In which The Author puts his two penn’orth in
On Thursday evening I revisited one of my old haunts – the University of South Wales. I used to know it as the Polytechnic of Wales, back in the late 1980s and early 90s, when I worked in the campus bookshop. In September 2009 I returned there, when it was the University of Glamorgan, as a decidedly immature student. On Thursday I was there in yet another guise – as a fairly new member of Plaid Cymru.
My friend Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies is one of five candidates seeking a place on Plaid Cymru’s Regional List for the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections. The first hustings took place on Thursday evening, in the conference centre at the University of South Wales. I had a choice of going there, or to the meeting in Cardiff next week. It’s twice as expensive to get to Cardiff as it is to get to Treforest, so Thursday seemed to be the obvious choice.
I suppose I’d better explain what the Regional List means. The Welsh Assembly has sixty members. The forty constituencies across Wales return one member apiece, using the first-past-the-post system. Another twenty members – four from each of Wales’s five regions – are returned using a method of proportional representation called the d’Hondt formula. I won’t even try
to summarise it; if you’re interested in the number-crunching you can find more information on the Welsh Assembly’s own website. If that fails to shed any light on the subject, you can read a further explanation by Prof. Roger Scully of Cardiff University here
Dafydd is pitching to be selected for the Regional List in South Wales Central. The other hopefuls are the party’s current leader, Leanne Wood; Neil McEvoy, a councillor from Cardiff with an impressive track record; Shelley Rees-Owen, a councillor from the Rhondda who stood in the May 2015 election; and Owain Davies, a surprisingly young-looking chap, originally from Cardiganshire but now living near Cardiff. The final selection will be made using the single transferable vote system. Is it any wonder the British people rejected a switch to PR when it was offered a few years ago? First past the post may result in endless decades of Labour domination in areas like ours, and safe Tory strongholds in middle England, but at least it’s easy to grasp.
There was a very pleasing turn-out for the hustings. I got there fairly early, so I was the third person to register to vote. Rowland (Dafydd’s father) turned up shortly afterwards, and introduced me to a couple of his friends while we were waiting to go into the conference room. We distributed some of Dafydd’s leaflets while the room quickly filled up. (The back wall folds away to double the space available, which is a useful feature.) Gwyn and Joyce came in and said hello. Peter F. waved across from his seat. I was surprised that David Walters wasn’t there, but Rowland was the bearer of bad news: David’s father had passed away the previous day.
The proceedings were quite straightforward, unlike the voting system. Each candidate spoke for six minutes under the watchful eye of chairman Chris Franks. After they’d set out their respective stalls, they all took their seats and fielded questions from the audience. When Mr Franks was noting down the names of people who’d raised their hands, I rather nervously put my own hand up. Dafydd and Leanne both spotted me and smiled. I’ve only met Leanne once before, when she came to Aberdare to support Dafydd’s general election campaign in 2010. That was quite encouraging.
The questions were wide-ranging and well thought out. A couple of people asked about issues relating to education; someone else raised the staffing problems in the NHS; one chap was very scathing about the Cardiff Local Development Plan. Barry Jones, a chap from Mountain Ash with a keen intellect, asked about Plaid’s take on TTIP, the ‘free trade’ agreement which could conceivably override national sovereignty in the interests of multinational corporations.
I was conscious that time was running short, and I wondered if I’d get the chance to put my question. However, Mr Franks wasn’t calling people in strict order, so I was quite surprised when he read out my name.
I got to my feet, smiled at the panellists, and started to speak (in English, needless to say – the Welsh language is a subject for another blog and, probably, another unfinished project!)
‘On election night, about two hours before the polls closed, a mate of mine came up to me.
‘”Steve,” he said, “I still haven’t made my mind up who to vote for. I can’t decide between Plaid and UKIP.”
‘I sat him down and read him the Riot Act for five minutes.’
That got a chuckle, so I knew I was doing okay.
‘My question is this: How do we raise the profile of the party so that non-Labour voters see us, and not UKIP, as the default option in 2016?’
I sat down and Rowland patted me on the shoulder. Dafydd tackled the question first, and called me by name when he was answering, which I thought was good of him. As a fairly ‘green’ member of the party (in both senses of the word) I was being welcomed into the fold by the chairman himself.
All the nominees agreed that it was important for Plaid Cymru to engage with local community campaigns, trade unions, arrange mock elections in secondary schools, and keep its name in the newspapers. We’ve got to promote our policies and present a viable alternative to the Labour status quo when the Assembly elections roll around next year. We’ve got to increase our representation in local councils, and prove that we can come up with something other than the same old same old.
They’re dead right, of course. But the aim of my question went rather deeper than that. Yesterday, listening to PM on Radio 4 as usual, I heard the customary Friday evening chat between Eddie Mair and Any Questions host Jonathan Dimbleby. As soon as Mr Dimbleby listed the guests for that night’s programme I texted Rowland:
Flashback to last night’s Q&A – Farage is on panel of Any Questions tonight. Again…
On Thursday night, this is exactly what I was getting at. I don’t know how many times people from UKIP have been on Any Questions
and Question Time
in the last five years. It has to be a few dozen at least. A few months ago I sent an email to PM
(see Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
). It included a rather sarcastic PS aimed at the editor of the show, in which I highlighted the disproportionate amount of airtime devoted to Nigel Farage and his merry men. Consider that it took them nearly twenty years to get any representation in the UK Parliament, peaking at an extraordinary two MPs
before falling back to just one in May. The Scottish National Party got hours of airtime and acres of press coverage before the last election, and reaped the dividends mightily.
Plaid Cymru has been around since 1925, currently has three MPs and a solid bedrock of support in Wales, and Leanne Wood gets an invitation to meet one of the Dimblebys as and when they deign to catch a train through the Severn Tunnel.
It probably didn’t help matters on Thursday night that I was sitting next to a former newspaper editor who went on to work as a press officer for the Wales Office. Surely Rowland – of all people – can use his extensive network of contacts, and wealth of experience in the field, to raise the party’s media profile.
Plaid’s lack of national coverage is something which we’ll need to look at seriously in time for next May. If we can’t get on (at least) a level playing field with UKIP, surely we can do better than just sitting outside the fence and wishing the BBC would let us have a kickabout once in a while.