How Conservatives Can Break Into Carmarthenshire
Another local election, another disappointing result for the Welsh Conservatives in Carmarthenshire. Whilst encouraging more candidates from the Conservatives stood on May 4th, there was no serious threat to the Plaid, Labour and Independent grip on the Council. Without meaning to be self-congratulatory, I believe I had the best Conservative result, but having said that I was still 94 votes short of success and Carmarthen Town South I guess an area more amenable to Toryism than other Carmarthenshire wards.
However, Conservatives should be competitive in much of Carmarthenshire. It is rural; full of objective Beauty with the flowing rivers and beautiful countryside. The preservation of the simple and quiet life should be conservative territory and whilst undoubtedly rural Carmarthenshire is conservative it is not as of yet Conservative. Also the defence of tradition and culture, as well as patriotism are really conservative issues.
Alas, the perception of the Conservative Party in Carmarthenshire among Plaid supporters and other Welsh patriots, is that the Conservatives are a British nationalist party. Correct to a degree- it is a Unionist party unashamed of celebrating the shared and mutual benefits enjoyed by the English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish- whether that is sharing prosperity among the Isles, free movement between all four nations- the freedom to travel, work and live as well as the common attachment to British institutions- Parliament, monarchy, democracy, the rule of law, the countryside. Because the Conservative Party is perceived to be a British nationalist party, many view it as an enemy of Welsh nationalism, or even Wales- not interested in seeing Wales as a nation do well but interested in Britain as the whole, or more cynically, England. The latter perception is clearly false- with many voters in Scotland, Wales and England placing their faith in the Conservatives, not seen as an enemy to the individualism of the four nations but a defender and an advocate of the shared bonds between all four.
But how can Conservatives in Carmarthenshire and other Plaid strongholds across Wales breakthrough? I think firstly, we need to make more of Welsh patriotism, call it nationalism if you will- I’m starting to be more sympthatic to the term after reading Roger Scruton, the finest living conservative philospher, paragraph on the “Truth in Nationalism”. What we need to be opposing is Welsh separatism- the disastrous notion that Wales would somehow be economically or culturally better off as a result from divorcing from the United Kingdom. Much has been tried to be made of Plaid’s long-term goal to severe ties with the UK by the politicians but it is not resonating with voters in Carmarthenshire. This isn’t I don’t think for a real appeal for Welsh independence among Carmarthenshire’s electorate- there is no evidence for that. But Plaid still present themselves as the defender of Welsh culture, the language, the simple life. Again I stress, these are conservative instincts- should be Conservative territory. And in the absence of Plaid Cymru, these voters wouldn’t be flocking to the Labour Party- the Conservatives the second natural home, but there needs to be a committed effort.
Firstly, Conservatives need to talk more about Welsh culture. One of the more regrettable things of the modernism and centrist of the Tory Party is that has become very good about talking about markets and economics, less well at talking about what it used to- nation, culture and yes, God. The grassroots and supporters still support Toryism for these things but it wasn’t communicated nearly as effectively in the Cameron years as the past- albeit Theresa May seems to be better at it and Brexit has faciliated it. But the defence of Britain and her sovereignty must be accompanied with Welsh Conservatives and the defence of Wales and her sovereignty, her culture and her institutions. And yes that includes language. There needs to be Conservatives who make the case for the Welsh language and its future, through a non-statist approach. Councils, the Welsh Assembly and even British Government has chucked loads of money at the preservation of Welsh, often without the consent of taxpayers. Conservatives need to defend the Welsh language by arguing that it is done so through localism- local people through groups and associations in local communities taking the initiative to promoting it- promoting the societal and cultural benefits of the Welsh language, by advocating a bottom-up approach to defending it, not a top-down approach, which Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour currently employ. This can only be successful, if Conservative members, activists and budding politicians make a real commitment to learn Welsh- so that we can communicate in the language on the doorstep and any literature that we put out made bilingual. (A regret of my campaign is that Welsh language didn’t feature).
Secondly, being an autonomous Welsh Conservative Party from the UK-wide Tory Party. This does not mean to sever the ties with the UK Party- it should always remain within the structure, but the Welsh Conservatives need more autonomy. That means a Welsh Tory Party being unhesitant to criticising the British Government’s direction for Wales where necessary. A Welsh Tory campaign for example could be to seek clarity that HM Government supports Carmarthenshire’s farmers in finacial support post-Brexit. It also means that in General Elections, Welsh Conservatives are granted full autonomy in selecting candidates, putting up Welsh candidates who are devoted to Wales. During the Welsh Assembly process and the local council process, the Welsh Tories are granted that autonomy- this needs to be uniform with the General Election process. Once this is achieved, Carmarthenshire’s voters will be less suspicious of Toryism, seen as the “English” Party currently by many as they see a real effort to make the Welsh Tories be more Welsh. Efforts have been made with the new branding but more can be done.
Thirdly, making more of Plaid’s aims- its desire for separatism; it’s Remoaning which shouldn’t sit comfortably with Carmarthenshire, a Brexit-voting county; the Leader Leanne Wood’s republicanism; its socialism which again I would stress isn’t particularly amenable to Carmarthenshire.
When these messages are communicated through a distinctively Welsh perspective, Plaid’s grip will loosen. And the process will be long, and if we begin in earnest, then in the 2022 Local Council Elections, which seems a long way off, could be a real opportunity for Conservative gains.