • Develop Leanne’s personal profile as a product of her local community and its values and as an agent of change – a four year project which paid off.
  • Link my own former role as education minister to the changes now being implemented by the Council.
  • Avoid obvious public personal attacks, but find ways to provoke a sense of outrage at Labour (MPs’ expenses, Ministerial cars, etc); aggressively project this on social media and on the doorstep in order to generate a sense that Labour is out of touch with local people; and on social media always have people ready to counter Labour positives with negatives.
  • Local factors hit us hard.

Issues with the health service, notably over planned changes to local hospital services and access to GP appointments, were clearly of concern. Chris Bryant MP and I had pressed for and achieved some significant improvements in ambulance waiting times, through ring-fencing ambulances in the Cwm Taf area rather than losing them to other areas when they transported people to the Heath and other hospitals – and this was widely recognized by paramedics in particular. Cwm Taf as a Health Board was trying hard to support communities that were in danger of losing GPs by taking over practices.

Planned changes to the services provided at the nearby Royal Glamorgan Hospital – which I had expressed my own concerns about – had had significant local coverage even though their effects largely had still to come into effect. Changes to provisions at the Minor Injuries Unit at Ysbyty Cwm Rhondda didn’t help though the Health Board decisions were rational. But I always felt that Labour was on the defensive on health both locally and nationally.

A major local factor was the local authority school re-organisation proposals which reached into most communities in the Rhondda, involving changes to sixth forms, amalgamation of primary schools and some closures, alongside changes to nursery provision.

I had met with all the school protest groups and raised the questions they had with the local authority. I felt that the authority needed to be responsive in terms of transport issues, and was glad that I was able to persuade them to change their plans for home-to-school transport charges.

I also pressed successfully for the authority to ensure that their plans for 3-16 schools in Porth and Tonypandy included separate primary provision within the overall school campuses. Indeed, I couldn’t have had better support from a local authority leader than I have had from Andrew Morgan in RCT over the last eighteen months – the best leader of RCT in my entire time as Assembly Member. Clearly Labour AMs and councillors cannot just ride every bandwagon of opposition to a Labour council and Labour Welsh Government.

Additionally, the closure of council facilities like libraries and day centres – notwithstanding the excellent work of a number of community organisations to take over these facilities in some communities (and a fire station, post offices and banks); a sense that investment was taking place in other parts of RCT but not the Rhondda (symbolized by new schools built in Aberdare and planned in Tonyrefail, the re-opened Lido in Ponty) gave rise to considerable and understandable dissatisfaction. Our canvassing teams were also always picking up considerable council-related casework.

Indeed, my analysis of what happened in the Rhondda this year is not that far from what Leanne Wood herself has set out here.

That brings me to the Labour campaign. The Rhondda Labour Party’s constituency operation has rightly been called ‘formidable’ by Professor Richard Wyn Jones.

Labour in the Rhondda certainly wasn’t out-worked by Plaid Cymru. The constituency had been canvassed thoroughly – twice- between May 2015 and polling day, with telephone canvassing on top. We had knocked on over 30,000 doors and spoken to 20,000 people. We had the most up-to-date data we had ever had.

My Labour Assembly colleagues can testify to the detailed updates they got whenever we discussed our local campaigns in Labour Group meetings. Postal voters – traditionally overwhelmingly Labour – had had regular letters and a survey.

250,000 items of literature had been distributed over the months leading up to the election.

There was an active social media campaign with a well-supported Facebook page. One video – explaining my role in saving local Remploy workers’ jobs – achieved 23,000 viewings, for example. (This was on top of a high personal profile across the constituency, regular street surgeries and surgeries, with high casework levels efficiently-handled and regular AM mailings to voters).

Nor did we take things for granted. I felt that I had been in a four year campaign for the Rhondda ever since Leanne’s election as Plaid Cymru leader in 2012.

I said at the Rhondda count that when Leanne Wood announced she would be standing for the Rhondda, that there were two people who thought she could win – she was one, and I was the other. Personally, I have never underestimated Leanne as a campaigner. When Leanne won the leadership of her party in 2012, I said then on my blog that she had run:

“…the liveliest and most distinctive campaign. Her online campaign was streets ahead of the other candidates. Leanne’s story was presented in a compelling way. Tactically the campaign was astute – she rolled out supporters over time representing different wings of the party with different geographic bases.”

After the 2015 general election, which saw Plaid Cymru’s highest-ever vote at a UK election in the Rhondda, we revised our campaign plans. The constituency employed a full-time organizer. New members who had joined after the general election became actively involved in the campaign, refreshing our activist base just when it was needed.

We analysed very carefully the support achieved by the Plaid Cymru general election candidate, their use of social media and the nature of the support they were attracting from younger women in particular, principally it seemed.

The new Facebook page we developed was probably – apart from Leanne’s own – one of the best-endorsed candidate Facebook pages in Wales.

We decided to base our campaign around personal achievements and things I had delivered for the Rhondda – such as creating jobs for local youngsters with local firms, through Jobs Growth Wales, protecting university students from £9,000 tuition fees and helping Remploy workers in Porth to secure their jobs, and the improved Rhondda GCSE results – , anticipating Plaid Cymru’s attacks on the Labour RCT council and the Labour Welsh government.

We used local and social media to develop softer, more personal engagement with high numbers of endorsements and likes on stories in local Rhondda Facebook groups about stories connected to my great-great grandfather’s First World War shop in Porth – and the recent refreshing of his gravestone. Initiatives I had created to promote the Rhondda and its businesses – Rhondda Can! – and its history – Rhondda Remembers – were well supported.

As everyone knows, Labour had lost the seat in 1999 to Plaid Cymru. But veterans of that campaign told us that this one felt different.

In 1999, campaigners found previously Labour supporters averting their gaze.

There was none of that this time. My own personal doorstep recognition was high and there was very little personal hostility. The UK context was different from 2015, though presented its own challenges. Carwyn’s profile was clearly positive.

We did not start to detect a switch away from Labour until very late on the Monday before polling when our telephone canvassing suggested a proportion of previously Labour voters were not voting for us after all this time.

On the night, Plaid activists did not initially think that they had won, and believed that the postal votes would probably swing it for us. Had there been a late swing, then the postal voters would largely have been unaffected by that. In the end, the postal votes appeared to deliver in the same proportions as all voters. There was no late switch.

What swung it? Well, what made the difference was almost certainly the Leanne factor. Four years of sustained media publicity at UK level reinforced the Leanne brand – particularly after the UK general election debates.

She was given her chance, and she took it well. I have heard reports from those attending the verification of the Rhondda end of the Police and Crime Commissioner count that the sampling suggested Labour and Plaid were neck and neck in that election. So it is right to regard the Rhondda result, as I said on the night, as a personal triumph for Leanne.

Leighton Andrews was AM for the Rhondda from 2003 until 2016 and a minister in the Welsh government from 2007 to 2013 and 2014 to 2016

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6 Responses to “Reflections on the Rhondda”

  1. Tafia says:

    Leanne Wood is the opposite of everything Labour try to pin on Plaid.

    Labour’s usual tactic is to claim Plaid is a party obsessed with the welsh language, run by grey haired old men and doesn’t care about anything outside of North West Wales.

    Leanne is female, from South Wales and only started learning welsh when she took over as leader.

    Sghe is also highly personable and – because of her background – relates well to ordinary people in the street.

    Plaid has worked hard over the last few years at street level t opush that it isn’t the party of the Welsh people, it’s the party of the people who live in Wales and the only party that will always put Wales first in everything it does and is not run from or look to London.

    And it’s paying off. Labour came within a whisker of losing Llanelli and also one of it’s Cardiff bastions. In fact 6 of the seats Labour held were until last month safe Labour seats. They are now Labour marginals.

  2. Tafia says:

    On the night, Plaid activists did not initially think that they had won

    That is a bald-faced lie. Not only did they expect to win, they were disappointed by the margin which was lower than they thought it would be.

    At no stage from three weeks out was there any doubt they would win and they never doubted it. Their only concern was ‘by how much’.

  3. Mike says:

    Tafia- enough with the Plsid worship. They are a very pale imitation if the SNP. They are a must nor party still predominately based on North Wales. The Welsh have, compared to the Scots, limited edition interest in devolution or independence.

  4. Tafia says:

    Mike, you reallly nned to look at voter shift because you are making yourself look a tit.

    As for The Welsh have, compared to the Scots, limited edition interest in devolution or independence. the last time a major sample was taken (around three yeas ago) when the people of Wales were given two options, 35% opted for indepedence. A year before Scotland’s IndyRef, only 12% opted for independence in a two chice sample. Expanding, when given 7 choices ranging from elimination of devolution through to full indpendence, more than 50% opted for at least more devolution.

    Moving further, Labour had to cede massively increased welsh-medium education along with other things to get Carwyn re-elected as First Minister (he publicly broke down in tears when he failed at the first vote). Labour is dying in Wales – not as fast as Scotland but dying none the less.

    That said, everything I said in the other comments was 100% true – which means you are attempting to ignore reality. How did you end up in the current mess you are in? Oh yes, ignoring reality.

    Please carry on. The longer you think that the comfy days of it just being a straight fight between Labour and Tory will somehow return, the better it is for everyone else.

  5. Tafia says:

    Oh and if you think Plaid’s vote is predominemtly in NorthWales, please read this:-,_2016

    You may be in for a surprise.

  6. Mr Akira Origami says:

    Perhaps Mr Andrews was seen as a figure who intended to kill off local democracy in Wales?

    “Leighton Andrews is accused of fighting Wales’ councils over local government reform”

    “Controversial merger plans for North Wales councils in half could be taken back to the drawing board, First Minister Carwyn Jones has hinted.

    The region’s six local authorities faced being merged into just two or three as part of a Wales-wide shake-up put forward by Local Government Minister Leighton Andrews.

    Fears had been raised the mergers would cost cash-strapped councils in the region of £250m and lead to the loss of over 2,000 jobs.

    Now the controversial map looks set to be scrapped and redrawn after Mr Andrews lost his seat at the election which saw Labour fall short of gaining a majority”.

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